"Warm, Fluffy and Sexy": Justin Fox Tells John Maytham about Searching for The Impossible Five
The well-known travel writer, novelist and photographer, Justin Fox, launched his latest book, The Impossible Five: One Man’s Search for South Africa’s Most Elusive Animals early in July at The Book Lounge.
Publishing manager, Marga Stoffer, reflected on how many visitors to the Kruger Park know about “the big five” and evaluate the success of a trip on how many of these creatures were spotted. Fox, who has gone on these kinds of trips with his parents since he was a child, wanted to go a step further and seek out animals that even the game rangers seldom get to see. “This book is about a search that was supposed to take just six months but turned into an endeavour lasting three years. He tells this story of looking for things you cannot find in a wonderful way,” Stoffer said. She introduced the man of the day to the audience.
Fox was joined in a tremendously funny and engaging conversation by Cape Talk radio journalist, John Maytham, who reported that his copy of The Impossible Five had been stolen from his desk. In all his years of receiving books for review, he said, this had never happened before.
Maytham asked Fox how he went about selecting his impossible five. Fox said he had started with a list of about 20 mammals, because they are “warm, fluffy and sexy!” On that list were animals like the black-footed cat, the Knysna elephant, (which he discarded when he realised it was just a normal elephant that liked lots of tree cover), lots of mole rats and lots of bats.
“I wanted animals that captured the imagination, ones I was very excited about, ones I had never found,” he said. The process of elimination took him to the Cape mountain leopard, the riverine rabbit, the aardvark, the pangolin and the naturally occurring white lion.
“Was this something you wanted to do for Justin and writing the book about it was a happy by-product of the process?” Maytham asked, “Or as someone who is a travel writer are you always looking for something to do that’s never been done before, something that’s likely to sell?”
Fox said it was a combination of these reasons. While working for Getaway Magazine, Fox said he spent 12 years travelling regularly to game parks. After ticking off the normal list of sightings, and then the obscure animals, he was left only with very, very rare animals, and it became a personal quest to find them. And he is always looking for new and interesting topics to write about.
Maytham could not resist interrupting the author to share his entertaining tales from his brief stint as a game ranger. “I was once urinated on by a giant Gambian rat,” he said, before apologising for his one-upmanship.
Maytham reflected that in Fox’s quest to write and learn about the animals, he inevitably learns as much about the environments in which they live and the extraordinary people whose life’s work it is to study them. “There isn’t a reptile, mammal or bird in the world that doesn’t have an attendant phalanx of people researching them,” Maytham said.
Fox agreed with Maytham, saying: “They’re incredible people who have committed their entire working careers to one animal. And they’ll probably spend the rest of their lives committed to that animal. The book becomes a little bit about them and each one of them seemed to have adopted some of the characteristics of the animals!”
The author explained that in this narrative he refers to the books of his childhood, Bugs Bunny and Winnie the Pooh, because he kept seeing the people he met in terms of the animals they worked with. “Quinton Martins seemed to grow whiskers and spots. When he was hunting leopards he was down on all fours. When he was setting up leopard traps he adopted the posture and style of walking and the characteristics of a cat. He walked into a leopard when I was with him at times.” Fox described the scientists as “nutty”. “They were so in tune with their animals,” he said, “and they were wonderful to write about”.
He spoke about the doubts he harboured at the outset of his project about never seeing some of the animals, despite his best endeavours. He had tried so often to find pangolins, he had almost given up on the likelihood of an actual sighting.
“Humans are the main threat to these animals that are trying to survive outside of the national parks, on farm lands, in river beds. The only chance they have of survival is to be able to elude humans. I felt that their shyness, their nocturnal habits, their elusiveness is one of their endearing characteristics and part of their saving grace. If I didn’t find any of them, that was okay too. There was a sense of their being ecological ‘money in the bank’ by virtue of them being out there and not being seen,” Fox said.
Maytham noted that in some cases tracking devices are used to find the animals. However this does not guarantee a sighting. “Despite spending all this time with a scientist who knows more about the mountain leopard than the mountain leopard knows about itself and is also in that strange empathetic, intuitive spiritual way is connected to the Cape Leopard, despite his help you only half – at a great distance – saw the leopard.”
“It was the last day … we had had a concerted hunt in the Uilsgat Valley of the Cedarberg and we’d picked up a good sound on the telemetery device. We got within 100m of the female called Spot and Quinton is pretty sure he saw her. She was on the rock and he told me to look. As I looked, she slipped behind the rock. Maybe I saw the tip of her tail … I think that was half a sighting,” Fox said.
The discussion about the animals and those who care to track and record their well-being was hearty entertainment indeed, and the book promises more of the same. The fragility of five rare species’ existence, and what this means about the state of South Africa eco-systems, is a major concern that is dealt with elegantly in the book.
- Not loading? View on Twitter
- Not loading? View on Facebook