Out of Africa: the Richardses return from safari

Sherri Richards with an elephant skull. Photo by Jim Richards

Imagine what it would be like to stand in the middle of the Serengeti, with nothing but wildlife surrounding you as far as the eye can see. Jim and Sherri Richards of Orono don’t need to imagine, they experienced it, as part of an African safari tour they took together last month.

For the Richardses, who spent a month touring Tanzania and Kenya, living out the classic African adventure, the safari was “a trip of a lifetime.” Well-seasoned travellers, the couple says the expedition was “life changing.”

“It absolutely blew us away,” says Jim. “We have friends who’ve been to Africa four or five times. We talked to them about what shoes to wear, what to bring. Sherri read all kinds of books on Kenya. We thought we were prepared, mentally prepared, for everything Africa had to throw at us. But we weren’t.”

Not that they ran into problems, rather, just the opposite. The pair could not believe what an incredible time they had. Using words like “awesome,” “amazing,” and “exhilarating,” to describe the journey, Sherri notes, “Jim and I have travelled a fair amount, but without a doubt this was a new experience. Every day, we kept saying, ‘It can’t get any better,’ and it would.”

The couple, married for 48 years, have taken a number of vacation cruises, but many of their travels have been related to the fact that Jim is a naturalist and wildlife photographer, with a special interest in birds. While Sherri still works, Jim, 67, has been retired from General Motors for 13 years, but he continues his lifelong career as an ornithologist.

“My thing is birds’ eggs,” he explains. “It started as a schoolboy hobby, and I’ve never grown up. I like going out and finding birds’ nests. You’ve got to know all about their habits, their peculiar movements. I’ve spent so much time out in the woods, I’m self-taught.”

Jim’s study, in the couple’s Orono home, is chock-full of natural history books, journals, and a large collection of his slides and photos, covering birds, birds’ nests, birds’ eggs, mammals, insects, and plant life, all ordered by scientific species. “And then I’ve got some bird books,” he jokes, acknowledging it’s his obsession.

Once dubbed “the human cowbird” by a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, Jim’s ability to find birds’ nests has kept him in demand in Canada and the U.S., doing field work to track down nests other researchers have trouble locating. Previously licensed to collect birds’ eggs, Jim says he has donated his large collection to the R.O.M. and a few other museums. Nowadays, he does his collecting on film, occasionally selling his photos to scientific journals and calendar companies. He says he was looking forward to seeing famous African birds, such as the Crowned Crane, for the first time, but the trip exceeded all his expectations.

“I’ve travelled quite a bit here in Canada,” he says, “to the East Coast and to the Arctic a number of times. And in the U.S., I’ve taken photo tours to Texas, Florida, Utah, and Arizona – all the good spots for birds. I relish every one of those trips, but nothing can compare to this trip to Africa. The people were fantastic and the scenery was just unbelievable.”

The Richardses were part of a 23-person private tour group on a general nature tour designed for photography, with an emphasis on mammals, according to Jim. The group was comprised of naturalists, scientists and photographers. “We were almost all published authors, or published photographers,” he explains. “Everyone had a bit of a background.”

Leopard in an acacia tree. Photo by Jim Richards

Once each morning, and again each afternoon, the group would go out on “game drives” in safari vans (Land Rovers with pop-up roofs), travelling through a string of national parks as they photographed the various mammals of the alternating terrain — from a leopard in an acacia tree on the grassy plains of the Serengeti, to a Colobus monkey found in the forested region of the volcanic highlands of the Ngorongoro Crater.

Along the way, they stayed in lodges, surrounded by electric fences to keep out lions and cheetahs. But, according to Jim, antelopes simply jumped over the fences, joining baboons and monkeys, butterflies and “scores of birds,” to create great opportunities for photographers even inside the compound of the lodges.

In between the game drives, the group spent leisure time at the lodges, where they could do such things as enjoy the swimming pool, or get a massage. Free painting lessons were also available due to the fact that one of Canada’s most noted naturalists, Canadian wildlife painter Robert Bateman and his wife Birgit, also happened to be in the group.

Robert Bateman & Jim Richards (photo supplied)

“Bob gave art lessons to everyone who wanted them,” says Jim, noting that this was the highlight of the tour for some. “I enjoyed spending time with Bob,” he says. “He knows a lot about nature, about the connectiveness of nature.” But Jim was too busy birding to pick up a paint brush.

“For me, leisure time meant getting the tripod, putting on the large lens, and chasing the birds, while everyone else was around the pool drinking vodkas and orange,” he says, with a laugh. “There was so much I didn’t want to miss. I’d just go from sun up to sun down.”

In fact, one morning, the Richardses awoke before dawn because Jim had asked their local driver to take them out an hour early to catch the sunrise. The driver took Jim and Sherri and one other couple out, and although they only went about 15 minutes from camp, it became one of their most memorable experiences, says Jim. The sunrise was spectacular, but what happened next moved him to tears, even in the retelling, as he admits he is “still coming down from the emotions of the trip.”

“We got our pictures as the sun started to come up,” recalls Jim. “And we turned around to go get breakfast. Then the driver asked us, ‘Do you really want to blow your minds?’ And we said, ‘Okay.’ He told us to close our eyes, and we agreed, and he took us down one of these real side roads, basically off road, for about 10 minutes.

“We could hear animals, and hear them part as we approached, but the driver told us, ‘Don’t open your eyes yet. Give me about a minute.’ We parked and waited, and we could hear the animals come back. Then he said, ‘Okay, open your eyes.’ We were surrounded by wildebeests and zebras, ‘Thousands of them!’ I said. The driver laughed at me, ‘Thousands? Would you believe 1.4 million?’ We were surrounded by 1.4 million wildebeests and 600,000 zebras! You’d look 360 degrees around you, right out to the horizon, and it was all animals. It was great. You just can’t imagine that many animals!”

“I’m not a religious person, but it was spiritual,” says Jim, his usually strong voice now almost a whisper. “It makes you feel really small.”

Zebras & wildebeests. Photo by Jim Richards

Altogether, Jim estimates he saw 58 species of mammals, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, serval cats, elephants, rhinoceros, hippos, giraffes, wildebeests, Cape Buffalo, zebras, gazelles, impalas, and oryx. He also saw about 360 species of birds, a number he says he was pleased with, “considering it wasn’t a bird trip.”

For Sherri, one of the highlights was meeting the Maasai people. Traditional, nomadic cattle-drovers from a warrior culture who live on the Serengeti alongside most of the wild animals, the Maasai have an aversion to eating game and birds, and subsist almost exclusively on their cattle.

“We went to this Maasai village,” says Sherri. “Our tour guide knew the chief. The people were still living like they did years ago. Their houses are circular, just one room about 10 feet across with a dirt floor. They are built out of sticks and cow dung.

“They speak English so we were fortunate enough to ask them some questions. We asked them all sorts of questions about what they eat – milk and blood from their cattle. If they want to marry, they have to ask permission from the chief and the father of the bride, and they have to supply a dowry, like two goats, or a goat and a cow.”

Sherri and Jim saw the villagers perform a number of traditional dances, wearing their bright red, tribal capes. “I was very intrigued,” says Sherri. “Here is this very primitive group, still living off the land, and they seem very happy.”

“They’re hard working people,” says Jim, “especially the women. The men protect the flock of animals. The women walk six miles with 10-gallon pails on their backs, trudging across the Serengeti, lugging water and sticks for firewood.”

Back in the towns of Tanzania and Kenya, things were different. “We saw proud people, and reckless poverty,” says Jim. “They were a very oppressed people for decades. Only recently have they had a democracy and a right to vote. They really appreciate their freedom.”

Jim says that Sherri brought an extra suitcase of school supplies, along with rubber balls and skipping ropes, for the local children. “You know what they asked for most?” asks Jim, still incredulous about the answer, “pens, for school.” It moved the Richardses so much that they started collecting the complimentary pens from the lodges to give to the children. “They were so happy to get them,” says Jim.

Apart from the lodges, the group also spend six nights in tent camps. The tents, however, were not your typical canvas structure staked to the ground. Instead, they were on a solid platform of hardwood floors raised about six inches off the ground, complete with full-size beds and electricity.

“We enjoyed the tents better than the lodges,” says Jim. “There was just a screen between you and nature. We kept the walls down at night for the fresh air. You could hear the warthogs and hippos grunting, and the lions roaring all night. You were that much closer to the wildlife you went there to see.”

“It was awe-inspiring,” he says. “It’s going to take years to get over it, if we ever do.” With plans to visit the Antarctic and the Galápagos Islands next, Jim says it may be a couple of years before they can revisit Africa, but it is definitely something they want to do.

In the meantime, Jim says he has about 21,000 photographs to sort through from the safari tour. He plans to use the photos to give an illustrated talk (a PowerPoint slide show) here in Orono about the mammals of Africa, sometime in the coming months.

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