Their photography has been widely published in an impressive list of big name media including Africa Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, GEO, BBC Wildlife, Smithsonian Nature’s Best Photography, CNN, Wild Travel and the United Nations Environmental Programme culminating in the publication of a beautiful coffee table book during lockdown.
Jay was 17 when a mutual friend introduced her to Jan. "He was just back from an 18-month adventure around the world and he was gorgeous! Long hair and a tan. I fell head over heels in love." They’ve been together since. As a young couple, every spare cent and all their free time went into travelling. "Way before we took our first aerial photo, we’d been to 60 countries from Antarctica to Vietnam. We have an insatiable appetite for exploring."
In the years that followed, Jan qualified as a pilot and they invested in a small plane. Armed with a set of wings and Jay’s photographic skills, they surrendered to wanderlust and set out on an epic journey to photograph Africa from the air that saw them airborne 70% of their days. Now entering their forties, the couple continues to clock up thousands of nautical miles in their trusty Jabiru 430, a sturdy Australian workhorse with a reputation for being feisty, tough and economical to run.
"The Jabi has taken us on an exceptional journey across this indescribable planet. We’d travelled a lot before, but our true passion only began when we flew off into the deep blue African sky. Nothing we did previously compares to the vast space and perspective from above that you get from flying." There've been some scrapes, most often related to difficulties in tracking down Avgas in remote places. In 2017 they made an emergency landing on an atoll in the Quirimbas Archipelago. It's a collection of 32 islands, many of them uninhabited, dotted along the Swahili coast between Tanzania and Mozambique."It was meant to be a quick hop because we were actually on holiday in Pemba. I was carrying nothing but my camera and wearing nothing but a bikini. Luckily the radio worked so we could call for help."
Jan is well-equipped to take care of mishaps and not much fazes Jay who has a touch of the wild-child in her makeup. "I’d far rather be sloshing around in the Okavango looking for frogs than be in some shopping mall." She's no academic slouch either as evidenced by her Honors degree in Environmental Management. "When I was a girl all I wanted to do was be a game ranger. I was hugely into botany. I slept with Palgrave’s Trees of Southern Africa next to my bed."
As a Chartered Accountant and a pilot, Jan has been at the fore of their entrepreneurial ventures. In the last decade, they’ve run their aerial photography business alongside a crazily successful chain of boutique teashops, which were originally inspired by their travels in the Far East. Over time, they felt their corporate goals had begun to override their original dream and trapped them in an urban lifestyle antithetical to their deepest purpose.
2020’s vicissitudes underlined what matters most to them. Jay’s mother passed away not long after her father died, followed by unexpected Covid lockdowns that separated them for six months. "I was shooting in Namibia when lockdown hit. Luckily I was in Swakopmund where we have good friends. It’s a fantastic little community and that was my saving grace. In some ways it was a really special time because as locals we had the desert to ourselves with no tourism. One time I flew to Sossusvlei with friends and we were the only people. Ordinarily that never happens. What a privilege." Once reunited with Jan and their seven dogs ("some of them belonged to my parents so they’re adoptees") the couple set about taking back their life.
"We’re planning to get out of the city. We’ve found a piece of land in a conservancy in the Okavango Delta. We want to open a lodge and will focus on our photographic workshops and aerial safaris. Aerial photography allows us to truly grasp the beauty and magnitude of the landscape. It reveals how crucial habitats are. They support all the earth's interwoven systems of life. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on saving individual species instead of the wild habitats that support them. Every species depends on this biodiversity, including ours."
The beauty of landscapes is revealed from the air. Tragically it shows the immense damage happening in remote, unmonitored regions. The mass deforestation of Africa's indigenous forests is one example and it's horribly evident in aerial shots. "300-year-old trees are being chopped down at an incredible rate to make way for rice paddies. The timber gets shipped to the Far East to make the most arbitrary things like pool decking, furniture or handles for back scrubbers. I wish everyone could really appreciate how incredibly beautiful and unique Southern Africa is. We want our photographs to inspire people to love and conserve this jewel of a planet."
Photos: Jay Roode, www.aerial-africa.com.