Sketches from Tanzania

By Mingyuk Chen

Nov 14, 2018

At the first camp site in Tanzania, I was so taken by the silhouette of the thorn acacia trees outlined by the setting sun that I found myself sketching them in the dark with just a dim light behind me.

Red thorn acacia sketch

Sketching Again

It was hard to believe that I hadn’t made any travel sketches in over 15 years, since I was still in university. I have visited many places since then, but I rushed from one place to another, never letting myself step back and enjoy the moment. My daily life had been running at the same breakneck pace. I longed for a respite.

The beautiful landscape of Tanzania gave me exactly that. The adult NOLS course I participated in, NOLS Tanzania Wilderness - Adult—two weeks of backpacking through savannah, rainforest and Maasai villages, and visiting different local tribes—invigorated me and awoke a deeper sense of self.

Hadzape huts

Hadzape hunter making a fire and wild sisal sketches

Datoga huts

The joy that I felt from that first sketches sparked a desire to make at least one sketch per day. The achievement came naturally as the incredible fauna and flora inspired me every step of the way. And being in African time—having a relaxed attitude toward time—sure helped.

Faraway umbrella thorn acacia sketch

Lion's ears plant sketch

Close-up of thorn acacia

Aloe secundiflora sketch

As I sketched, I enjoyed the mental and physical process of my ideas circuiting from the eyes, the brain, and to the hands. My ears and nose played a role too, cementing the memory through the different senses.

The sketches recall the crisp smell of sage at the Mount Makarut summit in Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, where I drew the mountain range in the foreground of the Serengeti plain. They replay the sound of the crackling fire at the Maasai village where our Maasai guide and his family butchered a sheep to welcome our visit.

View from Makarut summit

Maasai huts

Sheep roast

As the course progressed, I started to loosen up and let go of some of my own preconceptions of sketching—the notion that I cannot sketch "after the fact" (i.e., from memory); that I cannot sketch when there is too little time or when my subjects are not still; and that my sketches must be complete and close to reality.

My proudest moment was when I completed a sketch of my instructor KG, James Kagambi, inside a moving vehicle on the last day of the trip.

KG riding shotgun

Animals we saw on safari

Lion pair sketch

Hippo swimming sketch

Elephant sketch

Lion after hunting

Safari Jeep sketch

Attempt to draw a zebra at Simba Camp. Just begun drawing of a zebra face.


Most important of all, I accepted that some things or experiences just can't be sketched. Instead, they’ll remain mental images that I tried to etch into my memory.

Memories like the swish of tall grasses obscuring the coursemate leading us through the field; the complete darkness in a smoke-filled Maasai house; an umbrella acacia forest forming the perfect sloping canopy.

Thorn acacia forest sketched from memory

I appreciated how my sketches brought me closer to my fellow coursemates, instructors, and the staff at NOLS. The smiles we exchanged are fond memories of the time we shared together.

In addition, sketching often meant being alone with a single-minded focus, which gave me a tremendous feeling of peace and serenity. I was and still am ecstatic that I rediscovered these feelings and the ability to do so after a decade of hiatus.

Living in the moment was my biggest takeaway from this course and sketching is a means to attain it. I hope that I can build on this momentum and continue to sketch, either while traveling or in my routines.

Olduvai Gorge: The Castle

A roadside hut

Sketch In the garden outside of Kilimanjaro Airport

A thank you note to everyone in the course and my family who made this trip possible. And Michael Green, who told me about NOLS.

See all courses at NOLS East Africa

Written By

Mingyuk Chen

Mingyuk grew up in the concrete jungle of Hong Kong and lived in many large cities in the world. In her mid twenties, she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, her current residence, where she first experienced and was immersed in nature’s power. Mingyuk practices architecture at Michael Green Architecture and is passionate about mass timber design and construction. Her hobbies include swimming, knitting, and Chinese calligraphy.

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