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  • Jamie Thom

Huberta the Hippo, a fascinating story from 1928

There are certain animals that over time have become famous for various reasons; whether they are fictional dogs from movies or books or real life animals that have performed mean feats. In the age of YouTube we have become accustomed to animals having their 3 minutes of fame. It isn’t often, however, that a hippo becomes famous. Long before the internet was even conceived, a hippo became a legend in South Africa. In November 1928 Hurberta the wandering hippo decided to embark on a trek that would take her a distance of 1 600km over 3 years, something never before recorded! Her journey would capture the imagination of people from around the world and she would take her place as a truly deserving national heroine

Huberta is likely to have been born near St. Lucia Estuary in Zululand. We will never know just what strange impulse made Huberta the Hippo suddenly leave her muddy lagoon and begin her great trek southwards but it became the start of one of the most delightfully dotty animal adventures of all time.

Many have speculated on why Huberta set off on this extremely long journey. Some have said that she wanted to visit ancestral haunts of hippos that had previously lived further to the south. Others said she was looking for a lost friend and yet others believed that she had witnessed her mother being killed and she had wanted to flee as far as possible from the place of this tragedy. The real motive we will never know and perhaps it is nicer to think that she just felt that she needed some adventure in her life!

As she crossed roads and railways and visited towns and cities it became obvious that this was no shy animal. She ate her way through parks, gardens and farms and tramped over golf courses. That said, however, she became a master in avoiding people. She travelled mainly at night and in spite of being constantly pursued by journalists and other enthusiasts, she succeeded in escaping in the dense bushes and swamps and nobody saw anything more from her than her footprints.

That’s why many details on her journey aren’t available, just sketchy information from various places she visited. One photo does exist, taken on a sugar cane farm, early on in her journey. It appeared in the Natal Mercury newspaper, igniting the initial interest. She soon became famous across South Africa and even became known across the globe with international publications picking up on the story. The press initially thought that she was a male hippo and nicknamed her Hubert. Later, when her true identity was discovered, she was renamed Huberta.

She broke up her journey for a while and settled herself in the lagoon at the mouth of the Mhlanga River (some 200km from her home). She seemed to enjoy her new home and her status as a minor celebrity. She attracted crowds who would throw fruit, sugar cane and other tidbits to her. At this point there was a failed attempt by hunters to capture her and put her into Johannesburg Zoo.

As she became more famous she was declared by the Natal Provincial Council as royal game and it became illegal to hunt or catch her. She was awarded mythical status by the Zulu and Xhosa peoples who came to believe that she possessed the spirit of a great chief.

Following this stop she headed south to Durban where she was seen by tourists walking along one of the beaches and swimming in the sea. One night she was even seen ambling down the main street of the town! She trampled all over the elite Beachwood Golf Course and arrived uninvited to a party at Durban Country Club, sauntering along the veranda in front of the partygoers.

Finally Huberta reached East London in March 1931 after having crossed 122 rivers and having had a number of rest stops along the way. She was reported sighted one evening by a freight train driver who noticed an obstruction on the rails. The obstruction was Huberta lying across the track! After much commotion she finally woke up and slowly and lazily walked away.

The Holywood version of the story would have Huberta spending the rest of her days wallowing in a river, exhausted after her epic journey. Unfortunately there was no Holywood ending for poor Huberta. In April 1931 three hunters shot and killed her whilst she was basking in the Keiskamma River. Her body was later found floating downstream. After a national outcry the killers were fined £25 each for hunting royal game. They pleaded ignorance about her identity.

The news of her death sent shock waves around the country and the world. Foreign newspapers such as Punch and The Chicago Tribune wrote tributes and the event was even discussed in the South African parliament. People from around the country sent sympathy cards, donations and wreaths.

Huberta’s body was sent to a taxidermist in London and after her return to South Africa in 1932, more than 20 000 people flocked to see the mounted animal as she stood in her glory at the Durban Museum. Today the preserved, stuffed body can be seen at the Amathole Museum in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape.

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