Around the World

Jenny Bowen brings a sense of Africa to life in this evocative account of her work and her passion for African landscapes, wildlife, people and cultures....  

What does Africa mean to you?

Africa is restoration for my soul. There is something exhilarating and yet calming about being in Africa; it allows me to get life into perspective. Once Africa is in your soul you never want to wash it out!

How did you first become inspired to visit/spend time in Africa?

My first job after university was in Zimbabwe. I was acting as an ecologist for Raleigh International and I was needed there for a minimum of a year - I stayed for two.  I got the job rather randomly as I heard through a very extended grapevine that an ecologist was needed and I had an interview over the telephone with a guy called Jeremy Hill - he was based in Harare. After the interview he asked me when I could make it out there and I said, "In three weeks". So there I was, flying to a continent that I had never been to before to set up conservation projects for three expeditions of 160 people - nothing like having a bit of pressure!

And after those two years I had fallen in love with the continent. Everything about it was absolutely amazing -  the scenery, the people, the lifestyle and of course the incredible wildlife sightings.

Could you share something of the flavour of Africa's changing/diverse landscapes and what you most love about some of these?

I have been to North Africa and Southern Africa, so I'm not that familiar with Eastern Africa.  I have led expeditions in Morocco at the Sahara where the ever-changing sand dunes are something out of this world. Then you have the world's largest inland delta, The Okavango in Botswana. This is spectacular when seen from the sky as you fly over it in a small plane, as well as when you are gliding through the myriad of waterways in a dugout canoe.

There are the magical mountains of Malolotja in western Swaziland where you would not be too surprised if a dragon suddenly popped up over the skyline and spread its wings! And the vast opening spaces of Namibia are extraordinary - Etosha National Park is stunning and you never know what you are going to see around the corner. By contrast, the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, in the rosy light of the rising sun are also something not to be missed. Then there are also the flamingos at Nata Pan - as the sun sets behind these birds the opportunity for photographic perfection is possible. In addition, there are the vast white salt pans of Botswana, the azure blue sea of the Indian Ocean off Mozambique - the list is endless. I love the variety and energy each landscape gives.

Where are some of your own favourite places to visit/spend time whilst in Africa and what is it about these that is so special?

I spend a lot of time in the Kingdom of Swaziland and there is a water hole in Hlane National Park called Mahlindza, set away from the main part of the park, where I often sit, sometimes for the whole day, watching the wildlife coming and going. It is really peaceful and a great place to unwind. But then I can't really exclude the wide open spaces of the Namib desert and of course I am always happy sitting in an open topped Land Rover driving through the African bush in search of black rhino.

As an ecologist, you obviously care about our impact on the world around us - what are some of the ways that tourists/visitors can minimise their "footprint" on their surroundings when visiting Africa?

I would say to minimise your impact, wherever you are travelling to, would be to be mindful of your water consumption as it is a precious resource, to not litter, to buy food from local vendors, and to not buy animal or plant products that are from vulnerable or endangered species. Also, to use biodegradable soap and other similar products and to be just generally aware of your surrounding area. If in doubt there are always people to ask on what to do in different situations. We do  create a large carbon footprint by simply flying to far-flung places, but if you can ensure that you are supporting local community and conservation initiatives whilst you're out there, then you are assisting in preserving our natural surroundings.

What are some of the most significant cultural variations between various parts of Africa?

The most striking thing I noticed about culture in Africa is the pride that they take in this. In Swaziland, traditional ceremonies which involve beautiful singing in harmony and elaborate and colourful dancing occur on a regular basis. Most of the time these are put on for the sheer enjoyment of it all and you can see the pride that the people take in their performances. The Swazi culture is woven into everyday life -  I have seen a local chief in full traditional regalia on his mobile phone walking past a KFC!

The culture does vary from city to city and country to country, but the one thing that stays true is how proud people are of their own specific culture; whether it be the way they wear their traditional dress, how their food is traditionally made, how they carry the tools of their trade or when particular dances are  played out, it is a privilege understanding the diversity of tradition.

What do you find most people are surprised by when they visit Africa for the first time?

Visitors to Africa are normally surprised about how friendly the people are out there. We hear so many negative and violent things about Africa in the news that the immediate assumption is that this happens all over this vast continent, which is certainly not the case. People are also often surprised about how built-up cities are in Africa and how modernised some places are.

I often take people to local communities and visitors are normally surprised about how happy people are there despite the fact they have so little, and the most surprisingly saying is that guests come away humbled, realising that the links within these local communities are far stronger than the links we have back at home and the fact that the community spirit is so much stronger in Africa, much more caring and more respectful than in our societies.

What is the best thing, for you, about organising bespoke trips to Africa?

I really want people to have a true and real African experience and to get off the beaten track of mass tourism, in a way that I've been privileged to do so for all these years. There is something wonderful about knowing that you have got the itinerary right for that particular person and knowing that they will have an inspiring and truly memorable holiday.

If you could convey one message about why people should visit, what would that be?

Visit Africa to be humbled, to be inspired, to fall in love with the people, to see stunning scenery and to come away enriched with what you've experienced; live life to the full.

If you'd like to experience something of the "real" Africa and arrange a visit which is tailor-made for you, get in touch with Jenny here:

We will be featuring more from Jenny in next month's edition.

All Photos courtesy of Sense Africa

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