Madikwe: where the ‘Ugly Five’ were born

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - CONSUMER ADVICE -

There can’t be a writer who hasn’t been asked “Where do you get your ideas?” and ex­pe­ri­enced an in­ward groan. My usual (and truth­ful) re­ply is “in the bath”, but at last I am able to cite in this ar­ti­cle an ac­tual place on the map: the Madikwe Game Re­serve, in South Africa.

One of the perks of go­ing on an over­seas book tour is be­ing able to tack a hol­i­day on to the end of it. That’s what I did last year when I was per­form­ing sto­ries and sign­ing books in Cape Town and Jo­han­nes­burg, with my gui­tar-play­ing thes­pian hus­band, Mal­colm, in tow.

As soon as our events had fin­ished, we headed north, to­wards the Botswanan bor­der, for five days of sa­fari. I’m nor­mally the sort of per­son who likes climb­ing stiles and fol­low­ing foot­paths, so I wasn’t sure how much I would en­joy sit­ting in a Jeep for two three-hour ex­pe­di­tions each day.

I was also du­bi­ous about that 5.30am wake-up call each morn­ing. But when it came to it, I found the whole ex­pe­ri­ence a won­der­ful mix­ture of ex­cite­ment and tran­quil­lity. I loved the en­forced leisure and the un­pre­dictabil­ity of each jour­ney, and found

Ju­lia Don­ald­son, right, and her char­ac­ters, top, from left: warthog, wilde­beest, lap­pet-faced vul­ture, spot­ted hyena and marabou stork, top that three hours was a perfect length of time: if you spot­ted a wal­low­ing hippo, or a pack of wild dogs, or a male rhino ha­rass­ing a fe­male one with her baby, or a herd of ele­phants splash­ing and drink­ing and tus­sling by a pool, you could hang around and see how the sit­u­a­tion de­vel­oped, with­out think­ing: “Oh dear, the time’s nearly up – bet­ter move on”. The an­i­mals were mostly very non­cha­lant about the Jeeps, and some­times a lion would walk so close that I could have reached out and pat­ted its head (which prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been a good idea). The li­ons would make eye con­tact with us in­di­vid­u­ally, but as long as we stayed still and seated, they didn’t seem to feel threat­ened or want to threaten us. There were usu­ally be­tween four and six of us in the Jeep, along with Lucky, our ranger, who drove it, and Char­lie, the tracker, who perched on a lit­tle seat in front and would sud­denly point to the left or right, di­rect­ing our gaze to an­i­mals we might never have no­ticed oth­er­wise. Both were ex­tremely knowl­edge­able, not just about the four-legged an­i­mals but about the birds. And what birds! I was de­lighted by the colour­ful ones – glossy blue star­lings, carmine-breasted beeeaters, yel­low weaver birds – while Mal­colm was more ex­cited by all the dif­fer­ent hawks and ea­gles. I liked the feel­ing that the birds were truly free, un­like the un­winged crea­tures who, though al­lowed to live a nat­u­ral life, were nev­er­the­less con­fined within the game park, which was big but fenced. One of the best moments of each sa­fari was when the ve­hi­cle would stop and Char­lie would pad around the back and lift a flap to re­veal a con­cealed bar. In the morn­ings, we drank hot choco­late, laced with a liqueur called Amarula; in the evenings, we would stretch our legs as the sun went down on our G&T sun­down­ers. There was a cer­tain amount of ri­valry at meal times be­tween the pas­sen­gers of the dif­fer­ent Jeeps: “We got re­ally close to a cou­ple of chee­tahs to­day.” “Oh, re­ally? We saw some lion cubs and a rare kind of mon­goose.” Some peo­ple were very keen to tick off sight­ings of the Big Five, a term coined by hunters re­fer­ring to the most dan­ger­ous African an­i­mals to track on foot: lion, leop­ard, rhino, buf­falo and ele­phant.

We did have one quite scary ele­phant en­counter. Whereas the fe­males and ju­ve­niles go about in herds, the older males are mainly soli­tary. Usu­ally if we saw one it would be by the side of a path, munch­ing leaves and tak­ing lit­tle no­tice of us.

But as we drove along a wide path one early evening, we saw a large beast ap­proach­ing us in a de­ter­mined way. Its ears were flap­ping, which is a sign of ag­gres­sion. Lucky went into re­verse, but that re­sulted in the ele­phant quick­en­ing its pace. A change of tac­tics was called for. Lucky drove for­wards once more, and when the crea­ture con­tin­ued to ad­vance, the two men started to shout and hoot like wild an­i­mals them­selves, and to thump loudly on the out­side of the Jeep. At the last minute, the ele­phant veered off the path and into the bush.

A hun­dred yards fur­ther on, Char­lie got down and scooped some veg­e­ta­tion from the ground. “Ele­phant testos­terone,” he said, and gave it to us to smell (it was rem­i­nis­cent of a herd of goats: pun­gent and un­pleas­ant). The an­i­mal had been in a state of sex­ual arousal in which he was try­ing to es­tab­lish dom­i­nance over pos­si­ble ri­vals – and over us, too.

We did see the other mem­bers of the Big Five, but they were not the ones to sow the seeds of my story. The mo­ment of in­spi­ra­tion came the day

Ju­lia Don­ald­son, au­thor of ‘The Gruf­falo’, ex­plains how the least likely an­i­mals at a game re­serve in South Africa in­spired her lat­est book

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