Five Minutes with James Kydd

Natural Selection
December 05, 2017

We caught up with safari guide and wildlife photographer extraordinaire James Kydd as he emerged, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed from getting to know some of our camps.

NS: Which camps did you visit, and how long did you stay?

JK: I stayed at three camps. The first was Meno A Kwena and I was there for a week, the second camp was Jack’s and I was there for five nights, then the third was Sable Alley where I stayed for two weeks.

NS: What were you most looking forward to prior to visiting?

JK: I was most looking forward to visiting Jack’s Camp. I’d heard a lot about it from my fellow guides, and personally I’m happiest and most peaceful when I’m in a desert wilderness.

I have been to the Makgadikgadi a couple of times, and the stark beauty of it is so calming and invigorating at the same time. I was very lucky to be there for the arrival of the first rains, and to have that build up in tension, and see these incredibly dramatic skies taking over, then suddenly breaking open and relieving the land with much needed moisture. It felt like an incredible privilege.

NS: What were the major highlights of the trip?

JK: There were so many I’m going to list them individually now, so here goes.

At Meno A Kwena we had a couple of day drives when we went into the Makgadikgadi, but the highlight was undoubtedly the huge gatherings of elephant bulls that came into the Boteti around midday. I had never seen such a thing. There were probably over 120 elephant bulls all gathered together, maybe even 150. Seeing them, interspersed with big gatherings of giraffe and a few zebra, really felt like an African spectacle that could rival anything else in the other hotspots of the continent.

One of the other stand out experiences from Meno A Kwena were the fly camps that we did. Meno’s quite conveniently situated in the sense that it’s not far from Maun, but it’s also not far from the central Kalahari, nor from Nxai Pan, and we did a fly camp into both of these, and just having the freedom of a small, isolated, basic camp was spectacular.

We were there in December, and at that particular time of year, both of those national parks were relatively empty, so in the CKGR we had our own little camp site, and we had four different species of owl calling around the tent, which was a totally magical experience. In Nxai Pan, the highlights were the big elephant bulls who were caked in white clay so they looked like giant white ghosts as they drifted in and out of the water holes, and there were huge flocks of quelea gathering, then exploding as they got divided by the hunting lanner falcons, and massive herds of springbok that would just come in lines and lines down to the water holes. We had the water holes essentially to ourselves, and the sunsets there were memorable and spectacular. I could have spent weeks sitting at some of those water holes.

The high point of Jack’s Camp was the arrival of the first rains that I mentioned earlier. We had rain on quite a few of the days in December, and as a photographer it provided a beautiful and dramatic backdrop, and I really like to shoot skies in my images.

As a guest experience, so many people had told me not to go to that area in December, but I was totally blown away by it. It felt like we had the Makgadikgadi to ourselves. There was one other set of guests at Jack’s for a couple of nights, and then it was just us. When we went into the Makgadikgadi National Park we saw no other vehicles, and we had the whole of the zebra migration to ourselves, which was an incredible experience. We felt very lucky.

One of the other highlights was the staff at Jack’s Camp. I can’t say enough about them, they were incredible. Another big plus regarding staff was spending time with the guide Greg Hartman. He was a very humble gentleman with a deep passion for the Makgadikgadi and that area. He was very giving of his time and an exceptional host. He’s also incredibly knowledgeable, and is a guide I’d certainly like to work with time and time again in the future. If anyone’s heading to Jack’s Camp I’d highly recommend requesting Greg as the guide.

The elephants coming down to a secluded water hole was another bonus. It was fun to watch them drinking. They’d come in and chase the zebra and the wildebeest away and splash the cooling water all over themselves and then move off again. That same day we saw a lion on a kill, and cheetah, and there were very healthy vulture populations in the palms.

The first of the most memorable things about Sable Alley would be the hippos that we got to spend many an evening just sitting with in some of the backwaters. Just watching these magnificent beasts, again on our own, as the sun set was such a privilege.

Another highlight was watching all the eagles, and the herons and the cormorants coming in to roost in the evening.

The mopane woodlands are not known for huge densities of wildlife, but they are just so beautiful as mature trees, and driving through the forest was fantastic.

The position of Sable Alley is really special too, and another high point would be the elephants coming into camp. You can’t beat being in a tent, with a light drizzle on your roof and having an elephant 30 centimetres outside your mosquito net window!

NS: Were there any unexpected surprises?

JK: I must say that I was surprised how much I enjoyed the experience with the Zu/’hoasi who are also known as the Bushmen.

I’ve done many cultural experiences in my life, and I’m always very hesitant to go on them because I either find them lacking in authenticity, or if they are authentic I want to leave them that way out of respect, but there was something very magical about the experience that we had at Jack’s Camp. It not only felt authentic, but there was a genuine and beautiful exchange of human interest.

We were invited to witness one of their trance dances in the evening. It happened to be an early evening while a storm rolled in, so we were watching this with the backdrop of lightning behind them. I felt honoured to be in their presence and to speak with them, and to learn from them.

NS: What was your favourite moment of the trip?

JK: My favourite moment would probably be the two nights that we had at Sable Alley with the elephant herds in camp.

We were lucky to have the camp to ourselves because of the handover that was going on. So all of the sightings that we had there were very special because of the solitude that we were experiencing at the same time.

NS: What was the most memorable wildlife sighting?

JK: One of the most memorable wildlife sightings was finding a pride of lions. It was mothers with a number of sub-adults and they eventually woke up and licked each other awake. Then we watched them go on the move, and not long after, they disappeared into a forest where we could hear some impala alarm calling. One of the mothers emerged with a lamb, brought it out, and fed the rest of the pride with it. It was wonderful to watch the family and how they were looking after each other. We stayed with them for some time.

Seeing the massive herds of zebra coming to feed in the pans with the backdrop of the first rains was definitely also one of the most memorable sightings.

NS: Why would you return to the camps?

JK: I’m already making plans to return to Jack’s Camp with clients. I really enjoyed the ethos there, the level of service, and the focus on the wildlife experience.

I look forward to seeing Sable Alley in the winter time when I know it will be very different. I did like the land of Sable Alley very much, and I know that it will offer an excellent bush experience.

I had been to Meno A Kwena before, and one of the reasons I would return there is because of the fantastic photographic opportunities that you can have from the banks of the Boteti at the end of the dry season when the zebras are coming down to drink. It’s a magical spot.

It was also great to get to know the owner Hennie, and the wonderful news is that a lot of the fences that have been preventing the zebras from drinking the way they used to are coming down. I think it’s a very exciting time for that property and that area.

NS: What was your overall impression of the camps and the company?

JK: My overall impression is that Natural Selection is incredibly exciting for the industry; for anyone who’s travelling to Africa; and for the conservation areas, that another leader is emerging in the safari industry.

I’ve watched over the years how safari lodges have focused more and more on the hotelier side and perhaps lost the essence of what they started up for, which was the bush experience, and the wildlife experience. I know that people like Colin Bell are determined to bring a lot more of that back. To bring back the essence of the camp fire, and the wilderness, and I’m very excited for their adventure.

I think it’s an incredibly brilliant idea to align with owner run and managed camps. I think that family feeling is always portrayed in the way a camp is run, and I hope that Natural Selection go from strength to strength. I’m certainly looking forward to getting back into some of the lodges and seeing some of the new areas.

You can see more of James’ adventures by following him on Instagram.

Instagram: @jameskydd