THE dugout canoe drifted gently along a stretch of the immense Okavanga Delta, one of Africa’s cherished natural wonders and a haven for some of the most precious wildlife on Earth.
Botswana unravelled its spectacular glory all around, and wildlife artist Carol Barrett, her sketchpad by her side, was ready to capture nature in its most raw and unspoilt state.
It was calm and peaceful. Straight ahead, though, a brute force of nature was on the verge of unleashing all of its terror.
“My guide didn’t say a word,” recalls Carol. “I knew something was wrong because we were going in one direction and then suddenly had to go in another. He was pulling very quickly towards an island and when we reached it he just said, ‘Get out and get up that tree’.”
The confused grandmother of two scrambled from the canoe, dashed onto land and, with an agility that many people years younger might struggle to achieve, pulled herself higher. From her vantage point, it suddenly became clear just what was going on.
“There were three wild buffalo coming up the channel we’d been travelling on but in the opposite direction to us.
“It would have been a head-on collision.”
Buffalo, with their huge curved horns and enormous 2000lb bulk are unpredictable and highly dangerous. Nicknamed “the black death” or “widowmaker”, they are among Africa’s “big five” killers alongside lions, leopards, rhino and elephants. Every year they gore and kill more than 200 people.
Wounded and scared buffaloes are particularly terrifying, with a tendency to launch into fierce attack. Without her guide’s quick reactions, who knows what might have happened?
“But these kinds of incidents are incredibly rare,” insists Carol, wife of former Edinburgh West Lib Dem MP John Barrett. “Most of the time nothing like this happens. The guides are very good at keeping visitors safe and making sure the animals don’t get hurt.”
Armed with her sketchpad, pencils, paints and years of expertise in capturing the raw beauty of Africa’s wildlife, Carol has been a regular visitor to Africa’s plains, reserves and untarnished wildernesses for nearly 25 years.
Initially lured there by a yearning to capture in artist’s colours its array of beautiful and unique wildlife, she quickly found herself hooked by the continent’s dramatic scenery, vibrant culture, ever-changing light and even its array of smells. “I became totally fascinated by Africa,” she admits. “You never stop learning when you are there, there’s always something new.”
The striking results of her two last visits have now been gathered for her third solo exhibition. Titled Under an African Sky, it brings together 80 of her most stunning paintings and drawings captured during her recent visits to the Chobe National park in Botswana and Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park in Tanzania.
Among the works, which will go on show from next Saturday at Waterston House, the headquarters of the Scottish Ornithologists Club in Aberlady, are beautifully detailed paintings of languishing cheetahs, herds of wild elephants and flocks of beautifully coloured birds.
Carol, who is approaching her 60th birthday, admits bringing together two years of work into a single exhibition is more nerve-wracking than any African adventure – particularly as at the heart of it is a bid to both raise awareness and funds for vital conservation work.
“African wildlife fascinates me and I have been very lucky to have various opportunities to go back there on a regular basis to see the animals in the wild – it’s completely different to see them in their natural environment than it is seeing them at a zoo,” says Carol, a former artist in residence at Edinburgh Zoo.
“You are then aware of the problems they are having. It’s very tough in the wild and some animals are very threatened. Even something like a lion which you think of as being quite common, in the last ten years 90 per cent of the population has gone.”
One haunting memory from a recent trip is of stumbling across the lifeless body of a baby elephant, perhaps orphaned when ivory poachers slaughtered its mother, leaving the infant unable to survive alone.
“There has been a definite increase in poaching – you can see that from the number of orphaned baby elephants that are around,” says former St George’s girl Carol, who works from Dovecot Studio near her Corstorphine home. “Part of why I do this is to engage the public and make them realise just how wonderful these animals are. It’s about showing their beauty.”
Her links with African wildlife go well beyond her art: she is a long-term supporter of various conservation groups, including the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which receives 20 per cent of the proceeds from her cheetah paintings. She also has a long-term commitment to supporting the David Shepherd Wildlife fund and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, organisations which fight to raise awareness of endangered African and Asian animals.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” she insists. “Nature has the ability to come back from the brink as long as their numbers aren’t allowed to go down too far.”
She points out that the Cheetah Conservation Fund is working with African farmers to encourage them to use Anatolian Shepherd dogs to help protect goat herds from attack – just their bark is enough to chase a cheetah, helping change attitudes to the risk they pose. And the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust works to raise orphaned baby elephants.
“I’m a grandmother and I want to inspire young people to make a better job of things than we have,” she adds.
“You can’t give up hope. And I’m not prepared to sit back and watch it all happen.”
• Under An African Sky runs at Waterston House, the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, Aberlady from Saturday, February 22 until April 2 April.
Putting cheetahs in the frame
ARTIST Carol Barrett left Edinburgh College of Art in 1976, a graduate in drawing and painting.
She began her artistic career working on commissions, painting family pets and producing work for Northern Wildlife Artists exhibitions and the Hanover Fine Art Society in Edinburgh. As her name became known, she was hired as artist in residence at Edinburgh Zoo in 1994 – a five-minute walk from her home in Corstorphine.
The Zoological Society took her on her first two-week trip to Africa in 1990. Since then, she has returned to Africa regularly to study and sketch wildlife in its natural habitat. In 2006, she was invited to The Cheetah Conservation Fund’s HQ in Namibia and she went on to be its artist in residence.
“Cheetahs have been very seriously affected by hunting,” she says. “These are very charismatic animals. Even ones that have been looked after and hand raised are never tame.”
In 2009, she was short-listed by the BBC Wildlife Magazine’s art competition and in 2011 by the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s wildlife artist of the year exhibition.
In 2012, two of her watercolours were selected for The Wildlife Artist of the Year Exhibition in London.