You would think, living in the wilderness surrounded by wild fauna (human and animal alike) might satiate the human need for animal companionship. You might think that evening visits from the local hyena clan or the garden eating bushbuck would be enough. But, you would be wrong.
For as long as I have lived here, the desire to habituate a camp “pet” has been as relentless.
Many evenings had been spent plotting as to how we could habituate the local wildlife into becoming our faithful animal sidekicks. Yet the wildlife here are ingrained with a deep genetic mistrust of Homo sapiens. Not that I blame them, there is a reason I choose to live in the wild, far removed from the vast majority of my species.
But alas, every elaborate plan we cooked up failed, we were left broken-hearted and almost offended by the terrified retreat of our wild compatriots.
That was until a spunky Speke’s hinge-back tortoise emerged from underneath the wendy house. For anyone confused by the term “wendy house,” it is a DIY garden shed, mostly used for storage but in this case, for crew accommodation.
A knowing look was exchanged as it dawned on us that this was an animal that could not flee at top speed when approached with the over enthusiasm of that cheek-squeezing aunt everyone sees at family reunions.
The unsuspecting tortoise had just woken up from winter aestivation (a state similar to hibernation yet geared towards avoiding dry conditions instead of cold conditions), seemed a little startled at all this attention and within milliseconds, head and limbs were sealed in the depths of a near bulletproof shell.
Slightly disappointed at this fearful reaction, we retreated and soon enough the little tortoise emerged from its muddy carapace. On cue, a handful of spinach fell from the sky as though delivered by a Popeye-esque fairy-godmother. This time, the tortoise did not recoil and instead its razor sharp beak sliced the leaves into bite-sized ribbons that disappeared at an alarming speed. Clearly our new reptilian friend was hungry.
A few days later it occurred to us that “tortoise” was not an acceptable name for any safariLIVE crew member. Naming rights fell to Eggsy (A.K.A Xander) as it had first emerged from underneath his very own house.
“Gregory” was his un-enthused response.
“Gregory!” chimed the crew in delighted repetition. Gregory then became a common feature of the camp landscape. We weren’t entirely sure if Gregory was male or female and there was a certain reluctance to capsize the tiny tortoise to find out as we had only just earned its trust. Curiosity, did however, get the better of us and one day (in the most respectful and sensitive way possible) Gregory was gently lifted so his/her undercarriage could be properly investigated.
Turns out Gregory was a female. A change of name was out of the question, Gregory had now learnt her name and it would be extremely unfair of us to change it.
At this point it is important to note that Gregory was and most definitely is still wild. She was not being kept forcibly within the confines of the camp, she had every freedom to come and go as she pleased. Often we would observe little Gregory coming and going from her comfy burrow under the wendy house, she was greeted by a friendly “Hello Greg” and then we’d return to our daily activities as she shuffled out of camp and into the bush.
Soon her visits became more frequent. This of course had absolutely nothing to do with the various tasty treats that magic-ed themselves in front of her face on a daily basis. A mystery indeed, yet, as with any animal (or human) companion there are always pros, cons and flaws in character. Ours was loving too much, Gregory’s was an odd fascination with exposed toes.
Anwar (a former crew mate) learned this the hard way. One warm afternoon, while enjoying whatever moreish meal Amanda had prepared for us, Anwar leaped from his seat yelling with pained shock and terror. Slightly surprised we all looked at him with high anticipation, he glanced at the foot of his chair, our gaze followed. A roar of laughter then erupted, tears streamed from mirth-filled eyes and bellies were clutched as we struggled for breath. There sat Gregory looking somewhat confused as to why her her tasty toe had launched into the air screaming. Both Anwar and Gregory walked away from the unpleasant encounter with all digits intact.
Slowly our relationship with Gregory blossomed, from startled tortoise to demanding camp comrade, she brings joy and delight to all members of the crew. Last Christmas she even brought her chosen male suitor to meet us. He clutched desperately to her (mid-coitus) as she dragged him through the deep sand to our open arms while we giggled. A few weeks later we happened upon a baby Gregory just outside camp. We were overjoyed that Gregory had been successful and that her offspring were making their way in the world.
Sadly, joyous mornings spent coo-ing at Gregory as though she were a kitten are almost over. Winter approaches and the dry season is upon us. Soon, Gregory will return to a state of aestivation, meaning we will have to wait for the summer rains to fall once more before our favourite reptilian friend emerges from under the wendy.
Written by: Louise Pavid