Category Archives: Eco-tourism

Kalahari meerkats having a ball playing boules

Playtime in camp. The curious meerkat mob join in an impromptu game of boules. Simples!

Suricates enjoying a game of boules. The notion might just about be credible on TV back home, as part of that long-running ad campaign for a UK price comparison website featuring a clan of movie-loving meerkats. Two-for-one tickets for a classic French cinema season anyone? But meerkats enjoying a game of boules in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP), southern Africa’s legendary Kalahari wilderness area, we’re kidding right?

Young meerkat getting into the game if not quite getting to grips with the rules

No seriously, when you’ve been following an inquisitive, forever-on-the-move, mob of 18 photogenic meerkats around camp for several days you learn that nothing should surprise you. The sports-loving meerkats are denning regularly in one of the KTP’s tourist rest-camps, coming and going as they please.

The meerkats have the run of the camp – you’re never sure where they’ll be rushing next

One minute they’re dashing out into the reserve through the perimeter fence to forage, the next they’re scuttling across the border onto the Namibian farmlands beyond the park for a change of scene. No park permits or passports required. They have the run of the place and you’re never quite sure  when they’ll turn up next.  Predicting where they’ll pop up is quite a challenge.

These guys are everywhere. Foraging for food in the sand while checking the coast’s clear

But while we’re tailing them and waiting patiently for the best photographic light in which to photograph them their antics provide us with a constant source of entertainment.

A young tourist is fascinated by his new neighbours on arrival at camp
Soon the whole family’s fixated on them as they’re welcomed by the nosey suricates

Other tourists can’t get enough of them either, or certainly that’s the case for the first few days following their arrival at camp.

After that the novelty wears off a bit and everyone begins to treat them as part of the furniture. The feeling’s mutual. The clan’s equally curious about anyone, or anything, new on the block, but in the end we humans, and all our attendant clobber, barely make it onto a meerkat’s radar.

Tourists and meerkats soon lose interest in each other

We’re useful only for the extra vantage point our stuff can offer a passing meerkat sentry (and for the odd ball game, of course).

This disregard is a huge boon to us as photographers because it means we can approach closer than usual (amazingly close when wielding a wide angle lens if you go carefully and behave as though you’re one of the mob). It also means we can exploit intimate low angles on eye-level with these engaging subjects without affecting their natural behavior – something that would never be possible when photographing their cousins living deeper in the park where you’re confined to your vehicle.

With wild meerkats this habituated we can get ultra close with our wide angle lenses

It’s not just us photographers that reap the benefits from these shared living arrangements. There’s an upside for the meerkats too. It’s much safer having itinerant human strangers for neighbours compared to the predators that threaten clan members’ survival out there in the reserve. Plus, there’s the bonus of occasional scraps of food, particularly welcome in leaner times, from visitors breaking South Africa national park rules to feed them titbits from the table or braai (BBQ). Perhaps because we humans seldom serve up big fat scorpions, or the grubs the meerkats are constantly busy digging up about the place, the mob thankfully hasn’t become too reliant on visitor handouts so far. But they have certainly become habituated.

The meerkats are warming up on the campsite soon after getting up at 6.50am sharp!

We first met the gang two years ago (see our earlier blog). The group was smaller then and quite a bit shyer but just like this year the alpha female was pregnant (meerkats tend to breed in the summer months) and there were a couple of comical youngsters in tow. Last year, although we visited the Kalahari at the same time, we only crossed paths with them very briefly, despite checking their den spots every evening following our game drive just in case they came back to pose for our cameras a second time around.

Getting attached. Our alpha female with a youngster

Call us sad if you want to, but if you’d spent any time with these guys you’d also get attached. And, let’s face it, the potential for a saleable photo story was so appealing, we were happy to delay that first cold beer at sundown for the slim chance of some nice images  – and hearing their welcome incessant chattering once again.

So you can imagine our sweet surprise when there they were again this year, right outside the door of our chalet, as if ready to welcome us, just as soon as we opened it to head off on our very first afternoon game drive. Double takes all round.

We’d follow meerkats all afternoon for the chance of backlit shots like this

The chance to follow an habituated group of suricates on foot in the golden hours was too good to pass up, so once again we found ourselves abandoning that drive and many subsequent evening drives to follow them. And on days when we knew they had definitely denned in camp the night before, we made a point of returning after morning drives by 6.50am in the mornings to photograph them too.

The camp’s quiet at sunrise – everyone’s out on a drive

Six-fifty being the precise time the meerkats popped out of the burrow each morning, regular as clockwork, to warm up in the early sunshine.

It’s no trouble putting the time in like this when you have a fabulous and fascinating bunch of busy characters that never fails to perform for your camera.

 

 

Keeping tabs on the clan was a full-time job at times

The ton of sand that gets into every bodily crevice when you’re lying prone on the thorn-strewn ground in anticipation of your picture is nothing when your lens is trained on a meerkat beautifully silhouetted against a swoosh of golden dust that’s obligingly being dug up in just the right spot by one of his campadres.

‘Looks like I’m okay to rest here while the gang catch up’

Keeping constant tabs on this hyperactive mob so we could maximise opportunities with them in the better light when it came was a full-time job, but meant we had the pleasure of spending many an hour following them round as they ran amok in camp through the late afternoon; whether they were stopping to check all’s well from the top of various signposts or grabbing a quick sip of water in the shade on the campsite.

 

The gang stops for a drink on a hot afternoon before dashing off again with us in tow

Wildlife photography is as much about the connection with your subject in the run-up to a picture as it is about that ‘decisive moment’ when the shutter button’s clicked.

It’s all about putting the time in with subjects – the more you invest the more you get out

And if that means being a meerkat’s shadow from the moment it’s chocolate-coloured snout emerges from the burrow at 6.50am to the moment its chocolate-tipped tails disappears down into its den for the night, then bring it on as that’s definitely no hardship.

Capturing the spirit of this on-the-go species as they rush around camp

Being in and amongst them, trailing all around the camp and back after the very last one of them, and them not caring a fig about us ‘coming with’ was a huge highlight on our recent trip. You just can’t put a value on  experiences like that – pictures or no…

We followed the guys as they left the burrow each day and headed for the campsite

 

Loft-style living for the wild’s high-flyers

 

Nests are constantly extended by residents until large sections drop off
Nests are constantly extended by residents and bits drop of

It’s not unusual when you’re travelling through another country to marvel, and take a bit of a nosey, at some of the unusual and different homes you pass along the way. There are some fine examples in the arid Northern Cape en route to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and  a few weeks ago, on our way back from the national park on our latest South  Africa visit, we stopped off to take some photographs of several remarkable high-rise homes that merited attention.

The massive ‘penthouse suites’ in question were the distinctive communal nests of colonies of tiny birds  known as sociable weavers. The nests look like clumsy haystacks that have somehow ended up on the top of telegraph poles lining the road. In the absence of nearby trees the birds make use of these handy man-made structures to construct their remarkable nests. Marvels of engineering, the nests have multiple chambers inside housing up to 500 birds and can keep their occupants cosy in the Kalahari’s cold semi-desert winters and cool when temperatures rise to more than 40 degrees in the summer.

Our picture story about these fantastic  bird houses was picked up by several news outlets earlier this month and you can see more of our images of their crazy nests via this link to one of the pieces in the Mail Online.

Lucky leopard kicks off our photography year

A distant silhouette on the far ridge. The distinctive outline of a cat, walking. Heading north. It’s not yet light. Instinctively we both feel it could be a leopard. We’re cautious in calling it though. It’s ‘far, far’, very small even through binoculars. Most likely a cheetah,’ we agree. ‘Could be on the way to the water for a drink, it’s hot already this morning’.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
The early dawn palette flatters our special subject especially when she turns briefly to look at us

There’s a waterpoint back north in the direction we’ve just travelled, about three k’s back up the sandy track. It will be a while before the sun’s up and the best photographic light is with us, so we drive on south for another seven or so kilometres to check out the next waterhole along the dry riverbed. Satisfying ourselves we’re not missing anything further down the valley we turn around and slowly drive back north again.

It’s been a quiet few days photographically. Conditions in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a vast semi desert wilderness that straddles the borders of South Africa and Botswana, are very dry at the moment. We’re expecting rain anytime soon. The temperatures have been building, but not the clouds. We’re seeing big cats, and ticking over in terms of shots, but there’s not a whole lot of game around yet and we’re missing the raptors and smaller stuff. It’s like hanging around waiting for the grass to grow – literally.

Leopard female, Kgalagadi
We’re close enough to count her spots as our lucky leopard walks right by us

So we’re not really expecting to set eyes on that hint of a cat from up on the top of the dunes. It’s just that on quiet morning drives like this you have to have some sort of plan for when the photographic golden hour arrives – even if it’s just to keep your head up. We continue heading back in the direction we came, to the next waterhole north, on the off-chance we’ll pick up our shadowy feline again. You’ve got to stay positive in this game. If nothing else the waterhole will make a nice spot for morning coffee and a rusk, but, in truth, the idea we’ll get nada once again in the sweet light is killing us.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
Cat among the ‘pigeons’ – the doves make way for this thirsty feline just as the golden light arrives

Turning into the approach road to the waterhole we notice there’s another vehicle parked under the landmark thorn tree that provides much needed shade to animals and humans alike. Another reason to feel hopeful? But it doesn’t appear there’s anything at the water. It’s then we both spot something approaching the water from the left side of our vehicle. Just as we’re pitching up at the water so too amazingly is our mystery cat. Serendipitous timing or what! Our hunch was right. It was indeed a leopard we saw in the half light earlier on. Up close we see it’s a stunning female with gorgeous markings. We should have trusted our instincts when we saw her up on the dune. She looks in good condition. Predators can do alright for themselves when it’s really dry like this and the summer rainfall is late.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
Taking a leap so as not to get those big paws wet!

Immediately coffee mode is off, photography is mode on. We’re in position before you can say ‘cat’s whiskers’ with one of us in the back, one in the driving position, and both with cameras ready. It’s time for fast thinking. We need a banker image or two at least from this special sighting. We steady ourselves and begin reeling off shots in the last of the soft pre-dawn light. One of us has the 500mm with a 1.4 converter (700mm), the other the 100 to 400mm zoom. The important thing is for both of us to keep well braced and aim to cover all the bases in case she doesn’t hang around – which is the most likely scenario with a stealthy huntress like this.

Leopard female resting in tree, Kgalagadi
Our leopard takes to a shady thorn tree to rest a while providing more picture opportunities

The pastel colours and soft light just before dawn flatter her beautifully. In the low light her eyes are big; no need to squint as she will when it’s harsh later on. She really is very close to us now and we’re both holding our breath. She stops to look around and check the coast is clear, her long tail curling at her back; she’s making sure there are no lions to worry about before advancing to the water trough.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
The cat’s whiskers – in the shady light it’s possible to frame softly-lit portraits 

Both of her ears pricked? Eyes both with nice catchlights? Exposure okay? Enough, but not too much depth of field? Composition looking good? Sufficient speed if she explodes into action all of a sudden? All split second decisions. Pretty much second nature, but when there’s a leopard in your viewfinder that’s a big pressure moment. You don’t want to screw up moments like these. Leopards love to keep a low profile. Blink and they’re gone.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
Action! After each visit to the water this plucky young female bounds across the overflow 

The good light’s almost here and we’re nervous she’ll spook and turn tail before it does. In our mind’s eye we can imagine how it will burnish her coat and how her piercing yellow eyes will pop in our pictures.

Fortunately there’s one thing heavily weighted in our favour. We’re banking on the fact this is the same relaxed leopard, a young female known as Ikhaya, that caused quite a stir by hanging around here for a few days, several months ago, to the delight of everyone staying at the two nearest camps. We’d picked up the buzz on social media at the time, but never expected, hadn’t dared to hope, our visit would coincide with her routine visits here. From her chilled demeanour this morning there’s every reason to suspect this is the same beautiful girl. If so we should be in for a treat. But we still need some insurance shots first – just in case.

Leopard female, Kgalagadi
As the sun gets harsh our subject saunters off to find a  secluded spot to hole up for the day

She’s at the water now and the light is combing its honeyed fingers across her coat. Already we can frame a few simple portraits as she sits on the rocks surveying her surroundings up and down the valley, proud of the background. We’re pretty happy with these first captures, but suddenly the scene is spray-painted gold. Now we’re in business. She dips her head to drink, lifts it, dips again and drinks some more. She’s thirsty and, thankfully, seems in no hurry to leave. We finally have the luxury of time to consider our picture-making. What a star. Her eyes burn into our lenses, we see she has tiny drops of water matting the fur on her lower jaw and two long silver strands of slobber that swing and glint in the low raking sun. We’re smitten.

We spend almost an hour and half with her that morning, and another two hours again 48 hours later. Up there with our best leopard sightings in the park, when we’re reliving it all later back at camp, and reviewing our pictures, we’re both astounded just how casual we were, driving on past her after that first glimpse up on the far bank of dunes.

How lucky that we’d turned back in time when most mornings we would have just carried on south – looking for something nice to photograph…

Staying out ’til dark with the big cats of Khwai

Tattooed with bruises from off-roading. Eyes sore from peering into the bush (and through our camera viewfinders). Cold in the mornings, hot in the afternoons. Sun drilling down on just one side of our faces. Grit crunching between our teeth. Creased old khaki duds. Dust everywhere. Why put yourself through it?

Our first Khwai encounter is a very special one

The answer is currently staring down at us from a stately raintree in Botswana’s Khwai conservancy on the edge of the Okavango Delta. She’s draped over a thick branch, her head resting heavily on huge paws; her wide-eyed gaze meeting our own. This is our first visit to this conservancy and we’re super-excited to meet our first resident of this special place.

Resting in a raintree – we settle down too and wait for her to move

Our little plane only touched down just a couple of hours earlier, yet here we are cautiously tailing a beautiful, thick-set (possibly pregnant?) female leopard we picked up about an hour ago – just moments into our very first afternoon game drive out on the reserve.

This private reserve is home to plentiful big game…

This 180,000 hectare wilderness, sandwiched between the world-famous Moremi and Chobe national parks, boasts just a small handful of lodges so tourist traffic is light. We’re guests of Pangolin camp. There are no fences between Khwai and the neighbouring protected areas and wildlife moves seamlessly from one reserve to another. Because the concession is private we also have the added bonus, for us wildlife photographers, of being able to travel off-road to get closer and also achieve much better angles on subjects.

…but it’s the regular predator sightings that appeal to us

Khwai’s noted for its regular predator sightings, its water channels attract good amounts of game and birdlife, wild dogs pass through, denning there in the winter months and there are buffaloes and elephants aplenty. So you can imagine how keen we were to explore the place on this recce. Despite all we’d read, we didn’t expect to have two hours of prime leopard-time on our very first drive.

Alert now our quarry restlessly moves from tree to tree

When we first clapped eyes on our spotted friend she was resting at the base of a tree. Well-camouflaged in the swaying, sun-bleached grasses, it took a while to pick her out. The light was still harsh and there wasn’t really a good image to be had. But you don’t pass up, or pass by, a sighting like this one. We waited patiently for better light and the chance she might move.
We didn’t have to wait too long. For the next couple of hours we followed closely, but carefully, as she restlessly prowled around, trying out different trees for size. She climbed them effortlessly, bounding up the trunks, selecting the right branch and snoozing for a while, then climbing back down and beginning her evening perambulations.

From blue hour to darkness we are spellbound by our very first Khwai encounter

The light softened, then turned gold. The blue hour came and went and still we kept our eyes and lenses locked on her. When all available natural light was gone, we resorted to using a spotlight – gently and sparingly – marvelling at her grace as she stretched before starting out on her long  night of hunting. We stayed with her until the very last moment, then bade her goodnight and watched her disappearing into the blackness.

It was the best of Botswana welcomes.

The stench is foul but this dead hippo is a good feed for the hyena clan
A cheetah spends the day near her recent kill

In the following few days we got lucky with wild dog, spent time with a cheetah that had just killed a reedbuck, held our noses while photographing a hyena clan enjoying dead hippo for their picnic, and found a very handsome male lion lurking in the long grass. We had sniffs of other leopards too, but in the end the trails went cold.

Big bull elephants cut the dust at this busy waterhole where a photo hide has been sunk

We also spent time trying out the conservancy’s famous low level elephant hide where massive adult bulls regularly come to drink and pass almost too close for comfort; kicking sand in your face (and lens!) It’s an awe-inspiring experience which should be enhanced even further when a second low-level hide is opened elsewhere on the conservancy sometime soon.

Safe in the half-buried container hide you can admire the huge beasts at close quarters

We even found ourselves with front row seats at the bush premiere of Nat Geo conservationist and explorer Steve Boyes’ fascinating new documentary film ‘Into the Okavango’ which had its TV world premiere this month on Nat Geo Wild. Before the titles rolled (we were joining US journalists who were there on a press trip and also passing through Pangolin camp), Steve gave a talk about the epic four-month expedition  to explore the river system that feeds the Okavango, discussing the making of the film and his passion for this vast wetland wilderness that wrapped us round beneath the stars .

And all the while, as elephants rumbled in the distance, we chomped on popcorn, just as you would in any local multiplex.

It was too short a visit. Just a few hot, dusty, memorably magic days.

We can’t wait to go back…

Looking back on a memorable visit to a wilderness where predators roam free