A short story: A Girl and Her Hippo

A true story.

From the arid plains of the Serengeti, the sun rolling high through the sapphire sky…

A modern day fairy tale of a girl and her hippopotamus, soon to be turned into a LifeStyle channel midday movie.

But in order to tell this story we need to go back in time a way. Little further… nope, too far… ok perfect.

A baby girl was born. For some reason someone thought that a plush hippo was an appropriate gift for a newborn even though hippos routinely snap crocodiles and humans in half like twigs. But it was too late, the romance was born.

The baby girl grew up and at school she would tell people unsolicited random hippo facts. “Did you know that Hippos are the second most deadly animals in the world after mosquitoes?” “Did you know that hippopotamus means river horse in latin!”

No, they didn’t know and they thought she was a bit of a weirdo. That’s okay, because she was.

At 15, the girl took her first part-time job and with her first paycheck parted with $80 she could barely afford to sponsor a hippo at her local zoo. People told her she had wasted her money on something intangible. That the money wouldn’t actually go to the hippo but probably to renovate the toilet block. She wasn’t deterred.

A few weeks later, a package from the zoo arrived in the mail. It had a sponsorship certificate, free zoo tickets and information about her sponsored hippo, a young female hippo named Nile.

Excitedly, she took the complimentary tickets and raced to the local zoo, she asked the keeper ‘which one is Nile?!!’ They said ‘Nile, who? Our hippos are called Betty and Bob (names have been changed for privacy reasons). She was shook. The zoo keeper said that Nile didn’t live at this zoo, that they only had pygmy hippos and the big ones lived 400km (250mi) away at their zoo in the country. She was shattered.

The years passed. Nobody wanted to travel to the country with her so she could see her hippo. Family and friends would visit the zoo and take photos of Nile to send to the girl. They would tell her how ugly the hippo was. That the hippo had an oversized tusk that stuck out of her mouth, that no male hippos would mate with her because she was so ugly. That her very own hippo family ostracised her because of her looks and she would eat and sleep on her own. They told her that her hippo would die before she ever got the chance to see it.

The girl was heartbroken that people could only see superficial negatives in Nile.

After 18 long years, fate finally intervened. The girl, now a woman, decided to take a short secondment from her regular job and her new work wanted to send her to Dubbo to direct a photo shoot for a new construction project. Seeing the opportunity she decided to stay an extra day to fit in a visit to the zoo in the country (Taronga Western Plains Zoo).

If you haven’t guessed by now, that girl was me.

Warning: I’m about to switch from third person to first person for the rest of the tale.

Fortuitously the work photo shoot finished early and the photographer Adam dropped me off to the zoo in his car, all windows down and the stereo blaring ‘Africa’ by Toto up the long driveway of the zoo.

Now sans-car, I rented a bicycle figuring it would be the fastest way to get to the hippo enclosure in the middle of the zoo. Grossly unfit and with an uphill path – my legs screamed no, but my heart screamed yes. I arrived at the hippo enclosure and dumped the rental bike with as much grace as a rushed triathlete about to start the running leg.

In the distance, on a little man-made island in the middle of the lake cut a lone figure. The animal turned its head and I could see a wayward tusk poking from a mouth. I knew it was her.

Nile! Is that you?

I don’t get emotional over much, but when I saw her for the first time I had this weird saline discharge come out of my right eye.

Nile is now 20 years old. She now has a cataract and is losing sight in her left eye. Whyyyyyy? Someone call Fred Hollows Foundation. Her bung tooth was looking pretty good actually thanks to some recent orthodontic work.

Here she comes!

The following morning I lined up 35 minutes early for her keeper talk and feed. I puffed out my arms to reserve my spot so nobody could block my view and so I could get the best spot to watch my baby girl. My heart was full.

There are a few “key learnings” in this story.

1. Good things come to those who wait. No. A phrase with origins back in the 19th century has absolutely no place in our modern instantaneous society. If you want something, you have to instigate it.

2. Haters gonna hate. Hate them back! Joking. They just be jealous, ignore them.

3. Dreams do come true, you just have to believe that they will.

It may not be a hippo in your case but I’m sure there is something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time that people are always deterring you from. Maybe YOUR hippo is a career change, rekindling a friendship or taking up a new hobby.

Whatever it is, don’t wait 17 years like I did. Use all the wisdom held within Nile’s crooked oversized bung tusk as your guiding spirit to chase your dreams.

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This story was originally presented as one of 74 speeches I did on my 3 year journey to becoming a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) with Toastmasters.

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