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An Interview with African safari guide and writer: Peter Allison

Peter Allison with a cheetah

"One of the most harrowing experiences was having monkeys go crazy outside my tent one afternoon. 'Must be a leopard out there', I thought, as the monkeys fell silent. They’d gone quiet because they couldn’t see the cat anymore. Instead it was in the tent with me. That makes you twitch."

Crocodile Dundee lived in Botswana's Okavango Delta

We employed some of our own 'tracking' skills and caught up with the safari industry's well-loved and respected Peter Allison.  

Peter Allison is a man whose enthusiasm for what he cares about and believes in has enabled him to carve out a successful career as one of Africa's top safari guides, as well as becoming an authoritative figure in the world of conservation. He is also the author of several well-received books including the brilliantly entertaining 'What Ever You Do, Don't Run; My Adventures as a Botswana Safari Guide', which we have reviewed for you here: book review.

He now lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with his wife Pru and their dog Mombo.

We asked him for his thoughts on the current poaching crisis, Cape Town and his love of African wildlife

Jonny: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us today Peter. We really want to say thanks for providing so many people around the world with the joy of an armchair escape. In your first book 'What Ever You Do, Don't Run: My Adventures as a Botswana Safari Guide', we live every thrilling encounter as you did. Your candid writing plunges the reader straight into the depths of the African wilderness.

You spent the first 16 years of your life not in Africa but in your native Australia, which has some pretty cool wilderness areas of it's own. So what was it that drew you as a young man to Africa?

Peter: Most continents lost their largest animals soon after the arrival of man, but it is theorised that as man evolved in Africa the animals had time to keep pace, and that is why we still have elephants, hippos, rhinos (for now), even giraffes and zebras. Australia had some properly bonkers species until about 40,000 years ago, including a monitor lizard as heavy as a horse, a possum the size of a leopard that ate meat, giant kangaroos, and a rhino-sized wombat. If they were still roaming Sydney’s outskirts, I may have taken up ecotourism there!

Jonny: There is so much to learn within the African bush, so many incredible animals, birds, flowers and insects. When you started out as a safari guide in Botswana all those years ago, it must have been pretty daunting. Did you envisage becoming such a well-respected personality within the industry?

Peter: I’m not sure if I am respected as much as considered a fine way to learn what not to do, but thank you. Like most endeavours, if I’d known how high the mountain was I might never have set off up it, but as the old adage says ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins when you put your gin down and get your arse moving’. At least I think the saying goes like that; pretty sure I saw it on Facebook.

(Sunset on the delta - Botswana's Okavango Delta is unique, where a mixture of water and land based activities make for an extraordinary safari experience. Photo courtesy of Belmond Safaris. Click to enlarge). 

Jonny: What was your favourite African animal as a young man?

Peter: Cheetah! I love that you can have an animal that is so fast, yet so vulnerable, not just to man but even within its environment (to other predators, who steal its food, kill its young etc).

(A spotted hyena moves onto the carcass of a blue wildebeest. Spotted hyenas are often referred to as the dustcarts of Africa as they clear the remains of many carcasses. Click to enlarge).

Jonny: Having now had a fascinating career living and working in the African bush, is that still your favourite animal today? 

Peter: The impossible has happened and elephants have overtaken cheetahs. This is a great pity as in a daft moment just before turning 21, I got a tattoo of a cheetah on my back. It was done in Indonesia where cheetahs don’t occur so has zero realism, is at a bad angle, and looks like a weird hybrid of a goat, kangaroo, and Stephen Hawking. I should probably just get an elephant drawn over the top, as they are endlessly fascinating, always doing something (they need to feed around 18 times a day so keep your eyes busy, unlike perpetually slumbering lions) and are socially complex.​

How can I help wildlife conservation programmes and the anti-poaching efforts in Africa?

Jonny: Your love of wildlife is obvious and I know you are passionate about the conservation of African wildlife and wilderness areas. Are you involved at the moment with any conservation efforts across Africa, or are there any projects specifically that you are working on with Wilderness Safaris, whom you work for?

Peter: Wilderness Safaris is fraudulent. While publicly listed on the Botswana and Johannesburg Stock Exchanges, we are, in fact, a conservation organisation disguised as a business. We support over 50 research projects and have quietly been moving rhinos from poaching zones into the safe haven of Botswana for more than 10 years. My small part in that last project was to punch my boss in the face. He punched back though so I still have a job, and it was in fact for a charity boxing match, and we raised enough to buy the heavy gates needed for the enclosure. (And I’ll confess, he won.)

Outside Wilderness Safaris conservation projects, my favourite conservation group is one tackling the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam. The group is called 'Breaking the Brand' and I am yet to learn of any organisation being so analytical in their approach, nor as effective in their research and strategy.

Jonny: The current poaching crisis and illegal ivory trade in Africa have made headlines throughout the world in recent weeks, revealing worrying statistics. We are now seeing seriously big names getting behind the anti-poaching movement from royalty such as HRH Prince William The Duke of Cambridge to Hollywood A-list actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio.

Is there anything you can recommend to our readers that will give them their chance to aid conservation or, perhaps more critically at this point in time, anti-poaching efforts in Africa? 

Peter: There are two simple ways to get involved. First is to donate to a legitimate charity. The second is to go on safari! By visiting Africa you tell a government that wild places and the animals within them are worth saving, perhaps worth more than agriculture and mining. You create jobs, you create value within local communities for wildlife (they learn that if the animals are poached no tourists come, and there goes their jobs). So please, book a safari right now!

(Peter Allison, Wilderness Safari guide & author. Click to enlarge).

"Everyone knows of the great whites but Cape Town is one of only two places in the world where you can dive with the world’s most ancient sharks – sevengill cow sharks."

(A warthog makes his way across the savannah in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater. Click to enlarge). 

Jonny: That sounds excellent and like something that will really make a huge difference. We feel strongly about the protection of African wildlife and hope more initiatives will be launched to raise awareness before it's too late for critically endangered species. Although not part of the endangered list, our favourite animal is the leopard. We love how elusive these big cats are. It's truly a special experience to see one of these fearsome predators in its natural habitat. Have you had any particularly memorable close encounters with leopards whilst living in the bush?

Peter: While I’ve had some incredible sightings such as five leopards of different generations in one tree at the famous Mombo Camp, and a fight between a young leopard, eagle and monitor lizard at Kings Pool in far Northern Botswana perhaps the most harrowing was having monkeys go crazy outside my tent one afternoon. “Must be a leopard out there,” I thought, as the monkeys fell silent. They’d gone quiet because they couldn’t see the cat anymore. Instead it was in the tent with me. That makes you twitch.

(A leopard in Botswana's Okavango Delta. Photo courtesy of Belmond Safaris. Click to enlarge). 

(This photograph, taken by amateur photographer Arista Midwinter whilst on safari in South Africa, shows a powerful lioness in no mood to be messed with. She snarls to ward off unwanted attention. Click to enlarge).

Jonny: That sounds like a really close shave and it makes me twitch just thinking about it. Changing the topic slightly, you have lived in Sydney, California and even in Japan. Some of the best places in the world to live. You currently live in Cape Town, South Africa, what we believe to be the most beautiful city in the world. What is it about Cape Town specifically that has made it your city of choice? 

Peter: So much! I can walk to the beach, but also to a vineyard, and I live surrounded not only by horses and dogs but also wildlife – we had a caracal in our back paddock recently, and have seen porcupine, genets and even Cape clawless otters on surrounding roads! Best of all is that you can have the most amazing lifestyle for very little money, which helps if you have chosen the less-than-lucrative career path of ecotourism and writing.

Jonny: Do you have any must do, favourite Cape Town experiences that you can recommend to our readers - things that only a Capetonian would know of? 

Peter: Cape Point Vineyards have a food market one day a week that not only has great food and wine but perhaps the best sunset spot in the whole of Cape Town; if you are into horse riding go for a gallop along Noordhoek Beach (look for a guy walking an enormous black dog and I’ll say hi). Everyone knows of the great whites but Cape Town is one of only two places in the world you can dive with the world’s most ancient sharks – sevengill cow sharks (check out Pisces Divers in Simonstown). Take the coastal road to Betty’s Bay for penguins; you avoid the crowds of Boulders Beach and get closer to the wildlife, plus the road is a spectacular cliff-hugging panorama. Lastly visit the Constantia wineries. So much focus is put on those further out of town but within 20 minutes from the city are many extraordinary properties making delicious wine.

Jonny: Fantastic, we'll certainly have to check out those recommendations ourselves! You've given us some really cool tips there, I didn't know about the sevengill cow sharks. I have one final question for you today, Peter. 

If there was only one place in Africa that you could visit again, where would you go and why? 

Peter: For a repeat experience I always head back to the Okavango, as it feels more like home than anywhere else in the world. For something new I would desperately love to see Tanzania's Mahale Mountain Park for the chimpanzees, or the emerging Zakouma National Park in Chad, but I'm also excited as we are opening new lodges in Rwanda next year to view mountain gorillas! 

(The birdlife in Africa is outstanding - a true Garden of Eden. Over breakfast one morning whilst in Kenya, we captured a brightly coloured Baglafecht Weaver on a Nikon D5300. Click to enlarge).

(A young lion cub watches with intent curiosity what the adult lions within the pride are doing. Lion cubs pick up behavioural traits to copy by watching their elder siblings and other pride members. Photograph taken in Tanzania, East Africa. Click to enlarge).

Our forthcoming website will be showcasing a number of safari options throughout Botswana and we would be delighted to help plan your very own adventure to this incredible part of the world. Please email us at enquiries@sandgrousetravel.com or call +44 1392 661 050. 

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