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Do You Ride? – A Horse Safari in Kenya

First published in the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog >

Do you ride?

People are always asking that. It’s not good enough that we’ve bravely mounted bicycles and game vehicles and slept among roaming lion prides and night-creeping hippos. We need to ride horses too, through the greatest wildernesses in the world.

I’ve witnessed many travellers scoff at such a question. I’ve also witnessed pro-riders leap gallantly at the suggestion, heading out on rides as often as time on their safari allows.

I’m somewhere in between these two types. To the invite to ride, I scoff and leap at the same time.

“Yes, of course I ride! I’ve been on six horses! And I’ve never fallen off! Although I did once contemplate bolting from a spooked horse during his furious downhill dash, one dark and scary night in the countryside.”

The Chyulu Hills in Kenya, at ol Donyo Lodge, is no countryside, though. Nor is the Maasai Mara, at Mara Plains Camp. There are all kinds of marvellous animals hiding and seeking.

At ol Donyo Lodge, as another eager, but much more proficient rider headed out with one guide on our early morning expedition, I joined two other guides (obviously my reply had not been overly convincing) for a slow walk. Atop the great white mare I’d been partnered with, the wildlife did a little less hiding and more seeking.

In the open plains, some distance from camp, we sidled through a tower of six or so giraffe, munching on trees (the giraffes, not us), and then zebra and wildebeest, and I realised just what it is about riding a horse in the wild that makes the challenge worthwhile.

Giraffe and other wildlife view you as just another animal when you’re on the back of a horse, rather than on foot, allowing you to get much closer.

With the one guide in front of me and the other behind, and an animal of great muscle below me, I felt protected. And yet, looking into a giraffe’s eye at almost eye-level, I felt completely open, bare. Barriers dissolved, nothing stood between me and nature. The way nature intended.

I let the quietness of no motor, no voices, settle around us, in us. I heard my thoughts stir, listened to fear rise and sink back down, comforted, like a dog having her head patted.

Peace, that’s what it was all about.



“I could do this all day!” I shouted to the guides.

“Ok,” the fellow behind me, chirped, “so shall we break into a trot then? Maybe a gallop?”

“Always with the pushing! Fine, I choose trot.”

With a tap to our horses’ sides, we took off, up down, up down, up down, and then the thrill sank in and I was ready to catch up with the others, the pros, ready to lose my training-wheels and ride off into the sunset!

But it was still early and oh, look, breakfast was set up under a tree in the distance…

Under the dappled shade, we dismounted and made our way to a chair around the table.

“We’ve come across two cheetah while on a ride before,” said the one guide. “Only a couple of metres from our hooves! We just stood still while the animals slowly walked past us. They acknowledged us with a subtle glance and tilt of the head and then continued on their way.”

“How often in life do you get to experience such an incredible animal up-close like that?” Another guide continued. “And while sharing your perspective of it with another animal? And it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginner or pro.” He looked at me. “Horses all have different personalities. Just like us. And there’s a right horse for you just as there is a right rider for each horse.”

“And, maybe,” I said, “it’s not about whether you’re a beginner or pro, whether you’re walking, trotting, cantering or galloping, because it’s in being still and silent with the animals on the ride that feels the most special. It’s when you really get to connect with it all.”

“Exactly,” the guide returned.

So yes, I ride. But I do “still and silent” so much better.

“The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and fire.” – Shannon Ralls Lemon


The Art of Embracing Life – and the Sea

Header image: 20 Degres Sud, Mauritius. First published on the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog.

North Island, Seychelles

The Indian Ocean… it sinks beneath your skin and starts to alter the very ways you define yourself, the way you see life. I’ve never considered myself much of a sea person, opting for the mountains and forests instead, but perhaps the things we love most are simply the things we’ve given more of our attention to.

In the name of embracing life, in all its intricacies and dimensions, my mission has been to learn more about that which I don’t know, that which I sometimes even fear.  For instance, the ocean.

Anjajavy le Lodge, Madagascar

There have been a few muses on my escapade. The first was an ocean unlike any I was used to. One much warmer and with several islands to hop to and from. The Indian Ocean. Starting with Madagascar…

At Anjajavy le Lodge on the north-west coast of the island, a new world of sea life I’d never before glimpsed showed itself to me. And, beside my guide, heading down, down, down with our flippers and snorkels, I felt safe, protected, excited by the unfamiliar rather than daunted.

Anjajavy le Lodge, Madagascar

Hanli Prinsloo, an experienced freediver and ocean lover, talks about this new world and the feeling of merging with it in a piece entitled, “What freediving can teach you about your body’s potential.”

It is insight that has inspired my own journey, because, as she writes, “it’s when you’ve discovered your inner aquatic animal that you can experience the ocean as just another creature, not an interloper with a big, bubbling gas tank. The beauty of our oceans … becomes yours to explore.”

North Island, Seychelles

She continues: “On one breath I leave the surface and kick my way down to where the liquid turns black. The sun is only a memory. Water presses in on me from all sides squeezing me harder than I think I can survive. But it’s still only water. Kicking, I fall deeper and deeper. Down there, the ocean feels like my private ocean. I’m reminded: I am water.

North Island, Seychelles

“To freedive is to feel the deep ancestry of our species—and to know that our species is still adapted to life under water.” The sea is “the place where we came from, and where we can return at least temporarily.” Read more from her here.

20 Degres Sud, Mauritius

I returned to the ocean for further practice at mammalian diving on a trip to Mauritius, at 20 Degres Sud. For several hours, we snorkelled off the side of an old pirogue, in a sea so blue, soft pastel in its hue. We played in the warmth and freedom, the silence and solitude, for so long that I started to feel the shift.

No mermaid tail grew, but I understood, then, how surfers spend every waking hour in the waves, how a wet-suit or surfboard might replace running shoes or Nordic poles.

Blue Margouillat, Reunion Island

Flying over the island of Reunion in a helicopter, starting at Blue Margouillat, I saw the bigger picture: ocean surrounding land, connecting each island to the next; and around Reunion: the warm waters of the lagoon lapping the sand, ocean waves beating against cliffs. Down below, in the island’s clear blue, other divers would be gliding over coral that is described as twisted like ancient trees, with stalactites and large-leaved marine plants. Trunkfish, surgeonfish, butterflyfish: friends whose names I was starting to remember.

Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa

On the east coast of Zanzibar, at Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa, the same warm sea flowed in and out, in and out, on shore. But deeper in the turquoise, and with new sea legs, I found the peace again. Surrounded by sea like my own personal island, society and its restraints, rules and responsibilities were mere imaginings. Around me, others experienced the wilder side of ocean life, windsurfing, stand-up-paddleboarding, kayaking.

North Island, Seychelles

In the Seychelles, I sat on the sandy beach of a private island – North Island – and let the transformation take place. I pondered pre-human existence and the rich life I’d witnessed in the deep big blue. I watched a hatchback turtle lay her eggs in a nest on land and then return to the sea.

How much easier her travels appeared once the waves had taken her! On shore, she braked after each tiring step, lugging her heavy shell along with her. Her flippers could let go of the burden once in those crystal waters. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be a weightless hatchling swimming beside her, to trace her journey into the great unknown – a land where no maps detail each road and highway, because there simply are none.

North Island, Seychelles

There is still much more to learn, but as I write this there is a snorkelling mask beside me – and a wetsuit that has finally made it out of the wardrobe. Which is a glide in the right direction – one out of fear, toward understanding. And maybe even love…

Grin, Bear and Other Mountain Creatures – Ziplining in Africa

Some chuckles were recently had at my expense.

I’m not blaming anyone. In fact, I encourage chuckles. Chuckling is good for everyone – even the butts of the chuckles. It only helps to break down our egos. And our self-esteem. But who needs self-esteem?

I would just like to remind the chucklers, but mostly myself, of if not my bravery, then at least my potential for bravery.

The source of the scoffing was a quote I posted on Instagram… a quote from trailrunning god, Kilian Jornet.

“The secret isn’t in your legs,” Kilian writes in his book, Run or Die, “but in your strength of mind. You need to go for a run when it is raining, windy, and snowing, when lightning sets trees on fire as you pass them, when snowflakes or hailstones strike your legs and body in the storm and make you weep, and in order to keep running, you have to wipe away the tears to see the stones, walls, or sky.”

The scoffing followed me having a (if you ever repeat that I uttered this word I will deny it, even though it will be written here for all to see, I will still deny it, in the way my President and probably your President has taught me) fanny-wobble on our hike to find the shipwreck along the coast of Sandy Bay.

I do not like the sea. Unless I’m in Madagascar. I do not like tides. I don’t like it when they come in and I don’t trust them when they go out. This tide was coming in and our time to clamber over the slippery rocks to see the first shipwreck and still return to land before the tide covered said slippery rocks – our only entrance and exit – well, time was ticking. I don’t know how fast or slowly, but it was ticking. And I was scared. I had already slipped and ripped off part of a nail and bruised my right arse cheek. Also, walking over the rusty metal skeleton of a ship long gone is just asking for a severed leg or a metal rod through an eyeball.

So when I posted Kilian’s words of courage, the sentiment seemed out of place. For a person like me. Laughable, clearly. I’ll admit, I’m more likely to hide in the corner of a crowded children’s jumping castle than head out on a trail in snow or lightning. In fact, please see previous blog where lightning strikes my guide while out on a trail.

Which brings me to the next point…

In spite of that harrowing encounter – the lightning striking our zipline while high up in the mountains of Elgin, I still returned. To zipline. In Elgin. Because I’m brave like that. Yes, my eyes might have told a different story as we began sliding down thin wires through the craggy Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve.

My smile might have appeared as more of a grimace than a show of sweet, brave bliss.

But I didn’t chicken out. I went the whole nine yards, or rather, 13 platforms, 11 slides and a swing bridge. And I did it, eventually, with new-found, yes, unexpected, joy. I braved the snow, lightning and butterflies in my stomach, and wiped away the tears to see the stones, walls and sky. I don’t think Kilian would scoff at that.

Granted, there was a family of five with three small children along with us on the ride past waterfalls and through tortuous valleys. I had no choice but to grin and bear it. Those kids will never know what they did for me. My courage might have begun as a pretense, but soon, I can almost promise you, I was ready to do it with my eyes open.

Find out more about the Cape Canopy Tours in Elgin here.

The Land of Mountainous Mountains

I wouldn’t say that I led us astray on purpose, but I’m sure that, in the realm of Freudian slips, I directed us to Sir Richard Branson’s Mont Rochelle winery instead of the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve (Land of Mountainous Mountains) in Franschhoek, accidentally, unconsciously. Not because I wasn’t up to hill training, and not because I like wine. But because I just like vineyards. Obviously.

The thing about fathers, though, is that they’re very forgiving, and very quick to turn the wheel back en route to the intended daunting destination. They’re helpful like that.

For my father and I, one of the best things in the world is to arrive at a new mountain – the quieter the better – with hours ahead to explore. (Seriously, I do like hills.)

We’ve become better at this hiking thing with age. When before we would take nothing but our uncharged cellphones and the car key, these days we carry backpacks packed with cameras, lenses, sunglasses, reading glasses, prescription glasses, powerbanks, toilet paper, pepper spray, hot water in a flask with tea and coffee in a wee Tupperware container, xylitol, spoons, mugs… It’s lighter than it sounds. And more fun.

Perhaps the most important item among these, though, is The Hanky.

I only overcame a nose-blowing fear in my mid-20s, so how quickly I (now 30) took to The Hanky is testament to the dire need for this underrated throwback when hit with icy air while pacing up or down a rugged slope. The need hits me in the ocean too. It’s the cold air, we think, but it seems it’s also just us. I have never spotted another male or female on a mountain with a Hanky. Perhaps they’re going the tissue route, but I doubt it. Mountain air calls for something much tougher.

As we tested our own robustness along the Uitkyk trail in the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve (not a vine in sight), a stream flowed like fine wine alongside us, fair ice patted the wooden railings, and the path wound its way to a lookout so grand that it called for the ceremonious opening of the flask.

As we sat on jagged rocks poking into our (my) fleshy rears, our legs dangling over the edge, Father pulled out another throwback to a time past – The Map. What a peculiarity, what a rarity, to have paper between the fingers, eyes scanning the little plan of the rather immense scene before us. And what a scene it was…

To the right lay mountain edge after mountain edge, like a row of hardbacks on a bookshelf, each one drawn out a little further than the one before. To the left was a dam, down in the valley, a shadow of its former self but still casting the reflection of the towering peak beside it, like a mirage calling us to explore never-ending hills. Between left and right, in the bright blue sky, a tiny swallow dive-bombed two crows three times its size.

Time has changed something else too, I noticed… not the mountains themselves, but how we see them. I can’t speak for Father; he has always been a mountain creature, his fire only burns more fiercely now. As a little-legged tomboy, I simply followed Dad, like a pup in a wolf pack. Now, the fire is something that is very much my own.

Even when I try steer us to the land of deep red grapes and cheese platters.

Even though it means carrying damp polka-dot or tartan cloths around.

And especially because of the very real way the mountain brings me back to nature, back to basics, and back to myself, with each hike.

For Your Information

Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve is part of the UNESCO declared Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve. Situated in the Franschhoek Mountains, the reserve offers spectacular views of the Franschhoek Valley, diverse plant life and over 30km of safe, well-maintained hiking trails (ranging from 2 hour walks to day hikes).

Discover more about the trail we took here.


The Infinite Intrigue of Bushman Rock Art

Bushmans Kloof rock art 5

Once a year, do something you’ve never done before, people will tell you. Just as good, though, is doing something you’ve done many times, but with people who haven’t.

Because just when you think you have seen, thought, felt and captured all there is to see, think, feel and capture about a place, a young girl or a grown man come along and offer you a world through different eyes.

When it comes to viewing rock art in the ancient caves of the Cederberg, there is no end to new and contrary views…

Bushmans Kloof rock art 9

Pointing to a series of painted dots winding across the rock face of the cave we were gathered in, in the heart of Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, the girl excitedly shouted, “It’s a snake! A looong snake!” Her voice echoed in the enclosure. She frowned and interrupted herself, revealing the difficulty of the task at hand, “Or it’s a whole lot of people standing in a line…”

I had never noticed it before – the snake or the queue. (Or was it a necklace of ostrich beads? A spirit on a journey?) On a previous expedition to this particular Bushman rock art site in the reserve, my attention had been called exclusively to the elephant and the long-armed man. I remember them most. Through the girl’s fresh, first-time gaze, the other details came to life.

Bushmans Kloof rock art 11

“That looks like Captain Hook!” Her hand shot out to direct our attention to the outline of what quite rightly resembled a hook at the end of an arm. “And those are Halloween ghosts!” She continued. Her imagination was rampant and it was thrilling.

The gentleman of our party was taking the silent, serious approach. He was not of the “gaze and guess” school of thought. I wanted, badly, to know how the scene looked through his eyes.

When I cornered him, he fessed up: whereas the girl had only answers, he had only questions. Too many, each new one just perplexing the last, until silence seemed liked the best riposte.

Bushmans Kloof rock art 13

He continued listening to our guide for greater clarification. Taking us back 10,000 years, to when some of the over 130 rock art sites in the Cederberg were created, the guide painted the picture for us so vividly that silence fell over us all. In front of my eyes, the Bushman tribe’s everyday life materialised, and then their spiritual practices – the shamans, the trance dance, the mystical spirit world.

“But how do they do it? The painting?” The girl asked. “With their fingers?”

Sometimes the right questions to ask are the simple ones.

Bushmans Kloof rock art 1

Our guide presented her with an example of the reeds used as paintbrushes, rolling them between his fingers, and then moved on to explain the pigments, all mineral in origin: the reds, browns and yellows made from ochres; whites from silica, china clay and gypsum; blacks from specularite or other manganese minerals.

When he added that blood and egg albumin were sometimes used as paint binders, the girl’s expression shot from wide eyes to “Eeeew” to more frowning, as she tried to figure out the intricacies of the Bushmen paintings, of this strange other world she’d never heard of before now.

Bushmans Kloof rock art 14

She grew quiet as the guide explained that the Bushmen were mankind’s oldest nation. That they lived in these mountains for 120,000 years. And that, as hunter-gatherers, they had something we have lost as a society: a deep and profound connection with the land, not only an intimate knowledge of the natural world, but a genuine state of harmony with it too.

I guessed that the magic was hitting her – the significance of being cheek-to-cheek with some of the oldest art in the world, of standing on land once trodden by “the first people”. I remembered, while watching her, the moment it had all hit me as a young girl and I knew then that she too would be back. Called by the infinite intrigue of Bushman rock art.

Bushmans Kloof rock art 6

Read more: Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat here, with Relais & Châteaux.

A Safari Morning

In the early morning, mine is the only voice I hear.

You might think this odd. You’ll think, ok, this girl talks to herself. But it also has to do with reflexes. Tap my elbow and see my arm shoot out. Stand on my toe and hear me shout.
Show me a sunrise from a treehouse in the wild, the sound of elephants and that coo coo of a distant dove and listen for my woahs and wows. My unbelievables and you’re kidding me’s.

There’s the voice inside my head too, when the peace and quiet feels too good to disturb.
This is how a morning in my villa at Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa begins. This is a morning in Africa, the wilderness.

Without anyone around, my hands dance from white duvet to coffee cup, slipper to nightgown, as I slip out through the sliding doors, closing them to keep the monkeys out (I’d much rather they played in the trees). I take my place in the moving gold light as it spreads over the entire deck, reminding me of the passing of time and seasons, even though I feel worlds away from these concepts.

There is more coffee and then the move from slippers to shoes, gown to jersey, inside voice to outside voice. I follow the trail through the trees to our game vehicle, our ranger and tracker, other guests, cameras and binoculars adorning our necks like ancient Egyptian wesekhs.

The scent of promise is in the air. The engine turns on and beanies are slipped over ears, scarves around noses, smiles across faces.

I do that talking to myself thing again (the outside peace still holding) and bet myself I’ll see an elephant first. Lots of them. Babies, curling through the legs of their mothers. A great troupe with trunks in the air.

I heard them first, at the villa, and I hear them again now, like clockwork, as they say. You owe me tea, I tell myself. The whole herd swims across our view as though floating in a deep river.

In that moment, I remember being on top of one of these greats, at an elephant sanctuary in South Africa, one of the humane few. I remember that inimitable slow sidling of their amble, like a wild lullaby. I remember the feeling of the elephant tickling my ear after our ride, back on terra firma, its hairy trunk, how its physical touch connected me to it, it to me, for life, in my mind at least.

But in the wild at Londolozi, even without touching, this morning family mesmerises us all.

We climb out of the vehicle and stand around the front while the ranger hands us more coffee, steaming like our hot breaths in the cold air, champagne, biscuits, Amarula… Sharing the same ground now as the wild things, feeling the earth beneath us, part of us, I wave to the last elephant. Safari njema, inside voice announces.

And this I promise you, as though hearing me and my heart’s fastening beat, the elephant waves back and then trumpets the final note in our morning song.

Read more about Relais & Châteaux in Africa and the Indian Ocean islands here >

The Sweetness of the Solo Safari

It wasn’t merely that the animals were all out, on this early morning in the Nambiti wilderness. Not simply that we didn’t have to search too hard to find the rhinos and buffalo, the giraffe and lions, the wildebeest and waterbuck. What made the drive something special was what was not there. That is, other people.

I know, sharing is caring. But have you ever been on a game drive through the African bush, alone, just you and your guide?

No voices disturb the peace. No movement interrupts the stillness. And there’s the matter of time… of being in the wild, with its animal life, its birds and plants, sounds and scents, and having no need to leave before you’re ready.

There’s also the fact that I really like to take photographs. Lots of them. From all kinds of angles and with all kinds of lenses. I need time. I photograph best in silence, too, as a ranger tracks best in a quiet of his or her own.

Even with the camera down, resting in my lap, the peace creates a space to properly connect with the surroundings and myself. Space for me to offer the wild my entire attention. Space to see the little things, the details. The details of a lion’s nose or of the unfolding scenes… like the wildebeest elders gathering around their little ones to keep them safe or the alarm spreading across an impala herd as a predator nears.

Sharing can be sweet. But the notion of “the fewer the merrier” has its magic too. It’s what Esiweni Luxury Safari Lodge in the Nambiti Private Game Reserve of South Africa is all about. There are very few staff or rangers, only five suites, only two chefs, and the French owners, Ludovic Caron and Sophie Vaillant, play the role of maitre de maison. It’s a small family. And it creates the feeling of retreating to a villa in the countryside, in the south of France, with your people. Your nearest, dearest, or nobody at all.

Of course this countryside has big cats and great giants roaming its hills and plains, but the sense of nature, and of Provençal bliss, is very much there. Dining slowly under the open skies, with fresh breads and pastries, and every kind of cheese accompanying fine wines, just the crickets chattering and streams trickling, it feels like a moment stolen from the continuance of time. A world apart.

One night, on one of our solo game drives, my guide, Pemba and I watched the sun set from a clearing in the bush, as a lion announced himself only metres away to his approaching brother. His deep gravelly roars seemed to never end. I could feel them echoing inside my very core as night fell over us. As though we were together in a vast ancient cave and not in the open plains.

Another night, we chose to join the owners for sundowners and stories of lions and leopards under a lantern-lit tree, while a giraffe ambled in that slow giraffe way right past us. Even in the company of other souls, sitting around a campfire, the peace of the place held its incantation.

And yes, sharing is sweet, but I felt the real, quite rare charm in being able to return to a big villa on a cliff face looking out over the Sundays River, soaking in the solitude with nothing pulling me away. With no voices to disturb the peace. No movement to interrupt the stillness. And no need to leave it all before I was ready.


The girl in the doorway

There are some scenes that are a little uncomfortable to photograph. Sometimes even write about. For different reasons, I find the Darajani Market in Stonetown, Zanzibar one of those scenes. The writing comes more easily, but the process, the moment of capturing it all on camera not so much…

There is the dead fish problem. This is not a metaphor. It’s not that people with vegan-leanings shouldn’t go to fish markets; it’s just that photographing the departed is never easy. Whatever they are. There is also the matter of people. Photographing people who haven’t offered themselves up for photographing feels sneaky. Wrong. I can feel it in my blood and bones. This probably is a metaphor.

The point is to take some kind of “natural” photo, not posed, but the minute permission is requested, the subject stiffens or smiles or shows off.

There’s also the problem of why.

Why am I taking this person’s image? What am I saying in the image? What am I saying about the person I’ve photographed to the person who will see the image? My perceptions will likely show up in the shot. What are those perceptions and are they right? Can the image be incorrectly judged and perceived by the viewer to distort my perception? These are the spanners in the works of art.

Still, as a photojournalist, the mission is to capture the scene. The on-the-ground moments. The stories unravelling, the life, the lives. The mission is to photograph the dead fish. The mission is to capture the people. Excluding them both omits them from the retelling of reality. Mission failed.

So I lift my camera to the pearl white octopus curled up sweetly with its tentacles, as though night and not death has arrived. I lift it up over the counter of fish bigger than those I’ve ever seen in the great oceans and click, taking home a glimpse of those blue spots on red flesh and black dots on yellow edgings.

You feel too much, I can hear my parents, an ocean away, saying.

This is how people make their living, feed their families, eat, survive. This is the circle of life. The beautiful, natural, circle of life.

I capture an image of a fisherman passed out, sitting on the cold table top, his knife laid down beside him. I can feel his fatigue. I am grateful his eyes are closed. I capture a fruit seller cross-legged on the counter beside his carrots and aubergines, as though with friends at a gathering. I have brought you all here today…. I catch the glances of men, women and children walking past, a look head on, a glance to the side. Women exchanging shillings. A man chopping and tying bunches of danya.

Sometimes I divorce the hands from the people, zoom in on the fingers, the fruit and vegetables, the herbs, the coffee beans and tea leaves. But the bigger picture is what’s important.

I am not the first photographer here. I remember that. Tourists come for sightseeing. They don’t think about the process. Or about what their images mean. I remember that, but our mission is different.

The meat market I move through faster, but to be honest, it fascinates me the most. There is something that looks like a tail, the hair removed, the body removed, just a bare, naked tail. I have never seen this before. Nor have I seen the next sight: a bull head. Just the head. The hair still intact, along with the ears, but a cross-section of the neck is revealed. The man behind the counter thinks I want to purchase it. I’m getting too close, I realise. I step back. I lift my camera to the air and make some kind of face that I imagine asks, May I? The sellers always nod, sometimes I get a smile. But a nod is all I need. I zoom in. Click. I’m unlikely to ever share these images, but I keep clicking. Because now, I am fascinated.

There are furry cloths hanging from a hook. The man sees my puzzlement and says, stomach.

I move on, into the spice market. The alleyways are thick with people. Behind the camera here, I suddenly feel invisible. Obscured. Lost. I photograph a man sitting high up between bags of wheat flour and grain, a scale in front of him. A mix of patterns and colours and shapes fills the scene. I’m not sure what any of the items on the shelves behind him are. I don’t recognise the packaging. I am not at my grocery store back home. I am in Zanzibar and the writing… is it Arabic?

Beautiful bunches of brimming-with-life green herbs lie together atop stacked boxes. I photograph them when really I want to run the top my hand across their silky bodies. Nutty brown coconuts pass between hands. Brightness everywhere. Red and green chillies. Thick branches of ripe and unripe bananas. An old man sitting between them, his hands together, fingers crossed, in his lap, looking down. And then beside him, I see it in the image only later, back home, a man on the phone with his hand over his face. I want to apologise to him.

The next images are all herbs and spices: star anise, saffron, turmeric, ylang ylang, cinnamon, ginger powder, lemongrass. Willing subjects. And then I hit a section of the market, where the light starts to peep in from where the canopied stalls end: men smiling. I lift the camera, more smiles. Oh, bless you, I think. I imagine myself in their shoes and I know a smile wouldn’t come as easily.

But I get it all: a taste of real life in Stonetown, Zanzibar. A man with his feet up, reading a soccer newspaper. A man extracting peas from their pods in a basket on the seat of a scooter.

We are on the street now, exiting the market and making our way through the winding road that leads, eventually, to the waterfront. We pass women and men in the traditional Muslim hijabs and jilbabs, a cat with plastic wrapped around its neck as a collar, bicycles, scooters, every pattern of sarong and fez, and then the shot that gets me: the girl. The girl in the doorway.

Standing there, with her white and red dress and her little eyes peering out of the shadows. And the dark wood, fine carvings and gold bolts of the Arabic doors. I don’t ask for permission. I take the shot. She runs inside. She runs back out. Looks left, looks right. Runs back inside. Eight shots. She is all I want to photograph, her and that door. The most exquisite of all the doors I see that morning in Stonetown. The most exquisite girl. Soft face, curious eyes.

And in her eyes and the older woman in the background, in the bottles and jars of preserved fruits on the doorstep, in the doorway and the dark room behind it… I see the bigger picture.

The girl re-emerges and I wave, trying to take the next step. In the hopes of getting the whole picture.

Jambo, habari gani? Hello, how are you?

You Never Forget the First Tree You Plant

As published on the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog

The mountain stretched out its path before us.

“Follow me,” the winding red clay road said. Small rocks, like unruly tortoises, scattered the trail.

With each roll of the tyres, down the declines, along the flats, up the climbs, I saw the drop beside us grow.

We were headed up into the mountain but it’s never really as simple as that. When it comes to climbing mountains, when it comes to getting to the top most peaks of the Cederberg, one must go down too. Up and down, up and down.

I watched the cliff, the sun and the clouds, the ups and the downs, the tyres on the left of the vehicle – Bushmans Kloof’s game vehicle – like an eagle getting the lay of the land.

We weren’t here to see animals, we were on our way to plant the endangered and endemic Clanwilliam cedar tree (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis) in the mountains named after them. The Cederberg. But there is something about a game vehicle – an open sided 4×4 and the fresh African air – that makes your eyes perk up for the slightest hint of movement in the distance. These are the animal eyes of the safarigoer.

After the bontebok, klipspringer, red hartebeest, grey rhebok and zebra, the aardwolf, African wildcat and bat-eared fox of Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, these mountains, a short drive from the lodge, pointed us to rock rabbits, baboons, tortoises, the great African Fish eagle and Black Harrier.

Arms would stretch out of the vehicle in slow motion as passengers pointed to their sightings, uncertain if it had been real, or a figment of safari imagination, of mountain elevation.

Because out in the middle of the Cederberg away from any view of city streets or lights, any sound of man, it seems unbelievable that anyone or thing could live here.

When you look closely (when you are accompanied by someone from Cape Nature, like Conservation Manager,  Rika du Plessis) you realise how inaccurate it would be to describe the region as barren. Remote yes, isolated yes. But not barren. Life has adapted to the terrain here in many different forms. Dung beetles, snakes, scorpions live side by side with the odd village donkey and the Cape Floral Kingdom.

The reason for the scarcity of cedar trees has more to do with the influence of the human hand than nature. Deforestation has ripped these icons of the area from the picture. Wild fires have not helped, nor the fact that cedars like to take their time. They’re slow growers, these trees.

To attempt to counteract this, Cape Nature and Bushmans Kloof host this annual Clanwilliam Cedar Tree event at Heuningvlei in the Cederberg Wilderness each year.

About 300 conservation volunteers, school children and families from all over the Western Cape unite to plant cedar saplings. To rewild the area. Participants include the Wildflower Society, the local branch of the Botanical Society and the Cederberg Conservancy, as well as local schools.

At a clearing high up in the hills, our vehicle parked, alongside the other treeplanters and guests. Our trees were waiting for us –  mature seedlings a hand tall that had been birthed and cared for in Cape Nature’s nursery.

Our feet took to the ground and we made our individual paths into the grove and the surrounding wilderness. Burnt skeletons of cedars past stood tall trying to hold onto the shifting sand beneath them. A few trees remained, signalling us with their bright Christmas tree green amid the browns and blacks.

Beside a stump for company, I dug my hole and planted my sapling. I covered her up with the sandy soil around her and sprinkled cold water over her.

And as though watching, attentively, to what our gathering was up to… as though hearing our soft words of encouragement and wishes to the plant gods, the sun slipped behind the clouds and rain erupted over us.

Over the dry earth. Over the donkeys and eagles and snakes. Over our young trees.

It’s difficult not to be a little mystically minded at moments like this.

The area, the whole of the Cape, had been in the midst of the worst drought in 100 years. Rain was not common. And yet here we stood, drenched by what felt a whole lot like the earth trying its best to help us grow some trees.

It was all up to Mother Nature now.

We climbed back into the game vehicle and rolled back down (up and down, up and down) the mountain to the lodge, to our bontebok, to flooding gardens and puddled dirt roads and a great hopes to return in a year to see our handsome cedars still standing, tall and green.

“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.” — Wangari Maathai

Highlights of the Event

Everyone, strangers, friends, locals, travellers, coming together.

Even little ones… who were given cedar seeds to plant, to grow into saplings for next year’s tree planting event

“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” — Wangari Maathai

Searching for animal life in the peaks and valleys

Planting – for some of us – our first ever tree

The beauty of the Cederberg and its rich, unique life

The inspiring introduction from one of Bushmans Kloof’s Chairmen, Michael Tollman, about the sustainability projects at Bushmans Kloof and the importance of the cedar tree event. Watch the talk here > 

The song and dance that concluded the event in the mountains… compliments of the local band and Reil dance troupe

And the lunch and sweet treats in between, from Bushmans Kloof Executive Chef, Charles Hayward

Returning to Bushmans Kloof for the night… A beautiful, welcome highlight without a doubt.

Read more: Good Hope FM breakfast host Dan Corder gets to know CapeNature and watch the video.