Huberta, the Wandering Hippopotamus

Port St Johns is a swashbuckling village of legend on the Pondo side of the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape.  The origin of the name of Port St Johns is something of a mystery.  It was long assumed that the village was named after the wrecked Portuguese ship Sao Jao, but then it was discovered that the vessel actually ran aground north of the village, near Port Edward.  Prior to that the Mthwa people, under the warrior son of King Faku of Mpondoland, inhabited this area.  Sections of the Pondo coast were briefly colonized by the Germans in the 19th Century, but the outraged British intervened and the Union Jack was once again raised in the region.  During the Anglo Boer War, the 24th Warwickshire Regiment were lucky enough to be stationed here and were probably the first foreign tourists to enjoy the beaches of Port St Johns.

In 1930 the celebrated wandering hippopotamus, Huberta, arrived in the village and resided there for nearly six months, which was when the river became known as Umzimvubu (home of the hippopotamus).  Huberta had started her journey in Zululand in 1928, progressing via Durban down the coast she travelled nearly 1600km to King William’s Town.  Huberta enjoyed a two and a half-year period of celebrity status during her time of wanderings.  The reason she became famous was that, unlike all other sociable hippos that stay with the herd and never consider a nomadic existence, Huberta decided to strike out on her own.  One day she set off from her home in Zululand and trekked South.  She was entirely alone, except for the reporters and sightseers who kept track of her progress, as nobody knew why she was walking or where she was heading.

Many Zulus regarded her as a reincarnation of Shaka.  This belief was reinforced by the sudden death, by rockfall, of two members of the tribe who had laughed and thrown stones at her.  The Indians in KwaZulu Natal also regarded her as a mystical reincarnation and worshipped her in the temples.  Sadly, however, not everyone held Huberta in such high esteem, and four farmers, who saw her as nothing but a trespasser, shot and killed her at the Keiskamma River near King Williamstown.

Huberta is likely to have been born near St. Lucia Bay in Zululand.  She set off for a long journey south in late 1928.  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 KwaZulu-Natal.  Because hippos no longer lived in this area people easily noticed her.

In February 1929 she settled in the Umhlanga lagoon for the entire month.  Huberta arrived in Durban in March 1929.  On 1 April 1929 she decided to go window-shopping in Durban’s West street (how’s that for an April fool sighting).  Port St Johns was her next stop where she wallowed in the Umzimbuvo river for several months.  In early 1931 Huberta went on southwards having already crossed more than 120 rivers.  In February, people from Bloemfontein Zoo went after her with a special catching license 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 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.  Huberta at last woke up, slowly got up and lazily walked away.

On April 23 rumours began spreading, saying that a big mammal’s body was found on the Keiskamma River.  These rumours were soon confirmed – 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, but must have walked plus minus 1,600 km.  There were world wide outcries over Huberta’s death.  South African and foreign newspapers such as The Punch or The Chicago Tribune wrote about Huberta and the event even made it to the South African parliament.  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 traveling 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.  All 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.  Huberta takes pride of place in the Amathole Museum at King Williams Town, and is still a major attraction.