Breaking the silence on a school trip 36 years ago that almost ended in tragedy

We thought we were the cool kids and had smuggled a bottle of whiskey and several packs of cigarettes into our little camp

In Summary

• Getting out of the van during a game drive leads to run-in with a hippo

A hippo in the wild
A hippo in the wild
Image: FILE

The big news in South Africa in the last couple of weeks has been about a 13-year-old boy, Enoch Mpianzi. Before his tragic death by drowning during a school trip, he would have been known only to his family, friends and schoolmates. 

As I thought about Enoch, I had a flashback to some of my own school trips, and one stands out in particular.

It was the mid-1980s, there were nine of us boys — aged about 15 — and three mature adult staff members. These were our class teacher Mr De Souza (or Ceddie, as we called him behind his back), our former dean and future school headmaster Father Tom Hogan, and, for some still unfathomable reason, the school counsellor, Sister Nancy.


Six of the boys, myself included, thought we were the cool kids and had very sneakily smuggled a bottle of whiskey and several packs of cigarettes into our little camp in Tsavo. 

As part of our plan, we chose adjoining huts some distance from where the teachers and the three members of the sensible gang were.

Once we'd had our dinner, we skived off to our hut, where we played music on a cassette deck we'd brought and started on our whiskey which was hot, having been smuggled down from Nairobi wrapped in a sleeping bag. 

On that first night, we got thoroughly drunk, but I don’t recall being hungover the next day, and we must have fooled everyone else, including the staff, as our state was never mentioned.

It was during this first full day of the trip that we committed a cardinal sin that could have ended in tragedy but fortunately did not. 

We decided, despite knowing it was ill-advised, to get out of the van during our game drive to stretch our legs.

We walked through some bush, fancying ourselves to be modern-day explorers, and suddenly, we were at a clearing where a mother hippo and her young one were grazing.


We all froze, hippos included. Mama Hippo recovered first and charged at us in a bid to protect its young. After a split second in which I decided that taking a picture of the charging animal would be foolhardy, we ran helter-skelter, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost, and somehow ended up at the van which, fortunately, was open.  

Once we had scrambled in and were trying to control our breathing, somebody noticed Sister Nancy wasn't among us. Just as we were about to offer up prayers for her soul, she came round the corner, walking calm as you like, and got in the van.

The incident was never spoken of again and, in fact, I may be causing a problem sharing it with you, dear reader, but I'm too old to care.

The point is, had it happened today, someone would have shared it on social media and the three staffers would have probably lost their jobs and been sued for whatever they had for reckless endangerment. 

I believe most of the gang are parents today. I wonder what they would say or do if they were to hear that exactly the same as happened to us, happened to their kids today.