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ONE of the biggest (and only) drawbacks of living in Cape Town is that it’s just so damn far to Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. It’s at this time of year that I’d love to be able to jump into my Land Rover and be across the border the same day, and deep in the African bush, in the desert or on a tropical beach just a few hours later.
But then I can jump in my car and 10 minutes later be hiking on the mountain, or walking on a wintry Cape beach, so there are advantages to being down here on the south western tip of Africa.
And while I might get mugged by a baboon or a thief on the mountain or the beach, I’m not going to get eaten by a croc, crushed to death by a hippo, savaged by a hyena, trampled or gored by an elephant, or munched by a lion. Not that I would particularly mind any of those fates, it’s a fine way to go, but they are mostly avoidable.
We’re often asked after one of our family bush sojourns whether we aren’t scared of the wild animals. The thing is, if you are bush-wise, know enough about the wild, and take sensible precautions, the chances of a dangerous animal encounter are minimal.
I’ve mentioned it before in this column, but one of my proudest moments as a parent was while out walking in Zambia’s Kafue National Park with one of the legends of the lion world, Chris McBride. Chris’s first book, based on research carried out in Mpumalanga’s Timbavati, was The White Lions of Timbavati, and his second was Liontide, the result of three years’ research in Botswana’s Savuti marshes. He and his wife Charlotte own a simple bush lodge on the banks of the Kafue River called McBrides, and each morning and evening that we were there, back in 2008, we would go walking with either Chris or Charlotte. Our son and daughter were then aged 13 and nine, and during one of those walks, Chris pulled me aside and very quietly said “your children are very well trained, they are more bush-wise than 99 percent of the adults with whom I have walked.”
There’s been much discussion on the popular 4x4 Community Forum website lately about what precautions to take against hyena, after one member asked for advice after her husband was attacked in Savuti while sitting around the fire.
Hyenas, completely contrary to the old mythology about being cowardly scavengers, are in fact fearsome predators, and far more successful hunters than lions. There was plenty of sensible advice given, like keeping your back to your vehicle in the evening, not cooking meat on the fire, keeping a bright torch handy and never leaving anything out that even vaguely smells of food, like shoes or socks.
It was when some members asked about shooting hyenas with paintball guns that things got a bit heated, with the idea being shot down by those with extensive bush experience, both because it is illegal and because it is people that are the problem, not the hyenas.
And generally, with a few notable exceptions (2010 was a bad year, with three very experienced bush men dying in wild animal encounters in Zimbabwe) wild animal attacks happen because of a lack of experience.
Just this week, a South African working on a copper mine in Solwezi, Zambia, was taken by a croc on the Zambezi west of Livingstone when he jumped into the river to free his fishing lure.
The worst attack I’ve witnessed the aftermath of was back in December 1993, in a campsite called Fishermen’s Camp on the shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya’s Rift Valley. A German family pitched their dome tent smack bang in the middle of a hippo path (the grass is nice and short on the paths). In the middle of the night, a grazing hippo got amorous with their tent, the father smacked the hippo through the canvas, the hippo charged and did some very serious damage to him and his two small children before other campers chased the hippo off by driving their truck at it. They were airlifted to Nairobi.
Elephants, especially those in Chobe and Moremi, will destroy a tent or vehicle if they smell citrus fruit inside. Baboons and monkeys will completely trash a campsite if they smell food, and again, it is usually inexperienced campers who make themselves vulnerable – the old bush hands will say “you can’t take a pill against stupidity”.
But the wild thing that scares me the most, and which kills more than one person a minute in Africa, is the female anopheles mosquito, and you can take a pill for that.
So please don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to take malaria prophylaxis – take the pills.