Nomads of the Infinite Plain

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2003-2013: over a period of ten years, Grégoire Bouguereau devoted several months to travelling across Africa’s boundless open spaces. He lived side by side with feline populations in the wild, notably leopards in South Africa – the subject of his first book, Saseka Nyeleti – and cheetahs in Tanzania. Cheetahs are the principal theme of his latest book, Nomads of the Infinite Plain, about to be released at the end of November. The photographer has selected 146 prints from his travels. They are presented in this volume, complemented with text describing both his personal encounters with Africa fauna, and the daily life – alternately peaceful and turbulent – of the big cats and their prey.

Winner of seven awards at the two major wildlife photography competitions between 2010 and 2013

These eloquent and immediate portrayals of life in the wild are the fruit of long weeks of waiting and observation, relating through both image and text moments of rare intimacy as well as extreme tension among the animals. Given his close contact with the cheetahs of the Serengeti plain in northern Tanzania, and as a result of his meticulous record-keeping, Grégoire Bouguereau eventually learned to recognize his new companions from one year to the next, giving each one a name. Thanks to the photographer’s close cohabitation with the animal world his readers, as they discover the book, will begin to share something of this familiarity with the great felines.

6:40 AM. As is often the case, the day begins next to the little grove of prickly trees, and if I turn around I can see the sunrise is imminent. For the time being, the sun is only a nugget against the massive flank of the Lemagurut volcano, but I know that in a moment a flow of molten light will spill from this natural cauldron and down into the plain, flattening the shadows to the ground, setting the first signs of life on the Serengeti in sharp relief.

My eyes are glued to my binoculars, sweeping the infinite plain, and I watch as the actors come onto the stage of this living theatre, about to give, yet again, a unique, never-before-seen performance, the millennial, fascinating play between life and death.

As each destiny moves closer to fulfilment, nothing is ever sure; until the last second hope stays side by side with the improbable, and no sooner are these dramatic moments consummated than their trace has ceased to exist, except in memory.

Elsewhere, huge crowds are gathering, and this morning I will be the sole witness of the varying manifestations of this teeming life. What system was so important, what was so urgent, so imperiously necessary, that mankind could have sold its time and perhaps even its soul, and that this world has now become so foreign to us?

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This book, begun in 2003, is the fruit of a prolonged study of over ten years or more, a mixture of ethology and photography in which Grégoire BOUGUEREAU shares his vision of the world of wildlife, and of cheetahs in particular.

Lionceaux-complices

 

March 2003

In the circle of shadows from an acacia tree, in the middle of the infinite plain, an inclined stump evokes the figure of a cheetah studying the horizon. Here, as in the middle of the ocean, nothing can stop the wind as it sweeps across the plain. The vehicle sways slightly to its repeated assaults. With my hands clenched round the binoculars, I cannot focus clearly on the vague shape in my sights.

It’s already late in the morning, and from this distance—perhaps one or two kilometres—the heat haze is creating ripples that blur the edges of the shape, making its contours uncertain, impossible to identify. Even when I concentrate, I have the illusion that the shape is moving slightly. To be certain, I will have to wait until we have covered five hundred meters or a kilometre or so: there I will be able to continue my observations and perhaps my luck will improve, but in my mind there is already a glimmer of hope.

When we reach our destination, a family of Cheetahs is waiting for me. A mother and three cubs, almost full grown. I will spend two full days with them in a singular combination of space and freedom, two days so intense as to border on intoxication, for the very next day I have the good fortune to find them again by this tree, which seems to be a place where they like to gather. A hundred-year old sentry, witness to the immobility of time, this isolated acacia stands majestically on its own, with its trunk shaped like a Y; its upper branches, three or four meters from the ground, offer the cubs a climbing frame where they can play with incomparable virtuosity.

The cubs’ carefree playfulness is admirable in its simplicity, expressing a freedom which fascinates me all the more in that I recognise it as both familiar and inaccessible. And from this moment, in this place, the adventure will begin.

page illustration Marcello Petineo

28 December 2011

From sunrise to sunset, my days have been spent in the presence of May and her two young males. After several days with me, one of the cubs has become so familiar that from first morning light, between two high speed chases with his brother, he cannot resist inspecting my car. He climbs onto it and it invariably, in what has become a daily ritual, we find each other face to face, less than a meter apart, me standing through the sunroof and him on the roof. We share the natural fascination of one species for another. I like to say calming phrases to him and am amused by his gaze, half-anxious, half-astonished.

 

19 April 2007

This morning I have focused my search on the south, around the track leading to the village of Makao. For almost two hours I’ve been watching the plain through the binoculars. To no avail. Constant repetition becomes monotonous and I’m glad of a tea break in the shade of one of the two magnificent acacia trees that stand on their own in the middle of the plain.

I am walking a few meters from the vehicle, with my cup in my hand, daydreaming… My desire to find a cheetah and the energy I am putting into looking for one must not make me forget my incredible good fortune at finding myself in such a magnificent setting, preserved as it is from human intervention. In the end, what matters most is, perhaps, the approach, rather than the result. 

So I wander around, staring into my cup, lost in thought, when suddenly I look up and freeze. A cheetah is sitting there, not more than fifty meters away! He is staring at me with that mixture of steady attention and fear that animals can have—although they are used to seeing vehicles—when they are surprised to see a human being emerge from one.

When a feline lies in the tall grasses, it can escape your vision altogether. Sometimes it is the behaviour of another animal which betrays the predator’s presence. With experience you can even, quite often, depending on how visibly nervous the herbivore is, guess fairly precisely the level of danger and therefore what sort of predator the prey is confronted with.

page Nomades

16 May 2008

For the last few days I have been meeting Lune and her turbulent litter of six five-month-old cheetahs almost every day. Give or take a few kilometres, she does not vary her location greatly, and it is easy to find her thanks to the frolicking of the cubs in the early morning light.

This morning, after the usual games where the cubs take turns acting predator and prey, Lune seems to have decided to leave the area. She marshals her troops towards the hills blocking the horizon to the West.

In the middle of the plain, an age-old gullying has dug a deep groove in the black earth. For the last few minutes we have been following this sinuous wrinkle over several kilometres from the centre of the plain to a swampy expanse when, in the midst of sorting my equipment inside the vehicle I am surprised by a series of stifled roars, followed by the sound of galloping.

I barely have time to look out of the vehicle to catch a quick glimpse of the frantic flight of two young cheetahs, one to each side of the vehicle. Farther ahead, Lune is staring down two lionesses peering out from the tall grasses!

 

23 April 2013

It’s been a long time since I could tell whether the day was a Sunday, Monday, or Wednesday. If I think about it carefully, the very idea that one must put a name in advance to a day seems preposterous. However, I realise that this entire adventure has taken place in an interlude. The dreaded moment when I must turn the last page is approaching. A few days ago I went back to the tree where I experienced my first sightings… No cheetahs came to meet me, but it was my way of wishing them good luck. Then there was something else. By returning to the same place, I was able to measure how far I have come, and one thing became clear: what one can learn here depends more on what one feels than on what one observes. The meaning of this life goes a lot deeper than the spectacular scenes that compose it would suggest, however great their powers of attraction. One is touched deep within, in one’s fear of death and one’s desire to live. My observations have yielded more questions than answers. There is still so much to discover and understand! I accept the promise of my discoveries and realisations all the more gladly because I know that the cheetahs have preserved their element of mystery, and have left me my share of dreams. 

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