A visual wildlife journey with Greg du Toit

Greg du Toit is probably Africa’s most well-known wildlife photographer. In 2013 he won the BBC World Wildlife Photographer of the Year competion. But this award was long overdue. Greg has been taking some of the best wildlife photographs for almost 20 years.

Today he is also one of the best photographic guides in Africa, and leads tours to some of the most remote places on the continent. I caught up with him recently to ask him a few questions.

(Greg du Toit)

Greg, which are your top three wildlife regions of Africa?

I think the first one would be Mala Mala. It’s the largest part of Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa, and all their infrastructure was built on less than 10% of the land. There’s nothing between you and Kruger National Park, except lowveld bush and phenomenal wildlife. For me, I think the lowveld is still the place where my heart is because that’s where I grew up. It’s where I first fell in love with the bush.

(Greg du Toit)

The second is Masai Mara, because it is the wildlife mecca of the world, and so often people tell me you shouldn’t go there because there are too many tourists, but it’s 1 500 sq km, and if you know where to go, and when, and how, the wildlife experience that you will have is unrivalled anywhere on the continent.

(Greg du Toit)

My third place is Mashatu, which is in the Tuli block of Botswana. And I like Mashatu simply because there’s great wildlife, but the place is unlike anywhere else. I’ve never seen a place in Africa where you’ve got the black sand in the rivers and the gigantic Mashatu trees. It’s a unique place and an ancient place. I love it and I’m so blessed that it’s only a six-hour drive from my home in Johannesburg.

You’ve had some incredible experiences with wildlife. Which are your top three wildlife experiences?

About ten years ago, I staked out a water hole in the South Rift Valley of Kenya for 16 months. It was a small water hole, only about 20m in diameter. It was basically a spring on the floor of the Rift Valley. My mission was to photograph the free-ranging lions and I spent 16 months just at one waterhole. The life I saw in and around that waterhole just was mind-blowing.

(Greg du Toit)

I dug a hole next to the water hole and I put some hessian tacking over the top, and I just witnessed the life that water supports in that dry, arid area. In last three months I actually sat in the water, and I eventually got eye-level photos of these free ranging lions drinking.

My second most memorable experience was about five years ago. I visited Mahale Mountains in Tanzania; I went to photograph chimpanzees, and just before we’d arrived, there were five dominant males in this one community of chimps, and the four lower-ranking males had ganged up, killed and eaten the number one ranking male.

We got there just afterwards, and when we were there, there’s a chimp called Christmas because he was born on Christmas Day, and he was number three in line. But, our guide forewarned us and he said look, because the two males above him are not here, he’s going to try and use us as props to show the other chimps his power and his strength.

(Greg du Toit)

And what ensued was something I’ve never experienced in my life. Standing in that forest, this chimp called Christmas just charged us repeatedly, screaming, throwing things in the air. He was literally running between our legs, actually making contact with us, and then he would run up to the base of a tree and he would drum against the roots with his hind legs. I'll never ever forget it. I’ve never been so scared. I was actually too scared to take photographs, and just standing in the small huddle in the middle of this remote, remote part of Africa on the shores of Lake Tanganyika is something I'll never forget.

My third was recently in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. There was a spring close by to our campsite. This was the only water around for miles, and the wildlife was drinking at the spring all night, so the nights were magical. I’d lie in the sand of this dry riverbed and I’d have breeding herds of elephants walk right past me, herds of buffalo.

(Greg du Toit)

The wild dogs killed an impala right in front of my campsite as well, which I managed to photograph. Lions walked right past us. A leopard walked right past us. I thought this is as wild as Africa has ever been. There was a full moon too, which was great.

You clearly have a deep love for African wilderness. What do you admire most about it and what do you miss about it when you’re away from it?

My photography is an outflowing of my love for wilderness. Wilderness, for me, is a connection with my creator. It’s a place where I really come alive. It’s a place where I can see clearly and I can exist on a deeper level.

(Greg du Toit)

(Greg du Toit)

It’s mysterious, it’s beautiful, it’s fresh and it’s enchanting, and I think there’s quote by Ian Player that, for me, sums up how I feel about wilderness:

“Wilderness, in whatever way we describe it, becomes a chance for human beings to redeem their humanity. It is a place where we go to contemplate our origins, examine our past, and plan our future. It is manna for the soul and hope for all life.”

(Greg du Toit)

I miss the feeling of just being able to walk and disappear into the bush on my own with no backpack, no rifle, no camera. That’s really what I miss.

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