Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Writing About Nature


I love nature. And I would love to write about it really, really well. However, having grown up an urban girl I haven’t had that much exposure. I think to write about it superbly, one needs to have been enveloped in it, to have grown up on a farm or in the mountains, and to have had constant, daily contact with the planet, to know how it flowers, and to love the animals that walk upon it. One blogger who writes beautifully about nature is Healing Magic Hands. It was this post that turned me into a fan of hers.

I’ve been trying to think of writers who write well about nature. Gerald Durrell springs to mind for his evocation of the flora and fauna of Corfu in My Family and Other Animals. I also think of James Herriot for his hilarious animal world, Barbara Kingsolver for the bounteous plant life of The Prodigal Summer and Wordsworth for his visions of the holy in nature. I welcome other suggestions.

As a child, my main contact with the wild was the odd safari, which is a very elegant and colonial name for what were just holidays in the game reserve. I adored them. The sensible time for a game reserve holiday is in winter, when the trees don’t have much foliage (so you can see further into the bush) and the animals are forced to go to certain waterholes to drink (where you can see them). For me, the best thing about a game reserve holiday is that you follow the rhythm of the bush: wake early, nap in the midday heat, be busy in the late afternoon and evening, and go to sleep as darkness falls. A jaded city body takes on the rhythm mesmerisingly fast, it is as if it’s how we were meant to live.

So you wake with the dawn, have a quick cup of tea or coffee to warm up, and head into the icy morning to see what you can find. As the sun rises, so do the animals: snuffling warthogs running in rows with their ridiculous tails straight up in the air, unsurprised giraffe watching you stoically from above an acacia tree and skittish zebra flicking their manes and dancing off the road as your car approaches. We once had the incredible luck of watching a family of wild dog waken as the sun warmed their den: first mother, then four or five young. They gambolled for the joy of morning.

After a few hours of game-watching, your stomach directs you home for breakfast. This is always a huge and hearty affair: porridge, eggs and bacon, toast, cereal, fruit. Then, since the animals go quiet in the late morning, so do you. You read, nap, play board games or cards, bird-watch. If you’re extremely lucky, you might get to do some game-watching from your chair: a few vervet monkeys cavorting in the trees, some impala wandering casually into camp, zebra chewing the cud. Some people may need a lunchtime snack, others not. Some grown-ups might have a beer or two, others not. Later, you head out for an afternoon drive.

One afternoon, we were driving through a densely forested riverine valley. As we rounded a corner, we found ourselves in amongst a herd of elephant. Because of the trees, it was hard to tell how many there were, but it could have been up to forty. We immediately stopped the car, held our collective breaths and watched. We were slightly nervous, because elephant can be temperamental; they have been known to charge cars and even crush them. However, this afternoon, they were in a peaceable mood and having a wonderful snack of trees. It’s breath-taking watching an elephant eat: they seem to wrap themselves around entire branches, folding these into their bodies as easily as if they were wafers. We saw elephant babies, clustering around their mothers for safety but occasionally venturing forth alone to feast upon a smaller tree. I don’t know how long we sat there. We were transfixed. Then, with some imperceptible signal, they all turned and melted into the forest. One second we were amongst a herd, the next, they were gone.

An afternoon game drive can bring you upon a herd of buffalo, deceptively cow-like but extremely vicious. If you’re lucky, and in the right park, you could see rhino. Here you also hold your breath and count the exits – they are bad-tempered and can run surprisingly fast. Exceptional luck will bring you a cat: lion, leopard or cheetah. I have an uncle with an odd sense of humour, and once when we were out on a drive with him, he spotted a male lion. I couldn’t see the lion, so to get him closer to the car, Chris rolled down the window, leaned one elbow out and gave a loud and insulting imitation of a lion’s mating call. To the lion, this meant his territory was being invaded, so he roared and charged our car. I screamed and ducked under the seat. It was a mock charge, intended only to scare, and it had succeeded. I didn’t see that lion, but his roar reverberated in my head for days. We drove off with Chris being roundly scolded by the other adults in the car.

You return to camp, where the braai gets fired up and starving from the afternoon’s endeavours, you eat boerewors sausages, steaks, baked potatoes, salad. The adults drink beer and red wine, the children Coke. Everyone falls into bed early, exhausted.

At certain reserves, you can go on night drives. Sometimes these will be in a large open Landrover, accompanied by a guard (with a gun), or if you’re in a private reserve, you might drive yourselves out. Night in the bush is very cold, so on top of the anoraks and woolly hats, you have blankets to keep you cosy. At night, you will see hyena, which are menacing and scary, perhaps lion, leopard, bushbabies, various night birds. Or you can drive for three hours, see nothing and return cold and disappointed. You take a chance.

I look forward to the time when my children are older and I can offer them this experience. The bush is my dream holiday; timelessly relaxing, dreamy and peaceful. It can also be pretty exciting, but those charging lion or rhino stories will fuel many a future dinner-party. To smell, feel, hear and see the wildness of our planet is an experience worth a thousand Disneylands.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

13 thoughts on “Writing About Nature

  1. Charlotte, how kind of you to plug my blog! Thank you very much. I enjoyed this description of safari very much. Someday I may get to do that, but until then I will have to be contented with film.

  2. Wow you’ve been zapping Mr Pomo since I last visited yesterday!

    I have yet to experience the game parks, even though we’ve been here nearly five years. I probably shouldn’t admit to that and reveal how little of ‘real’ Africa I’ve experienced, except that Cape Town is still real Africa but different to expectations of giraffes in the back garden type of Africa. One of these days we’ll get there with the kids, it sounds amazing.

    I lov ‘My Family and other Animals’ too – it’s one of the first old favourites that I put on my book blog.

  3. I’ve never been to Africa. And while I really want to see the wild game and beauty, I admit you’ve got me intrigued about boerswors sausage….

  4. Oooh, they are something special: flavoured with coriander and spices, they are delicious on a barbeque!

  5. Kit – it’s not the Empire striking back, it’s Charlotte! Ms Healing Hands, it is my pleasure.

  6. Oh, wow. What an incredible picture you’ve painted in my mind. I wanna see an elephant herd!

  7. Oh, and “My Family and Other Animals” is one of my favourite books – not only is it beautifully descriptive, but it makes me cry with laughter. I wonder what his family thought about his portrayal of them.

  8. As scary as it sounds, I’d kind of like to be charged by a lion defending his territory. It’s an experience that just can’t be found in the manufactured environment of a zoo.

    “To smell, feel, hear and see the wildness of our planet is an experience worth a thousand Disneylands.” I haven’t been to Disneyland but I think I know exactly what you mean.

  9. First, you are wrong about not being able to write about nature–you do it beautifully. I think anyone who has a certain sensitivity and open and generous spirit can write about nature, even city dwellers (and that’s what I tell my students in my nature writing class). I really, really want to go on one of these safaris now. To see elephants! Lions! Rhinos! Monkeys!

  10. Hi Charlotte ,I live in Freiburg but grew up in Cape Town, and I love reading your blog, this post was great! yay boerewors!!

  11. Cee, BikeProf, Kerryn – to see these wild animals in their natural habitat is an astonishing experience. It does leave you awed, even when they chase you. Thanks for your lovely comments.
    Vicki, lucky you living in Freiburg – it’s such a great town.

  12. I think you did a marvelous job with description in this post! No need to write like anyone else, you already write perfectly as Charlotte. 🙂

  13. Pingback: The Men of My Tribe « Charlotte’s Web

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