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Tour guide recalls African river journey that included time in hippo's mouth


Hippos may look gentle, but they're extremely strong and can be threatening to humans.

Tour guide Paul Templer will never forget paddling down Africa's Zambezi River, 17 years ago.

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"It started out as  a beautiful day in Africa just above Victoria Falls," Templer said. "And I was leading a canoe safari and things had been going rather well until all of the sudden there was a huge whooosh behind me. I turned and there was a hippopotamus."

What happened next in that close encounter with a two-ton hippo is quite alarming. Templer told the BBC he was paddling along the river, which partly forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, with three other apprentice guides.

"I turned just in time to see one of the canoes in our armada getting attacked by a hippopotamus and unfortunately one of my guides got thrown into the river and so my job was to go and get him out," Templer said.

A rescue in this situation might seem like  a courageous thing to attempt, but it was risky, because man versus hippo is not what you might call a good matchup.

"As I was leaning over to grab a hold of him, the hippo burst up out of the water and plucked me cleanly out of my canoe," he said.

So for a moment there on the Zambezi, Templer was in the mouth of the hippo, and remember ippopotamus jaws are strong enough to snap a human in half.

"It happened so fast the first thing I knew I was in this dank, dark place and there was this pressure crushing down on my lower back," Templer said. "I could feel the water around my legs. I'm about a six-foot man, so you can fit half a six-foot man, waist first, down a hippo's throat."

The attack lasted over three minutes and involved dozens of of puncture wounds, blood, and thrashing about in the water.

Templer says he remembers frantically freeing one of his arms and feeling the whiskers of the hippo's snout.

"In the midst of this, I guess, with the adrenalin coursing, everything slowed down so when we went under water I would hold my breath, and when we were on the surface I'd suck in air and all the while I figured out that if I held onto the tusks that were boring into me that my flesh wouldn't tear so much when he shook me about," he said. "At one point he did spit me out far enough that one of the chaps on our trip, a guide who I knew quite well, Mike, just showed exceptional bravery, and he paddled in, and I was able to grab onto his boat and he dragged me out."

Templer lived to tell the tale. He lost his mangled left arm in the hippo attack but somehow managed to survive the ordeal. In fact he was inspired by the experience to devote his energy to work on behalf of terminally ill children and amputees.