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…