My Journey to South Africa: From Marketing Manager to Wildlife Photographer

After facing redundancy from a job he had held for 16 years, Dr Jonathan Bryant embarked on a transformative journey to South Africa. Through the combination of encounters with wildlife and a significant friendship with his field guide this trip profoundly impacted his life, ultimately leading to a professional career in photography.

“In 2013, I made the decision to travel to South Africa after being made redundant from my job as Global Strategic Marketing Manager at Dow Performance Silicones. Having worked for the same company since graduation for 16 years, the experience of redundancy was incredibly challenging. 

I’d been fortunate to visit South Africa previously but only when I was 3 years old, visiting relatives who lived there. Whilst I had many early childhood memories of that trip, it was almost 26 years since that visit. 

I was tempted by the opportunity to go on safari and chose the Sabi Sands private game reserve. I combined the safari with a visit to Cape Town, followed by the wine lands in the Stellenbosch region. Little did I know when I made this decision the impact it would have on my life!

One of the challenges with South Africa is the crime rate. There are a lot of stories, certainly in the UK media of safety issues for tourists. It was something that I was apprehensive about when I was deciding whether to go, and I almost didn’t go due to some of the warnings that I had read regarding travelling in South Africa. The reality is that South Africa relies on its tourism industry. Therefore if you are considering going on safari, I wouldn’t hesitate in going.

Private transfers from airports to lodges can be arranged. In some instances you can fly into the bush and be picked up by the lodge via a game vehicle transfer. If you are considering a dual stop itinerary, for example a city trip to Cape Town, then I would advise to make arrangements to stay in one of the safer parts of the city and check with your hotel on what advice they would give locally. You can also arrange local guides who can arrange guided tours which can help allay security fears.

Of all the items on my itinerary to South Africa, it was the safari experience that left the most profound impact on me. While I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Cape Town, which remains one of my favourite places to visit, it was the raw beauty and awe-inspiring encounters of the safari that truly transformed my perspective. Upon arriving in South Africa, I found myself at a small bush camp called Cheetah Plains in Sabi Sands. This is located in the North Eastern section of the Sabi Sands reserve which is not only well known for Big 5 game viewing but also for its abundance of leopards. To me the lodge felt really luxurious, certainly one of the most luxurious places I’ve stayed in. Although I later discovered that it was considered a modest camp compared to others in the area. Nevertheless, as a first-time safari-goer, I felt incredibly fortunate to have such an experience. 

One of the highlights of the camp was a watering hole where a resident hippo and numerous elephants would gather each day to drink. The sight of these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat was both humbling and exhilarating. It was a constant reminder of the profound connection between humans and the animal kingdom. 

“It was a humbling reminder of our place in the world and the importance of preserving these extraordinary habitats for future generations.”

On my first day, I had the pleasure of meeting our field guide, Justin. However, due to exhaustion from the long flight and travel, I made the regrettable decision to skip the first game drive. Looking back, I realised that each game drive is a precious opportunity to witness the wonders of the African wilderness, and I should have maximised my time on every drive. 

The daily routine on safari was a harmonious blend of adventure and tranquillity. Waking up at 5am, I would be greeted with coffee and rusks, a South African tradition, before embarking on the game drive at 5:30 am. This early morning timing allowed us to witness the animals at their most active, just before sunrise. Around 7:30 – 8am, we would pause for a coffee break, often in a picturesque location such as an open plain or near a water hole. The drive would continue until approximately 9:30 – 10am when a delightful breakfast or brunch awaited us. The midday hours provided downtime until 2:30pm, when tea was served, preparing us for the afternoon game drive. The afternoon drive would commence at 3pm, with a stop for sundowner drinks around sunset, allowing us to witness the breathtaking colours of the African sky. We would then return to the lodge around 7:30pm, gathering for a communal dinner around 8pm. These dinners, typically held outside around an open fire in a Boma area, provided an opportunity to connect with fellow guests from around the world, many of whom I had shared the game drive vehicle with.

The safari experience not only allowed me to witness the majesty of wildlife up close but also provided a profound sense of connection with nature and a newfound appreciation for the delicate balance of ecosystems. It was a humbling reminder of our place in the world and the importance of preserving these extraordinary habitats for future generations.

One of the most crucial aspects of a safari experience is the interaction between the field guide and the guests. Field guides play a vital role in explaining animal behaviour, interpreting the environment, and answering questions. Their extensive training encompasses not only animal behaviour but also bushcraft and survival skills. However, language barriers can sometimes hinder effective communication and dampen the overall experience. During my safari, I found myself sharing a vehicle with a group of French tourists who had limited English proficiency. The language barrier posed a challenge for our field guide, Justin, who had been with them for three days prior to my arrival. Frustration began to set in as Justin struggled to convey information and engage with the French tourists. 

Fortunately, as a fluent French speaker, I was able to step in and offer my assistance. Upon my arrival, I started translating from English to French for Justin. The immediate impact was palpable as the mood in the vehicle lightened, Justin’s frustration subsided, and the French tourists became more engaged, asking questions and actively participating in the safari experience. Through my role as a translator, I not only facilitated communication but also fostered a sense of camaraderie and connection. The French tourists felt more included and valued as they were able to fully understand the information shared by Justin. This newfound understanding sparked their curiosity, leading to more questions and a deeper appreciation for the wildlife and environment surrounding us. 

As the days went by, the rapport between Justin and myself grew. What started as a simple act of translation blossomed into a genuine friendship. We shared stories, and got to know each other during the downtime and drinks breaks and discovered we had a common interest in photography. It was indeed the fact that I was videoing my safari experience and the friendship that I developed with Justin that was to have a profound impact on my future.

 On my return home I kept in contact with Justin. In fact the footage I filmed on safari I made into a short experience video which I shared on the online video platform Vimeo. Justin viewed it and loved it. He asked my permission to share it with the owners of the lodge and I agreed. Back in 2013 social media was starting to play a strong role in how to market the safari experience to an international audience. The owners of the lodge loved the video and asked if they could use it on their social media platforms which I agreed to. 

Jonathan’s video footage from his first safari trip.

However, the moment I left South Africa I knew I wanted to return. Being made redundant meant I had some spare time on my hands. It also gave me time to reflect. I decided that I would return six months later. But on this occasion I decided I would return with a focus on photography. I had no idea about how to take good wildlife images, it isn’t something I’d ever done before. I was nothing more than a hobbyist with very basic camera knowledge. 

I returned to Cheetah Plains 6 months later and was back in the vehicle with Justin. This time my mission was to learn how to take wildlife images. It was a mixed bag: I got some great shots, but I failed a lot, but in doing so I learnt a lot. It was the start of building my portfolio. 

In 2014 I returned to South Africa again on two occasions to different locations, in an attempt to learn my craft and build a portfolio. In 2015 Justin had moved on from a field guide into sales and marketing for a group of lodges. We collaborated further on content generation and I visited South Africa to help make some videos. It was at this point I knew I would have to turn professional.

At the end of 2015 this coincided with me becoming a Camera Brand Ambassador for a major Camera manufacturer for around 5 years. From 2015 up until Covid, I travelled to Africa at least twice a year and I’ve visited Kenya, Zimbabwe and Botswana. 

My friendship with Justin opened up a whole network in the Safari industry and in 2017 I found myself presenting at the Wild Shots Photographic Conference in Cape Town alongside the likes of National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry. This was a pinch yourself moment! I also collaborated and worked with renowned South African Wildlife Photographer, Andrew Aveley who subsequently became a good friend. 

Over these 5 years from 2015 – 2020 my images were published in leading photographic and wildlife/outdoor photography magazines. I’ve also given presentations at some of the major photographic exhibitions across Europe. All of this was as a result of a chance encounter whilst on Safari and building a lasting friendship with someone who had a similar passion for African wildlife. I am forever grateful for the opportunity that was presented to me.”

Jonathan’s video for Panasonic from his latest trip

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