It was mid-1998 when we met young Graham Wallington and Paul Clifford in Johannesburg for the first time. Jurie had long wanted to meet in person to hear more about their novel proposal.

At that time the game-lodge industry was becoming very competitive, with more and more establishments popping up around us. Djuma Game Reserve had not been paying much attention to marketing, or, rather, we had not been spending enough money on that department of our business. The idea of putting up cameras in the bush and every thirty seconds sending out images live on the internet had to have some appeal, even if as nothing more than as a fun experiment in which to take part. At the time Jurie’s hobbies were, among other things, not only photography, but also internet technology.
First impressions of Graham: tall, dark, goatee-bearded face, untucked T-shirt, bare feet. Sort of skate-board dude. Paul, on the other hand, was more corporate looking, not quite outfitted-in-a-suit, but what could be described as smart-casual, which included wearing shoes. Graham was only just managing to make a living doing web design with his wife Sarah. Paul was some sort of systems techno dude, but must have been quite important as he would be called out at all hours of the day to prevent corporations’ computer systems from crashing.
We loved their idea, the first of many that spewed out of Graham’s fertile mind, but we had some very practical problems to overcome before there was any chance of sending images direct out of remote South African bush onto the internet. The idea itself was simple enough: place a regular closed-circuit camera in a tree near a waterhole, close enough to a power supply for cables to be laid underground from our house. A flood-light would also have to be installed for night-time action. The all important corollaries were ‘content’ and ‘instant gratification’. There had to be something on the cams at night that an American audience would want to see: this the guys correctly guessed to be our prime target market. We were deep into winter, so, with the bush dry, the animal activity around the waterhole was good – thus ‘content’ - good too were the chances of seeing something soon after logging on – thus ‘instant gratification’.
Graham and Paul were also determined that the ‘content’ had to be free of charge. Cameras were already being used in a similar way by the internet pornography industry, but always for a fee. Graham also often referred to a “goldfish cam” someone had put up on the internet showing a gold fish endlessly swimming around in a tank. Surely if people were going to that site, there would be enough people interested in seeing wildlife from Africa. A revenue stream from ‘AfriCam’, as their company was to be named, would possibly come into being at a later stage, when there were sufficient visitors or traffic to the site, possibly in the form of banner advertising, or links from AfriCam to other sites that could tap into the expected high-traffic the cameras would provide. We were right at the peak of the ‘dot com’ boom, where traffic to a website was all important. Only traffic could establish the value of an internet company.
First among our practical problems was that Djuma was only just getting onto the ESCOM power grid, with power outages happening every other day or so. Also we needed a floodlight, and that would draw too much power for our current solar panel and generator rig to carry. Another more obvious problem was our archaic phone system. This not only would have to be updated, but we also would need twenty-four-hour 64Kb data line to capture the images and send them out onto the net every thirty seconds.
After a month or so, using every contact imaginable, the boys managed to solve all the problems. In the mean time Paul had registered the domain name of www.africam.com . By the end of August the storeroom at Bush Lodge was looking quite fine and modern, with a new computer and, more noticeable, a new desk that Paul had organised from his company RTTC (Real Time Travel Connections). Paul was essentially bankrolling the process, with Djuma paying for the data line and providing the all-important content. Things were all set to go live by mid-September, and journalists from Reuters and other large news agencies were booked in at Djuma Bush Lodge to cover the story of this fledgling dot com company that was going to rock the world. M-Web was hosting the site from Johannesburg. Right up to the last minute the cam images had been sporadic and the system would topple over a couple of times a day, but, by some good luck, it worked when we needed it to do so.
In the meantime Graham had been monitoring the traffic to the site and measuring it in terms of page impressions. Basically, when one landed at the home page, the first page impression was recorded and then, by clicking through to the cam page, the second page impression was also recorded. Every time the cam image updated another page impression was added. Any other links on the site to which one clicked through were also added as page impressions. After a week or so we were stunned to hear we had just peaked at 400 000 page impressions per day! There were a couple of other attractions on the site as well. There was a message board called “The Boma”, where visitors could post messages or questions they had about animals, the site, or just about anything. One of our jobs was to check in there as often as possible and post replies back under the pseudonym, or nick, of “Ranger”. There was also the ever-popular section called “Highlights”, where one could check out the best pictures captured from the day before. Every day the “Pic of the Day” would also be posted on the home page.
Before long a whole community of regular visitors, some for as long as four hours at a stretch, were coming on line every day, communicating via The Boma or email, sharing stories or pictures. Within another month the message board alone was the largest website in Africa. Then things got out of hand: the traffic to AfriCam brought Telkom to a standstill a couple of times, and M-Web was reporting crashes on their server due to the popularity of the site. In the meantime Graham had been wanting to add another camera, called ‘Mobile Cam’, which would consist of a trailer with battery packs and an antenna on a mast. The theory was that the rig could be driven to a ‘special event’, for example, a kill, and then send images from the bush back to base at Bush Lodge. Larger servers were sought and found, and, as the traffic increased, AfriCam’s popularity grew, and so did the mounting costs. All the time Graham kept coming up with more novel ideas that we just had to put into effect. Frequent among the phrases flying around on a daily basis were “it has never been done before, we have to be the first”.
Just to backtrack a bit, I should point out that, during the time all this was going on, quite a lot of extra work had been added to our already full days at Djuma. I had to care for little Zoë and Rebecca, now a healthy baby with no intention of feeding from a bottle, an expanding business with two camps to administer, and - oh yes - two bull terrier puppies! All the technology was fun to be part of, but there was a lot of personal pressure on us to perform, keep things working, and provide ‘content’ as we were, at that stage the only game reserve represented. If things did not work as expected it reflected badly on us, Jurie and I as Djuma Game Reserve, rather than on Graham or Paul, as individuals. We had never in the past embarked on any project half-heartedly, and there was no way we were going to fail now. Also, Jurie and I lived ten kilometres away at Gowrie, the base was at Bush lodge, and Paul and Graham were in Johannesburg. We called on the Bush Lodge staff at all hours of the day to remedy disasters. Generally, baboons were the culprits. They just loved the camera, maybe because - while they hung over the lens from its housing, having used the cables as a convenient ladder to and from their new-found pastime - their faces were reflected back at them from the glass-front of the weatherproof housing that protected the camera. After a few of such episodes, we tangled barbed wire around the tree trunk that held the cam, and the baboons abandoned their new pastime. We also had elephants knocking over the tree that carried the flood-light, which had to be moved to the “camera’s tree” amongst the barbed wire. Then the elephants unearthed the water pipe which was used to fill the pan. Before we could rebury it hyenas moved in and chomped huge chunks out of it.
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Our African Way