Justin Fox talks to Jacaranda Books about how he became an author and photographer, what led to the chosen animals detailed in The Impossible Five and the general situation in Africa surrounding conservation, as well as teasing us with details about his upcoming projects.
1. How would you describe The Impossible Five in twenty words or less?
It’s the account of a humorous, quirky, frustrating journey in search of South Africa’s five most elusive mammals.
2. Was becoming a travel writer and photographer always a dream of yours?
No, it’s been a circuitous journey. As a teenager I went to film school and envisioned becoming a movie director. Then after nine years at university (Cape Town for undergrad and Oxford for masters and doctorate) it appeared that I might become an English academic. But I had itchy feet, joined a travel magazine, and that was that. I’ve been travelling, writing and photographing ever since.
3. The five animals you look for in the book (the Cape mountain leopard, the aardvark, the pangolin, the riverine rabbit, and the white lion) are all quirky in their own way – what made you decide to pick them for your quest?
My five chosen animals are a very personal choice. They are all distinctive, sexy, charismatic mammals that I had tried and failed to find. These five creatures had long frustrated me (and my friends, family and many rangers I had spoken to).
4. Out of the five, do you have a favourite?
Before setting off on my journey I would have said the mountain leopard. In terms of grace, sinuous beauty and mystery, this cat is simply spellbinding. But when I saw an aardvark for the first time, I was smitten. It’s a cross between a pig, a rabbit and a toilet brush with enormous ears and a ridiculously long, nozzle-like snout. Not exactly handsome, but its quirkiness is its charm.
5. The book includes a number of very funny moments with people who take their search for rare animals very seriously. Was it important for you to include humour in your book?
Yes it was. There are plenty of serious, important zoological and biological books out there about endangered mammals. But I’m not a scientist and I approached this journey with a sense of child-like wonder and curiosity. I felt the best way to draw a lay reader into this quest, and present the science in an engaging way, would be with humour. In this I was inspired by Douglas Adams’ marvellous book Last Chance to See. His description of the sexual exploits of New Zealand’s kakapo parrot had me weeping with laughter. I wanted to try and produce something in that vein.
6. Were there things that surprised you during your journey?
My career as a travel writer on the ‘African beat’ has meant that I’ve spent a lot of time in the wild. But a dedicated search for elusive mammals such as these had the unexpected benefit of allowing me to spot a whole lot of rarely seen creatures that I wasn’t searching for, such as the Cape fox, honey badger and aardwolf. Another surprise was how the quest led to a better understanding of eco-systems. I had intended to focus in on specific animals, but instead the research led me to looking at the big pictures.
7. Are safaris still as popular in South Africa? Do you think, that long term, they have a disruptive effect on the animals’ environment or that they actually bring awareness to endangered species?
The safari continues to grow in popularity and to diversify, reaching a much wider audience. Game reserves now offer mountain biking, hot-air ballooning, sleeping under the stars, gourmet safaris, art classes, you name it. Although in some instances this leads to overcrowding and disruption for some animals, it’s a small price to pay for conservation and the preservation of wild lands. Because it is largely through tourism, and the safari in particular, that Africa’s wilderness areas will be preserved.
8. What are you reading at the moment?
As I’m busy writing a World War II novel, I’m steeping myself in both fiction and non-fiction about the war. Everything from Antony Beevor and Sebastian Faulks to Douglas Reeman and Alexander Fullerton.
9. Could you tell us more about your next project(s)?
I have a book about to come out in Holland for young children, translated as My Little Safari. It showcases my wildlife photography and teaches children about African animals. Another project is a World War II novel set in Dunkirk, England and South Africa. It deals with a young British lieutenant sent out to the Cape in 1941 to help fight German raiders and U-Boats. The project means regular trips to London to delve into the National Archives at Kew – a treasure trove of naval-history material.