The Dark Side of Safaris

6 04 2009


Oy you, lion…you distract them and I’ll grab the boiled eggs…” (Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)


African parks are inherently dangerous, and that’s not just the abundance of flammable khaki polyester and suspiciously tacky safari hats. Sartorial inelegance aside, it’s the close proximity of wild and dangerous animals that’s obviously part of the great appeal for many visitors.


Even before arrival, travellers are warned of the dangers that lurk in the wild places. With rare exceptions, it’s never permitted to get out of vehicles in national parks. Private lodges tell guests not to leave their rooms until ‘collected’ by an armed guide the next morning. Tented camps give visitors bells to call spear-toting askaris to escort them around after dark…and overland trips just advise their clients to run really quickly. But is all that precaution and fear actually warranted or is it just to give visitors a greater sense of adventure?


Like much of life, activities in Africa fall into three categories: generally safe, outlandishly dangerous and calculatedly risky. Most safaris qualify as safe with the occasional dash of calculated risk and perhaps the odd – but always memorable – soupcon of unanticipated downright danger. In a world of snakes and crocodiles, predators and pachyderms, attack sometimes comes from the least expected of places, however.


Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater is truly one of the natural Wonders of the World. A massive volcanic crater, it offers visitors a self-contained Garden of Eden with forests, lakes and abundant wildlife. A half-day game drive often provides more wildlife viewing than several days in most other parks, and all set against the spectacular backdrop of the crater walls. Once your Landcruiser has made its precarious way down, you’re told not to venture outside except at one picnic spot. When you start spotting rhinos, elephants and prides of lions, you understand why.


The picnic site is a picturesque spot thoughtfully equipped with tables. Vehicles gather, visitors stretch their legs, and lunches packed earlier in the day are retrieved. At first, everyone’s a little edgy realising there’s nothing separating them from the game they’d previously been watching and photographing. But gradually, they relax and nibble.


It’s when you relax that you are at your most vulnerable.


The first attack came moments after the sandwiches were unwrapped. There was a scream from the other side of the clearing and everyone jumped to their feet, expecting to see a victim dragged into the tall grass. Someone was faintly whimpering and holding their head. The commotion died down. Shortly afterwards there was a second, louder scream, and a man was seen diving for a safari van. A ripple of fear ran through the panicked picnickers.


The third scream sent the Pringles flying. Clearly, we were under attack by an as-yet unidentified menace. And then the sky darkened and our enemy revealed itself.


The black kite loomed menacingly out of the blue sky, talons extended, sharp beak gleaming in the sun. It swooped down before arcing skyward just inches above our ducking heads. Again and again the large birds of prey descended attempting to steal bananas, sandwiches, Twiglets and Twinkies. A guide raced around shouting for food to be hidden and heads kept down. Gaggles of tourists dashed for minivans all the while dive-bombed by hungry wheeling and soaring raptors.


“Beware!” the guide shouted, “They’ve been known to slice open scalps with their beaks,” he explained as he leapt for cover beneath a picnic bench.


The big birds continued their attack. Some visitors threw their sandwiches away like offerings to the Gods, while others fought the good fight and continued to eat, grabbing a bite in between each air raid. It was like being besieged by seagulls…only armed with machetes and hedge-clippers!


Once the food was gone, the birds disappeared into thin air as quickly as they’d arrived, although eagle-eyes claimed they were seen lurking in tree tops eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next bounty of boiled eggs and unwary picnickers.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

A Walk On The Wild Side in Zimbabwe

3 11 2008

“You lookin’ at me?!”                                                 (Cape Buffalo)

It was mid-afternoon and the Zimbabwean heat was already easing as the sun softened to warm orange. I was on a 3-day walking safari through the remote Gwayi Valley near Hwange National Park and had been trekking since just after dawn. My guide and I were well off the beaten path, miles from telephones, roads and civilisation. We ate and slept deep in the bush and I was completely dependent on Mark’s experience and bushcraft for survival.


Following a narrow trail, Mark stopped and pointed at the ground. I came up alongside him and followed his finger to a patch of softer sand and an enormous track.


“That’s the freshest buffalo print you’ll ever see.” he said. “Come on, let’s find him.”


Although no expert on the Cape buffalo, I did know that it was amongst the single most dangerous creatures in all of Africa – especially lone buffalo and especially when followed. They were renowned for massive strength, considerable weight, surprising speed and a rather nasty temperament. They were also wily creatures known to circle back and leave their pursuers on the horns of a dilemma.


Before I could object, Mark set off with silent purpose while I scurried behind trying to keep up, remain quiet, not panic…and create enough saliva to dampen my suddenly parched mouth. Because of the dense bush, our vision was limited to a narrow corridor created by the rough trail we were following. Mark moved effortlessly along the path while my legs were sliced and diced by every thorn along the way.


Suddenly, there was movement ahead and a massive grey-black rump thundered across the path. Mark raised a hand for me to stop. With his eyes fixed on the bush ahead he gestured at the spot where our friend had been.


“Was it a rhino?” I breathlessly whispered, unable to believe that something that massive could be a buffalo.


“No,” he quietly replied. “It’s the buffalo. A Dagga Boy: a young male. He’s nearby. Follow me and do exactly as I say.”


With that, he placed his finger on the trigger-guard of the rifle, raised it across his chest and continued forward very slowly and quietly, his eyes scanning the bush and the trail.


I followed his every step, desperately wanting to tap him on the shoulder and suggest that perhaps I wasn’t really that interested in wildlife after all and that a spot of needlework in the nearest retirement home sounded better. But before I had a chance, Mark had stopped dead in his tracks and hissed for me to do likewise.


With my body struck with premature rigor mortis and my mouth slightly ajar, I stared ahead, beyond the barrel of Mark’s gun and straight into the malevolent eyes of the biggest Cape buffalo I had ever seen.


From barely a few dozen metres distance, he glared at us menacingly. I could see his nostrils opening and closing with each breath and the sun glinting on the moisture. A great boss of horns curled to sharp points either side of his huge head. He stamped heavily on the ground and edged forward shaking his head angrily. Mark hissed for me to remain still.


The buffalo shook his head again and snorted loudly. I remained rooted to the ground, frozen partly in obedience and partly fear. Mark was a statue before me. The buffalo stamped and shuffled forward again, staring at us and shaking his head in irritation. I swivelled my eyes to the extent of their sockets straining for a tree to climb. There was nothing other than thorn bush.


Again he stamped his heavy hooves and edged towards us. Sweat trickled from my hairline, stinging at my eyes, while flies taunted my inability to swat at them by gravitating to my open mouth. The stand-off continued for what seemed a lifetime but in reality was likely little more than minutes. It was broken only by Mark tapping on the stock of the rifle. The buffalo’s large ears twitched at the sound but his eyes remained fixed. Mark tapped again.


I had no idea what he was doing but was just glad that he was doing something! My appetite for the status quo had long expired and I wanted it to end…one way or the other. The buffalo edged forward again. Mark tapped. Finally, with one last shake of his massive head, the buffalo stamped forward and then swung around powerfully and charged away into the bush and out of sight.


I breathed again.


“Cheeky bugger!” Mark turned to me with an enormous adrenalin-fuelled smile. “He wasn’t scared at all.”


I confessed that I certainly had been, and mentioned my efforts to find a tree to climb.


“Wouldn’t have done you any good if there’d been one right beside us.” he explained. “He would have been on us before I could have raised my rifle and before you could have lifted your foot.”


I nodded sagely, glad that I hadn’t been aware of that little pearl a few moments earlier.


“But you know what did worry me?” he asked, obviously about to tell me whether I wanted to know or not. “There were two of them…and I didn’t know where the second one was!”



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan