Hugo Rifkind

I came so close to the ignominy of being killed by a giraffe

You will have smirked. Shame on you, but you will. Yet reluctantly, and out of respect for the recently deceased, I intend to tread lightly over the story of the Australian pet collector killed earlier this week by her own overamorous camel.

I came so close to the ignominy of being killed by a giraffe
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You will have smirked. Shame on you, but you will. Yet reluctantly, and out of respect for the recently deceased, I intend to tread lightly over the story of the Australian pet collector killed earlier this week by her own overamorous camel.

I shall note, with a restrained interest, the use of the word ‘humped’ in several tabloid headlines. I may, coyly, draw your attention to the victim’s reported ‘love of exotic animals’. There, however, I shall rest. I am no ghoul.

Instead, I am going to talk about a different sort of camel. G. camelopardis, to be precise, the South African giraffe. To be even more precise, I am going to talk about a particular South African giraffe. A giraffe that liked to spend its days, apparently, hiding behind a very big bush in the Kgalagadi National Park, just to the south of the Botswana border. For a very short time the paths of this giraffe and I quite literally crossed. But look, there was no humping. This absolutely isn’t to be that sort of column.

Some hours earlier, on a dirt road and not far from lions, I had broken down. An unpleasant burning rubbery smell which my girlfriend and I had decided, with some wonder, must be the smell of an antelope on heat, had turned out, in fact, to be the smell of burning rubber. A bolt had come lose, and a tire had rubbed itself through and exploded.

By the time we came to a grinding halt, the front right wheel of my rickety Mazda had folded itself up under the car. Night was falling. We couldn’t fix it, and we didn’t particularly want to try. Like I said, there were lions.

Help came, in twilight, in the form of a family of Afrikaaners. They couldn’t fix the wheel either. So, we bundled into the back of their pick-up truck and sped off, a bit too fast, through the dusk to the nearest camp. That was when the giraffe made its move.

It came out of nowhere. They can do that — you’d be surprised. One moment there was just a thorny bush at the side of the road. The next, there was 20 foot of giraffe scything down across the road, great knobbly hoofed legs slashing down like a combine harvester; giant moon face sweeping sideways, like that cow, in that hurricane, in that film. The truck didn’t hit it, but only because the beast reared up, to new and insane heights. It was a close thing. A foot or so difference, a slightly slower speed, and we would have been joined in that truck by a ton of thrashing, gashing, kicking, killing giraffe. It still makes me weak to think of it.

Lord, save us from ludicrous deaths. The merely unpleasant, I think I can deal with. The diseases, the accidents — so be it. Everybody has to go. Even, at a push, the lions. But death by giraffe? Please no. Believe you me, in those last few second, the mind is active. You think of your loved ones, your family and your friends. And you think of them smirking. ‘Yes,’ they will say, for years to come, with sick mirth tugging at the corner of their mouths. ‘I once had a son. Terrible business. Killed by a giraffe.’

Imagine the knuckles, bitten down upon at cocktail parties. Imagine the more distant acquaintances, hearing, and actually spitting tea in disbelief. And then, worst of all, imagine the causal epitaph attaching itself to your name. ‘Hugo Rifkind? Oh, you remember. The one who was killed by the giraffe.’ Nothing counts for anything after that. That would be me, for eternity, cast as a sort of cross between Steve Irwin and Forrest Gump. As Malcolm said of the Thane of Cawdor, ‘nothing in his life became him like the leaving it’. It is a difficult sentiment to shake.

No, no, no. It is too much. Some months after that giraffe episode, I was very nearly trampled by a flock of ostriches. That would have been pretty bad, too. Of course, the ludicrous death doesn’t have to be animal-related, but all the worst ones are. The ancient Greeks had a particularly bad time with this. I suspect that as many people could tell you that Aeschylus was squashed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle than could tell you that he wrote The Oresteia. And Chrysippus. Poor Chrysippus. Three years of a philosophy degree, and all I remember about him is that he died laughing, while watching a drunken donkey eat figs.

On the same day that the lucratively wayward Pete Doherty is arrested, yet again, newspapers carry reports that Afghanistan is now thought to be producing 95 per cent of the world’s opium poppy crop. Nowhere is a link made. Why not? Why is nobody asking where 95 per cent of the demand is?

A few years ago, the government started making noises about reminding drug users (and in particular, cocaine users) about where their product came from. Bill Rammell, then a Foreign Office minister, looked towards the South American cartels and announced that, socially, cocaine should be considered as taboo as apartheid South African wine. Fairtrade was all the rage in fashionable food, drink and clothing, he argued. Why should fashionable drugs be any different?

It was a good idea, I thought, but it seems to have faded away. Perhaps that was because, taken to its logical extreme, it raised the notion of Fairtrade drugs, and the very reasonable question of why such things don’t exist. South America seems an altogether more intractable situation, but if the opium trade in Afghanistan continues to be controlled by terrorist-friendly warlords, perhaps it is time to start asking ourselves why this situation exists. There are few coffee warlords or sugar warlords. Why are there heroin warlords?

Drugs, surely, are just another Western problem that we have exported to the Third World. We export our recycling, our call centres, our manufacturing and our low cost labour. We have also exported our drug problem. We don’t have a clue what to do with people like Doherty. In a nutshell, we’re a wealthy society with a vast appetite for a product that, due to our own domestic politics, we refuse to allow an impoverished society to legitimately produce. This is not their problem. It is our problem. Isn’t it?

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.