Hope drying up for the Namib’s wild horses

The wild horses’ core area is wonderfully photogenic with a rugged appeal

The rugged plains that line the eastern fringes of the Namib desert are a photographer’s paradise – especially when this hauntingly beautiful landscape is bathed in amber light providing just the right backdrop for our subjects – providing we can spot them…

Stunning as these surroundings are, this place is no Eden for the special creatures we’ve come to capture on camera – especially in 2018 after several years of prolonged drought  has put a question mark over their future survival.

The pastel colours of the Namib desert paint the perfect backdrop for pictures

Each year, tourists from across the globe make the journey to this little bit of  nowhere to see the famous wild horses of Garub, southern Namibia. Earlier this year we joined them, hoping to see how they were getting on some 20 years since they galloped across  the southern Africa sabbatical that kickstarted our careers in wildlife photography.

Pitching up we can see at once there’s nothing here for the horses to eat

We weren’t holding out much hope as we reached Aus, the nearest little town which relies on the tourist dollars the horses, and their century-old story, bring in. That’s because the first scan of our surroundings suggests there’s nothing left for them to eat on the plain all around us. We certainly don’t think, if we do find them, they’ll look anything like the fit, prancing silhouettes on the road signs that warn us we’ve finally reached their desert home.

A misty morning at Garub, where the horses often drink, attracts an oryx down too

The Garub waterpoint the horses frequent is marked from the B4 road some 20km west of Aus. It’s best to go there first thing in the morning and again in the late afternoon, increasing your chances of seeing and photographing these famous equines and the other local wildlife, like oryx,  it attracts. And that’s where we‘re headed now with some trepidation.

No-one’s exactly sure how the horses came to be here. They are the descendants of escapees from a local stud some 100 years ago, that bred racehorses and work horses in the Namib desert’s diamond rush era, or they’re the former mounts of soldiers stationed in the area in World War 1. Or both.  The certain thing is that they’ve been running wild ever since, free from the service of man, isolated from civilisation and fully adapted to the harsh conditions of this unforgiving habitat. They’re now regarded as a breed apart; the ‘Namibs’.

You can often see the wild horses close to the road. We found them in varying condition

Since October 2015 supplementary food has been provided for them, on a regular basis, by the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation to ensure they don’t starve and get enough roughage following the drought. Between 2014 and the start of this year the area is said to have had little more than 5mm of rain. The feeding strategy has helped the struggling horses considerably, although some old stallions and mares have not responded well and still look in poor condition when we finally get our ‘eye’ in and start spotting them. We sadly don’t see any foals. Their future is uncertain, increasingly prey to hyenas, the struggling population has declined heavily in recent years. Some believe numbers are so low they could soon go extinct.

Capturing the horses in that vast space was compelling. We longed for more time there

In good conditions, when food is plenty, the horses play. When we finally see them, scattered over the plain, there’s clearly no time for leisure activity. They’re busy feeding; heads down the whole while. Well, at least they’ve found something to graze on. A closer look at the seemingly empty landscape reveals a welcome hint of green – small flushes of fresh growth following the rain showers of recent days. Feeling just a little more hopeful for their future we set about framing ‘animal-scapes’; picking out tiny horse shapes that look lost amidst the overwhelming beauty of the Namib-Naukluft reserve.

It’s not just the difficult climatic conditions that cast a shadow over the wild horses’ future. The reserve exists to protect indigenous fauna and flora, yet the horses are incomers, not indigenous ‘game’ – with the inevitable issues that brings. Although research carried out over two decades suggests the horses have no adverse impact on the eco-system, a debate about their preservation is raging. Should the indigenous hyenas that have been picking off the weaker feral horses be managed, or fed themselves elsewhere, as has been happening, to hold them at bay? Should a special sanctuary for the horses be set up? Juggling the cost of their care, weighing the appropriate level of conservation intervention and addressing the valid concerns of the tourism industry is a difficult balancing act. For the moment the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation is desperately fighting to keep the horses in their core area through its targeted feeding.

Mist and mountains make an evocative and atmospheric setting for the horses’ wild spirit

For ourselves, returning to see them after 20 years, we’re surprised at just how much we’re drawn to them.  It would be very sad to see them go after they’ve battled this long to beat the desert’s hardships and have finally found an arrangement with their surroundings.

The fundamental appeal  of the Garub horses is clear – it’s the romance of wild spirit in a wild terrain. It’s that sense of freedom and co-existence with the environment that speaks to something in all of us.  But now that harmony has been put at risk…

The Namibia Wild Horses Foundation warns visitors against handing out food to help the horses because it draws them away from the feeding points and may not provide the vital nutrition and roughage they need. People wanting to help the horses can contribute to the feeding programme by contacting the Wild Horses Foundation where you can also find out more about the horses.

Where to Stay if You Want To See and Photograph the Horses

If you want to photograph, or simply observe the wild horses, the nearest place to stay  is the wonderfully horse-themed Klein Aus Vista resort on the edge of the rocky Aus mountains. (There’s also accommodation in Aus itself, the nearest ‘town’, including a good hotel where we broke our journey for coffee and cake ).

We made the Klein Aus Vista our base for photographing the desert’s celebrity horses

Klein Aus Vista has a range of accommodation from camping to rustic chalets to the Desert Horse Inn, where the well-appointed suites are served by a ranch-style communal area with a pool and good restaurant. There are walking trails around the resort and amazing night skies overhead. klein-aus-vista.com.

Raining cats? Two spoiled snappers get it all wrong

Sitting in the office in the grey old UK with rain streaking down the windows, we can’t help feeling cheesed off. Rainy weather means there’s no escaping the drudge work of our job. After seven weeks of being fortunate enough to photograph every day in wild places, and almost always in great light, we’ve come down to earth again along with the snow of recent days, the subsequent thaw and now the persistent drizzly rain of a slow-starting British spring.

Secretarybirds striding out, enjoy a Kalahari puddle

We’re working through the mundane and monotonous tasks that always welcome us back  from a trip. The not often talked about stuff that’s as much a part of being professional wildlife photographers as the field work – if not more so. Clearly this side isn’t our favourite part, even if as former journalists we respond like Pavlov’s dogs to a deadline. So we’re busy key-wording and archiving images as fast as possible, so we can put them out to work for us – assigning them to the right places in our portfolio, to various stock agencies and getting them ready for marketing, for preparing upcoming lectures and for promoting our photographic  safaris.  All must be done in the narrow window available between trips. There’s no escaping the fact that wet weather days are admin days. Bor…ing!

A tawny eagle enjoys a rare paddle in the Kalahari

Exactly what type of  office work we’re doing isn’t the issue;  that depends on urgent deadlines, what’s hurtling towards us in the diary and, of course, on what, if any, photographic treasures we’ve managed to dig out on our latest photographic crusades. This time in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) the big cats, always stars, seemed to emerge as a key theme. So we’re post-processing big cat images all the while and pedaling as fast as we can. The only thing that can stop the treadmill is good weather (or dry stuff at least)  providing us with the excuse to drop the office jobs we’re juggling and get back out there with our cameras…

Shy species like brown hyena hang around when there’s fresh rain water to drink

Filling in the requisite data fields on photographs for various agencies which each require the procedure done differently, on a dull, damp weekend afternoon, we’re both missing the warmth, sunshine, reliable light, guaranteed subjects and sheer freedom of photographing in the bush in an African summer…

…Then scrolling through our pictures from the Kalahari section of our recent South Africa/Namibia trip it dawns on us maybe we’ve got it all wrong.  Have we not become a tad spoiled?

We’ve already forgotten the Kalahari was so dry there wasn’t a blade of grass
For weeks of our trip the rain promised but the brooding clouds didn’t break

How could we have forgotten so soon just how dry the KTP was for those first few weeks of our trip, and how desperate and expectant the animals, and the veld, seemed to be for the late rain to arrive?

Going green. The Kalahari and its cats refreshed by rain

When we remove our favourite images, putting to one side those shots we’ve earmarked as priorities for immediate post-processing,  a simple, humble story emerges. Our incidental pictures, grabbed when driving back to camp once the best light had gone, a bunch of odds and sods really, languishing in Lightroom folders labelled ‘miscellany’, are quietly revealing the significant impact the rain finally made on the everyday lives of our KTP subjects when the clouds broke.

A Kalahari puddle makes the perfect plunge pool for a leopard tortoise
Secretarybird settling into a puddle right up to its middle for a welcome bathe
We should lap up the rain days and accept they’re great news for our thirstland subjects!

So we’re enjoying this small selection of images from a few weeks ago in the KTP in which the residents are making the most of something we all take for granted – puddles in the road. Simple shots, nothing loud, exciting, sexy or dramatic – just a handful of regular stock pictures gathered along the way that served to remind two whingeing wildlife snappers to suck up the rain, get on with it and accept that a good downpour isn’t a downer for everyone.

Hot pursuit – Kgalagadi big cats on camera

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.

Cheetah, Kgalagadi
On the hunt – Kalahari cheetah

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.

Lions at water, Kgalagadi
Slaking their thirst – lions drawn to water

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.

Cheetah with scrub hare
Sunrise breakfast – female cheetah with scrub hare

Pass it on – Some simple photo tips for 2018

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…

Time in the field, knowledge of subjects, returning again and again to a place pays off

…Second, do what you want to do – otherwise why bother…

Don’t be hide-bound by rules or the views of others and always follow your passion

…Third, be ethical; it might rub off on others…

Pass it on; behaving responsibly and respecting our subjects is paramount

…Fourth, don’t give up.’

Why would we when it’s fun to keep at it? Enjoy your photography in 2018

Happy New Year.

And remember the first rule of photography is to enjoy it!

 

Lions’ teen spirit nets us African photo award

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…

Winning image. Canon EOS 1DX, 1/800sec, f/8, ISO 320, 500mm lens plus 1.4x converter

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 picked up the same pride on several occasions
We picked up the same pride on several occasions

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.

Big brothers. It was a tough decision to leave these guys and stick with the younger lions

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.

Staying with the group of cubs was a gamble. Would it pay off?

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?

Gotcha! Lion cubs hone ambush moves that will help their survival when fully-grown

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.

Getting your teeth into it. A sibling’s tail at the sharp end of one cub’s canines

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.

Let’s make up. Time for a friendly head nuzzle after the fighting

 

 

Three pictures and the stories behind them

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

White rhino, Kwazulu Natal

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

Cape buffalo at night

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

Cheetah with springbok kill

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.

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.