ASPECTS OF THE SERENGETI
Flanders and Swann sang a song about the gnu, the BBC endlessly follows its story, authors write about it and tourists travel in its footsteps – a never-ending journey, and can one be surprised? The gnu (or as it is more properly named, the Western white bearded wildebeest) is just one part of a staggeringly exciting story that is full of life, death and drama.
I cannot think why, as a sculptor of wildlife, it has taken me so long to settle down to a comprehensive study of this outstanding eco-system, the Serengeti, one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. But I guess Coreth the sculptor has found too many distractions, not only in East Africa, but in other parts of the world.
You may think that the wildebeest migration is purely about and endless gwander of gnu, but it’s gnot. Every year something in the order of one and a half million of these extraordinary looking animals migrate clockwise through Tanzania’s Serengeti, ignoring political borders and crossing up into Kenya’s Masai Mara before traveling south again to the short grass plains of the Southern Serengeti. But what people don’t necessarily recognize is that approximately half a million gazelle and a quarter of a million zebra complete this extraordinary migration too. Why do they do it? In order to follow the rains (which follow a cyclical weather pattern) and thereby the best grazing. As you can imagine, these huge numbers of beasts all packed together in herds not only eat the vegetation remarkably quickly, but as they eat the poo, and as they poo, they foul the ground, and so the herd must keep moving to find fresh grazing.
So we have the wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, and with them an entourage of predators and scavengers all playing an enormous part in this great circle of life. I wanted to go and study the movement of these hears at various times of the year, and therefore of the cycle. I soon discovered that the story is so broad that all one can achieve is to scratch the surface of this great migration.
My approach to sculpting wildlife, wherever it may be, is to work with the subject matter in its natural environment. I like to feel the heat and excitement of the moment and to become totally immersed in their world. I also like to travel with a guide who is not only an expert naturalist from whom I can learn, but a fun traveling companion, with whom I can laugh, as that brings out the best in me – relaxed enthusiasm!
As it happens, near me in sleepy Dorset some great friends of mine run an African travel company called Natural High, an extraordinarily apt name for a company dealing so much with the Serengeti. Their approach is to get you to the heart of the wild with the best guide they can, so they arranged my trips through their Tanzanian partners, Nomad Safaris, and most significantly found me a guide called Mkombe Mniko Bugingo, an outstanding man from the Suba Tribe, a livestock, cultivating and fishing tribe from the shores of Lake Victoria. Mkombe became a very great friend. He had an immense depth of knowledge, wisdom and perception. We established an immediate rapport, and he fully understood, almost without explanation, what my mission in the Serengeti was to be. He managed in uncanny ways to take me to the right place at the right time, and by that I mean not just where the high action might be taking place, but also where the small dramas might occur and where the views across these plains can be seen in the best light. He showed me the absolute magic of this part of the world and made me realize how wide a subject the migration is. But throughout this time we also laughed, joked, enjoyed, sculpted and told stories to each other on the tops of kopjes, not surprisingly with a chilled bottle of Kilimanjaro nectar!
Mkombe ticked all the right boxes and a thousand more as a guide. Accepting the danger of sounding like a travel agent, I’m grateful to Natural High for understanding what I was after, and introducing me to Nomad, the perfect organisation with which to travel to the Serengeti: they have fantastic guides, but they also have the most magnificent camps which migrate with the herds, as their name might imply. We traveled around the Serengeti, away from the beaten track, and when the opportunity arose to follow and observe a stalking cheetah, for example, and witness the excitement of the chase, more often than not I did this alone with Mkombe, the Toyota and my backpack studio.