Northland photographer snaps African animals

By Imran Ali

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Baylys Beach woman Robyn Preston is gaining an international reputation for her African wildlife photography. Northern Advocate reporter Imran Ali tracked her down in Nairobi, Kenya, and asked about her world.

What piqued your interest in travel in the first place?

I had been single for a while and my youngest daughter told me I should consider doing some travel overseas.

I had grown up in a small rural community and then married into another small community so had only known small places. I hadn't been one to venture to the bright lights of the city when I left school, like my friends did.

The thought of getting on a plane and leaving my comfort zone wasn't even a consideration at that time. I told my daughter point blank that I couldn't do it. But she persisted and blew away all my excuses.

After some time, I finally boarded a plane and flew to London. Going from my quiet existence in Baylys Beach to suddenly finding myself amongst the bustle of taxis and rushing people in the middle of London was daunting.

I joined a group to travel around Europe. Doing a group tour was a good idea because everything was organised by someone else and I only had to follow. We travelled through 10 countries for six weeks and I made friends I am still in contact with.

I thought it a good idea to make the most of my time on the other side of the world so I flew from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, joined another group of strangers - again, some are now friends -and went to Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

By now I was getting used to getting around. At the airport in Copenhagen to fly back out I had to pay for excess baggage and got held up in long queues. I started to stress about the time, and if my flight had not been late I would have missed it. I remember thinking 'if I can get through this and get home, I can do anything'. When I arrived back in Auckland I was so proud of myself. I thought now the world is my oyster and I can do anything! And I do.

How did you get into photography and, in particular, wildlife pictures?

When my children were at primary school I always bought their class photos but thought they were always the same and boring.

I already had an interest in photography from taking photos of my children at home and had a reasonably good camera. So, one year I approached the principal and asked if he would consider letting me have a go at school photos. That lasted 13 years.

It expanded along the way to families as well. Then I started getting requests to do weddings and other work. There did come a time I thought people photography wasn't where I wanted to be. Having said that, I now really enjoy taking candid photos of the cultures in Africa.

I made my first trip to Africa in 2009, an overland tour through nine countries. From this I became interested in wildlife photography. Since the age of 10 I had a fascination with African animals and seeing them for real was just amazing.

My initial fear of travelling on my own had dissipated, although Africa was very different to Europe. This seemed like home to me. I loved seeing the animals in their natural environment and the interactions between them. At the end of that trip I had planned a short safari with another company and it so happened I was the only one on it. It was the icing on the cake as I had the vehicle to myself and could concentrate on my photos. That was the beginning of what I do today.

I returned to Africa in 2010, 2012, 2013 and this year. Along the way I upgraded my camera and lenses.

I have no doubt that the patience I needed taking photos all those years ago of children is what has led to what I do now. Animals are not posers and a lot of time and perseverance is needed waiting for that perfect moment. I spend many hours in the wilderness just sitting with the wildlife and waiting, even before I pick up the camera.

How has your family reacted to what you are doing and do any have similar ambitions?

My youngest daughter completed a photography course last year and she and her partner are interested in pursuing wedding photography. Because I am not formally trained in photography, the technical aspects are somewhat foreign to me. So when my daughter critiques my images and says they're good, that means something.

What I may think of an image could be different to the next person. Such is art. Plus, when I look at an image I also see where I was when it was taken and what was happening at that time rather than just the subject matter.

When it comes to my travel, my children and grandchildren don't bat an eyelid any more. They know I go off to Africa and do my photography and that's just the way it is.

What are your favourite animals and how long do you spend in the outdoors waiting to get a photo?

The leopard is my favourite animal. The leopard is elusive and it's always special when you find one. I do know a tree that's secret and hidden and we find the cats there sometimes. And the male lions with their big, dark manes have so much character but they can be very lazy a lot of the time.

Personally, I don't see the point in sitting next to a swimming pool at a lodge when I could be out in the wilderness so when I go on safari it is a full day, every day. In 2013 I did a 60-day safari and this year have done a 34-day safari.

There have been times when [my driver and I] will sit under a tree for anything up to eight hours just waiting for a leopard to come down. Or we sit and wait for other vehicles to go off somewhere and then move in to get good photos uninterrupted. That's the key.

When other drivers ask ,"What are you looking for?" when they hear we are out all day, every day, the answer is "anything".

There's not necessarily a plan but there has never been a day we have come back without seeing something. Every day is a good day! Why are you applying for residency in Kenya?

The first time I visited Kenya, and the Maasai Mara Reserve in particular, I knew I had to go back.

It was like some spiritual thing. Almost like I had been there before. No other country I've been to has made me feel that way.

From a photography point of view, though, Kenya has places that, when you visit, are very different.

In the southern countries of Africa you need to travel many miles, and sometimes days, before the landscape changes. In Kenya it's just a matter of a few hours.

Since my first visit I have been back to the Maasai Mara more times than I know. The reserve is a capillary of tracks and roads and you have to have a driver that knows where he's going. I know my direction, I know which trees have leopards, which hill is that and where we saw rhinos last time.

I know the territories of the lion prides and can recognise some of the cats from the year before. I have a favourite leopard and it's always a thrill when we find him again.

I am familiar with other parks and reserves in the country as well.

The people here are very friendly [and] I am well accepted here. At [one] camp, which is run by Maasai people, I was given a Maasai name.

Now each time I go there they use that name, not my English one. I now have names given to me by three different tribes.

This year I stayed in a studio apartment on the outskirts of Nairobi in the community of Karen.

When I first arrived I was very nervous about walking anywhere on my own but now the locals have got used to seeing me.

While living standards and the way things operate may be different to back home, the cost of living is much cheaper.

The cost of going on safari and into the reserves and parks is not, especially cheap for a non-resident, for residents it is much cheaper. Entry is per day. Because I spend a lot of time in these places it makes sense to apply for residency.

Tell us about your ambition to win the (Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide's) Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award This award is the ultimate for me. I've read that thousands of entries are received each year and to get into the top 100 is where one should aim. To get higher than that would be an absolute dream come true.

I have never thought I had an image good enough to enter previously but am constantly told otherwise.

At least entering will give me an indication of where I'm at in this field. One of my images was chosen in June by the Daily Record and Sunday Mail in the UK as one of the best images across the globe. That's mind-blowing for me. I am under contract to Barcroft Media in London, who sell my photo stories to publications around the world and that's given me global exposure. But winning this award will just top everything off - so I had better enter, hadn't I ?

Is there any chance of you coming back home for good?

I don't actually live in Kenya although I spend more time there than in New Zealand. At this point I can't imagine not spending time in Africa. It's in my blood and it's the lifestyle I am used to now.

Africa is a colourful, vibrant continent and they say once the dirt gets under your nails you have to keep going back. Africa gets under your skin. That's very true.

- Northern Advocate

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