Robert Ferguson, a Director of Real Africa, remembers the occasions on safari he’s got more than he bargained for.
When presenting slideshows or giving talks, I’m often asked what’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me on safari. It’s a tricky question. I’ve never been frightened when out game-driving, not in the “O my god, I’m going to die” sort of way. Having been lucky enough to have done a fair amount of game-viewing ( a definite perk of the job) while running Real Africa, I have however been in several situations that have got the adrenalin pumping.
The first was when I was visiting a private reserve in the south of Swaziland. It specialised in the protection of rhino, specifically the rarer and more aggressive black rhino. I was out with the reserve founder and owner, a grizzled old Africa hand who’d worked in conservation for many years. We were doing the early morning patrol of the electric perimeter fence checking for any damage from poachers during the night. Cresting a small ridge we spotted a rhino standing beside the track we were following. We stopped. The rhino got up on his toes and stood staring at us. We sat for 30 seconds or so looking at each other. We started our engine, my companion confidently telling me that after this show of bluff the rhino would turn on his heels and retreat into the thick bush. We edged closer and it didn’t look to me as if it had much thought of retreat.
Its horn came straight through the panel of my door
We were about 15 metres away when it charged. How such a large and prehistoric creature went from stationary to fast so quickly was unbelievable, and before I could catch my breath it hit the well loved and well used Landover we were in. Just my luck, it was my side. Its horn came straight through the panel of my door, sticking into the foot well in front of my legs. It lifted its head and us with it, both wheels on my side off the ground as it tried to push us sideways. When we didn’t move, it retreated backwards, pulling its horn clear as it prepared another thrust but before it had a chance we were slammed into reverse and careering backwards up the track at a filling-shaking speed. It chased us for 50 metres or so until it and we lost sight of each other in the dust.
I returned to the reserve a couple of years later and was pleased to see my passenger door mounted over the fireplace, the puncture hole and rip in the metal looking very dramatic. Frightening? No. It happened so quickly and was over before I could think.
If you see a Rhino, climb a tree..
I thought of this incident a few years later when I was doing a walk in The Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal. With a population of Asian Rhino we were informed my our guide that should we be spotted by one we should keep completely still as their eye sight is poor and they detect movement as much as form. Should they charged we were advised to climb a tree. I looked around at the tall scrub all around, spotting only a single solitary tree that stood a chance of taking my 13 stones without snapping like a twig. I looked around the group, most of whom were eyeing the same tree with a determined stare. If push came to shove, I decided, I’d take my chances with the rhino.
The snakes were standing taller than me, and I’m 6’3..
On another occasion I was checking out camps and lodges in Botswana. I’d arrived at a camp deep in the marshes around the Okavango Delta and was heading out for a game walk with two local guides. It was a great walk, elephant waded in the waters eating the lush grasses that grew there, antelope and other grazers watch unperturbed as we walked quietly by. They one of the guides spotted something in front of us that looked very strange. It was about my height, 6 feet or so, black and seemed to gently sway from side to side. We cautiously moved a little closer, to perhaps 50 metres or so, until one of the guides realised what it was. It was a Black Mamba snake. Or rather it was two Black Mambas engaged it a very beautiful mating ritual.
Standing on their tails they were facing each other and gently undulating from side to side, mirroring each other as they entwined their necks. Amazing though it was the thought in my mind was that if they were standing 6 feet into the air and yet still had enough of their bodies on the ground to keep them stable during such a dance, how big were they? My guides obviously had the same thought as we quietly and gently beat a retreat away from them.
The warthog loved crisps and tried his best to get as many as he could.
The closest encounter I’ve ever had with an animal on foot was a warthog. Doesn’t sound scary, despite their incredibly ugly faces including some mean looking tusks. It was at a lodge in South Africa that had a tame warthog living under the raised floor of their restaurant and bar. It was a big boar and very partial to crisps and other bar snacks which it tried to make you drop by startling you when it thought you were not expecting it and were poised to put a bar snack in your mouth.
Meeting a hippo at night
More dangerous was a face to face encounter with a hippo one evening while walking from my tent to the dining room in a mobile camp in the Masai Mara. Hippos, as most people know, are the biggest killers of humans in Africa, due to their nocturnal wanderings in search of grazing bringing them in contact with people going about their lives. Luckily for me he was 20 metres away and heading across the path not along it. I did however beat a hasty retreat to my room and wait, as I’d been instructed, for my Masai Guide to come and fetch me. tI wasn’t a marketing stunt after all, the Masai guides were actually there to assist and protect, not to make it seem more real and look good in the photos. Lesson learnt. I now always wait for my guide at night.
The elephant sniffed her face, no more than 5 cm away from her nose..
As regards the big cat – lions, leopards and cheetah, I’ve never had any real incidents. A cheetah once sat on my vehicles bonnet but that was an amazing experience, not a scary one. I once got sprayed in lion urine by a lion marking his territory on the front wheel and being a bad shot. Again, not scary only rather smelly. When game viewing with my family in the Cape provinces of South Africa an elephant came right up to our open vehicle and stopped, raised its trunk and sniffing my eight year old daughter, its trunk a few centimetres from her face. But it was a young female and she was interested in her rather than aggressive. My daughter loved it and still talks about it five years later.
I’ve been incredibly lucky in the amount of time I’ve got to spend in the wild with the animals of Africa, and I still get the buzz of excitement when I see lion or leopard or even a dikdik or zebra. Adrenalin yes. Excitement, of course. Fear? Never. Honest.