In late 2007, my husband and I and our two kids left our home in North Luangwa National Park, Zambia, and set off on a six-month journey through southern Africa. We lived and travelled in a battered green Landcruiser which Frank had equipped with a roof tent for us, safer car seats and makeshift beds for the kids, and various nifty storage compartments. It was all pretty basic - we had to gut the car every evening to set up camp - but we did have a top-notch fridge. It took up too much room, but, oh, the luxury of an ice-cold beer after a long and dusty day...
Thus we wandered through Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, with my parents joining us in their converted Landrover (bought in Heathrow Airport) for much of the way. I have many wonderful memories from that trip, but one sticks out in particular, of an experience in the early stages of our journey, while we were still in Zambia.
I had a Nikon D70S camera, which I’d used little up to that point. I began to take photos as Frank drove, to capture the sights, to document our progress... and simply because I could. We had all the time in the world.
One Friday afternoon, we found ourselves in Kafue National Park in central Zambia. We were plagued by vicious, treacherous, panic-inducing, almost indestructible tsetse flies. But if we kept the windows closed, the heat became intolerable. Tempers were getting frayed. My son's flushed, glittering-eyed appearance and sulky mouth spelled trouble. It was time to make camp. But where?
To our relief, the scrub land opened onto the honey-hued Busanga Plains. The tsetse’s vanished. We meandered across the grass, trying to find a suitable spot in which to spend the night. It wasn’t difficult. We soon found a tranquil lake, parked on its shore, released the kids from the stuffy clutches of their seats, and set to work.
Later that evening, over a cold beer, I told Frank I planned to get up at 4:30am to do some photography. He looked at me doubtfully (I’m not, generally, an early riser) but didn’t comment.
When the alarm went off, I jerked awake and scrambled to shut the thing up. God, it was cold. And still so dark. Did I really want to do this? The prospect was a lot less appealing now.
I thought of Frank’s expression the previous evening. Come on, Jess, show some grit.
By the time I emerged from my nest and retrieved my camera from the passenger seat, my fingers had gone numb. People often think of Africa as a hot continent. It is. But believe me, it can get chilly too. Outside, night reluctantly gave way to day. My breath smoked from my nostrils. I leaned against the car and pretended I was a dragon.
Twenty minutes later, I was shivering. But not only from the cold. A scene of incomparable beauty, of timeless Africa, unfolded before my eyes and I could barely contain my excitement. I took photos in a kind of frenzy of delight. Here is one of them. Apart from minimal sharpening and cropping, I have not edited it. The colours and details and atmosphere are true, as I remember them. The water like liquid gold, the ethereal, swirling mist, and the black silhouettes of... ibis? storks?... in the foreground.
A gift, all for me.
Just imagine: I would not have witnessed this moment if I hadn't decided on a whim to get up early. I would not have experienced it had I not stuck to my decision, despite the cold. I would not have been able to share it with you now. An hour later, Frank blinked sleepy eyes at me, unaware of what he’d missed.
Ever since then I’ve found that photography is a window to a deeper awareness of place, its textures, shadows, shapes, colours and lines. And I have that photo framed on my desk now, to remind me not to get too comfortable in life – or I might miss something special.