A career explaining why the environment is worth protecting: John Yeld was an environment and science journalist at the Cape Argus and Weekend Argus for 30 years before retiring at the end of 2014.
What drew you to journalism? I spent the first five years of my career as a press photographer. I wasn’t initially interested in writing at all, and thought that most reporters were just nosey people who wanted to poke around in the private affairs of others.
What superpower would you like to possess? I’ve really come to appreciate the value of health in recent years, and I’d love to be able to give quality physical health to everyone.
What is your best characteristic and biggest flaw? Modesty (which of course I’ve now immediately negated), and… well, er, can I say it… a lack of confidence?
If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be? The best job in the world has to be that of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) official who travels the world assessing applications for World Heritage Site status under the Unesco convention, so I’d be very happy to give that a go.
What moment do you regard as career defining? In 1994 I was in the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area in the Eastern Cape and the late Dr Ian Player gave one of his typically emotionally stirring talks around a campfire. After that, I remember thinking, ‘Yes, this is worth protecting, and I can spend my life trying to explain this to others’.
What have you learnt the hard way? Not to play fast-and-loose with people’s feelings.
What is the best, and worst, advice you’ve been given? The best was to continue writing as a journalist and avoid the news management career route. The worst was from a school friend who assured me that smoking a cigarette minutes before writing our Grade 10 maths exam would “clear my brain”.
Whom do you admire the most? Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is my moral touchstone. I was lucky enough to cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for nearly four years, and I was able to observe him at close quarters.
What quote best describes how you see the world? ‘You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.’ – Mae West
What is your favourite holiday spot, and why? The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. It’s always the same, yet every visit is always different.
If you had a tattoo, what would it be of? A dolphin. My family thinks this is hilarious for some reason that they refuse to explain to me.
What are you addicted to? That first decent latte every morning – while reading a quality newspaper, of course.
What are you afraid of? That I’ll lack the courage to stand up to injustice, dishonesty and corruption when it really matters.
What do you regret most? Not smacking the policeman who was working in a charge office when I saw him hit some defenceless prisoner.
What cheers you up the most? Running somewhere on Table Mountain with my dog and a few family members and/or trail running buddies as the sun rises over the Hottentots Holland.
What are you going to be doing in your retirement? Some quality writing on a few topics that really interest me – mostly environmental, obviously, but also some broader constitutional issues, like media freedom and the right of access to information. And travelling to as many new places, and some old favourites, as possible.
What is it about environmental journalism that kept you interested for 30 years? There are just so many different stories to be told. Every day there are new discoveries being made, new species being found, thought-provoking new research being published that all need to be unpacked and explained for our readers/listeners/viewers. There are so many people doing inspirational environmental work who need to be acknowledged and celebrated. And, sadly, each day there are also always potential new environmental disasters that the public needs to be alerted to, and idiotic decisions being taken that need to be publicised and challenged.
Journalists move around a lot – why did you stay so long on one paper? Two short but powerful words: Cape Town. And with the only real choice here between the Cape Argus and the Cape Times – separate companies owned them when I started – there was really no choice at all.
What are the top three things on your bucket list and why?
To watch polar bears on the glaciers and ice floes of Svalbard (the Norwegian arctic island); to see the giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and other ‘Darwinian’ species on the Galapagos Islands; and to re-visit South Georgia in the Southern Ocean – the most magnificent place I’ve seen on Earth.
What are your goals? To knock off as many items on my bucket list as possible, and to maintain relationships with family and friends – the most valuable things that I have.
This post was first published in the February 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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