Greg du Toit: Wilderness Dreaming – A Snapshot of Africa
South African-born wildlife photographer Greg du Toit joins us today to talk about his love for Africa, his passion for wildlife photography, and the release of his memoir.
Capturing award-winning images across the continent, Greg’s work showcases Africa’s wildlife and ecosystems in a unique way, giving animals a voice with each photo he takes.
Greg’s work and adventures have culminated in his memoir, Wilderness Dreaming, which is available for purchase here.
What came first – the love of wildlife and the bush or the love of photography? And how does this influence your work today?
Excellent question, especially since I just published my memoir titled Wilderness Dreaming.
My love for wildlife and the bush came first and I began ‘wilderness dreaming’ at a young age. Straight out of high school I went to work as an apprentice in a safari camp. There, I learnt about all things wild before I ever picked up a camera.
When I finally did pick up a camera (some 22 years ago) my photography became an effective conduit for my love of the bush and its wild inhabitants.
My fascination for the African bush influences my work significantly – the most obvious way is that I only photograph in Africa. Secondly, my photography is all about wild animals.
I am also not a digital artist but more of a wildlife photographer, in the traditional sense of the title. I believe that art exists in nature, and I like to record and arrange it in the form of a photograph.
This is not to say that I don’t exercise creativity; art is after all intrinsically implanted in the human soul.
It’s just that I like to exercise my influence by working with light, employing creative compositions, tweaking camera settings etc. and all this at the time of taking the photograph.
My photography is also about sharing the wild moments I have enjoyed from behind my camera.
This might sound obvious, but it has significant implications; not being able to use drones, camera traps, bait, captive subjects etc.
Your unique body of work focuses on Africa’s expansive wildlife. How do you keep your photographs and compositions fresh and new?
This is a constant challenge but for me the answer is threefold.
The first thing is knowing the continent, the countries, the parks, and wild areas like the back of my hand. Understanding seasons and knowing where to be when is the first challenge.
The second is knowing my subjects and their behaviour. This allows me to recognise and hopefully pre-empt those fresh, new shots.
The third is what I call ‘shooting from the hip’. Here in Africa, we have a real abundance and diversity of life; you never know when you will round a corner and see something amazing.
The ability to capitalise on these fleeting moments of luck is an essential skill for any African wildlife photographer, and perhaps more so here than on other continents.
I am always ready to pounce (like a leopard) on a special photo opportunity and to make the most of it.
This again affects many other areas of my work, including what gear I shoot with – I like to keep it super simple so that I am free and flexible to shoot reactively.
When a shoot doesn’t pan out as you hoped (poor lighting, the subject hasn’t appeared etc.), how do you overcome these hurdles and motivate yourself to keep going?
This is thankfully something I dealt with a long time ago but for many years it was a monkey on my back and one that would even reduce me to tears at times.
This changed when I studied the odds and realised that a great wildlife photograph is almost an impossibility to achieve. The reason for this is that you need so many elements to align in a successful wildlife photo.
All these need to combine at the same moment – in a split second.
As a wildlife photographer, I have very little control over anything except my settings. I cannot control or communicate with my wild subjects, and I cannot control the light (the gaseous blazing ball millions of miles away).
The background in the bush is often messy and there is almost always a stick or grass stalk in the way. Once I realised that the odds are seriously never in my favour, I realigned my expectations.
I began to appreciate that a ‘great wildlife photo’ is not something you can ever go out and expect to get. This has also taught me to celebrate the special shots I do get.
You once spent over 16 months in the Great Rift Valley waiting for lions to come down to a waterhole – with so much dedication to capturing one moment, what drives your creativity and passion for wildlife photography?
The project you’re referring to launched my photographic career. Probably, because I spent 270 hours sitting in the water to get eye-level shots of lions drinking – this was long before the advent of underground hides!
The interesting thing is that I undertook this project purely because I had an insatiable appetite for the wilderness.
My photographic creativity is heavily rooted in my love for the African wilderness and my photography is a way for me to appreciate, contain, communicate, and share this passion.
For the waterhole project specifically, it was my passion for the wilderness that kept me sitting at (and inside) one waterhole for 16 months. When it comes to nature photography, there is, I believe, no substitute for passion.
Do you have a most memorable trip or encounter from your time photographing across Africa?
There are so many, it is almost impossible to recall them all let alone try to pick just one.
Africa is a fascinating place and on almost every single safari you will experience an encounter of a lifetime. I love sharing Africa through my pictures and leading photo safaris.
But for me, a special and memorable moment came from sitting inside a Kenyan waterhole on the floor of the Great Rift Valley (as mentioned above).
I was all alone and in the middle of nowhere, with two thirsty felines drinking right in front of me. That moment and experience was a culmination of my life story, and the photographs I got represent the ultimate wilderness to me.
This encounter was first documented with my camera but has now also been recorded with my pen in my memoir Wilderness Dreaming.
The lions I photographed drinking lived on community land in Kenya. Not only are free-ranging lions endangered, but Kenya now has less than 2000 lions in total, this includes the ones in parks like the Maasai Mara.
I am passionate about lions and their conservation – they are my favourite animal.
We’ve heard you say that “wildlife photography is more about the experience than about getting the shot” before. Can you expand on that for us?
I am so glad that you highlighted this because I believe that too many photographers make it all about the photo.
Nature is much bigger than us and far greater than the photo.
There is no greater privilege than experiencing a wild animal in its wild habitat. It is easy to forget this as we all chase around the globe searching for our winning shots.
I am as guilty as anyone in this regard, but I like to remind myself as often as possible that it is a wonderful thing to have a front-row seat in the wildlife arena.
Recently I was on safari in Zambia and wild dogs took off hunting. There was dust, chaos, and mayhem but while I photographed, I made sure to just enjoy witnessing the spectacle. Some photographs are taken with the mind!
As wildlife photographers, I think we should not take ourselves too seriously and we should never forget what a privilege it is to just be out there.
What is a piece of gear that you can’t go without when on a shoot?
A flash! Light is such a challenge and in Africa, we often have too much of it.
I like to add a bit of fill-flash to light up the shadows when I can.
Having photographed wildlife across Africa for many years, what in your opinion is the biggest threat to its wildlife today, and has Covid had notable impacts?
Oh, dear… where to start?
There are so many issues facing Africa’s wildlife but the largest is the rhino crisis, and I am not sure how many people realise how serious it is.
80% of Africa’s rhinos are in South Africa and since Covid ended, poaching has escalated alarmingly.
In a last-bid attempt to save them, we are now dehorning our rhinos. It is awfully sad to see them without horns! The horn also grows back so this process is very laborious – needing to be repeated every 18 months. This is a last-gasp attempt!
If during our lifetime we will witness any large animal go extinct in the wild, it will be the rhino.
At its core, we have Chinese and Vietnamese traditional beliefs to blame. We also have poverty to blame because poachers are hired from surrounding communities to do the dirty work, and they have nothing else.
In Africa, across the continent, we have burgeoning population growth and poverty as the single largest contributing factors to declining wildlife numbers.
These factors, especially when combined, are a recipe for disaster for all wild creatures, and this is playing out in very real and significant ways.
How do we solve poverty in Africa? If I knew the answer, I would be very happy to tell you.
You have a new book out now ‘Wilderness Dreaming – Memoirs of a Photographer’ – can you tell us a bit more about this book?
This book was born out of a need to tell my personal African story. Photography is a very effective language, but my photos fail to tell my story. So, I decided to use words.
It is quite an unusual thing for a photographer to do and I think I might even be the first wildlife photographer to write an out-and-out memoir.
In a single sentence (or two), my memoir is about a boy who grew up in suburbia in South Africa but who had a longing and passion to discover the ‘lost Africa’. The book is essentially about me finding my Africa and this plays out through innumerable adventurous and funny experiences.
Perhaps my author’s note sums it up best:
“I am an African wildlife photographer, and this is my story. My journey, like most taken in Africa, has been a zigzagging one. Thankfully, it was only when looking back and recording my memories that I suffered from a sense of vertigo.
“As you will soon discover, my life has not been a planned and plotted set of waypoints.
“My Africa wanderings have been filled with more mishaps and misadventures than I would have wanted to consider at the outset, and I am reminded of something apt a magistrate once said to me and this is that ‘fact is stranger than fiction’!
“The only aspect on this wild ride that I take credit for is always clinging to my passion for the bushveld.
“Along my path have come characters (whom you will soon meet) who happen to be of the utmost storybook variety. At times, and to remain discreet, some names have been changed, although most of the time real names are used for both people and places.
“All the events in this book really took place. When I sat down to record my memories, I did so with two things in front of my mind. The first was Africa.
“This colourful continent, filled with incredible wildlife and people, is why I have such wonderful memories to share. My life (and therefore this memoir) is simply my love affair with Africa.
“The second thing on my mind when writing this book was you! You are the passenger in my VW Beetle alongside me, going through the ups and downs of my life in Africa.
“You are meeting and getting to know the same people and animals I did. You are running away from buffalo, collecting dung beetles, speaking to wild animals, dealing with self-professing rednecks, sitting in a waterhole, and being stalked by lions.
“You are experiencing my Africa and we are searching for the lost Africa together. Buckle up and enjoy the ride … and please do excuse the smell of rotting giraffe bones!”
What was your inspiration for creating this memoir?
Africa! This continent is so full of life and tales that I just had to share my own.
What can we expect to see from you next?
Now that my memoir is published (it was a decade-long project), I will be focusing on my fine art prints.