Okavango Cocktail: An Interview with Peter Allison

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Peter in Wilderness shirtPeter Allison is a writer, conservationist, and expert safari guide. A native of Australia, and now residing near Cape Town, South Africa, Mr. Allison began working as a guide in the mid-90s, and has since led hundreds of safaris throughout South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. When not exploring the world’s wild places, he acts as an outspoken advocate for the preservation of endangered species.

Mr. Allison is the author of three books, which detail his impressive—and often hilarious—undertakings among the animals of Africa and South America: Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: True Tales Of A Botswana Safari Guide; Don’t Look Behind You: A Safari Guide’s Encounters with Ravenous Lions, Stampeding Elephants and Lovesick Rhinos;  and How to Walk a Puma: And Other Things I Learned While Stumbling Through South America.

Mr. Allison recently carved a few minutes out of his schedule to chat with me about the life of a safari guide, the contemptible practice of trophy hunting, and how to get a proper drink in the middle of the African bush.


RHE: Peter, I’ve been looking forward to chatting with you for a long time. The stories in your books are just so damn entertaining. It’s a kick, reading them out loud to my friends. Thanks for your time.

PA:  Of course. It sounds like your release is going well, for your book.

RHE: Yes. Yes it’s going very well. You know, I never expected to win a Pulitzer or get Stephen King money off the thing, but it’s going well.

PA: Yeah. I think we always have in the back of our minds that maybe, just maybe, the second part will happen, but yeah, I’ve got very realistic expectations, some of them beaten into me by bitter experience.

RHE: Yeah. It’s a weird world, the writing gig, isn’t it?

PA: Absolutely. I’ve constantly got people saying to me: What’s it like being a writer? And I say, oftentimes: Frequently humiliating. I mean, if you could eat personal satisfaction, then I’d be a beast. But yeah, I think there is nothing more demeaning than a book signing. Because, again, unless you are Stephen King or somebody like that, then you don’t get the queue around the block, and you just kind of sit there like a shelter dog, hoping someone will come and pay attention to you.

RHE: “Shelter dog.” That’s perfect. I’m stealing it, if you don’t mind. Okay, how about we start at the beginning?

PA: Sure.

RHE: How old were you when you knew that animals, and the wilderness generally, were going to be a big part of your life?

PA: Nineteen. When I put myself in harm’s way to realize it. It was something which some unconscious part of my brain knew that I wanted to do, but the part that had grown up in a boring, sedate suburb had boxed me in to being a doctor, or a lawyer, or at worst, an engineer. That straight and narrow path is what was presented as what you did when you were a grownup. But at nineteen, I accidentally fell into the safari world. And it was… I woke up every morning feeling like I was James Bond. It was as real as anything you saw on TV.

RHE: So, when you were pursuing your education, biology or ethology, they didn’t necessarily play a part?

PA: No. I relied far more on fluke. I tripped and fell down the right hole. But, having said that, I think a hell of a lot of it is… You often hear how the first step to winning the lottery is buying a ticket. I do often put myself in harm’s way, still to this day. It’s like: Okay, there’s something strange over there. I’ll go and check it out. And that’s pretty much how it happened. I went to Africa to look at animals, which led to me being a safari guide.

RHE: You went to Africa for a vacation, and you just stayed.

PA: Right.

RHE: Are there any conservationists or wildlife biologists that you hold in a particularly high esteem?

PA: There are the ones you’d expect, like Jane Goodall, and David Attenborough, who was a huge influence when I was a kid. And then there’s a lot of really cool stuff being done by small groups. There’s one called Breaking the Brand. It’s two physicists, and they’ve decided to solve a world problem, and they’ve hit upon rhinos. War has been declared on rhinos, and they [Breaking the Brand] have got one of the smartest ways of dealing with it, where they are going after the source market and just working on behavior change. It’s so clinical and clever, and they’re going to be so much more effective than someone like me, because I’m too passionate. I want to be in there swinging fists and firing guns, two things I wouldn’t be very effective at to begin with. But they’re in there going: Let’s solve this problem. Let’s do it rationally and intellectually. It’s nowhere near as sexy as swinging fists or firing guns, and they will never have movies made about them, but they may well be the two people who save rhinos.

RHE: And wouldn’t that be a victory for the world.

PA: Oh, absolutely. I have huge amounts of time for people that just find a single cause, and they throw themselves at it with everything they’ve got. I think they are much more effective than people who try to save the world. None of us have got the resources. Though I’m pretty sure Donald Trump thinks he can do it, but he probably thinks he can fly, as well.

RHE: It’s kind of hard to tell what that guy thinks, or if he actually thinks at all. But anyway… Can you describe a typical day as a safari guide?

PA: Sure. It starts with your most-hated sound: the alarm going off. It’s such a hateful noise because it’s very early. In summer, that’ll be going off before five am. And in winter it might be as late as five-twenty.

RHE: Wow! You get to sleep in twenty minutes!

PA: The best time to be out on safari is the cool of the morning and the cool of the late afternoon. That’s when animals are moving. They’re not doing much at midday, so you don’t have to be out then.

So, I drag myself out of bed, pump myself full of caffeine, and go around the camp waking everybody up. By the time they stumble in going Oh man, early morning, I’ve already been up for half an hour, made sure I have no flat tires that need changing…

Then the actual good bit begins. All the resentment disappears once you go out and drive. What I loved about the mornings was it was a completely clean slate. There had been an entire night of adventure in the bush, and the tracks were newspapers. You could see all the lions moving this way, and there’s hyenas going opposite. There was some sort of scuffle over here. You have no idea what you’re going to find. Maybe you find the lions, or a leopard up a tree with a kill; or you find one hunting; or cheetahs. Later in the day, though as the temperature rises, you go back into camp, and stuff your face.

Now, if you’re lucky, you don’t have anybody coming in or going out. The properties I worked at, typically, the only way you got there was by flying in. So I might have to go to the airstrip a couple of times a day; pick people up, drop people off.Don't Run Cover

And then you go out [into the bush] again in the afternoon. Now, in the afternoon, it’s a little more predictable, because you know where the lions fell asleep in the morning. Lions sleep eighteen hours a day. They’re not the most active of animals. Cheetahs, leopards, lions, you’ll find them almost exactly where you left them. Or by the nearest water source.

An exception to what I’ve just described are elephants. Elephants feed eighteen hours a day. Where you left them in the morning is not where they will be in the afternoon. If you’re in a place without many elephants, and you find some, you almost want to stick with them all day.

When you get back into camp it’s pretty much a quick turn-around to eat dinner, and… Normally, as a guide, you are the last person [to go to bed], as well. So there’s always that thing where somebody’s like: Hey, let’s hit the fire and bring a bottle of whiskey! And you go, Oh, goodie…

RHE: I write quite a bit about alcohol, and I noticed in your books that booze does, uh, come up. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you first got to Africa you were a bartender at a camp?

PA: Absolutely, yeah. That’s what got me the job.

RHE: How many people would be in a camp, that it actually had a staff bartender?

PA: The properties are all quite small. The biggest ones we had were eighteen beds, so nine rooms. But you’ve got somebody constantly topping up your drinks, and even as a guide you jump behind the bar if it’s busy, but it’s not as if it’s too much for one guy to cope with.

Alcohol, as you know, is a great social lubricant. People are on vacation and they want to enjoy themselves, so yeah, there was a lot of drinking. Obviously, as a guide, you can’t sit there and get absolutely trashed. But you can at least drink them interesting.

RHE: That was actually my next question. You’ve written about “drinking the tourists interesting.” Can you talk a little more about that?

PA: Part of it is, they may well be fascinating people, but they’re in this environment, and you seem to have what, to them, is the world’s coolest job. You recount your own life story until you detest yourself. God, I hate my parents for not bringing me up right!

RHE: Is there a type of tourist that you enjoyed guiding, I guess, more than another? There must be good tourist behavior and bad tourist behavior, right?

PA: I think anybody who is just really in to wildlife, and enjoys the small things, the small moments… When you’re guiding, you’re not showing off something that you are in. What you’re trying to do is get these other people to fall in love with it as much as you are. You can actually see that happening. This is about as deep as I get, but when you can actually see that happening, when you’ve played match-maker, and you watch somebody—and there isn’t a lion or an elephant in sight—but they’ve got that blissed-out look on their face, then you know you’ve made a convert. That’s really what our aim is.

RHE: Back to the booze thing… I remember back a number of years ago, I was reading your first book, and was particularly taken by the “Okavango Cocktail.” *

PA: It’s a very South African thing. We have a problem, these are our resources, and we use these resources to solve the problem. It’s that matter-of-fact. It’s like: I’m thirsty. I would like a strong drink. What have I got? I’ve done things with native fruits that I was like: Hmmmm… I wonder what this is going to taste like? Pretty crap, usually. But, better than naught.

Actually, something you would enjoy, with your background… We had a staff member, a lovely guy, and he was constantly turning up to work drunk. The staff out there, we work three months on, one month off, and part of the pay is food. Because it’s not as if there are shops you can just pop into. You’re given fruit and veggies, your given maize meal—which is a staple in Africa. It is to Africa what rice is to Asia.

But anyway, the guy keeps turning up drunk, and we had a really good barman, a local, and he was very strict. He said the guy wasn’t stealing [from the camp]. So, we were having to do things like search guys’ bags when they came in to be sure they weren’t bringing in alcohol. Ultimately, we found that the guy had made a little still, and was taking his rationed oranges, and producing a beer of sorts. And we had to smash up the still, go all Prohibition on him. But it was really nice stuff. Got you wasted.

RHE: Nice. That’s excellent. You know, there are certain occupations, like sitting in a call center answering calls, I think it’s not a big deal, drinking on the job. But there are others where I would prefer they weren’t half in the bag, like being in an environment where something might eat me, if not for the good judgement of the guide. That might worry me a little.

PA: Yeah, among guides, there is an absolute tradition of the “sun-downer,” which is held every afternoon. You take people out, and you stop, and [the tourists] have a drink somewhere scenic. And people are always saying: Go on! Have a beer! Now, I knew I could drink one beer and be absolutely fine, but I also knew that that [would be] the day where, with no warning, an elephant would step out and turn over the vehicle. It would have nothing to do with me having a beer, but people would say: Well…he had been drinking. So, even as wild and irresponsible as I was in other ways, I never had a drink on a drive. With other staff members, I certainly did, but never with paying guests.Don't Look Cover

RHE: Sound like the right course of action. So, okay, let’s talk some about the animals. Do you have a favorite animal or animals, that have a special place in your heart?

PA: Elephants. Yeah. Basically they… I mentioned that lions sleep eighteen hours a day, and elephants eat eighteen hours a day, so you never see elephants doing nothing. With lions, they’re like Michael Bublé—they’re incredibly popular, and I’ve never been able to figure out why.

RHE: Because most of the time, when tourists see lions, the lions are asleep under a tree.

PA: Right. Whereas an elephant is knocking it over.

RHE: Which is, by most any definition, a more exciting thing to see.

PA: Yeah. And elephants are… They have strong family bonds, but within those there are degrees of politics going on. The most interesting animals are the ones you can’t figure out what they’re doing the whole time. You’re trying to figure out the dynamics of the family, and you’re not sure who’s cross with who, or why that one’s shoving this one, and it makes it more interesting. It means you’ve got more to learn. Whereas with lions it’s: sleep a bit, get up, kill something, eat it, go back to sleep.

RHE: Everybody hears stories about the most dangerous animals in the wild. In your personal experience, what is the most dangerous animal in Africa?

PA: The mosquito.

RHE: Oh, okay. Sure. Malaria.

PA: Hippos always get the number-one spot, but it’s false for a few reasons. One is that there are a lot more hippos outside game reserves than any of the other large animals, because they can go straight down the rivers and off the reserves, which elephants, lions, rhinos, and buffalo don’t do so much. Crocs kill a lot more people than hippos do. The difference is, a hippo is a vegetarian, so you can find the body.

RHE: Hippos are more territorial, as regards attacks on humans. Would that be an accurate statement?

PA: Yeah.

RHE: Whereas a crocodile is looking for lunch.

PA: Yep, yep. And the Nile crocodile is one of only three animals in the world that view humans as prey. There are plenty of other animals that kill us with some regularity, but they’re doing it out of defense, or as a last resort. But if a polar bear, a Nile crocodile, or the saltwater crocodile sees a human, they have zero fear. We are just food.

And with animals like lions, you have to remember that man evolved in Africa, and we haven’t been particularly kind to animals from the moment we did. So animals like lions will move away from us. Given the opportunity, they will back away. If you get too close they almost always will give you a warning growl. I think, though, that once they have attacked a human being, they realize: Hey, these things are incredibly slow, really weak, don’t have much fur, nor sharp teeth! What the hell were we afraid of?! And then you’ve got a problem.

But coming back to your original question, mosquitos kill more people than anything else. Bad drivers would be next. But I think the ones that most safari guides are afraid of are buffalo.

RHE: This is because they are fairly territorial and really bad-tempered, right?

PA: Yeah. I mean, I would rather walk up behind a hundred buffalo than three, because a big herd feels secure, and they’re less inclined to break ranks and attack. They’re going to stand there, bunch up, and it’s like: Don’t come any closer. And you wouldn’t, unless you were suicidal. Three buffalo, they’re the old boys that couldn’t keep up with the herd. They’ve dropped behind. They are insecure. And they’re eight-hundred kilos, close to two-thousand pounds, of pissed-off cow. They spend a lot of time lurking underneath… You have these sort of clumps of palms that have these fringing overhangs, so you can’t see what’s in there. The buffalo spend a lot of time in areas like that. And so you have to really skirt those things or they will come charging out with no warning.

RHE: That sounds a little disconcerting.

PA: And, of course, they blend in at night, as well. They’re the color of night. You don’t find too many safari guides—in fact, I’ve never met one—who says: That’s my favorite animal.

RHE: I guess it was right around two weeks ago that [safari guide] Quinn Swales was killed by a lion in Zimbabwe.** Were you acquainted with Mr. Swales?

PA: I wasn’t. We had a bunch of mutual friends, but we somehow never met.

RHE: From all that I have read about the incident, it sounds like he did everything right.

PA: Yes, he did.

RHE: And it was simply one of those freak occurrences.

PA: It’s the equivalent of you’re driving within the speed limit, you are angelically sober, and something goes wrong and you have an accident.

The way I explain it to people is, you now have this trend in wildlife TV—started by my idiot countrymen—where it’s all about jumping on the animals, and how close can we go, and let’s piss it off. And now I can’t think of a show that’s on awful-bloody Discovery Channel, or National Geographic, which isn’t about the host. It’s not about wildlife anymore. It’s about the host. It’s a pity there isn’t another David Attenborough. He was never big in the US, but in the rest of the English-speaking world he has been the guiding light in wildlife TV.

So what’s happened is, these guys, all of these shows that are now out there, with some wanker like Dave Salmoni—Hey, look at how close I can walk to lions! These safari guides say you can’t do it!

Of course we know you can do that. You can drive at twice the speed limit, and you’re going to make it home most times. But your chances of not making it home are significantly higher than if you drive at the agreed upon speed limit. I find these shows very frustrating, because now you have these people coming on safari who are like: Can we get out and tickle its belly? No. You can’t.

RHE: Have you ever had a tourist try to do it anyway? One minute you’re peacefully watching the animals, and the next minute they’re out of the Land Rover and trying to pet a hyena?

PA: Every. Russian. Ever. There’s this little confession that you’ll get long-term guides to make. Whoever your dominant tourists are [as in their country of origin], they are the ones who bug you the most. But anybody, now, who has guided Russians is saying: Come back, Americans! We forgive you!

There are always generalizations about races, or countries, and they come about for a reason. You learn, with Italians, don’t park too close to the animals because they are going to talk loudly. I know it sounds like a terrible stereotype, but it’s true. You have to turn around and say shhh, because the animals will get up and walk away. We spend so much time getting these animals relaxed with the vehicles, that we don’t want to stress them out. The whole point is, the vehicle arrives, and they carry on living as if it hadn’t. So you park a little bit further back [with Italians] that you would with other nationalities.

With Russians, if you want them to sit down, tell them to stand up. If you want them to be quiet, tell them to make noise. They will defy you. Because nobody tells them what to do.

One of the best things of all is, sometimes you can tell somebody what they’re doing without even looking around. [It often happens] when you’re with elephants. You can be sitting and looking at the elephants, and without turning around you say: Sit down, please. The elephant just told you that somebody stood up.Puma Cover

RHE: Switching gears here, what are your thoughts on hunting? Not necessarily trophy hunting, but just hunting generally.

PA: Listen, if you’re doing it for food, it’s not something I want to do, but I don’t really have an issue with it. The moment you’re doing it for a trophy, that’s an entirely different thing to me. And that’s where the corruption comes in, like you wouldn’t believe. There’s all of this talk that hunting is good for conservation—historically, yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of wild areas that never would’ve occurred without hunting. But there are economies built on slavery, and we have now moved beyond that. We decided, hey, that’s not how we would choose to do it again. Similarly, these guys are going: If it wasn’t for hunters there would be no wild areas left. Bullshit.

RHE: What about the argument that says if an indigenous person kills a protected or endangered animal, and he kills it for food, then that’s okay, because the life of an animal, even an endangered animal, cannot trump a human’s need to feed his family. How do you respond to that argument?

PA:  Well, one thing I’ve pointed out for years is that you never meet a starving conservationist. It is a luxury to be a conservationist. If a poacher comes in and takes something, and it’s to feed his family, I’ve got a lot more sympathy for him than a guy that’s coming in to kill rhinos. Killing rhinos, that’s for the money, which might also feed a family, but these are still crimes that are occurring. I think you have to take it on a case by case basis. I mean, you get people that are serial poachers, of elephants and rhinos, and they could argue that they are doing it to feed their families. But they are also getting very wealthy.

RHE: What role to you think superstition plays in the ongoing ivory and rhino-horn trade?

PA: Right, the rhino horn that they use for medicine. There is no racism or imperialism in saying it doesn’t work. If you could walk into a barber shop and chew up all the hair on the ground, it’s got the same medicinal value. Chewing your own fingernails and toenails, it’s the same stuff. But it’s well marketed. The people running the trade now are the same guys who run human trafficking and the drug trade. And you got these well-meaning little conservation groups that are funded on bugger-all, and they’re out trying to fight these crime syndicates. It’s an uneven battle.

RHE: Did you encounter poachers when you were a guide?

PA: In South Africa, when I first started, and a little bit in Namibia later on. Botswana has one of those rarest of things, which is a government that is pro-wildlife, and very active in stopping poaching. But in South Africa, yeah absolutely, we did. There is horrible stuff I could tell you. These poaching guys, one of the first things they do is shoot a baby elephant. Then they cut off the soles of its feet and make slippers from them, so they’re harder to track.

RHE: Aww, Jesus. That’s one I hadn’t heard before.

PA: Man’s inhumanity to man, we all know about it, and we’re appalled by it, but what we do to animals is just off the charts and evil.

I never had any dramatic run-ins with [poachers] but I think that’s because I spent most of my career in Botswana, where we had the military on our side. One of the big initiatives going on right now, is rhinos are being moved into Botswana, and it’s like they now have Secret Service protection.

RHE: That’s excellent news.

PA: It is.

RHE: And finally, before I let you go, what are you doing now?

PA: I work for a safari company. I broke all the vehicles, so they gave me a desk.***

RHE: Do you get back from time to time?

PA: Yeah. I’m in the bush at least three times a year or I go a bit nuts.

RHE: Are you working on another book?

PA: You know, at the moment, I don’t have time, nor material. Maybe I need to get out and find some poachers, and at least have some stories to tell.

RHE: Right, there you go. Hopefully you’d actually come back with those stories.

PA: I once said to my publisher: You seem to want me to almost die. But not quite. And that’s hard to get right.

RHE: Thanks, again, very much for your time, and for all the things you do.

PA: It was my pleasure.


Notes:

* Peter Allison’s Okavango Cocktail.

1 bottle of vodka.

1 gallon of water from the Okavango River.

+/- 5 rehydration tablets, in the flavor(s) of your choosing.

 

Place the Okavango River water in some sort of bucket, or bucket-like container.

Add the bottle of vodka.

Add the flavored rehydration tablets.

Shake vigorously until the rehydration tablets are completely dissolved.

Drink.

** Quinn Swales was killed by a lion on August 25th, in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. This is, incidentally, the same park that Cecil the lion called home, prior to being lured away from that safety zone, and then killed by Walter James Palmer, a dickhead—I mean dentist—from Minnesota.

*** Over the course of his career, Peter gained a reputation for a, let’s say, oppositional relationship with many of the motor vehicles left in his charge. For further details, consult his books.

4 Responses to "Okavango Cocktail: An Interview with Peter Allison"
  1. Bernadette Buckley says:

    Thank you Peter and Richard for this informative interview. I have read all of Peter’s books and enjoyed them very much. I am planning a trip to South Africa and will take a safari there. I would truly love to meet Peter and travel with his safari company. Is there anyway you can tell me which company he currently works for? Thanks again for a great interview.

    • Richard English says:

      Thank-you, Bernadette. I’ll contact Peter and see if I can get some information for you. Thanks for reading! And pass it along to your friends!

  2. William Marlin says:

    Thank you so very much for this interview. I have read all of Peter Allison’s books and have appreciated his commentary and news on his Twitter feed.

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