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!

Amazing Spiderman and the White Lady

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.

AC91 Willem Mutenga with white lady dancing spider
Willem and friend

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.

AAS11 Dancing white lady spider
A dancing white lady spider

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.

AAS07 Burrow of dancing white lady spider
The trap door of a dancing white lady’s lair, surrounded by the footprints of nocturnal comings and goings

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?

AAS14 Dancing white lady spider with silk lining from burrow
Spider with the silk lining from a burrow – we found this one dug up by a jackal

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?

AT283 Little Kulala lodge
Little Kulala Lodge

Five Favourite African Hideaways

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…

Noup Divers Huts
Rough Diamond on South Africa’s Namaqua Coast

AT216 Noup Divers' hut, Namaqualand  diamond coast
Noup divers hut, metres from the surf

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…

Mundulea
Go Walkabout with ‘Indiana Bones’

AC103 Bruno Nebe, Mundulea
Master of all he surveys: Bruno Nebe at Mundulea

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.

Mapungubwe’s Leokwe Camp
Rediscover Africa’s Lost City

AT70(D) Mapungubwe restcamp
Budget chic among the baobabs

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.

Papkuilsfontein Guest Farm
A Romantic Flower Route Stopover

AT30(D) Gert Boom Cottage, Papkuilsfontein Farm
Flower power: old farm workers cottage at Papkuilsfontein

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.

Fossil Ridge Ecolodge
Glamping in Gamkaberg Nature Reserve

AT204 Fossil Ridge Ecolodge, Gamkaberg
Glad to be glamping: Fossil Ridge Ecolodge

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.