Reflections of a photographer's first African safari



Kate MacWilliam


Wilderness’ Africa in Focus Photographic Competition judge, Brooke Bartleson has just returned from her first African safari. Along with striking images, sure to inspire entrants in future competitions, she shares an evocative account of her life-changing journey into the wilds of Botswana.


I’m flying over Botswana on my way back to Maun. My trip has come to an end, and my heart and head are full of memories and stories that will inspire me for the rest of my life. Wilderness has enabled me to see a part of the world where magic exists, people and wildlife co-exist, and the wilderness reigns.


Looking down at the landscape below me as the plane draws closer to Maun, I take one last look at the intricate network of wild game trails that crisscross the bush. These are the paths which animals use to traverse the land – they lead between water and food sources and many of them have been used for generations. It wasn’t until I encountered my first elephant shortly after arrival in the bush and saw the deep wrinkles in the animal's flesh that I realized how closely the texture of the game trails resemble those deep wrinkles. That visual metaphor became significant when I considered the interconnectedness of Botswana as a whole – from the landscape to the animals and to the people who live in the area, everything is connected and these connections dictate everything about how the people of Botswana interact with their environment and natural resources.


"It wasn’t until I encountered my first elephant shortly after arrival in the bush and saw the deep wrinkles in the animal's flesh that I realized how closely the texture of the game trails resemble those deep wrinkles."


Day 1 – Wilderness Vumbura Plains


I arrived in Botswana via bush plane, and immediately the adventure began. We climbed into our safari vehicles and began the long drive to Wilderness Vumbura Plains through the bush. I’d based my expectation of this trip on what I know from photographing wildlife in North America, where sightings are never guaranteed and often require a tremendous amount of patience and waiting. Needless to say, I was blown away when minutes into the drive a parade of baboons met us right as the sun sunk toward the horizon and the light turned gold. The sound of their little hands gripping tree bark and the way they swung so effortlessly into the boughs above brought such a smile to my face. That night, as I fell asleep to the sound of hippos and bell frogs calling in the night, I knew then that Botswana was not going to disappoint.




Day 2


After a full day exploring the wilderness and watching wildlife, we took a break from the action for a quick sundowner. The sun sank below the horizon and the sky turned red. We drank bubbly and toasted to beautiful Botswana and the untamed wild. When the last rays of red light bled from the sky and the dark blue hues of twilight crept in, we started the drive back to camp. We didn’t get far before we came upon one of the most incredible wildlife encounters of my life. A small pride of four young lions were hunting buffalo under the veil of darkness. The silver crescent moon was hanging low in the now black sky, and the stars sparkled overhead, indifferent to the intensity unfolding below them. It was too dark to see the hunt, but with the absence of vision came a heightened sense of everything else. I could hear every sound, from the lions’ low thundering growls to the pounding of the buffalos’ feet as they exploded through the bush. I could smell the dust that was kicked into the air, and the musty odour of the terrified animals that were running for their lives. As a photographer, my approach to life is obviously very visual. It felt so freeing to surrender that sense for a couple hours, and connect with untamed, rawest nature using all the other senses. The magic was so palpable that I swear I could taste it.




Days 3-4


We spent a couple days in the rural village of Eretsha, connecting with the local community and assisting in the delivery of essential supplies to families who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has hit the local tourism industry hard. I had the honour to speak at length with community leaders about how Wilderness approaches community aid by empowering the community to determine what sort of assistance is needed, and how resources will be allocated. One of the projects Wilderness is funding is the construction of a school for the students who live in the rural outskirts of the village. This school yard is close to an elephant corridor, and the community identified the need for fencing around the schoolyard as one of the priorities in this project. The fencing will keep the elephants from walking through the school yard, thus protecting the children and the wildlife from clashing. The way that wildlife conservation is prioritised by this community was such an inspiring example of human-wildlife co-existence.


Days 5-6 – Wilderness DumaTau


The last few days at Wilderness DumaTau felt like weeks, and the individual hours felt like days. So much happened. All encounters were bucket list moments for me. I photographed elephants from a boat as they waded in the water, the silvery wakes lapping against their legs and the golden sun sparkling on the water beneath them. I watched a leopardess hunt for guinea fowl, successfully snatching one in an explosion of claws and dust before settling down right beside us to pluck the feathers and lick crimson blood from her jaws. I saw my dream animals – African wild dogs – and photographed the pack as they fell asleep beneath a shady tree for a mid-afternoon nap. I watched giraffes grazing, zebras running, birds spreading their wings in the most gorgeous natural light as they leapt into the air to take flight. Every hour held a new incredible sight, it seemed like the wilderness was putting on her best show just for me. The warm floral smell of wild sage rolled over me while the breeze kissed my cheeks and I drank in the honour of knowing that I am the luckiest person in the world to get to witness Earth at her wildest.




Day 7


Daylight broke on my final morning in Botswana. I slipped quietly from my bed and watched the sunlight stretch across the wilderness outside my room. A feeling like no other swept through me. A powerful feeling of the deepest appreciation and gratitude. Appreciation and gratitude for the fact that there are places in the world where wilderness still exists. How lucky are we, to share this planet with animals as inspirational as the lion or as poetic as the kingfisher? And as tremendous as the elephant or as graceful as the leopard? And we wouldn’t have these incredible wild spaces at our fingertips if it wasn’t for the constant, relentless effort of the local communities to conserve and protect this land. Botswana is the gold standard for how people and wildlife can co-exist successfully. The people’s respect for wildlife is evident in all that they do – from the way Wilderness camps are designed to have a minor footprint and blend into the environment, to the way the communities that surround the wilderness prioritise wildlife conservation in the decisions that they make, to the way local dances and song celebrate animals and wildlife behaviour. I believe that the rest of the world has so much to learn from Botswana, and it is the highest of honours to get to tell these success stories and hopefully inspire some positive change. Like I said, we are so lucky to live in a world with wilderness. May we do all that we can to conserve it.


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