- by Tony Proud
Safaris for me are the most exciting and exhilarating holidays, they bring unique experiences which remain with you forever.
Here is a cameo of treasures I have experienced while on safari in the wilds of Africa and India, intended for those who love the wild as I do.
My first real heart-stopping moment, this is amusing now, yet very real at the time.
“It is very early morning, I am wide awake but Sheila is sleeping in our room overlooking the Ewaso Nyiro River in Kenya’s Samburu Reserve, lifeblood for the many animals resident in this arid desert terrain. The night is dark and eerily silent at first until I’m able to tune in to the sounds of the bush so I lay awake for hours just listening intently, it is amazing.
This is our first night in Samburu and our first true safari experience so everything is new to me, and I don’t intend to miss a thing. I can hear the rippling of the slow moving Ewaso Nyiro River meandering past the lodge and the occasional call from creatures I cannot yet identify. There are bird calls, shrills, growls and grunting, all of which are alien to me.
Then I hear a deep roar from across the river which I think may be a lion, the roar is gradually getting louder and I can sense he is very close now. I think he has crossed the river as I can hear the splash of his massive paws paddling in the margins just below where I lay, he stops occasionally to drink, lapping noisily at the water.
Could this really be a lion outside, if so he is really close to me now, and in the darkness of my room my senses grip me in a wave of excitement and fear.
He suddenly gives out an incredibly loud roar, it is unmistakably a lion such a distinctive call cannot be disguised. I want to see what is happening outside but afraid he may see me or get my scent, knowing how dangerous these creatures can be I become aware that I am truly in the wild and that anything may happen.
We are on the first floor of Samburu Lodge with a fabulous riverside view, it is one of several rooms in a block. Our room has small slatted windows which we have left open to allow the air in, my first thoughts are to close the slats so that the lion can’t smell me, then peek behind the curtains to see if I could see him!
So I slipped quietly out of bed and did just that, but before I could see what was happening Sheila awoke disturbed by my actions. I whispered to her what was going on outside, well she laughed out loud saying Tony get back into bed “do you think a lion would get through the slats or climb the stairs to come to your door, go back to sleep will you” Well that put me in my place didn’t it!
I was talk of the camp next day, they said my vivid imagination had got the better of me and a good laugh was had by all…..except me, for me it was real and I was truly fearful of my first lion encounter in the wild! Strangely no-one else in camp heard a thing, I seriously think they did not believe me, as they were tucked up in their duvets absolutely oblivious to it all.
Despite a mocking from these disbelieving deep sleeping sceptics it is all true, the camp guards tell me next morning that a large male lion had indeed drank from the Ewaso Nyiro River... right outside of our room.
We have some fabulous drives on a private concession in this, the richest game area in South Africa bordering the famous Kruger National Park. We enjoy some real close up encounters with rhino and leopard and we track wild dogs through the bush, however my most vivid memory on this safari is amongst a herd of elephants.
Kings Camp is really focused on wildlife and we have a brilliant tracker from the local Tswana tribe named Guyanni riding “shotgun” (a seat on the bonnet of our open top landrover) which was driven by our guide Chris.
These guys are really knowledgeable and share their enthusiasm and experience with guests, however one day whilst out on a game drive they fail to read a potentially dangerous situation and we find ourselves in a frightening encounter with elephants.
"We are quite close to camp when Chris drives off track and into the bush very close to two massive bull elephants which Guyanni has spotted.
They look up at our approach and back off trumpeting before settling down to feed. We are now within five metres of them but thankfully they continue feeding and do not appear concerned at our presence, so we stay around to watch them for a while.
As we proceed on our drive we find a breeding herd of elephants crossing the track at speed in front of us and we are surrounded before we know it, there must be fifty or more of these huge pachyderms, there are many youngsters amongst them.
They appear far from relaxed but Chris indicates he knows this herd having come across them before on occasions, so there is no need to worry, thinking they will soon settle down.
Moving slowly through the herd Chris has a change of heart saying they are unusually nervy today possibly disturbed by the engine noise, so he switches off and we sit quietly hoping they will pass without incident. Suddenly a young bull trumpets terrifyingly, he is heading towards us with head raised and ears flapping.
Without warning the matriarch thunders back through the rest of the herd, we can see her crashing down the vegetation as she approaches and she too is heading right for us, thinking perhaps we may have harmed the youngster?
She is immense, her massive bulk appears angrily in front of us, it is happening so quickly we are entirely at her mercy, oh god this is really frightening. Her huge ears flapping and trunk flailing wildly she then lets out the most incredible roar before charging directly at our vehicle, stopping just two metres from us. As she does so her huge feet kick up clouds of choking dusty earth.
We are absolutely helpless, and the rest of the herd have now closed in around us trumpeting loudly it is really intimidating, these are wild elephants and we are in real danger here!
The matriarch continues to gesture violently, raising her head from side to side, her tusks scything above our heads and her massive ears flapping so close that we can feel the air move around us. She trumpets repeatedly then backs away before charging again thankfully without incident, Chris says these are mock charges, we have been warned off without question and mercifully we have survived!
Without doubt we have been at their mercy penned in and unable to escape, until eventually the herd disperses into the bush, clearly every one of them were angry and today we were not welcome in their domain.
I will never forget the fierceness of this moment in the presence of these huge creatures, their deafening roars and deep bellowing so chilling it literally run through my veins in a river of fear, an extremely close encounter indeed"
Afterwards Chris said he’d never seen this herd react so violently before and suggested perhaps a lion had attacked them or poachers were to blame, as for me well I was well and truly spooked and I did not want to see another elephant in my life. So I ask him "how we got ourselves into such a dangerous situation" He replied that the herd were upon us so quickly he was unable to judge their behaviour or he’d have avoided contact with them, on this occasion there was no alternative but to sit it out. A truly wild encounter, one I would not wish to repeat!
Our first visit to the fantastic wilderness of South Luangwa National Park, and my special moment here involves lions, coincidentally it is very close to where Lion Camp is situated, a remote and isolated area of the park.
"We have set out on an all day game drive today covering a huge area checking out the wildlife and the interesting oxbow lagoons created by the powerful meanderings of the Luangwa River when in flood. The river is very low today, it is dry season and the hippos are gathered in large groups making the most of what deep water remains, huge bulls are squabbling endlessly for territory, disturbing the slow moving waters.
We stop above a steep sandy bank for lunch overlooking the river and watch a true wildlife spectacular just below us. There are six of us aboard the landrover today, James our local guide, Dave and Martha a couple from California, my partner Sheila, her daughter Sharon and me. In addition to hippos bathing in the waters below us, elephant and giraffe pass by unperturbed, we can also see kingfishers, fish eagles and herons actively hunting, it is an amazing place to have lunch.
With lunch over we proceed on our game drive, passing more elephants, giraffe, impala, zebra, baboons and vervet monkeys, the area is teeming with wildlife but it is the skull of a dead hippo on the water's edge which suddenly attracts the attention of our Californian friend Martha, so much so that she asks James if she can take the tusks home!
James is reluctant to allow her to remove the tusks as it is illegal, but she is quite persistent and asks Dave if he’ll go and get them for her. Then James points out that a large crocodile is resting very close to the skull so interest in the tusks is lost and James moves swiftly on.
Fifty yards from there and just off the track we find several lions sleeping in the shade of a mahogany tree, another good reason to leave things alone. We pull over to watch them for a while, there are five adult lioness’ in all, James said they’re very relaxed and decides to get the vehicle even closer. We are now within a few metres of them and understandably they have become somewhat agitated, probably concerned at our proximity to them.
They settle down after a while but one lioness keeps getting up and moving around then she comes right up to the landrover before laying in the sand within one metre of me. She is so close I feel extremely vulnerable, nervously asking James to move but he smiles and says you are fine, remain quiet and still she will not harm you.
I ask him to move once more but still he smiles almost laughing at me, my bare legs (I’m in shorts) are just a whisker away from the face of this lioness, I can even feel her breath on my leg. I am not at all comfortable and too scared even to move my hands towards my camera, frozen in fear but I dare not show it. You could say my bottle has gone, but how would you feel in this predicament?
Firstly this is an open top landrover with three tiers of seats, I’m in the seat next to the driver, there are two seats behind which are slightly elevated and two seats right at the back more elevated still. There is no protection offered whatsoever.
To put this into perspective James is driving with me in the passenger seat, I am right next to the lioness, so put yourself in my place and see how you feel.
Not only is this an open top vehicle but there are no doors on it either, yes it’s completely open sided and my legs are right next to the lioness.
James is on the other side of the vehicle... no wonder he is smiling eh!
Anyway we eventually move away but not until James has seen me wince in fear for a while, however it all turns out fine and we return safely to camp after a thrilling game drive. Again, the others take much pleasure in my predicament and laugh all the way to camp.
I guess the laughter relieves the tension somewhat and I am able to see the funny side of things, but I will never forget this game drive and our visit to Lion Camp, I’m damn sure James will remember this moment too. If this had not been enough torment, we are out with James again the very next day.
"This time James has got our landrover stuck deep in the sand of a dry riverbed and coyly asks if we can all get out and push! You are joking I reply, we have elephant, giraffe and other creatures all around us, what are you saying James!
Well if looks could kill he’d be dead now, memories of yesterday are still fresh in my mind.
Reluctantly we decide to help him or we would simply sit here all day in the scorching sun, that is until we see a lioness with two very young cubs on the far bank just thirty metres away from us. Then I have a sudden change of heart!
She is watching us intently her tail flicking nervously her cubs by her side, but despite James’desperate efforts to free the vehicle we remain stuck firm.
Unable to move we have no choice but to face the music and disembark.
At this moment we are more than relieved to see the lioness get up and move off into the bush with her cubs, so we give a quick push and we are free.
Yet another wild encounter to make the heart beat fast"
Wildlife viewing is truly exhilarating, I think it’s what makes safari holidays so special. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and there is often an element of real excitement involved, these moments are often rewarded with an unrivalled adrenalin rush.
The safari guides know the bush, they are accustomed to this environment and know how animals react, avoiding confrontation at all costs.
It is a fact that animals generally fear humans and will run away unless they feel threatened or are provoked.
Zambia’s South Luangwa is a wild and desolate place and a most exciting destination for safari, we enjoyed it immensely despite our heart-stopping experiences.
This is a wonderful camp set in a truly wild location in Selous, one of the largest wildlife reserves in Tanzania - it overlooks Lake Nzerekera and is close to the confluence of the mighty Rufiji River, famous for its massive crocodiles.
We enjoy some fabulous sightings on our game drives here, we even go fishing from a sand bank in the Rufiji River with hippos and crocs close by. As we fish we have elephants crossing the river just fifty metres away from us.
In the late afternoon we would sit on our tented veranda with a glass of wine and watch giraffe come down to drink at the water's edge, silhouetted by wonderful sunsets and amazing skies, it is just fantastic. The setting sun on the lake, an amazing rich orange, a truly magical scene.
At the end of one day in particular I remember vividly we finish our dinner and we are escorted to our tent settling down for a good night's sleep, but the peace does not last too long.
"It is dark, incredibly dark and eerily silent when we hear a jackal barking some distance away, a repeated and earnest bark usually an indication that predators are around.
A few moments later we hear the deep and distant roar of a lion possibly the reason for the jackals concern, the roar is gradually getting closer to us then we hear another distant roar so two lions are now calling from opposite directions.
From the darkness of our tent we can only imagine the scene outside, but it is clear that the lions are closing in on each other as the calls are getting progressively louder, their proximity to us now clearly evident.
Then the calls suddenly change to angry chilling roars and an almighty eruption occurs, they are fighting ferociously just feet away from where we lay.
The noise is absolutely incredible, we tremble in fear as it reverberates massively through our bodies, we can seriously feel their presence, this is gut wrenchingly feral, primeval ferocity, and so incredibly close, much too close for comfort.
We hope and pray that we will be safe in the flimsy fabric that surrounds us, but this is so real and so frightening, we will never forget this night as long as we live.
Suddenly it’s all over and the battle subsides, Sheila whispers saying she can actually hear my heart beating. The threat moves away and we begin to relax slowly regaining our composure, but for several minutes we have been a living part of this incredibly wild experience"
The flimsy canvas of our tent is all that separated us from a truly frightening encounter with lions, we saw absolutely nothing but we certainly felt the heat of the battle, a truly authentic safari experience... camping in this pristine wilderness.
Next morning at breakfast it is clear that the lions had awakened the whole camp, guests in a neighbouring tent confirm that they could see the lions fighting just two metres from where we lay... phew!
On our final morning here we have a visit from a large tusker, a bull elephant we’d been warned to stay clear of, as he has a reputation for attacking guests.
He could not see us yet but Sheila was having her shower at the time and was about to come into his view, suddenly he brushes his massive bulk up against the side of our tent, ...but that’s another story!
Get yourself on safari, feel the excitement around you and inhale the unique aroma of the wilderness you are in, you will have the most incredible stories to tell when you come home.
On the same trip in Tanzania we also visited Ruaha a wildlife reserve north of Selous, much of which is not yet fully explored.
We are at Jongomero River Camp located on the banks of a dry riverbed and within easy reach of the Great Ruaha River, a truly wild and wonderful place.
Here we are fortunate enough to meet two lovely characters who have made their home here, courtesy of the National Parks Authorities.
Sue Stolberger is a talented wildlife artist and writer, whilst Robb Glenn is an equally talented sculptor of the resident wildlife.
Robb sculpted “The Mustangs of las Colinas” a wonderful centrepiece in the City of Irving, Texas, a sculpture with a scale 1.5 times life size.
He has sculpted for Her Majesty the Queen of England, also for His Royal Highness the Aga Khan, many of his wildlife sculptures are sold throughout the world.
Sue is author of a beautiful book entitled “The Ruaha Sketchbook” and her paintings of the wildlife here are simply stunning.
She also campaigns endlessly to reduce abstraction from the Great Ruaha River in order to preserve the habitat and the wildlife which depend on it.
These lovely people are 'business partners' but have separate camps miles apart and lead totally separate lives alone in the wild, as Sue said "meeting up only for the occasional glass of wine"
It was a pleasure to meet up with them on several occasions, they even invite us to their camps in the wild, whilst here we can see clearly where their inspiration for art originates.
On our way to their camps we have a chilling encounter with lions.
"It is mid morning and we are driving along a track beside the Great Ruaha River, there are many animals here including huge herds of buffalo, elephant, giraffe and zebra coming down to the river to drink.
Yesterday in this area we had seen two male lions fiercely defending a buffalo kill, and guess what, we find them again today, our guide informs us they are in the bush close to the track that we are on.
He then tells us that these lions have previously wandered into a part of the reserve where hunting is still permitted and they do not like people or vehicles anywhere near them, so they are quite aggressive, it’s no wonder I guess!
We continue slowly along the track and they appear to be moving away but as we come alongside they turn suddenly and charge at our vehicle, roaring loudly.
I manage to alert the driver whose vision is restricted as he fails to see the lions approach, but thankfully he responds immediately on my signal.
These guys are closing on us so fast their impressive manes are pushed back against their heads, they really mean business.
We are speeding away but they still continue chasing us, then thankfully they stop as we are now out of range, so we can breathe again, phew!.
On all of our safaris this is the first occasion where we have actually been attacked by animals"
When we reach Sue’s camp I tell her my story about the lions fighting outside of our tent in Selous and she kindly shares one of her stories with me.
She tells me her paintings are often done out in the bush well away from camp and an experience she had whilst out fly camping. She was alone fast asleep in her sleeping bag, covered only by a flimsy net and was awoken by the sound of lions, they had chosen to rest just where she lay in the soft sand.
It is just about low enough to crawl into she explains and as she looked up she found a lioness sniffing at the net. “She looks directly at me and for the first time in the wild I felt really vulnerable but thankfully they soon move away and I escape unharmed” but she also said she did not go fly camping again for a while!
Sue has lived amongst wild animals for over 15 years and had many memorable encounters, but said this was her most fearful moment.
Whilst at Sue’s camp I needed the loo, so she leads me to her thunderbox in the wild with a breathtaking view over the Ruaha River, and a front row seat to die for.
It is nothing more than a few sheets of corrugated steel sheet arranged around a wooden box with a seat above a long drop, a welcome facility when I needed it most.
I had several e mails from this lovely lady when I returned to the UK, and I said I was envious of her life in the wild, but in reality I’m not so sure I could adapt as well.
Robin Pope is probably the best known safari operator in the whole of Africa.
His speciality is mobile camping and walking safaris, but his superb permanent camps and unique bush lodges are unrivalled. His wildlife guides and camp staff are truly wonderful teams.
We visit Nkwali Camp in May 2007, it is located on the banks of the Luangwa River near the village of Mfuwe, here we have a fabulous time whilst out on game drives and in camp too where the wildlife often wanders through, there are no fences.
I remember an elephant coming to drink at the lagoon close to the dining area where we are having lunch, but he’s not interested in our food and does not bother us at all.
On one of our game drives we find perhaps the rarest and most endangered creature in Africa, Cape Hunting Dogs more commonly known as wild dogs.
These beautiful multi coloured canines are really effective pack hunters, they are considered the most successful predator in the Luangwa Valley.
Lions and leopard are numerous here too, their main prey being puku and impala, whilst hippos and huge crocodiles lurk in the murky waters of the Luangwa River.
At night hippos come onto the land, we can hear them munching on the lush grass outside of our cottage before returning to the river with an almighty splash as dawn breaks.
The camp has licence to cross the river by pontoon, a hand powered rope and pulley system stretched across the width of this huge river, man enough to carry a landrover and passengers on a direct route into the park.
Floating across the river with hippos and croc’s watching us is something we remember, a unique experience especially at night.
"Sheila and I are asleep in our lovely cottage when I am suddenly disturbed by what sounds like the breaking of branches immediately outside. It is a quiet, rather still night, a full silvery moon is lighting up the sky and casting soft shadows over our cottage. I awake to see the shadow of branches from the tree next to our cottage swinging wildly above us, thinking this is odd as there as is no wind tonight!
To help paint the picture, our cottage at Nkwali Camp has wattle and daub walls with a thatched apex roof, open at either end so I can hear what is going on outside even if I can’t see much. When it is dark I cannot be sure what is happening so there is a huge reliance on my senses.
The trees continue swaying above me then I see the shadow of a branch being pulled firmly downward and hear an almighty crack as it is severed from the main trunk of the tree. What can this be?
At this point I leap out of bed and go into the bathroom at the rear of where we are sleeping and clamber up onto a ledge supporting the sink and dressing room mirror. I take a peep over the top of the bathroom wall keeping a low profile in case of danger, but trying to see what is going on.
At first my view is restricted by foliage, then I hear a quiet but distinct rumble of contentment and I can see elephants feeding on the trees at the back of our cottage, so I get back into bed and wake Sheila up to tell her what is happening.
We both lay for a while listening to the elephants but see only the shadow of their trunks reaching up for fresh growth, so we watch this enchanting wildlife cameo as they continue to feed for a while afterwards, a magical safari moment we still talk about today." Whilst at Nkwali Camp we go down to breakfast one morning around 5:45am, the coffee is on and we can see fresh porridge cooking in a traditional pot over the camp fire, it is not yet dawn and a bit chilly so the warm fire is very popular.
Guests are huddled together chatting to each other before setting out on game drives, and one very softly spoken man asks if I’d like a coffee and if I’m enjoying my safari? Of course I replied it is absolutely wonderful, and yes I’d love a coffee.
Who is this guy I wonder until I discover it is Robin Pope himself, up at the crack of dawn to see that his guests are being looked after.
This gentle man has that very special touch and his wonderful staff contribute hugely to this very successful safari operation.
Robin was born in Zambia and is entirely at home in the bush, his lovely British wife Jo is a completely different character but they are a truly magnificent partnership.
Today, this camp and others in the RPS group are sadly out of our price range, but we enjoyed ten days of absolute luxury on a special deal we find at the Daily Telegraph Destinations Travel Show on a snowy February morning in London.
Just three months later we are here in the wilds of Zambia.
Another fabulous camp, this is part of the Kwando Concession in the north of the Okavango Delta. We have some great game drives here with many sightings of lion, the occasional leopard, elephant, buffalo and we see huge herds of beautiful red lechwe, bounding through the swampy delta with amazing agility.
Though still in the dry season it is early November, the rains are due at any time.
Soon this whole area will be flooded by rainwater flowing down from the Angolan highlands, feeding the largest inland delta on the planet.
One day we took a trip through massive floating papyrus reeds to a large lagoon where birds such as cormorant, darter, stork and heron nest, on an island only accessible by boat.
It is here on our return from the lagoon that we encounter a large bull hippo...are you ready for this!
"It is late afternoon and we have had a great time with the birds, but now it’s time to leave the lagoon as the sun is setting and quite soon it will be dark.
But first we have a fairly long journey by boat ahead of us through floating papyrus channels before we can disembark and take the rest of our trip to camp by landrover. I remember from our outward journey that the floating reeds often close in around us as we travel through the meandering channels, finding our way back is not an easy task, but thankfully we have two experienced guides with whom we entrust our lives.
There are two power boats from our camp at the lagoon and we are the first to leave the scene, our boat is relatively small in comparison with just eight aboard whilst the larger vessel carries twice that number.
On our way back we come across several elephants in the narrow channel ahead, but they move out of the way so that we can make some progress.
As we move on we occasionally run aground as some of the channels are quite shallow, but the guides simply lift the outboard motor and reverse up into deeper water, suddenly we find a lone hippo blocking our way ahead, a large male.
He is not prepared to move, and he opens his huge mouth exposing an impressive set of tusks and starts coming towards us, our guides tell us that this is a threat posture so we must take care.
The hippo settles down after a few minutes and we try to get past him but he still refuses to make way and repeats his threats. His mouth is again open wide, only this time he surges forward really aggressively creating a wave in the water rocking our vessel violently.
Our guides decide that we should not antagonise this hippo any further so they radio the larger boat which is still some way behind us, hoping they can help.
In the meantime we are stranded in this narrow channel with an angry hippo ahead of us and darkness is approaching fast, we have no choice but to sit it out.
The hippo somehow realises that he has the upper hand and continues to charge towards us, before diving under the water so that we can’t see him.
We can see the water swirl as he approaches, so our guide tries to back up only to find we are stuck on a shallow shelf, so we have to move forward in order to free the propeller. The hippo sees this as a threat and charges even more aggressively, we are all rather concerned at this point, hoping that the other vessel will turn up quickly.
He has dived under the water again and I am sitting on the side where he has submerged waiting for the inevitable attack on our boat, surely he is going to lift our vessel out of the water or surface right in our faces, it is a terrifying scene.
Very quickly and before he can re-surface I decide to get myself out of his way and jump across to the other side of the boat, but my partner Sheila is there so I end up sitting on her lap! Thankfully he does not attack the boat and surfaces some ten metres away but he is still a massive threat.
There are two clients on our boat known in camp to be heavy drinkers and they have clearly indulged themselves on alcohol even before we set out today, we’d also had sundowners before leaving the lagoon so they are quite intoxicated.
Annoyingly in this condition the couple concerned have no appreciation of the danger we are in, clearly drunk, laughing out loudly and thinking its fun even asking the guides for more beer!
Their actions annoy our guides immensely as they are concerned for our safety and nothing else, such a diversion is irresponsible and is not at all appreciated by others on board.
Before there is any conflict between these passengers and our guides we are pleased to get a radio message saying the other boat is imminent, so we prepare ourselves for what lies ahead, all the while watching out for further attacks by the hippo.
There is relief on our faces as the other boat arrives alongside but we still have to pass this hippo, the strategy is that the large boat will create enough wash by driving at speed towards him, hoping he will move out of the way.
So both boatmen rev up their engines loudly and we are ready to face the hippo, the large boat going first then we are to follow in his wake so here we go... hold on tight!
The large boat has picked up speed and thrusts forward creating a huge wave heading into the path of the hippo, thankfully the beast moves out of the way and their boat is now clear. We are right behind them but as we look back the bloody hippo is chasing us.
Then to everyone's relief he stops and settles back into the channel, once more opening his mouth in defiance as if he has defeated us, a final threat. What a battle, thank God we are free."
On reflection Sheila admits that this incident is the most nerve racking of all our safari experiences and I am inclined to agree with her!
Speaking to our guides afterwards they consider this one of their most frightening experiences, and they are in the wild almost every day of their lives.
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