Mike Unwin is a freelance writer, specialising in travel, natural history and Africa. His books include Southern African Wildlife, Swaziland and 100 Bizarre Animals (all Bradt).
He writes regularly for such leading publications as The Independent, BBC Wildlife, Travel Africa and Wanderlust, and formerly edited Travel Zambia magazine. Mike’s awards include BBC Wildlife Travel Writer of the Year 2000 and the British Guild of Travel Writers UK Travel Writer of the Year 2013. His photographs appear in numerous publications. Now based in the UK, Mike worked for eight years in southern Africa.
The 10 questions:
1. When did the travel bug bite you?
I grew up with a diplomat for a grandfather. He regaled me with tales of Africa and other far-off lands, and brought me back all kind of natural mementos, from crocodile teeth to a weaver bird’s nest (many of them strictly illegal, I’m sure). My own obsession with local natural history – the birds and butterflies in my back garden – quickly grew to encompass more exotic environments, but it wasn’t until I left university and went to work as a teacher in Zimbabwe that I was able to experience such places for myself. Travel has, for me, always been inseparable from wildlife and it was from animal encyclopedias that I learned my way around a map of the world. The excitement of those early travel days, often hitching around Africa on a shoestring, has never been bettered by the more luxurious trips that my work allows me to make today.
2. What is your biggest struggle as a professional travel writer?
I am continually frustrated by lack of time. Press trips and other travel opportunities for journalists are generally brief and rushed. The itinerary demands that we keep moving in order to make the most of our limited time. Thus I often find myself having just arrived in a fabulous new destination, which I’d love to have explored at leisure over several days, only to pack up my bags again the next morning. This is the difference between travel for work and travel for leisure. Mindful of this frustration, there are no late lie-ins or afternoon naps for me: I just grab every precious second I can get in the bush. I know I’m privileged to be there and might never have a chance to return. Sleep must often wait until I get back home.
3. Which safari destination (that you haven't visited yet) tops your bucket list – and why?
Ruaha National Park in Tanzania currently tops my list. From what I read and hear, it seems to offer exactly the kind of environment and experience that I find most thrilling: dusty bush, reminiscent of areas I know well from further south; wildlife on a big scale – with an intriguing mix of both southern and East Africa fauna; and a genuine sense of unpeopled wilderness. When choosing a safari, however, I’m always torn between new adventures and old favourites.
4. Which park or reserve (in Africa) disappointed you most – and why?
I am reluctant to name one destination. I am very seldom disappointed: there is so much to discover in the natural world that every experience brings one thrill or another. Also, I feel that disappointment generally reflects the nature of the experience – not enough time, wrong companions, bad time of year – rather than the destination. My one trip to Ngorongoro Crater, for example, was very brief and although we saw plenty of wildlife I was a little put off by the number of other visitors. But clearly Ngorongoro is one of Africa’s greatest wildlife spectacles and I just needed more time and leisure in which to enjoy it on my own terms. In general, I am most disappointed when a safari turns into a Big Five hunt, rushing around the bush in relentless pursuit of big game, without allowing you time to stop and discover other things. I am happiest when doing my own thing.
5. What is the poshest safari accommodation you've stayed in – and did you enjoy it?
I don’t have much experience of safaris at the very top end. My priority is the wildlife and I would be dismayed if an emphasis on creature comforts detracted from that. In Zambia I have stayed at Kapinga Camp (Kafue) and Chiawa (Lower Zambezi), both of which were extremely comfortable but also offered an outstanding wildlife experience, with superb guides.
6. What is the weirdest sound you've heard while on safari?
Perhaps the frog chorus in full swing after dark in the wetlands of St Lucia or the Okavango. It’s an entertaining challenge to sort out the different species by their mating calls – from the rhythmic honking of snoring puddle frogs to the liquid ‘quoip’ of a bubbling kassina or hard ‘yack, yak’ of a grey-backed tree frog. The territorial call of a male black-bellied bustard is also pretty weird: croak like a frog, pause three seconds, pop like a cork.
7. If you could bring only one item on safari (besides your clothes, camera and binoculars), what would it be?
A bird book (the relevant field guide to the region). And, if I’m allowed two items, a head torch – for spotting nocturnal wildlife around my chalet after dark.
8. What is the most unusual method of transport that you've used (while travelling in Africa)?
I once rode bareback on a charging black rhino, while balanced on a unicycle and juggling with fire. Or was that just a dream? Otherwise, nothing extraordinary. While travelling around the townships of Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) I used regularly to use Emergency Taxis (ETs). These journeys were largely an exercise in how many people could cram into the back of a broken-down Peugeot 504; I swear 20 was achieved more than once. In Lesotho I once went trekking on a Basutho pony that seemed little larger than a big dog but was unfazed by lugging my bulk over the Maluti Mountains.
9. What is the strangest local dish you've eaten in Africa?
Of all the various forms of wildlife I have eaten – from crocodile to zebra – porcupine (a roadkill in Swaziland) was probably the most unusual. Very nice it was, too. While living in Zimbabwe I ate a lot of mopane ‘worms’ – not really worms, but the caterpillars of an emperor moth species – which, when dried, make an excellent camping food, being lightweight and easily stirred into a stew with onions and tomato. These were nowhere near as strange, however, as the enormous, lurid pink and utterly tasteless buns sold at roadside stalls in some rural areas.
10. If you reincarnate as an (African) animal, what would you want to be (and why)?
I think it would have to be as a pangolin. That way, I’d be able to look at my reflection in a mirror and, at last, could say that I’d seen a pangolin. That’s probably the only way it would ever happen. An African bullfrog sounds a good option too. Spending months underground in a comatose stupor, then waking up with the rains for a brief frenzy of sex and belching? Could be worse.