Walk on the wild side

‘The lion wakes me at 3 a.m. as it walks past my tent. It must be some while since an ancestor of mine has had to fear encountering the animal’

The Outsider's Diary
The Kalahari desert, Botswana (Harald Süpfle CC-BY-SA-2.5 )

The lion wakes me at 3 a.m. as it walks past my tent. It must be some while since an ancestor of mine has had to fear encountering the animal, so I am impressed at whatever hardwired impulse wakes me (amid all the other natural noise of the night) when the low grumbling occurs outside.

Three hours later the sun rises over the Okavango delta. In the distance elephants migrate between islands in the water. Before breakfast we find that the lion’s tracks lead through the camp and — crucially — out of it. Following by jeep, our Botswanan guide uses not just the dust tracks but the remarkable signals from the rest of nature. A baboon is sitting as high up as possible in one of the first trees we get to — another sign that a lion recently came this way.

It is hard to think of any country as rich in wildlife as Botswana. The country’s famous strictures on hunting mean that elephants, giraffes, water-buffalo and much more are here in unbelievable abundance. A few days after finding our first lion we come across a pack of nine busily finishing off a baby water buffalo. The two lead males have gorged first and too greatly. Both are so full that they are lying on their sides, visibly pained and heavily panting.

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The stay is one ceaseless gallery of unforgettable sounds and images. A solitary giraffe taking a drink from the water as the sun goes down before making its way gingerly — almost in slow motion — across the water. A baby monkey engaging me in a game of peek-a-boo over breakfast. The frogs at night, making a noise like a bag of xylophone keys being constantly dropped. And at the second camp a whole day spent in search of a leopard.

Aside from the beauty of the scenery, the abundance of wildlife and the friendliness of the locals, one of the outstanding features of Botswana is the realisation that people can pick up wildlife language with such precision. Shyly elusive though leopards are, the only means to get to them apart from tracks — which we follow on foot and by jeep — are the warning calls from the rest of nature. A tree squirrel issues alarm cries from near where the leopard tracks have been erased by a herd of water buffalos. Much later, as we think we may have lost the trail, we hear a terrifying quasi-human shout. It issues every few minutes: a deep belt-out from the diaphragm. It turns out to be a baboon’s warning about a leopard in the area. It helps this baboon’s distant relatives too.

Finally in the late evening we spot the animal stalking on the other side of the water. Racing along the dirt-tracks and beginning to cross the far-away wooden bridge we find another leopard waiting to cross over. We retreat to watch. Of all the views I have seen in nature, a leopard striding towards me across a bridge at sundown is perhaps the most unforgettable. As it arrives a few feet away, cautious and confident, this magnificent creature ignores the vehicle and turns to one side to stalk along the river bank. We follow at a distance for a considerable time until, in the last moments of dusk the animal picks a fight with a honey badger which (true to the latter’s reputation for dormancy and savagery) causes the leopard to retreat, growling.

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It is astonishing to think that until recent decades one purpose of tourists coming to this country was in order to kill the wildlife. In surrounding countries this remains an objective. The growing awareness that such actions not only desecrate the animal kingdom but shame ourselves must count as one of the finest examples of actual progress.

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George Pinto was a merchant banker by profession. He was also a generous, committed supporter of many good causes — including this magazine, of which he was a keen reader. Dryly humorous and precise, he had about him the air of one who could be surprised at hardly anything human beings might do. “Quite” and “I should think so” were his stock responses to news of almost any outrage or absurdity. He was delightfully undiplomatic about anything (food, people) of which he disapproved, but also warm, widely knowledge-able and kind. I last saw him as we were both waiting for a night bus on Piccadilly. George had just finished playing cards at one of his clubs. It is hard to think of any other well-off 89-year-old who would submit themselves to this wildest form of public transport. But it seemed perfectly sensible to George, and we spent the whole resulting journey laughing. The scenario seemed a perfect backdrop for George’s underlying sense of the absurdity of most things and people.

He died last month while driving his car . An 18-year old has been arrested and released pending police investigation, on suspicion of driving while under the influence of drugs, dangerous driving and driving without insurance. None of which encourages happy thoughts about this species of ours.