Melissa Shales arrived in Africa when she was just four years old, introduced to the bush by a mother with a passion for giraffes. At that stage she thought that rabbits were infinitely more exciting than elephants…
1. When did the travel bug bite you?
At the age of just four, my parents decided we should emigrate to what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. We travelled out by sea, down the east coast of Africa – my first great travel adventure. Within months of arrival, we were exploring the game parks and the pattern was set for a childhood of adventures with unsuitable family cars overladen with jerry cans of water, sleeping bags and our battered old tent constructed from about 200 complicated poles. We wandered from Cape Town to Mozambique, Victoria Falls to Lake Malawi, and, every few years, headed back to Europe on ‘long leave’. I’ve never really stopped. Blame (and thank) my parents!
2. What is your biggest struggle as a travel writer?
Boringly, for all the glamour in a travel writer’s life, the most difficult part of it is actually making a living. It’s always been hard but with the arrival of the internet, most of the public expect to get their information free and all the old models of payment for well-researched material have gone. We are all casting around looking for new ones which will preserve the quality of journalism and provide reliable advice in the future.
3. Which safari destination tops your bucket list?
So difficult, the list is long! I’ve seen very little of Namibia so far and I love deserts, so I’d like to go back and explore more there. The weather was terrible when I went to Sossusvlei so I didn’t see the gorgeous colours in the rocks at their best and Fish River Canyon sounds amazing. And I’d have to go to Etosha as well while there…
4. Which park or reserve (in Africa) disappointed you most?
Kruger is, of course, superb, but I remember being profoundly shocked the first time I went there as a child and found it had tarred roads, a railway line and a main camp the size of a small town! Having been used to Hwange and Gorongosa, with their potholed dirt roads, this came a rude shock and didn’t seem at all like the bush. I was comforted in later life when I realized it is quite possible to get far far away from the madding crowd in Kruger.
The other shocker was a private game lodge in Zimbabwe (no longer operating) that was trying to run photo and hunting safaris on the same property. The animals were so spooked you needed binoculars just to spot they were there and there was no hope of getting anywhere near them.
5. What is the most posh safari accommodation you've stayed in?
One of the great perks of my job is that I’ve had a chance to stay in some of the world’s finest lodges and call it work. And yes, I thoroughly enjoy it and never tire of it. It seems unfair to single one out because so many are fabulous in different ways, but if I have to, the one I would probably choose is &Beyond’s Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania. They describe it as the place where Versailles meets Maasai. I would add Middle Earth into the mix – strange hobbit houses on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater filled with the ultimate luxury. Where else can you lie in a steaming bath, rose petals floating on the surface, with a panoramic view across one of the greatest game parks in the world, while watching the sunset? And then go on to a gourmet dinner worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant? Quite extraordinarily charming.
6. What is the weirdest sound you've heard while on safari?
The Zambezi frog chorus. The river has the most extraordinary collection of frogs who gather to sing the night away at top volume – they creak, groan, whistle, bubble, hum, swoop and whoop. Actually one of the best places to hear them always used to be the ponds of the Victoria Falls Hotel, not exactly bush territory, but great for a mini-safari after cocktails.
7. If you could bring only one item on safari, what would it be?
Another difficult choice – does my walking stick count as clothes? I need that! And is insect repellant supplied? I’ve most definitely needed that on almost every safari I’ve been on. Nothing is more irritating (in every sense of the word) than being distracted from the beauty of your surroundings by itching. If I have both of those, then I’d take a good bird book. I’m pretty good on animals, but I’m still trying to learn my birds. There are so many of them and they are hard to distinguish.
8. What is the most unusual method of transport that you've used?
Unusual to me, but the oldest method in the world – going game-viewing in a mokoro (traditional dug-out canoe) in the Okavango Delta. You are low in the water, pushing your way through the reeds and water lilies with a pole with the lechwe splashing out the way around you. Immensely peaceful and beautiful and you notice the tiniest details such as the dragonflies dancing.
9. What is the strangest local dish you've eaten in Africa?
This is probably not the strangest meal I’ve eaten but it definitely had the best name. We were having lunch at a roadside café in Ghana and my traditional meal was fanti fanti with fufu. I had to order a Fanta to go with it! If you want a translation, fanti fanti is a slow-cooked tomato and vegetable stew with either meat or fish, fufu is sticky slightly fermented maize meal porridge.
10. If you reincarnate as an (African) animal, what would you want to be?
As long as I was safe from poachers, it would have to be an elephant (I now think they are infinitely more exciting than rabbits)! I would love to be an elephant matriarch – all that wisdom and strength, the clan feeling of the herd, the emotion, the way they work together to look after each other. They have immense dignity, playfulness and, it is said, great memories. And how cool would it be to have a nose flexible and subtle enough to pick up a berry, give yourself a bath or uproot a tree?