Former river guide Paul Templer recounted an incident in which he was swallowed by a hippo while leading a tour down Zimbabwe’s Zambezi River.
On May 3, the Michigan native told his tale as part of The Guardian’s ongoing “Experience” series. At the time of the incident, Templer was a 27-year-old tour guide on the Zambezi River, which lies on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
During the 1996 trip, one of Templer’s assistants piloted a kayak straight onto the back of a two-ton hippo, placing a pair of tourists in immediate danger. When Templer paddled upstream to assist his charges, he suddenly found himself “engulfed in darkness.”
“There was no transition at all,” Templer told The Guardian. “No sense of approaching danger. It was as if I had suddenly gone blind and deaf.”
The hippo had clamped down on Templer’s left arm and torso, dragging him underneath the water’s surface. The Michigan resident told The Guardian that a doctor later counted more than 40 puncture wounds on his body.
“I managed to free one hand and felt around – my palm passed through the wiry bristles of the hippo’s snout,” Templer added. “It was only then that I realized I was underwater, trapped up to my waist in his mouth.”
Templer managed to briefly wriggle free of the hippo’s grasp, ignoring the fact that he had lost the majority of the flesh on his arm. However, as the river guide attempted to swim to safety, the hippo nearly swallowed his leg, dragging him back underwater.
“I’ve no idea how long we stayed under,” Templer told The Guardian. “Time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth.”
Templer realized that he was involved in a life-or-death struggle.
“I knew that it was my moment of choice,” Templer said. “I could shut my eyes, I could drift off, I could call it a day, or I could fight my way through this and I could stick around. … The pain was so intense I thought for sure I was going to die. And then when I didn’t, there were moments that I wished that I would, just to escape that excruciating agony.”
Instead, the hippo released Templer long enough for one of his assistants to drag him into a canoe, The Guardian reports. The guide’s left arm was “crushed to a pulp,” and his chest bore a wound so grave that it exposed his lung.
“By chance, a medical team was nearby, on an emergency drill, and with their help I stayed alive long enough to reach a hospital with a surgeon.”
The surgeon managed to save Templer, who only lost the use of his left arm. Nowadays, he works as a motivational speaker, author and charity worker.