Jess Colquhoun in South Africa
Unaccompanied Female is a new series of stories here, highlighting intrepid women around the world and a solo trip they’ve taken. Through a female perspective we explore how travel changes and moves us, and look at the stories we’re drawn to telling. First up is documentary filmmaker and photographer, Jess Colquhoun, on her time in South Africa.
Indigo Skate Camp by Jess Colquhoun
IN SOUTH AFRICA
What was the first big solo trip you’ve taken?
Shooting a documentary in South Africa a few years back when I was 20 was the first major trip I’d taken alone. I headed out to Indigo Skate Camp, a skate-for-development program which empowers local Zulu villagers through skateboarding. It’s situated in a rural village amongst The Valley of a Thousand Hills, an hour outside of Durban. I spent ten days volunteering and beginning the film and photo project which I came back to continue a year later. It was a really special experience to return a year later and see how the kids were and definitely one of the most magical places I’ve ever been, living in a hut surrounded by these rolling mountains with cows and goats coming in and out of the skate park.
Indigo Skate Camp by Jess Colquhoun
What was your inspiration to do this trip? Did you have any specific goals?
I’ve always been particularly interested in telling African stories as I’m fascinated by its culture, traditions, environment and people, and was keen to travel independently this time and really integrate amongst a rural community. I work full time so I was fueled by feeling restless and hungry to leave my desk and explore, shoot and see what I could create self-sufficiently.
Did you have any apprehensions about traveling alone?
Definitely, I had a few sleepless nights leading up to the trip. It was a risk for many reasons but it involved my own money, equipment and time and I had no idea if it would come to any valuable creative outcome but I knew the regret of not going would be worse than trying and failing. I planned the trip quite impulsively, flying out two weeks after discovering the camp online so I didn’t have too much time to second guess what I was doing. When you’re full of these fears and apprehensions I think that’s when you know you’re heading in the right direction and really on to something. I’m working on trying to be much braver, to let curiosity lead me.
What was the best part of traveling on your own?
Traveling and shooting alone allowed me to have a greater and more personal connection to the people I was filming and allowed them to feel more comfortable opening up on camera than I think they would have with others around. I also really enjoy disappearing and disconnecting from everyone to have the the freedom to explore and create with no pressure or influence.
Were you reading anything memorable on this trip? Or any books/stories/quotes that inspired you to take the trip?
My last trip to South Africa I travelled with the book “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert which is about creative living beyond fear. I’ve highlighted it to pieces as there’s a million quotes to take away from it. I was apprehensively stepping into the unknown, about to shoot another documentary, and read Gilbert’s light-hearted “welcoming letter” over and over. It personifies fear and helped me to approach my worries differently.
Creativity and I are about go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job but I will be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you absolutely forbidden to drive.”
What advice do you have for solo female travelers?
To research and plan out your trip as much as possible and get contacts on the ground before you go. Trust your gut instincts and use your intuition. Another gem from “Big Magic” was a story about the poet Jack Gilbert who advised his students to always be brave:
“Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small – far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be.”
What did you learn about South Africa?
My last documentary was following The Black Mambas, a female anti-poaching unit who protect the Oilfants West Region of Balule Nature Reserve from bush meat and rhino poaching. I followed them as they conducted their daily patrols unarmed, policing the border and searching for poachers who broke into the reserve at night. It was an immensely educational and insightful experience to learn from these fearless women about the war on poaching and animal conservation. Rhino poaching has escalated dramatically with approximately two rhinos being poached per day and if the killing continues at the same rate, rhino deaths could quickly overtake births. When the Black Mambas began, they didn’t have the locals’ support as the idea of women being on a patrol was controversial, but they’ve dropped snaring by 76% within the reserve.
The Black Mambas, a female anti-poaching unit, by Jess Colquhoun
If you could go traveling with anyone (living or dead) who would you choose and where would you go?
I’d go across Africa’s national parks with David Attenborough who would narrate as we travel through all the different habitats and species of animals that live there.