Whether you are on an organised walking safari, on your own hike, or just walking from the car to your tent in the bush, it is possible that you will come across some of Africa's larger animals at close quarters. Invariably, the danger is much less than you imagine, and a few basic guidelines will enable you to cope effectively with most situations.
Firstly, don't panic. Console yourself with the fact that animals are not normally interested in people. You are not their normal food, or their predator. If you do not annoy or threaten them, you will be left alone.
If you are walking to look for animals, then remember that this is their environment, not yours. Animals have been designed for the bush, and their senses are far better attuned to it than your are. To be on less unequal terms, remain alert and try to spot them from a distance. This gives you the option of approaching carefully, or staying well clear.
Finally, the advice of a good guide is more valuable than the simplistic comments noted here. Animals, like people, are all different. So whilst we can generalise here and say how the 'average' animal will behave – the one that's glaring over a small bush at you may have had a really
bad day, and be feeling much more grumpy than average.
Here are a few general comments on how to deal with some potentially dangerous situations.
This is probably the continent's most dangerous animal to hikers, but there is a difference between the old males, often encountered on their own or in small groups, and large breeding herds.
Lone male buffalo are easily surprised. If they hear or smell anything amiss, they will charge without provocation – motivated by a fear that something is sneaking up on them. Buffalo have an excellent sense of smell, but fortunately they are short-sighted. Avoid a charge by quickly climbing the nearest tree, or by side-stepping at the last minute. If adopting the latter, more risky, technique then stand motionless until the last possible moment, as the buffalo may well miss you anyhow.
The large breeding herds can be treated in a totally different manner. If you approach them in the open, they will often flee. Occasionally though, they will stand and watch, moving aside to allow you to pass through the middle of the herd. Neither encounter is for the faint-hearted or inexperienced, so steer clear of these dangerous animals wherever possible.
The Kaokoveld has one of the world's best populations of black rhino – a real success story for Namibian conservation. However, if you are lucky enough to find one, and then unlucky enough to be charged by it, use the same tactics as you would for a buffalo: tree-climbing or dodging at the last second. (It is amazing how fast even the least athletic walker will scale the nearest tree when faced with a charging rhino.)
If there are no trees in the vicinity, you have a problem. Your best line of defence is probably to crouch very low, so you don't break the skyline, and remain motionless.
Normally elephants are only a problem if you disturb a mother with a calf, or approach a male in musth (state of arousal). So keep well away from these. However, after decades of persecution, Namibia's 'desert elephants' have a reputation for almost unprovoked aggression. Many people (mostly local villagers) are killed by them each year. The moral is to give these elephants a very wide berth, and to be extremely cautious when in areas where they are likely to be found.
Normally, if you get too close to an elephant, it will first scare you with a 'mock charge': head up, perhaps shaking; ears flapping; trumpeting. Lots of sound and fury. This is intended to be frightening, and it is. But it is just a warning and no cause for panic. Just freeze to assess the elephant's intentions, then back off slowly.
When elephants really mean business, they will put their ears back, their head down, and charge directly at you without stopping. This is known as a 'full charge'. There is no easy way to avoid the charge of an angry elephant, so take a hint from the warning and back off slowly as soon as you encounter a mock charge. Don't run. If you are the object of a full charge, then you have no choice but to run – preferably round an anthill, up a tall tree, or wherever.
Tracking lion can be one of the most exhilarating parts of a good walking safari. Sadly, they will normally flee before you even get close to them. However, it can be a problem if you come across a large pride unexpectedly. Lion are well camouflaged; it is easy to find yourself next to one before you realise it. If you had been listening, you would probably have heard a warning growl about twenty metres ago. Now it is too late.
The best plan is to stop, and back off slowly, but confidently. If you are in a small group, then stick together. Never
run from a big cat. Firstly, they are always faster than you are. Secondly, running will just convince them that you are frightened prey worth chasing. As a last resort, if they seem too inquisitive and follow as you back off, then stop. Call their bluff. Pretend that you are not afraid and make loud, deep, confident noises: shout at them, bang something. But do not run.
John Coppinger, one of Africa's most experienced guides, adds that every single compromising experience that he has had with lion on foot has been either with a female with cubs, or with a mating pair, when the males can get very aggressive. You have been warned.
Leopard are very seldom seen, and would normally flee from the most timid of lone hikers. However, if injured or surprised, they are very powerful, dangerous cats. Conventional wisdom is scarce, but never stare straight into the leopard's eyes, or it will regard this as a threat display. (The same is said, by some, to be true with lion.) Better to look away slightly, at a nearby bush, or even at its tail. Then back off slowly, facing the direction of the cat and showing as little terror as you can. As with lion – loud, deep, confident noises are a last line of defence. Never run from a leopard.
Hippo are fabled to account for more deaths in Africa than any other animal (ignoring the mosquito). Having been attacked and capsized by a hippo whilst in a dug-out canoe on the Okavango, I find this very easy to believe. Visitors are most likely to encounter hippo in the water, when paddling a canoe or fishing. However, as they spend half their time grazing ashore, you'll sometimes come across them on land. Out of their comforting lagoons, hippos are even more dangerous. If they see you, they will flee towards the deepest channel nearby – so the golden rule is never to get between a hippo and its escape route to deep water. Given that a hippo will outrun you on land, standing motionless is probably your best line of defence.
These are really not the great danger that people imagine. Most flee when they feel the vibrations of footsteps; only a few will stay still. The puff adder is responsible for more cases of snakebite than most other venomous snakes because, when approached, it will simply puff itself up and hiss as a warning, rather than slither away. This makes it essential always to watch where you place your feet when walking in the bush.
Similarly, there are a couple of arboreal (tree dwelling) species which may be taken by surprise if you carelessly grab vegetation as you walk. So don't.
Spitting cobras are also encountered occasionally; they will aim for your eyes and spit with accuracy. If the spittle reaches your eyes, you must wash them out immediately
and thoroughly with whatever liquid comes to hand: water, milk, even urine if that's the only liquid that you can quickly produce.