By BRUCE DENNILL
The Impossible Five, the story of a journey around South Africa in pursuit of some of the most reclusive animals in the country – the Cape leopard, the pangolin, the aardvark, the Riverine rabbit and naturally occurring white lion – gave its author, Justin Fox, the chance to tick a block on his bucket list.
In an environment when being an author is not a career path followed with substantial earning power in mind, is that reason enough to plan and complete a new project?
“I was squarely in that mindset for the writing of this book,” agrees Fox.
“I have a bunch of things I want to achieve in travel. I managed to do a lot of that during my time at Getaway [Fox worked at the magazine for many years, serving as the deputy editor among much else], but there is much left to do. Now, as a freelancer, I find myself needing to sell a multi-level offering: the story itself, some social media tie-ins, and now books as well. And then I have to market that whole thing to suppliers.”
Times have changed. Especially if you want to remain in your passion.
“I have big dreams,” Fox says, nodding, “and some of them, like this one, would be impossible without sponsorship. My next plan is to trace the outline of the Mediterranean, and that trip will require a lot more investment than this one did. But these days you need to think on your feet; to be willing to do a number of different things in order to achieve a single goal.”
Fox is not the only wildlife enthusiast to go looking for something particular – anyone who goes to a game reserve or zoo will have one or two creatures at the top of their personal list, and for a range of reasons. For the purposes of this book, Fox’s focus is impossibility: the near certainty that he won’t spot his target is the challenge.
“I think seeing what you haven’t seen before is always important,” reasons the author.
“It’s that thing of ticking off a list; like with twitchers and their ‘lifers’ – it becomes very important to people. It’s in our nature to acquire, and once we’ve acquired one thing, it’s deemed necessary to collect more, different things. So once you’ve seen an elephant, you may drive past the next one to see a leopard, and once you’ve seen a couple of those, you may be wishing they’d get out of the way in future so you could see a wild dog or something.”
Fox’s chose “Impossible Five” are the Cape leopard, aardvark, pangolin, Riverine rabbit and naturally occurring white line. This is a worthy list, but they’re not the only animals where low numbers, restricted habitats or unsociable behaviour make getting them in front of a camera a test of patience and stamina.
“I first became obsessed with the pangolin,” says Fox. “It was the one I was always told I’d never see, which made it the one I wanted to see the most. For the others on this list, I could have picked some obscure reptiles or something, but I wanted readers to be able to relate to my choices, and the ones on my list all have some sort of personality. I also – cynically – needed options that would sell: I fairly sure no other South African has seen all of these animals.”
In the book, the people – rangers, scientists and conservationists – closest to the animals become major characters, something that doesn’t appear to have been part of the goal when Fox began the manuscript.
“They forced their way in,” smiles Fox. “They’re weird, anti-social people, obsessive and bad at communicating their ideas, They don’t have time or an interest in proselytising – one of them wrote notes on his body to avoid the complication of carrying notepads or a laptop. It was fun for me to bring them and their stories to life – they’re unsung heroes in conservation circles. It wasn’t my plan to make them such a focus, but as I spent time with each of them, I started to notice them taking on the characteristics of the animals they were studying and caring for.”
Another aspect of the book that seems to have developed during the writing rather than during the planning is the identification of each of Fox’s Impossible Five as a “marker species” – animals whose dwindling numbers are a warning of consequences far more serious than just the disappearance of a single variety of anteater or rabbit.
“What struck me throughout the writing of the book is how everything in the ecosystem is linked. These animals unlocked that awareness for me. There is no superfluity in nature – everything exists for a reason.
“The species I were after provide a good litmus test for the health of the environment. If you try and look at their situation through their eyes, you get good perspectives on issues like fracking, the dumping of sewage or introducing cattle into certain habitats.”
There’s a school of thought that says anyone who reads and travels widely doesn’t really need to go to school.
“My own philosophy for life involves reading, writing and travelling – it’s the way I learn,” Fox agrees. “I read widely while I travel – not only guidebooks, but non-fiction and fiction: I find authors have a way of capturing feelings; layered interpretation of the space they’re in when writing.
“I also write while I’m still travelling, as everything happens. It keeps me sharp; helps me to look at things with an investigative eye. And it’s only when I’m travelling that I’m pushing the envelope and finding myself fully engaged. Because time is limited, I have to be attentive.
“When I’m reading, writing and travelling at the same time, I’m at my most alive.”
Twisting a cliché – the Big Five – was at the core of Fox’s getting this latest project underway. Has he retained a similar mindset as he starts preparations for another book?
“The Impossible Five is selling well,” he shrugs, “so I may expand on the same idea and look at a list of extinct South African animals – the Cape lion, say, or the bluebuck or quagga. I’m also looking at possible brand extention; possibly a kids’ book or toys.
“After that, the next book is a novel. I’m a World War Two nut and I’ve been digging into the military history of Simonstown, including the stories about chasing U-boats out of False Bay.”
The Impossible Five by Justin Fox is published by NB Publishers.