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.

There is great joy in seeing a baby rhino - but it's not one of the 'Ugly Five'
There is great joy in seeing a baby rhino – but it’s not one of the ‘Ugly Five’ CREDIT: ©JOHANSWANEPOEL – STOCK.ADOBE.COM/BY JOHAN SWANEPOEL

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.