Specialist hides, where you often pay a premium to photograph, are springing up at the moment like fungi after a flood. All good stuff perhaps, but let’s not forget, in these straitened times, there are still quite a few top-notch public hides that are perfectly positioned for getting excellent shots and most of them are a bargain. Here are a few of our personal favourites from our many visits to South Africa:
Shop ’til you drop or photograph birds to your heart’s content at this hidden Cape Town oasis with Table Mountain for a backdrop. This compact, and cleverly thought-out, urban wetland area has been created right at the heart of the Century City development so you can hop on a boat to the nearby shopping mall for brunch after a busy morning photographing various kingfishers, shy bitterns, ducks, geese, ibis and even the odd raptors that sometimes pass by.
Best bit: When we’ve visited, when passing through the Mother City, natural perches were extremely well-placed for photography.
Our tip: Go early, and mid-week, if you want the best spot for photography – this tiny hide is popular and can be very busy on weekends.
Giants Castle Vulture Hide
We haven’t been to this perennial favourite for a while – probably because it’s regularly booked out these days. Where else can you go eyeball to eyeball with bearded and Cape vultures as they soar effortlessly on the thermals against the stunning Drakensberg mountains of KwaZulu-Natal in a precariously placed eyrie of a cliff-top hide.
Best bit: A morning in this amazing state park-run hide is a wonderful experience even if you don’t pack camera gear and simply sit there absorbing the avian aerobatics and fly-pasts.
Our tip: Booking well ahead goes without saying, but if possible book out the whole hide (it’s not expensive) so you’ve got plenty of room and can use whichever camera portholes are best on the day.
Staying in KwaZulu-Natal, this dry season hide that sits over a tree-lined waterhole in Mhkuze game reserve is no secret to photographers and bird-watchers alike. Since its recent refurbishment, however, we reckon it’s now even better for photography. Perhaps we were just lucky on our last visit, but the place was heaving all morning with nyala, wildebeest, impala, zebra, rhino, baboons, warthogs, the odd ellie or two and even comical terrapins.
Best bit: Photo opportunities here are rich and rewarding and you’re beautifully close to the busy morning animal activity with the perfect orientation for the light.
Our tip: Be alert to what’s going on behind you when you’re there. There can sometimes be good opportunities for contre-jour shots in the very early morning on the less busy side of the hide.
Mata Mata Restcamp Hide
We can’t resist including this one from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park because we’ve so many awesome memories of big cats coming to drink here by night and day. Of course you don’t need to be inside this purpose-built hide on stilts; you can watch the wildlife just as easily from the (sometimes flimsy-feeling!) camp fence, but the hide makes photographing with big telephotos that bit easier as there’s a handy ledge to support your lens and no wire to get in the way.
Best bit: You’re right at camp so can pop down from the hide to turn your chops on the braai while you’re photographing the lions.
Our tip: If cats have been seen around camp in the morning, or are sitting up on the distant dunes in the afternoon, you may want to forgo an evening drive and sit patiently in the hide – they’ll generally move down to the waterhole for a drink just before sundown.
So these are just a few of our favourite ‘public’ hides for photography. Perhaps you have your own favourites?