Back in 1827 it was exotic beasts that drew the crowds. This week's serial Zarafa (Radio 4, weekdays) told the story of a young giraffe given as a present from the Viceroy of Egypt to the King of France. This Viceroy, Mehemet Ali, was a despotic type who'd already enslaved half of Africa before trying to get pally with the French. His cruelty to the Nubian slaves was notorious, whereas no expense would be spared to ensure the giraffe's good health. Michael Allin's fascinating account of Zarafa's capture in Sudan and subsequent journey to Paris was sympathetically read by Andrew Sachs.
Orphaned by Arab hunters while she was only six feet tall, Zarafa was taken to Khartoum, strapped on to a camel and sailed to Alexandria on the deck of a felucca; she was then shipped to France in an Italian brigantine with her head sticking out of the hold. A giant stable built by the prefect of Marseilles caused alarm as the inhabitants began to wonder what sort of dangerous creature was to be brought among them. Yet whenever people laid eyes on the giraffe they found her beguiling and gentle. Zarafa was more fortunate than an Indian rhinoceros that arrived in Lisbon 300 years earlier. Forced to take part in mortal combat with an elephant (which fled and broke through the gates) the rhino was then dispatched as a gift to the Pope, only to be shipwrecked in the Gulf of Genoa. Sometimes you just can't win.
Humans, of course, choose their own dangerous occupations. In Bridging the Gap (Radio 4, Sunday) this paper's travel editor, Simon Calder, took it upon himself to cross the Darien Gap, an 80-mile stretch of swamp and rainforest on the frontier between Colombia and Panama. The great Captain W E Johns (creator of Biggles) couldn't have thought up a grimmer list of perils facing the adventurer, including snakes, jaguars, mosquitoes, bandits and guerrillas. None of these seemed to bother Calder in the slightest, and he turned down the suggestion that he should carry a shotgun. Persuaded by an army trainer in jungle survival to take at least a machete, he then called at the British embassy in Bogota for some last-minute advice. "Nobody except crazy people from the BBC would ever think of going there," remarked the Ambassador in sedate tones, before breaking into a peal of reassuring laughter. At the end of the first episode we left Calder entering the gloom of a Panamanian night, having just been deserted by his guide. Does nothing frighten this man? Well, nothing in the jungle anyway.