Wander Through This Surreal Town Where Hippos Roam Free

Photo of Gill Lange
10 November 2017

St. Lucia on the KwaZulu-Natal coast is quite likely the only place in the world where it is advisable for visitors to brush up on their hippo meet-and-greet etiquette before they arrive. As luck would have it, the rules are not very complicated. We give you the low-down on life in St. Lucia, where close-range sightings of free-roaming hippos are a distinct possibility.

Hippos rank as one of the largest animals in Africa and are not known for their sunny dispositions. As long as they are given lots of space and not roadblocked on their way to a grassy buffet, all should be fine.

Hippo crossing sign | © Jochem Koole / Flickr

How the townies evolved

St. Lucia’s unique population of free-range hippos that wander into the village on a regular basis exist for a couple of reasons. In part, the town lies on the largest estuary system on the African continent and falls within South Africa’s first ever World Heritage Site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, housing the biggest population of hippos in the country. Another reason is that hippos eat up to 35 kilograms (77 pounds) of grass a day, so a lush, long overgrown suburban lawn is like a buffet table to them.

Pod of hippos under a palm tree | © Steve Slater/Flickr

During the day, these gargantuan beasties wallow in the estuary water or take a nap under the shade of palm trees, as they are not partial to the sun and prefer to stick to their watery comfort zones. At night, however, the party gets started, as hordes of hungry hippos come out to feast under the light of the moon.

As with all creatures looking for a juicy snack, the hippos quickly learned that a forage through the streets of St. Lucia is a much easier and lucrative alternative to scouring out treats along the estuary bank—hence the term “townies” came into effect, in collective reference to the streetwise hippos.

Some hippo meet-and-greet rules

The townies are a sought-after attraction, and roadside parking in St. Lucia has, on one or two occasions, become a bit crowded due to the presence of a few unusual and extremely large visitors.

Getting snappy-happy around them, however, is not advised, so don’t attempt a selfie with a hippo. Although slightly more even-tempered on land than when in water, it is best to admire these enormous animals from a distance. Take photographs once you have firmly secured your own safety. After all, Africa is the only continent where hippos still exist, and St. Lucia is the only town in the world where you may bump into one while on an evening stroll.

Hippo of St Lucia, South Africa | © Petter Lindgren/WikiCommons

Don’t ignore the sign boards

Those who make it out to this wild suburbia will also notice that the town is full of signs warning visitors not only of the presence of roaming hippos, but also crocodiles. If the sheer number of these lightning-fast and slithery reptiles in the estuary don’t make you think twice about swimming, then the sign boards should. If not, you may find a crocodile snacking on your toes, or a heated hippo ready to charge at you!

Beware sign | © Daren Ganville / Flickr

While all of this may sound wilder than some inner-city slums, it is also what makes St. Lucia so absolutely unique and special, and as long as you follow the warning signs and respect nature, then all should be well.

Hippos snoozing at the St Lucia Estuary | © Vince Smith / Flickr

More about St. Lucia and iSimangaliso

Besides the jaw-dropping presence of street-crossing hippos, St. Lucia and iSimangaliso are characterized by pristine beaches, lush coastal forests, towering sand dunes, wetlands, and grassy savanna plains. Visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to unique and endless outdoor pleasure, and popular activities center around boat safaris, land-based game drives, horse riding, quad biking, deep-sea fishing, and turtle tours.

Beach at Isimangaliso Wetland Park South Africa | © Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

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