Dave van Smeerdijk is an expert on travel to Africa’s wildest places. Over the course of 25 years he has worked across the continent, first as a safari guide in Southern and East Africa, and more recently as marketing director of Wilderness Safaris and Asilia Africa, two highly-respected companies which operate some of the finest lodges in the best wildlife regions. [Photo – Dave and his wife Jennifer with daughter Grace, and a friendly meerkat].
Your three favourite wilderness or wildlife regions in Africa?
My first would be the Okavango Delta in Botswana, then the Skeleton Coast in Namibia and the third would be the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania.
All three are epic wild areas, and the first two have huge biomass with so many animals and only a sparse population of humans. If I can choose a few others, I’d say the Zambezi Valley on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, and the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda. I love the mountains of Africa, so I’ve climbed most of the peaks several times, including those in the Rwenzoris.
In all five places, there’s that great feeling that these places have been mostly untouched by man. The wildlife still dominates these landscapes.
What’s interesting is that there’s an intangible feeling to all these areas. Perhaps it’s got to do with the huge amounts of underground water in the Okavango and Serengeti. Or maybe because all of them have above-average volcanic activity underneath them? Most of these places are associated in some way with the Great Rift Valley, with the exception of the Skeleton Coast which is on the edge of the continental plate, so it’s also got a lot of volcanic activity underneath. Of course, it’s just speculation, but it’s still an interesting co-incidence.
If you had to leave Africa, for some hypothetical reason, and never return, which three specific places would you choose to spend your last three weeks?
I would definitely spend a week on the Skeleton Coast between the Hoarusib and Kunene Rivers, in the northern Kaokoveld of Namibia. My wife Jen did her PhD on lichen there, so we spent a lot of time in the desert. I’ll never forget it and I’ll always want to go back. That’s probably one of our favourite places and I would probably just camp somewhere under the stars.
This area is incredible. The ephemeral rivers are oases in what is one of the driest places on earth, with incredible mountain geology. And so elephants, lion, leopard, cheetah all survive here, remarkably. Sometimes they’ll move 50 kms to the next ephemeral river valley, across sand dunes and arid plains without a blade of grass.
We’ve been to all the deserts in the world. There’s nothing that can compare. That’s why it’s called “the living desert”, because it’s got huge amounts of animal life, as well as high species endemism. Of course, the people are special too, including the Himba, who live in a place where few other people would be able to survive.
The third place is the Central Kalahari in Botswana. I’m particularly fond of it because I first met my wife Jennifer there. It’s a great place to see cheetah. And the lions down there are particularly large and fearless.
And my fourth would be Sayari Camp in the northern Serengeti of Tanzania . That area has so much wildlife, but even when the wildebeest migration has moved on, there’s plenty to see.
Your three most memorable wildlife or wilderness experiences?
The first one that comes to mind was in the mid 1990s. There was a comet that streaked across Botswana’s night sky. One night we were camping in the middle of the Linyanti area, and there was a full moon next to this huge comet. Out of the dark came these four huge male lions. They started roaring right next to us, shaking our vehicle. I’ll never forget that night.
The second was off the Namibian coast near Walvis Bay. We were on a boat following a group of Heaviside dolphins. There were probably 400 dolphins surrounding the boat, splashing and diving. We swam with the group for an hour. That blew my mind.
We’ve had several near-death experiences with African wildlife. One night while camping in Savute of Botswana my wife Jen was walking back to our tent, and she was surrounded by a big pride of about 30 lions. They were within touching distance of her, circling her. I was on the other side of camp, but she managed to get out of it by standing her ground, and just backing away slowly without running. Then later that night we watched that same pride of lions attacking a bull elephant at the nearby waterhole. Those were fearless lions.
Who are some of the people that have inspired you?
Tico and Lesley McNutt in the Okavango have done amazing research on wild dogs and other predators. Their project is the longest-running carnivore research program in Africa. They are very understated, and very dedicated to their work, and get on with it without much fuss. I’ve learnt a lot from them.
I think Beverly and Peter Pickford are some of the best photographers in the world, but they also write powerful stories. They are insightful because they’ve been all over Africa, and they’ve been in all the great wilderness areas of the world.
Then in Namibia there’s the former park warden Rudi Loutit and his wife, Blythe, who started Save the Rhino Trust. Sadly, Blythe passed away a few years ago. Both of them epitomise everything good about conservation. And both of them – Rudi today, and Blythe when she was alive – are highly respected as down-to-earth, hard-working, loyal people.
Chris Bakkes in Namibia is the most interesting and entertaining guide on the continent. He recites poetry, sings songs, and writes beautifully. We were privileged to work with him, when he was our first guide in Skeleton Coast for many years.
There’s a guide in Kenya, in the Maasai Mara called Jackson Looseyia. He’s the real deal, because wildlife is such a big part of their daily life. At night Jackson goes back to his family’s cattle kraal, so he’s used to looking after his family in wild areas. That’s part of their life. I’ve never felt so comfortable with my family in the bush as in Kenya because guides like Jackson are more aware of their environment than any others I’ve met.
What does Africa’s wilderness and wildlife mean to you?
I love wild areas anywhere in the world, from Antarctica to the Arctic, from deserts to mountains, but the difference with Africa is it’s wild animals. We’ve got the best fauna of any continent, and we’ve got the best people. The safari industry in Africa directly employs millions of people and there are thousands of wildlife lodges. Wildlife is so significant for the continent’s future. Without a doubt, Africa’s wildlife means everything to the continent and it’s people. Without the wildlife, Africa can’t compete with other continents in the tourism market.
What do you miss most about it?
I miss all the sensory experiences, and being able to look out over long distances without any man-made distractions. I miss the little things like the cool breeze on a hot day in the Okavango, the smell of water in the desert, the local people, and then of course the epic wildlife. And of course, there’s nothing like a sunset in an African wilderness area with a cold beer in your hand.
I really do believe that everyone has an element of wildness that they need to satisfy. It’s something I learned from Ian McCallum a few years ago. He had a theory that everyone has that element of wildness to satisfy in their soul. Some people have got a lot and some people have got a little.
And then some people don’t need it at all. They’re happy to stare at their computer all day long and never need to go into wild places. But I think even they probably need a little bit, although they just don’t know it.
Hunting. What’s your opinion?
I’ve got a couple of problems with hunting. Firstly, it’s totally the opposite of natural selection, where dominant genes survive by their own successful strategies. Generally speaking, hunting takes out the biggest, the strongest and the fittest, and I think that’s inherently wrong. It’s damaging to the environment.
Hunting can play a conservation role in areas that can never support a high density of wildlife. But if hunting is allowed, it should happen in areas far from any photographic tourist areas or national parks. Hunting should never be allowed in – or anywhere near – the prime wildlife areas of Africa. In hunting areas, animals run from you at the mere sight or smell of a human. They’re seriously stressed out.
Hunting and tourism is like oil and water – it does not work together. I’ve experienced this all over Africa. The animals just run, and tourists want to see wildlife up close!
It takes about five years for animals to realise they’re not in danger of being hunted. I’ve personally experienced it. The famous Mombo Camp in the Okavango used to be a hunting area. When we were operating there it had been hunted recently and it took about ten years for it to settle down. Now it’s one of the finest wildlife areas on the continent.
Scott Ramsay of Love Wild Africa is a photojournalist documenting protected areas, national parks and nature reserves in Africa. Partners include Cape Union Mart, K-Way and Ford Ranger. Supported by Safari Centre Cape Town, Goodyear, Outdoor Photo and Hetzner.