A Real Life ‘Out of Africa’
By Melanie Saxton
Houstonian Andy Biggs shoots wildlife with his camera and shares his passion for Africa
Imagine visiting the remote parts of Africa and getting within feet of wild lions and elephants. For some, such an experience occurs only in their dreams. But Andy Biggs has found a way to turn his love of Africa into a career. While maintaining a home base in the Memorial area, he travels several months out of the year to locations such as Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania.
“My work is done in the African bush. This is my 10th year in the field, and when I mention a ‘safari’ people automatically think of a hunting expedition,” says Biggs. In reality, his hunts are a far cry from a blood sport.“Yes, we shoot wildlife, but only with high resolution cameras on nature-based photographic safaris. “
Originally a public accountant who segued into the software world, Biggs graduated from Texas Tech without taking a single photography course. “I never picked up a camera until 2000. Two years later I was a professional full-time photographer thanks to my mentor, National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell. He showed me the ropes and the rest I accomplished through self-study,” says Biggs. For the better part of his life, he had an amazing untapped gift and never knew it. “Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says, still excited after a decade of working halfway across the globe.
Biggs, raised in Tanglewood, attended Lee High School. His wife Leslie, also a lifelong Houstonian, attended Memorial High. After college and marriage the two set off for California but quickly decided there’s no place like home. While in transition, they embarked on an amazing month-long vacation to Tanzania. “We just decided to take off and had no car payments, dogs or kids to hold us down. The experience was life-changing, and that’s when I decided to apply some simple business principles to a creative field,” says Biggs.
All the stars aligned, and soon he found himself arranging photographic safaris for baby boomers who have yearned their whole lives for a trip to Africa. “It’s an all-encompassing soup-to- nuts occupation,” he says. “I’m now the African safari guy and team up with various agencies depending on which safari location is chosen.” Groups take a plane to Africa, then private planes to camps and lodges. “I get everyone prepared, run the safari, teach the finer points of shooting wildlife and scenery, find the animals in their natural environments, and when we get back I help people with their photography. Most are novices and come out of the experience better photographers and much more appreciative of the African continent.”
When people think of Africa, they often imagine blazing heat and a scorched earth. “In fact, Africa is amazing weather-wise. We see the low 60s at night and the upper 80s during the day. I just got back from Botswana, where a typical day is 45 – 75 degrees,” says Biggs. He believes no other place on earth has such diversity of wild mammals and birds. “It’s pretty amazing. The only comparison I can make is to Alaska, but there people tend to photograph one big species — bears. In Africa, we get up close to hyenas, giraffes, elephants, hippos, zebra, cape buffalo, birds and the three big cats — lions, cheetahs and leopards. It’s on so many people’s ‘bucket list’ to live the ‘Out of Africa’ experience, not using a gun but to basically see a eco-system that can’t be fully described in words,” says Biggs. “And when they tackle the journey, they too are changed.”
Now a father to two little boys, Biggs travels without Leslie. “We are thoroughly entrenched in Houston where both our families live. It’s home. But eventually we’ll figure out a way to take our sons with us. They’ll need to be a little older, because people on safari have to sit tight in silence for game drives. Native animals come literally within feet of our Land Rovers, and these vehicles are not the kind we drive in the states with heated seats and GPS. In fact, they are fairly basic. I don’t know about other kids, but our 3- and 5-year-olds (Will and Christian) would not be able to quietly, without wiggling, handle the excitement of seeing wild animals at such a close range,” says Biggs. In fact, safety is important and generally no child under the age of seven is allowed to participate.
Thankfully, Biggs has never had a brush with danger. “Frankly, I feel safer on safari than I do in New York City. We are extremely sensitive to the environment and avoid animals that appear to be stressed. It’s so important to respect their territory and appreciate that we are visitors and they are the native species.”
As long as adventurous types seek to fulfill their dreams, Biggs will fly in and out of Africa. When asked why some people are such big fans of this over any other style of vacation, his answer is simple. “It’s a win/win. Much of the money we spend goes toward conserving the wild places and it puts people in touch with nature. Photographing Africa is the rawest experience available on earth. Although I proposed to Leslie in Paris, the thought of flying to France for a week just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Now I’ve found Africa, or Africa has found me, and there is no better place for the trip of a lifetime.”