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22 May 2011

A Question and Answer with Gregg Fretheim

The following is an interview with Gregg Fretheim about his most recent trip to Botswana in January and February of 2011. This was Gregg's second trip to the region.

Could you explain how this trip to Africa came about, and what your mindset was before you left? You previously mentioned you were looking for an adventure. Could you touch on that and explain what you meant?

My guide Poul Neilsen
This African trip began the year before when I meat Poul Neilsen. He is a safari and adventure tour guide operating his business from the backpackers where I stayed then. Poul lives in Johannesburg, South Africa and grew up in Makuse, homeland of the Zulus. Growing up in an environment with many animal reserves and Kruger Park, along with his father’s rhino ranch, he’s an expert identifying local wildlife. He also introduced me to one of the only girls in his life, “Sandy,” because she would have to come along. She was a beauty, all four to six thousand pounds of her, a white Land Rover.

Adventure has spontaneity to it, it’s really a form of testing yourself. It reveals itself in front of you so there’s no idea what’s going to happen from day to day – sleeping out with the animals is sleeping with one eye open. You don’t know what’s going to come in. There isn’t the protection of a wire fence or anything like that.

Do you feel this mindset, taking it as an adventure, affected any of your work?

From my previous trip – being brought to a box to paint where the animals came by a waterhole - this was very, very different. I’ve never painted atop a vehicle before or in an environment where Poul would say, “If you see something slowly wagging, don’t run. It’s a cat.” I was very aware where I was, what the surroundings were when beginning to paint, and getting absorbed into my work fast. When painting in the brush you have to be very aware what’s going on around because you can’t necessarily see animals coming up. Sandy is close by. She’s the house. It seemed it worked for me. I finished 10 paintings and three or four worked out.

What was your first destination outside of Johannesburg?

We headed north to a reserve called Mararele. There we rented a nice hut with a lake view and a mountain behind it. That evening a white rhino, some giraffes, and many birds came down to have a drink. A Dutch couple came over after dinner and asked Poul if he could help with a little gray snake in their hut. Poul obliged and went over to help the couple while I finished the dishes. It did not take Poul long to learn it was not a little gray snake but a Mozambique spitting cobra. He removed the snake by the time I finished with the dishes. The couple rewarded Poul with a fine box of cigars. The next day we spent driving up the mountain, stopping to view the baboons and klipspringers, and had a lunch while the cape vultures flew above us. This was a slow acclamation to the sun and heat as we headed towards Botswana and the Kalahari.

Would you try to paint early in the morning or in the evening when it was cooler?

It wouldn’t matter because if I saw it, I wanted to paint it, but heat is a major problem. It’s 120 F and there isn’t much shade and really no trees. You’re out in the open. I just put a hat on and go, and if it becomes overwhelming, I just break down and leave. It depends on speed - how fast I can paint it. I can usually do it within my physical comfort zone.

How long a time is that? Did you approach it?

I went as long as I possibly could, just pushed it. When going into extreme environments, whether hot or cold, I prepare psychologically beforehand for the problems I have to face. It’s not a pleasure to deal with this. But I know this before I go and block much of the discomfort out. The work comes because these environments are absolutely of profound beauty and many people don’t want to take it on. It’s part of nature, part of the experience, and I want to get it. I guess I condition myself for it.

Can you describe some of your time, some of your highlights, spent in the Kalahari?

When we arrived at the town of Molipolore late in the evening, it had rained days before, and the road was flooded with large pools of water up to Sandy’s doors. A check in is required to notify the reserve where you are going for your own protection. There are more lions concentrated in Molipolore than any other place in the Kalahari, and the heat is almost off the charts - 120 F/ 50 C. We camped for several days and returned to tell them we were going to the central area. The head warden said we had moved one night without telling him and fined us $50. The animals were spread out because of the rain, and the landscape was very lush. Tracking lions along the road while heading toward giraffes and springbok was a lot of fun.

Bushmen and Poul tracking
One day while driving, we came across a village of Bushmen. Poul said the Bushmen typically hide since they do not want to be seen. As we approached the village, a woman came running towards us waving her hands calling for help. Three lions had killed two donkeys and hurt a dog in the village. The male Bushmen jumped in the back with their spears, and one had his head out the window tracking as we drove along. The lions must have heard Sandy and run away. We burned what was left of one donkey with a bottle of my turpentine, and dragged the other carcass about a half mile away. When lions become this bold, I was told you must let them know they are not wanted. The bushman were very happy for the help and gave me permission to paint their village.

Did you find your first trip to Africa help you in anyway with this trip?

No. Other than just being excited to go with a vehicle, stop, get out, set up a tent, with no safety of a compound. That was very different. It’s one step closer to being within the flow of things. Whereas before I lived in a compound, driven to a small box, painted from the box, picked up and driven back, and was advised not to walk around because of the animals. Here, Sandy was the compound and being able to go say right or left or straight was new to me, and I had to be ready for everything as it came.

What is the furthest you would distance yourself from Sandy?

Never far, no more than 40 or 50 yards. I’m not a fast runner, so in a 100 yard dash anyone of these animals could beat me to Sandy. Poul was keeping an eye out as well, while setting up a meal or something. It’s something he’s always aware of, if he brings people into the Kalahari, he needs to be very aware of what’s going on around. Of course, people with him have to be very aware as well.

Poul and Sandy at camp

You said you painted atop the Land Rover, what was the reason for that?

We were on a reserve by water on the pan, and a white rhino and her baby were walking alongside us at a distance, and just for safety reasons I decided to paint on top. If there were elephants there, well an elephant can cause problems.

A bull elephant studying us

That worked?

Yeah, I was sitting on the tire. It was fantastic. The sun was setting and animals were all around. It was a new experience. It was new to me. There was a feeling of security on top of the vehicle knowing all these animals are around. That worked out really well.

Where did you go next after leaving the Bushmen’s village?

We headed toward Kharma Reserve and beautiful Lake Xou where all the mosquitoes in Africa begin their lives. We spent most of our time meandering around the small town of Gweta close to the Makagadicadi Pans. One day we decided to visit the elephant graveyard. The roads were full of water because of the rain. Poul picked a road he thought was safe but soon water up to the doors surrounded us in a miles width in each direction. A single foot off the road, and the land rover would sink treacherously. We came to a ‘V’ in the road and made a choice. It was not the right one, and sank all the way down to Sandy’s diffs in mud. After two hours of digging, some local guys came by and wanted to help. About three hours later with their help, Poul pulled Sandy out backwards only to drive her too far to the left and she sank to one side. Poul got out, yelled something to the gods( I don’t remember what he said), got back in, and Sandy came flying out as if she had never been stuck. Not being able to turn around we headed down the road and spent the night. In the morning, a girl came by and said she lived in the next village just down the road. She did not know a way out to a main road other than the way we had come. Not long after someone else came and said he could show us the way out. We made it to a main road and again were on our way.

Digging out with local help

We returned to Gweta and drove to Chapman’s baobab tree where Doc Livingstone’s name is carved on it. They used this very old 4000-year-old tree to navigate the pans (salt flats). On the way to the pans, we found one of the world’s largest migrations, the zebra. We setup camp for a few days around the migration, took night drives, and with thousands of zebras come thousands of flies. At the lodge, they warned us about driving on the pans. “You have to follow the road. If you drive off the vehicle will break through and sink. It’s been raining a lot so don’t go out there!” One thing lead to another, and Sandy found herself about one hundred yards out in the Makayadicadi Pans. They didn’t look like salt flats, because of the grass from the rain. We could only follow the road, drive at a good pace, and try not to stop. We made it all the way across and back, I guess we were lucky. Camping by the pans was stunning and we always slept with one eye open. Camping no more than 50 feet off the road next to the forest at nine at night is very unpredictable and that’s when things happen.

Did anything happen in your trip in that regard?

One evening we both went to our tents, and at about two in the morning I heard two very close, very loud cat-cries, and a kind of a purring, low rumbling sound. That was fantastic. I didn’t actually see the leopard, but that was my experience with her.

Another night a man walked up to our camp with a rifle in his hands looking for his cattle while we were close to the elephant graveyard. He told us he had shot a spotted hyena that night and before he left told us to enjoy ourselves and went on with his business. After dinner while heading to the tents, Poul said, “Take this machete. I’ll use this shovel. If the hyenas come in they will push their heads against the tent then let them have it with the flat end of the machete” (this was one of those times I thought, “What the hell did I get myself into!”). That night the hyenas came very close to the tent and let us know with that all-too-eerie sound: weeett weeett.

So it was a true adventure for you?

When we made it back to Johannesburg, Sandy had been on empty for at least fifty miles (this is a Land Rover thing). We had traveled 2850 km., 1724 km. off road. Sleeping in a tent for 30 days, wearing underwear for five to seven days at a time, and struggling to complete ten sketches in the sun and heat with three or four that worked made for a great adventure! A big thanks to Poul and Sandy. Priceless.

Sunset in the Kalahari

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