Twenty Years On
My first taste of southern Africa came when I was just eleven years old and those initial memories have stuck with me as clear as day ever since. My parents, reluctant to give up the notion of travel just because of having a son, proposed the idea to me and to a young boy it couldn’t have sounded any more exciting; an adventure in a new country full of animals that I’d only seen on television. It sounded like something out of an Indiana Jones film, and so I was beyond excited to step onto the plane, traverse the skies and land in a country so far from home and my own reality. What I initially received, however, was a crushing disappointment.
Thinking nothing but of the images of open planes doused in a constant golden light with giraffes and elephants meandering in the distance – the romanticised Africa that’s continuously advertised and sold. They were fantastical expectations, and I believed we would descend through the clouds to a lone and dusty airstrip surrounded by the continent’s most iconic creatures. What I got, however, was Johannesburg. The clouds turned to smog and my excitement dwindled as open planes were in actuality a labyrinth of city blocks congested with traffic. It was nothing but a giant, grey city – my hopes and dreams were dashed. This is Africa?
Obviously at that age I had no idea of what actually formed the country of South Africa, and luckily, I wasn’t too dissuaded in that initial introduction as I’m happy to say that, twenty years later, I’m now living and working in South Africa. Once we made it to Kruger National Park, everything I had hoped for was restored. Casually grazing wildebeest and zebras were everywhere to be seen and my instinct was to steal my father’s camera to document and capture those sightings. That trip also turned out to be my introduction to photography; not that I was giving much thought into composition. I still to this day remember my father begging me to wait to photograph a giraffe once we had moved so that power lines weren’t in shot. It was a plea that was ignored and I’m sure I wasted an entire roll of film on that one individual and every frame carried with it those background power lines – I was too excited and trigger happy.
Over the next fifteen years I reignited that excitement and enthusiasm as often as I could by travelling back out to South Africa; falling in love over and over again as I explored new areas and revisited the old. I pulled my closest friends out, with the intention to open up their eyes to the beauty that had me fall in love so unabashedly, and I slowly over time began to feel more at home in South Africa than I did in the United Kingdom. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, found in the North-West of South Africa, stole my heart with its open desert landscapes, breathtakingly vibrant sunsets and array of wildlife; in particular the black maned lions and Gemsbok antelope. It’s still the most beautiful and compelling place I’ve ever been to and is at the top of my travel list once I get the opportunity to pack my camera gear and venture back. There’s something incredibly humbling and inspiring to be out in the vast wilderness with no distractions and only being at the mercy of nature.
However, as for now, twenty years later after first stepping foot onto this continent, I find myself in a position that I never thought possible not that long ago. I’ve found and taken on an opportunity that moulds two of my biggest loves; wildlife and photography. Teaching wildlife photography and conservation based just outside Kruger National Park and working with like-minded people who continue to inspire and support me every day. It’s a thrilling life, where spotting leopards crossing the car park becomes as much the norm as finding a hedgehog in the driveway back in England. As I type this now, sat outside my Rondawel, Impala males are rutting and chasing each other just a stone’s throw away. This is not the life I imagined myself achieving, as just a few years back my daily routine consisted of packing and unpacking boxes in a warehouse. It’s a life that, if I had told my younger self about, he would have laughed with nothing but utter disbelief. Yet, here I am.
One of the biggest joys for me now, aside from being amongst African wildlife, is seeing that enthusiasm, excitement and wonder in others. Not just in those that I work with (particularly the guides) but witnessing first hand new people develop their photography skills and knowledge. Having slowly developed over two decades to the point where I am now, to see the direct impact we’re having on those new visitors over such a small period of time is wonderful and I only hope they leave us at least a spark of the same burning passion and determination that I once had and that led me to where I am now.