Where vultures dare

Cape vulture landing, Drakensberg
Endangered Cape vultures were the stars on day one of our hide session

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…  We’re bouncing along the top of a dry, grassy plateau in the Maluti Drakensberg in South Africa’s KZN province. It’s day three of our triple session in the famous vulture hide at Giant’s Castle in the Central Drakensberg and the large, sunny yellow bucket of bones we’re bringing up to these dizzy heights are rumbling deeply in the far corners of our 4×4. The far corners bit is important as the smell’s pretty stomach churning…

This has been the pattern for the last three mornings; set the alarm for just before dawn, grab a cuppa, and then swing by reception at the rest camp to pick up the bone bucket. As the sun creeps over the mountain tops we make the slow, winding climb to the hide; ogling the wraparound views of rust-coloured massif and the recession of rugged horizons stacked just like the shaded paper cut-outs you made in art class as a kid.

Giant's Castle vulture hide
Our cliff top perch for three days – the long-established ‘Lammergeyer Hide’ at Giant’s Castle

Hide photography is rather in vogue at the moment, but this cliff-top eyrie, its camera ports opening onto a magnificent berg vista, is a real old stager, yet it still holds its own against the shiny up-comers. The hide, in this precarious, jaw-dropping location, dates back to 1977, although there was a ‘Lammergeyer Hide’ in the mountains here some 10 years earlier (it had to be relocated as there wasn’t a handy cliff edge for the vultures to take off from).

The one we’re now hunkering into with cameras poised has been refurbed a couple of times in the years we’ve been visiting. It’s been around 10 years since we last dropped by. Things have been spruced up a little in the meanwhile. These days the rest camp kitchen will provide you with a packed breakfast if you’re staying over and have to forego the restaurant’s hot buffet to be in the hide at sun up. There’s even a loo up here now, but the place feels and looks pretty much as always – one of the world’s top spots to eyeball and photograph endangered bearded vultures and endemic Cape vultures cruising at altitude along regular flight paths and at wingtip level.

Bearded vulture on the wing
Bearded vultures riding the thermals topped the bill on the second day of our hide sessions

Sensational flight shots of these beautiful birds riding the thermals against the distant mountain backdrop are one thing, but the pulling power of this location is the chance to capture dynamic shots of the birds coming in to land with their wings and landing gear at full stretch. The hide is positioned perfectly for warm morning light and suits 100-400mm zooms for both landings on the cliff edge and anything that flies. A 500mm is also very useful for more distant flight shots and shots of the smaller stuff that will show up. The thrill never wanes as you marvel all over again at the power and grace of these birds, their aerobatic prowess and that hypnotic sound of their low whooshing wing beats as they almost brush past the end of our lenses.

Cape vulture landing
The Drakensberg mountains provide a fitting backdrop for the raptor landings

There is much frustration of course. Shadows of raptors soaring way above range tease us frequently; bearded vultures fly past repeatedly down below us, tantalisingly out of reach; the red winged starlings, snacking on the bone feast, fly off suddenly, suggesting something good’s coming in to land, but more often than not it turns out to be a white-necked raven. The aerial acrobats of which at least keep us amused when things go quiet.

But the highlights are plentiful too. On our first session the Cape vultures are stars. We have them flying over in number, in squadrons, and certainly get the chance to practise our ‘landing techniques’. They look amazing as they come down – all sharp beaks and talons. In all our previous visits we’ve never notched up a bearded vulture landing so we’re keen to get it right if they do. But all our beardies on the first day are cruise-bys.

On day two the beardies headline. We have adults and juveniles flying back and forth most of the morning – many really close to the hide. One of the juveniles has a bone clutched in his claws. But still no landings. We do get a jackal buzzard coming down to feed briefly, which is a highlight and one of the shots of the morning. When he takes off again he’s flying straight towards us. He’s so in our faces we only manage one sharp shot of him departing between us.

Jackal buzzard landing
A jackal buzzard landing briefly out of nowhere on day two required sharp reflexes

It’s now day three and its been a slow start. The usual suspects, the ravens and starlings, hog the dinner table as before. At one point a flock of bald ibis flies over, but we’re both too slow to catch focus and have to make do with the consolation that this is still a nice sighting. The occasional vulture cruises around and as yesterday we get several good eyeball to eyeball close views, and shots of them on the wing. A single Cape vulture lands, but the bearded vulture landing pictures we dream of are still just pie in the sky…for this trip at least.

It’s been great rediscovering this photographic ‘high point’ after such a long absence. That somebody had the vision to build a hide in such a difficult and lofty location as this in the first place, and the fact public access has been safeguarded and improved over the years, is a special treat for nature tourists from around the globe. But the bird-watchers and snappers who regularly book the place out are really just a small part of this hide’s story. The place really exists to help conserve two vulture species that continue to face the prospect of extinction from a growing range of threats, including poisoning (farmers and poachers), electrocution (power lines), and the practice of traditional medicine.

White-necked ravens in flight
White-necked ravens entertained us well with their constant aerobatic displays

This Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife-run hide provides a vital supplementary feeding site (vulture restaurant) that augments today’s dwindling food availability for these important scavengers. Carcases and pieces of bone, free from harmful veterinary drugs and agro chemicals, are put out regularly – mostly by hopeful photographers like ourselves in search of the perfect action shot. The bearded vulture (this remote and isolated population in the Maluti Drakensberg consists of around only 300 to 350 birds) eats bones almost exclusively. They break the bones by dropping them from high up and they can swallow pieces more than 20 cm long. They also require meat during the winter breeding season to feed their chicks. The extra scraps of fat and fragments of bone help boost the survival rate of young vultures in their first year after leaving the nest.

Placing bones at Giangt's Castle vulture restaurant
Each session begins with Steve putting the bones out on the precarious cliff ledge

So in paying your dues to come here and enjoy the world-class photo opportunities available, and by collecting your yellow bucket of smelly bones excitedly each morning, you’re doing your little bit for vulture conservation. These beleaguered birds need all the help they can get right now and so much of what we cherish in the wild depends on the sterling clean up operation these undertake.

We reckon that’s surely worth taking into consideration in the current debate that’s raging over baiting for photography? We’d certainly argue that as far as this awesome, and vulture-supporting, photographic hide goes the discussion’s definitely not as black and white as you might think…

Our blog gets its stripes in African media awards

It was a big fillip for our Beat about the Bush blog recently when our post from last year, the Marmite Moments of a Photography Couple,  reached a shortlist of three nominated for best blogger/vlogger on Africa in the first media awards hosted by the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) in London.

The annual ATTA Media Awards have been set up to celebrate the best travel, conservation and tourism journalism on Africa – so you can imagine just how chuffed we both were to get nominated.

We couldn’t attend the awards bash in London earlier in the summer as we were – you’ve guessed it – away in the African bush.  But we’re determined the good news will kickstart us into posting here a bit more now. Unfortunately we’ve been a bit quiet in the last few months, partly due to being busy building up the new photographic safari side of our business…

But hey, now we’ve got a blogging reputation to keep up!

Meet the meerkat mob that stole the show

Playful young suricates get into mischief at the den one evening

It’s just before sunrise and we’re squatting uncomfortably in a clump of bushes in a quiet corner of our Kalahari restcamp.  We’re keeping quiet.  For two reasons. First up, our subjects are still snoozing, although we’re not too concerned about disturbing their slumbers (they’ll be up like clockwork with the sun in a few minutes). But more importantly we don’t want to draw anyone else’s attention to what we’re doing…

It’s not that we don’t like sharing, and we’re not usually this clandestine about subjects (we even took a detour and sneaked round the long way this morning in case anyone spotted where we were headed). With subjects this obliging we are unusually keen to keep this one to ourselves.

Keep schtum! We really need to keep this quiet – hence the secrecy

We stumbled upon the spot a couple of days ago, almost by accident, and we have spent a few wonderful mornings (and sun-downs) with the ever-popular species that occasionally has sleep-overs here. We worry if we draw a crowd the group could be disturbed and might not choose to sleep in camp with us again.

What are we up to?  We’re door-stepping meerkats.  We certainly feel like paparazzi skulking about secretively with our cameras and lying in wait for the money shot.

It’s a golden opportunity to observe these busy creatures intimately at low level

But the chance to photograph a family of suricates – fascinating, characterful, charming, comical and anthropomorphic as they are – out of our vehicle, up close, at ground level, interacting and behaving totally unselfconsciously (and with the prospect we might even be able to use a wide-angle lens if we take things slow and don’t push it) is not one to let go.

It’s summer here, when suricates breed, and we’ve been lucky to see a couple of photogenic ‘clans’ with young – including some really tiny babies ( more of them to come in a later post…)

The last time we had the chance to photograph meerkat families socialising as intimately as this, we were photographing at the real life ‘Meerkat Manor’ from the TV, at the home of the long-running Kalahari Meerkat Project, for a magazine feature. It’s not a place that grants access to photographers lightly so a meerkat den in a secret corner of our camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park a few weeks ago, with habituated residents, was going to make missing the odd the big cat sighting on morning and evening game drives for a day or two more than worthwhile.

Last out’s a sissy. Checking the coast is clear a single merrkat pops up to say hello

Just as cramp is setting in our lower limbs we see the first signs that our photo session is about to begin. A sleepy, long-snout noses out of the sandy hole followed by a skinny body. The early riser clocks that we’re here, but isn’t fazed by us.  This clan is used to people with cameras. This is because they’ve been spending the odd day here or there foraging on the campsite to the delight of tourists.

It was an amazing experience to watch them socialise right in front of our camera lenses
One meerkat would act as sentinel climbing a bush to check the coast was clear

Having spent a few days with them now we marvel at their ability to be in plain sight one minute on the campsite, then ‘puff’ they’re gone from right under everyone’s noses the next.  Nobody seems to notice them taking a cautious, sometimes circuitous, route home to the far reaches of the restcamp, picking their moments before clumping up in a tight, secure group when they need to cross an open bit of ground… followed discreetly a minute or two later by two self-conscious, stupid-looking photographers, trying hopelessly to look nonchalant…and invisible.

Emerging into the spotlight as soon as the sun is up – the morning meerkat show begins

Meerkat number one is now completely out of the hole and scoping around to check the coast is clear. The gang don’t always see eye to eye with their closest neighbours, a family of yellow mongoose, who get out of bed around the same time, but they’re nowhere to be seen this morning.  Like peas being shelled from a pod, the rest of the clan – all 14 – pop out of the hole in quite quick succession. It’s a treat to watch. They seem to ignore us completely and while a sentry climbs a nearby bush to keep watch, the morning rituals of getting up ‘meerkat-style’ begin.

Characterful and comical their antics keep us busy until they head off to forage
The pregnant alpha female and a youngster bask in the sun

On hot summer mornings like this these suricates won’t hang around long sunbathing so we need to shoot quickly and efficiently – without getting in their, or each other’s way.  We start framing shots of tight huddles of adults, and young interacting close to the burrow, using our 100 to 400mm zoom lenses so we can easily make a variety of compositions without moving position and disturbing them.  Gradually the huddles break up and we divide our attention between digging adults and playfighting juniors, clicking away hungrily before inching slowly towards one of the more confiding groups with a short lens.  This allows for a more dynamic perspective and one we certainly couldn’t get beyond the confines of camp where we’re confined to working from our vehicle.

When the time is right we inch closer with a wide angle lens – but don’t like to intrude

It feels intrusive, however, with a camera right in their faces, and given we’ve had such close access to them already, we quickly grab a shot or two and retreat to a respectful distance.

Scampering off for the day past the resident ground squirrels in camp

Before long they’re off and away, as on the other mornings, the gang fanning out as they forage – all the while chattering reassuringly to keep contact with one another as they frantically dig and search around with noses down.

It’s only when the den site is quiet and empty once again that we notice just how painful it’s been working hunched up on the uneven ground, sprawled in and around the prickly bushes and network of old ground squirrel burrows.  But that doesn’t matter. It’s not every day you get to wish ‘good morning’ to a bunch of meerkats; going eyeball to eyeball with the whole gang as they emerge from a secret hideaway that nobody else knows exists.

Improve your eye for photography in 2017

We’ve added a new, one-off photographic workshop to our list of events for 2017.  Often there just isn’t the time on our routine photo days to provide all the detailed help and guidance people would like  (everyone’s busy photographing) so we’ve  decided to run a special ‘Shoot Like  a Pro’ masterclass at the start of the spring – just as the days lengthen and the wildlife action starts to hot up – to share our top tips and the lessons we’ve learned about everything that goes into capturing and creating top wildlife and nature photographs.

Whether you’re a skilled photographer looking to develop your creative eye or refresh techniques or a beginner looking to pick up new tips, we’ve got it covered. We’ll include professional tips, advice on selling  images and lots of practical, simple suggestions to  help you capture winning wildlife images and take your work to the next level. Or perhaps you’d simply like to pick our brains about equipment or post processing?  Our varied, accessible and lively programme should have something for everyone and is designed to get you tuned-up up and ready for the 2017 ‘shooting season”.

Our masterclass takes places on April 1 ( yes that’s right and it’s not a joke!). The venue is the famous Rheged convention centre in the Lake District – one of Cumbria’s top tourist attractions – which is conveniently located close to the M6 motorway for ease of access and has interesting photo exhibitions you can browse in the breaks between our sessions.

There’ll be lots of opportunity to learn more about wildlife photography in an informal and friendly setting plus the chance on the day to win a place on our popular raptor photography workshops in 2018.

Topics to be covered include:

  • Where’s the picture? – discovering great compositions in nature
  • The art (and design) of wildlife photography
  • Creative control
  • Top techniques for wildlife
  • Cleaner, sharper shot-making
  • Better backgrounds
  • Working the light – from bad to brilliant
  • Capturing action and behaviour
  • Developing projects
  • An original take – new subjects and approaches
  • Successful editing, post processing and curating
  • Shooting to sell

Our one-day ‘Shoot Like A Pro’ workshop costs just £75 per person, including lunch and all refreshments through the day.  Spaces are limited to 24.  To find out more visit the workshops page of our website. To secure your place contact us on sandatoon@aol.com or book direct via Eventbrite.

Best boltholes – Five more South African hideaways

‘Every now and then you find a special place to stay you want to tell everyone else about, yet keep to yourself at the same time’. That’s from a blog we posted back in December 2013 when we unveiled five of our favourite southern African escapes – the ‘’we could tell you, but then we’d have to kill you’’ hideaways that have got getting-away-from-it-all just right’ (Five Favourite African Hideaways).

Paternoster beach, Paternoster, Western Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Life’s a beach: Paternoster, South Africa

With wind-driven rain lashing our windows here in the wilds of the Northumberland National Park for most of the festive season, and while we’re counting down to the start of our next African wildlife photographic adventure, here are a few more of our favourite places to visit after a heavy photographic session to whet your appetite  for travel and escape at the start of 2017…

Klein Gelukkie

Seaside pearl

Klein Gelukkie self-catering cottage, Paternoster, Western Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Enter the shady garden of Klein Gelukkie self-catering cottage, Paternoster

We do like to be beside the seaside…especially after several weeks eating dust in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park with eyes glued to our viewfinders every day, bodies parched by searing summer temperatures and pre-dawn wake-ups every single day.  It’s easy to burn-out after a long stint in this remote wilderness reserve so we like to recharge all our batteries for a few days before flying home when we can. Recently we stayed at Klein Gelukkie – a lovingly hand-crafted and cleverly-designed self-catering coastal cottage in Paternoster in the Western Cape that we’d stumbled across online.

Klein Gelukkie self-catering cottage, Paternoster, Western Cape, South Africa, September 2015
A thoughtfully added awning provides a shady lunch spot

What a pearl. Maybe it’s just us, but what we loved about this cottage is that it’s not right on the beach. With its own coastal garden, set behind the village, it’s way more tranquil than all the beach-front ‘posers’, yet has just as much seaside chic.  We really made use of all its quiet corners and beckoning seats, both outdoors and in, to snooze away the afternoons after walks on the shore or a lazy seafood lunch.

Paternoster is a polished pebble these days compared to our first visit when it was still a sleepy fishing village. Now a trendy escape it’s thankfully managed to keep a good deal of its original sea-bleached charm intact.  So you won’t be surprised to find we’re headed back there in two months!

Oudrif

Hobbit home-from-home 

Straw bale eco-hut, Oudrif, Cederberg mountains, Western Cape, South Africa, August 2015
Charming straw bale eco-huts at Oudrif with great views

Down the long-winding, dusty, dirt roads of the Cedarberg in South Africa’s Western Cape province, and then some, Oudrif eco-lodge is a hideaway in every sense of the word.  But don’t let the ‘off-tar’ journey, or that little word ‘eco’ put you off. The place does off-grid with playful style and quite a bit of comfort. We stayed in one of the five perky, straw-bale Hobbit houses tucked in by the Doring River complete with shady stoep (verandah) and huge picture windows so you can enjoy the view whatever the weather.

Spring wild flowers, Oudrif farm, Cederberg, Western Cape, South Africa, August 2015
Spring wild flowers on the doorstep at Oudrif farm in the Cederberg

We visited in the spring flower season and had stunning blooms right up to the doorstep. The amazing home-made bread, cooked over coals, and the rainbow of scrummy and imaginative salad sides dishes prepared by Bill and Jeanine, who created this welcoming haven, are reason alone to return some day for a second helping. Other highlights were the couple’s dogs, who adopted us during our stay, and the chance to pick up, and marvel at Stone Age tools littering a nearby rocky overhang where Jeanine pointed out ancient San paintings, and where a pair of barn owls just happened to be quietly nesting above our heads.

San rock art, Cederberg mountains, Western Cape, South Africa, August 2015
Getting down with the Stone Age folk in the Cederberg mountains close to Oudrif

Concierge Boutique Bungalows (& Freedom Café)

Café in a ‘can’ with rooms

Freedom cafe at Concierge Boutique Bungalows, sign for recption, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, October 2016
The direction to go when in Durban – the Concierge Boutique Bungalows’ cool city bolthole

This one’s a bit of an odd one out being in the middle of a city. But this ‘urban-Durban’ escape qualifies in our book because the welcoming, leafy courtyard café at its heart instantly transports you away from the hubbub. Being embraced all around by the hotel’s surrounding suite of heritage-listed bungalows, whose 1920s façades hide a series of funky, modern ‘boutique’ rooms with lavish tropical rain showers, really makes it feel hidden away.

Freedom cafe at Concierge Boutique Bungalows, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, October 2016
The containers of the Freedom Cafe are a joyful design and the food’s pretty interesting too
Freedom cafe at Concierge Boutique Bungalows, detail of table setting with craft beer bottle, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, October 2016
Freedom Cafe craft beer to cool down after city sight-seeing

In juxtaposition to the cool white walls of Durban-past, two shipping containers, bright brick red and black, have been rakishly cut together to create the Freedom Café right at the hotel’s hub. Its tempting, and innovative, breakfast and lunch menus are a real draw and we loved the quirky and comical ‘pop art’ sausage dog benches.

It’s even won an architectural award. The laid-back vibe here is catching and it’s hard not to relax even if we’re only popping in for a night en route to Zimanga private game reserve, just up the road in Mkuze, where we now host guests on our new photographic safaris.

Tankwa Karoo Guesthouse

Surreal desert fort

Tankwa Karoo national park, rusty steam engine and ox wagon, Western Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Rusty steam engine, ox wagon and endless skies – outside the Tankwa Karoo guesthouse

Outback South Africa just doesn’t get quirkier than here in the Tankwa Karoo National Park with its remote arid location and alien, dust-blown landscapes. Slow and low-key, the rich arid eco-system here seems to be gradually wrapping itself round abandoned farmsteads and rusting agricultural machinery. This is soul food for lovers of complete tranquillity and seemingly barren, endless vistas. No-one will find you on this remote border between Northern and Western Cape.

Inside the bar at the quirky Karoo roadhouse farm stall, the Tankwa Padstal, Northern Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Inside the bar at the Tankwa Padstal, the quirky Karoo roadhouse farm stall

There’s a great range of appealing accommodation to choose from spanning the brilliantly-designed Elandsberg Cottages in the wilderness camp to the restored farm cottages that come complete with modern comforts and antique furniture on the reserve.

Abandoned farmstead, Tanqua Karoo national park, South Africa, February 2012
The plains of the Tankwa Karoo national Park are dotted with photogenic old farmsteads

Perhaps the most unusual is the guesthouse complex, rising brutally out of the bare surrounds like a forbidding desert fortress. Don’t let that put you off because the place is very comfy inside, has bags of atmosphere and a very interesting back story. If you go, and you should, stop en route at the brilliant Tankwa Padstal ‘roadhouse’ farm stall cafe and bar. It’s cinematically weird and wonderful.

Die Tuishuis

Charming hicktown timewarp

Die Tuishuise renovated cottages, Cradock, Eastern Cape, South Africa, September 2015
The cheerful frontages of Die Tuishuis renovated 1840s cottages on a sunny morning

Time travel is completely possible if you visit the small town of Cradock in South Africa’s Eastern Cape where a neat row of 30 historic little houses have been painstakingly restored by Sandra Antrobus with 16 of them converted into award-winning tourist accommodation. Each house is tastefully decorated with the furniture, and ‘knick-knackery’ of its gracious 1840s hey-dey – think deep cast iron baths and huge hardwood bedsteads – and each has a different theme and feel (you can check the options out on their website). Our favourite has to be the African-inspired ‘Out of Africa’ cottage with neat little touches that would look right at home in a posh safari lodge. The bathroom even has a large-scale wirework windmill.

Die Tuishuise renovated cottages, Cradock, Eastern Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Time travel back to the past in Cradock

When we first visited, some years ago, a vast Karoo buffet, including the famous local lamb, was served in one of the cottages. That was until Sandra bought, and spruced up, the grand old lady that is the Victoria Manor hotel on the corner of the street and began serving meals and accommodating guests there. Built in 1848 it’s one of SA’s oldest hotels. We now sometimes add a night’s stay in the cottages after photographing at nearby Mountain Zebra National Park for a few days.  You could easily base yourself at Die Tuishuis and visit the park from there if you wanted a change from the park chalets .

Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra), Mountain Zebra National Park, Eastern Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Have you heard the scones at the Victoria Manor down in Cradock are delicious!

These days we like to self-cater to enjoy all the old-world charm of the cottages, but more often than not we still have breakfast in the restored hotel. It’s certainly worth a look around in there and – good tip – the home-made scones served at breakfast are legendary.

Pass the painted dog pinotage this way again

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) regurgitating food for pups, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
Supper anyone? Feeding 13 ravenous wild dog pups is a full-time job

It’s been the year for spotted dogs… Back in June we were trying to keep tabs on 13 tearaway pups running rings around their adult wild dog babysitters and ceaselessly pestering returning pack members for food.  It was hard to believe, but there we were, with our guests on safari, right by the den of these incredibly scarce predators as the pack conducted its daily meet, greet and eat sessions with the next generation of dogs.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) chewing old impala horns, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Capturing a great portrait means getting down and dirty

Arriving at the den site late afternoon to share time with the African continent’s second rarest apex predator is one of the highlights of 2016 for us.  It’s not every day you get the chance to get off a game-viewing vehicle and lie down to shoot such special subjects up close and at their level. The chance to get into the skin of your subjects and join their world for a while is what makes wildlife photography  so rewarding.

The patient, if uncomfortable and mildy-grubby wait, as a tangle of snoozy pups, safe within the confines of their shady den site, slowly re-awoke and ventured out on short exploratory missions to chew branches or play endless games of tug o’ war with shards of old animal bone was a privilege and a joy.  And the sudden explosion of noise and energy all around us when the adults returned to regurgitate food for the pups, when everything instantly became a blur of marbled fur, fangs, and frantically wagging tails is an experience we’ll never forget.

African wild dog pups (Lycaon pictus) feeding, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
It’s special to photograph a successful breeding pack of these very rare predators

One of our favourite species, African wild dogs are among the world’s most endangered mammals with a population currently estimated at around 6,600. Most are to be found in southern Africa. The chance to spend time observing them on Zimanga game reserve as we did this year, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where there’s the chance of wonderful photographic access to the breeding pack is truly something special…

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack exploring, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Fast forward a few months and now the pups were on the move with the adult dogs

Returning to Zimanga last month with our second group of photo safari guests we were obviously keen to catch up with the dogs and check how they’d fared. The news was mixed. The alpha female, and mother of the pups, had been killed by a crocodile, but the puppies were thriving and were as hyperactive as ever. Observing the group dynamics, it probably wasn’t going to be long before another dog from the pack stepped up to take on the role of alpha female, but my how those pups had grown!

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack at three to four months old, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
A brief pause for rest during the hunt

They were now regularly accompanying the adult pack members and yearlings on daily hunts; running through the bush, first this way, then that, only momentarily stopping to pose on a small mound of earth or prominent dam wall before haring off again.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) feeding on warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The Zimanga wild dog pack enjoying a warthog dinner at dusk

One evening we found them making light work of a fresh warthog supper. It was interesting to see how the adult dogs let the pups eat first.

African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) confronting spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The curious pups practise stalking a hyena cornered in the riverbed

And on one of the morning sessions we caught up with the pack in a dry riverbed in a stand-off with a spotted hyena they’d cornered. The hyena was a bit stuck.  Hemmed in by the prowling pack he’d wedged his back against a big rock for protection – fully aware that’s where he would be vulnerable to the chasing pack if he fled.  Eventually the dogs lost interest and the hyena took his chance. A step late, the pups raced madly up the steep sides of the bank in pursuit, but the hyena had got enough distance on them and was last seen disappearing over the horizon.

It was with such thrilling sightings in mind that we purchased a bottle of Painted Wolf Pinotage (Painted Wolf being another name for wild dogs, albeit not very accurate) for our first evening in Kruger National Park soon after. The winemaker donates a portion of the price towards wild dog conservation – www.paintedwolfwines.com  – if you want to find out more.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
Painted wolf wine did the trick in more ways than one

We were celebrating the end of a successful safari. A good red was the order of the day because temperatures had taken a sudden and unseasonal nosedive and with such an apt name it was soon safely off the shelves and in our basket. It went down well as we toasted our toes around the braai and looked forward to a few game drives in the Kruger to ‘wind down’.

Our choice of tipple turned out to be a lucky one too because in just a few short days in the reserve we ran into a pack of wild dogs on all but one of our morning and afternoon game drives.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
We were lucky to see lots of the Kruger pups too

Anyone who has visited Kruger will know wild dogs are not your everyday, common or garden sighting. Running into them at all is a special treat, running into them repeatedly is something else. We certainly hadn’t expected to be photographing wild dogs again this year.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
All eyes and Mickey Mouse ears – the Kruger pups wake up in the late afternoon

Like the ones on Zimanga the Kruger pack also had this year’s still-cute pups in tow (born around the same time as those in KZN as wild dogs den seasonally in the African winter).  And exactly like the pups on Zimanga they huddled together, sitting apart from the adults, fidgeting restlessly and squabbling endlessly – when not running amok of course.  We couldn’t get enough of them.

We’re crossing fingers (that’s holding thumbs if you’re in South Africa) that we might run into them again in Kruger in 2017 – as yearlings.  We may even buy another bottle of that red to boost our chances. We’re certainly looking forward to going back to Zimanga next year and seeing how the pack there is getting on.  There might even be some new puppies around then to terrorise and annoy the older dogs…and to photograph  of course.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pack member hunting, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
We’re already looking forward to following the Zimanga wild dog pack again

 

The Marmite moments of a photography couple

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) with cub, Kgalagadi Transfronter Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, June 2016
We’ve waited a long time to photograph cheetah cubs this size in the Kalahari

Wildlife photography really is a Marmite profession. We’re either tearing each other’s hair out through frustration or hugging each other for sheer joy. There’s no middle ground.

We were reminded of this fact again recently on our last visit to the Kalahari, a few short weeks ago, when we managed to shoehorn ourselves into a packed Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for a couple of weeks last minute before the first of our new African photo safaris. The idea was that some time spent in one of Africa’s last wilderness areas would refresh us after a particularly hectic time back home in the office trying to twist editors’ arms into running our material etc etc.  We reckoned a good photographic ‘tune-up’ in the field before meeting up with and leading our first safari guests would be just the ticket.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
Leopards were like buses. Two came at once on our recent visit to the KTP

A good idea in theory, but we’d forgotten to factor in the Marmite effect. For the first week we struggled to find a rubbish subject to train our lenses on, let alone a decent one. Ordinarily in these situations we’d change camps to see if other parts of the park proved more fruitful, but the place was chock full. Daily marches to reception to see if there was a cancellation somewhere drew a blank and the dust started to build up on our barely-used gear.

Lion (Panthera leo) cub, Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
To get lion and cheetah cubs on a short visit was special

Anyone who has been to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park will know that seldom are things served up on a plate in this vast thirstland landscape. It’s never easy getting great images even though it is one of our top spots to photograph in.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
This female walked straight towards our lenses

Goodness knows how many hours we’ve spent parked up waiting for something to happen, or driving up and down the same old sandy, corrugated tracks that trace the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob.  Patience and persistence are essential tools in the armoury in this semi-desert eco-system. Nine times out of ten the cheetah we’ve been following for hours doesn’t hunt, or the chase explodes in the wrong direction  leaving us with nothing but a big anti-climax for our efforts. Leopards stay tantalisingly out of camera reach on the far calcrete ridges or glare down disdainfully from the intensely-dappled shade of a camethorn tree – a perfect jewel marred by its bad setting. Great to witness but lousy to photograph subjects can sustain a photographing couple only so long.

This photographic drought was something else. The days were fast slipping by and we had zilch to show for it. Our grumpiness was getting worse…

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) cubs, Kgalagadi Transfronter Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, June 2016
You can’t stay grumpy for long when you have photo opps like this

Then suddenly the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Would you credit it? Out of nothing we suddenly found ourselves with seven leopard sightings in as many days (something of a personal record for the KTP). Not one but two confiding female leopards chose to share their early morning patrols with us, posing close to the cameras, which is not your typical wild leopard response to interlopers. Three tiny cheetah cubs (still with their white fur hoodies intact and our first at this young age for several years) turned up out of the blue. They hung around for ages  with mum  so we had both evening and morning drives with them playing and getting up to mischief while we clicked away. Then, en route for our second helping of said cheetah cubs, we tripped over a couple of really little lion cubs beautifully lit at dawn.  They were totally under our radar until that morning. You couldn’t have scripted a more opposite week to our first one.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
Twenty years ago we hardly saw leopards they were so shy in the Kalahari

What a trawl of anniversary presents! We’ve been celebrating 20 years of visits to the Kalahari in 2016, but we never expected we’d be doing it with such brilliant photographic encounters as we had that second week. More Marmite please…

Lion (Panthera leo) with cub, Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
What a way to celebrate 20 years of visiting this magical African wilderness

Battle of the sexes: Do you take photos too?

Here’s a humorous – but semi-serious – view of wildlife photography and gender from me (Ann) that was first published in Outdoor Photography magazine  back in 2009.  It seemed worth digging out and dusting off  here following a revealing thread on Facebook today on the subject. Posts from leading wildlife photographers such as Suzi Eszterhas and Sandra Bartocha, discussing how they’re sometimes treated as photographers by the opposite sex, certainly chimed with my thoughts then and now. It’s also a bit about what it’s like being  a in a photographing couple…

Girl power! Room for a bit more in wildlife photography?
Girl power! Room for a bit more in wildlife photography

‘Do you take photos too?’ If there’s one question that’s guaranteed to make my blood boil it’s this one. By the time we arrive at the hide I’m seething. Hardly the best frame of mind going into a day of endless waiting, interspersed very occasionally by the odd few seconds of manic photography.  My husband Steve doesn’t help either. He’s got his head in the lunch bag, assessing which bits he can eat now, and, frustratingly, seems to have got his camera gear set up before I’ve even summoned the energy to heave the 3.75kg 500mm lens from the bag. Do I still have any Deep Heat in my toilet bag I ponder? I’ll probably need it by tonight.

I think Steve should be more understanding and supportive when people ask me this question, but he reckons I’m over-reacting. He’s probably right, but I’d never let him think that. A whispered domestic ensues. We are in a hide. ‘You’re going to bang on about that sleeping bag thing any minute,’ Steve hisses, spitting bits of corned beef roll in my direction. This is because I once read an interview with a very well-known wildlife photographer who admitted he liked having his wife accompany him on trips because she was an expert at rolling up sleeping bags. It was most likely an affectionate in-joke, but his remarks underlined the way it felt to me being a girl photographer in a bloke’s world. Just like the saying has it: ‘Women are from Venus…men are from Jessops’ (a UK chain of camera shops if you’re wondering)

Meerkats, Suricatta suricata, Addo Elephant national park, South Africa
The romantic notion of a photographing couple…

The ‘atmosphere’ in the hide gets worse. ‘And another thing…,’ I splutter in the direction of my equipment. I can’t look directly at Steve because he’ll put me off my stride and I can feel myself getting into a flow. ‘I was reading this other magazine recently with a portfolio of wildlife images by a female photographer with an introduction from the editor who suggested her work showed women could compete on equal terms with ‘the men’. ‘Is that patronising or what?’ I’m still directing my anger at the camera, but it’s meant for Steve. In my mind by now he is representing the whole masculine gender. The upshot of this is, of course, that my viewfinder is completely fogged up by my hot breath when the perfect V-shaped skein of geese flies past the hide and I can’t see well enough to compose what would have been my first decent photo opportunity of the day. I barely hear Steve’s grunted reply above the rapid clicking of his shutter.

Meerkats, Suricatta suricata, Addo Elephant national park, South Africa
…The reality is we hardly ever see eye to eye…

At least he got some shots from the fly-past. When all’s said and done, this is perhaps one of the best reasons to suffer working in tandem with your spouse; getting on each others’ nerves 24/7 in extremes of heat, cold, damp, discomfort, midges, mosquitoes, guano, mud, dung, mutual self-doubt, endless games of ‘Travel Scrabble’ (Steve wins, I throw a tantrum), dreaded ‘domestics’, boredom, more arguments to dispel the boredom and not forgetting the escalating ‘BO’. Whether it’s a musty hide, a cramped, hot car or a camping-equipped 4×4 with no room to swing a cable release we’re a double act – even if it is a smelly one at times. Never mind the battle of the sexes, there’s no disputing the fact that two sets of eyes are better than one. If one misses the action, chances are the other will come up trumps. If everything’s happening at once then there’s two cameras working to cover it. Better still there’s the option to get two different ‘takes’ on a single event because we’ll use different lenses and follow where individual inspiration and interests lead. Hence the joint names on all our picture credits. That and the fact that in many cases we can’t actually remember which one of us pressed the trigger.

Meerkats, Suricatta suricata, squabbling, Addo Elephant national park, South Africa
…Sometimes only a downright domestic will settle things!

If that sounds way too harmonious for words bear in mind that to avoid divorce proceedings we now take turns using the ‘best’ camera body and lens for the job. How sad is that! I console myself with a sandwich because comfort eating is the only cure when I get like this. The bread is fluorescent yellow because I’ve picked out one of Steve’s piccalilli ones by mistake and not one of mine which have baby leaf spinach. The people who don’t ask me whether I take pictures too, often ask instead, if, as a female photographer, I bring something different to the table and whether I see things differently or interact differently with subjects etc. Certainly Steve and I approach our photography in different ways and we definitely see things differently or he wouldn’t be forever asking me ‘What are you taking that for?’ But I think it’s more to do with having different (clashing) personalities than it is a question of sex.

Okay so Steve is useless at multi-tasking and can’t compile a shopping list at the same time as composing a picture, but then I wouldn’t choose a camera manual or a technical tome on the intricacies of Adobe Photoshop to read in bed after a hard day in the field like him. Thinking like this makes me smile to myself. I should be looking through my viewfinder or I’m going to miss the picture again and he’ll nail it (did I mention how competitive I am as well as insecure?).

I suddenly start to feel a bit stupid and sheepish for letting the fact that once upon a time wildlife photography probably was much more of a man’s game than it is today get to me. Okay, so some folk still reflect this a bit too much in their thinking and approach, but that’s dying out now surely? I hope so. I certainly hope it isn’t stopping women from pursuing a passion for taking wildlife and nature photos. I shimmy sideways across the wooden bench towards my husband waving a ‘Kit-Kat’ as an olive branch. Fancy a game of ‘Scrabble’? Our heated differences of opinion will no doubt start up all over when we’re back home editing and processing our pictures. Oh well, as that other saying has it: ‘Vive la difference!’

And they all lived and photographed happily ever after
And they all lived and photographed happily ever after.

 

Remembering elephants – our pachyderm hit parade

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) playing in river, Chobe River, Botswana, June 2016
Trunk call to action. Sun-bronzed elephant bull on the Chobe river, Botwana

It’s just a few short weeks to the launch of the much-heralded ‘Remembering Elephants’ coffee table book, so what better excuse is there for taking a ‘scroll’ down memory lane and sharing  a few of our favourite elephant images from the files to whet your appetite until the publication date…

Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and calf, Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa, February 2014
The project will help secure this iconic species’ future

This unique project, in association with the Born Free Foundation, has proved a fantastic way to raise funds for elephant conservation at a time when, sadly, ivory poaching is still on the increase.  Some 65 leading professional wildlife photographers around the world have donated stunning elephant images for the project under the umbrella of ‘Photographers United’.

Elephants, Loxodonta africana, greeting, Addo national park, South Africa
This trunk greeting elephant shot from us will feature in the book which is out next month

We were really chuffed to be approached for one of our own elephant images which will be included in the book – particularly as the initiative  chimes well with the awareness-raising work we’ve been trying to do ourselves around the illegal wildlife trade, albeit in a small way, via our Project African Rhino campaign.  It’s good to know that wielding a camera can sometimes make a tangible difference for the subjects we’re pasionate about photographing.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) at waterhole, Madikwe reserve, South Africa, February 2014
Elephants coming to a waterhole photographed from a sunken hide in South Africa

The current build-up and promotional support surrounding the launch has certainly got us doing our own bit of  ‘elephant remembering’.  Hope you enjoy our pachyderm hit parade here.

African elephant head and skin detail (Loxodonta africana), Kruger national park, South Africa, October 2014
Close up of a bull near Shingwedzi, Kruger, South Africa

We’ve had some superb encounters over the last couple of decades and even though we’ve been lucky enough to see several 1,000s in the wild in that time we never grow tired of them. There’s no disputing the fact elephants are one of the most engaging, fascinating, funny, awesome, rewarding, humbling and moving species to watch and photograph.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) at sunset, Chobe River, Botswana, June 2016
Rerembering elephants before it’s too late. Chobe bull at sunset

Let’s hope that the coming together of individual photographers for this important cause, the hard work behind the scenes in bringing a coffee table book like this into being, and the sheer heart for elephants behind the project will help to keep it that way for future generations.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana), Chobe National Park, Botswana, October 2014
Elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana, photographed from the river

Pre-launch sales and donations have to date raised more than £100,000 for targeted conservation projects to protect and save elephants; with the cost of printing and producing the book successfully covered by a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign.

Bull elephants (Loxodonta africana) at the waterhole in front of the lodge, Ol Donyo Wuas, Mbirikani Group Ranch, Amboseli-Tsavo eco-system, Chyulu Hills, Kenya, Africa, October 2012
Bull elephants and storm clouds, Ol Donyo Wuas, Chyulu Hills, Kenya

You can find out more about the ‘Remembering Elephants’ project, pre-order your copy of the book or purchase tickets for the special launch event on September 22 at the Royal Geographic Society’s HQ in London, at the project website remembering elephants.com.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana), Amboseli National Park, Kenya, October 2012
Parade of pachyderms in the mid-day sun, Amboseli, Kenya

The launch event will be introduced by Virginia McKenna of Born Free, followed by a talk from renowned wildlife photographer Art Wolfe and there’s even an auction of some of the images.

Elephant trunk (Loxodonta africana), Etosha national park, Namibia, May 2013
Elephant trunk against the light, Etosha, Namibia

If you can’t make the launch, but live near London, there’s also a ‘Remembering Elephants’ exhibition  taking place at  La Galleria in Pall Mall  from September 19 to October 1 .

Spread the word…

Honey I shrank our wildlife subjects

We’re always on the lookout for ways to change things when we’re photographing, in an effort to keep our portfolio of images as fresh and varied as possible. Wildlife photography’s a competitive business and with the huge proliferation of great pictures out there it’s increasingly important to keep our eyes, and minds open, to different approaches, where merited, to much-photographed subjects.

One of the simplest ways to breathe a hint of fresh air into wildlife images of commonly snapped species is to photograph subjects within the wider landscape. This means ignoring the advice, and our natural inclination, to ‘go close and then closer still’ when we’ve got a good subject in front of the lens and go minimal instead.

Plains zebra, Equus burchelli, at stormy sunset, Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa
We wanted to big up the dramatic wall of stormy sky at sunset so kept the zebra small

We enjoy the challenge this approach offers, where conditions and circumstances allow, to produce ‘animal miniatures’ where our subjects are often just a tiny fraction of the frame; dwarfed by the surrounding landscape and/or sky.

African elephants at sunset (Loxodonta africana), Chobe national park, Botswana, Africa, October 2014
How small dare you go? We wanted to capture the mood of day’s departure on the Chobe

It’s fascinating seeing how small you can take an imposing, heavy-weight wildlife subject like an elephant and make the picture work. It’s subjective, of course, but, looking through the wrong end of the telescope does seem to help communicate and emphasise the scale, stark beauty and significance of place, time and habitat.

Mountain hare (Lepus timidus) in winter snow, Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK, December 2015
The wonder of the hare’s wilderness winter homeland is captured best by stepping back

You might think this is something that only works in exotic locations, and isn’t really ‘a thing’ for photographing closer to home. Interestingly, we’ve found, this style of shooting wildlife, if you can call it that, can be as successful for mountain hares in the UK’s upland snowscapes, for example, as it can be for imposing, iconic animals, such as elephants and giraffes on the vast plains of Africa.

Bull elephants (Loxodonta africana) at the waterhole in front of the lodge, Ol Donyo Wuas, Mbirikani Group Ranch, Amboseli-Tsavo eco-system, Chyulu Hills, Kenya, Africa, October 2012
The endless plains of Africa dwarfing the earth’s biggest land mammals

It’s never a bad idea, anyway, when you’re out in the field, to get some shots of your subject from a distance – just in case the subject won’t tolerate a closer approach. It’s what we try to do. Even if it’s just a ‘grab’ to show each other later what we came across while stalking.

If, like us, you’re generally out and about on foot with a telephoto zoom at hand (we love our trusty Canon 100-400mm zooms for this) you can swiftly assess the potential for a ‘wildlife in the landscape’ shot by reframing the scene in front of you at different focal lengths as you proceed. Once you’ve got your eye in you won’t even need to hold the camera to your eye to make such judgments…

The next step is elevating things to produce a pleasing picture. Here are five general tips we find handy:

1.Study landscape photography as closely as you do wildlife photography, when not in the field, and familiarise yourself with the key elements you need for a successful landscape shot.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana), crossing Oliphants river, Kruger National Park, South Africa, May 2015
Elephants close-up in Kruger is simple – the challenge is showing them well in that vastness

2. Make a beeline for places where good wildlife subjects and great scenery collide; keeping a look-out for strong and simple ‘elemental’ or graphic backdrops that would look brilliant with a wild animal standing proud or walking through them. Generally it’s a good idea to avoid busy scenes with lots going on in them that might risk your subject being overpowered.

Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), Kunene region, Namibia, Africa, May 2013
Giraffe in miniature crossing the rocky terrain of northern Namibia

3. Pick your moment and be patient. Add the magic ingredient of great light to the locale you’ve identified or some spectacular weather for an extra pop. In an ideal world we’re looking to include either interesting cloud formations, stormy skies, a rainbow, the setting sun or a moon, for example.

Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) in the Aiuob riverbed as rain clouds gather, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
The ‘rainy’ season often presents a multitude of photogenic skies for this shooting style

4. Place animal subjects very carefully within the landscape – almost always moving or looking into the frame and generally offset rather than central. As when shooting silhouettes subjects must be well defined, and never obscured, given their diminutive status. The rule of thirds is very useful here. The power points where the thirds intersect are reliable ‘hotspots’ from which your subjects can shine.

Male lion (Panthera leo)on patrol in the Kalahari, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Black-maned lion at Kij Kij in the Kgalagadi purposefully patrols his territory

5. Be bolder. Go even more Gulliver and turn large animals into small ants crawling across this vast planet we share…

African elephant herd at sunrise (Loxodonta africana), Chobe national park, Botswana, Africa, October 2014
If you want to capture the essence of an African scene pull back and reveal the full picture

The aim isn’t simply to faithfully reproduce a documentary record of your subject’s habitat remember. You’re looking to produce a response from the your viewer about the bigger picture in the natural world with such shots.

After all, they do say small is beautiful.

Bull elephant (Loxodonta africana), walking off, Madikwe reserve, North West Province, South Africa, February 2014
Bull elephant with moon – our departing shot!