Fiona MacCarthy

Animals and I


This section is all about those encounters with nature’s creatures other than humans. Some of my happiest holidays have been spent observing them in their natural habitats and whether it’s the highly focused and instinctive baby turtle or the majestic elephant, they each bring their own story. The following is a summary of my stories that follow.


•Komodo Dragon and the interior version.

•Geckos in Ballito.

•Snakes in Africa: Snake park, snake under car and snake half way up mountain that should not be there. And the temple snakes of Penang.

•Lions in Krugersdorp, Kalahari Gemsbok and the trip I missed, stuffed lions in Botswana as well as mating lions.

•Elephants charging, conversations in Savuti.

•Hippos grazing on Chobe.

•Others: ants in Ballito, Bird life etc Turtle island.

•Crocodiles in Botswana.

•Cats v Dogs (a comment as I do live in England now)






It was in Spring 1994 that I was winding my way eastwards from Sumatra to Bali (both volcanic) with their quaint, touristy and calming cultures. Then there was Lombok (volcanic too) followed by the volcanic (all part of the “ring of fire”) devastated Sumbawa, which was the last opportunity to buy a goat for later sacrifice to the infamous dragons of Komodo. It was a practise only referred to in guides as it was officially being discouraged by the time I arrived. As the route to the island involved a vehicle ferry followed by a touristy converted fishing boat i.e. not smelling of fish and with a bright coat of paint, I was more concerned about my animal handling skills and what to do with a pooing, peeing hee-hawing goat on its way to a quite cruel end by which I mean being eaten alive rather than whether it would be a good experience for me. No goat was procured and none form part of this tale.


We transferred to the fishing boat and were taken to a wooden jetty on what was foliage packed crescent shaped bay. There were half a dozen huts of very old wooden construction and as a solo traveller I got a whole hut of half a dozen bed-rooms to myself. In the evening of day 1 when I retuned to the hut for a wash in what turned out to be a web enwrapped wash-room (big tank of water with ladle) I began to get worried. I went to my room where an early evening gecko/lizard type thing (anthropologists abhor my descriptive powers) which having lost its tails in some previous bout, now was just as long as from the wrist to the tip of the finger. Initially shocked I was relieved to note not a single insect, mosquito or anything else in the room. In fact in the 2 nights 3 days there I never saw my host again and never saw anything creepy-crawly like. It was the most efficient vacuum cleaner I have ever seen and my only disappointment was the fact that it had no interest in the spider-laced washroom. Quaintly territorial?




We had been warned on arrival to stay away from the dragons and that our tour would be on the following morning. I assure readers yet again that no goats were visible. I have no pre-conceived ideas of the dragon other than vague childhood memories of a mid fifties book by David Attenborough “Zoo quest for a dragon” and so my first encounter was observing a dragon (“giant monitor lizard” to be more correct as no fires or flames were involved or Welshmen committed to slaying) out the back of the kitchen area waiting for scraps. It does destroy the image of fiercest dragons when these generally slow moving (but can outrun a man when they are hungry) lazes lazily for next feeding time just like any eager human diner in a restaurant.




The following morning we set off in single file along a path to the gully where the stars were fed on a weekly basis as they were waned off their tourist inspired or provided diets. A nice touch from the National Parks Board. En route we were forced off the path as a Dragon waddled down the path in the opposite direction. The guards kept them away with long sticks. It had the gait of a crocodile with its waddle and curious dark hungry eyes. At the gully we went inside a fenced (3 foot wire mesh wooden poles) area and observed the KD's in the gully below (not a feeding day) whilst a couple (dragons not people) hanged around outside the fence. In my non-professional opinion these were clearly an individualistic, hunting animal and not a pack animal or otherwise we would have been supper. I still take any opportunity to watch any programme on this much-maligned creature not for the sake of itself but for the wild image of the island but I have never seen a mention of my invisible bedroom companion, the silent killer!






Geckos in Ballito.


My home in Ballito was a residential touristy small town some 50km north of Durban on the Natal coast was a picture card bungalow coincidentally at the address of 27 Elizabeth Drive. I say coincidence, as I was 27 when I bought it and the eldest of my 2 sisters is called Elizabeth. It had as close to 180-degree view of the sea on a gentle hillside some 300 metres from the sea. The area had two distinct climates. Hot humid wet summers interspersed with boisterous lightning laced storms and cooler winters when a pullover might occasionally be required.


It had a delightful wooden framed balcony where I spent many evenings, memories past and current laced with too much alcohol observing a considerable number of very territorial finger length geckos blended to background colour of a white ceiling. Some fierce fights (between them) entertained many boring lonely evenings. A word of note, they are great consumers of flying and crawling midgies making an evening relaxation most pleasant outdoors, but are also prodigious albeit small crappers. Do not sit under.






St Patrick supposedly and by legend chased snakes out of the country and introduced Christianity. This was first recorded case of species discrimination and me thinks a reverse swap would do no harm. Scientists suggest that the snakes never made it to Ireland as continental drift led to Ireland moving apart from the slightly snake impacted England. In any case snakes as a child were clearly viewed negatively by the Catholic Church and featured only as killing rattlers in Western movies. And so my mind was set; avoid.



Early encounters


I knew that there were snakes in Africa (brilliant education) and so it was no surprise when in November 83 whilst living in Johannesburg (having arrived in August) that I moved to 34 James Crescent in Halfway House which was and still is situated halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria. It was at the very start of a major local property boom but curiously enough was next door to the snake park. I re-assure readers that none escaped in my time indicating a very non-assertive aspect of snake personality. Most wild animals will take any opportunity to escape and roam but not my neighbours. I learnt that there are lots of different types of snakes and most are absolutely harmless. In fact the most dangerous are only so when stepped on or cornered which makes them quite similar to humans although humans only become legless infrequently. I went to several venom extractions but never seized the opportunity to handle my very quiet neighbours.



The Berg encounters


Several years later with the infamous travel group Pegottys International Safari Tours (PIST) we (Cormac K, Richard H and I) were ascending a mountain in the Drakensberg range one weekend with slowest walking Cormac Kierans leading and Richard Haddon trailing and me in middle when to the side of the 45 degree climb I could clearly here sizzle sizzle and not in the BBQ sense. In the absence of options I pushed into the back of Cormac in a panic, who moved forward reluctantly and only slightly faster. Richard in his wisdom then reminded us that snakes were not to be found at that height. My lesson is that snakes not been inclined for literary pursuits, are subject to getting lost sometimes and so I do not believe everything that is wrote.


A later encounter also in the Berg but at a hutted camp at lower altitude I was conversing with a friend (as a result of this website now confirmed as Heather McFadyen) with my back resting on my car one Sunday morning prior to departure for home when she left out a major scream. I had not known her for screaming and nor do I normally have this affect on most people (normally). She pointed quite excitedly and animatedly at the ground as a camp guard came running. He despatched the Berg adder (this snake living at designated altitude) and offered the remains (uncleaned) to both of us. But I have seen horror movies where things come back to life (eg Aliens 17) and declined his kind offer. This proves to me that living near people is dangerous to snakes and that the starring snake of the previous story was quite intelligent in moving to a higher altitude away from folk. Evolutionary theory a possible cause!!       


Other pictures from trips with PIST are recorded here!home



Penang temple snakes


In December 91, I took a newly opened special package trip to Singapore and Malaysia (from south Africa) stopping off in Penang for a few days (more details under Backpacking SEA). A guided tour took us, a group of strangers to a temple where the smoke sedated snakes were allowed to pose on the heads and shoulders of tourists and all for special priced photos. I shuddered and shunned the opportunity but later in 94 when backpacking through the region I am captured on camera with a deeply worried grimace as several of these snakes posed showing no fear, calmly on my head and shoulders. This is proof that I was getting braver or is it sillier or touristified!








Newly arrived in Johannesburg presented many opportunities but Sundays were a very serious drag. No alcohol without meals meant short stays or finding one of the few restaurants that allowed lingering but restaurants are not pubs, not the atmosphere etc if you know what I mean, and I do hope you appreciate what I'm talking about. So awakening on a Sunday morning could mean a quiet day ahead and it often did. I was only there a month when I was discovering this. A tourist guide to what to see and do in Joeys suggested the Krugersdorp lion park.


The wintry day was warming to a cloud free sky when I found the reserve all grass bleached lifeless khaki and half a dozen lions sitting in the shade of a tree. People have images of lions as been ferocious hunters but for 98% of their lives they are as lazy as a neutered domestic moggy. They can and do hunt but these inmates had that activity of instinct taken away from them. I wound the window down and was busy photographing my first real African lions (no zoo cages to block the view) when I heard a munching sound from behind me. With window open I turned in the seat to see my rear view occupied by 2 lions, paws on boot as they gnawed mauled and chewed the rubber spoiler on the boot. Recovering to a semi composure I shut the window and then thought how clever to get around there when I thought all were posing for my camera. Lesson it’s not just what you see that should worry you but what you cannot see.








In the late 80’s I was on a camping trip through Botswana with a very mixed international group of a dozen travellers when there were 3 small stories of lions. Firstly was the night calls as we finished our beverages before retiring to the tents whilst contemplating the need for a last minute answer to a call of nature that was more likely to call later. Its nice of them cats to let you know where they are but then as I’ve mentioned it’s the ones you do not see. A 2nd brief story was when we drove up right next to a pair of lions who were completely and absolutely stuffed from a kill. Can you imagine a very pregnant like lioness? One stumbled to her feet and piddled half over the other whilst the other lay transfixed on its back and relieved itself lazily and carelessly. I’ve even seen people behave similarly. A 3rdencounter was with a mating pair watched jealously by the defeated lover from the trees not so far away whilst the romantic couple carried on coupling in the manner of lions being frequent short penetrations of the female in an aggressive manner by the male whose mumbling roars are a tease to the losing male. Have seen humans behave like this too.





Pictured below is the Kalahari Gemsbok, one of the most strikingly beautiful antelopes (my opinion) in Southern Africa.






Situated on the SA border with Botswana and Namibia is a very quiet remote game park of desert like beauty. This is not a green tree laden paradise but lip cracking dry. I was travelling with Richard of snake fame is his company car BMW316. I mention the car type in case the reader is knowledgeable of cars and particularly of clearance heights. It had taken approx 12 hours of serious driving to arrive at the Park from Joeys (affectionate name for Johannesburg). After erecting our tent, attending a wildlife nature programme, cooking some steaks and observing a pair of white-faced owls (unusual colouring for owls) we retired for the night or in other words hit the sack. The following morning we ventured out along one of the few sandy roads before spotting some lionesses drinking from an animal fountain (standpipe and concrete base). We decided to get closer by going off-road and we were about 40 feet away, with them ignoring us, and us fascinated by them. After picture taking exhausted we went to drive off when the wheels spun. It was a very quiet park, and no mobile phones back then. At that stage Richard instructed me to keep an eye on lions as he got out of car to retrieve a shovel from boot and then to start digging us out. My selfish concern was what I was going to do if he got eaten whilst outside the car. More concern to me later was what he was doing with a shovel, was it a case of simply been prepared or did he want to get caught. Richard is a good bloke but maybe he will explain one day. (A few years ago he built a ski slope in the Middle East for his boss)







Lions missed


My only wild life regret was having organised a PIST trip (Peggottys (name of our commune) International Safari Tours) away for some dozen friends, neighbours and housemates I was asked on a Thursday by my boss of late 1986 (John Morrow) to do some work before Monday. My friends left on Friday for a particular park in Northern Natal and whilst I was working early Saturday they were traipsing through the bush with a couple of guides when a head popped up followed a second and then a third. At this stage and as later recounted by the ranger with them, they were clearly surrounded by a pride of lions. They backed out and away without incident but I do deeply regret missing that incident.






Elephants are my favourite animal (after turtles). It’s their grace and their strength combined with a very strong family sense.



Real and fake charges


One aspect of that family culture is that young males (age about 10 I think) are thrown out and expected to go find their own family. Humans do similarly but at a different age.  A good way of preventing incest more than likely (for the elephants). There were 3 of us driving down this 10 foot wide raised road in Northern Kruger Park when we spotted 2 young males with an older male walking our way from off to the side. Young males tend to pick up older males for education purposes. Its not as if they have libraries to learn from and they are expected to find their own matriarchal herds and in there to find a suitable female or trunk romance. That’s a tough call for a male that’s just been tuffed out of a similar herd and these elephants are not into casual sex: females are fussy. These 3 elephants were quite scattered and the closest elephant was due to cross the road some 100 yards ahead of us (no elephants behind us). It reached the road and turned to face us. Then it turned to us, and slowly started flapping its ears raising its trunk to bellow out and started moving to us. I have mentioned the narrow width of the road but was now unsure how the red colour of the car was impacting on the elephant. I think they are black and white seeing but more important back then was what to do with an elephant that was gathering pace, trunk-raised ears flapping and bellowing. I reversed a bit and did a perfect 2 point turn and left with a trail of dust. Experienced readers will have recognised that this was a false charge and not a real charge which is when the elephant says nothing, tucks its trunk between its legs, ears back and charges. Distinguishing in reality is a bit silly and withdrawal without panic ASAP recommended. (If you are spiritual then pray later)


Drunk elephant


It was in Southern Botswana on the edge of the swamps when we were out walking when we came across an elephant that was feeding from a tree. The tree was the Marula tree and whilst not legless by any means it was clearly swaying in a happy way as it continued to munch its way through the fruit. One non-expert has since told me that the mass of the elephant is such that the alcohol would not impact on its massive body but me thinks and believes that the alcohol gets to its brain, which is quite small, and therefore the impact magnified (same as some humans). I recall it swaying quite happily and most importantly ignoring us. My interpretation may be scientifically flawed but I like it. The Marula tree contributes to a liquor called surprisingly Amarula. Drink in moderation!



Sad elephant?


This has nothing to do with a hangover although I’m curious if these sensitive creatures ever feel that way ie sad. On the same Botswana trip we had reached what used to be a proper campsite in what was then a very-very dry Savuti in the centre of Botswana. The elephants were very thirsty and starting to die as the drought impacted them and more so due to their large water needs. They had demolished most of the ablution blocks in their search for even a dripping tap. The Nature Reserve had constructed large mushroom like water dispensers in a concrete basin as elephants had a habit of destroying anything in the their search for even more water.


We saw several water reservoirs destroyed and had been told by our guide that the elephants were starting to move north to the Chobe River and were calling to each other. We had just set up camp in this particular campsite and I was walking around before lunch when this elephant (male single) wandered up and stood about 10 feet away from me. I was not stressed and nor did I feel threatened. For several minutes maybe 5 probably more, it stood before me with its trunk swaying gently, head moving even less and mumbling away. I’m sure there is a more technical word for what noise it was making but it sounded like a sad mumble. There was nothing I could do but in my tourist manner photographed it. It’s the only time I have stepped back from wildlife to get it in the frame rather than zoomed in or moved closer. I was that close and very moved by the experience. I hope he survived.







Hippos are nearly always boring. In fact most of the time its only 2 large nostrils flanked by a pair of eyes and maybe a patch of skull above the water. They are quite lazy in comparison with what lives outsides the water. One day sitting in the car at a waterhole munching on some breakfast and waiting for something to happen at this large water hole there was a flurry of activity in the water on the opposite side, much splashing and then one hippo moved out of the water in the same way as an obese swimmer emerges vigorously from the sea. They look so odd (some swimmers do too) on their short legs with their massive barrel shaped bodies. As the hippo reached dry land a 2nd emerged behind making a loud hippo noise (I cannot emulate in words), and started chasing the first across the open ground. I thought the earth was shaking, as they each seemed to leap in the air on all legs at the same before returning to earth. It was either a fight or a romantic dispute. As quickly as they appeared, the 1st returned to the water in a massive splash followed by the 2nd and then both disappeared below water. End of drama.


My other experience was on the banks of the Chobe River in Northern Botswana whilst on our way to Victoria Falls when we had pitched tents with darkness falling quickly, showered, I went into tent to dump gear and emerged to find a hippo now grazing between the tents. It was just like one big pig. We exited the scene quietly and without disturbing this gentle (its not always gentle) grazing giant.




Everyone or nearly everyone knows they lived back when dinosaurs roamed. Useless knowledge and they are better known for belts and shoes and not so well in the culinary world where they taste more like chicken. Correct me if you will but those were my memories; maybe I was robbed.


We were in this little motor boat lets say capacity 4 folk with the ranger steering navigating and keeping an eye on everything at water level, me in the bow, as we passed between the reeds in the swampy part of Botswana. We had flown into this camp on a 4-seater plane and there were not many tourists, which I prefer best. We rounded one of many frequent bends in a narrow river when from my perch observed a patch of river-bank where the reeds had withdrawn like a receding hairline leaving a flat white sandy bank. There, like a stage actor was a large crocodile doing nothing, well doing nothing visibly but no doubt calculating its culinary relationship with us. The ranger had killed the engine and we were drifting silently about 5 metres from this wannabe handbag (the opposite me thinks) when without warning noise or notice it raised itself and plunged straight into the river under our boat. Total time from bend was a bit more than 10 seconds and certainly less than 15. I never even got a chance to photo it.


Cats or Dogs


As a child we were more a cat family and visits to the homes of other folk who had dogs was always prefaced by warnings as to avoid been bitten. It was as if they were as dangerous as any of the preceding non-domesticated animals.


A famous pair of cats when in our teenage years was Jack and Jill and although both were neutered the female remained a huntress whilst the male took up a sleeping eating and entertaining career. He was the character and she the “cat”, He dependent, she independent and yet both from the same litter: How curious nature can be in its diversity.


A contrast for me then was when arriving in South Africa was that most homes had dogs and big dogs at that. Our commune (shared house) at Houghton Johannesburg had an Alsatian who despite her advanced years jealously guarded female housemates from poolside carry-on even biting one male who was pushing a female housemate (Steph) into the pool. The other housedog was a Rhodesian ridgeback with imposing presence. These 2 guarded a Johannesburg house whose doors were never locked or barred. Okay we did not have lots of possessions but even a TV/ video would have attracted a thief in the poverty of Joeys. When they died and quite close together we replaced them with a mongrel black ridgeback with big green eyes and an eternal puppy dispensation. We then started to lock up the home. 




Africa opened my eyes to the animal kingdom in its easy to see forms


Other cats

I have been lucky to see leopard and cheetah, but the thrill of real life is quashed by their distance and their natural camouflage. They really are shy and ideal subjects for telly programmes. I mention here for the record only.


Bird life


Bird life in Southern Africa is truly amazing. Its diversity in a wide range of habitats makes it a spotters delight. Whilst living there I learnt to identify a lot both by courses and more so by patient identification. The fish eagle would perch on a branch upriver from Victoria Falls for the tourist boat to arrive and then swoop from 100 metres away to pluck a fish which had been thrown in (dead) from our boat. Too touristy by half, but here is a picture of mine

The kingfisher is beautifully coloured and more difficult to spot and therefore still catches its own fish: a delight to see.


Movers of Dung


Dung beetles are tough, ugly and small. If they were any bigger their formidable strength and gutsy determination would make them a threat to humanity. They do, as they are called, collecting and rolling up pieces of dung in bundles, that are larger than themselves.


Ants amok


A moderately nerve wracking experience was waking up one night in Ballito (north coast Natal in South Africa) as a massive thunderstorm roared. I felt itchy in my half sleepy stupor and frustrated by the itch that was not to be quelled. In frustration and annoyance I switched on the bedside light to find that my bed and upper torso in particular was in the path of a large (I mean really large) column of common ants proceeding from a wall grating through the bedroom into a next door room where they gathered in a vast circular like shape. I exhausted a can and my only can of insect killing spray just in my room with little impact. Slept on sofa. I left for work in morning and by the time I returned that evening armed to the hilt with killing spray they had left. In hindsight they had simply been flooded out of their home. I on the other hand never was short of spray in future.



Turtle Island Borneo


My most amazing and pleasant memory was not from Africa but from Turtle Island off the north east coast of Sabah province. It’s a very small island and takes less than 30 minutes to walk around if curious about nature coastlines etc. There are a few huts (back in 94 and so it will have changed). After evening meal we were taken to an area the size of a tennis court all in earth and divided up. When eggs are laid on the beach by mummy turtle they are collected and buried in this area to await hatching. Monitored they are gathered up on hatching and we took them back to the sea and the sand where they all scuttled off seaward to be tossed around like corks. In my memory they all swam off. We then watched a full-grown turtle come ashore to bury a batch of eggs before been disturbed in a worrying manner (my view). These eggs too were gathered. My concern was at her visible distress of not been able to complete the nesting/ egg-laying process.