Julia Donaldson: How my first safari was the inspiration for The Ugly Five


There can’t be a writer who hasn’t been asked “Where do you get your ideas?” and experienced an inward groan. My  usual (and truthful) reply is “in the bath”, but at last I am able to cite in this article an actual place on the map: the Madikwe Game Reserve, in South Africa.

One of the perks of going on an overseas book tour is being able to tack a holiday on to the end of it. That’s what I did last year when I was performing stories and signing books in Cape Town and Johannesburg, with my guitar-playing thespian husband, Malcolm, in tow.

As soon as our events had finished, we headed north, towards the Botswanan border, for five days of safari.

I’m normally the sort of person who likes climbing stiles and following footpaths, so I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy sitting in a Jeep for two three-hour expeditions each day. I was also dubious about that 5.30am wake-up call each morning. But when it came to it, I found the whole experience a wonderful mixture of excitement and tranquillity. I loved the enforced leisure and the unpredictability of each journey, and found that three hours was a perfect length of time: if you spotted a wallowing hippo, or a pack of wild dogs, or a male rhino harassing a female one with her baby, or a herd of elephants splashing and drinking and tussling by a pool, you could hang around and see how the situation developed, without thinking: “Oh dear, the time’s nearly up – better move on”.

The animals were mostly very nonchalant about the Jeeps, and sometimes a lion would walk so close that I could have reached out patted its head (which probably wouldn’t have been a good idea). The lions would make eye contact with us individually, but as long as we stayed still and seated, they didn’t seem to feel threatened or want to threaten us.

There were usually between four and six of us in the Jeep, along with Lucky, our ranger, who drove it, and Charlie, the tracker, who perched on a little seat in front and would suddenly point to the left or right, directing our gaze to animals we might never have noticed otherwise. Both were extremely knowledgeable, not just about the four-legged animals but about the birds. And what birds! I was delighted by the colourful ones – glossy blue starlings, carmine-breasted bee-eaters, yellow weaver birds – while Malcolm was more excited by all the different hawks and eagles. I liked the feeling that the birds were truly free, unlike the unwinged creatures who, though allowed to live a natural life, were nevertheless confined within the game park, which was big but fenced.

One of the best moments of each safari was when the vehicle would stop and Charlie would pad around the  back and lift a flap to reveal a concealed bar. In the mornings, we drank hot chocolate, laced with a liqueur called Amarula; in the evenings, we would stretch our legs as the sun went down on our G&T sundowners.

There was a certain amount of rivalry at meal times between the passengers of the different Jjeeps: “We got really close to a couple of cheetahs today.” “Oh, really? We saw some lion cubs and a rare kind of mongoose.” Some people were very keen to tick off sightings of the Big Five, a term coined by hunters referring to the most dangerous African animals to track on foot: lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant.

We did have one quite scary elephant encounter. Whereas the females and juveniles go about in herds, the older males are mainly solitary. Usually if we saw one it would be by the side of a path, munching leaves and taking little notice of us. But as we drove along a wide path one early evening, we saw a large beast approaching us in a determined way. Its ears were flapping, which is a sign of aggression.

Lucky went into reverse, but that resulted in the elephant quickening its pace. A change of tactics was called for. Lucky drove forwards once more, and when the creature continued to advance, the two men started to shout and hoot like wild animals themselves, and to thump loudly on the outside of the Jeep. At the last minute, the elephant veered off the path and into the bush.

A hundred yards further on, Charlie got down and scooped some vegetation from the ground. “Elephant testosterone,” he said, and gave it to us to smell (it was reminiscent of a herd of goats: pungent and unpleasant). The animal had been in a state of sexual arousal in which he was trying to establish dominance over possible rivals – and over us, too.

We did see the other members of the Big Five, but they were not the ones to sow the seeds of my story.

The moment of inspiration came the day we saw a herd of wildebeest. My husband remarked that, despite their ungainly proportions, he thought they were rather noble-looking, and Lucky replied, “I’m sorry to tell you this, Malcolm, but the wildebeest is one of the Ugly Five.”

The Ugly Five! And who were the others? “The spotted hyena, the lappet-faced vulture, the warthog and the marabou stork.” Immediately, a whole story came into my mind , complete with the twist at the end. This is something that hardly ever happens: usually I have to wrestle with storylines for weeks before I can sit down to write.

We did get to see a splendidly lumpy and muddy warthog rolling about in a watering hole, and we caught a glimpse of a shy hyena. The two ugly birds eluded us, but our laptop confirmed that they were eligible members of the quintet: the bald vulture has wrinkled pink flaps each side of its face, and the Marabou stork is hunched and gangly with a dangling throat pouch.

There was actually time to do some writing on the holiday, as there were seven free hours between the morning and the evening safaris. The weather was so hot that we could only sit out on our private terrace for short spells; most of the time we lounged around in air-conditioned luxury, dozing, sorting out the morning’s photos, reading and – in my case – beginning to write the story of The Ugly Five.


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