The reason I hate animals is because I went out with so many as a teenager. My other phobia is heights. Yes, I may be the Edmund Hillary of social climbing (as I was just saying to Prince William the other day) but the thought of being airborne makes me sweat so much you’d think I was undergoing a Gestapo interrogation.
So, when my editor said she was sending me hot-air ballooning over the Serengeti, why didn’t I ball up like a petrified porcupine? Because, on turning 60, my new motto became “carpe the hell out of diem”. Which is how I found myself pre-dawn, in the middle of the Unesco world heritage nature park, trying to summon up the courage to crawl into a picnic hamper – held up by a party balloon – which would soon be skimming the horns of herds of stampeding herbivores.
The word Serengeti comes from a Maasai word meaning “endless plains.” This 12,000-mile-wide prairie is basically just one big smorgasbord with thousands of zebras, gazelles, elephants, lions, hippos, hyenas, ostrich, buffalo, impala, giraffes, jackals and other wild and wondrous creatures hunting and munching on each other – or leaping out of the way so as not to be lunch. It gives a new definition to the term “fast food”. And the best way to experience Darwin’s survival of the fittest is from the air. Well, in theory.
My stomach churned as I watched the green-and-white-striped balloon slowly inflating. It rose up off the grass like a huge hooded cobra. The attached basket lay on its side. I was a basket case just thinking about getting into that basket. I kicked up such a panicked fuss I probably could have propelled the balloon upwards by my own hot air.
The insouciant pilot eventually just picked me up by my ankles, stuffed me in head-first and secured my seat belt. Before I could scramble back out again, there was a whoosh of hot flame up into the belly of the billowing balloon, the guide ropes were flung aside, and we were up, up and away. My scream was so loud I’m sure it woke a few scientists way down in one of those base camps in Antarctica. There are many reasons for sudden religious conversion – a particularly good one is hurtling skyward in a laundry basket fuelled by a flaming Bunsen burner. All I could do was plot a revenge assignment for my editor – say, cordless bungee jumping or maybe snorkelling with piranhas. But the view of the sun’s golden rays dripping down over the sweeping savannah like caramelised honey was so stunning, I quickly forgot to be afraid.
The elephants trundling below were so near I could feel the cooling flap of their huge ears – a kind of ear-conditioning. A herd of giraffes hidden amongst the acacia trees suddenly periscoped their necks upwards. We were so close I was worried their long eyelashes would brush the base of our wicker gondola, but the captain let loose another burst of burning liquid propane and we bobbed up out of their way. Moments later, the pilot spotted a jam-packed pool of 50 lugubrious hippos and, with astounding agility, steered the big balloon in a downward swoop so we could spy on their morning mud bath.
An enthralling hour later, our airborne picnic hamper landed gently on the grass, but sadly, we hadn’t packed a picnic. It crossed my mind that with all these prowling marauders on the loose, perhaps we tourists might be on the menu; I just hoped that any predators would reject a comedy writer, instinctively knowing that we taste funny. Just when I was contemplating which guest to sacrifice first to any foaming incisors in the near vicinity, our pilot ushered us behind a thicket – to find a champagne breakfast on starched white tablecloths.
With my fear of heights conquered, it was now time to tackle my other phobia. The aim of every safari is to see the Big Five – elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards and rhinos. Back at the luxurious Singita lodge, my affable guide guaranteed me my “five a day”. “Great! But I presume I’ll be in an armoured vehicle of some kind?” I replied, trailing him up a bush track. “Possibly a tank?”
He ushered me towards a side-less, window-less safari jeep; there wasn’t even a windscreen, you know, just to allow maximum access to predators. We’d be “meals on wheels”. I glanced at his rifle. “I hope that’s a tranquilliser dart?” I asked, jelly-legged. “Not for the animals, but for me, obviously.”
Clutching the jeep seat in a state of gritted-teeth terror, I thought about how much I prefer animals in the past tense – as in, on a plate, soaked in gravy. But as we crested the hill once more, my fear evaporated at the wonder of nature playing out on the plains below. Some 1.7 million wildebeest were making their annual 2,000-mile migration from Kenya. The long line of stampeding beasts stretched from one horizon to the other, in a permanent peak hour.
With their big, shaggy, white beards, and “windswept and interesting” look, they reminded me of a herd of Billy Connollys, galloping gaily by. The sheer mass of the migration is overwhelming. For predators, it’s just one giant conveyor belt of moreish morsels. For hours I sat, transfixed, filming the pilgrimage – not so much footage, as hoofage.
For the rest of the day, we darted on and off road, gawping at the most exotic menagerie – 300,000 gazelle and 200,000 zebras travel alongside the wildebeest, which meant we were constantly hitting the brakes to allow huge herds to cross the road. It gave a whole new meaning to the term “zebra crossing”. We were glowered at by buffalo (these big boys have serious anger management issues) and laughed at by baboons who tumbled through the pampas. We giggled at the warthogs scurrying comedically past nature’s hoover – otherwise known as an aardvark. Then at dusk, we watched grimly as a slinky jackal tracked a lost gazelle; scavenging hyenas salivating in the shadows.
Safari, so good. But what about the big cats? Being a bit of a cougar myself, you’d think I’d be right at home with the cat family, but lions, leopards and cheetahs have quite literally clawed their way to the top of the food chain.
Clearly, if courage were elastic, I couldn’t make a garter for a canary, so it was a relief that the first lions we came across were in a crèche. Fourteen cubs were lounging on tree branches, playfully nipping and teasing each other. The lioness soon appeared, showing real pride in her pride. She reminded me of a working mum on the school run: licking faces clean, nudging offspring towards dinner – a fresh impala kill was the plat du jour.
Rounding a rocky outcrop in our jeep, we then spotted the patriarch dozing under a tree, “on his honeymoon”. Stationed only a few feet away, we watched a young lioness nip his neck before “presenting” herself. Lions mate every 15 minutes during this seven-day honeymoon.
Despite the “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” approach of their encounter, it was such a privilege to watch the intimate interaction of these beautiful beasts. Once again, I was too overawed to be afraid – although, having written 18 books, I did hope Mufasa didn’t have a taste for literary lionesses…
Spying a cheetah on the prowl, I felt the same reverent wonderment. Cheetahs are the Bugatti of the animal kingdom, able to accelerate to 75 miles an hour in pursuit of prey. The only cat that still evaded me was the leopard. Now, I have so many leopard-print outfits that David Attenborough could make a documentary in my walk-in wardrobe. But leopards in the wild are elusive and reclusive. They’re basically the Greta Garbo of the animal world. On my last day, I was just starting to make catty remarks about said cat when we spied her trademark spots. When she padded straight for us, I wanted to make like an ostrich and bury my head under the seat, but the leopard’s elegance and poise were so captivating that again all fear faded. It was a truly purr-fect end to my safari.
The Serengeti is a time tunnel – it transports visitors back to the way the world was, long before humans, when animals roamed freely, and Mother Nature ruled supreme.
Best of all, besides curing my animal and airborne phobias, I got to experience all the majesty and magic of the Serengeti in absolute luxury. The Faru Faru lodge, an intimate resort of understated elegance, overlooks a watering hole which the animals use as a kind of day spa. If bouncing around in a jeep becomes tiring, guests can simply lie by the infinity pool and watch the passing parade of the entire Lion King cast.
I’d been so nervous about going on safari, but the biggest danger I faced was eating too much. The delicious cuisine meant that soon I so resembled a dirigible that I could have simply attached a basket to my undercarriage and taken guests on my very own hot air-balloon flight.
The experienced guides, the exclusive wild animal encounters, the warm and welcoming Tanzanian people means that I’m planning to migrate back to the Serengeti annually, just like those wondrous wildebeest. And even better, I now don’t have to maim my mischievous editor.
How to do it
Kathy travelled as a guest of Scott Dunn (020 3993 5593; scottdunn.com), which offers a seven-night itinerary to Tanzania from £15,500pp. This is based on two people staying one night at Katambuga on a half-board basis, four nights at Singita Faru Faru on a full-board basis and two nights at Singita Sasakwa on a full-board basis, and includes international and domestic flights, private transfers, game activities and a hot-air balloon experience.
Overseas travel is currently subject to restrictions. Check the latest guidance here.