Whenever I leave the house, even if it’s only for a pint of milk, I get the sense that I should be carrying a survival kit, like Martine in the White Giraffe Series. That feeling gets stronger if I go anywhere requiring a passport. In fact, my survival kit is generally the first item I pack but, since it’s stuffed with every emergency supply from suture kits to space blankets, Superglue and surgical scissors and is the size and weight of three gold ingots, it’s also always the first item to be left behind.

It’s not just paranoia, or a side effect of reading too many adventure novels and thrillers. A lot of it stems from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) incurred on family vacations – specifically vacations involving my mother.

 

Try watching your mum cycle off a 50-foot bridge in the Seychelles. One moment she’s pointing at the view, the next she’s lying like a discarded rag doll on the rocks below. My sister and I carried her back to our hotel (I use the term loosely because it was run by a piratical figure who’d fallen from grace in the Seychelles government and had rooms populated by cockroaches the size of eagles), where we stemmed the blood as best as we could and revived her with coconut milk. Despite our protests, she insisted on continuing the cycle ride to the other side of the island. Not surprisingly, she ended up in hospital all but requiring an amputation.

 

Nothing is simple with our family. We can never go on a vacation and just lie on the beach or take a sightseeing tour and be “normal.” Once, we went to Egypt, where we thought it might be nice to visit the pyramids and sail down the Nile. On the first morning, I was nearly killed when a horse I was riding bolted down the kind of sheer cliff-face mountain goats would quail at. The pyramids were blurred because my life was flashing before my eyes. In the Valley of Queens, near Luxor, I only narrowly escaped falling down a 100-foot storm drain, and in Aswan we were conned into going on a 700km round trip across the desert in an unairconditioned station wagon, driven by a man who spoke no English and crouched over the wheel with his face pressed up against the dusty windshield like a deranged and near-sighted pensioner. Our only comfort was a bag of oranges.

Another time, at the behest and expense of a sea captain my mum had met on her travels, we spent days trying to obtain a death certificate for a sailor who’d fallen into the harbour in Venice, Italy, only to discover that he had in fact drowned in Venice, Florida.

It’s always been my practice to blame these disasters on my mother, who thinks that being chloroformed in a hotel in Austria or enduring an emergency landing in Portugal is all part of life’s rich tapestry, but, disturbingly, I seem to have inherited the same disease. I’ve been stranded with no money in Guilin, China; lived through a hurricane in Florida; been camping in a monsoon in the Bahamas. An hour after being flown into one of the most remote safari camps in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, a place with no phone and no working radio – the kind of camp where elephants drink out of the swimming pool – I was struck down by a mystery illness. The plane having flown away, there was no choice but for me to be taken to hospital overland.

A mattress and crisp white duvet were laid on the back of a Land Rover, and at 4pm we set off – we being the driver, a guide from the camp (a gentle, charming man who later became the inspiration for the character Tendai in The White Giraffe), my best friend, Kellie, and, of course, myself, writhing in agony with what later turned out to be kidney stones, although at that point I just thought I was dying. To save time, we cut across the game reserve, one of the largest in Africa. For hour upon hour, herds of elephant, giraffe and impala wheeled across the perimeter of my vision like a surreally beautiful Jungle Book kaleidoscope. Periodically, we stopped in the middle of nowhere – quite literally at an anthill – and a new driver would take over.

 

The sun sank below the acacias, bringing with it the night-perfume of the African bush and smoky traces of the woodfires of distant villages. Darkness fell like a cape, glittering with stars. By then the pain was so excruciating that I began swimming in and out of consciousness, but in moments of lucidity it seemed to me that the star-flung sky, lit by the red glow of Mars and the powdery sprawl of the Milky Way, and lent drama by the cries of the night creatures and the occasional lion’s roar, had a collective magic beyond compare.

It was 11pm when arrived at the Victoria Falls Clinic. We’d had no way of communicating with the hospital since late afternoon and yet when we pulled into the parking lot, Dr Nyoni and a team of four immaculately turned out nurses were standing in a line waiting to greet us. One of the nurses took my hand and led me into the most spotless medical facility I’ve ever seen. It had only been open nine days and I was their 14th patient. The wards were decorated in African prints. In the morning, after a night in the hands of these divine, dedicated people (Dr Nyoni laughed continually, like an especially cheerful bird – the Ndebele meaning of his name), and a breakfast worthy of a five-star hotel, I was completely restored.

 

Like all the best travel disasters, it was an experience I wouldn’t have traded for the world.

 

There were no disasters in Namibia, where I went to research The Elephant’s Tale. I took my survival kit because it seemed like the kind of place where a survival kit was required. Accompanied half the time by my sister, Lisa, and half by my mum, I drove 3,000 kms in a week, from Windhoek to Sossusvlei and then on to Damaraland and Etosha National Park. Apart from the Black Forest gateaux, the thing I loved most was the emptiness of the country, the way you can drive for three hours without seeing a living soul or any sign of habitation. Apart from the famous red dunes of Sossusvlei, I imagined it to be flat and bleak and barren. Instead I was blown away by the colours of the landscape and by the endlessly changing panoramas, each more vivid and spectacular than the last.

There was, I suppose, one minor disaster. The main purpose of my trip to Namibia was to see the desert elephants, the focus of The Elephant’s Tale, but they’d inconveniently gone away into the mountains to have their babies the night before I arrived. Ever-resourceful, I changed tack and went with my mum to Etosha National Park, where there are 2,500 elephants. I reasoned that seeing an ordinary elephant was better than seeing no elephant at all. Every evening the guides at our camp, enthusiastically prompted by other guests, would tell tall tales of the many elephants they’d seen that day, and the marvellous antics they’d performed. Yet somehow even these elephants continued to evade us.

On our final morning, we risked missing our flight by going on a two-hour hunt for elephants in an area which, we’d been assured, was awash with them. None were forthcoming. We gave up and were leaving the reserve when we spotted, in the far distance, a grey rump, partially obscured by trees, which may or may not have been an elephant. It was not quite the up-close-and-personal encounter I’d been hoping for.

Driving back to Windhoek, after spending an entire week in the desert without once having had to resort to my survival kit, I should have been relieved. Instead I found myself thinking: if only the elephant had charged. Not at us, of course, but if only there’d been some…well, drama.