English puppeteer walks 1000km in footsteps of France’s first giraffe

From Marseille to Paris - galloping through Lyon, battling the Mistral and beating the 90-day Schengen deadline

Seb Mayer from London was inspired by Zafafa the first giraffe in France; the puppet weighs 9kg
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An English puppeteer has walked 1,000km from Marseille to Paris wearing a giant giraffe puppet, replicating the journey made by the first giraffe in France 200 years ago.

Seb Mayer had heard the story of Zarafa, a giraffe gifted to France’s King Charles X by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1827, but it was during the pandemic that the idea came to him.

When work dried up, he got into hiking, and began searching for a way to combine it with his day job.

“It was clear to me that it would make sense to structure a giraffe puppet around walking poles,” he said.

“I wanted to know if it was possible and had to find out. I speak French reasonably well and wanted to discover the country.”

Read more: Incredible journey of France’s first giraffe

French communities got involved

Mr Mayer, from north London, stopped at various points to hold six community workshops where children and elderly people would replace the cardboard skin with one they decorated.

In Marseille, they worked with a local artist and painted her in a giraffe pattern using local soil, and in Lyon she was decorated with people’s hopes for the future.

He did, however, underestimate the amount of work these events would require, which put him behind schedule, as did the weather – particularly the southern mistral wind when he set off in April.

Photo: Artistic depiction of Zarafa, the first giraffe in France; Credit: PWB Images : Alamy

30km-a-day to beat 90/180 rule

“The first day was the worst. My back was hurting, and I was worried about the puppet falling apart. I took unplanned rest days to wait out the wind.”

That meant having to pick up the pace so his 90-day Schengen area allowance would not run out.

At the start, he was walking 20km a day, but he raised this to 30km through Burgundy.

He arrived in the capital on June 24, after a journey that included sleeping in a cave with bats in Arcy-sur-Cure. He mostly camped but occasionally people invited him to their homes to stay.

Read more: Explainer: Common visa options for visiting and moving to France

‘I feel connected to original giraffe’

Many heads were turned, particularly in busy city centres such as Lyon.

“I love galloping through so people get this ephemeral apparition of a giraffe they can’t explain,” he said.

Across much of Burgundy, he mainly came across farm animals.

“Cows would run away and gather their herd, then come up to the fence and moo at me.

“I like to think that it connects me to the original giraffe. I love seeing agricultural beasts and wild animals and thinking they’re getting a similar experience to their forebears 200 years ago.”

The real Zarafa lived in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris for 18 years.

The name Zarafa, meaning ‘charming’ in Arabic, is a phonetic variant of the Arabic word for giraffe: zerafa.

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