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A tribute to Boris, childhood pet – and hippo


Back in the late 1960’s my siblings, Neil and Fiona and myself had the privelege of living in Malawi as the sun set on the Colonial era. My father, a seafaring Scotsman was employed by Malawi Railways Lake Service in the “Warm Heart of Africa” as the Master of the MV Ilala. This engagingly quaint 620 ton Steamer ploughed up and down Lake Malawi from Monkey Bay in the south to Karonga in the north. In fact it is still doing just that all these years later and celebrated its 60th birthday in 2009. It was based at Monkey Bay and it was here that we had our family home. Idealic school holidays from St Andrews Preparartory and High Schools in Blantyre were spent in the clear blue waters of one of the largest inland “lakes” in the world. It was here that we all first encountered the Hippo that was to be in our lives for a number of years. The children of Monkey Bay came up with the name ‘Boris’.

Boris, a tame Malawian hippoHe literally appeared out of the blue one day, much to the utter shock of my poor mother! Lake Malawi has fairly large populations of hippo and crocodile but they seemed to avoid the slightly busier Monkey By with its Lake Fleet base, holiday traffic and quite large local population. The common view was that Boris originated from Coffee Bay next door and had reached an age where he was no longer productive to the herd. Much like the Eskimos used to do he was excommunicated and sent on his way. Befriending hippos is not usually good for your health! They probably account for more deaths in rural Africa than crocodiles and snakes combined. Mostly herbivorous mammals and even though humans are not on their daily menu their powerful jaws, suspicious temperaments and sheer bulk of up to 3 tons make for a formidable foe.

What better pals to develop then the unsuspecting humans next door in Monkey Bay and so there he arrived unannounced. Unannounced is an understatement. One minute you were swimming and the next there was a full grown hippo eyeballing you. He would suddenly barge out of the water and romp all over the beach, much to the delight of the ever increasing crowds. His fame spread far and wide and if I recall he was a centre spread in one of the British Sunday papers. There was a raft about 100 metres out in the Lake from the Monkey Bay Railway Club and this was his favourite hangout. He would let us swim out and then keep us stranded on the raft as he circled around, walking as hippos do, on the lake bed. One glorious summer afternoon I had to escort my sister Fiona back to shore while Boris followed behind us.

I was able to feed him with cabbage and beer at arms length whereas he would bellow in appreciation and splash at speed back into the depths. In the photo, which I can only guess was taken around 1968 when I was 13, is my sister Fiona and friend Didi Burke.

Boris would spend the night ravaging our vegetable gardens in the staff suburb about 3 kilometres from the lakeside. Our defense against that was to run outside screaming at the top of our lungs and flashing torchlights everywhere.

Boris the friendly hippoWe were all well aware of his potential threat and at all times treated him with caution but the sight of Boris popping his head out of the water and flickering his ears in the distance always prompted us to dash into the lake to engage with our friend. Crazy…. you bet! 45 years later I would not be seen anywhere near him but such is age, wisdom and a desire to live on!

Tragically Boris died a few years later when he was deemed to be too much of a nuisance and in an effort to move him he was darted but he made it back into the water and subsequently drowned.

What a wonderful experience and an unforgettable character. Living in an African paradise and a close up encounter with one of Africa’s giants. RIP Boris the Hippo. Thanks for the fun and all the memories.

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