Paul Templer recounts a harrowing attack from 17 years ago that cost him his left arm

By People Staff
May 09, 2013 11:00 AM

It was supposed to be just another excursion down the Zambezi River for travel guide Paul Templer. He’d been in the business for years, taking in the same scenery trip after trip – until he got a view he’d never forget.

Seventeen years ago, at 27, Templer was leading a group of clients and three apprentice guides down the river near Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls in kayaks when a male hippo he had encountered before attacked them.

“The solid whack I felt behind me took me by surprise,” Templer wrote recently in The Guardian newspaper as part of an essay that has since captivated the Internet. “I turned just in time to see [apprentice] Evans, who had been flung out of his boat, flying through the air. His boat, with his two clients still in it, had been lifted half out of the water on the back of the huge bull hippo.”

Templer instructed another apprentice to guide everyone to a cluster of rocks nearby while he attempted to rescue Evans from the water. But just before he could reach him, “I was engulfed in darkness,” he says. “It was as if I had suddenly gone blind and deaf.”

Having realized he had been swallowed by the hippo, Templer managed to escape during the animal’s next breath. But the hippo was not willing to let him go without a fight. As he attempted to swim away, the beast grabbed Templer once more, leaving almost 40 puncture wounds on the man and then submerging itself again.

“Blood rose from my body in clouds, and a sense of resignation overwhelmed me,” he says. “I’ve no idea how long we stayed under – time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth.”

Suddenly, the animal broke through the surface and spat Templer out as it did. One of the apprentices was waiting nearby and paddled him to safety and sealed some of his wounds, including one so deep a portion of Templer’s lung was exposed.

In the end, though a surgeon estimated both of his arms and part of his injured leg would have to be amputated, Templer lost only his left arm. But the incident couldn’t stop him from his passion – and he returned to work as a travel guide.

“Two years later, I led an expedition down the Zambezi, and as we drifted past the stretch where the attack had taken place, a huge hippo lurched out of the water next to my canoe,” he says.

“I screamed so loudly that those with me said they’d never heard anything like it. He dived back under and was never seen again. I’d bet my life savings it was the same hippo, determined to have the final word.”