John Challis on the African safari that inspired his conservation efforts

We were there with a guide who knew the terrain well. He carried a gun in case we got attacked by an animal, and showed us ancient cave paintings, hidden bat caves and wonderful waterfalls. He’d pick up a broken twig and find a paw mark in the dust, which no one else could see, saying, “Something has been here”. It would be a cat tracking its prey. Then we’d come across a herd of sable antelope, which are magnificent animals.

We camped out at night in A-frame huts. One night, I woke up because the horses were acting strangely. In the morning there was a rancid smell of cat – a lion had been sniffing around.  I still remember the whiff of animals, baked earth and dung – and the shattering rainstorms. It was very pungent when it rained – the sort of elemental smell we spend most of our time trying to get rid of in Britain.

We had quite a dangerous moment on the Zambezi River when we were kayaking above the Victoria Falls. We went down the river and passed a herd of elephants having a drink. Hippos and crocodiles resting on little beaches looked at us as if to say: “Oh, tourists. Yum yum.” Then, without warning, I got sucked down into a “boil”, which is where the currents mix and swirl around. 

The kayak turned over and threw me and my guide into the river. I swallowed a mouthful of the Zambezi and came up under the kayak. Not to be defeated, under the water I went again, coming up the other side, gratefully gulping down lungfuls of air while keeping an eye out for the crocodiles. Eventually I reached the shore, but it took me half a day to recover as I didn’t feel well after accidentally drinking all that river water. But it was so exciting. I look back and think: I cannot believe we did that.

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