Getting close to nature on path less trodden

Warthog, and Victoria Falls, below. Photos: Robert Fuller
Warthog, and Victoria Falls, below. Photos: Robert Fuller
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Yorkshire wildlife artist Robert Fuller takes a trip to Africa to track down some exotic beasts for the latest of his columns.

Last week, as I packed up the original paintings sold during my Christmas exhibition to deliver to their new owners, I felt a little sorry to say goodbye to a large oil of a family of warthogs.

This painting has been a long time in the making. I first came up with the composition nearly 20 years ago; on my first trip to Africa.

I have been to the African continent 12 times now and have had many memorable sightings of the ‘big five’, as well as of great herds of zebra and wildebeest.

But sometimes it is the more common species that stick in my mind, like the warthog. It’s not a classically beautiful animal, like a leopard, but it is bursting with personality and character.

I came face to face with these comical-looking creatures during this virgin trip to Zimbabwe and quickly discovered that warthogs are not to be overlooked as cute or insignificant.

They are equipped with razor sharp tusks and even an adult lion will think twice about taking one on.

I was walking back from a game drive along the banks of the Zambezi, just upstream from the famous Victoria Falls. I was younger then, and just a little naïve, and had decided to ignore our guide’s protestations and follow a six mile stroll along the river bank recommended in my wife’s Rough Guide to Zimbabwe.

Whilst the walking was straightforward enough, the animals that we encountered were less so. The first we came across was a large troupe of banded mongoose. There were about 40 individuals moving almost as if they were one as they foraged in the path in front of us.

The path was easy to follow but I should have realised it was going to be an eventful experience by the amount of elephant dung we had to step over.

Next a bush buck pronged off the track, surprised to see us. Not long after that we came across a group of bull buffalo. Buffalo are listed as one of Africa’s second most deadly mammals due to their aggressive temperament, and, on spotting them, we made a swift detour into the woodland closer to the river.

We crossed a large channel in the river bank, only to discover that it was criss-crossed with the footprints of Africa’s foremost deadly mammal – the hippo. Thankfully the hippos were all in the water and posed no threat at that time, but we had clearly stumbled across a major hippo thoroughfare leading these notoriously bad-tempered animals in and out of the water.

As the walk continued to startle us with an amazing array of bird and wildlife, we spotted a group of warthogs.

The group fled as we approached, their tails flicking up in the air like aerials. Seeing them run away like this I remembered thinking what a great composition it would make to paint a line of warthogs with their tails aloft.

But it would take many subsequent trips to get the right study photographs before I was ready to dip my brushes into paint. What I really needed before I could begin was a side shot of them, but whenever I lifted my camera to photograph them I would get a view of their behinds!

We reached a footbridge with a dyke running underneath it. Just as we were about to cross I spotted a large pair of horns poking up in the mud – there was a buffalo having a mud bath beneath it.

We headed into the undergrowth to see if there was another way around, but the ditch was too deep to cross and the bridge was our only option. We waited for the buffalo to move around the corner before making a dash for it over the bridge.

It was with some relief that we then turned the next corner to find a hotel along our path, indicating that we were nearly back in town.

And there, grazing on the lush green lawn, was a family of warthogs. Best of all, these warthogs were used to people which meant I would be able to get close enough to photograph them.

But their posture as they grazed was less than ideal. In fact it was somewhat farcical. They were lined up in a row all kneeling on their front legs with their backsides pointing up in the air. I couldn’t paint them like this – no one would believe it was real!

I knelt down beside them ready to take a photograph, but they didn’t move. I asked Victoria, my wife, to get them to stand up, but she took one look at the tusks and refused.

So I got up and walked up to the adult female until she stood. But by the time I’d got knelt back down to take some eye-level shots, the warthog had knelt back down too.

I tried again but with no joy. On the third time, the warthog quite suddenly charged me.

I clearly couldn’t outrun her and didn’t think it a good idea to turn my back on her so I stood my ground, feeling slightly vulnerable in a pair of shorts and sandals.

When I realised she wasn’t going to stop charging I put my foot out to slow her down and her head connected with it and she sent me hopping backwards across the lawn, my foot still on her face. As she got to the edge of the lawn she tossed her head and sent me and my camera flying.

I landed less than gracefully in a flower bed that was being irrigated by an automatic watering system. I rose from the flowers to rapturous applause and laughter coming from the hotel bar and pool.

We continued on our walk downstream and could soon hear the thunderous roar of the Victoria Falls.

We headed towards the roaring falls, and this was where we came across the first person we had seen on that path all day. He was dressed in a military uniform and told us to head back to our hotel straightaway as it was dangerous to be caught in between water and the bush as the wild animals come down to drink at the river in the early evening. But, being recklessly young, we ignored him.

At the edge the sight of the huge river as it plunges into a canyon below was so mesmerising we didn’t notice that it was getting dark.

We headed back to town in the twilight and took what we thought was a short cut. But when I heard an animal snort and saw a large bull buffalo ahead of us, with his head held high, we realised it was an animal track not a path.

It was a heart stopping moment. We backtracked as quickly as possible. We could see the steep embankments of a railway ahead of us and we scrambled up the sides and onto the railway track.

Looking down, we noticed that we had just been walking right through a huge buffalo herd. It gave me quite a shock – but as we followed the track back to town, I was already dreaming of the warthog painting.