When we first arrived at safari, I would say Humpty and I were about 95% excited and 5% scared about going out in an open air jeep in the wilds near Kruger Park in northeast South Africa. The scared part was the unknown. I can’t really say that the ratio changed much overall, but at times, when we were staring at some of these wild beasts face to face, I will admit to perhaps a little more than 5% scared. Which led to the inevitable question to our guides and fellow travelers, which animal are you most afraid of?
In my opinion, everyone that goes on a safari, especially their first time, has two thoughts: first, how safe is it really, and second, will I get a chance to see ____? And I would also venture to guess that most people, especially guys, would fill that blank with four letters: l-i-o-n. In fact, it is also likely that the two thoughts are interrelated. They certainly were for me.
But when we were out and about, seeing the lion lounging around, yawning, stretching, and then lounging some more, I was more overcome with its majesty and lethargy. Being a Leo, I could relate to that lion and would probably, if I had a choice, be a lion in a future incarnation. We asked our guide if he was scared of lions and he told us a wild story. He was out scouting for lions one day on foot, with the jeep following close behind. Then, inexplicably, the jeep veered off and he was alone. He thought it odd but continued. Suddenly, walking over a modest hill, he found himself staring at a group of 18 lions. At first, he did what one is supposed to do, stand still and not make any movements. But then, one of the lion cubs, in a fit of confidence and anticipation of perhaps getting its first kill, took off after our guide, soon thereafter followed by the remaining 17 lions.
Now, the rule is that if a lion charges, one should stand their ground and the lion will eventually stop its charge and walk away, or so we were told countless times by our guide. So we asked him if he stood his ground. He said he thought about it but given the irrational behavior of the little lion cub already, he did not want to risk it so he turn and ran for his life to the nearest tree he could find. Swaying back and forth on a puny branch, he suspected the small tree will not be protecting him from 18 hungry lion circling below–he was worried. Finally, the jeep that was following him came around, scared off the lion, and stopped below so that he could jump down from the tree into the jeep. And yet, despite that, he maintained that he is not scared of lions.
We then saw some cheetah and leopards. The cheetah, despite it’s phenomenal speed, is actually a bit of a scardy cat (pun intended). The cheetah we saw had just killed an impala but after every bite, it would turn its head back, and scan around for a more powerful predator that could come and take its lunch away. For me to be scared of a scardy cat just did not seem right. The leopard was one of the upside surprises. Much more lethal than my impression of it, we heard a story of a guide that decided to go look for a leopard and got killed by it in the process. For these tourists with front row seats of the whole action, I suspect the leopard is probably the animal they are most afraid of.
Perhaps size matters. When we saw a single male elephant roaming the wild, we were certainly impressed with its size and power. What we knew but perhaps did not appreciate was its speed. Apparently, male elephants (and other males such as rhinos), when they are past their prime, are kicked out of the group and forced to roam around alone or with some other bachelors until they die. No love for the elder males. As a result, the elder males have a tendency to be a bit grumpy. That was certainly the case for our grumpy male. We were trying to get a good angle to take photos and we noticed him flapping his ears (bad sign). Before we knew it, he was charging at us with surprising speed. Fortunately, he was not that annoyed so when our land cruiser sped off, he gave up the pursuit. The other big guys, like the rhino and hippo, seemed much more interested in rolling around in the mud than anything else. Again, if one were to attack us, I might move them up the list of animals I am scared of, but still not to the top.
Maybe it would be fear of numbers. The hyenas are notorious for being vicious. But the hyenas we saw had two little baby hyena cubs. Now, no matter what the animal, I think little ones of nearly all species are cute enough to permanently move them off the fear list. Not all, but nearly all. The hyena and the wild dogs we saw later fit this category. Same with baboons. While we did not see too many on safari, we did see them a lot in South Africa and with little ones. I know the baboon can be quite the pest, but those little baboons were pretty cute.
Nope, there was only one guy that we saw that our guide, driver, and myself could all easily agree as the one animal we were all scared of. Snakes, and in particular, the black mamba we saw. We were driving around as usual on our next to last day when suddenly, out of the brush about 1.5 meters away from us, a massive black mamba stood up over a meter tall. It’s mouth, when open, is all black and we all saw that black mouth staring at us. Insinct kicked in and I literally leaped to the other side of the jeep. Humpty missed it and was bewildered by my jumping and screaming, accompanied by the jumping and screaming of our guide and driver. We then all turned around and saw the black mambo slither away. Unlike a cobra, for example, which tends to strike once and then retreat, the black mamba is known as a more aggressive snake, likely to attack multiple times. Also, it carries significantly more venom. A typical cobra has 75ml of venom but a black mamba has 425ml, enough to take down an elephant. In fact, our guide told us about how he saw a black mamba attack a giraffe and within half an hour, the giraffe stumbled, fell, and died. Even thinking back upon that encounter, my heart rate has picked up and I can still see that black mouth staring at me. No question, black mamba wins the crown.