Marty Essen and his wife, Deb, spent 31 / 2 years traversing all seven continents for a book on encounters with rare and interesting wildlife. In Antarctica, they had fearless penguins approaching them and nibbling on their shoelaces. They swam with piranhas in the Amazon. And in Zimbabwe, a hippopotamus attacked their canoe on the Zambezi River.
Essen will be at the Manassas campus of Northern Virginia Community College on Tuesday to present “Around the World in 90 Minutes,” a multimedia show based on his book.
Africa was the last stop on the tour, and Essen was looking for an exciting way to close out “Cool Creatures, Hot Planet: Exploring the Seven Continents.” The hippo delivered.
The Essens, with their guide and four other tourists, had seen Nile crocodiles and hippos on the first part of their journey in Zimbabwe, a 53-mile hike across Mana Pools National Park. They were a little nervous about embarking on the second part of their journey — a three-day canoe trip down the Zambezi — but the guide assured them that in 15 years of leading tours, he had never had anyone attacked by an animal, Essen said.
About 15 minutes into their canoe trip, they saw a barricade of hippos across the river.
“They were snorting and roaring, then they sank beneath the water, and the canoes went right over them,” he said. As the group drifted farther down the river, they weren’t seeing any hippos, so everyone relaxed a little, he said.
They reached an area where the water was deeper along the shoreline. The guide had told them to stay in the deepest part of the river, Essen said, so he and his wife were paddling close to land when something bumped their canoe.
“We thought we had hit a rock,” Essen said. “The next thing we knew, we were six feet in the air and the hippo’s jaw had snapped the boat.”
Essen and his wife landed on the shore. For a minute, he said, he thought she was dead. They quickly got up and looked back at the water as the hippo dropped their canoe and sank back beneath the water.
“Once we realized we were okay, we burst out in hysterical laughter,” Essen said. “How often do you get attacked by a hippo and live through it? We were incredibly lucky. He bit the boat in the dead center. If he had done it in the front or the back of the canoe, it would have killed one of us. If we had landed in the water, he would have killed us. We got to have the ride of a lifetime.”
The Essens live in western Montana, in part because he wanted to live in a remote area with lots of wildlife. He was running an independent telephone company and mentioned a planned trip to the Amazon to a local reporter who was writing about the company. The reporter asked him to write a story about the trip for the paper. Essen then wrote a story about a trip to Australia, and he decided to turn his travels into a book, which came out in 2007.
He incorporated a slide show into his book tour, and it was so well received that he made it a multimedia program. He visits between 50 and 100 colleges and universities each year to talk about his adventures and how climate change is affecting wildlife.
“Every single place we went, we had a memorable experience,” Essen said, noting that his favorite destination was Antarctica. “The animals down there, because they haven’t been exposed, aren’t afraid of humans. We weren’t allowed to approach them closer than 15 feet, but they would approach us. And the ice is the blue of windshield wiper fluid. It’s beautiful.”
Essen’s show is at 3 p.m. Tuesday in the cafeteria building at the Manassas campus of Northern Virginia Community College. It is free and open to the public, and there is event parking in the rear of the campus.