Up Close with Hippos in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

My hippo tour in iSimangaliso Wetland Park was one of the highlights of my trip to South Africa!

iSimangaliso Wetland Park is South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning 280km of coast line.  Its home to species such as the endangered Samango Monkeys, crocodiles and a whopping population of approximately 800 hippos!

Hippo tour in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

Although hippos are herbivores (plant eaters), they are considered to be one of the most dangerous animals in all of Africa.  They don’t want to eat you, but they do want to keep you out of their territory.  Heritage Tours and Safaris takes you up and close to hippos (safely on an open air covered boat) in the largest estuary in Africa.

Observing hippos in their natural habitat is one of the most incredible wildlife viewing experiences I’ve ever had!

Hippo seen on Hippo tour in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

On our two-hour cruise up the estuary I learned that hippos can’t swim or even float for that matter.  They simple walk or gallop along the bottom  like an aquatic ballerina, their toes just skimming the bottom. Hippos are also the only mammal that can open its mouth more than 150˚ – as this guy demonstrates:

Hippo yawning in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

Is he yawning because: 

  1. He’s threatening another hippo, or ….gulp….you
  2. He’s trying to cool down by yawning into the wind
  3. The most obvious…he’s tired

It could be any of the above.  Hippos yawn for all three reasons. So which do you think it is for this guy?

Hippos seen in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

Before observing hippos I  had no idea how noisy they were with all their grunts.  But I guess when you’re resting your head on another hippos hips, it’s a good thing to be communicative!  Clearly hippos don’t have personal space issues – unless you decided to join them of course, then that’s a different story!

Hippo seen on Hippo tour in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

This was my first time seeing hippos in the wild and I loved every minute of it.  iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a well deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our guide from Heritage Tours and Safaris was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about hippos.  I couldn’t have asked for a better guide!  Heritage Tours and Safaris runs hippo tours throughout the year and daily departures.  Visit their website for further info.  I also recommend staying at Umlilo Lodge during your visit to iSimangaliso Wetland Park.  It’s the most serene guest house I’ve ever stayed in!

Thank you to Heritage Tours and Safaris for my introduction to wild hippos – such a wonderful experience.  As always all opinions expressed are my own.

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About Author

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel. She's passionate about getting outdoors as often as possible and helping travellers do the same on their vacation in a sustainable way. She's Canadian and grew up in the Canadian Rockies but now lives in Munich, Germany. You can find her skiing or hiking in the mountains most weekends, hanging out with her cat or with her nose in a good book.


January 8, 2013
This looks fantastic! Sadly, hippos were one of the only animals I didn't see in South Africa (well, I saw some ears poking out of the water from afar but nothing like this!).
January 8, 2013
@Camels & Chocolate - Oh no! Guess you need to back and head to iSimangaliso :)
January 8, 2013
I can completely understand your fascination wit the hippos. I felt the same when we saw them en masse in the Chobe National Park in Tanzania. The only difficult thing was that the water was slowly disappearing in the dry season and they were all squashed together in small waterholes. At least there's lots of water for the hippos here. I love your photo of the hippo yawning..it's not easy to capture!
January 8, 2013
@Jenny - Sounds like an incredible sight! Thanks for your comment.
January 8, 2013
Hard to believe they are one of the most dangerous animals when you see them like this! Tey look so placid!
January 8, 2013
@Zhu - Agreed!
Sonja @ The {Happy} Travel Bug
January 9, 2013
I love hippos! What a great way to experience them! By the way, I think the yawning hippo is threatening because of the look in his eyes. :)
January 9, 2013
@Sonja - Me too and I like your theory! :)
Ashleen Moreen
January 9, 2013
I want to see hippos personally. Hippos are really great they are one of the endangered species and we must take care and love them. By the way hippos are great hope to see like them soon.
January 9, 2013
@Ashleen - I felt the same way too. Hope you get to see them soon!
January 9, 2013
Very interesting! I had no idea hippos couldn't swim or that they yawn for all of those reasons!
January 9, 2013
@Jennifer - I didn't realize they couldn't swim either.
January 9, 2013
Looks as if you have been close enough to smell the animals breath. Or maybe you just used a good strong lens?
January 9, 2013
@Italian Notes - I did have a good lens but we were really close.
Travis Page
January 11, 2013
Sadly, I've only seen hippos in captivity. I would love to get a glimpse of them in the wild. Dangerous or not, they are amazing animals.
January 11, 2013
@Travis - It was my first time seeing them in the wild as well. Agree that they're amazing animals. I could have watched them all day.
August 2, 2014
Hippos are really great they are one of the endangered species and we must take care and love them. I want to see hippos personally. Hippos is very big animals.
Muhammad Abdullah
October 26, 2014
Hippos remind me of dinosaurs, haha innocent creature!

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