Whatever You Do,
Don't Run

True Tales of a
Botswana Safari Guide

Peter Allison
(The Lyons Press)
Some of us figure that after you've seen one lion eviscerate a kudu, you've seen them all; thus we haven't been all that hot to go to Botswana --- or anywhere outside of Manhattan, for that matter --- to look at animals.

The clouds of mosquitoes don't interest us much, and dengue fever and malaria are not at the top of a must-do list, and now --- with Allison's book --- we've learned a few other things that we will be missing by staying home and eating Cheetos and watching a rerun of "The Sopranos."

There are, for example, certain nighttime activities out there on the veldt. Allison and two other guides and "four young royals" (young rich clients) spent one night playing strip poker. You lose, and "you take off an article of clothing or drink a shot of tequila." At our time of life, after two shots of tequila and stripping off either the Supp-Hose or the hernia belt, we'd be at the end of our tether. As might the other agéd royals.

Allison is crazy for animals, so I guess he's in the right job. His favorite is the cheetah. He tells us that they have never been known to attack, much less kill, humans. There's even a photograph of him laying down on the ground, smiling at the camera, a disgruntled cheetah skulking off not far behind him.

Despite or because of his passion for strip poker, he is obviously a man of no small passions. One day, a nearby (and familiar) herd of elephants created a "surge of fondness" in him, so he parked himself in a palm in the Okavango --- mounds near his camp --- to watch the love of his life, Salvador, a lady elephant with "buck teeth."

    Like every other guide or wildlife lover who is eventually eaten or trampled, I felt I had a bond with this herd that would make me safe with them.

Elephants evidently don't care for being spied on. Allison is discovered, the distress call is sent out, "raising their trunks, flaring their ears, and standing tall." The covering branch

    was thrust aside once more, and the world's largest forehead pushed to within a yard of my face. The circus smell of hay was overwhelming as I noted the sparse but tough bristles that sprouted from her wrinkly skin.

"I should have believed I was going to die, but I didn't. I just smiled and sat still."

    Salvador's daughter turned her head slightly and looked at me, her eye expressing a wisdom I have found in few humans. Then she withdrew her head, the branch fell back, and I heard Salvador say, "Let's go." I didn't see them again for another six months.

§     §     §

Even those of us who don't care for hyenas and ground hornbills, Whatever You Do is a fascinating ramble, loaded with facts. A reserve is not a zoo, so "we did not feed them, stroke them, or stand next to them for photographs." (Exception to this last noted above.) "All we did is watch them live and die." And do other things. Like try to steal meals off the tables and out of the trash-cans at the camp. Or show their asses ... zebras (we learn) are notorious rump flashers.

Or piss. We get to see a giraffe pissing, and "the stream came thick and gooey."

    I explained to the group that giraffes are at their most vulnerable to lions when they lean down to drink, so they do everything they can to conserve water --- including a biological process that leaves their piss thick and honeylike.

We learn not to pick up snakes, especially pythons. They have "curved and jagged daggers of teeth." When they crap, and they do if you touch them, "the stink was overwhelming. There is something about a six-month digestive process that really gets a pong going." Their preferred method of getting rid of you is to strangle you. I won't tell you how Allison finally got untangled from a ten-footer that he was silly enough to pick up.

Elephants, as he reiterates, are one of his favorites. He tells us that Salvadore's tusks, so named because they were reminiscent of Salvadore Dali's mustache, are used to "dig up roots, peel bark from trees, and lazily rest her trunk upon."

The elephants are the high-point of the book. As I have indicated, I don't put elephants in the wild (or leopards, or water buffalo, or hippopotamus, or wart-hogs and honey badgers or any of those exotic creatures) high on my list of requiring a trip to Botswanaland in my declining years. Still, Allison's report on the birth of an elephant, evidently a community event in the elephant world (and a rare sight for humans to see) made him and the clients moist.

Whatever You Do, Don't Run is not only jam-packed with facts, it is well-written, and the adventures of being near dismemberment (or near tears) can move one. It is interesting to compare him with an earlier writer, one who, a half-century ago, held most of us non-safari goers in his thrall. Gerald Durrell (brother to the novelist, Lawrence) was a collector of animals for zoos (his own among others), and wrote over twenty books on his adventures. They were comic and fairly informative as well. There were funny animals and funny people who worked with him. (Two of his best books, written sixty years ago, and still worth reading, The Overloaded Ark and A Zoo in My Luggage.)

The funny people who worked with him to trap animals were called "kaffirs," a word that I am guessing, he would not be using now, were he still alive. Durrell's kaffirs were always getting into funny scrapes, getting drunk, or demanding "dash" (bribes) for their coöperation. The humor was in the animals and the animal-like Africans who made Durrell's treks possible (and profitable). It was a light-hearted world, and we loved his open easy way of stealing animals from their homes and making a killing from delivering them to a world-wide network of zoos.

Allison's world is harder. There is fun and laughter and drinking, but there is also AIDS --- now infecting a third of the male population of his base, Botswana. There are people who come to go on safari, and just don't get it. At one point, during a demonstration, Allison violates one of the key laws of the jungle: never get between a lioness and her cubs. He comes within an inch of being mauled. His Japanese tourist is impressed by the fact that he gets charged four times by enraged lions who, somehow, by some miracle, avoid killing him. "As I staggered into my seat, wanting to cry, wanting to puke, wanting to laugh and scream, he spoke ... of his camera shot ... "I'm sorry, but I wasn't able to get that the first time. Would you mind doing it again?"

--- Alisoun Gorley
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