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Author: Robyn Keene-Young
In Backseat Safari, we travel with the author as she chronicles her and her photographer-husband’s journeys from her position in the backseat of their Land Rover - Sybil, a name suggested by its registration plate (SBL 208 T). The author’s wit razor-sharp and her eye passionately acute, she transports us to the wild places of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Zimbabwe’s Save Valley Conservancy, Mala Mala Reserve and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
We follow Sybil’s isolated routes and meet people such as Robert the Barefoot Lion-hunter. We experience life in a bush camp – The architects had gone for a somewhat primitive air-conditioning system, providing a simple, gaping expanse around the entire hut between roof and wall, allowing for both the free movement of air, and wild animals, into the room. Along the way we consider the dubious, and much-touted, benefits of ecotourism and learn the rules of wildlife photography – ‘the camera never lies, nor swims.’
Above all, we encounter animals in close-up. The author and her husband manoeuvre Sybil through ‘Pamplona Francolin runs’; meet a lost and trembling zebra foal ‘all eyes and knees’; stop to observe as ‘in the pitch dark, several hippos are agitating to continue down the path and to the left, twenty-one lions are lurking in the reeds waiting to attack them’; and focus the lens on ‘nine tons of elephant trio walking within arm’s reach of the seat, so close that we can make out the black, coarse hairs on their hides’.
South African husband and wife team Adrian Bailey (photographer) and Robyn Keene-Young (author) have been visiting Botswana’s Okavango Delta for over a decade. Their previous books include Okavango: Africa’s Wetland Wilderness and Dwellers in Eden (Bailey), Backseat Safari (Keene-Young), and Wild Kruger and Wild Botswana (both). Their collaborative articles on wildlife and travel have been published in some of the world’s best magazines, including BBC Wildlife and Condé Nast Traveller. They both serve as associate editors of South Africa’s Getaway magazine.
Let me say at the outset that I was never a wilderness junkie. Africa did not pulse through my veins as it apparently does through those of so many others. As a child I did not collect snakes, grow up on a farm, nor consort with orphaned lion cubs: typical qualifications for the Nature Fan Club. Wildlife documentaries were no better than snuff movies, breathlessly recording the murder of some doomed, unwitting actor. I was neither a Brownie nor a Girl Guide and I never coveted their skipping, French-knitting, or climbing-over-a-fence-backwards badges, diligently earned under the stern gaze of an old crone called Tawny Owl.
It was unfortunate, then, that I was born into a family of camping enthusiasts. Every other weekend my parents would load up the motor boat with fishing rods and camping gear and cart us all off to some or other outdoor destination on the outskirts of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. My dad’s idea of a holiday home was an old army tent (alas without a fitted groundsheet) that had shrunk so badly the bottom edge hovered half a metre above the ground, like ill-fitting trousers, welcoming All Creatures Great and Small in for the night.
And I was not the best camping company. I remember enduring a sweaty picnic at Motobo National Park alone, inside a hot car, with a paper bag over my head, because the ants were biting my toes and the muggies invading every facial orifice. My parents had probably exiled me there after my twenty-seventh ‘Pleeez can we go home now’.
But the worst camping trip came much later, when I was a teenager living in Johannesburg, thrilled at the idea of a week on the beach over Easter holidays with old family friends. Cool bananas! Sure, we’d be camping, but every awesome suntan had its price. It was back in the bad old days when beach driving was the weekend religion for every coastal dweller with a 4x4, a cool box and an appetite for hand-picked ‘crays’. We drove along the beach for several hours in the back of an ancient Land Rover, then set up camp a hundred metres from the sea, somewhere near Richards Bay on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast.
‘Okay, so where are the ablution blocks?’
‘Let’s have a loopdop before we go,’ suggested the host when the vehicles were packed and a flush toilet was beginning to take shape in my future. Cool bags were retrieved, drinks dispensed, then downed. Finally we were on our way. Halfway into the journey the front vehicle slammed on brakes.
Not fifteen minutes later we all stopped again. Some kite fisherman had landed a small shark, thoughtlessly prolonging my agony. Idiot!
‘Hey, let’s have a shark dop.’ Tears welled in my eyes. There followed a ‘tar-road dop’ and a ‘Wait! Driver-needs-a-leak dop.
In spite of my attitude towards the Great Outdoors, my parents somehow managed to impart to me an interest in the environment. I still wasn’t big on the wilderness, mind you: my focus was strictly bunny-huggerish of the vegetarian, Bugger-the-Eskimos-Save-the-Whales sort. By the time I reached university I was ready to sail into the future with Greenpeace, as soon as they installed indoor plumbing on the Rainbow Warrior.
Adrian Bailey, on the other hand, wanted to be a game ranger from a very young age. Holidays in game reserves with his grand-parents instilled a sense of wonder about all things wild. When I met him, Adrian knew the names of all those Bambis and Rudolphs that I called ‘buck’. We fell in love while patronising a famous Wits University landmark - the Bozzoli Sports Pavilion, or Bozz - where students hung out on Friday afternoons and drank buckets of cheap draught beer in plastic cups. We were both bunking lectures in our final year’s study of Law and Architecture.
A couple of years after graduation (somehow we both passed in spite of the Bozz), I was trudging through my second year as a Candidate Attorney and had just written the last batch of board exams, and Adrian was designing cheap town houses. Neither of us was particularly happy with our lot. Adrian suggested a long weekend away in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi and Mkuzi game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal.
I had never overnighted in a game reserve and was a little apprehensive at first. But, hey, I could certainly use a holiday. So I practised my advocacy skills on my three bosses in a motion for paid leave, citing exam stress as an aggravating factor. After some devastating cross-examination, during which the words ‘dirty-weekend’ were repeatedly asserted and objections sustained, they granted the relief sought and Adrian and I were off.
On our first night at Mkuzi, in a rare flash of romantic zeal (or just hoping to get lucky), Adrian dragged a couple of cushions onto the lawn, so that we could lie in the dark, look at the stars and listen to the night sounds. All was just peachy until Adrian left me to go inside and recharge the wineglasses. Suddenly the dark got darker, the night sounds closer - much closer.
What’s taking Adrian so long? What’s gnawing and breathing over there? Well, actually, I don’t want to find out. I did one of those half-walk, half-run efforts into the chalet.
‘Er, Adrian ... why don’t we rather sit in these comfy chairs on the veranda, with the light on? It’s just that, well there’s something big and breathless out there ... Yes, I realise it’s probably a herbivore, but... duh ... herbivores kill people too, you know.’
The next morning I was in for a bigger fright when the alarm clock went off at 04h30. ‘What the fuck...?’
Adrian had packed a little camera and, fancying himself as an amateur wildlife photographer, was off on an early game drive. On his own. I hadn’t coaxed five days’ leave to wake up with the sparrows and drive around staring at animals. But it was early days and Adrian was still able to charm me into almost anything; soon enough I was co-opted into morning, afternoon and night drives. In fact, by the third morning, I caught myself looking forward to the ‘beep, beep, beep’ of the alarm clock.
To this day I can’t tell you why, but, somehow, that little foray into the bush was an epiphany. It was all it took to change completely the direction of both our lives. By the end of the year Adrian had blown his future inheritance on a fancy Nikon camera and 500-millimetre lens and we had decided to take the following year off, while he photographed wildlife and I, well...
After five years of study, two years of training and a slew of board exams, I became the first qualified attorney to sit in the backseat of a car and pass cameras, lenses, film and beer to a wildlife photographer. To the dismay of friends and family that first year became two, then three, then ten, and although I picked up some other skills along the way some still ask, ‘When are you people going to get real jobs?’ […]