My paternal grandfather spent many years living in the bush with The Pygmies and shooting everything that moved, with his cine camera. Temps passé’. Another tale from the My Life to Date (and How I’ve Survived It) group of stories.
Like me, my grandfather was Yorkshire born and bred. I’ve never understood why, at that particular time in his life, he decided to down tools and leave his worsted spinning business, and go and live in the bush. A coping mechanism perhaps after the death of his young wife, but still no excuse as, to fulfil his African dream, he sent my four-year-old father to boarding school. Many years later, history repeated itself when my father sent my half-brother to boarding school, just after his mother had died. He was eight years old.
I wasn’t sent away to board until I was eleven. I was lucky, in the scheme of things. Sending a child away to school at eight is cruel and at four, blatant child abuse. My grandfather died the year I was born, and my father died when I was very young. So I never had the opportunity to quiz either of them about why my grandfather chose Africa over his children. Or why my father put my brother through the same torture at such a young age.
If I have inherited anything from my grandfather, it would be his passion for travel and adventure.
In 1997 I travelled to South Africa with my aunt, spending the first four action-packed days on safari. I was working for the late Gerald Durrell’s Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust at the time (now Durrell), and I loved my job. So the opportunity to see animals in the wild state for the first time was a hugely exciting one.
Our Ranger Tom was a rare individual. Passionate about his job and enthusiastic about passing on his knowledge of the bush, and I was a keen student. To me, Tom was a bronzed Adonis. He was always happy to take keen safari-goers out into the bush on foot, and I suddenly developed a passion for walking.
I was the only one in our group who was interested in going out on foot which was a bonus, and I was prepared to walk for miles with Tom.
I enthusiastically learned to identify whose dung was whose, amongst other eye-opening facts about animals enjoying their lives as free as nature intended.
While on safari, I lost weight fairly quickly, and it wasn’t just to do with the heat. After enjoying a sundowner watching Impala gambol happily in the bush, we would return to camp to find them on the dinner menu, which was just too hard to swallow.
The only time I have ever been offered a gin and tonic for breakfast at 5.00 a.m. was while on safari. And it’s the only time I’ve ever refused one, sensibly realising I was getting enough quinine in my anti-malarial tablets.
My aunt was not very keen to go out on the early morning drives, and on one occasion, it was just as well. I was in the back of a small four-seater jeep with Tom and tracker Elvis in the front. We had been tracking a cheetah with her recent kill when, in dense bush and within twenty-five feet of an uneasy cheetah, we had a flat tyre.
I was told to stay close to the jeep whilst Elvis and Tom changed the tyre.
My camera quaked in my hands. Not through fear, but excitement. Being out in the bush and ready, like my grandfather, to shoot anything that came close. And the beautiful cheetah was very close.
That afternoon I went out on foot with Tom again enthusiastically identifying various piles of dung. Even now, I am still confident I can recognise elephant poo at a hundred paces.
We all know elephants never forget, and I will always remember one particular bull elephant.
We were returning to camp in two larger land rovers after a late afternoon drive. I was in my usual place, in the leading jeep, next to the driver, Tom, of course, feeling like I was a seasoned Ranger; knees up, resting my safari boots on the dashboard.
It was dusk, and the sweet scent of Gnidia flowers, mingling with the aroma of dung from many species, hung heavy in the hot dry air.
Tom planned to cross a dry river bed but was surprised to see three young bull elephants feeding there. He put the jeep into reverse, but the front wheel under my feet started to spin, grinding ever deeper into the sandy, gritty earth. We were close enough to feel the breeze as the elephants flapped their enormous ears, unimpressed by our noisy presence. One of them snorted angrily before charging aggressively towards us.
My aunt’s ‘Oh my God!’ from the back of the jeep was echoed in several different languages from our fellow passengers. Tom slammed the palm of his hand on the horn.
6000 KG of elephant ground to a halt within inches of me. He was close enough to wrap his trunk around my arm and toss me over his withers like a discarded Kleenex.
I held the elephant’s stare, confident, unlike everybody else, that he was not going to knock the jeep over. Frozen to my seat in fascination, as the others were in fear, the elephant backed-off as I knew it would. Tom slammed his foot on the accelerator and, eventually, the jeep went into reverse.
I turned around beaming, to see my aunt buried under her safari hat and a Japanese gentleman kneeling on the floor of the jeep clasping his Nikon to his head.
Returning to camp, I made a ridiculously expensive telephone call. I had to tell my best friend in the UK I’d been charged by a bull elephant and lived to tell the tale.
On my final day having seen so many different species both on foot and from the jeep, I didn’t think it could get any better when a leopard strolled by. Not quite as close as I had been to the bull elephant but close enough that, when I held my breath, all I could hear was my beating heart.
The gorgeous Tom had plans to visit the UK, so I enthusiastically I gave him my address in Jersey and my aunt also gave him hers in Harrogate. I was so excited that I might have the opportunity to provide him with a personal tour of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, and of the island. And, yes, he did come to the UK, but he opted to go to Yorkshire, and visit my aunt.