SHAMOKIN - The breathtaking sights and sounds of Africa are ones that Joe Choker will never forget.

The retired Shamokin photographer made six month-long trips to the "Dark Continent" between 1995 and 2004, and is planning a seventh visit in March.

"I've tried to experience Africa in as many ways as possible," Choker said, resulting in trips that have been "exciting, informative and just plain different."

While he achieved what he set out to do - photograph wildlife, including 25 species of animals and 50 species of birds - it is the people of Africa that have created perhaps his best memories.

Of course, he's also had some close calls with animals, and on one hike into the bush, he suffered sunstroke so bad he had to be carried out.

Quickly into the wild

Choker said he never thought about going to Africa until he had a chance conversation at the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show in Harrisburg in 1995.

"I was working as a photographer and walking around the sportsman show when I struck up a conversation with someone marketing African tours," Choker said.

After much thought, he decided to take a month off from business and embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

From his home at the time, Philadelphia, Choker flew to Atlanta and then Johannesburg, South Africa.

Upon his arrival, guides at the game preserve he was staying at wasted no time showing Choker the local environment. They took him to a blind overlooking a waterhole at dusk.

"Within a few minutes, there were these two impala antelope," he said. "That was the first picture I took in Africa."

The next day, Choker and the group visited Kruger National Park, Skukuza, South Africa, where they would camp for a few days on safari. There were no guns on this safari, however; Choker's weapon of choice was his camera, his ammo transparent film.

"Within a few days, I had captured the 'big five' of wild animals," Choker said. "An elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo."

Of course, photographing such subjects comes with its risks.

"One time, an elephant started to charge at us, but stopped about 15 to 20 yards away," he recalled. "Another time, a mother rhino with her baby nearby started walking toward us, but we backed away slowly and got out of her sight before anything happened."

He also recalled the time a female lion made a run at a vehicle he was riding in from about 20 to 30 feet away. The lion did leap toward them, but nothing happened as the driver already had the vehicle in reverse.

"She possibly had cubs there, and we got a little too close," he said.

Sightseeing, too

As much as he loves photographing wildlife, Choker has also come to love Africa as a whole.

He has toured more than 100 wineries, golfed on five championship golf courses, took a hot air balloon ride over the African plains and a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls, and even visited a "sangoma," or healer.

One special memory is having lunch with Queen Thandi Zulu, one of the five wives of King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, ruler of the Zulu nation.

"My guide, Doug Welch, was a personal friend of hers and he arranged for the lunch," he said.

Choker found the queen to be a perfect hostess and one of the most charming people he has ever met. But he had a little bit of culture shock.

"We had lunch in one of the palace's sitting rooms, which was done in red and white leather, very elegant," Choker said. "She showed us some chairs that are strictly reserved for the king."

He was shocked to see servants working from their knees.

"Their custom is that no one is allowed to be above royalty. If they (the queen or king) are sitting down, the servants have to get on their knees below them," Choker said.

After lunch, the queen escorted Welch and Choker on a tour of the other wives' palaces, and the three of them stopped at a small restaurant for a cold drink. There was only staff there at the time, but they were amazed to have a queen in their midst, Choker said.

"It probably made for some interesting conversation over the next few weeks," he said.

Choker has also been interviewed in Middleburg, South Africa, by local radio announcer Juventius, who was familiar with Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but not Shamokin.

"After the interview was over, he gave me the African name of Joman," Choker said.

He also listened in as Juventius translated the interview for listeners, including the answers, into the country's native language.

Feeling at home

Having made visits across the southern part of the continent, including in Zambia and Zimbabwe, Choker has experienced both ends of the cultural spectrum.

"My accommodations ranged from four-star hotels to a two-man tent sleeping on the ground. I've dined on meals cooked over an open fire in the bush to four-star restaurants," he said. "I've showered from a bucket hanging from a tree with heated river water, to being in bathrooms done all in marble with robes and all of the amenities."

He met a chef who created what appeared to be Italian pasta dishes but that were actually ice cream. Also, he visited a village where people are taught to make wallets out of empty Coca-Cola cans.

"People in Africa take so much pride in anything they do, especially the food," Choker said. "Even if someone is serving you a simple cup of coffee, they will put down a place mat."

That helps explain why, for all his great photographs, it's the people who Choker can't forget.

"That is what will stick with me," he said. "When you go down there, you are not a stranger, and every one makes you feel at home."