Swimming with Jess – 2002

Swimming with Jess – Country Life

It’s the middle of the day and the stifling heat of the lowveld makes even breathing difficult.  I’m standing in the shade of a great acacia tree next to a small tributary of the Orange River on Tony Joubert’s farm – the water looks exceptionally inviting.   Tony urges me to get in to cool myself down. “Don’t worry about Jess.” he casually states.  “She believes that it’s impossible to have too many hugs.”

Tony was right, the water was divine and Jess, a slightly spoilt but totally free baby hippo, was happy to let me wallow with her.

l am by no means a wildlife specialist, but over the years I have gained an unparalleled respect for Africa’s animals.  Even so, l have no desire to look a lion in the eye, walk up to a black rhino or come between an elephant and her calf.  Nor do I have any desire to get closer than five metres – assuming I am in a vehicle or a boat – to my favourite African mammal, the hippo.  These formidable creatures can weigh up to three and-a-half tons, stand one and a half metres tall at the shoulder and are rumoured to be Africa’s most prolific man-killers.  But swimming with the 400kg Jess has to be one of the most amazing moments of my time in Africa.

Jess unexpectedly arrived at the Jouberts’ farm in early 2000.   She was displaced from her pod by the horrendous floods that ravaged southern Africa when Cyclone Eline hit the continent.  The cyclone caused massive damage and was responsible for the destruction of both human and animal territories.  The Joubert family found the 10kg hippo washed up on the banks of the river that runs through their farm.  The orphan would surely have died had it not been for the family’s improvised maternal skills.   Jess was bottle-fed from day one and now, two years later has an amazing bond with her rescuers.

At approximately l6h00 every afternoon Jess leaves her river and walks up its banks to the family garden in order to get her daily dose of grass.  The Jouberts’ lawn looks perfectly manicured and Tony jokes that they haven’t used a lawnmower for over a year.  Having grazed her chosen area to a suitable length, Jess heads for the main house where she gets four litres of cold coffee.  As a youngster she drank milk daily but as she grew and the cost of feeding her became somewhat excessive, the milk was replaced with cold coffee and now she is perfectly happy with her daily dose of 12 to 16 litres.  After coffee she makes her way through the kitchen and collapses on the living room floor in front of the television.

Initially Jess’s fondness for television provided hours of amusement for the Jouberts, but as she grew they realised that they would have to stop Jess entering the house if they wanted to have much of a house left.  Closing the door seemed the obvious solution, but the insistent hippo learnt to open it by turning the handle with her mouth.  Locking the door proved equally futile as she learnt how to turn the key as well.  At the time of my visit in February 2002 they were contemplating their next preventative method, but it has become obvious that Jess doesn’t like spending the evenings on her own.

Not entirely domesticated, Jess has had the opportunity to mix with wild hippos.  The Jouberts live on a 400ha game farm near Hoedspruit.  The farm’s resident herd of 12 hippo travel upstream occasionally and first met Jess in April 2000.  Although curious of their presence, she had no desire to join them, choosing instead to remain single.  Three times since this initial encounter, the big bull of the herd has visited Jess, but to no avail as each time she chases him out of her territory.

However, in a year or two when Jess becomes ready to mate, the story might be different. Tony is curious as to where she will bring up her own calf – will she return to the farm where she was reared or will she remain with another pod of hippos?  Only time will tell. For now she is more than happy with her adopted human family and the assortment of friends, admirers and animal lovers who pass the time of day with her in the water.

Having heard about Jess from a local admirer I assumed that meeting her would at most involve a pat or stroke, so I was somewhat astonished when Tony encouraged me to get in the water and climb on her back . There are those times in life when common sense is pushed aside by the overwhelming desire to do something awesome – this was one of those times.   Although climbing onto the back of a hippo went against everything I believed in, it seemed silly to worry since I was already waist deep in the water with her.  As I lay on Jess ’s back with my hands barely clasped under her voluminous chin, Tony walked along the riverbank and she swam alongside him.   The sensation was bizarre, exhilarating, breathtaking and sensational.  She did a little jig in the water and rolled over and we both ended up floating downstream in the current. Having regained our relative positions we headed back upstream to her favourite spot where she promptly grounded herself on the sand.  I remained on her back to keep away from the nibbling fish and chatted to Tony – Jess promptly fell asleep under me.

Tony values every day that he has with Jess and has become a staunch advocate for the hippo populations along the Orange River.   Born in Zambia, Tony used to work as a junior ranger in its Luangwa National Park and recalls his days of culling with immense sadness. Having moved to South Africa he joined Nature Conservation and started work in their anti-poaching department in 1976.   He is now in semi-retirement, although he still runs his own game farm, has 20ha of land under cultivation and has started up his own anti-poaching programme.   Recently the family has started running bush survival weekends, where participants learn everything from lighting fires to identifying and preparing edible plants.

Eventually the time came to leave Jess behind.   As we moved from the river and up the bank to the rondavel, something nudged my legs.   The dogs were happily lying on the damp earth in front of us and before I could turn around I felt a second, firmer, prod, which was powerful enough to move me out the way.   A disgruntled Jess pushed her way through and dumped herself between us, looking totally dejected.  I stroked her for a bit of comfort and a white greasy substance formed on her skin.   The oily secretion comes from highly modified sebaceous glands which are common to all mammals, including humans. Tony explained that this was the hippo’s natural defence mechanism against drying out, her equivalent of a moisturiser.   Although the properties of the liquid haven’t been scientifically verified, Tony – or rather Jess – receives three visits a week from a devoted farmer’s Wife who uses the hippo’s lubricant on her skin.   She vows that it has the most amazing moisturising properties.

Jess has become justifiably famous in her short life, starring in both films and commercials. After spending an hour in the water with her I can see why.   The experience was something immensely special even if she did fall asleep under me.   Hopefully one day Jess will have a family and a pod of her own, but until then, it is hard to tell who gets more enjoyment out of whom, Jess or the humans.

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