Michaela Strachan – the perennially fresh-faced and squeaky clean presenter – hasn’t had a proper bath for a long time. Cape Town is almost without water and I connect with her in her home via FaceTime, in the city she’s lived in for over ten years. On 22 April the taps will be turned off altogether. “It’s all anyone is talking about,” she says. Her son Ollie, 12, like every other child in Cape Town, knows exactly how many litres of water it takes to flush a toilet – and they are only allowed two showers for two minutes a week. “I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to coming back to the UK (for Winterwatch, the day after we speak) to have a bath.”
Michaela, fresh from a ‘step up and a run down’ Table Mountain (which backs onto her house), is looking as young and vibrant as the first time we got to know her – 30 years ago – on the Wide Awake Club. She loves her home and walks me around it. Africa has long had a special place in her heart. “I first went to Kenya on holiday when I was about 12. And I absolutely fell in love with the whole safari and wildlife thing. I dreamt of being Joy Adamson and bringing up orphaned lions. And I find it funny now because the amount of flipping baby animals that I have held in my hands and bottle-fed is unbelievable.”
Michaela has taken Ollie on a lot of family safaris. “Because we lived in Africa even when he was a baby, I had him on my knee in a safari vehicle. But I think if you’re paying to take your kids on a safari from the UK it’s worth waiting until they’re old enough to remember that experience, at least 10, if not 12.” Even though Michaela is ‘in the business’ she will always book a family holiday through a specialist. “I think everyone’s got obsessed with booking their own holidays but personally I prefer going with someone who knows. And they have deals so it doesn’t have to be more expensive.” Last year they went to India with Explore. “It was absolutely brilliant – we did wildlife but also a lot of palaces and culture in there as well.”
I ask her how she makes engaging with wildlife interesting for kids and she replies quick as a flash: “ANIMAL A–Z. I do this with Ollie and it’s brilliant for kids. Get a piece of paper and write down A–Z. So on safari you’re looking for an animal for every letter of the alphabet – it’s a great way to get them into birds; either take a bird app or a bird book. ‘Right we haven’t got a P, what’s a P?’ And you’ll look it up and think ‘OK let’s look for one of those.’ It is particularly good if you have competitive children. We did a great one on a recent holiday to Oz, an Australian A-Z, I’ve still got it.” Cue moving camera as Michaela goes into Ollie’s bedroom to show us the finished product. “For C we got crocodiles and clownfish because we went diving. And so it was a good way to engage them into unusual wildlife.” She can’t find the right book but pulls out another one, “Ah, what did we have here? X is an impossible one. When you’re in Africa there’s a ground squirrel that’s called a Xerus in Latin, so we we just look for a squirrel. What did we do this time? Ah yes, it was at Christmas – Xmas tree!” She roars with laughter.
One of our most popular wildlife presenters, she’s famous in England but in Cape Town she isn’t well-known at all. “Here, I’m basically Ollie’s mum.” Michaela doesn’t take fame too seriously. She tells how a friend rang her after they had been to a Scouting for Girls concert, famous for their hit ‘Michaela Strachan You Broke My Heart’. He’d sat opposite two girls on the train home, who had seen the concert. “One of them said, ‘Who is Michaela Strachan anyway?’ and the other one said, ‘She’s that wildlife presenter with blonde hair, big smile and a funny nose.’ So all I remember about the whole night now is the fact that I’ve got a funny nose.”
Michaela is about to go and pick up her son and take him to a cricket match; “I never thought I’d become a bloody cricket mum! I’m away for long periods of time and when I’m at home, my priority is being a mum. It’s a compromise and it’s not always easy but it’s always been like that and my son is used to it and it doesn’t faze him. That’s why I sit and watch every cricket match I can.”
The family must have one heck of a diary. “The one thing that I do, and I never thought I’d be this sort of woman, is I leave the freezer full of food, with labels of when to eat it. Even though I’m not there, I’m still in control!” Michaela laughs. “To be away from home and to try and keep all the balls in the air, you have to be a bit of a control freak. My partner is brilliant at doing things if I write it down on a list for him.” As if by magic, in walks her charming partner – who takes the pictures for our interview from her end of the world.
Michaela stars in Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular UK tour, July–Dec. dinosaurlive.com