I’d met the hippo who ate me many times before. He was a hungry, horny, pissed-off old male and I’d learned to avoid him. At 15ft long and 8,000lb, he was twice the size of my Land Rover.
I’d taken clients out with three guides, all in kayaks. It was a spectacular day and we were taking in the tranquillity. The almighty thud beneath my boat took me completely by surprise.
I turned and saw one of my guides, Evans, being catapulted into the water. I reached out to grab his hand, then everything went black. I was head-first down the animal’s throat.
I wriggled hard until he opened his jaws enough for me to escape. But as I swam away, he got me by the legs and started thrashing me about from below.
He threw me away and I came back up again. Then I saw him charging towards me, mouth open wide. He got me side-on, his right tusk crushing my knee and his left one piercing my torso.
He shook me like a dog with a chew toy, before taking me down to the riverbed. Looking up through 10ft of water, I had no fight left. I remember thinking, “I wonder who can hold their breath for longer?” No pain, just calm resignation.
I’ve no idea how long we stayed under – time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth. Then he spat me out again.
A colleague helped me to shore. There were 38 bite marks on my body. Both my arms were pretty much detached (one from the elbow down and the other crushed to a pulp), blood gushed from wounds in my chest. My lung was visible through my back.
They used cling film to seal my wounds. Then the weirdest thing happened. I went from sheer agony to an incredible sense of calm. The pain flushed away. I had a choice: do I shut my eyes and let myself go, or do I fight?
I chose to stick around – then the pain came back like nothing I had ever imagined. It started as a slow throb, and got more intense. One hundred different points of pain.
Imagine a toothache. If you bite on it, the pain jumps through you. It was that, but 1,000 times more. It kept going and got so intense I starting looking for my gun. I didn’t think I could take any more.
By chance, a medical team was nearby. With their help, I stayed alive long enough to reach a hospital. In the end, I lost only my left arm – they managed to patch up the rest. Evans’ body was found two days later.
I don’t blame the hippo; nature is unforgiving. We got too close.
In the following years I went to some dark places. But over time, with the help of friends and family, I regained my will to live. Two years later, I led an ascent of the Zambezi and am sure I saw him in the same spot.
Without that experience, I wouldn’t have set up my charity, The Templer Foundation, or written a book, What’s Left Of Me. I’m climbing Everest next year.
Would I swap my life for one without pain? Not a chance. Pain is a friend you don’t want to see ever again. But when she inevitably returns, she opens up possibilities and shows us what we’re capable of. Without pain I wouldn’t be the man I am today.
Find out more at paultempler.com
(Illustration: Mike Hughes, other image: Getty)