AN OFFICE ESCAPE
TURNS INTO A
SOUTH AFRICAN ODYSSEY

Sometimes, I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. For the past three years I have lived almost exclusively in South Africa’s national parks and nature reserves.
On a typical day, while some people are sitting in city traffic, I could be photographing lions in the Kalahari, tracking rhinos with rangers or swimming with turtles. My good fortune is made more palpable by the fact that I once had an office job; a so-called successful career working in the cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town and London.
But I spent a lot of time staring out the office window, pretending I could see elephants on the horizon. Perhaps it stems from my childhood. My parents regularly took me and my two sisters to the Kruger National Park. At the time I probably took these family holidays for granted, but many years later the memories are still clear.
Interestingly, the most visceral reminders of those holidays are not the sight of wild animals, but the smells and sounds of the bush – the unmistakable scents that rise from the dry earth after rain has fallen, the chirruping of woodland kingfishers, the barking of baboons and the rasping grunt of leopards.

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A breeding herd of elephant crosses the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa.
©Scott Ramsay

I only realised later that, while I enjoy the excitement of cities, I felt most alive and connected to myself when immersed in nature.
While I was at my desk in Johannesburg, I was very conscious that I was just a few hours away from places like Kruger, the Okavango Delta and the Drakensberg mountains. It was infuriating and inspiring in equal measure.
But then, after daydreaming for several years – and no doubt annoying my successive bosses – the little voice in my head became a booming demand I could no longer ignore. So I listened.
I approached South African National Parks and proposed travelling through the country’s most important protected areas for a year. I’d write a blog, take photos and tell the stories of South Africa’s wild places, showing why are our national parks and nature reserves are so important, what is being done to protect them, which species are endangered, who the people are that live and work there and what their stories are.

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Top: Cape vulture, Giants Castle, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, South Africa.
Bottom: The Author takes flight.
©Scott Ramsay

Getting SANParks’ endorsement, and working for a year to raise sponsorship to cover the costs, I was able to set off on my “Year in the Wild”. Ford loaned me an Everest 4×4 and a variety of other sponsors, like Goodyear and Cape Union Mart, were equally enthusiastic in their support.

wild places transcend social and political divisions

I found that almost everyone I approached believed in supporting conservation and that wild places generally transcend social and political divisions. On top of that, everyone seemed to love a good adventure, and the most common response I got on meeting potential sponsors was, ‘Can we come with you?’
It wasn’t all easy, though. Any wilderness can be a physical test. I’ve sweltered in temperatures of more than 50°C in the Kgalagadi, and I’ve shivered through a few sleepless winter nights in my tent at the top of the Drakensberg escarpment. And the novelty of hiking for days through thick, thorny bush wears off pretty quickly, especially when the animals are scarce.

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The author looks over the Orange River cutting through the Richtersveld mountains. To the south is Richtersveld National Park in South Africa, to the north is Ai-Ais National Park in Namibia.
©Scott Ramsay

But being in the wilderness is more of an emotional test, especially if you’re on your own. You can’t hide from yourself, and at first I was lonely. But I learned to find companionship in the land and the animals, and I became grateful for the basics: food when I’m hungry, water (or beer!) when I’m thirsty, the shelter of a rooftop tent in a thunderstorm, sunshine on a cold Karoo day, and my own health.
Often I would go to sleep feeling down, but then I’d wake up in the middle of the night and see the blazing stars. Or I’d rise in the morning to the panorama of the Richtersveld, or watch elephants walk past my camp.

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Moonrise near Rooiputs campsite in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park traversing South Africa and Botswana.
©Scott Ramsay

At these times, when the enormity of wilderness swallowed me up, I was able to transcend my own personal story. It was in forgetting myself that I was able to find myself. Trust me, a violent Kalahari thunderstorm directly above your tent will quickly put your emotional preoccupations into perspective.
The African wilderness is full of these experiences. It was here I found a belonging and contentment that eludes me in a city. To me, life makes more sense when viewed through the prism of wilderness. In the wild, I sometimes drift into a meditational state and inadvertently achieve an unexpected mental acuity. Perhaps the wilderness gives space for our thoughts and emotions to expand.

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The author was lucky to photograph this Aardvark in daylight hours in Tankwa Karoo National Park, South Africa.
©Scott Ramsay

It wasn’t all deep and serious. After a few days on my own, I’d sometimes find myself laughing aloud for no apparent reason. Or I’d talk to the animals. It may seem nuts, but the animals gave me a sense of community.
But I spent time with lots of great people too. It’s one of the reasons I love my work so much. Generally, conservationists, researchers and rangers are deeply connected to the earth. It’s hard work and poorly paid, but they are driven by something more than money and external validation, and I found them inspirational.
People like Sonto Tembe at Ndumo Game Reserve, who can imitate almost every bird species’ call, giving visitors an unforgettable experience. Or wildlife vet Dave Cooper and his associate Dumisane Zwane, who work countless hours to treat ill or injured animals, including rhino that have been wounded by poachers.
I chatted to Nonhle Mbuthuma, an environmental activist who has stood up to politicians and mining corporations on the Eastern Cape’s spectacular Wild Coast.
‘I live in paradise and it’s a paradise I want my children to inherit one day,’ Nonhle said. ‘We are not against development, but we have the right to have a say in what kind of development takes place. Open-cast mining will destroy our area, our heritage and our sense of identity.’

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Top: Sonto Tembe entertains guests at Ndumo Game Reserve.
Middle Left: Activist Nonhle Mbuthuma teaches Eastern Cape youngsters.
Middle Right: Vet Dave Cooper and Dumisane Zwane take a break between treating injured animals.
Bottom: Ranger and pilot Lawrence Monro pioneers the aerial anti-poaching program in KwaZulu-Natal.
©Scott Ramsay

Not least is Lawrence Munro, a ranger and pilot who, against considerable odds, pioneered and now leads the aerial anti-poaching teams in KwaZulu-Natal, after years of being told that such a service was not required.

In 100 years, people will look back and think of Africa’s conservationists
as heroes

These are just five of the people I met who are doing vital work, even if our materialistic society doesn’t value their efforts. I believe that when people look back in a hundred years time, they’ll think of Africa’s conservationists as the heroes of this century. Human slavery was once considered acceptable, and when Abraham Lincoln worked to abolish it, many people with vested interests in its continuation railed against it’s abolition.
Today, everyone knows that slavery is abominable. The emancipation of the environment is this century’s greatest challenge, but as with human slavery, many corporations, governments and individuals have vested interests in the sustained destruction of Africa’s natural heritage. Conservationists today are fighting a similar battle to Lincoln’s. And like society today considers slavery detestable, in the future we will consider todays abuse of Africa’s wild as one of the most tragic and loathsome periods of mankind’s history.

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The Author and Mountain guide Caphius Mthabela at the top of Rockeries Pass, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, South Africa.
©Scott Ramsay

My first “Year in the Wild” went so well that it turned into two, and by the end of September this year, I will have completed three years of almost continuous exploration of South Africa’s 40 most special protected areas.
It’s one of the many tragedies of apartheid that so many people in South Africa were denied access to the most beautiful parts of the country for so long. Everyone deserves the right to engage with their natural heritage.
So I consider myself extremely fortunate. Not many people – even within SANParks – have been to all the national parks, and even fewer have been to all the other special protected areas. I have been to all of them several times, explored them extensively, and slept in wild places that few have ever seen.

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A young white rhino rescued after its mother was killed by poachers in KwaZulu-Natal. The rhino is watched 24 hours a day by rangers until it can be released again.
©Scott Ramsay

Initially, I was happy to just cover my costs and to complete the journey, sharing the inspiration with others through my photos, social media and articles.
But now my journey has become somewhat of a pilgrimage. I find myself increasingly bonded to African wilderness and wildlife. These wild places and their animals have become part of who I am, and are probably the greatest source of inspiration in my life. They have taught me that nature is far more important than I ever imagined, and that we humans need both wilderness and wildlife if we are to live a full, rich life.

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When the author took a break from travelling South Africa’s wilderness, he visited the neighbours. The bull elephants of Mana Pools in Zimbabwe are legendary, and guide Stretch Ferreira has been walking among them for more than 25 years.
©Scott Ramsay

South African film maker and photographer Craig Foster, who has worked a lot with Bushmen, wrote, ‘It seems like our bond with animals is deeply rooted in our psyches and we need them just as much as we need wild open spaces. We don’t need them just because they are pleasant – we need them for our psychological survival. At a deep level a land without life, without creatures, is really disturbing.’
After three years I find myself even more determined to make others aware of Africa’s natural treasures. My journey started out as a dream, an adventure, but it has become my vocation.
I’m sure that if other people – especially those in business and government – can see for themselves what I have seen, then they too will be inspired to care more for the few pockets of wilderness that remain.africa-geographic-logo

For three years, several organisations have been supporting Scott. Ford South Africa has loaned him an Everest 4×4, Cape Union Mart and K-Way support him with gear, and Goodyear supply tyres. WildCard, South African National Parks, CapeNature, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Eastern Cape Parks, Big Game Parks Swaziland and iSimangaliso Wetland Park have all given Scott access and accommodation to do his work. Other sponsors are: Safari Centre Cape Town, Globecomm, Frontrunner, Vodacom, EeziAwn, National Luna, Outdoor Photo, Tracks4Africa and Hetzner. BirdLife South Africa have supplied information on important bird areas.

 

 

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  • What an amazing experience. After one trip to East Africa myself, Africa, tis people and wildlife won me over in a heartbeat, so much that I’m heading out for a longer trip in a few months with some volunteering in the mix.

    It must be hard doing what you do and seeing everything, but its great that you look on it as a rewarding experience – it’s definitely inspiring for other travel photographers and bloggers like myself to one day consider doing something similar. Thanks for the great article!

  • Janine

    Go Scott… wonderful work and ideals.

  • PARTHA

    Great Idea ! There are so many things to watch and enjoy in this world !!!!!!

  • Barbara Krause

    Such an experience,so wonderfullly portrayed with beautiful images.Thank you Scott for sharing this journey,,

  • Kartam

    What a fantastic experience, Scott and the best is sharing with others who don’t get out to these breath-taking places. Stunning photos and accounts of where you have been. As an ex-Zimbabwean, I yearn for Mana, so it was wonderful to see your photo with Stretch Ferreira and the elephant, which took me back a few years when I did the same, but with another well-known guide/ranger – Garth Thompson. Thank you!

  • Angela Wigmore

    If only Scott had asked, I’d have kept him from being lonely! I know exactly what he means – I have only ever felt truly at peace when in the Zimbabwean wild places away from ‘civilisation’.
    @Kartam: how interesting that you mention Garth Thompson. Lovely man – I had a huge crush on him as a teenager in the 60s when we lived in Binga – he was chief NatParks warden for that district for several years. I believe he took up some high-powered job in SA.

  • Robyn E. Preston

    Brilliantly narrated, Scott. Amazing journey. I love the African wilderness also and spend many hours out there taking photos. I can’t see you ever being able to go back to an office job. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • Rodger Lee

    Scott
    What a fantastic journey and I can understand your passion for the wildlife and the bush. Having been on many safaris it gets into the blood unfortunately for me I live in the UK and can only get out to SA once a year. Good luck and keep up the great work.

  • Scott

    Hi everyone, thanks for the kind comments. I’m always inspired by my work, even on a so-called “bad” day! Thanks to all of you for reading, and please spread the message of conservation in Africa…get your friends and family to come travel here, because ultimately tourists will provide the money that sustain the parks and their wildlife.

    • Andy Díaz Kramsky

      Hi Scott..i just loved it…im Mexican and about to travel to SA for few days (Madikwe game reserve). I can’t imagine all the wonders you have seen. How did you get all the support? I always had this dream but the “money” issue is quite my problem… i wish i had the courage to leave my job behing and go for it…what advice could you give me? thanks a lot! you made me dream again

  • It is fascinating toread articles like these. To know that there are people who put material interests and professional success measured by the expectations of others in the background, while finding their inner voice and pledging to live and place their personal aspirations in the foreground, is very inspirational. Yes, I can ‘feel’ how daunting it must be to not be able to hide from ourselves, when challenged by nothing else but complete and utter wilderness before you. Most astonishingly, the acceptance of animals of us, unfortunately our first instinct when they cross our paths is to eliminate them. We need to get the balance right; we need to do everything to preserve what we have before it’s too late. We are walking on a knife’s edge.

  • Christo Schutte

    Fantastic, Thanks for sharing your great privilege wit us.

  • Angus Begg

    Very, very lekker Scott.
    Congrats.

  • Joan Kruger

    You have grown immensely in kindness and wisdom over these years, Scott, and we reap the rewards in your vivid stories and excellent photographs. Way to go!

  • Miguel

    This is awesome! I know that feeling of staring out the window and thinking about this kind of thing very well. It’s fantastic you went ahead and did it – sounds like an incredible experience! My very limited exploration of SA’s reserves and a few parks in Zim, Bots and Tanzania has taught me one thing – you need time, and plenty of it, to fully appreciate wildlife and its surrounds. I wish you all the best and hope you’re able to continue your adventure!

  • Karyn

    got goose bumps………….

  • Sumit Bharati

    Hi Scott
    You are a true inspiration for people like us who live and work in concrete jungles and always have a love and care for mother nature and its wilderness.
    Be god always with you in the great cause you are serving.

    Regards,
    Sumit

  • Valentina Madope

    Thank you so much for sharing. . . I have been in the Kruger National Park for some years and I am now back to the office in Maputo . . . I understand all your feelings about these two absolutely different environments . . . I do not miss any chance to visit the wild . . .
    Once again thank you for sharing it means a lot to me

  • Chris Davies

    Wonderful Scott. Inspirational. I’m very jealous.

  • Bev Husband

    Scott I followed you from the start on fb, and you didnt just narate an amazing account of your time but you took amazing images to go with. So while we sat in our offices, you carried us away on your journey, even if it was for a brief moment each day. Lucky you what an amazing time. Keep it coming!

  • Cynthia Britt

    Wonderful!

  • Sam Egessa

    Hi Scott;thanks for sharing with us your experience, all i can say is that nature needs to be preserved and protected for the future generations to come and its good you followed your heart

  • michael chait

    You lucky man, excellent- thanks for sharing Have safe journeys and great adventures.