A little more than 12 years ago, Leisure Wheels reported on the life and times of Izak Barnard, a man whose love of adventure began when he was a mere five years old. In 1963 he started his own safari company, Penduka Safaris, and spent a lifetime showing tourists the splendours of Africa.
Sadly, Izak died in March 2011, passing the reins of his company and keys of his fleet of International vehicles to his son, Willem.
Willem inherited Izak’s love of adventure, which led him to study nature conservation and then join his father as co-owner of the business. He has more than 20 years experience in the safari industry – and the tales that go with them
Life cuts you down to size
Over the past 25 years, Willem has led safaris, research parties and documentary teams to remote parts of southern Africa.
He says life has its own way of cutting you down to size. “Two years ago we were stuck for three hours in a fast flowing river in Zambia. The water was chest deep, and washed away the jack and blocks. Our first vehicle was pushed out by about a hundred Zambians, and the second one was pulled out by a 1950s 6×6 Russian truck with a 20-ton winch.”
Then there was the time the Kazungula ferry got capsized by a South African-bound Interlink truck, which was heavily overloaded with cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Willem and his safari team were waiting next to the ferry and were totally drenched when it capsized. “I will always remember the people shouting and crying, and our desperate attempts to save them.”
Among the dead were 12 local women. “The sight of their bewildered orphans will always stay with me,” says Willem.
Changes in the safari industry
Today clients expect maximum comfort when they go on safari. Gone are the days when they helped pitch tents, prepare meals, wash dishes and unload vehicles. Camp assistants have completely taken over these tasks, and competent bush chefs provide a variety of well-balanced meals.
Most of Willem’s clients are first time visitors to Africa, with the notable exception of Ursula Riethmueller from Switzerland, who been on no less than 37 safaris with Penduka.
Thanks to television, tourists always expect to see the Big Five in action. “There are so many reality-style nature programmes, which glorify everything to the extent that real life is forgotten. That’s where the safari guide comes in. He shows the tourists the beauty of nature and how simple most things really are.
“I believe most people have lost their connection to the natural world – basic things like listening to night sounds, smelling the earth after rain and looking for something unexpected,” says Willem
Another major change in the safari industry is the use of technology. In the mid 1980s when Willem joined Penduka, they always used Crocodile Camp outside Maun, Botswana, as a reporting point on the northern safaris. “We only phoned if we really needed to, and sometimes weeks would go past without contact with anybody. In the Kalahari, there was no reporting points. You just had to make do with what you had.”
Today many places have mobile phone connections, which means mishaps or bad planning can be rectified without too much of a hassle. Radios are standard equipment and most operators carry satellite phones and modems to stay in touch.
“I miss the old times when you could still swap a block of ice for two cases of beer,” says Willem.
He is a qualified pilot, which adds a useful dimension to his life as a safari guide. He’s always had a passion for flying and got his private pilot’s licence in 1990 at the Virginia flying school in Durban. Later, he realised he knew too little and undertook the extra training to qualify for a commercial licence with an instrument, multi-engine and instructor’s rating. Today he flies regularly for Mack Air, a company operating Cessna 206s, C210s, Air Vans and Caravans. For Willem, there is nothing like flying in the bush.
For the past 14 years he has been leading safaris to Zambia, which reminds him of Botswana 25 years ago. “It still has the real Africa feel to it,” he says.“Some areas are really remote and roads are very poor. But that is what I enjoy – providing you have the right people to travel with. But the rainy season in Zambia makes it impossible to travel to many places for six months of the year.”
He was privileged to attend the Kuomboka ceremony on the Zambezi River, which he described as “spectacular.”
Willem has many favourite destinations, such as the Kalahari, Damaraland, Chobe and Kafue. He prefers to do safaris where there are few people around. He says it’s getting more and more difficult to find a place that is not on a tourist map or GPS, although there still are less frequented places.
“Fortunately, the farther you get away from conveniences, the harder it is to operate safaris, which leaves a few spots open for die-hard fans. For me there is nothing worse than ten vehicles gathered around an animal sighting, and guides on the radio looking for sightings for their clients. I suppose it’s all for good tips and happy bosses. Thank goodness those guides don’t go everywhere!”
The ‘backbone’ for 40 years
As a child, Willem went on his first safari in a “Penduka Green” safari vehicle, which he uses to this day. These famous International safari vehicles have roamed the tourist routes, especially in Botswana, since the 1970s, and have forged many trails for others to follow.
Although the faithful Internationals have stood the test of time, and are arguably still the best vehicles for the job, Willem has recently imported two Ford F350s with International V8 6.0 litre turbo diesel engines from the US. He is currently learning how to maintain them. The common rail injection engines develop 242kW @2800 rpm and deliver about 7,5km/l at 110km/h.
Willem describes the Ford as “a nice and sturdy vehicle” with plenty of power and a good transmission that easily handles a two-ton load. One can turn it into a safari vehicle without cutting the chassis, or exceeding the chassis weigh limit.
Willem will start using the Fords once he is confident he can maintain them.
The Internationals have been the backbone for Penduka for more than 40 years. Willem keeps an arsenal of spares for them so that he can keep them going for as long as he needs them. Penduka still operates 12 Internationals, in different shapes and sizes.
“From a mechanical point of view, we have not replaced a gearbox, transfer box or front differential yet, and some of the trucks have exceeded one million bush kilometres. Now eat that, Toyota and Land Rover!”
The safari children
Many years ago, while on safari at Lloyd’s Camp in Savuti, Willem met a British girl, Sally Osborne, who was on a working holiday as a chef. They got married years later, and have three children – Adam, Luke and Sophie. They’re all permanent residents at Penduka’s base camp, outside Maun.
From an early age, the children have had a taste of the jet set life, travelling between Botswana, SA and Britain. Even so, they are learning to love the sound of V8 engines battling with the notorious Kalahari sand. And although they are too young to join Willem on a full length safari, he loves taking them on adventures.
They also enjoy going out on the motorboat on the Thamalakane River, near their home. All three children are becoming keen on birding and are masters of tree climbing. Luke is the best fisherman.
Despite all the changes in the safari industry, Willem believes that tourism will be one of the biggest businesses in the near future. The Botswana government has outlawed hunting, except on private farms. “We will have to see if more areas will become available for safari operators, or if more luxury lodges will be constructed. I hope in 20 years time we will still see family businesses in the tourism industry and not only large hotel-type operators.”
Willem is optimistic about his own future. He would like to spend more time in the air, or in the bush with a camera in hand.
“As a child I was fortunate enough to travel with Izak all over Botswana when there were still proper migrations in the Kalahari, with thousands of animals. The experience will always stay with me, as well as the hospitality of the Bushmen and the Bagalagadi people.
“When I’m sleeping on the roof of my truck for months on end, looking at the brilliant night skies, I think to myself … isn’t this the best?”
Izak Barnard passed away on March 6 2011 after suffering a heart attack. He was 77. He is buried on the family farm, Vlakplaas, in North West Province.
Throughout his life, Izak had a keen interest in reading, travelling and news from around the world. He never stopped learning and broadening his legendary knowledge, and until his last day, his mind was as clear as ever.
In his last years, he fulfilled a few more of his life dreams. One was to travel in an International vehicle from SA to Tanzania, another to travel on the Indian Pacific train across Australia.
His life was time well spent.