Puffin chicks get health check-ups on the Farnes

BCE10 Puffin chick removed temporarily from burrow for ringing
Puffin chicks don’t have the characteristic bright beak of their parents

We’ve just been over to the Farne Islands – one of Britain’s best spots to get great photographs of breeding seabirds – for a final visit of the summer. This time it was to take a peak ‘behind-the-scenes’ on Inner Farne, before the day visitors arrive. We spent the morning, puffins zooming by our heads continuously, with National Trust ranger Laura Shearer. She was  busy ringing, weighing and measuring these characterful, bright-billed birds and their downy, penguin-lookalike, chicks before they leave the Farnes and head off back to sea.

Seabird conservationists say they’ve had a bumper breeding season on Britain’s north-east coast this summer. When we visited to photograph, the Farnes team was expecting to announce ‘a cracking breeding season’ across all the species nesting on the islands. ‘It appears a similar story is emerging at other east coast colonies too, which is tremendous news for our embattled seabirds,’ said head ranger David Steel. ‘It’s been a tough few years (especially in the northern isles) and so it’ll be good to report some positive news when the final population counts are made’.

Laura surprises two parent puffins at home in their burrow

In order to ring a puffin chick or adult bird Laura must first locate them in their underground nesting burrows. This is no easy feat. ‘There are thousands of burrows. Not all of them will be occupied, so you have put your hand right down and have a feel around to see if they are occupied or not,’ she says.

‘It’s not an easy job. When you stick your hand down the burrow you risk putting it straight into the sharp beak of a puffin or into the second chamber which is their toilet!’

Laura’s been doing the job for three seasons now. At the start of each she gets a new hat which will be completely iced in guano by the time the birds leave at the end of the summer.

BCE15 Weighing puffin chick
It’s not easy spending months away from family and friends but Laura loves the island life

‘There’s eight of us that live here throughout the breeding season, plus our head ranger,’ she tells us as she pops a fluffy puffin chick on the weighing scales. ‘These people become your whole life and your support group, because you spend all day, everyday, with them.

BCE13 Weighing puffin chick
This puffin chicks gets a check over and is weighed and ringed

There are times when it is tough out here. You can get isolated, you’ve literally abandoned all your friends and family, so it’s really good to have the support from the rest of the team to help you pick up the pieces and keep going.’

BCE24 Puffin pair removed from burrow for ringing
Laura has her hands full with two adult birds. Soon they’ll leave the island until next spring

Some 80,000 puffins come to the Farnes to breed each year. They are just one of a number of breeding seabird species Laura and her colleagues monitor closely over the summer.

According to the National Trust this year’s breeding season has been helped along by the good weather and the availability of lots of sand-eels (the main diet of puffins). Seabirds have been having a difficult time in recent seasons particularly in Scotland. The sand-eel population crashed in recent years leaving many birds too weak to breed. Conservationists say rising sea temperatures and trawling on a large scale are largely to blame for the problem and have been calling for the setting up of marine protected areas…

Tails of the Unexpected

BMV33 Harvest mice
‘What are those odd humans doing do you reckon?’

It’s a funny old game being wildlife photographers. We never know what to expect next…One day we’re photographing the planet’s tallest mammals from the back of a pick-up in bright, Bedfordshire sunshine for World Giraffe Day, the next Britain’s smallest (and wriggliest) rodents in an impromptu studio in dodgy light for a ‘creature feature’ we’ve been commissioned to write about harvest mice. We needed that classic, if cliched, summertime shot of said mini-mouse clinging to an ear of wheat – a scene few people can ever have witnessed in the wild. That’s because these diminutive creatures are so secretive even conservation experts can’t be sure if their numbers are going up or down. So what do you do if you suddenly need to capture that iconic image on camera?

It was never going to be the easiest of photo shoots. Captive bred though our tiny subjects were, the setting dressed just as we’d envisaged and the creative control firmly in our own hands, no-one had thought to tell our unsuspecting ‘models’ that we, not they, were in charge.

It’s tough setting out to make appealing images of a hyperactive, highly intelligent creature just five to eight centimetres long and lighter than a British 2p coin when you’re more accustomed to photographing Africa’s big game. Out of our comfort zone we were hoping the mice, adept climbers, would take to our set-up and have fun scaling and clinging on to the props we’d so thoughtfully provided for them.

BMV28 Harvest mice
Our subjects explore their new ‘jungle gym’

They certainly did – tearing up and down the long stems of wheat faster than Hamilton and Rosberg on race day. They’re the only British species with a prehensile tail, which they use like an extra limb to cling on safely to long grasses. All very well, but the problem for us was the fact they would only stay still for a nano-second when they reached  the top of the ears of wheat in their specially-created jungle gym. If we were not ready to fire the shutter in that split second we had to wait patiently for the race to restart with reflexes ready for their next momentary pitstop.

BMV21 Harvest mice
Tipping point? It’s a delicate balance getting shots right

Getting sharp, well-composed shots with just one mouse was hard enough, but when we introduced further mice to the wheat stalk scene it proved to be a real nightmare! Getting enough speed to freeze movement, and enough depth of field for sharpness across several subjects without bringing the background into focus was a constant juggling act. Success generally meant waiting for the split second all the busy little mice were more or less in the same plane.

BMV27 Harvest mice
‘Have those odd humans gone yet?’

It was more exhausting than we’d imagined firing the shutter at the fleeting ‘right’ moment while trying not to shake with laughter when, from time to time, the wheat, weighed down by too many mice would suddenly give way and bend in half sending our cute and comical models, still attached, on a great big fairground ride through the air!

Sticking our necks out for World Giraffe Day

AMHG365 Rothschild's giraffe male
Curious male posing for our World Giraffe Day photo call

If we ever needed reminding just how awesome, and amusing giraffes can be, then our visit last week to photograph the rare Rothschild’s giraffes at Woburn Safari Park, Bedfordshire, here in the UK, for today’s first ever World Giraffe Day, wasn’t a bad way to do it.

Crouched uncomfortably on the back of an open pick-up in their large enclosure with keeper Lindsay Banks, researcher Dominique Rhoades and a prickly pile of fresh browse for them to eat, we were soon being nudged and bumped by half a dozen big bony heads as their long necks craned in to reach the choicest bits of food.

BCF09 Rothschild's giraffe feeding at Woburn Safari Park
No shortage of willing subjects when there’s a free buffet!

All teeth and purple tongues, these huge and breath-taking animals had us surrounded as they gently nibbled from the impromptu buffet at our feet. It didn’t take long for either photographers or subjects to lose their inhibitions and we were all soon deftly negotiating our way around each other to get exactly what we wanted!

BCF02 Rothschild's giraffes feeding at Woburn Safari Park
Wide angle lenses at the ready – these guys aren’t shy

We’ve photographed giraffes umpteen times on our African adventures in the past, but have never been close enough to feel their breath before (or be dribbled on!) It was a real treat sitting among a swaying forest of necks with a privileged view of them quietly and intently feeding. Thanks to all the keepers and crew at Woburn who helped make it happen on the day.

The reason for our up close and personal giraffe encounter? Today’s the first-ever annual giraffe day, launched by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) wildlife charity to raise awareness about the plight of giraffe. Despite being an iconic African animal, and the tallest mammal on the planet, the giraffe’s conservation needs have been sadly overlooked. There are now fewer than 80,000 giraffe in the wild, less than a fifth the number of elephants.

BCF05 Rothschild's giraffes at Woburn Safari Park
Rothschild’s giraffes at home at Woburn Safari Park in the UK

Woburn Safari Park, with a herd of 17 Rothschild’s giraffes, is one of 50 wild animal collections celebrating World Giraffe Day today with a series of special events. We wanted to do something to help flag up this first ever global giraffe day so we arranged the special photo-call through our links with the GCF. Having just done a book on giraffes we’ve become even more aware of just how special these creatures are and of the real need for conservation initiatives like those supported by the foundation.

BCF08 Senior keeper Lindsay Banks feeding Rothschild's giraffe a
Keep Lindsay Banks with some of her charges

For example there are only 1,000 or so Rothschild’s giraffes in the wild and Woburn’s successful breeding herd of this rare sub-species, managed by keeper Lindsay to promote natural social structure within the herd, is helping bolster genetic variation in the wild population. Two more calves are expected to be born there any day.

‘Giraffe play an important part in the African eco-system, opening up areas for new growth and dispersing seeds,’ says former keeper and giraffe conservationist Dominique. ‘The misconception that giraffe are abundant is the reason why World Giraffe Day is so important in order to raise awareness of their needs in Africa and to ensure their future survival,’ she says.

BCF12 Rothschild's giraffe feeding at Woburn Safari Park
Let’s hear it for giraffes on June 21, 2014

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation was set up to promote and support giraffe conservation, particularly in parts of Africa where giraffe populations are in trouble. Its chairman, leading giraffe expert Dr Julian Fennessey, is hoping this first dedicated day for giraffes will throw a much-needed spotlight on these amazing animals. ‘The need to increase education and awareness about giraffes is critical at a time when their numbers are plummeting. They truly are the forgotten megafauna,’ he says.

Not anymore!

You can find our Giraffe ebook on the iTunes store. For more info about giraffes, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation website is well worth a look.

Discovering Scotland’s Secret South West

Bluebells in ancient woodland, Galloway
Bluebells in ancient woodland, Galloway

Managed to make the most of the last days of our British spring, definitely the best season here in the UK, with a visit to Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, just a short distance over the border from where we live.

The place has a fair bit of of fine flora and fauna, but is a lot less well-known than other Scottish wildlife hotspots, and is way handier than the distant Highlands for us. It was meant to be a bit of R&R, a break from work after a rather hectic few months slogging away in the office following our latest South Africa trip, but we packed the cameras, just in case, as you do…

The bluebells were in their final flourish but still pretty impressive
The bluebells were in their final flourish but still impressive

Bowled over by what must be one of the most beguiling bluebell displays for some seasons we were glad we’d lugged the gear with us on our walks in the woods while we were there. Admittedly a few days too late for the very best images we still couldn’t resist photographing the final flush of these heady, hyacinth-scented wild-flowers rippling across the woodland floor in waves of intense indigo.

So having unzipped the camera backpacks and blown away the cobwebs we decided to pay a call on the area’s famous and impressively aerobatic red kites. We’ve never visited the kite feeding station in Dumfries and Galloway before, although we’ve photographed a couple of times at the one at Gigrin Farm in Rhyader, Wales, which attracts huge numbers of these birds, and flocks of keen photographers, in the winter. It’s a bit odd really given the D&G site’s reasonable proximity to our home in Northumberland, but there you go…

Red kite flying in to the feedling station
Red kite flying in to the feedling station

Suffice to say we were quite impressed given it wasn’t the best time of year and the lighting/weather conditions weren’t ideal for tip-top flight shots. We had plenty of birds wheeling and careening over our heads to make for a challenging and fun afternoon’s photography and, thankfully, not all the birds had wing tags on.

Dumfries and Galloway is just one of several locations in the UK where red kites have been successfully re-introduced. Supplementary feeding in one or two of these spots by private, commercial operations (usually farmers diversifying to help make ends meet) provides enough food to attract the birds for the delight of tourists and photo-fiends, but not enough to make the birds dependant.

Tiny transmitters are attached to the kite's tail feathers
Tiny transmitters are attached to the kite’s tail feathers

A couple of years back we photographed Forestry Commission conservationists attaching transmitters to the tail feathers of  a number of red kites in one of these reintroduction schemes in Grizedale Forest, Cumbria.  This would enable the experts to keep tabs on where the birds where and how far they travelled form the release site. The guys were seated at a table, just like a sewing circle, chatting to us about the project as they painstakingly stitched way.  It was fascinating to see how these beautiful birds of prey, covered  by a cloth, remained docile throughout the whole procedure.

Seeing the success of such an initiative for ourselves in D&G in the last few days certainly whetted our appetites for a return photography visit later this year in the autumn or winter when even more birds should be visiting in softer light or even falling snow.

Aerial acrobats, the kites are a big hit with tourists
Aerial acrobats, the kites are a big hit with tourists

We particularly enjoyed photographing in the open (there are no photography hides here) enjoying wide, almost all-round views, and the freedom of movement to photograph the birds approaching from different directions as well as those whisking right over our heads.

Northumberland Coast is Where The Wild Things Are

BBWWA49(D) Puffins
Clowns of the sea: Farne island puffins

It’s time we switched from beating about the African bush, and started making some noise about the great place we live when we’re at home in the UK. Northumberland National Park in the north-east of England’s not a bad gaff, if you can’t be in the Kgalagadi 24/7, and in the last couple of weeks we’ve had good reason to be reminded of the fact. We’ve been working on a couple of photo jobs out at the coast, cherry-picking precious sunny days to celebrate what Northumberland has in abundance including an unspoilt shoreline and amazing wildlife; not too mention scrumptious seafood.

I’m not sure we’re doing ourselves any favours spreading the word though. Northumberland’s still off the beaten track. It’s said to be the most tranquil county in Britain, has some of the darkest skies and is the most sparsely populated region in England. Just how we like it. Which is why we’re not banging the drum loudly, but simply whispering quietly, about a couple of the region’s highlights we’ve had fun rediscovering recently.

BME29 Grey seal
Who’s watching who? A curious grey seal eyes our boat

Our assignments included an early season boat ride to the world-famous Farne Islands a few miles offshore (boats go there from the harbour at Seahouses) where during the spring/summer breeding period you’ll find 150,000 pairs, give or take a few, of noisy, hyperactive seabirds. Some days it feels like there might be this many photographers too, but with about 40,000 pairs of photogenic puffins zooming about the skies like wind-up toys, and some 20 or so other bird species, there’s probably enough subjects to go round.

An early visit beats the crowds and although we couldn’t access both of the two islands visitors normally land on, and avian activity was only just warming up, it still proved a good way to kick-start our summer season of wildlife photography. There were certainly plenty of puffins. National Trust head ranger David Steel confirmed they’d returned to the Farnes early this year which we hope augurs well for another strong breeding season. This would be really great because seabirds have been suffering elsewhere in the UK.

To find yourself slap bang in the middle of so many seabirds is a full-on sensory experience, with splashes of guano for added authenticity – whether you pack full camera gear for the boundless photographic opportunities or just a picnic.

BBWWA90  Puffins in flight
Early season action: flying puffins on Inner Farne

In addition to our own photo projects we were testing out the new Tamron SP AF 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 zoom lens for a photography magazine – bracing to photograph curious seals from a swaying boat and action shots on dry land of whizzing puffins in flight. We found the lens a bit too slow to handle fast moving wildlife, though with a lot of perseverance we did eventually manage a couple of sharp shots of flying puffins. But the optical quality was extremely good for the price point (less than £1,000), and for a 600mm lens it’s relatively compact and lightweight. We won’t be replacing our EF 500mm with it any time soon, but if you’re looking for an affordable general wildlife lens, that’s hand-holdable at a push in tight situations, and you’re not too bothered about action shots, it’s worth considering.

Another coastal excursion found us on Bamburgh beach one misty morning for some scenics of that much-framed view of the sweep along the sands to the castle. The castle’s well-known outline was shimmering mysteriously in the hazy sunshine when we were there, which was pretty awesome. We’re not landscape specialists, but needed a quintessentially Northumberland coast shot for a particular job we were doing. Bamburgh’s one of our all-time favourite beaches – up there with the best we’ve encountered on our travels. It always blows us away – often almost literally.

Finally no visit to the North-east coast is complete without tasting the seafood – even if it’s just a humble bag of fish and chips. We stopped by this time at The Ship Inn at Low Newton – our idea of a perfect smuggler’s cove pub – for beautiful crab sandwiches, scoffed by the sea. The on-site micro-brewery brews 26 ales exclusively for the pub. They have the best names – like Squid Ink, Sea Coal and White Horses.

BRR13 Riley's Fish Shack
Riley’s Fish Shack sets up shop at Tynemouth

And if this al fresco seafood theme is starting to give you an appetite we should give a name-check to the innovative and quirky Riley’s Fish Shack, a mad, but brilliant, bicycle-powered pop up seafood barbeque which will be appearing once again at weekends on the beach at Tynemouth this summer. Not strictly Northumberland, but it’s worth stretching a point for their mackerel wraps. Well us wildlife photographers have to eat…

‘Beat About the Bush’ New Trip Awards

At last we’ve finished processing the images from our recent South Africa trip. We’ve been going as fast as possible, while at the same time marketing pictures, pitching feature ideas and ensuring existing deadlines are met (not to mention exploiting photo opportunities when the weather’s fair here in the UK). It’s a time-consuming juggling act – cue violins – but helps explain why we haven’t been here for a while and why it’s taken this long to present the inaugural Beat About the Bush ‘Travel Awards’ based on our latest round of African adventures. Here at last, for what it’s worth, is our round-up and recommendations.

Best Braai (with guests and surprise visitors)

Curious after dinner guests - these young genets were a welome intrusion
Curious after dinner guests – a welcome intrusion

Home-made ostrich burgers charred on the coals overlooking the waterhole at Mata Mata in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park shared with our German photographer and ecologist friend Bernd, who’d come down to see us from Namibia where he’s based. We’d treated ourselves to an accommodation upgrade and were staying in the smart river front chalets (in part to catch up with the sport on TV shame to say) so had a brilliant stoep location for dinner. The menu featured game from Checkers at the new Kalahari shopping mall in Upington and veggie treats from that corner Engen garage on the way up to the KTP which – ta-da – now has Woolworths’ food. It’s a long way from our early days here, when, camping for two month stretches at a time, we really struggled for fruit and greens.

After dessert, the juiciest spanspek melon courtesy of Bernd, surprise visitors turned up unannounced. As we were chugging our last beers we became aware of a rustling sound. We turned round to see two small-spotted genets eyeing us up from a thorn tree overhanging our deck. Turns out these curious sub-adults were our lodgers, holed up during the day in our roof thatch. In return for their free accommodation they kindly agreed to pose for some pictures.

Best Book

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy where author Alan Root now lives
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy where our ‘Best Book’ author, Alan Root, now lives

We always have destination-appropriate reading matter at hand for the long lulls between game drives and bouts of photography. We carry a special ‘book-bag’ round with us (an old Singapore Airlines shopper we’ve had for ages) crammed with magazines and books. It’s being eased out a bit these days by our iPad, but will never totally be replaced. This trip’s best-thumbed title was ‘Ivory, Apes & Peacocks’ by award-winning, Kenyan-based, wildlife film-maker Alan Root, an old pal of David Attenborough’s. It was published last year by Vintage Books. Anyone on safari, who loves African wildlife, photography or filming, or can simply imagine the long-gone Africa of Joy Adamson’s era will enjoy, marvel and laugh out loud at the well-told tales of his amazing scrapes and animal encounters. A true pioneer of his craft.

Most Perfect Storm

Storm clouds gathering menacingly over the Kgalagadi earlier this year
Storm clouds gathering menacingly over the Kgalagadi earlier this year

Catch a load of this prize-winning African summer storm we viewed from the top of the red dunes one evening after a game drive as it approached Twee Rivieren restcamp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The clouds massed like a big black tidal wave dumping much needed rain on us for several hours afterwards. Storms in this part of the world are awesome, operatic in scale, humbling, partly the reason we keep coming back at this time, and never the same twice.

Best Luxury Donkey Boiler

Fantastic drive from Mosetlha, with our guide Justice, turned up this pack of hunting wild dogs
Fantastic drive from Mosetlha, with our guide Justice, turned up these hunting wild dogs

A one-off, special award goes to Mosetlha Bush Camp at Madikwe game reserve in South Africa’s North-west Province. This charming, affordable and popular little bush camp, surrounded by chic five-star luxury lodges, manages to hold it’s own among them with it’s unique brand of rustic-with-frills eco-tourism. The hot water supply from the donkey boiler is constant, even if you do have to fill the bucket for your shower yourself. The camp is unfenced, but the shower block is enclosed so you don’t have to keep looking over your shoulder during your ablutions. Even the basic tents-cum-cabins are en suite – if you’ll allow a small bowl for hand washing and a potty. The latter is a real luxury for lazy campers like me (Ann) who always need the loo in the night, but hate going far in the dark to use the facilities. This is a fun way for first-timers to get a taste of camping wild in the bush, but with ‘stabilisers’.

Best Drama

The cheetahs catch their breath after bringing down a young wildebeest calf
The cheetahs catch their breath after bringing down a young wildebeest calf

Be advised this one doesn’t have a happy ending – neither for the small wildebeest calf nor for us. This baby wildebeest was taken down, extremely efficiently thankfully, by four speedy cheetahs before we had time to register what was going down. Despite being right there when it happened (half the battle with wildlife photography) we still didn’t nail that elusive cheetah-chase action shot. We were parked up at Sitzas waterhole in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park watching four cheetahs half-heartedly stalk some springbok when a lone wildebeest mum and her offspring loped into view. The two stood around for a while, checking if it was safe, then the mother made the move to head off – the wrong way.

Carrying their fresh kill to cover across the dry Auob riverbed
Carrying their fresh kill to cover across the dry Auob riverbed

Oblivious, she walked straight into the path of the resting cheetahs who were up and on the calf before we, or it, knew what was happening. We reversed along the road at some speed and managed to get shots of the drama playing itself out – the cheetah throttling their fresh kill and the four then dragging their meal across the open riverbed into the cover of some trees. Emotionally draining, such high-octane encounters are not the stuff of everyday, but are definitely why this wonderful wilderness reserve is world renowned.

Most Comfortable Hide

Wildlife photo-journalist at work in the African bush
Wildlife photo-journalist at work in the African bush

We’ve had more than our share of stuffy, sweaty, cramped, uncomfy, bat-poo infested, boomslang-inhabited, mosquito-filled and smelly hides to photograph from in the bush in the past. On this trip however we think we found what surely must be one of the most luxurious – complete with four-poster bed and drinks waiter (if required). Hard at work here, lounging in the shade in the hide at Jaci’s Tree Lodge in Madikwe game reserve, we could watch elephant families coming to drink and splashing about in the hot midday sun without leaving the comforts of camp or designer duvet. Now pass me that cocktail…

Wild Dogs Make Magical Madikwe ‘Big Six’ Reserve

Elephants are plentiful in South Africa's fourth largest reserve
Elephants are plentiful in South Africa’s fourth largest reserve

‘Ah-oooooooooooooooo. Ah-ooooooooooooo.’  A mournful,  low wail pierces the air.   We’ve never heard this sound before and if we didn’t know exactly who was uttering this haunting,  heartfelt song we might have ventured it was a bird rather than a mammal.   But,  just there,  right in front of our game-viewing vehicle,  to the delight and excitement of everyone on board,  is an African wild dog,  head bowed low,  scraping the red earth.

Running wild - Africa's painted hunting dog is a special sighting
Running wild – Africa’s painted hunting dog is a special sighting

‘Ah-oooooooooooo. Ah-ooooooooooooo.’   Like an ‘X-factor’ hopeful this pack member is ‘crooning’ for all he’s worth.   He’s somehow got separated from the rest of of his pack and is contact-calling plaintively to get back in touch – a bit like sending an urgent SMS or desperate text message when you quickly need to relocate family members or a bunch of friends in a crowd…

Getting this close to such a rare and beautiful animal – just check out those marbled coats and rangy,  marathon runner legs – is always a special treat,  but it’s even better when you get to discover another little piece of the jig-saw about their fascinating social and co-operative behaviour.

Looking for the wild dog pack we almost trip over a resting lioness
Looking for the wild dog pack we almost trip over a resting lioness

On our next morning drive,  we get to catch up with the reunited group of 14 dogs ( just one of the packs on the reserve) and follow them hunting – bumping along in the wake of the pack as they fan out through the bush at top speed flushing out their prey.   We’re certainly feeling the Madikwe magic…

It’s about 20 years since the first six wild dogs were introduced to Madikwe game reserve, in South Africa’s North West province.  Now here we are a couple of decades later closely following this holy grail species which is  doing remarkably well on the reserve.  Such conservation success stories are rare and certainly something to be celebrated.

One of three good leopard encounters in as many days
One of three good leopard encounters in as many days

When we ran into the wild dogs on our visit last month we’d already notched up excellent sightings of the Big Five just half-way through a five-night stay.   Three leopard sightings on successive afternoon drives,  many photogenic elephant encounters and an alert lion or two along the way had more than kept our cameras clicking,  but were we going to see the critters that make visits to this malaria-free reserve that extra-bit special?  We were getting more than a little anxious we might not be as lucky as most and that catching up with one of our favourite animals on the planet might prove impossible on this occasion.

Classic elephant bull sighting rounds off a successful Madikwe stay
Classic elephant bull rounds off a successful Madikwe stay

Guides confirmed the dogs had been giving everyone the runaround in recent days,  but assured us that it definitely wasn’t time to panic. How right they were. This was our very first visit to Madikwe,  South Africa’s fourth largest game reserve – but something tells us we’ll be back… Ah-ooooooooooo!

Magnificent ‘Mountain’ Lions on Dawn Patrol

AMPL350 Lion in Mountain Zebra National Park
Magnificent ‘mountain’ male lion on patrol

Most people have probably heard of Kruger Park in South Africa – it’s vast, diverse and most definitely on the tourist map. But there are 19 more reserves in this sunny country’s excellent network of national parks – some big, others relatively small,  some well known, others not so – and we’ve been visiting lots of them over the years we’ve been photographing southern Africa’s wildlife.

It’s been fascinating to see the changes in different parks from visit to visit – whether it’s extra roads and trails opening up greater areas to visitors or new and improved tourist facilities and accommodation.

Best of all is when, following the South African national parks’ policy of gradually reintroducing species originally found in an area covered by one of its reserves, you pitch up and there’s suddenly another species to photograph.  And if that new, reintroduced species just happens to be a predator – then there’s probably going to be a whole new exciting dynamic to that reserve – for the visitor and the eco-system alike.

AMPL348 Lions in Mountain Zebra National Park
These two fine specimens were introduced in April 2013

This was certainly the case when we turned up at a small reserve in the Eastern Cape, called Mountain Zebra National Park, a couple of weeks ago. As it’s name suggests this national park’s raison d’etre, until fairly recently, has been about conserving rare plains game including Cape Mountain Zebra and Black Wildebeest.

We enjoy going there because it’s scenically beautiful and very tranquil – as well it might be with no big predators to speak of. This and the fact that many of the animals are found atop a high plateau so it feels as though you’re ascending into The Lost Kingdom when you’re on a game drive.

Photographically-speaking it’s always seemed a quiet sort of place; for relaxing a bit and perhaps picking up one or two handy bits and pieces. Despite always meaning to we’ve never yet really afforded the place the time it deserves to make the most of the ever-changing mountain light and the potential for framing picturesque animal-in-the-landscape shots.

AMPL359 Lion in Mountain Zebra National Park
Keeping an alert eye over his territory

Which is why when we turned up for a brief two night stopover on our latest African adventure, convinced we could give our cameras a bit of a rest, we got a huge and quite hairy surprise. We’d completely forgotten the reserve now has a trio of lions (two big males and a female). The new residents moved in just under a year ago restoring lions to the area for the first time in some 130 years.

When we first heard about the lion reintroduction we thought it would probably prove impossible on a short visit to get decent pictures of them, even in such a small park, so it was a bit of a shock, in more ways than one, to find ourselves out on the plateau one Sunday morning at sunrise, with no other vehicles around, being stalked by two huge young male bruisers with luxuriant, dew-dampened manes and the sort of big cat swagger you perfect when there are no other males around to smack you down.

Once, and it took it a while, they became convinced we weren’t going to make an early breakfast for them and they ceased to show an interest in our vehicle, we had a very nice morning of photography with them. Restless and alert, and still pumped after yesterday’s zebra kill which another visitor had told us about, these young guns were delightful subjects we just hadn’t bargained for.

AMPL361 Lion in Mountain Zebra National Park
How will these big guys impact on the reserve in future?

It was really interesting to see how they’d taken a convincing command of their new territory already. We didn’t even mind that we had good light only for a brief window of our time with them, just enough to get a quick rim-lit shot of one male’s fur-lined profile against the dawn, nor that they didn’t both pose together ‘just so’ as we were hoping.

These magnificent ‘mountain’ lions now join the cheetah and brown hyena reintroduced to Mountain Zebra National Park in 2007 and 2008 respectively. On future visits it will be really interesting to see how all the animals there, both newly introduced predators and prey, are going to get along together now that the King of Beasts is back in residence in these mountains…

Six Things to Love about Photography in the Kgalagadi

We’re just getting ready to hit the road again – racing to finish late feature articles, tidying up loose ends in the office, processing last minute pictures and dragging down our ‘Africa’ crate from the shelf in the hall cupboard for our forthcoming trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and South Africa’s North West province.

The ‘Africa’ crate contains odd, but essential, non-photographic bits of kit that have proved extremely handy over the years. It’s the stuff that makes us feel instantly at home when it’s unpacked in the bush.

Quite a lot of the bits and bobs in there are linked to food (a passion second only to photographing wildlife for us both): an old cheese grater with plastic bits nibbled by jackals, a cracked plastic sieve which is still surprisingly useful, a cheap ice lolly mould with re-usable plastic sticks, and the torn, and thrice-mended, blue batik sarong we’ve used forever to cover our camera gear on game drives – our own personal security blanket.

The ice lolly mould? Bought from the tardis-like Banana Box general store in St Lucia in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province one time, the lollies it produces are now a must have on any summer visit to the Kalahari. After Steve’s iced instant coffee that is. There are moulds for six of them and one can of ‘Minute Maid’ fruit drink bought from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park camp shop splits miraculously to fill all six holes. Pop in the freezer et viola! For occasions when you’re in chalets rather than camping, of course, and not in Twee Rivieren, the main camp, as the shop there already sells ice cream. I can’t think of a better way to cool down ahead of a cold Castle lager at dusk.

I’m getting sidetracked. Suffice to say we’re going through our preparation rituals ahead of another visit to our favourite South African national park and its reminding us of all the things that still give us goosebumps about photographing there. These are…

1. The Curve Ball

AMPJ95 Blackbacked jackal chasing doves
Blackbacked jackal chasing doves

Our best pictures from a visit won’t be the ones we’ve pre-visualised for months before arriving. It’s what turns up out of the blue that’s the really exciting thing. This is why no amount of pre-planning, detailed research or the careful drawing up of a shooting list can really prepare you for a visit to the Kalahari.

The top of your photographic wish list might very well be the black-maned lions the reserve is famous for, or its now quite visible leopards. A majestic lion framed classically between a bright blue sky and that rich red sand, a gemsbok silhouetted on the top of a calcrete ridge, the decisive moment of a cheetah hunt? Bring it on. But red letter days like this are rare.

What we love about this place is that it seems to be the Kgalagadi that decides what the special rewards for your patience and those ‘dry’ pictureless drives will be, not you. Leave your mind open, let the thirstland rhythms work their magic and let the unexpected tiptoe in…

2. The Unfolding Story

Cape fox cubs playing
Cape fox cubs playing

The Kgalagadi is brilliant at story-telling. Perhaps its our old journalism training, but the never-ending, open, sandy terrain is a perfect blank page on which hundreds of animal tracks trace out the tales of the daily struggle for survival. With few roads, most of which follow the dry, fossil rivers where animals congregate during daylight hours, it’s possible to follow the footsteps (quite literally) of a subject you’ve photographed over several days. There are few places you can chart the different episodes and events in the inhabitants’ lives like this, whether it be the local lion pride, the silver fox family or the hyperactive meerkat colony. Observing them each morning and evening by their dens and burrows, and being drawn in and mesmerised by the various chapters in their natural histories, becomes more absorbing and addictive even than the wildlife photography itself…

3. The Wonderful Waterhole called Dalkeith

Cheetah drinking at Dalkeith
Cheetah drinking at Dalkeith

It looks like a large, badly made garden pond, fringed too neatly with bright stones that can wreck a composition and your exposure if you’re not careful. It can become a bit of a circus these days too when the park is busy – no more the quiet stake-outs of our early days when we’d often have the spot to ourselves. But it’s close enough to the track to make for arresting shots and still remains the site of some of our best, and most intimate, animal encounters and photographs. Three cheetahs drinking followed immediately, like a factory conveyor-belt, by a group of seven thirsty lions is just one memorable highlight. Dalkeith always seems to comes up trumps at some point on a visit.

4. Gold Dust

Springbok running at dawn
Springbok running at dawn

Great light mixed with swirling dust is a potent photographic combination. The Kalahari delivers both most days (although there’s often too much emphasis on the dust bit of this equation at times). These two magic ingredients make the place heaven for anyone with a keen eye and a camera…

5. Seasonal Surprises

Meerkat in Devil's Thorn flowers
Meerkat in Devil’s Thorn flowers

Okay so the Kgalagadi doesn’t have seasons as such, it’s dry and dusty most of the year, but there are times, after heavy rains for example, that bring fresh opportunities for the visiting photographer in this haunting landscape. The sudden blooming of semi-desert, when the dunes break out in bright yellow devil’s thorn flowers almost overnight, or the formation of an intense neon rainbow in an angry, purple, threatening sky, open up new perspectives for photography in a place we were stupid enough to think we knew backwards…

6. The Critters in Camp

Yellow mongoose with young
Yellow mongoose with young

Last, but not least. We can have as much enjoyment photographing the little creatures that have made their home in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park rest camps as we can training our lenses on the reserve’s famous big cats and magnificent birds of prey. We’ll take an obliging bunch of ground squirrels, a wily yellow mongoose or a bemused looking family of owls in a deserted camp any day over a mini traffic jam at a snoozing lion or a cheetah in deep shade out there in the park.

It’s refreshing to photograph out of your vehicle, to walk around and explore the outer reaches of the camp and to finally get down to eye-level with creatures that are relaxed and behave naturally in your presence because they’re used to people. Hang around with these guys long enough and you’ll be rewarded with interesting action and behaviour. It always seems to work for us…

Hand me down that crate!