Oil and water blend perfectly over the African bush for spectacular ‘Aerial Art’

15 July 2021 - 10:51
By Mila de Villiers
Jay and Jan Roode posing with their third spouse.
Image: Supplied Jay and Jan Roode posing with their third spouse.

What do you get when you combine a specially modified aircraft with a photography-savvy couple who share an unparalleled ardour for both Southern Africa’s natural world and eschewing the systemic fallacy that making a living consists of a nine-to-five office job?

Jay and Jan Roode, that’s who.

From the brine pans of Namibia to the quicksilver pools of Mozambique, the thirstlands of the Kgalagadi, and the inland rivers of the Okavango Delta, the Roodes have traversed and photographically documented Southern Africa’s biota - all from the stratosphere. 

Over breakfast (read: cigarettes and coffee) on the deck of Limpopo’s Kapama River Lodge, the two discuss the collection of their airspace images: the Taschen-esque book, Aerial Art, brought out in 2019 by HPH Publishers.

The cover of 'Aerial Art' features a flamboyance of flamingos photographed in Namibia.
Image: Supplied The cover of 'Aerial Art' features a flamboyance of flamingos photographed in Namibia.

Marsh terrapins are merrily mulling about in the river beside us, as the Roodes comment on the seemingly unlikely duo the two of them make. (To paraphrase teen pop-punk queen Avril Lavigne: “He was an accountant / She was a self-proclaimed airhead-hippie / Can I make it any more obvious?”)

For photographer Jay and pilot Jan do come from very different backgrounds, and have decidedly different personalities.

“Ja, Jan and I are totally different. He came from the Free State, and has quite a conservative background,” Jay acknowledges in her gentle voice, accompanied with a flick of her hair and ash of her fag.

“Ja, good NG Kerk...” the Vrystaat-seun drily interjects, with a skew smile, as he lights a Kent.

“And I grew up with the most esoteric family imaginable!” his paramour exclaims. “I mean, really. We had meditations three times a week, we had a Tibetan Buddhist kind of philosophy. And Jan would come for family lunches, and my grandma would sit there and go into a trance and tell everybody who they were in their past lifetimes. And it was always royalty, it was hilarious! And you were Cleopatra,” she giggles, pointing to Jan.

“I was just sitting there thinking ‘who are these people?’” Jan admits, with a slight tone of mocking-disbelief. “Always high ... or something. And whenever I got, like, flu Jay’s mom would grab my hand, take out a pendulum, and say ‘I’ll fix you up’.”

“We came from very different backgrounds and we’ve been together for 26 years now,” Jay continues. “And, um, ja, we’ve kind of now become a blend of each other. We grew up together actually, if I think about it.”

The couple met in 1993, and completed a Market Theatre photographic workshop that year. (Jay started taking photographs with “a little red plastic camera my mom bought me” when she attended veld school as a young ’un, she shares.)

“You know, this was ’93, so it was quite like...” She adopts a furtive voice as she elaborates on how this was “in the middle of town and we were going off into town with little Leicas and taking photographs of markets and so on.

“And then we developed all our own photographs in the darkroom and that was really, really, really fun. Jan is also an incredible photographer and he’s also been into photography from when he was young.”

“I’m a closet creative,” her beau quips.

A small lovers’ spat ensues as the two quibble about the definition of ‘closet creative’ and how it does (or doesn’t) apply to Jan ...

An agreement isn’t reached upon and Jay brightly continues sharing their photographic past.

They bought a digital camera with Jan’s first pay cheque, and she reminisces about the days they whiled away in their Melville garden testing their apertures and shutter speeds.

“Slow shutter-speed is the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen,” the so-called closet creative interjects, drawing on the example of photographing cigarette smoke and the “woah!” aspect of the final product.

“And from there we started taking photographs, and we started travelling, and then we started selling our photographs on stock libraries and that kind of funded a big year. As we made more money and got jobs and grew up a bit, we just wanted to travel,” says Jay.

The Roodes’ initial response to Jan getting his pilot licence wasn’t “oh, great, we’re going to take aerial photographs,” she continues.

“He got his pilot licence and we thought it would be fun to fly around and have adventures, and as soon as we got up into the air and just start seeing the world from that perspective...” Jay goes into a slight reverie as she recalls the memory.

“I automatically became the photographer because Jan’s flying. We just became obsessed. And it was literally like something hit us between the eyeballs. That was it. We stopped travelling internationally, it was just about being in Africa.”

A bleached leadwood tree in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Image: Jay Roode A bleached leadwood tree in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

“It’s just terrible havi­ng all your photographs sit on a hard-drive and, ultimately, this is a form of activism for us,” she says of their decision to publish a book, a plume of smoke accompanying her response.

“We’ve got such an enormous database of 10 years of work. It’s just lovely to share.”

A number of their photographs are donated to conservation organisations for awareness building, she adds.

“I think it can become self-indulgent,” she muses. “The idea behind the book, and the prints, and the photographic safaris ... It doesn’t help us just knowing this and seeing this and patting each other on the back and saying ‘wow, that’s a great photo’. We want to make people aware of what’s out there. Specifically Southern Africa, for now.”

The Roodes’ are unanimous that South Africans tend to favour travelling to Europe, and neglect countries “literally on our doorsteps”, including Botswana, Mozambique, and Namibia.

A religious experience can be had in Sossusvlei inasmuch as the Notre Dame, with the couple comparing witnessing Namibia’s Wind Cathedral to the same divine emotion one might get in a church in England.

South Africans are equally guilty of a “we’ll do it later” approach to travelling in Southern Africa, which doesn’t sit well with either of the two.

“Do it now,” Jay emphasises. “Support local tourism.”

She mentions Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe as countries with the “the most pristine, untouched wilderness on earth with such a low density of people.

“That kind of experience, I honestly think – in today’s day and age –  the biggest privilege in travelling is when you get nature to yourself. That’s the real privilege. Because everywhere you go – I can’t stand it! – the Eiffel Tower, it’s just people, people, people!” she wildly exclaims.

“I want places where I can feel my blood coursing through my veins and the silence throbs in the early morning ... And that connection to nature. You don’t get that when you’re surrounded by noise and lights.”

Jay mentions the global pandemic’s restrictions in relation to humanity reassessing its relationship with nature: “I think, with Corona, a lot of people have realised this now – that not having access to nature – how connected we are to it and if you can’t go for a walk, even just to the local park, what it does to the psyche.

“And we can’t disconnect ourselves from nature. A lot of people think we can, ‘you can live your whole life in a city in a tiny flat in Hong Kong and be happy’, but the idea that wilderness is out there helps us.”

Jan poignantly - and truthfully - adds that “[t]he more you disconnect from nature, the less you want to conserve it”.

Jay – who studied nature conservation at Pretoria Tech and holds an honours degree in environmental management from UJ – is adamant that humankind must re-evaluate perspectives of the world, with an emphasis on habitat preservation.

Whereas reading books about aviatrix Amelia Earhart is one way of viewing the world differently, Jay adds that – with aerial photography – she’s realised how landscapes “hold hundreds and thousands of varieties of life” and that one shouldn’t solely focus on the conservation of flagship species, such as the cape wild dog or rhinoceros.

If we start talking about habitat, we start talking about community.

Jay refers to communities living on the edge of national parks, and how these living situations are “turning into a conflict situation instead of a collaborative situation”.

Another perspective-shift from an aerial vantage point was reaching the realisation that natural environments embody personalities of their own: “You look at a river estuary and it’s just so beautiful and so alive and so organic and so visceral and all these incredible words, you can carry on going with all the descriptions. And it’s an entity, it’s got a personality. You start thinking ‘do you want this beautiful space to be oil-mined, or logged, or fracked?’” she questions, shaking her head in disbelief.

“Now Canadian oil firms have licences to frack and mine the Okavango Delta. Are they mad?” she incredulously exclaims. “This is the thing. It’s becoming exponential now, and it’s actually scaring me – the future – of where our wild spaces are going...” She trails off, brow furrowed.

Southern Africa’s wildlife aside, the Roodes’ have also photographed mankind’s detrimental impact on the environment, including coal mines, huge tracts of forests decimated in northern Mozambique, and rice paddies which permeate this country on the southeast coast of Africa.

One can easily become overwhelmed with a sense of Weltschmerz perpetuated by the violently negative impact modern Homo sapiens’ has had on the environment, yet Jay maintains that we should collectively aim for a positive dream for the future.

“If we can’t imagine a better future, we won’t have a better future. If we start imagining an Armageddon of the environment, we’re not going to carry on. So we decided to focus on the beautiful and the positive and conservation thought and awareness thought.”

Anthropocentrism – the warped misconception that (hu)mankind (for white men are the main perpetrators of this offence) is superior to the natural world – is one of the main driving forces behind biodiversity loss.

From an aerial perspective anthropocentrism manifests by questioning the importance we attach to the animals owing to their size, says Jan, which Jay corroborates with the following memory:

“One day we were sitting in Etosha – Jan was doing his preflight stuff – and I was just watching this little ants’ nest and I was thinking ‘ja, I actually don’t know a lot about ants’, and I was sitting there Googling ‘ants’. And it’s just incredible. They have the second most intricate social structure on earth after human beings, they’re incredibly strong, they’re amazing.”

She applies the ant-analogy to that of viewing elephants from their aircraft, which – ultimately – are reduced to the Lilliputian size of these common, yet remarkable insects.

“I thought ‘how do we assign importance to animals? How does one animal have more importance in our minds than another?’ I started having all these sort of thoughts ...”

“And it’s true,” Jan furthers. “You’ll just swat a fly or a moth or stand on an ant without any regard to it whatsoever. And the only reason you’ll do that, versus shooting an elephant, is because the elephant is bigger. So we relate to it. But I mean why? The Buddhists won’t even step on an ant.”

He employs the macrophotography of a moth as an example of how people’s perspectives would change if they were to see this paraphyletic group of insects up close.

“It’s the most incredible animal!” he exclaims. “Just make it bigger and people will think ‘jirre! We’ve got to protect the moth’.”

Jay mentions that she’d like to share “one of my favourite quotes” by early 20th century American naturalist Henry Beston, published in his 1928 title The Outermost House. She reaches for her iPad, scrolls, clears her throat, and begins to read aloud:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate, for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

“And I love this bit,” she says, briefly glancing up from her screen: “They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

“It always gets me, it’s just so beautiful...” she concludes, before directing the conversation back to challenging our mindsets about the natural world.

“What I’m saying is perspective, perspective, perspective. It’s all about perspective. And being up in the air – space photography, map photography, aerial photography – challenges the way you see the world. To look at things from more than just surface-value.”

Where humankind intersects with nature: a fishing dhow in the coral gardens of the Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique.
Image: Jay Roode Where humankind intersects with nature: a fishing dhow in the coral gardens of the Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique.

Different perspectives are equally prevalent on terra firma, with Jay mentioning the advantages of having contrasting viewpoints to Jan in relation to their aerial adventures.

“Jan’s more – thank goodness! – more the logical one in the relationship. More structured, far more into planning, and far more creative. I’m so laidback. And then he can be quite A-type, but he’s also chilled out over the years,” she smiles.

“Hmm, I'm very, very chilled,” Jan grins, as he reaches for his cigarette carton.

“So he’ll be trying to hurry me up and I’ll be trying to slow him down. But there’s no breaks in the two of us. Everything that we’ve done, one of us will suggest something crazy and the other one will go ‘ja, that sounds great!’”

As for an example of a crazy suggestion which had them then thinking ‘yoh...’ afterwards?

“What wasn’t!” Jay mirthlessly exclaims, which results in a few utensils ending up on the floor.

“I don’t regret anything we’ve done,” she says (after the cutlery has been picked up and replaced with a fresh set), “but sometimes I think we could have maybe thought it through a little bit more.

“When we started this whole aerial photography thing, we just kind of went on faith: ‘Hmm, OK, let’s do this, we’ll figure it out as we go along’. We didn’t really have a real plan.”

“A lot of things we could have done better,” Jan concedes. “Ag, the thing is if you do something and it goes south, the best is just to kind of learn from it.”

The Roodes’ recount a near-fatal experience where they were forced to land on the remote Mozambican island of Matemo due to a fuel leak.

An unexpected gust of wind caused them to collide with a near-hidden bush, which resulted in them being flung off the airfield and smashing into the sole tree next to the airfield.

Yet the plane isn’t the scapegoat in the scenario, Jan honestly acknowledges.

“I think the thing is...” Jan clears his throat. “By that time, I had flown so much, a few thousand hours and we had landed in a few places that where a hundred times worse.

“Ninety-nine percent of accidents are the pilot’s error, and not the plane. Things seldom go wrong with planes,” he explains.

“In hindsight, you do low-level inspections of airfields before you do a precautionary landing and in hindsight, I should have done more inspections.”

He sighs heavily.

“I should have seen it beforehand and I didn’t. So I think you become a little complacent and think ‘ag, well, I can land it anyway’. And they often say after a thousand hours of flying a lot of pilots do that, and you get complacent. When Mike [Blythe, fellow aviator] came to help us, he also almost hit that same bush.

“I could always figure out what went wrong, and the fact is I should’ve seen it,” Jan confesses, describing the after-effect of the accident as a “horrible situation”.

“Here we are in this plane, there’s no-one on this island. There used to be a lodge there – hence the runway – but the lodge closed down five, six, seven years before that.

“So we ended up walking around the island for hours, just trying to find anybody to just see if they can somehow help us. And a lot of them don’t speak a word of English. So we had to try to chat to them and say...”

Jan mimics a plane crashing, imitating the sound of an explosion, and complementing it with a billowing gesture, followed with an “aaargh!”

“Then they were like ‘no, these okes are something else…’” he laughs of the islanders' reaction to his attempt at demonstrating the plane crash.

“Eventually we took them to the plane, and afterwards it was a great adventure!” he broadly smiles.

Jan reveals that one feels “very vulnerable” when tracking a map, furthering that “the biggest thing we learn was stuff like that happens. You’ve just got to take a deep breath and reassess and say there’s always two things to looking at things: we are fine, we weren’t hurt at all, we had whiplash. And then it’s just about ‘OK cool, this is the next thing, how do we get off the island’. We can make it something exciting or you can just be miserable.”

The less-type-A Jay is “much better at going with the flow,” Jan smiles, conceding that he would be the one to get annoyed in scenarios where things don’t go according to plan.

Yet plans gone awry resulted in a carpe diem approach to disasters, with Jan relaying an anecdote à la a friend of his:

“A friend of mine – it’s such a cliché – but he always used to say, ‘it doesn’t matter what happened to you, it’s how you handled it’. The nice thing is that so many things have gone wrong: we’ve landed in the weirdest places, we haven’t had accommodation, we couldn’t find a village, had to sleep in places without food. And then you realise, ‘ag, whatever. If it happens to you just don’t freak out, don’t get upset because then you’re not enjoying it’,” he casually shrugs, stubbing out his cigarette.

Another planet, or coastal rock outcrops in the brine ponds north of Swakopmund? Double-takes necessitated ...
Image: Jay Roode Another planet, or coastal rock outcrops in the brine ponds north of Swakopmund? Double-takes necessitated ...

A waiter approaches the table and Jay politely requests another ashtray, before lighting up and telling me why they decided on including the word “art” in the title.

Deciding on a title for the book underwent a number of metamorphoses on account of the Roodes’ wanting to create a true representation of their photography - both geographically and artistically.

“Firstly, we were going to do just a book on Namibia,” Jay starts. “Then we were going to do three separate books, then we were going to do aerial photography in Southern Africa but realised we don’t have Zimbabwe, so that wouldn’t be a true representation.

“Because I’m a female photographer we decided to rather go with the artistic, feminine aspect of the photography and look at it more as an art book, and just explore colours and textures and shapes and flow.”

She furthers that the book was designed in a “very abstract way”, with their biggest objective being to confuse people: “We wanted to create images that your first reaction was, ‘I’m not sure what I’m looking at. Is it macrophotography? What is it?’

“Heinrich curated it beautifully,” Jay says of their publisher, Heinrich van den Berg.

“Being a photographer in Africa is really hard... There’s so few people who appreciate it, there aren’t a lot of platforms, and no galleries really,” she glumly acknowledges. “Heinrich is one of the biggest promoters of African photography – if not the only one. And because he’s a photographer himself, he’s got a great eye, and a real passion for it.”

The confusing nature of their images is achieved without even having to open the book, with the cover alone commanding a second glance, I venture.

“Ja, that cover is crazy!” Jay laughs. “People think it’s Photoshopped, it’s almost like wallpaper. And Heinrich said ‘no, come on, give me the raw image’. But if you really have a look, you’ll notice there’s tiny little postural differences,” she says of the flamboyance of flamingos photographed on the black brine pans in the south of Walvis Bay.

Flamingo-phile Jay captured this image in the tidal waters of Mozambique.
Image: Jay Roode Flamingo-phile Jay captured this image in the tidal waters of Mozambique.

“I love flamingos and we’ve spent so many hours photographing flamingos over Southern Africa,” she fondly relays.

“We’ve got some of the most important wetland breeding sights in the world,” the conservationist-at-heart continues. “Walvis Bay is number one. Then we’ve got [Botswana’s] Makgadikgadi Pans, and all the coastal lagoons of Mozambique.

“Walvis Bay is amazing for birdlife,” she reiterates, rattling off the avian species one can spot in the surrounds of this Namibian port town: “Flamingos, pelicans, terns, avocets in their thousands.

“Twitchers do their nut in Southern Africa!”

The topic of abluting above terra incognita is one which deeply intrigues me, and it turns out the twosome are fully sorted on the aerial garderobe front...

“Jan’s got a Sta-Soft bottle,” Jay chortlingly admits. “It has a good opening, it’s a good size, you don’t get anxiety, there’s enough volume there,” she nods, stifling her laughter.

“The problem with me is gravity,” Jan chimes in. “So, I’ve gotta somehow sit on my knees on the actual seat and then try to somehow have a gravitational...” He wiggles around in his chair as he demonstrates this precarious attempt.

“And I’m not allowed to look otherwise he gets performance anxiety!” (This from Jay...)

*Cue hearty laughter*

“Then Jay has a bedpan,” Jan adds. “A nice blue beautiful bedpan that’s covered in male incontinence nappies. It slips nicely under the bucket seat.”

“Wrap it all in a plastic bag!” Jay quips in response to what one what does with the excreta.

Jan furthers that they sometimes arrive at these “really larney lodges, with black plastic bags in our hands” and how quick they are to politely decline any offers to carry said bags. “Most people are like ‘hmm, I wonder what’s in there’…”

“You don’t want to know!” Jay merrily laughs.

Even the pro-glider pilots who are up in the air for hours wear adult nappies, she discloses.

“We don’t do that!”

As for lighting up? 

“Ja, we do smoke in the plane...” the two bashfully profess.

“But we're quitting next week!”

(And no, that isn’t the first time they’ve verbally committed to that Herculean task...)