‘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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
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
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
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
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
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
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…
For those who can’t wait for Andrew Garfield’s next outing as Peter Parker’s superhero alter ego here’s a spine-tingling spiderman tale of our very own…
Say hello to Willem Mutenga, he’s the one calmly holding that rather hairy, huge and deathly-looking white spider and not even batting an eyelid. Willem – who modestly prefers to sport a sweeping ostrich feather in his bush-hat rather than blue tights and a mask – is a guide with Wilderness Safaris, who run game drives on request to look for fascinating dune critters like this from their very chic Little Kulala lodge deep in the dunes of the Namib-Naukluft.
Willem is something of an expert when it comes to hunting out Namibia’s dastardly, desert-adapted predators. Earlier in 2013, on assignment for ‘The Daily Bugle’ (or should we say ‘Travel Africa’ magazine), we went out on a secret mission with him into the dunes at sunrise to track down and photograph the infamous and elusive white lady dancing spider in its extremely well-hidden lair.
Many people drive on by the quieter dunes where such amazing creatures make their home in the rush to get to the ancient Namib desert’s impressive tourist hotspots. But we’re happy today to yomp in sand less-travelled. Here only the sound of dune larks breaks the silence. The wildlife is less disturbed and the myriad tracks, criss-crossing the orange-red sand like fine embroidery, are not made by humans, but by hundreds of hyperactive little critters from miniscule ants to sinuous sidewinding snakes.
While we’re marvelling at these mini-footprints and the perfect circles in the sand drawn by a single, wind-blown blade of grass, ‘Spiderman’ is getting to work finding the nest of a white lady dancing spider for us. When he calls us over to says he’s found one we’re not convinced. We seem to be looking at – well – nothing. Then we spot it too. A small mark in the sand looks just like a child has drawn a tiny sun there. It’s only the size of a coin and easily missed.
Willem uses a blade of grass to delicately lift the ‘coin’ like a little flap – it’s the trapdoor of the spider’s lair. It’s completely round, like a tiny man-hole cover, and disguised by sand grains. It’s a mind-blowing feat of desert architecture. A hinged flap in sand?
We’re already open-mouthed, but our jaws drop further as Willem announces the resident spider is still at home – huge, white and hairy. They’re supposed to have a mildly venomous bite, but superhero Willem very briefly pops it on his hand for our inspection. The cunning and ghostly white spider cleverly crafts a burrow out of silk that looks for all the world like a knitted purse, or chain-mail, except for the fact that it’s made of sand. It then closes this burrow with a silken trap door forming this secret flap in the sand we’re now excitedly photographing. Who knew?
Every now and then you find a special place to stay you want to tell everyone else about, yet keep to yourself at the same time. The following five are some of our favourite secret spots – those ‘we could tell you, but then we’d have to kill you’ remote hideaways that have got getting-away-from-it-all just right…
A cluster of rustic, stone self-catering cottages rise up from a wind-scoured coastal plain like a mission station on Mars. This is the middle of nowhere on South Africa’s remote west Namaqualand coast. It’s a miniature version of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast further north, complete with fog, seal colonies, bleached whale bones, alien-looking desert-adapted vegetation and the rusting hulks of old shipwrecks. You feel like a latter-day Robinson Crusoe holed up in Fred Flintstone’s pad as you chug a cold beer at sunset on your pebbly stoep (verandah). The hotch-potch handful of rugged buildings, cheerfully decorated with driftwood nicknacks, were custom-built by the intrepid divers who came in search of their fortune: the diamonds on the seabed from the surf down to about 30 metres beyond De Beers’ heavily guarded mining operations just along the coast, so there’s history here too…
The small bush camp on legendary Namibian bush guide Bruno Nebe’s pride-and-joy private reserve in the Otavi Mountains, not far from Etosha National Park, is so well hidden you don’t really see it until after you’ve arrived. Here the dense bush thickets embrace a secret enclave. Inside, quirky hand-crafted furniture and fittings have been welded by Bruno from rusting farm machinery and salvage yards finds. There’s a field kitchen with blackened pots producing home-made bread, full-on bush breakfasts and Bruno’s best game recipes, alongside a small library of reference guides and a mini-natural history museum of rocks, fossils and old bones. Outside, leopards prowl and hyenas cackle while you’re tucked up safely in your cosy tent. Days are spent on a voyage of discovery with Bruno – the man’s a walking encyclopaedia – on the four farms he’s combined to form Mundulea game reserve. Evenings are all about relaxing round the fire or the large communal table.
You might wonder how a national park that’s also a World Heritage Site can really be classed a hideaway, but this Limpopo reserve is off the beaten track and hasn’t really been discovered yet by overseas visitors to South Africa. Loekwe has a great location and the well-appointed, earth-toned chalets blend in beautifully with the baobabs and fascinating rock formations around them. The fun outside showers are not the the sort of thoughtful touch you’d expect from affordable accommodation in a national park and the sculpted infinity pool blends right in among the rocks. We watched soaring black eagles while cooling off when we were there last. The reserve has about 400 bird species to keep a lookout for and game including white rhino, eland, lion and elephant. But it’s the lost kingdom on top of Mapungubwe Hill that’s the most amazing find here. The archaeological remains of a sophisticated African civilisation living in great wealth above the plains and trading with China, India and Egypt are well worth the short climb to the top. Shamefully Mapungubwe’s secrets were kept hidden from the world during the apartheid era and the story was only made public after the first democratically-elected government came into power.
Nieuwoudtville in South Africa might well be a sleepy little dorp (small town) for most of the year, but in the spring flower season the place blossoms quite literally with carpets of eye-popping colour and enough endemic flower species to keep experts, nature photographers and floral enthusiasts returning year after year. Nearby Papkuilsfontein Guest Farm, one of our favourite flower route stopovers, is great to visit any time, even after the flower show has died down. Historic buildings there have been carefully restored, or rebuilt, to create pretty, period-piece self-catering cottages, complete with oil lamps among established poplar groves and old pear trees. But who wants to cook when you can order a home-cooked, three-course meal delivered with the best cutlery and candles from the farm kitchen a few kilometres away to your own private table. On our most recent visit we celebrated our wedding anniversary on our way back down to Cape Town from the Kalahari with melting lamb shanks in red wine.
Give a medal to the person who found the location for this gem of a glamping spot in Gamkaberg, near Calitzdorp: one of Cape Nature’s impressive portfolio of peaceful nature reserves in the Western Cape. Tucked under a sandstone ridge, the so-called ‘ecolodge’, is an exclusive site for just four people, but if just two of you pitch up then you’ve got sole use of the well-designed lapa and lounge, the neat little sundeck and the cute and refreshing splash pool. You sleep in two safari-style tents, equipped with comfy armchairs and a private deck area for each couple. There’s a neat little wash house and bathroom with all mod-cons so you don’t have to rough it. The reserve, famous for helping save the Cape mountain zebra from extinction, is the ideal place to reconnect with nature and with so many birds flitting in and out of the Fossil Ridge Ecolodge environs you don’t need to leave the comforts of camp to do it.
We’re now just about half way into a three-year photojournalism project we’re doing on African rhinos, aiming to raise awareness of the varied and complex issues involving these amazing animals and their conservation in the wake of the latest poaching onslaught.
Rhinos have been a favourite of ours since we started out in our second career as wildlife photographers, partly because at that time we couldn’t afford long lenses so spent a lot of time photographing bigger game, which we didn’t need a 500mm lens to get decent shots of!
As a result of all the time spent in their company we wrote and photographed a book about them. That was ten years ago, when efforts to protect rhinos were proving extremely successful and their future looked pretty good. But when we saw what was happening as a result of increasing demand for rhino horn in the past few years we couldn’t just stand by. So we started Project African Rhino to get editorial features about the situation into print and raise awareness through our pictures and we began to blog about everything rhino. Next year as part of the project we’ll be producing a new book and hopefully an exhibition too.
To date the project has taken us to East Africa, Namibia and South Africa. The latter has been particularly hard hit. The country is home to the world’s largest population of rhinos and this year has seen a record 919 killed in the poaching crisis.
Sadly the situation is fast reaching a tipping point where the poaching starts outstripping breeding rates, and rhinos will go into decline. The reason? Rhino horn, trade in which is currently illegal, is worth more than gold and cocaine. Demand for it is increasing in places like China, where it’s used for special libation cups and in traditional medicine, and Vietnam, where it’s seen as a status symbol, used as a cool way to detox after a heavy night out, and is incorrectly believed to cure cancer.
Highly organised crime syndicates are involved in the poaching and trafficking of rhino horn and their methods are often very sophisticated. The cost of securing wild rhinos in game reserves has soared and conservationists are having to resort to clever tactics, like the use of drones and DNA forensics, over and above standard anti-poaching patrols, simply to stay ahead of the poachers. We hope to keep rhinos in the spotlight for at least the next 18 months or so and you can follow our progress via the project blog.
Great news to end a busy 2013 has been the recognition for two of our recent photo-journalism projects in this year’s Melvita nature photography competition with French magazine Terre Sauvage and the IUCN.
Images from our work photographing a crack team of top US and South African veterinary surgeons performing pioneering keyhole surgery in the middle of the African bush on wild elephant bulls have been awarded a top prize in the competition – a bursary of 4,000 Euros to photograph a conservation assignment (yet to be decided) for the IUCN.
The portfolio of winning images showed how the vets, in full operating room scrubs, handled these tricky patients using oversized surgical instruments and cutting edge keyhole surgery techniques to perform vasectomies on a number of elephant bulls on a South African reserve to help control population numbers. The procedure, while expensive, is seen as a potential solution to the problems caused by elephant overpopulation in some parts of southern Africa, particularly on smaller game reserves.
Not to put too fine a point on it, an elephant’s testes are inside his body so quite difficult invasive surgery is required. And that’s once you’ve tracked the elephant bull down, tranquillised it from the air and manoeuvred him into position so two teams of surgeons, and their support crew, can safely get to work.
We watched and photographed three such 90 minute operations. All were successful, with the bull stitched up and back on his feet at the end of the complex procedure.
A big thanks to the expert team from the Elephant Population Management Program in America and South African vet Johan Marais for all their help and assistance with this photo project.
A second portfolio of images from our current Project African Rhino photo-journalism campaign to raise awareness about all issues relating to the poaching crisis was also nominated in the competition’s ‘Mankind and Nature’ category.
Our latest toy is a GoPro Hero3+ action camera, and we’re itching to play with it on our upcoming trip to South Africa. We tried out its underwater capabilities on a recent visit to Arran, capturing some snatches of video of jellyfish (there’s a brief clip above of raw footage), and were impressed by the quality for such a tiny, lightweight piece of kit.
We’re not expecting to get much underwater use out of it in the Kalahari (unless the summer storms are particularly bad!) but for wide angle, ultra-close-ups its diminutive size and the ability to operate it from a smart phone or iPad offer exciting possibilities. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn’t end up as lunch for an over-curious lion or hyena.
We’ve always had a soft spot for giraffes. Maybe it’s those big, soft eyes and that slightly dopey expression. Or maybe it’s because they’re uniquely African: iconic may be a much over-used word, but in the giraffe’s case it’s certainly appropriate. Yet for all that this gentle giant is instantly recognisable and a favourite of safari-goers and zoo visitors alike, the giraffe has had a poor deal from scientists and conservationists, under studied and under protected.
It seems hard to credit that an animal with such a distinctive and unique physiology has been given so little attention, but finally that’s changing, and new and fascinating information about the giraffe’s natural history is being revealed. It’s not a moment too soon, for Africa’s giraffe population is in an alarming decline, and new research on genetics and taxonomy could be critical in targeting belated conservation efforts.
It’s a timely moment to publish a book about giraffes, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. Our first ebook written and designed specifically for the Apple iPad, is now on sale – just click on this link, or visit the iBook store on your iPad and search for ‘giraffe’ . It’s packed with lots of fascinating insights into the biology, social behaviour and conservation of these charismatic creatures, and illustrated throughout with our favourite images, which look great on the iPad’s screen. If you like it, please give us a review, if you don’t keep it to yourself!
Special thanks to leading giraffe conservation scientist Dr Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group , who very kindly checked the text and contributed a foreword to the book.
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon