Once upon a time, a longhaired, smelly backpacker from Australia was offered a job at a South African game lodge as barman, then as a safari guide. The result was a best-selling book about his misadventures: Don’t run, whatever you do. Alison Westwood chatted to Peter Allison about mad pumas, irate elephants and stories from his book, Don’t look behind you!
Peter, how did you go from barman to safari guide?
Sold a lot of drinks? No, I think it was that I had genuine enthusiasm. I came to Africa because I loved wildlife. I’d go out on game drives as often as I could and absorb knowledge from the other guides. I can never remember whether I’m wearing underpants or not, but I remember things in the bush. They’d hear me parrot stuff back at dinner and realised I was paying attention. That’s when they decided I could become a guide.
Despite your lack of co-ordination and minimal knowledge of vehicles?
Yes, and I can still claim those are true. But what I’ve learned is that bad decisions always lead to great adventures. Although I’m not sure the tourists who were with me would agree.
Who were your favourite kinds of tourists?
Bird-watchers always see the best game because they’re looking for such small detail. They’re the ones who see the flick of the leopard’s tail or that slight movement an elephant does that makes you realise there’s something enormous right beside you. The bulk of tourists I took out were fantastic, but they’re not that memorable when they’re fantastic.
You’ve had some memorable ones. The twitchers who wouldn’t look at any game, for instance…
I swear that’s true. I tested them, you know: ‘Just over that leopard’s shoulder, there’s a wattled starling’. But they were passionate, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been harsh on them.
What about people with a checklist?
A pet hate of mine is the Big Five. I don’t know why that phrase is still used at all. I think it demeans the animals that aren’t on the list. Where I started at Sabi Sand, they really pushed the Big Five. We had these two bedraggled buffalo bulls living in a riverbed, the only buffalo in the area. I’d make a trek there so people could tick them off their list and to do that, we might miss out on cheetahs. How ridiculous is that?
The first story in your book is about going for a solo walk to look for lions. What goes through your head at times like that?
Not a lot obviously. Mainly concrete. There were lions right outside camp lying in the road, so my initial thought was, ‘All I have to do is stand down one end of the road and I’ll see them up the other end.’ Which is relatively safe. Then, when I couldn’t see them, I thought, ‘Well, they can’t have gone far. So maybe I just need to get around that bend.’ Again, that seemed relatively safe. So it was a case of taking step after step further into stupidity. And that’s something I’ve done again and again. I’ve just spent a month in a Bolivian wildlife rehab centre tied to a puma. I’m 35 now; you’d think I’d be smarter.
Tied to a puma?
Yeah, last time he was untied he ran up to a Bolivian guy and ripped his spleen out, so it’s best he stays on the rope. At one point the puma was trying to eat Jane Goodall and I thought, ‘This is not the way to meet your life-long hero.’
It’s true you don’t seem to learn, because in the last story, you’re stalking an elephant, trying to pluck a hair from its tail…
I do actually regret that. It’s a wanker thing to do. I’ve certainly been close enough to elephants to do that any number of times. Why I felt the need to do it that day, I don’t know. I certainly got called on it, because it was really, really scary to be pinned behind that tree.
But in a way I bonded with that elephant because I realised his frustration was the same frustration I felt with other people who behaved badly in the bush. I did learn a lot over the years, but curiosity often overwhelms me. I like to see what’s around the next bend.
Why did you leave the bush?
I’d lived in a tent for more than 10 years and I was quite keen on meeting a girl who didn’t have fur. I’d been a guide, which was fantastic, I’d been a camp manager, which wasn’t so fantastic, then a guide trainer. The next logical step would have had me based somewhere like Maun and I thought, ‘If I’m going to live in a town, it may as well be a real one.’
What was it like going back to Australia?
I had a fantasy I could earn enough to have my own camp. Then I got to Sydney and people said ‘So, what are your qualifications?’ And I’d say, ‘I can get really close to elephants.’ That doesn’t make you employable. I ended up doing stupid jobs – digging holes, sales. But I’d been in tourism too long and it was good I got out because I still have fun when I go back.
How did your first book come about?
Most of the stories are campfire tales I’ve told many times over the years. I left thinking one day I’d write a book about my time in Africa and when I realised it didn’t have to be a biography, I really liked that. I like that it’s light and fun because so much of what you read about Africa is a bit grim. Africa’s funny as well, it’s a place where you can enjoy yourself. It’s time to stop calling Africa the Dark Continent.
There are also some that would never have been a campfire story, so they were harder to write. For instance, the one about driving across the Makgadikgadi I’d never told, mainly because my employers would have been so pissed off: there he goes, once again abandoning a vehicle. But what were they doing giving a guy a semi-trailer when he’s never driven one before?
It sounds as though your employers were trying to kill you.
I think if they’d dealt with somebody a bit more competent it might have been different. I’m a huge admirer of that South African ‘make a plan’ attitude. Australians pride themselves on their ingenuity but frankly, if there’s a meteor heading to earth and it’s going to collide with us, give me a bunch of South Africans with a bit of fencing wire, a couple of old toilet tubes and a match, and I reckon we’ve got it covered.
Which of your stories make you smile most?
Probably the one about the Japanese group who wanted me to get charged again. Part of it was looking over and seeing eight Japanese people crammed onto the back seat of the Land Rover. Also, because I have no sense of personal dignity, the one where the tsetse fly bit me through the shorts. I just can’t imagine what that looked like – to see a safari guide turn around as if he’s about to say something, punch himself in the goolies, then drop out the side of the vehicle he’s driving.
What’s your next project?
Maybe what happens if you put a safari guide in South America to find the best, weirdest and maddest wildlife encounters. I’ve been working with Inti Wara Yassi, a Bolivian wildlife rehabilitation centre. It’s held together by hope and bananas, but they’re doing a good job and it’s nice to be part of something right at the start.
Update: Peter Allison’s latest book, How to walk a Puma, is now available in good bookshops and on Amazon.