Storytelling is at the heart of everything we do at Ishara, and some of our favourite illustrated books have been featured in our suites since we began. Along the way, we dreamt that one day we would create our own book, and “The Curious Boy Who Followed the Signs” is proof that the universe is always listening.
In July of last year, we began putting our experiences, conversations, ideologies, favourite wildlife characters and the awe and wonder of this place into a story about a boy who embarks on the adventure of a lifetime. From the Egyptian geese that herald each new day to the hippos along the river, the kingfishers perched on branches around camp, the lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, and the Maasai warrior who befriends the boy, this would be a story that was authentically ours, together with many of the questions about life and its meaning that we have contemplated.
We had the framework for the story but finding an illustrator proved far more difficult than we had expected. We searched for months across the world until one day a sign appeared: a Facebook post from a friend about a book written by one of his friends, illustrated by Cape Town-based Martinus van Tee. I immediately fell in love with his work, googled him, and got in touch. He asked for the manuscript, which I did not have, so I told him I would get it to him as soon as I could. My focus turned to completing the book and by November most of it had been done.
“When Altaf first contacted me about illustrating a book, I figured this would be a fun project to work on as I love animals and nature,” Martinus says. “After reading it, I realised that this wasn’t just a story, but a combination of a fable and a memoir for the folks who went on the journey of building and establishing Ishara,” he continues.
There was no way this book would be brought to life without Martinus experiencing the soul of Ishara, so he flew to Kenya in early January to immerse himself in our world; the landscapes, the animals, the people, every detail, every sentiment in this magical paradise. It was the start of a beautiful friendship and an intricate, arduous eight-month creative process.
Martinus and I arrived at Olkiombo airstrip and within minutes were lucky to see a cheetah with a fresh kill. “Even though I have spent most of my life in South Africa, I had never been on safari, so to experience this within the first 30 minutes of landing was astonishing,” he says. “I had never seen a cheetah in the wild before, and witnessing it in its natural habitat rather than on a screen was a very moving experience,” he explains.
“My heart was still pounding from the excitement of seeing the cheetah as I crossed the bridge and walked into camp to a traditional Maasai welcome by the Ishara team,” he reminisces. “And what a welcome! I have never been greeted by a chorus before. I got a bit teary-eyed for a second. This felt like the start of an adventure.”
Martinus could not believe the sheer beauty of the camp and the abundance of wildlife he encountered during his stay. He could hardly look in any direction without spotting an animal. We saw lions, Topi, giraffe, elephants, impala, warthogs, Egyptian geese, crocodiles, hippos, hyenas, jackals, and more. Apart from the fauna, Martinus was entranced by the ever-changing clouds that framed each vista perfectly. He took hundreds of pictures and briskly sketched away in his pad. In his free time, he drew caricatures for staff and guests too and they were delighted.
As the days went by, Martinus began to picture the world depicted in the book in a way where the environment and animals were not distinct but flowed into one another. He decided against illustrating the book digitally and rather opted for watercolour. He felt that its spontaneous and poetic nature and the way the colours flowed into each other would better serve the vision of the animals living and surviving in the Mara, flowing together to create equilibrium within the ecosystem.
On the final day of his stay, we had one mission: to find a leopard. True to its elusive nature, we had yet to spot one. Then the call came over the radio: a leopard had been spotted. We found her; an absolute beauty. Over three days we had checked off all the animals that featured in the story.
Back in Cape Town it was time to get to work. Martinus had a good selection of rough sketches to work from for the animals and landscapes, but the main protagonist had yet to be designed. “My initial designs were very cartoony and the boy was much younger in those early iterations,” he explains. “Altaf wanted a slightly older, tougher character who would fit the spirit of the book. After working together to finesse the finer details, we finally had the design: a boy who was tough, but also had a sensitive inner being. This kid was ready to go on an adventure,” he says with a smile.
Martinus then set out to create the pencil sketches for the entire book: fifty-five spreads in total, far more than we had ever imagined. It took weeks to capture the nuances of each character, each scene, every feeling, and how they would depict the words that would go on each page. Once the sketches were approved, Martinus began to paint.
“The watercolours flowed into each other, blending and creating quirks and anomalies on the page,” he recalls. “In doing so, the paint helped achieve the look that I was attempting: creating a world where the animals, plants, earth, and sky would all be connected through the splashes of the brush. There were quite a few re-draws of images when the colours flowed a bit too chaotically,” he says.
Then, on a sunny afternoon in May, Martinus, Azhar, and I sat to review the actual paintings at a restaurant in Cape Town. It was a teary experience seeing our story, months of hard work, and a vision come to life.
A couple of months of revisions, redraws and graphic design later, the final book was sent to print. It now sits proudly in each suite where international bestselling authors were once placed.
The spirit of the curious boy resides in each of us and it has been truly remarkable to watch our book come alive. We hope that it will inspire all those who read it to follow their dreams.
“Oh warrior, what is success?” the boy asks. “Success is waking up every day smiling,” the warrior answers, “knowing you are following your dream and doing the things that spark a flame in your soul.”
From us all, we say a heartfelt ashe oleng. Your support and belief in us have been instrumental in helping make Ishara a reality and we thank you for being part of this adventure with us.
Photo credits: Eric Averdung, Mary Beth Koeth, Martinus van Tee, Japheth Supeyo