Travel 'I've had run-ins with lions and elephants on safari...

'I've had run-ins with lions and elephants on safari – but they weren't what scared me most'

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When I ran into a lion on foot one night in Malawi’s Majete Wildlife Reserve, my guide knew exactly what to do. Calmly, he instructed me to slowly climb on top of a wooden picnic bench and defy every impulse in my body to run.

What happened to the tourists in Kafue was a terrible accident. The guide found himself trapped in an area where it was impossible to manoeuvre his vehicle. Otherwise, he would have done what every experienced guide would do in that situation: back off.

On safari, the only thing that lies between tourists and wild animals is the metal shell of a vehicle, a thin veil of canvas or an intangible but deeply important barrier of mutual respect. If you give an animal space, it will give you space in return.

I’ve spent hundreds of nights drifting off to the roar of lions, the whooping giggles of hyenas and the panicked squeals of zebras attacked by leopards. Only once have I ever feared an animal might enter my tent.

One night, in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, I woke to the calamitous crashing of objects in my open-air bathroom. The shadow of a trunk, swinging against canvas dangerously close to a full bladder of water above the bucket shower, immediately gave the culprit away. Despite my boyfriend’s panicked pleas, I dodged the ignominy of blowing the safety horn. (Having introduced myself as an experienced African traveller to camp managers the day before, pride got the better of me.)

Miraculously, on inspection the following morning, nothing was broken; the only thing missing was a bar of soap. After sharing my story at breakfast, I discovered we had a thief in our midst. Ours was the fifth tent the toiletry-gobbling elephant had raided that night.

Some of the biggest threats are posed by the tiniest beasts, such as tsetse flies

On safari, travellers can expect encounters with creatures great and small and ironically some of the biggest threats are posed by the tiniest beasts. According to the World Health Organisation, there were 233 million cases of malaria on the African continent in 2022 and 580,000 deaths. Prophylactics are a highly effective precaution, so consult a doctor (though note they will always err on the side of caution) and seek up-to-date information for each destination you plan to visit.

The closest shave I’ve ever had with hospitalisation on safari was down to an insect almost smaller than a speck of pepper. I’d been warned about ticks in the long grasses of South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve, but photographing a pangolin at eye-level was too good an opportunity to resist.

Days later, a red welt appeared on my belly, growing deeper and deeper until it resembled Mount Etna’s molten crater. Dr Google revealed I probably had tick bite fever, nothing a double dose of anti-malarial drug Doxycycline couldn’t fix.

On balance, going on safari presents no more danger than, say, a hiking holiday in the Alps. Accidents can happen anywhere, even on a beach break in Spain. But observing animals in the wild demands a degree of humility. We are visitors to their patch, and just like people they have emotional and defensive reactions. Some days they are happy, other times they might be sad. Or maybe, they’re just after something as simple as a bar of soap.

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