Today we take a look at one of South Africa’s “non-human” celebrities.
Huberta was a remarkable animal with wanderlust, who embarked on a Great Trek of her very own.
Born in 1927the young hippo left her waterhole in St Lucia Estuary on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast in November 1928 and began moving south.
People began taking notice of her and she became a household name. It had been many years since anyone had seen hippos in the populated areas she was passing through.
An article about her appeared in the Natal Mercury on 23 November 1928, referring to her as Hubert as her sex was not yet known. A photo of her accompanied the article.
She stopped to rest at the Mhlanga River mouth north of Durban where an ill-conceived attempt was made to capture her and have her sent to the Johannesburg Zoo. Fortunately she retained her freedom. Soon after this escapade she sauntered down the main street of Durban, West Street to the wide-eyed surprise of shoppers and office workers. Later she also inspected a beach and a country club. People from all over the city flocked to see the royal hippo.
She was indeed royalty as the Natal Provincial Council officially declared her “Royal Game” to be protected at all costs. She was admired throughout South Africa and had numerous followers throughout the world, who waited in anticipation to read of her latest exploits.
She was spotted bathing at night in the pond of a monastery garden. Once she took a nap on the railway line and was gently nudged awake with the cow-catcher by the driver.
She must have understood enough English to realize that railway lines consist of a railbed lined with sleepers, and decided to test if they lived up to their restful name…
One one occasion she bit a press photographer. She was probably camera shy, or felt that she looked too fat in photos.
Travelling south towards the Transkei she became a revered figure among both Zulu and Xhosa and no one dreamed of doing her any harm. A powerful sangoma declared her to be a manifestation of ancestral spirits and thus not to be touched.
Many speculated why she chose to be a lone wanderer. Some thought she was looking for a lost mate, or that she had lost her parents at an early age. Some of the more imaginative felt she was making a pilgrimage to the places where her kind still roamed the southern rivers in earlier centuries.
She arrived to see her admirers in the city of East London in March 1931. By this time she’d travelled around 1 600 kilometres from where she began.
Just a month later she was shot by hunters near the Keiskamma River, who apparently had no inkling of her fame. It was 24 April 1931. Now the sad news had to be relayed throughout South Africa and the world.
There was a huge public outcry. Even the then Minister of Justice, not known for any sympathetic leanings, was touched by her plight and ordered an immediate investigation into her death. The hunters, who were local farmers, were arrested. The court fined them twenty-five pounds each. They also faced a barrage of public shaming and anger.
It was only now that Hubert was found to be a female and an A was added to her name.
This was truly a sad day for South Africa and her people but her story would never be forgotten. Perhaps it would have been an even sadder day for her had she been placed in a zoo. At least she retained her freedom and independence until the end – an inspiration for us today.
Now she took her longest journey – all the way to London to a top taxidermist who knew his “stuff.”
Returning to South Africa in 1932, 20 000 people came to see her after which she was placed in pride of place at the Amathole Museum (then known as the Kaffrarian Museum) in King William’s Town.
Her story has inspired several books, mainly aimed at the children’s market and with a strong message about taking care of our vulnerable wildlife.