I am desperate to go on safari. A real African safari. The type where you get so close to the action you can touch a rhino’s nose, or walk within cuddling distance of lion cubs.
Unfortunately safari lodges generally don’t accept small babies; they are fair game for predators in search of an amuse bouche. Not to mention that infants (allegedly) don’t enjoy rattling around a sun beaten four-by-four, for 8 hours straight.
But while our ‘Big Five’ plans have taken a back seat, we did manage a mini-safari during our recent sojourn to Sine Saloum.
Most of the long-legged African animals can’t be found in Senegal, but if you’re lucky you can still see monkeys-a-plenty, warthog, the serval, hyenas, dolphins and manatee (my pregnant spirit mammal).
Our hotel, Collines de Niassam, advised that there were indeed hyenas nearby and we were invited to set off at dusk to seek them out.
Hyenas get a bad rap. Ever since the Lion King they have had a hard time climbing back up the animal popularity charts. And Senegal folklore claims that they are the transfiguration of witches, which probably doesn’t help their cause. However, these wild spotted scavengers play a very important role in Africa’s sub-Saharan ecosystem and unfortunately, like so many species, are under threat.
Now in my dream safari scenario, I am clinging to the roof of a speeding Landcruiser, wearing perfectly pressed linen and khakis (see Meryl Streep in ‘Out of Africa’ for full getup visuals). So I hope you can picture my facial expression when arriving for our adventure, that we should be confronted with Napoleon the pony and a jaunty open air trap. Not quite the four-by-four I had in mind.
Napoleon took off into the open countryside at a surprising pace. It was a rough ride, across even rougher terrain. We were assured that he was as fit as a fiddle, despite the sweat lashing off his dear little back and I was in two minds about whether to get off and push.
After thirty minutes of trotting, we passed a sign that looked promising and drew to a halt. We thanked Napoleon profusely for his efforts, before following our guide into the bush and being told to keep schtum.
Now at that moment, while trying to ‘blend in’ to the surrounding flora, I did rethink my outfit. Perhaps not the most unobtrusive choice. I have clearly learnt nothing from decades of watching David Attenborough in action. But at the very least, I remembered to pack mosquito repellent in my Lanvin bag.
We sat for five minutes. Which turned into ten, and then twenty. At last our guide pointed to the mangroves in the distance. ‘Hyena, there, in the water’, he said. And there it was… leisurely splashing through the shallows, separating the mangroves from the shore. Before long another two joined him. And then a fourth. He told us that they spend their days snoozing in the cool of the mangroves, before crossing the water to hunt in the bush at night. I find it hard to imagine a creature that looks so built for dry terrain, lounging around wetlands all day.
They were far away, but they still looked enormous, fairly ferocious and incredibly agile. A couple of them paused and looked our way; they knew we were there. Hardly surprising considering I was wearing the world’s loudest maxi dress. Thankfully they lived up to their shy reputation and kept their distance, before breaking into a run and disappearing out of sight.
With the sun sinking fast, we set off for home. The landscape was the colour of toffee and the baobab trees cast the most extraordinary shadows. When Collines de Niassam appeared on the horizon we hopped off and walked, giving Napoleon a well earned rest.
And as for future safari-ing? I think I’m ready for the Big Five (and a Landcruiser).
Photos taken by my lovely husband.