The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – two dry riverbeds, edged by red dunes, jagged calcrete ridges and twisted thorn trees, the brittle shards of their grey bark slashed with black shadows. This is where you’ll find some of Africa’s stealthiest big cats pursuing scarce huddles of wary game along the margins of the bronze-gold light…
For the past month or so we’ve been like them, tracking closely in their shadows, forever chasing the best photographic light and our own tantalising visions – those half-formed ideas for images that nag in the corner of the mind’s eye; hoped for, yet still far off, like the rain.
This season the South African Kalahari has been much drier than usual and only localised areas have received enough water to wash the sun-bleached riverbed with a green stain of grass. Finding sustenance in this semi desert eco-system can be a real challenge for the wildlife, even more so when the brutal summer heat steals the last reserves of your energy. The struggle for survival becomes a constant and wearying battle.
Only in recent days, more than three quarters into our visit, has there been any sign of relief from this oppression. Heavy downpours have gifted shallow ephemeral pools and runnels in the veld as well as welcome puddles along the gravel and sand tracks. Fresh water to soak sleeping seeds and quench an aching thirst. Water enough to bathe in – soaking fur and feathers – if the coast is clear and it’s safe to permit yourself a clean up.
We woke after the first good storm to a rare chorus of frogs – heralding the good news. Finally for us some respite from the ubiquitous dust that clogs and clings to everything – particularly our camera gear. For a while, at least, it’s tamed, tamped down and held in control by the unaccustomed cool dampness.
In the fresh morning air we can at last feel our focus clearing. And on the top of a landmark sociable weavers’ nest along the Nossob road a pair of pale chanting goshawks we’ve come to know make their first appearance of the year. We watch them for a while and hear them courting – a song of renewal and, hopefully, creation.
This year we arrived to find the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park bare and almost silent. When we left it had a bright green coat picked out with the sunshine yellow of devil’s thorn flowers. And the air was filled with birdsong.
New Year – Blank Canvas. It’s that time again for making photographic ‘resolutions’. We’re probably all doing it right now – looking ahead, making plans, setting goals and pre-visualising the images we’d love to get in the weeks and months ahead. We bet you’ve also got good intentions, just like us, to photograph much more and a whole lot better in 2018. But as we get our camera gear checked off and ready for our first visit of the year to Africa – butterflies stirring in the pit of our stomachs already – we thought it might be time for a bit of perspective on the whole thing.
It’s always tempting, with a fresh calendar ahead, to over-complicate things and perhaps expect a bit too much of ourselves. There’s nothing worse for killing creativity than raising expectations way too high. So instead of being over-ambitious this year we’re stripping back to basics with a wonderfully simple reminder of some fundamentals from well-known US street photographer Jay Maisel who has a great tell-it-like-it-is way of distilling stuff about photography; putting everything to do with the whole art, business and passion for picture-making into a proverbial nutshell…
We hope he won’t mind us quoting his wise words here, alongside some of our images from 2017, as we look ahead with excitement to another year of wildlife photography.
It’s just four short pointers, but each rings true for us…
‘First, perseverance trumps talent…
…Second, do what you want to do – otherwise why bother…
…Third, be ethical; it might rub off on others…
…Fourth, don’t give up.’
Happy New Year.
And remember the first rule of photography is to enjoy it!
Every so often in wildlife photography things just seem to ‘click’ into place. That was the case earlier this year during our visit to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) in South Africa when we spent a very happy morning photographing a pride of lions in the Nossob riverbed. One of our images from that morning’s haul has just received an award in this year’s ‘Nature’s Best Photography Africa’ competition; the continent’s most prestigious wildlife photography contest. (You can see all the 2017 winning images here). Here’s the story behind our successful shot in this year’s competition…
It was one of those mornings when you manage to cross paths with a great subject at just the right time; when the light’s still very usable. One of the many reasons we love photographing in the KTP is the fact you can often follow the same animals for days; learning their routes and routines. The Kalahari’s famous lions are a case in point. The excitement begins with a just a handful of paw-prints in the sand and then, if, and when, we catch up with our quarry, due to the wonderfully open terrain, it’s possible to document our subjects’ behaviour intimately; setting active subjects off to great effect against a stunning background wash of semi-desert hues.
We’d been following one pride with five sub-adult cubs for several days. The adult members of the pride liked to sit on the face of a favourite dune and we’d managed to pick them up there on a couple of mornings. Sometimes the youngsters would join them; sometimes they weren’t to be seen.
On this morning we’d suddenly found ourselves with front row seats as the whole pride, both adult members and their boisterous, almost ‘teenage’ cubs, were reuniting after a night on the prowl. As you might imagine there was much running around with lions coming in from every direction off the nearby dunes.
With so much going on it was difficult to predict where to manoeuvre our vehicle for the best. Anticipating which individual subjects to follow with a camera can be a nervy gamble. Even with two of us keeping an eye on the developing situation we truly were spoiled for choice. We were anxious we’d get it wrong and end up with a wonderful memory of the unfolding episode, but nothing on our memory cards to back it up.
In a situation with lions it’s always tempting to follow the photogenic males – even more so in this case as they were two stunning black-maned bruisers. We’d photographed the same pair a few days earlier as they walked side by side on the sand like brothers in arms, so we knew they were potentially the best prospect. But with the sun now rising higher in the sky we decided to break with convention and placed all our bets on the youngsters instead.
We reckoned the experienced big males would soon be headed for the shade. Probably not much chance of anything new on the photo front there. There’s usually only a slim window of time and good light to make interesting behavioural shots before lions disappear into cover to sleep as the day hots up. Getting cleanly composed images in sweet light is always a challenge.
The hyperactive cubs, on the other hand, too stupid for their own good, were still wandering aimlessly out in the open, clearly frustrated by the adults’ sober pace. Rather than resting up in the shade (obviously not quite cool enough for juvenile big cats) they seemed content to stay out in the riverbed. The pastel colours of the distant dunes dropped off perfectly. We could see they provided an ideal complementary background for the sort of entertaining antics we were hoping for. We were now staking everything on shots of the young lions playfully interacting. But would they oblige?
Just as we expected they soon began taking their pent up predatory frustration out on each other; ambushing each other, chewing each other’s tails and sparring in mock combat in that way that tearaway young lion siblings always will – sooner or later – rehearsing moves that would one day make all the difference to their survival in this unforgiving eco-system.
Sometimes following your instinct about a wildlife subject pays dividends. Good fortune plays its part too of course, but don’t underestimate hard-earned knowledge picked up along the way. Because at times like these you realise those endless hours spent observing your subjects’ behaviour, without a decent image for your effort, really isn’t really a waste of time at all, but a worthwhile investment you can cash in later.
The header says it all really. A simple post centred on three recent images from the files and the stories that led up to them…
Vanishing Point – White Rhino
Canon EOS 1DX, 1/5 second, f/8, ISO 100, Canon EF 300mm f/4 lens
Working for several days from a hide in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal we’d often used in the past our visit had been productive. We were photographing rhinos as part of a project to raise awareness and document the ramifications of the poaching crisis there. We’d photographed lots of rhinos and the cows’ very small babies had completely charmed our socks off, but we hadn’t really got anything that conveyed what we felt about the whole sorry saga – something that summed up our sense of the rhino’s vulnerability; that here was a species on the brink, under threat of disappearing forever before our very eyes.
On our final day the light was poor, so we didn’t hold out much hope we could really add anything more. It was overcast, so there were no reflections to exploit at the water, and the whole scene appeared flat and lifeless. Perhaps because it was also a cooler day, there were fewer animals coming down to drink. It really was a head-scratching time.
Then out of nowhere a lone rhino lumbered slowly down to the water. The muted colour palate made for an altogether more sombre mood than on previous days and that suddenly struck a chord with us. Perhaps here was something to work with. The germ of an idea?
Selecting a slow shutter speed and deliberately moving the camera while photographing to create a, softer, more painterly, effect we experimented photographing impressionistic images of the lone rhino at the water. The results seemed to us much more emotive than the ones we’d taken in the bright, warm sunshine and certainly chimed more with our sense of sadness and despair at the pointless slaughter of these innocent creatures…
Buffalo Nocturne – Cape Buffalo
Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 1/50 second, f/4.5, ISO 2000, Canon EF17-40mm EF lens
Staying quiet for hours in a nocturnal hide in the middle of the bush when there’s nothing but stillness, eerie sounds and the black velvet curtain of night outside is an unusual experience to say the least. Being able to witness and photograph Africa’s large mammals in such a setting ( with wide angle lenses and without the need for flash); to gain a unique glimpse into their night-time world is truly something unique.
We’d been ensconced in this hide for a while, slowly getting accustomed to using our camera controls in the darkness when out of nowhere a small group of thirsty buffalo approached…
The bulls nervously moved closer to the drinking edge – a scant four metres from our lenses – and dipped their huge, heavy heads to drink. Their bony horn bosses and shiny wet muzzles felt near enough to touch. Right next to us in the dead of night were three burly Cape buffaloes, members of Africa’s legendary Big Five and one of the toughest and most dangerous species on the continent. Our hearts were racing as we moved to the viewfinders on our cameras waiting to squeeze the shutter releases. Against the darkness the LED lights on the outside of the hide moulded the muscular lines of their massive bodies reminding us just how powerful these heavyweight contenders really were. We both held our breath in awe.
We took tons of pictures as you might imagine, but it wasn’t until the trio arranged themselves around the water’s edge like a diorama from a natural history museum display, that we not only had an amazing and memorable encounter of wildlife by night, but we also had our perfect composition.
Dance of Death – Cheetah with Springbok Lamb
Canon EOS-1DX Mk II, 1/800sec, f/6.3, ISO1600, Canon EF f/4 100-400mm zoom
Summer in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a time of unbearable heat, thunderstorms and heavy downpours; a time when rain brings temporary relief, when food becomes more plentiful and when the resident springbok drop their lambs. Cue the reserve’s cheetahs. Their success when hunting springbok fawns is almost assured…
We’ve been photographing in the Kalahari at this time for several years. On this occasion we’d been watching a female cheetah for over an hour. We’d been lucky in spotting her settled in a shallow gully; well hidden from us and the small herd of springbok grazing in the riverbed nearby with their newborn lambs. Although it didn’t appear as if she was actively hunting, the fact she was in cover, with an excellent view of nearby prey was reason enough to stay with her and wait.
Most of the time she was motionless, just twitching her ear or flicking her tail every now and then. The wait seemed pointless given the herd wasn’t moving nearer. Perhaps it was time to give up and move on? Then a solitary lamb began moving away from the protection of the herd right in the direction of the cheetah; seriously cutting the distance she needed to make to secure her next meal. We knew it was going to happen any minute now.
The chase happened so fast it’s difficult now to recall exactly how it panned out. Trying to follow the fast unfolding action while making sense of what was going on seemed almost impossible; particularly as the startled young lamb zig-zagged and the the chase took both predator and prey right out of sight at one point behind a thick clump of low bushes.
When the dust settled, we could see she had taken the lamb down right beside us. There she was, in the warm light of late afternoon, with the tiny springbok in a chokehold, struggling to lift and control the deadweight. It was vital for her to get away from the open terrain of the riverbed to safety with her quarry before darkness. She looked directly towards us for a brief moment before turning towards the dune with her prize and that was the picture of the two – predator and prey locked in a macabre pas de deux. No time to dial down our ISO but just press when her eyes met our own.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Top techniques for wildlife
Cleaner, sharper shot-making
Working the light – from bad to brilliant
Capturing action and behaviour
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or book direct via Eventbrite.
‘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).
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
Concierge Boutique Bungalows (& Freedom Café)
Café in a ‘can’ with rooms
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Charming hicktown timewarp
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon