Wilderness Dreaming – Wild Africa chronicled through a lens of passion and peril
African wildlife photographer Greg du Toit presents a down-to-earth memoir that attempts to explore the continent’s essence. Journeying from the South African bush to the Maasai heartland, his narrative offers a poignant call to understand humanity’s position within a grand wilderness.
In the saturated genre of African wildlife memoirs, Greg du Toit’s Wilderness Dreaming is an evocative chronicle.
Wending its way through a continent still teeming with life and beauty, this narrative is not merely about photographing natural Africa, but feeling its pulse.
As expected of a bush memoir, Du Toit’s journey is not without the usual death-defying thrills and spills.
In 2013, his exploits from a sunken hide at a Tuli Block waterhole earned him the big title in the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
This is the holy grail of nature photography awards — over the years, Du Toit has received seven such honours in the competition for various images, including those of wildebeest fleeing flames in the Serengeti; and pelicans on Lake Nakuru.
Unlikely beginnings: Oom Frikkie and his rifle
From a young age, the Pretoria-raised Greg was fascinated by the bush. Rushing home from school, he would cycle to the CNA in Brooklyn Mall, paging through Roberts Birds of Southern Africa cover to cover. By age 13, he was twitching through his own set of Bushnell binoculars.
With his obsessive appetite for dissecting nature, the matriculant leaves the cocoon, drawn to the wonders of a less explored Africa.
The city slicker hitchhikes to a concession in Sabi Sands next to Kruger National Park, where owner Frikkie barely knows what to do with the unannounced arrival.
Suffering from a stutter, the lad manages to get everything, including a truck and the kitchen sink, stuck in mud during torrential rains.
“Frikkie was livid,” Du Toit, now 45, writes. “From that point on he insisted that I meet the truck at the river crossing and carry all supplies across to our side of the river by hand. I protested this new arrangement, reminding him about the crocodile we had seen floating past camp in the morning while we were having breakfast, but he told me not to worry. He would stand on the river bank with his rifle pointed at the water …
“I was more scared of Frikkie shooting me than I was of the crocodile.”
After malaria ends his time with Frikkie and his haelgeweer, a job interview takes Du Toit and his late father to an unfenced walking trails camp in Timbavati Private Nature reserve. Presumptuously, Du Toit arrives fully prepared, with all essentials he needs to survive out there in the veld.
When his interviewer agrees to give him a job that would start in three months only, his father intervenes: “The boy’s bags are packed. He is ready to start now.”
For his sins, Du Toit’s princely accommodation involves a hut on stilts with neither door nor windows, and a pair of deadly boomslangs in the roof above his bed, who insist on spending the winter.
Du Toit’s account of surviving a buffalo charge in pursuit of a “mega-tick” bird — the Narina trogon — is not just a testament to life-saving luck, but to plot twists leading to unforeseen paths.
Fleeing for his life, Du Toit snaps his trusty binoculars in half, inspiring him to buy a starter-pack camera instead — a Pentax MZ30 body and a Sigma lens kit.
He also recounts his life as a camp-bound manager in the Tuli Block, and misadventures with the Djuma Game Reserve team, who pioneered internet safaris in Kwazulu-Natal and Kruger.
Fireside chats about a ‘lost’ frontier
Du Toit’s memoir, however, is not all adrenaline and laugh-out-loud capers.
Like his fine-art collection, it also introspects, and includes the photographer’s time in Kenya’s south rift, which he documents with 100 rolls of slide film bought from the sale of a VW Beetle reeking of giraffe bones.
“Looking down at the bags,” he notes, “I realised that I had exchanged a whole car for just two brown bags of film and filters.”
In the south rift, he moonlights as a camp manager while also spending some 300 bilharzia-contracting hours in a waterhole to photograph the ghostly, free-ranging lions living among the Maasai.
In Du Toit’s perspective, the essence of wild Africa is not captured by clichés like the MGM lion’s roar — the naturalist reminds us what a real one sounds like.
It is found instead in some humans still coexisting with megafauna; the secret lives of LBJs (small drab birds known as ‘little brown jobs’); and other observations gleaned from exploring the “lost” continent by foot, on its own terms.
“The deep grumpy moans of the Verreaux’s eagle-owls gradually gave way to the gentle cooing of doves and the whistle of the Kurrichane thrush,” Du Toit writes of a blue dawn in Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve.
The naturalist’s entrance ticket to this world is his hard-won ability to speak Bush, which nonetheless hurtles him into dangerous, ill-advised pursuits. To these he confesses throughout his story, without attempting to glamourise or defend them, save for his singular, at times harrowing, obsession to create unforgettable images of Africa’s overlooked corners.
Wilderness Dreaming, crafted by an able fireside raconteur, is an unpretentious ode to Africa. It is a humorous, thoroughly entertaining journey of its eccentrics and ecosystems, urging readers to rediscover their connection to the place.
At 436 pages, it is a good but hefty read for those wanting to understand a continent that still has, as the book argues, enough wilderness to defend and daydream of. DM
Follow Tiara Walters on Instagram: @tiara.adele.walters