Charged by a rhino, stalked by a shark and cornered by crocodiles – just a normal day at the office for intrepid explorers. In the event of being stared down by a lion, most of us would probably just faint – or run. Those are probably two of the worst things you can do. So how should you react? Telegraph Travel spoke to two people with first-hand experience of being tracked and attacked by some of the world’s deadliest animals.
One of them is Stoke-on-Trent’s answer to Indiana Jones, Levison Wood, an explorer and best-selling author who has visited over 100 countries and walked across most of the world – up the Nile, along the Himalayas, through the Americas and more recently from Russia to Iran. The former British Army officer has found himself in some pretty hair-raising situations and says he’s lost count of the number of times he has diced with death. His travels have led him to numerous face-to-face meetings with wild animals, his most feared being crocodiles, hippos, gorillas, lions and snakes.
But he may have met his match with BBC presenter, journalist and award-winning travel writer Michelle Jana Chan who has had her fair share of animal encounters in the wild. An active adventurer herself, Jana Chan has swum across the Bosphorus, climbed the Gulap Kangri in Ladakh, competed in the Peking to Paris vintage car rally and even gained her private pilot’s licence. Along the way she filmed numerous documentaries about animals in the wild – with a number of frightening moments. The most notable being encounters with sharks, rhinos, and a particularly nasty scorpion.
We asked both explorers to give us the lowdown on some of their scariest encounters with dangerous animals, and their get-out-of-jail-free cards.
Nile crocodiles are one of the deadliest and most feared animals in Africa. They can reach maximum lengths of 20 feet (six metres) and are responsible for hundreds of human deaths and disappearances each year, along with many other large animals on the continent. In Wood’s book, Walking the Nile, he talks about a man he met in a small fishing village in South Sudan, Sirillo of the Mundari tribe, who told him his brother has been eaten by a crocodile – at 11 o’clock that very morning.
“Doing things like walking the Nile you’ve got to be really careful – going down to the river just to get water or to bathe,” says Wood. “Crocodiles are very instinctive creatures but they’ll watch for days on end before they actually attack.
“There have been occasions where I’ve been surrounded by crocodiles on a narrow strip between the forest and the river. You’re walking along and you make a noise, and suddenly they all want to escape to get into the water. You’re suddenly surrounded and it’s like a scene out of James Bond when you’re sort of jumping over the backs of crocodiles.
“The trick there is not going to the obvious watering holes. Get your water from somewhere unusual that the animals don’t regularly go to drink.”
In Africa, hippos, of all large animals, are the biggest killers of humans – far more so than lions. During the walk along the Nile, close to the Murchison Falls, Wood and his group had to run for their lives after being charged by an angry hippo they’d accidentally disturbed.
“The most deadly place in Africa is between the hippo and the water,” he says. “As you’re walking along, if the hippos want to get to the water – especially if they’ve got babies – they won’t take any prisoners; they’ll just come straight for you. And they can run. Hippos are relatives of the horse so they can run as fast as horses, it’s incredible.
“To defend yourself against them, you need to climb a tree or get over something that they can’t get over – a hedge or a wall or something – because they will outrun you.”
Like hippos, Wood advises hiding behind a tree if you get charged by a rhino as they have poor eyesight and there’s a good chance of escape. This chimes with Jana Chan’s experience. She was filming for the BBC in Namibia when she and her crew unexpectedly came across two mothers and two babies. “We were suddenly very close,” she says. “And they charged. There was some undergrowth, but it’s Namibia. I started running before the tracker shouted run. We all ran, all of us in totally different directions, because there was really nowhere to hide and there was no vehicle to go to.
“I remember my heart hammering behind this tree and I couldn’t see anyone, so there was this strangely lonely feeling. I waited there for about half an hour and then finally I could hear a tracker calling us and we all kind of grouped together. My advice is you run if a rhino charges you. Make sure you’re slightly fit and agile so you can.”
She adds: “You know what they say? If you’re group’s getting chased by a lion you don’t have to run fast you just have to run faster than the slowest runner!” If you’re still in doubt, WikiHow has a step-by-step guide on how to deal with a hippo encounter. And when you see a hippo ‘yawning’ it is actually a warning sign that you are too close – a snappy retreat is in order.
Gorillas, on the other hand, require an acquiescent exchange. During one of Wood’s trips he was told that, no matter what happened, he should not run away if he and his group came face-to-face with a gorilla.
So, when he did run into a group of mountain gorillas, he followed his instructions down to a T. “A silverback came and it was beating its chest,” says Wood. “Having listened to the safety briefing, I did exactly as I was told. Then I looked around and the entire group had gone. They’d all run away – including the ranger himself!”
What else does he suggest? Behaving like a gorilla. Because gorillas respond to social hierarchy, Wood says it’s wise to acknowledge respect and get to their level, acknowledging that they are the dominant species. “With gorillas, the whole thing is you’ve got to be submissive. You don’t want to look them in the eye, don’t back away – and don’t run, whatever you do. Just look at the ground because it treats you as one of its own so you’ve got to kind of adopt gorilla behaviour,” he says.
During one of Jana Chan’s ventures, she and a friend took a dip one afternoon to chase shoals off the shore of the Seychelles. What they hadn’t realised was that these enormous groups of fish and manta rays are the perfect fodder for tiger sharks – until she saw one looking straight at her.
“I still recall the glint in its eye,” she says. “It was about two or three metres away from me. It was hovering, kind of levitating. We had this locked gaze, it felt like… It actually felt strangely exciting. And maybe there was a sense internally that there’s nothing I can do so I may as well enjoy the moment! But as weird as it sounds I absolutely loved the thrill. I guess that was a mix of fear and excitement bundled up.”
Jana Chan admits she didn’t receive much advice on what to do in the event of being stalked by a shark, but relied on instinct. She said: “I think in my head I thought the idea of turning my back to a shark and swimming front crawl as fast as I could for a kilometre and a half just seems also quite insane, so I just kind of stayed there for a minute or two.
“Then, with my mask still on and while still looking at him, I started to retreat backwards. Eventually the murk and the gloom took over and I could see him no longer.”
Experts advise that those facing a shark attack should try not to panic, don’t play dead, but instead try to back up against something solid and, if possible, grab a weapon. If things get really bad, try to punch the shark on the nose or claw its face.
Lions are the laziest of the big cats and spend up to 20 hours a day snoozing. But they are also very quick on their toes, hunt in packs and are responsible for killing around 250 people a year. “You’ve got to be careful with lions,” warns Wood.
“Lions are big cats, they will chase you if you run so again you’ve got to fight that fear not to run away because the moment you turn your back it will pounce on you. So you’ve got to slowly walk back, make noise, make yourself look big.
“I remember being in a tent and waking up hearing the lions roaring outside and you kind of think, the only thing that’s separating me and the lion is a bit of canvas.”
There are over 2,000 species of scorpion across the world and like spiders, all of them are poisonous but only a certain number have the ability to harm a human. Jana Chan was stung on Safari in Namibia and describes how she was faced with a potentially life-threatening decision. “I was wearing ankle-high trekking boots, thick socks and safari pants. But the rain was coming and scorpions come out just before the rains,” she explains. “And yes, I should have probably tucked my safari pants into the tops of my socks. Perhaps. Do I ever do that? Rarely.
“And he just chose my leg to crawl up and so I felt this shooting pain, I knew it wasn’t a mosquito. And the safari guy said – within a second – ‘scorpion’. We had to try to find the scorpion because there were two types, if it was yellow it was OK if it was black it wasn’t. But we didn’t actually find it.”
After a while of searching and realising there was nowhere close by to by antidote from, Jana Chan sat back and hoped for the best. “We took a risk and we decided that there were so many more yellow ones than black ones and we would just have a glass of whisky. So that’s what we did,” she says.
“Tuck your safari pants into your big woolly socks,” she advises. Other cautions include shaking out bed sheets, clothing and shoes before using them, and being careful when lifting rocks, logs and firewood.
Snakes feature throughout Wood’s walking adventures, but perhaps one of the most sobering moments was when a fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in Central and South America, launched itself at one of his crew members in the middle of a rainforest. He said: “One of my porters in the Americas got bitten by a snake, luckily the venom didn’t inject, it caught onto his trousers.
“Snakes are one of the biggest dangers because you’ve got to really watch where you’re going. You’ve got to make noise when you walk through the jungle because otherwise, if you stand on one it’s gonna bite you. Always make sure that if you’re in the jungle don’t wear shorts, wear full trousers.”