A few weeks ago I decided to risk it and asked you, my ‘followers’, for some fun blog topics to challenge me beyond my comfort zone. One of those received was, ‘Best wild animal encounter’. Well, growing up in Africa and being treated to many bucket-list type of safaris gives me loads of material and an unfair advantage over those of you who might be more familiar with the concrete jungle and animals of a different kind.
My gut response to that kind of topic, though, is to automatically respond by saying the best way to encounter a wild animal is definitely not at close range and I have a few stories to keep us sitting around a campfire from dusk ’til dawn as well as a good dose of advice (that comes from studying just enough psychology to do a fair bit of damage).
For now, though, I’m going to start with my favourite story.
The four of us – the Husband, the Children, and I – were slowly making our way down the footpath at Boulders Beach (part of the Table Mountain National Park) to watch the African penguins as they went about their daily manoeuvres. Every now and then we’d hear a rustle as the penguins scuttled about in the beach vegetation. To give you a taste of what’s to come, I can’t resist mentioning that they used to be called the Jackass penguin because of the braying sounds they make, until somebody decided that it was a bit non-PC. Personally, I think it adds a little perspective and character to their antics and I’m still rather fond of their maiden name.
Finally, we reached the viewing platform. A small group of penguins swimming gracefully caught my eye. They were close to shore and were bound to make an exit when the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen happened. Like surfers they caught the next wave, but instead of gliding onto the beach as the marine experts they are, they were tossed and tumbled about reminiscent of toys in a washing machine, spat out onto the beach like amateurs in a total wipe out.
They bounced up like a teenager who’s taken a tumble in front of her class, humiliated but playing it cool. Shaking the water off and getting their balance back they clustered together as if to compare notes on who recovered the best. As I was about to turn away, I noticed two penguins looking into each other’s eyes and suddenly they appeared to kiss. The remaining peers all looked off into different directions, awkwardly waiting for this romantic moment to pass. If you’ve seen the various Madagascar films or the spin-off Penguins of Madagascar, all I can say is that these guys were the inspiration for Kowalski and Co.
Normally, romantic encounters in the Animal Kingdom are not as elegant as this couple were and I think I’ll say no more on this, except that I’ll leave the details for a dedicated nature programme on television.
Now for Wordy Cara’s words of advice on wild animal encounters:
1) If you find yourself driving a car in a nature reserve/national park, do NOT drive up the animal’s backside. I’m sure you don’t like a shopping trolley up yours, so give it a bit more thought, especially when following an elephant who’s having a rough time with his sky-high testosterone levels and looks like he’s crying. It’s called ‘musth’ and although it only happens to boy elephants I can only equate it to a woman at the wrong time of her cycle who’s just discovered lipstick on her man’s collar.
2) Related to point 1, you suspend the right to complain if you annoy the animal to the extent that you end up with a wrecked car, on all the social media you can imagine and with a nomination for the Darwin Award.
3) Related to point 1 and 2, you should be banned from ever entering a nature reserve/national park/zoo/circus if your actions resulted in the untimely death of the animal you provoked.
4) Persons who should be exempt from any of these points are those who have been unfortunate enough to have been guided by an ‘expert’ who has no clue what he/she is doing and who should, him/herself, be banned from owning, running or visiting a nature reserve/zoo/circus (in fact, could we just leave animals out of a circus unless they decide to submit their own application to join one due to their unbelievable sense of self-confidence and talent?). Rather go into the field of fleecing tourists by letting them have their photos taken with life-size photos of wild animals at an obscene price. It’s less messy that way and saves a few lives.
5) Do NOT ride a bicycle through a nature reserve on your own and especially not when the pedals squeak. This sounds like an obvious point that needs no mention, but I have almost WITNESSED what could have been a live kill. Briefly, we were seated in a game-drive vehicle at the crack of dawn, admiring three male lions in their prime. Suddenly, we heard a ‘skweeek, skweeek, skweeek’ approaching us and one of the male lions jumped up into his starting blocks, staring intently through the bush at the approaching sound. The tracking game ranger at the front of the vehicle lifted his hand slowly in a warning and it was only then that we noticed the reserve employee on his bicycle just over 50 metres away. Looking at it from the lions’ perspective, I visualised a prime piece of fresh steak seated on a serving tray with two wheels. Luckily the employee could back-pedal quicker than the lion could dismiss the fact that he had actually just eaten breakfast, even though he still felt slightly peckish. So, stick to the authorised and organised bicycle tours… if you must.
6) Capturing that incredible moment on film when a lion/leopard looks through your car window is awesome! Well, the fact that he’s looking through the window is a slight indication that he’s a bit too close and if your window’s open and your arm is extended beyond the outline of the car, the reality is that you might never get to see that photo or your camera or your arm ever again. The fact you’re a coward and you let your kids do it on your behalf is even worse. Sunroofs also count as windows. Keep your body parts tucked safely inside before they’re plucked off you.
7) Do you like it when you hear a pimped-up ride pull up next to you as you sashay down the pavement with the occupants catcalling, whistling and yelling all kinds of proposed shenanigans at you? I didn’t think so. Don’t tease wild animals if you don’t feel confident you’d be the last gladiator standing.
8) I love that moment when a stranger comes up to my kids, dangles sweeties in front of their face and then shoves them into my kids’ hands without asking me. Actually, I don’t for many reasons. DON’T FEED THE ANIMALS! I can’t make it any clearer and neither can the signboards, unless you think it’d be cool to take a baboon for a drive down a coastal road with the top down. Have you seen the size of a baboon’s teeth? Would you let someone with an uncovered, unwashed and chafed-looking backside sit in your ultimate set of wheels? Would you like the product of the food you’ve just given the animal and an upset stomach to be all over that pretty leather interior? NO, NO, NO! If it’s alive and not in special care, that means it’s getting food from its natural source. Leave well alone or start allowing creepy people to give your kids sweets.
I could go on with this list of do’s and don’ts, but I don’t want you to end up feeling like you might have to consider scratching a safari off your bucket list. Truly, seeing a wild animal at a safe distance is one of the most magical moments you could ever experience. The absolute peace and oneness with nature you feel as you hear a giraffe chewing the juicy leaves at the top of a thorny acacia tree in the morning sun or the far-off hysterical whooping laughter of a hyena at nightfall is incomparable.
Remember to do everything the game ranger tells you, but just take the story of ‘why the warthog’s tail stands up’ with a pinch of salt.