Huberta the hippo is one of the most famous hippos in the world. In the late 1920s, she set off for her trek through South Africa, she became a medial star and people worldwide loved her. Last year, it's been 80 years since her travel began and so it's high time to remind this story.
Huberta is likely to have been born near St. Lucia Bay in Zululand (part of South Africa). For indistinct reasons, she set off for a long journey south in late 1928. Later, various speculations concerning what led her to leave home occurred. Some said she wanted to visit ancestral haunts of her species since as late as the 1880s hippos lived further to the south. Others said Huberta was looking for a lost mate that she was said to have walked with through Zululand. And others thought she witnessed her mother being killed by natives and wanted to flee as far as possible from the place of tragedy. However, her real motive will never be disclosed.
Huberta probably set off for her journey in October 1928. Crossing the Tugela River, she soon got to then Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal, part of RSA). Because hippos no longer lived in this area people easily noticed her.
She received first bigger attention on November 22, 1928. At that day, she appeared near the village of New Guelderland in a sugar-cane field. Scared natives ran away and let her eat their crops. A day later, an article with one of only few photos occurred in The Natal Mercury newspaper. The journalists mistakenly thought she was a male and named the hippo Billy, later altering it to Hubert. As late as after her death, the hippo at last received a female equivalent of this name.
The news about Huberta quickly spread and people from all parts of Natal came to see her. However, the hippo was evidently disturbed by the crowds of admirers. She soon went on in her travelling south and became a master in avoiding people. She travelled mainly at night and managed to escape all of her tracers; they usually didn't even get a glimpse of her. That's why many details on her journey aren't available, just sketchy information from various places she visited. And what's more, there apparently isn't any other good shot of the hippo alive, except the first photo from New Guelderland. Nevertheless, Huberta was often talked in the newspapers and people all over the country eagerly followed her pilgrimage.
Soon after the visit of New Guelderland, Huberta made it to the Umvoti River and apparently stayed there for some time, wallowing in swamps with no one to disturb her. In March 1929, she arrived to the Umhlanga region, some 200 km from St. Lucia Bay, and settled there for some time. 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. Even a team of hunters from Johannesburg Zoo failed, trying to catch "Hubert" as a mate for a female that was living in the zoo. And as her fame grew, the hippo was declared royal game and no one could hurt her or catch her any more. So the zoo had to withdraw their people and also journalists were to leave Huberta alone. And natives didn't even try to hurt the hippo. Many tribes all along her way believed she was a reincarnation of someone prominent and worshipped her.
From the Umhlanga region, the hippo gradually strayed to Durban, a big port which was lying just across her path south. However, Huberta wasn't scared of the obstacle. Tourists saw her ambling through a Durban beach and swimming in the sea and on April 1, 1929, under the cover of darkness, she even went to the very centre of the town. She crossed the garden of a local police station, she was on the grounds of a club, her footprints were found on a golf course and she was even reputedly seen walking down the main street. In the end, however, she apparently wasn't brave enought to walk through the whole city, she turned around and went back as far as the Umhlanga region. But the seeming retreat was just a sign of her further journey south.
She never returned to Durban but smartly made a wide detour and gradually approached the Indian Ocean coast. Some 90 km south from Durban, she discovered a lonely lagoon and stayed there for some time. This was in December 1929. After, she crossed the wide Umzimkulu River and also passed the town of Port Shepstone roughly 125 km to the south from Durban and walked on southwards along the coast.
Toward the end of 1929, she arrived to the Umzivubu River near the town of Port St. John, about 275 km south of Durban. She reputedly stayed there for four months and in January 1930, her wandering for food even brought her to the main square of the town - Market Square.
Then Huberta went on southwards and in early 1931 had already crossed more than 120 rivers. In February, people from Bloemfontein Zoo went after her with a special catching licence but Huberta succeeded in avoiding her pursuers. In March, she arrived to East London and settled in the Nahoon River.
The next report on Huberta is from March 8, 1931. A freight train driver who was travelling from Berlin to King William's Town noticed an obstruction on the rails. He slowed down and finally recognized Huberta lying across the track. The hippo ignored even the whoop of the locomotive and was nudged by its cow-catcher while the locomotive was already going in a snail's pace. Upon this, Huberta at last woke up, slowly got up and lazily walked away.
Then there were no reports on her further wandering until April 23. That day, rumours began spreading, saying that a big mammal's body was found on the Keiskamma River. These rumours were soon specified - it was the body of Huberta. The hippo had been killed some days ago by six bullets. Two of them perforated her skull above the eyes and must have been fatal. The famous traveller was dead... She died about 900 km from her birthplace as the crow flies but must have walked some 1,600 km including all deviations.
The place of her death was immediately reached by the director of the King William's Town museum and his assistant. With the help of a couple of farmers, they managed to skin the quickly deteriorating carcass and the next day took the hide and skull back to the town.
Meanwhile, an outcry over Huberta's death broke out all over the world. South African as well as foreign newspapers such as The Punch or The Chicago Tribune wrote about Huberta and the event even made it to the South African parliament. People were sending sympathy cards and donations for her mounting and Pietermaritzburg inhabitants sent a big wreath. Crowds of admirers even trampled the garden of the King William's Town museum, trying to get a glimpse of the hippo's skin which was being worked up in the museum.
At first, people laid the blame for Huberta's death on natives but this soon proved absurd. The hippo was killed by a gun and it happened near a white farm. The case was definitively resolved on May 21, 1931 when three men walked into the magistrate's office in King William's Town to make a statement about the shooting.
One day, they found footprints of a big animal in the garden of one of them - an elderly farmer. Later, the farmer unarmed and his two sons armed with guns traced the animal to the river. There they saw it emerging and submerging. Both sons fired. The animal moved down the river. Since then, they shot at it every time it emerged. Now the father intervened and stopped the shooting because, as he said, the animal must have been fatally wounded already.
The next morning, they came to the water and found a bloody track and heard snorting in the reeds. Another man with a rifle joined them and fired two more shots at the animal. The beast disappeared. Then they saw it floating dead in the river.
The trial with these four farmers for killing royal game without license took place on May 27, 1931. Huberta's perforated skull formed a gruesome exhibit at the court. The only witness for the defence was the 62-year-old farmer. He said he hadn't known the animal had been a hippo. He could speak only Afrikaans, he could neither read nor write and had never heard about a hippo travelling through the country. He said he'd intended to shoot the animal for the purpose of its exhibiting in the museum in King William's Town. Nevertheless, all the four culprits were sentenced to a fine of £25 or three months in prison.
After the trial, the hippo's skull and skin were sent to a renowned taxidermist in London who created the figure of Huberta for £159.
Meanwhile, two books on Huberta were published and until today, several more were written. Huberta became literally "the national pet" of South Africa. In early 1932, she returned to her country and was exhibited in Durban museum. She was so popular that 20,381 visitors came to see her from January 12 to February 17, 1932! In March, another exhibition took place in East London with a similar success. Then she was loaned to the Rand Easter Show in Johannesburg but after that the hippo finally came back to King William's Town, the town near which she died and whose museum took care of her mounting.
Many towns later claimed Huberta should be moved to them for various reasons. Her body was demanded also by Bloemfontein Zoo which had the permit for catching her. However, the hippo stayed in the Amathole Museum in King William's Town and is still its major attraction.
Hedley A. Chilvers, Huberta Goes South
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