A few weeks ago I was on a walking safari in the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia. I recoiled from the rustle of nearby bushes and craved a gin and tonic.
Jacks, you might think. I thought so too. Because while I’m lucky enough to have been on safari a few times (I’ve worked in the industry for three years and the benefits still apply), whenever I get out of a vehicle in the African bush I can’t help but notice the feeling dead is on me.
Maybe the last thing I’ll ever see is the inside of a lion’s mouth before my head is chopped off like a cartoon burger. Maybe I’ll fall victim to the short fuse of an elephant in must, or maybe a hippo furious in search of water. Or could I be the first person to ever die from being kicked in the head by a warthog? That would certainly fit.
The stupid thing is that I know that the risk of any of these things actually happening is very small. Although statistics are hard to come by, millions of people go on safari every year and only once during the blue moon does a wild animal incident occur. In fact, so few people die on safari that these deaths don’t even appear in country statistics for safari destinations.
The reality is that, while it sounds adventurous, walking safaris are actually very controlled. It’s not like the human-wildlife conflicts you hear about on the fringes of safari parks, where tragically many local people die every year.
On the contrary, as a tourist on a walking safari you are always accompanied by an experienced guide who says things like “lions around” with a hungry grin on his face, expecting his guests to be equally happy. The biggest consolation is the (always fairly serious looking) scout of the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) who is licensed to carry a weapon as a precaution.
Even without the weapon, these guys know what they’re doing: Sometimes they follow poachers for 10 days, sleeping under the stars, completely exposed to the terrifying dark wilderness and whatever creeps in. The fact that they return unscathed every time is a testament to their expertise. If you’ve ever heard the distant echoed “yipee” of a hyena on a quiet night, you know what I mean. Let’s just say if I tried a similar adventure I doubt I’d make it 10 minutes.
But that’s a whole different cauldron of madness. In daylight, the action dies. As you walk, the predators are enjoying a nap and the hippos have already waddled back to their pods. But even with all these precautions, armed with a gun and the knowledge that I will almost certainly return unscathed, I get that feeling.
It’s the same – as I realized as my head was breaking at every sound and my heart was pounding – that I get when I walk alone in London at night.
And the sad thing is that while I could rationalize the fear on a walking safari, I can’t in London. Because while the chances of being attacked by an animal on safari are very slim, it is a real possibility to be intimidated, harassed and attacked by a man in London.
Do not believe me? More than half of women in London have been victims of unwanted sexual behaviour. In 2021, the number of rapes in the capital even reached a record high of 8,873. That is an average of 24 rapes a day.
So what are my chances? Well, they’re not great when you consider that in the rest of the country, one in four British women has been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult. Rapes saw a record high of nearly 70,000 reported cases across the country. Of these, only 1,557 lead to prosecution.
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But of course these are just the ones we hear about as only one in 100 rapes was reported to the police in 2021. So add a few zeros to 70,000 and we get a better idea of how scared I should really be walking alone’ at night in this wretched land.
At this rate, I’m probably more likely to be eaten by a zebra than a victim to successfully prosecute a rapist.
So it’s no surprise that when women walk alone in London at night, they arm themselves with makeshift weapons. They hold their keys tightly, dig into their palms, a small tip sticking out between the index and middle fingers.
We become what I imagine the ZAWA scout is at night: crossing the road to avoid the man sitting in his car, speeding up to see if the potential predator follows behind, slowing down and sinking into a bush so that the figure for me don’t know I’m there.