In an African bar near my cattle ranch in Kenya there’s a mural of a man struggling up a tree. From below, a lion leaps at him. A crocodile snaps at his feet. As the fugitive climbs the trunk, a python coiled among the branches prepares to swallow him. Under the mural a caption reads:
YOU CAN’T ESCAPE FROM DEATH!
Ranching in remote northern Kenya might seem a way of hastening the inevitable. We live cheek by jowl with wildlife, which jostle for grazing alongside our cattle. Hospitals are so far away in an emergency we must call the Flying Doctors. We keep a medicine chest, a trauma bag containing tourniquets and Celox, a blood coagulant for gunshot wounds used by British soldiers in warzones. And we rely on a manual called Where There is No Doctor.Here is my ABC of threats and staying alive in the African bush:
of course is for Aardvark. This nocturnal beast has the head of a pig and the tail of a kangaroo. Cantering across plains is fun until your horse stumbles into an aardvark hole, breaking its legs and your neck.
is for the charging Buffalo. The only advice is to climb the nearest tree. Or lie down, so that you get gored and trampled, but not tossed and broken. I’ve heard of one man who took refuge from a buffalo in some low-hanging branches, and it methodically licked his feet and legs for hours with its sandpaper-like tongue until it had taken all the skin off.
is for Caterpillars, white hairy ones that congregate in great multitudes towards the end of the rains. Aged two, my daughter Eve thought they were so pretty she’d pick them up. When they stung her she rubbed her eyes, which filled with hairs as sharp as needles. She screamed for six hours on the way to the city, where the doctor said she was lucky not to have been blinded.
is for Datura, a weed on the ranch that is among the most poisonous of plants, causing ghastly hallucinations. In Haiti datura was used, together with the liver of the puffer fish, to turn men into zombies.
is Elephants, which on my ranch are more numerous than rabbits. They charge, I run. Stay upwind, but there’s nothing to do if they come for you except run like hell.
is for bush Fires, which ignite in droughts when the land is a spectral white. Flames engulf the landscape, coiling in red tornadoes through the bush. Solution as above: run like hell though, like an elephant, a bush fire carried on the wind travels faster than a man.
is for Guns. At home, cattle rustlers have shot dozens of bullets at me. Bandits ambushed me in my Landcruiser from such close range that the muzzle flashes bounced off the windscreen and left the car riddled with holes. If a man shoots at me I try to shoot back, but sometimes I run away.
Hippopotamus. Do not get between a hippo and its watery home. It will kill you.
is for tropical Illnesses. It baffles me how paranoid the British, who have lived for centuries in the Tropics, are about diseases in Africa. The ranch is at an altitude of 6,000 feet, above the malarial zone, and the air is like champagne. The truth is that malaria pills can do more damage to your liver than any dose of fever could. The real hazard is tick bite fever, which one prevents by taking a hot bath before dinner, to which people in upcountry Kenya traditionally appear in their pyjamas.
is for Jiggers, parasites with eggs that get buried under your toenails, form painful cysts and then hatch inside your living flesh. Wear shoes!
is Karonga, our name for a dry riverbed down which flash floods come in walls of water, rocks and broken trees after rainstorms. To avoid a watery death in the desert, refrain from camping in riverbeds. Do not sit in them with your headphones on.
is Lion. If you run away at the sight of lions, they will think you are prey and eat you. Better to run at them, waving your arms and yelling football songs. Seriously.
is for Meteorites. Our night skies are so devoid of electric light pollution that the constellations are crystal clear, with showers of shooting stars. A meteorite fell to earth so near us it roared like a bomb. I often wonder, like Asterix the Gaul, if the sky will fall on our heads.
is for Nature. Our high plateau of Laikipia is among the last places on earth which are truly wild on this crowded, cemented-over planet. Visitors from the great cities sometimes collapse in tears at the sight of it, unable to absorb the hugeness of it all.
is Oloowaroo, a legendary beast like a Yeti that roams the countryside in some corners of Kenya stealing and eating cattle whole. As with elephants etc, run away.
is for Puff Adder. I generally adore snakes. According to my Field Guide to the Reptiles of East Africa, out of Kenya’s 127 snake species, ‘only 18 have caused human fatalities’. Yet I fear puff adders, so camouflaged and sluggish that you can easily step on them. Long fangs inject gobs of venom. Wounds swell to bursting blisters, causing flesh to rot and limbs to drop off. You do not cure snakebite by › cutting into the wound and sucking out the poison like John Wayne in the movies. You need anti-venom and the Flying Doctors!
is for Quagga, an extinct African zebra species that exists now only as a symbol for the damage humankind has inflicted, largely through the loss of habitat. Seeing wildlife daily, I feel the survival of my kind is in so many ways dependent on theirs.
is for Rustlers. Long after trails went cold in the Wild West, northern Kenya is still rustling country, where a young warrior proves himself by stealing enough cattle to pay for a bride. I’m still on the tracks of seven cows nicked from me in 2013. Razor wire, electric fences, night-vision cameras, armed police patrols, bloodhounds for chasing stolen cows… These are features of our daily lives.
is for Scorpions, which seem to live under every rock on the farm. Along with the baboon spiders and the bullfrogs and toads, the scorpions invade the house seasonally. Large fat yellow ones. Their stings are serious. Avoid lifting stones.
is for Thunder and lightning. Rain usually arrives after dust devils and storm dragons and anvil-headed clouds that fizz with blue light. I fear lightning strikes as much as meteorites, but the only casualty we’ve had is a chicken that got blown high into the air one day.
is for the sturdy Underwear you need to survive all of this.
is for Vultures. I’ve tried lying down pretending to be dead to see if these circling birds will spiral down on their thermals. They do come and have a look but don’t get close. They must be able to smell death a long way off.
is Wild Dog, beautifully coloured creatures that hunt in large packs. Run away.
is for the X-ray I needed after a dozen poachers surrounded me earlier this year and hurled rocks at me. They hit me in five places and bust up my hand, which went bad and nearly had to be amputated. The event put me in hospital for a week. If a thug chucks a rock at you, stay out of range. I was stupid not to.
is for the Yellow fever trees, so named because the first pioneers associated them with tropical diseases and the dangers of Africa, but which grow all over the farm, harming nobody…
is for the Zebras that teem in the hundreds on our plains, where I hope they will survive for generations to come.