African Squirrel Quest, by Jon Isaacs
African Squirrel Quest
Some readers might think that some of my quests to photograph animals are rather bizarre. My wife certainly does, so they must be right! The quests are rarely planned. Many just seem to evolve, ensnaring me through a series of situations where I end up just having to get that animal on film, or nowadays, memory card. The squirrel hunt was one such quest.
It all started one day in the Luangwa valley in Zambia. It was early morning and we were trundling along a dusty track looking for Thornicroft giraffe. They are the smallest and most attractive subspecies, and one localised to that area. Suddenly, a small furry creature, with tail bolt upright, hurtled across the track in front of us. The driver ignored it and so I asked him what it was.” Squirrel” was the answer, but it wasn’t like the squirrels I was used to. I asked him to stop if another one was sighted. Sure enough, further on, another furry missile launched itself across the road and skidded to a halt behind a fallen tree. The driver also squealed to a juddering halt and I swung into action with my camera, just as the squirrel’s head appeared above the trunk. Umpteen clicks later I felt that a reasonable photo had surely been obtained.
Upon returning to camp I had my first chance to look at my squirrel photos. Great shots of wood, sand, rock, and the occasional tail followed. The quest to get a decent squirrel shot was on.
African Squirrel, photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021
The quest continued when we moved to a tented camp, pitched in mopane glades. Within hours of arriving I noticed small shapes moving silently in the branches above our heads. Yet, even in the gloom cast by the large, leathery leaves, these squirrels looked different to the furry missiles which had earlier crossed our path. The guides informed me that these were bush squirrels. One guide handed over his well-thumbed mammal guide and I mugged up on all the squirrels Africa had to offer. I learnt that the word squirrel comes from the Greek skiouros, meaning “shade-tail” and that there are four main groups in Africa: ground, rope, bush, and sun squirrels. Sub species filled several more pages. I digested their characteristics and behaviour, following the adage of know thine enemy, and felt confident that the shot would soon be achieved.
I should have known better. Shot after shot of mopane leaves and bark followed. At best, I was getting dark, blurred tails and parts of bodies.
African Squirrel and rock, photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021
Then luck seemed to shine in my direction. For some reason a male bush squirrel, with in my opinion a considerable attitude problem, took exception to my attempts at stalking and photographing them from every angle. Jumping up and down with rage from the branch directly above my head, he hurled abuse at me in a constant, vitriolic high pitched scream. I took shot after shot. The quest had been achieved. Well, that’s what I thought until I looked at the results, shot after shot of beautifully sharp silhouettes. Squirrels two, amateur photographer nil.
African Squirrel on a wall, photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021
Years were to pass and further safaris enjoyed. Squirrels were pursued and photographed, all with the same sorry outcome. Then, out of the blue, a trip to Namibia offered me a chance to finally redeem myself and complete the quest. We were driven to a lodge, for a night’s break, on our way down to the Namib Naukluft Park to see the world-famous, dunes. The surrounding area was inhospitable, a mixture of sand, stone and apparently little else. I doubted there would be anything worth photographing. Upon arrival, we moved into our room and I gazed disconsolately out of the window. There, in front of me were little furry things, lots of them. In fact, they were all over the place; digging, fighting, sunbathing, feeding, rushing about with tails held high, plunging into and out of burrows. I had apparently stumbled upon a veritable mecca for ground squirrels. I grabbed my camera and took off, unpacking wife forgotten in the excitement. Could I please get just one good photograph? No, cross-eyed I couldn’t! I got hundreds. The squirrels just didn’t care what I did. I photographed them in burrows, out of burrows, standing proudly on their back legs, using their tails as parasols, and even going cross eyed as a fly landed on their head. They even came up and bit my trainers, just to let me know they were there. Okay, I looked ridiculous in the heat of the midday sun, lying on my stomach with my floppy hat rammed against my forehead, squirrels hurtling passed me in all directions, but the quest had been achieved. It was the highlight of my holiday.
The following year I showed David some of my treasured photographs of Damara Ground squirrels and asked him if he’d consider drawing one for me as we both like quirky animals. This he graciously did, and I am now the proud owner of a superbly drawn ground squirrel, which hangs on the wall in front of me as I write this article. It was a perfect way to complete the quest.
African Squirrel, original drawing by David Dancey-Wood, image courtesy of Jon Isaacs.