Petronella Wyatt

A walk on the wild side

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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As I wrote last week, there I was in the middle of the South African bush wrapped in a blanket to stave off the cold. Karl, the strapping ranger, had staved off the animals, but there seemed no remission from the biting air. On our way back to the lodge, we saw some rhino immersed in a pool - perhaps in the hope that the water was warmer. Their deep-pink underbellies were about the shade of my freezing hands.

The following morning, however, the weather let up. I woke to skies the colour of Anatolian waters. The sun was beating down on the copper earth. At last, I said to myself, time for a bit of relaxation by the swimming-pool. So I grabbed my bikini and made my way up to where the pool was located. It was one of those constructions where the water slops over the edge in a pleasantly soporific manner.

I lay on a sunbed, lathered myself in cream and dozed off. It must have been half an hour later when I woke up and saw something sitting beside me. It was big and brown, but it wasn't one of the rangers. No, it was a huge and rather sulky-looking baboon.

I thought if I lay very still the baboon might go away. It didn't. Then, to my mounting horror, I realised it was making its way towards my raffia bag, containing all my valuables. It picked the bag up and began examining the contents. One hairy hand extracted a hair-clip. This was turned over, examined and then discarded in disgust. Next, it reached inside and brought out a bottle of suntan cream. This, too, was chucked unceremoniously into the bushes. It would only be a matter of seconds, however, before it found my passport and all my Rand. I started praying. God was good. The baboon evidently possessed a short concentration span, for it dropped the bag suddenly and bounded to the other side of the pool. I bounded for my bag and left. We were due any minute to leave for Safari Lodge which is located right in the bush.

It was an extraordinary sight. Each guest cottage was a self-contained thatched hut reached by a wooden swing-bridge. We had been told that at Safari Lodge the animals actually came to you. I thought this was all puff. But, as I lay on my sundeck reading, I lifted my head and saw three elephants walking by with great majesty. They must have been about ten feet away. Next came scores of impala, leaping through the air like ballet dancers.

After a while, I received a telephone call from one of the lodge staff. I was told not to leave my room as there were lions in the camp. This was all very well, but how was I to know whether the lions might not get into my room and eat me anyway. Maybe they had had an unsuccessful day's hunting and would leap over the sun deck to consume my puny amount of kilograms.

It was dark by now and I could hear their roars. I was beginning to feel very hungry but so, presumably, were they. Fortunately, about ten minutes later, a further call informed me that it was safe to go out. I started off across the swing-bridge. I suddenly realised it was a mistake to be wearing heels. They became caught in the wood and the bridge swung violently.

Worse still, sitting in the middle of the bridge was another blasted baboon. It appeared to have no intention of giving way. By this time, I had become a bit blasZ about baboons, so I stood my ground and said 'Shoo.' This had no effect whatsoever. I moved a step towards it. It stayed where it was. I stood and gave it a withering look. To my astonishment, it hopped off.

The main building consisted of an inside bar and dining area and an outside dining area surrounded by pink mud walls, where traditional barbecues took place. The ground was sandy, and a huge burning pot was half sunk into the ground. We English had insisted on eating outside, even though the nights were still chilly.

The lodge staff thought us mad, so, probably, did the American paying guests who had to eat with us. Karl came to join us for a drink and I told him about my elephants, the baboon and the lion. 'You get used to them after a while,' I said. 'You sort of lose your fear.'

Karl looked at me crossly. 'If you start thinking like that,' he told me, rather icily, 'they'll eat you. It has happened before to people like you.' What did he mean by people like me? I suddenly remembered the disclaimer we had to sign on checking in, absolving the lodge from all responsibility if anything happened to us.

Our conversation was halted by the arrival of some local women who proposed to dance for us. Most of them were neither young nor thin. But as they danced they acquired a natural beauty, making those stick-thin, heavily made-up girls you see at nightclubs appear ugly and graceless. Traditional love songs followed. The moon was high in the sky and the stars seemed near enough to touch. In the distance, the noise of the animals provided a haunting accompaniment to the women.

It was a moment of beauty, when man, beast and nature met in perfect harmony. We were all a little drunk - not only on the wine - when the security guards escorted us back over our swing-bridge. Mine teetered violently (the bridge, that is) and I giggled. I only hope the guard didn't think I was a ladette.

Petronella Wyatt flew with Virgin airways.