I’m as partial to the natural world as any sane human, but the sad truth is day-to-day I have virtually no connection to it. I lead a typical city dweller’s existence, in a gardenless third-floor flat, in a concrete pocket of London.
As such, I’m not great around animals. Whenever I visit the countryside, I feel uneasy around horses and large herds of cows. I’ve never particularly enjoyed stroking dogs. And even my fondness for cats seems to be on the wane.
So when I was given the chance to go on safari, I was a little apprehensive — after all, a man intimidated by horses is always going to struggle with a pack of lions. But other people seem to enjoy it, I reasoned, so it would probably turn out fine.
And it did. In fact it was better than fine, and for months afterwards I could think of little else. I may not be good with animals, but on safari it doesn’t matter: no one expects you to stroke a leopard, pat a hippo or ride a rhino. From the start, it’s clear you’re dealing with dangerous creatures, and you’re encouraged to keep a safe distance.
That’s not to say there aren’t brushes with danger and moments when it’s wise to keep very still and very quiet. But, after the first few tense incidents, confidence grows as you start to put more faith in the wisdom of your guide.
It’s an odd feeling, putting your life in the hands of someone you’ve only just met. But having done so, I found I listened to my guide more carefully than I’ve ever listened to anyone. It was a great learning experience — I soaked up everything he said like a sponge.
And, of the many fascinating things he told me, the one that really grabbed my attention was the carnivore pecking order. This is the strict hierarchy that governs which animals get the spoils from a kill. The lion is first, as you would expect. But in the second and third places come the hyena and wild dog, with the leopard a surprising fourth, and the poor old cheetah at the back of the field.
Surely this couldn’t be right, I thought. Would a leopard really be intimidated by a hyena? Could wild dogs really bully a hungry cheetah? Pretty soon, my mind was racing with permutations. What, for example, would happen if the kill took place near a river? Where would the crocodile fit into this?
And what happens when you throw non-carnivores into the mix? Could a leopard stand its ground against an angry hippo? And is the lion still the king of the jungle when it’s blocking the path of a herd of irate elephants?
For the next few days these theoretical match-ups dominated my thoughts. And my guide was happy to feed my curiosity with tales of hippos fatally wounding crocodiles, or huge elephants tossing lions high into the air with their tusks.
Everywhere I looked I saw potential match-ups: rhinos versus hippos; wild dogs versus big cats. And as I look back now, it seems a remarkably childish way to have behaved. Indeed, the questions I was asking my guide were very similar to those I asked my dad nearly 30 years ago. “Who would win in a fight dad: Frank Bruno or Giant Haystacks?”
But there was something pleasantly childlike about my state of mind during the whole safari experience. And I suppose this isn’t surprising. After all, I spent a week being driven around in a back of a vehicle, gazing in wonder as someone wiser in the front seat pointed out dangerous animals, while all the time wondering which ones were the toughest. It’s the type of existence I dreamed of as a child.
We adults forget how animals once dominated our young lives. It’s the same for my daughter today as it was for me years ago. She sleeps with a mouse, a piglet and lion. She bathes with frogs and ducks. Her favourite programmes feature giraffes, zebras, penguins and monkeys. And if I was to tell her that one day she might grow up to distrust horses and detest dogs, I think she’d probably cry.
So if you’re wondering whether or not safari is for you, stop wondering and just go. You owe it to your inner child.
Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)