Bird & Knoll Q&A with Deon De Villiers
After escaping the corporate world, wildlife photographer Deon De Villiers wandered the African savannah for nearly 15 years with his camera in hand, capturing the magic and surreal beauty of this ancient continent and its extraordinary inhabitants. With his luxury travel knowledge and passion for the conservation of wildlife and sustainability, he helped preserve natural wilderness and ethnic culture during his time spent managing luxury safari camps in pristine destinations in Botswana and South Africa.
Today this avid conservation activist, African bush adventurer and luxury travel specialist personally weaves safari itineraries together piece by piece for his clientele based upon his real-life experience and first-hand knowledge of the African continent – bespoke journeys for those looking for “travel with purpose” and family safaris that offer peace of mind, body and soul in remarkable destinations.
We sat down with Deon prior to the launch of Wild to chat about his most memorable shoots, the best time to travel to Southern Africa and the most beautiful places to visit while you’re there…
B&K: Have you always had a passion for photographing wildlife and the natural world?
DDV: First and foremost my passion was for the natural world, but growing up in Africa gave me so much opportunity to explore and experience its brilliance that it seemed only natural to capture my encounters along the way.
After moving to Australia in my twenties, my love for photography grew alongside my passion for WILD Africa and these two elements were significant factors in my ultimate decision to move back and spend time living in the Savannah.
At first, I would capture natural history in every aspect, but as I developed my safari knowledge and experienced bush life first hand, the natural history almost became a daily event. It was then that I found I only focused my camera on natures beauty as an art form as opposed to documentary-style imagery.
It has been great however to use the camera to share some of natures unique features to the world, such as the rare maned lioness of the Okavango and the Strawberry Leopard which I published together with Panthera Org. and National Geographic some years back.
Photo: Strawberry Leopard: The pink-hued leopard wanders South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve.
B&K: What is the most important thing to remember when photographing in the wild?
DDV: Rule 1: Don’t ever forget the gin and tonic!
Rule 2: Anticipate, and if you don’t know ask your guide. The moment playing out in front of you only happens once, and with wildlife can be over in a flash. Your guide will be anticipating the animals every move, and is always happy to share if you show an interest.
E.g. Lions mating is not the shot; instead, it’s the split second of intense action at the end of the intimate moment which has jaws, claws and paws in full swing as she enlightens him of his poor performance!
Rule 3: Stop, breathe, and take it all in…
B&K: What would you say has been your best photograph and why?
DDV: One of my all-time favourite images is stretched across a magnificent canvas in my living room. It is a black and white print of a young boys back in Mozambique.
He and his friends were diving from a small boat within the Bengwerra Archipelago to catch small fish for their family dinner. No masks, fins or even a snorkel the boys dived one at a time, then came up for air while resting on the side of the boat. Time and time again they dived into the crystal clear waters of the reef, and each time the scorching African sun instantaneously dried the salt crystals on their backs. With a fisheye lens, I was able to capture the unique pattern on one of the boys backs before he slipped again into the water.
The frame I had made for this image was done by street artist/vendors in the Johannesburg area of South Africa, and I think this will be my living rooms decor until the end.
B&K: What has been your favourite animal to shoot and why?
DDV: The sheer brilliance of the carmine bee-eaters up in northern Botswana ranks as some of my favourites, as their speed of flight and energy makes them an exciting and challenging target. I could spend hours sitting with them and trying my luck for just one shot amongst thousands, but my all-time favourite animal has to be Pula, the leopard from Mombo Camp in the Okavango Delta.
She has only just been attacked and killed (possibly by baboons), but her legacy lives on in her young. No matter what Pula did, or how she positioned herself, she was always a spectacle to behold. With one ear missing, she certainly wasn’t a perfect specimen, but for me, she was the rock star of the Okavango.
Photo: Pula, the leopard from Mombo Camp in the Okavango Delta.
B&K: What has been your most memorable shoot?
DDV: Photographing my son in a private game reserve in South Africa, which was his first photo shoot in the wild. It was a glorious setting and my little family, and I (including our dog) worked the camera and a reflector as we relocated a massive load of fallen Marula fruit from within our garden to outside our little fence. This was almost a daily chore at that time of year; otherwise the elephants would break their way in to get to the fallen fruit, which was one of their favourites! We got so involved with the photo shoot that we almost forgot we were standing in the wild; it was magnificent.
Another memorable shoot, was an afternoon of shooting a sleep-out hide in the magnificent Linyanti wilderness area of Botswana. Just as the sun dipped below the horizon a small herd of elephants swam across a lagoon as the light faded into pinks and purples. At first I was mesmerised as I could see the beauty unfolding right before my eyes, and I knew it would be over in a matter of minutes.
Leaving my shoot and commandeering a motorboat I quickly headed towards the elephant to share in their moment. Careful not to disturb them I tried my hand at a few images, against the gentle rocking of the boat. With no available light and a moving boat, I struggled in every aspect. However, fighting the elements, I eventually pulled the shot off to create one of my all-time favourite elephant images.
B&K: What has been your favourite destination to shoot?
DDV: Well, Mombo Camp ranks as one of the worlds best wildlife with possibly some of the best game viewing in Southern Africa, and this was my stomping ground for close on 6 years, although spending time with the Khoisan (Bushman) in the Kalahari remains a very heartfelt destination for me.
There is something so special about the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, and its nomadic inhabitants that I could return time and time again. These forgotten people live such a simple life, and do not have any of the dependencies which corrupt our modern world, and they still treasure age old values and beliefs. Just remarkable!!
B&K: Are there any animals that you haven’t yet photographed that are on your ‘wish list’ of animals you’d like to shoot?
DDV: As you can tell I have a deep love of Africa, but there are three species I wish to still tick off. Only one of these calls the mother continent their home; the gorilla. I had never had too much interest in them, but many of my friends have been spending time with them, and there is a lot more going on in a gorilla’s mind than that of most other wild animals! I guess I’ve fallen for the hype, and I now wish to see for myself how moving the experience is.
My other two species are polar bears and killer whales (orca) in a calm misty bay (this has been a life long dream).
B&K: What would you tell people wanting to visit the African wilderness in Southern Africa? What should they expect?
DDV: Visit Africa with an open mind and allow yourself to be immersed into the experience. Don’t compare things to back at home, otherwise your holiday will be tarnished from the very start.
Leave you cell phone in your bag, it’s not going to ring in the bush!
B&K: What are the major differences between East and Southern Africa?
DDV: Two worlds apart, both offer a very different safari and cultural delight. From the characteristic plains of the Serengeti and Masai Mara to the sweet flowing waters of the Okavango Delta and the natural wonder of the Victorian Falls; they all offer experience of an atomic proportion.
B&K: Talk to us about your bespoke itineraries. How do you personalise these to each traveller? And which itinerary seems to be the most popular?
DDV: Whilst a circuit can be very similar for multiple travelling parties over a period of time; mostly driven by seasonal happenings and natural occurrences, it is imperative to listen to the hidden message and desires of every traveller. For me, a safari guide that wakes long before the sun rises and has you out on the savannah before day breaks to see the new sun enter the world is of utmost importance. For others it might be the difference between a warm bread roll served at dinner versus a cold one that takes higher priority on their travel needs.
When a client engages with a destination specialist such as myself, they choose to do so to avoid the robotic motions of internet booking systems and a one size fits all mentality, and for that reason alone they want to be heard and understand. Treated as an individual with their needs and desires placed at the forefront of the booking process.
With many years of bush based experience in luxury hospitality, I am able to understand and identify with the ground operations to meet even the most complex needs and desires, as well as set expectations very early in the game to ensure no disappointment.
B&K: What are the most beautiful areas to visit in Southern Africa?
DDV: Southern Africa has so many beautiful places, but one that is very dear to my family and I is the Okavango Delta, which we were lucky enough to call home for close to six years.
The Okavango is a perfectly natural and “living” ecosystem contained within the otherwise dry and arid Kalahari desert; fed almost entirely by precious annual flood waters from the Angolan highlands.
The Okavango consists of a number of main channels, smaller tributaries and lagoons as well as floodplains, islands and mainland areas. The watercourses are continually changing due to annual flooding and other factors, such as a combination of sedimentary buildup, seismic activity and the relentless construction of termite mounds. Furthermore, the continual influences of water-dependent animals, such as elephants and hippo, opening and creating channels, while others close and get blocked off by new vegetation growth.
No two days in the Okavango are ever the same, and its life providing waters are a true testament to just how fragile Africa can be!
B&K: When is the best time to travel to Southern Africa and to do the guided tours?
DDV: Many of the best safaris areas of Southern Africa experience seasonal thunderstorm and rain activity in the warmer summer months, so the cooler months tend to be the high season, in saying that, if you want to experience quieter safari camps or you wish to create dramatic images, then risking the weather can provide really awesome results.
I am a massive fan of being out when the clouds build into magnificent thunderous black masses, and capturing whatever is willing to stand their ground against the elements, but you must be prepared to be soaked to the core and return to camp with wet and “washed” camera gear…
B&K: What is your favourite scarf from the Bird & Knoll WILD scarf collection?
DDV: In the WILD collection the elephant which I photographed just before sunrise at Qorokwe Camp in the Okavango Delta is my favourite. I love the tones, and the position of the animal. He was just so relaxed and only gently glanced over at my arrival for the early morning photo opportunity.
I remember this morning so clearly, as the mist lay heavy on the ground. I could hear the communication grumbles of these elephants prior to leaving my bedroll that morning, and I knew one had been walking and feeding around my tent. It didn’t take long to find this magnificent bull and share a spectacular and memorable sunrise with him.
B&K: If you could photograph any part of the world, where would that be?
DDV: Flying over Lake Natron in Tanzania recently had me wondering about its mysterious waters with calcified birds and animals which were incredibly photographed by Nick Brandt, but it’s the flamingos that are my attraction. In my mind, I see whimsical images with flocks of flamingo only slightly contrasted against a pale pink sky; which I think would be another fabulous WILD collection scarf…
Lake Natron to is in danger of giving way to human-made development. Threats to its precious flamingo inhabitants and other lesser flamingo breeding sites across Africa are causing a “moderately rapid decline” in population, which is why the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared the species “near threatened.”
It would be of great cause and purpose to hook with a bunch of willing photographers to explore the shores of Natron to capture its beauty, and ultimately bring to the forefront of modern society, the plight of the incredibly unique environment and it threatened inhabitants.