Okavango Delta Aerial

Okavango Delta Aerial

The Preparation

It all started back in 2007 when I was at The Bristol Festival of Nature, an annual event centered round the Harbourside of Bristol. I was giving short drawing workshops and in one of my breaks I had a wander around the many tents, stalls and marquees. In the conservation organisation marquee I found a stall promoting an elephant conservation charity, Elephants for Africa. I stopped, as I had at many other stalls for a browse and pretty soon got into conversation with the lady manning it. That was how I first met Dr Kate Evans.

Our conversation developed, talking about her work and my art. “Had I ever been to the Okavango?” I was asked. No, but only because I’ve never been able to afford the safari’s there; it was on my “wish list”.  How would I like to go out to Botswana to visit their camp and see the research? At that point the conversation became a little unreal for me as we talked about the Delta and the animal and the possibility of me going there. We arranged to meet to discuss the idea further and as a result of that meeting the plan came to fruition for an exhibition to be done as a result of the trip, to raise funds and awareness for the Elephants for Africa research.

So then it was just a question of raising the monies needed. Although I had been offered an extremely generously discounted rate for staying at the camp (where Kate and her team were based), with the flights and all the other expenses of preparing for such a trip, it was a lot of money for me to raise on low part-time wages. It was obvious I would be unable to do so, on my own so I started looking into getting funding from organisations. The obvious one was the Grants for Arts and after going to a seminar about  this fund and enquiring as to whether my project was something that could be funded in such a way, I was given great hope that this was the path to follow. Never having had to prepare a proposal for anything before it was not a task I found easy and after about six months, a meeting with a man from the ArtsMatrix organisation and several phone calls, I was almost there. Just a few things were to be sorted out before I handed my proposal in.  In my last call to the man I had spoken to several times (and to whom I had explained fully the idea and final outcome of the project and who had always been positive and encouraging), he asked me again what the outcome of the project was. So yet again I told him it was to enable me to go to Botswana so that I can get references to create a body of work to exhibit in the UK and that any proceeds from sales would be shared with the Elephants for Africa Trust (the charity Kate set up for her research work). His response came as a bit of a shock… there was no way the Grants for Arts would fund a project whose ultimate aim was to raise funds for another charity. 
What a bombshell! I was dumbfounded… after all the months of help, encouragement and assurances that this was a good exciting project for the Arts Council to support, it was not what I was expecting to hear.

I put the phone down very disappointed and then angry that I had been led along for so many months needlessly when I could have spent that time finding a better solution to the problem of funding.

I invested in a book about getting funding, but on looking through it I soon found that finding an organisation or company that would support an independent artist (who was not trying to do something weird, offbeat or new and innovtive) to do an overseas project in support of an animal conservation charity was proving problematic. If not impossible. Of the hundreds of listed people, organisations etc in the book... I could find none that I would fit the criteria of. Another few months wasted. Another idea was to do a press release to see if local businesses and organisations would be willing to help as I had heard of other people successfully getting funding in this way. But then the financial world went sour, everybody was pulling in the purse strings, so the chances of funding from organisations and companies became even more remote.

I became pretty despondent about ever getting to Botswana. It seemed that the only way I would get to see this project through was to try to self fund and that would take me forever, as it was a struggle financially at the best of times. My first real ray of hope came from an unexpected source. The father of my closest friend. He offered, out of the blue, to help, by saying he would like to commission me to paint him something, but the money he gave me could only be used to fund my Botswana trip.  To say I was beyond speechless is an understatement. After all my setbacks, knocks and brick walls, it was a very emotional moment for me.

From that moment my Botswana Fund had really started. I set up a savings account and from there the ball slowly but ever surely started to roll. For Christmases and birthdays I asked for only money, which went into the Fund. During one week long batik workshop several of the students generously bought various “demo batiks” , prints and cards. From the proceeds of these sales I could put another little chunk away into the Fund. And so I gradually started building, when I could, towards my target of about £2000 plus. I had already got enough for my accommodation but
I was still several years away from reaching that magic number when I heard about the Staff Development Fund (SDF) that my employers, Bristol Zoo Gardens, had recently set up from a good friend and work colleague, Ginny. Not sure that my project would fit the criteria for the SDF I was nevertheless persuaded to apply. I had great help from my boss, Phil, and my line manager, Simon, as well as several of my work colleagues who had already successfully applied or who just gave me encouragement and support. And a few months later when the Fund was allocated I was over the moon to learn that I had been granted a sum of money to go towards my flights that would almost cover the cost of the return fare to Jo'berg. So I just had to find the remaining money for the return flight to Maun and into the Delta. A short while later, with help from my parents, I finally had the money to go!

The time period for me to go depended on three factors – when it would not interfere with my work at the zoo; when Kate would be in Botswana and when it was quiet, guest-wise, for Seba Camp. Luckily for me these time scales coincided and so plans were made with Kate and the camp management for me to stay for the month of March in 2011.

I had great fun preparing for the trip over the next few months although the issue of taking paints on the plane did give me a little concern for a while.
This is to be a working trip, so to be able to sketch and paint during my stay was of great importance. I felt it important to paint in the medium I would be using for the bulk of the studio work, (which is oils) for my main plein airs, but obviously they are not ideal items to take into a sensitive ecological environment as their cleaners/thinners are toxic. And also I had heard of several artists who had their oil paints confiscated at airports over the fear of their safety.  So after a little internet research I found that with some good preparation you should be able to travel with oil paints. Then my friend, Marion, offered me a set of water mixable oils that she had but did not use; so after trying them out I settled to take them.

Having decided on my paints, the next thing was to follow the advice of other artists who have successfully travelled with oil paints. I needed the Safety Data Sheets (found on manufacturers websites) printed to take with me and, as extra insurance against confiscation, a letter from the specific airlines that I was flying with – in my case that was Virgin Atlantic and Air Botswana – confirming that they would allow me to have the paints in my hold luggage.
The problem is that the term “oil paints” leads those that do not know to believe that the product is highly inflammable ('Oil' being the scary operative word) and must come under the Dangerous Goods items banned from being taken on a plane.  However, as the paints are vegetable based (not petroleum based) with high flash point and boiling point properties they are not considered as dangerous goods items. Despite sending the relevant Safety Data Sheet and other info gleaned from the manufacturers website, Virgin Atlantic Customer Services stated that I would not be able to travel with the paints and that I should contact their Dangerous Goods Cargo Department for advice. This I did and they confirmed that the paints are safe to travel with, are not on the Dangerous Goods list, and that I should report this back to the Customer Services contact I had. Once I had relayed this information back I then got a confirmation that I could travel with the paints. I emailed this information to Air Botswana and they too confirmed that I could travel with the paints on their planes. This to-ing and fro-ing with emails took about 7 weeks to sort out. It’s definitely not something you want to leave organising to the last minute. However, it's worth it for peace of mind. If the paints were confiscated, I would have nowhere to buy new ones on my journey or at my destination - I would be really stuck!. I am now carrying confirmation emails, Safety Data sheets and manufacturers product advice printed and packed – one set of copies with the paints in the suitcase and one in hand luggage (a copy for both airlines, in case they wish to keep the paperwork).

Another headache was weight limits. I had a 23 kg hold and 6kg hand luggage limit for Virgin Atlantic and 20kg hold and 7kg hand luggage allowance for Air Botswana. However, to get to Seba Camp I would need to fly in with a charter company and enquiries I made with a couple of companies resulted in a total weight allowance (including hand luggage) of 20kg and soft luggage bags only. Nightmare! After some fretting working out how I was going to achieve that; Kate arranged for me to be on a supply flight and so there was no issue with weight restriction (My normal flight restrictions were fine) and I could take a suitcase. That was a great relief as my camera equipment alone came to 5kg and then there was the weight of my art equipment -sketch pads, painting paper, paints, brushes, palette water bottles etc To say nothing of clothing, toiletries, medical supplies (bite/sting creams, sun lotion, insect repellents etc etc), netbook and binoculars, chargers for camera, camcorder, netbook and phone. I also had 1kg of vital equipment to take out for Kate. 
It took numerous attempts, but I finally whittled everything down to the weight allowance. Sacrifices had to be made, for example, my back-up camera, a couple of sketch/drawing and paint pads, gouache paints and a number of smaller incidentals had to be taken out of the equation like make-up, cleanser etc. Clothing reduced to bare minimum and essentials like chocolate supplies, for the camp’s girls, reduced drastically! 

Prior to my departure I had found a weather website for Maun on the internet. In the week before, daytime temperatures were in the low 90’s and in the evenings dropped to the mid 70’s.   That’ll do for me, sounds pretty perfect really. Wonder how that compares in the Delta? Was it the same or hotter/cooler?  There are also heavy rainstorms, but they are not all the time; I actually hope to see a good thunderstorm. One of the researchers, Charlie, writes on the EFA's blog and she spoke about the possibility of the flood having already started to move down, as some of the water channels were higher than she would have expected than just as a result of the recent rainfall. I hope she’s wrong as it would be really good for the exhibition project if I could see the landscape before the flood moves in and then to see the beginning of it. It won’t reach full flood till June.

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