“Nowadays, the temptation to look at everything through a lens is overwhelming,” says Mary-Anne Bartlett, owner of Art Safari, as we bounce along rust-red dirt roads towards South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia. She runs painting trips in the bush to encourage travellers to see the animals in new ways. The great-great-granddaughter of John Kirk — companion to legendary explorer Dr David Livingstone — she has been visiting Africa for more than 25 years. I’d signed up to discover how painting en plein air would change the safari experience.
Our first encounter is a herd of African buffalo grazing in the honeyed morning sunlight. They huff and puff as if bemoaning their anchor-like horns that hang like leather saddles above their delicate ears. Red-beaked oxpeckers are rodeo-ing on their backs. We steady our sketchbooks on our laps and tentatively start to draw.
“Start with the ear, eye and nose – then fill in the rest,” instructs Mary-Anne. “The first squiggles may be nothing more than squiggles, and then suddenly it starts to look like an animal.” My first attempt resembles a highland cow. Mary-Anne doesn’t smirk or criticise. “It’s just the horns. See how they come much lower down and how large they are in comparison to the head,” she says, morphing my creature into a beefier bovine with a few flicks of her pencil.
In the afternoon, we erect our stools in the shade of a wild mango tree. Stephen, our safari guide, keeps watch for elephants, while we set to, capturing the grooming baboons and lily-laden Chippewa Wandombo Lagoon. The minutes pass in peaceful silence; the only movement is the flitting of a kingfisher from its perch and the slosh of paint on paper. On the opposite side of the lagoon, a herd of elephants emerge from the tree line and meander down the bank to siphon off water, seemingly unaware of our presence. We’re totally immersed in the landscape.
On our last morning, I wake to the usual toot-whistle-peep of the dawn-bird brass band and the silhouette of geckos on the tarpaulin walls. The plains we’ve been tracing daily are eerily quiet, so we cross the Mushilashi Bridge, venturing further than we’ve done before. Baobabs sprout like upturned tubers between the grasses, their trunks as thick as cathedral columns. Stephen stops the Jeep. “Listen,” he says, cocking his head to the side. A go-away-bird is sounding its alarm call nearby. He coaxes the 4×4 around a patch of scrub and there, flopped in the shade, is a young male lion, snoozing after his night-time feed. Stephen switches off the engine and we roll to stop just metres from his barrelled belly. He’s so close I can see the ticks nestling in the corner of his eyes.
I grasp once more for pencil and paper and start sketching his sinewy lines. Tracing his outlines feels intimate and, with fewer clicks of the camera shutter distracting me, I feel more connected.
On the flight home, I flip through my sketchbook, noticing the grass stains and fingerprint smudges in the margins. It’s a snapshot imbibed with far more life and poetry than a frozen camera image.