In the Tribe: Face-to-face with… Jeff Webster
In this first of a new series meeting some of Tribes’ travellers, Suffolk-based Jeff Webster, a keen photographer who is now retired from a career in banking in London, tells of his and his wife Sue’s love of wildlife, Africa and Antarctica.
When did you first experience wildlife ‘in the wild’?
The answer may not be what you expect! In 1981 Sue and I – who had spent our lives in the suburbs until that point – moved to a rural location near Bishops Stortford. Until then my only experience of wildlife of any sort had been through the television – David Attenborough, of course, but before that (for those who are old enough to remember!) I also watched Armand and Michaela Dennis, who were earlier pioneers of wildlife broadcasting.
That first summer in our first rural home was very hot and one night, sleeping with the windows open to try to let some breeze in we heard a strange noise from the garden. We shone torches around the garden and to our great surprise and delight it was a badger! It had found a group of snails and was snacking away.
That started a love of watching wildlife that has endured ever since. Badgers became regular visitors to our garden. Sue and I would turn off the house and outside lights and sit on the terrace and they would wander into the garden and walk amongst us. We would even invite friends to join us sometimes. The badgers attracted foxes, and we would have visiting fox cubs in the spring. We joined a badger protection group, learnt how to handle injured badgers and dug sets for orphaned ones. Over the 25 years we lived in that house we were visited by badgers thousands of times. Strangely, since moving to rural Suffolk, we have only seen one live badger – and that was an injured one we found by the roadside, which died in my arms.
When did the travel bug bite you?
As a child growing up in Leeds and Manchester my holidays were restricted to family trips to Scarborough and Morecambe. I didn’t go abroad or fly at all until I was 38 years old, when Sue and I went to Crete, which was the beginning of nearly a decade of Mediterranean holidays for us. However, in 1989 we decided to take a long-haul trip, and did so quite comprehensively, with a trip that included India, Hong Kong and China!
It was quite an eye opener for us both – when you have only travelled in Europe and then you land in Delhi…. I remember the taxi taking us from the airport to the hotel and Sue exclaiming “Good heavens, there’s a naked man walking along the street!”, and our driver explaining that it was a holy man.
On that trip we saw macaque monkeys and Asian elephants and that inspired us to take our first African safari, which we did in 1990, travelling to Kenya with a travel company that we picked because they promised us a window seat in the safari vehicle!
To say we enjoyed it is very much an English understatement – since that trip we have travelled once and sometimes twice every year and have visited every continent on earth apart from Australia.
What are your most memorable wildlife experiences from your travels with Tribes?
In 2011 Tracy arranged a trip to Western Tanzania for us, taking in Selous, Ruaha, Katavi and Mahale. Our main aim was to see chimpanzees in the wild, something we had failed to do with previous trips to Rwanda and Uganda. We very nearly saw them in Uganda – we had walked to be very close to them but then it started raining and they went quiet and that was it! Tracy understood what we wanted and she suggested Mahale because the chimps there are habituated to humans, as they have been monitored for years by, I think, Kyoto University.
The experience was memorable for many reasons – not least the flight from Katavi to Mahale. It was a small plane, of course, and Sue and I were the only passengers. As we flew over the Mahale mountains it started to rain – torrentially. Lightening was crackling around us and the fuselage was battered by the downpour. You know it’s not a good a sign when the pilot stops talking. When we finally landed the pilot said “Now that was interesting.” He followed that up with, “And what you didn’t know is that that’s only the second time I have ever flown solo with passengers”….
The next day we trekked for two hours to meet up with a group of chimpanzees, and Sue and I got our wish. It was fantastic and well worth all the effort – I was 66 at the time, and there was an American lady on the trek with us who was celebrating her 38th birthday and said it was the physically hardest thing she had ever done.
In 2010 we travelled with Tribes to Botswana, where we encountered meerkats on the Kalahari scrublands. We sat down and they were all around us. It was enchanting – but also surprisingly cold. We had to be there in the early morning for this and I hadn’t expected to encounter frost in Africa! On that same trip we slept under the stars on the Makgadikgadi Pans. And we were literally under the stars – no tent, just a double bed and the sky above us. Magical!
Old Mondoro Camp in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi is one of our favourite places. In fact, it’s the only one we have every visited twice, and it was there, on a night-drive, that we saw honey badgers for the first time. And last year we went to Zimbabwe where we saw Boswell, the big-tusker elephant made famous by David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds One Planet programme, in which he stands on his hind legs to eat from the higher branches of trees. He stayed on all four legs when we saw him but was still a magnificent sight.
Travel is also about the people that you meet – you must have had some fascinating encounters over the years, both with native populations and your fellow travellers?
I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the American gentleman I met in Zimbabwe last year, who asked ‘Hey man, can you explain the difference between a rhino and a hippo?”. Sue answered for me – ‘One is endangered and the other isn’t.”
But it’s the poignant encounters that leave the most lasting impression. In 2005 we went to Rwanda, ten years after the genocide. Rwanda was just opening up to tourism at that time and the devastation caused by the genocide was still very much in evidence. I remember the holocaust museum, with its mummified bodies, and the caretaker there, who had survived being shot and bore a bullet hole scar in his forehead. He asked me to photograph him, “So that the world can see the horrors we suffered”.
Do you prefer walking near wildlife or watching them from a safari vehicle or a boat? I imagine it rather depends on the wildlife…
I like to do it all! That’s why I find Zambia so very special – you can go on walking safaris, night safaris and also boat and jeep safaris. Walking safaris are fascinating. The bigger wildlife spots you long before you spot it, so you start to notice the smaller things instead. I remember a trapdoor spider that lurked underground…
To get closer to the larger wildlife you need to be in a boat or vehicle – though we have at times been a bit too close to hippos while in a boat!
You’re a keen photographer – is this something that you’ve always done or something that became a stronger interest the more you travelled?
It’s something that has become a greater interest the more we have travelled. I started with print film then switched to slide film, as slides take up less space. Now, of course, I shoot digitally. I still don’t have the most expensive kit but I travel with two camera bodies and include a long lens.
Your most recent trip (not a Tribes one) was to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. Obviously a rather different experience to an African safari or the SouthWild Jaguar Flotel in Brazil! Tell us about the wildlife you saw on that icy trip.
This is something we have wanted to do for quite a while. Five or six years ago we travelled along Russia’s Kamchatka coastline and after we left the boat it was going on to Wrangel Island. We weren’t sure at that time if politically it would be an easy place to visit but this year on a ‘if we don’t do it now we may never do it’ impetus, we went there.
It is obviously very remote – it’s the last place where woolly mammoths survived – and the wildlife, and the quantity of wildlife, is astonishing. We saw over 50 polar bears, hundreds of walruses and, I’m told, some 250 humpback and grey whales. Birdlife is impressive here as well, notably the horned puffins and the lovely tufted puffins. We were looking out for snowy owls but, strangely, saw just one! Then we sailed along the Northern Siberian coast, where we spotted Arctic foxes and Russian brown bears.
We also met several of the native Inuit people, who have been restricted to one settlement since the Stalin era; I remember the distress of an elderly lady as she reminisced about the village from which everybody had been evicted in the 1950s.
What is the wildlife photograph that you’re most proud of, and why?
On that trip to Tanzania in 2011, it was the end of the season and we basically had Katavi National Park to ourselves, other than an Australian couple who shared our vehicle. Our guide suggested that, rather than driving around in search of wildlife, we park up under a tree and see what unfolded before us.
We were entertained for a while by a lion cub repeatedly jumping onto its father until the adult gave it a whack and it scampered up a tree, gazing reproachfully down on its parent. We then drove down to a riverbed, where three female lions were stretching out in the sun, with four cubs nearby. The lionesses started to walk away and a crocodile walked towards them. They all appeared to be ignoring each other and then something triggered the lionesses and they circled the crocodile then launched an attack. It was quite a tussle but ended in a stand-off, albeit with the crocodile sustaining a nasty gash on its rear leg. Then the lionesses sat down as if nothing had happened – and it’s the shot of the tussle, with the four cubs watching from a safe distance, that I’m the proudest of.
And what was the most memorable photograph to take? It may not be one that you consider your best, but the experience itself makes it particularly satisfying.
There are two. The first was when we were gorilla trekking in Rwanda. We left at 7am and trekked to a family of 46 gorillas. However, the male silverback wasn’t well and, rather as with human ‘man flu’ he involved everybody as he decided to head up the mountain to cooler climbs. It took us six hours trekking up the steep sides of an extinct volcano to find them…
The second photo was taken when we travelled to Borneo and the Malay peninsula one year with the aim of seeing wild orangutans. We saw them in the reserve at Sepilok but hadn’t seen them in the wild, and we had arrived at our last camp and our guide was becoming anxious! Then he announced “The good news is that a male orangutan has built a nest just outside the camp. The bad news is that we’ll have to get up before sunrise to see him.” So, the next morning we all got up and got dressed in the dark and travelled to beneath the tree where he was nesting. Dawn came and there was no sign of him. Then one hour passed. And another hour. People started to give up and head back to camp for breakfast, but we stayed put. Finally, at 9.10am a hand appeared on the edge of the nest and there he was! His name was Abu and it was definitely an experience and picture worth waiting for.
Clearly Africa is a great love – why do you and your wife love it so much?
The wildlife! There are still some elusive creatures that we have yet to see there. On our recent trip to Zimbabwe our guide asked us what we wanted to see. “A caracal would be nice” I replied. He was quiet for a while and then said “Anything else?”
We also love the colour and wildlife of India.
Where else in the world that you have travelled to (not necessarily with Tribes) do you consider to be particularly special?
The Antarctic – it is so special and, with global warming, it is changing all the time.
Finally, if you could only travel to one place – either one you’ve been to before or have yet to visit – where would it be, and why?
Well, Africa is always front of mind of course but I think if it really was a case of ‘this is the last place you are allowed to travel to’ it would have to be the Antarctic.
All photos © Jeff Webster