How to stay safe in the wild

Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth shares her experiences from a recent trip to South Africa and offers advice on how to stay safe in the wild

5 mins

A few months back my family and I went to South Africa. As with any journey, the challenge was to make a realistic assessment of the likely risks and inconveniences, and then employ some strategies to minimise them.


I was, of course, concerned about malaria. The four of us – including my seven year old – started taking our mefloquine (Lariam) two weeks before departure and felt really well on it. Having suffered indigestion, nausea and mouth ulcers when taking chloroquine and Paludrine in the past, we were pleased to discover that Lariam suited all of us well. I also bug-proofed a couple of long evening outfits – shirts and trousers, that is – for each of us, using permethrin sprays. I like this approach since it reduces the need to put chemicals on the skin, avoiding tantrums at dusk and over-exposure to repellents that are not all that pleasant to use and irritate if rubbed into the eyes.

Human dangers

Our first stop was the private resort of Crystal Springs at the end of the Drakensberg Mountains and above Pilgrim’s Rest where, a few weeks after our visit, a tourist was shot dead. We were blissfully naive about the problems of violent crime in South Africa, and the level of security precautions around the resort seemed ridiculous. The huge gap between the standard of living of the people who could afford a weekend at the resort and the people who worked in factories close by was clear, though, and it was easy to see that moneyed tourists might be obvious prey to the poor and unemployed. Within the reserve, however, these inequalities were not thrust in our faces and we were able to enjoy driving and walking amongst an astonishing array of spectacular birds, fine antelope, elegant giraffe, cute hyrax and frisky zebra. However, despite being told the resort was perfectly safe, I wondered how safe it really was to go out on foot amongst large wild animals.

Undoubtedly the most dangerous species to inhabit Africa – after the malaria mosquito – is Homo sapiens. This species is particularly hazardous when behind the wheel of a car. Added to the risk of genuine road accidents, you must also consider accidents by design. We heard of a couple who were attacked outside Nelspruit. They had pulled into a supermarket close to sundown and, while they were shopping, thieves interfered with a tyre so that they got a flat out in the middle of nowhere, and after dark. All the thieves took was a mobile phone but one of the couple was shot dead during the robbery. Travellers must be really cautious when moving around southern Africa, take plenty of advice and avoid driving or being driven after dark.

Wildlife warning

When you think about dangerous animals in the bush, you generally picture the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. Yet there are many more species that can significantly harm. I heard a surprising story about a klipspringer – a delicate one-metre-tall antelope. One klipspringer got cornered by an Italian who was encouraging his daughter to go close to the animal to pose for a photograph. A passing ranger warned them to keep clear, but the father didn’t believe that there was any danger. Suddenly the antelope bounded at the man, lashing him with its small pointed horn as it ran away, leaving a gash in his thigh that required 16 stitches. Any animal can be nasty – especially if cornered or if it’s a female protecting young – and the bigger the animal, the worse the injuries can be. Even the docile-looking giraffe can give a fatal kick and is more than capable of seeing off a lion.

Follow the leader

We took several walking safaris in the Kruger National Park, accompanied by two armed minders. One was Justin Sondergaard, senior trails guide at Berg-en-dal, who was careful to brief us about what to do if we bumped into one of the Big Five. We were to proceed quietly in single file behind the two rangers, and if they told us to stop and keep still, that was exactly what we had to do. We got close to a magnificent kudu stag, several groups of delightful impala and a rhino with a surprisingly bouncy young calf. But during our breakfast break Justin told us about a group he’d taken out a few days before.

He’d signalled for them to stop and be quiet but stage whispers from the tourists announced: ‘Rhino!’ People in the group broke from single file and noisily scrambled for choice positions for photographs. Justin’s signals became urgent; he was worried. Then the rhino bolted – away, fortunately. Justin rounded on them, saying that they were lucky not to have been charged – they had to stop and be quiet when he told them to. He didn’t want to shoot a wild animal just because of their stupidity.

They went on. The group rounded a rocky outcrop and Justin gesticulated for them to stop. ‘Elephant!’ they all repeated, excitedly and noisily. He signalled for silence but people shuffled and manoeuvred for a good view and cameras started clicking. The elephant’s ears went out. He was angry but still people crashed around and cameras continued to click. ‘Freeze!’ Justin ordered. Someone decided to climb a rock for a better view. He slipped and made a lot of noise as he fell. The elephant blew again and, ears flapping, broke into a charge. Only then did the tourists realise how much danger they were in.

The elephant came on with his ears out, threatening them and obviously very, very angry. Justin stood in front. He didn’t raise his rifle; there was no point, as a bullet wouldn’t stop a charging elephant. Like many rangers he wouldn’t even try to fire – he loves his animals too much. Now at last everyone was paying attention. Frozen to the spot, they watched as the angry bull came ever closer.

As suddenly as it had all started, the elephant stopped and turned away. He’d let them off. Slowly they realised it was all over and, mood sobered, returned to their luxury cottages within the electric fences of Berg-en-dal.

Understand the animals

One of the delights of wildlife tourism in the Kruger is that you can drive around the reserve as you please, but there are risks even when cocooned in a car. On one driving safari I was cruising through a rather scrubby patch of bush with thick undergrowth and dense tree cover. I had the car window open and was aware of movement outside – then a large cow elephant appeared close to the car on my right. She too had her ears out and was blowing and kicking up dust around her. Fortunately I recognised that she was angry, put the car into reverse and left smartly.

Perhaps people who are brought up in Africa know how to gauge the mood of an elephant, since such knowledge seemed to be assumed in visitors. On one trip out, a group of South Africans were discussing the recent death of a Mexican tourist in a zoo in Johannesburg. The tourist had been let inside the enclosure to play with some lion cubs, but they attacked and killed her. The South Africans said that it was the tourist’s fault. Visitors are warned to be quiet when with lions and the woman had screamed; this had spooked the lion cubs and that was the end of her. In their eyes the pity of it was that now the zoo had stopped allowing tourists in to become lion snacks.

Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth’s Bugs Bites & Bowels (Cadogan) covers precautions for anyone heading into the bush as well as lots of other travel health advice.

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