by Peter Allison
As a young Australian, this author worked as a safari guide in Botswana, in the Okovango Delta, for a number of years. His stories are hilarious, scary, sad, touching, and just plain fascinating. One of my great joys of reading this non-fiction work was remembering going on safari myself. But not in Africa.
My friends Gary and Julia and I were bicycling from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra a few decades ago, and stopped at Sariska Tiger Preserve. We stayed in a former palace which employed dogs to keep the monkeys from taking over everything, and peacocks were everywhere. We got up at four a.m., something I only do on holiday, jumped into a Land Rover and bundled up in blankets, were handed coffee and headed off into the park. For animal lovers, there really isn’t anything better than looking at animals.
In Africa, all the game seems to be bigger. The African elephant, for example, is a giant when compared to the Indian elephant. Africa has lions, where India has tigers (both awesome, of course!) Africa has rhinos, and hippos, and giraffes.
The Games People Play When Spotting Game
Africa also has warthogs, which Peter says are big favorites of his German guests especially. And the Germans, being the orderly and methodical people that they usually are, always have to count the warthogs. This cracked me up. Well, it is pretty fun to say “Warthog” in German–Wartzenschwein. And if I’ve got the grammar right, one warthog would be “Einen Wartzenschwein“, which rhymes. Too fun. (Another fun fact: there is also a WWII-era German plane called “the Warthog”.)
People Who Compulsively Count: In India, Gary and Julia and I ran into some “twitchers” at a bird sanctuary, who also had lists to check off all the birds they saw–kind of like train-spotting. I didn’t get the point. Photos, yes. Checklists, no. But as Peter says in this book, his birders, or bird nerds, are a rare breed. Some don’t even seem interested in seeing leopards, cheetahs, or lions. And as he sadly says, most of them seem like the sort of people who would never, or could never, attract a mate. (He identifies with this strongly, for a time.)
Don’t Mess With Texas…Unless You’re From Down Under
Peter is the only white guy on the guide team, and there are no women. One game he and his darker mates like to play is that when they get Texans in their group, they pretend that Peter is the Motswana guide BK’s son. Peter claims his mother was Swedish and it bleached him out. On one trip, he goes even farther and says the other guides are all his uncles. The group is intensely bonded. When one of them dies from AIDS, you can feel the sadness and the fear. (AIDS hit Botswana hard. I remember from a book written by a woman whose father was a flying bush doctor in Botswana at the height of the epidemic.)
And the HIV-infected guide named Rautanga Rautanga is not the only man to fall victim to a catastrophe. Another guide is mauled by a lioness he startled, not realizing she had cubs. His guests save his life when the woman screams at her husband to drive the Land Rover straight at the lion. Another guide, one Peter doesn’t like, picks up a snake to look at it and has to be airlifted to a hospital. (Peter calls this man “Genius” for obvious reasons.) Turns out the approved way to pick up a snake is by immobilizing the head so it can’t bite you, which this fellow had done. Unfortunately for him, the snake was an adder. Adders have fangs that can rotate 180 degrees out to the side and there is no safe way to pick them up. Aaaaand, I’m just thinking, if you have to be told not to pick up strange snakes, maybe you don’t belong in the bush. Genius.
The Animal That Lions Fear
One of my favorite parts of the book is when Peter talks about the animals which visit their camp to try and scrounge tasty people food. One is a genet that lives in the rafters, and one is the ferocious and legendary honey badger. This animal is one of only four that lions will go out of their way to avoid. Elephant, rhino, and hippo are the others. The honey badger is tiny by comparison, but it’s the Dwarf from Tolkien on the African Savannah. A fierce fighter, known to take offense easily, never back down, and go for the genitals with a slash of its sharp claws. The genet twitters asking for food, the honey badger growls and demands it.
I enjoyed the chapter on Botswana’s first King and President, Sir Seretse Khama. I knew from reading the Alexander McCall Smith series, The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency, that Khama was universally beloved, and this book added to my knowledge about why. He was a true leader and a real statesman. I wish we had someone like him in my country. Khama outlasted his nefarious uncle and the last of British imperialism, he genuinely tried to help people, he didn’t become a warlord, he married an Englishwoman in 1947 and had four kids and tried to stamp out racism. Botswana discovered diamonds and Khama shared the wealth.
I could go on and on, but you need to read this book, so I won’t. A must for animal lovers, Botswana aficionados and armchair travelers. All the fun of an African safari with none of the mosquitoes.
Auf Deutsch: Eins, zwei, drei, vier und funf Wartzenschweinen