In ‘The Selous of Africa,’ Basalt photographer portrays wilds of Tanzania

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Basalt-based photographer Robert Ross will discuss his new book, "The Selous in Africa," Monday evening at Explore Booksellers.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘The Selous in Africa: A Long Way from Anywhere,’ presented by Robert J. Ross

Where: Explore Booksellers

When: Monday, Dec. 14, 5 p.m.

More info:

A fish eagle in midflight holds a baby crocodile in its claws. An elephant holds a fluorescent palm fruit delicately on the end of its trunk. A lioness grips its prey with a bloodied mouth. A herd of elephants crosses the landscape at sunset.

These are just a few of the vivid backcountry moments captured by Basalt photographer Robert J. Ross in his new book, “The Selous in Africa: A Long Way From Anywhere.”

The book and its 400-some images are the product of four years Ross spent traveling through Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve. Africa’s oldest and largest protected wilderness area, it’s larger than Vermont and New Hampshire put together. The lushly illustrated book offers a natural history of the area. It includes essays from area experts and an introduction from Ross, but the story of the Selous mostly plays out in his evocative images of wildlife, birds, plants and insects in the wild — the dogs, giraffes, rare birds, dragonflies, hippos and baboons mostly tell their own tale.

“There are plenty of issues there (in Tanzania),” Ross said. “You can talk about the controversy between hunting and photographic tours; you can talk about uranium mining, dam issues, corruption, poaching. But this was to be a broad natural history about one of the last big wilderness areas in the African continent.”

Little has been published on the Selous other than Peter Matthiessen’s 1981 book “Sand Rivers,” based on the beloved naturalist’s safari there in 1979 and 1980. Among the joys for Ross of working on “The Selous of Africa” was befriending Matthiessen and talking about the wonders of the area with him before Matthiessen’s death last year.

A native New Yorker, Ross currently splits his time between the Roaring Fork Valley and Cape Town, South Africa. He first went to the Selous in 2009 as a photojournalist, aiming to tell the story of a tour conservationist who converted a bloc previously used for hunting into a destination for photographers.

After 10 days, he said, “I realized how amazing it was and that it deserved a much deeper and more substantive look.”

Ross will discuss the project and his photographic African adventures at 5 p.m. today at Explore Booksellers.

Flipping through “The Selous in Africa” with Ross, it’s evident that every photograph in it has a story to tell. The one of the fish eagle plucking the crocodile out of the water, for instance, resulted from one of hundreds of days spent wandering the savanna, when he and a guide spotted the bird picking at something in the distance.

“We figured it was just eating something. We said, ‘Let’s go check it out,’ and all of a sudden it took off with this young crocodile — I had time to get off two or three frames, and I didn’t realize what I had until I got back to camp,” he said.

Once, while Ross was photographing a lioness gnawing on a carcass, two lions from its pride began stalking toward him on either side of him in the brush — signaling his time to leave.

“I don’t know what they would have done, but they were definitely moving toward us and didn’t want us there,” he said.

Having left his Nikon on a camera trap one night outside his tent, it was chewed seemingly beyond repair by a hyena. When he returned to the U.S., he brought the camera to a shop, which took pity on him and rebuilt the whole thing for the regular repair charge.

“They knew I couldn’t make up a story like that,” he said.