There are times when you should listen to that little voice in your head. Like when it shouts DON'T GO ON SAFARI, YOU'RE AFRAID OF SHEEP! But then there are times when you can't hear it because the big voice in your head is screaming FANCY AN ALL-EXPENSES-PAID TRIP TO SIR RICHARD BRANSON'S PRIVATE GAME RESERVE?
So that's how I came to be bouncing through the South African bush in a 12-seater Land-Rover looking for elephants, against my better judgement. What's more, I was genuinely enjoying myself and full of bravado because I had already been on one drive and returned with - yes, one, two, three, four - all my limbs.
It had been a bonanza morning. We had sat among a pride of sleeping lions and tracked a cheetah for a glorious half hour, mowing down all plant life in our way to keep up with the sharp-eyed slinky creature as she stalked through the high grass, an impossibly cute cub bounding along behind her. Our tracker, Jack, was perched above the front left headlight, his legs swinging about like a pair of hams that would make a juicy meal for any passing predator. He had "smelt" elephants. Never mind smell them, we could hear them breaking branches. No, breaking trees - the elephant is the bulldozer of the bush. I was delirious with excitement; another animal to tick off my list. But then we bumped into One Tusk.
Talk about supersize me. He was the living world's equivalent of a double-decker bus. A house. No, a tower block. Well, he was big. And he had only one tusk. And that tusk had blood on it. I couldn't stop the words tumbling from my mouth: "Oh my god, it's enormous ..." Now that's the kind of response every male wants to hear and One Tusk was probably no exception, because, as Jack quickly informed our ranger, Karl, he was "in musk" and not about to do a gentleman's excuse-me and allow us get to the breeding herd just beyond him. How did Jack know? Well, to save you from a fit of the vapours, let's just say a certain appendage of his was "dribbling".
"Okay," said Karl, gun at the ready but calmness personified. "We're going to have to back off. He's confused and his hormones are raging. He's a bit unpredictable." A bit unpredictable! Even I could predict he was rather miffed at our presence. It was something about the way he was coming towards us at increasing speed - every lollop equalling 10 human strides - flapping his ears and spraying dust with his trunk. At first I thought we were tracking him - backwards. (I told you I was new to this game.) But cries of "I don't like this, can we get out of here?" from Louise behind me, and the ashen face of Mike at the back, a safari junkie, told me that we were in a bit of a tight spot.
We reversed a quarter of a kilometre - it felt like 50 miles - finally pulling on to the dirt track. Karl revved the engine, One Tusk stopped in his tracks, and we sped off. Just a couple of hundred metres on, Karl stopped again. He switched off the engine, swung open the driver's door (read, I'm not scared), and turned to face us - or rather me, as chief offender. "Now, what I did there was back off to show deference," he said. "Then I revved the engine to show that we could be aggressive, which is why he stopped. You have to trust me. I will never put you in danger. But you have to trust me."
I did trust him, I did trust him. He was so romantic. It wasn't just the floppy blond hair and rugged good looks. This man had spent two years walking across Africa, confounding bandits, hyenas and dwindling shaving supplies. I felt pathetic, apologetic. But there was no way round it, I was rubbish in the bush. I'm OK in the gritty urban reality of the East End of London, where I live, but rubbish in the bush. What had I been thinking of?
Could we go home now? Nope, there was more to come. "I don't want you to miss the breeding herd. This is a fantastic opportunity. Don't worry, we'll go the other way round to avoid One Tusk." Don't worry? I could hardly breathe let alone worry. I just wanted my mummy.
But minutes later we were surrounded by 30 or more of the dusty grey leviathans. My, weren't they big? Even the calves. Nothing like Babar, you know. And that mother elephant, mmm, there was something about the way she was staring at us and making muffled trumpeting noises. Could we get out of here Karl, really Karl, now Karl, please Karl?
We slipped through the herd into empty bush. What a relief. Except, weren't we heading straight for One Tusk again? "Of course not," said Lucy, who unfortunately had chosen to sit next to me and was watching the blood drain from her hand which I had a little too firmly in my grip. "Of course we won't bump into him again, he's long gone." It was something about the overly light and airy tone of her denial that I found utterly unconvincing as we so obviously headed in One Tusk's direction. And sure enough, seconds later, there he was again. And he was just as unamused and coming our way at speed.
"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! Please turn around," I cried, losing all control. "OK," said the ever-compliant Karl, doing a swift U-turn, "but we'll have to go back through the herd." I couldn't bear to look, burying my head, ostrich-style, in poor Lucy's lap as we tore across the grass, straight towards the elephants. They heralded our departure with a deafening fanfare and much stamping of feet.
It was time to admit defeat. Wild horses, let alone disappointed rangers, couldn't drag me out of Ulusaba's gates until it was time for the flight back to Johannesburg. And the nearest I got to an animal was the baboon that appeared in the bar and stole a lemon. I guess some of us should just stick to the urban jungle.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
Kate Simon travelled as a guest of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Limited Edition. Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin.com/atlantic) operates direct flights to Johannesburg from London Heathrow from £615 between 1 November and 14 December. Return flights between Johannesburg and Ulusaba's private airstrip cost around £265. A night at Ulusaba costs from £290 per person through Virgin Limited Edition (0800 716919; www.virgin.com/limitededition), including all meals, drinks including alcohol, and all game viewing.Reuse content