My paternal grandfather spent many years living in the bush with The Pygmies and shooting everything that moved, with his trusty cine camera. I will never understand why, at that particular time in his Yorkshire born and bred life he decided to down tools and leave his worsted spinning business in the capable hands of others and go and live in the bush. A coping mechanism perhaps after the death of his young wife, but still no excuse as, to fulfill his African dream, he sent my four-year-old father to boarding school. I was sent away to board at eleven which was bad enough. My half-brother was eight when he was sent to Uppingham and had also just lost his mother. At eight it was cruel and four it was blatant child abuse. My grandfather died the year I was born and my father died when I was a child, so I never had the opportunity to quiz either of them about why he chose Africa over his son. So … if I have to admit to inheriting anything from him, it would be his passion for travel and adventure.
In 1997 I travelled around 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. He was bronzed with Adonis-like features, always happy to take people out 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. Within the first few hours I enthusiastically learnt to identify whose dung was whose.
Whilst 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 5.00a.m. was on safari and it was the only time I have 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 very 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 25 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. I did as I was told, my camera quaking in my hands, not through fear, it was the excitement of 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 as I enthusiastically identified various piles of dung and even now, I am still confident that I can recognise elephant poo anywhere. We all know an elephant never forgets and I will never forget one particular bull elephant.
We were returning to camp in two larger land rovers after the late afternoon drive. I was in my usual place in the leading jeep, next to the driver, Tom, feeling like I was a seasoned ranger. It was dusk and the dry bush heat was heavy with the sweet scent of the Gnidia flowers and the dung from many species.
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 wheel to the left of my feet started spinning wildly, 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 unannounced arrival. One of them snorted angrily then charged 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. His enormous body ground to a halt within inches of me. 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 was kneeling on the floor clasping his Nikon to his head. For me it had been a hugely exhilarating experience and returned to camp to make a ridiculously expensive telephone call to my best friend, regaling the thrill of being charged by a bus elephant and living to tell the tale.
On my final day having seen so many different species both on foot and in the jeep, I didn’t think it could get any better until 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.
Tom had plans to the visit the UK so I enthusiastically I gave him my address in Jersey and my aunt also gave him hers. I was so excited that I might have the opportunity to give him 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 and see my aunt in Yorkshire.