It’s not unusual when you’re travelling through another country to marvel, and take a bit of a nosey, at some of the unusual and different homes you pass along the way. There are some fine examples in the arid Northern Cape en route to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and a few weeks ago, on our way back from the national park on our latest South Africa visit, we stopped off to take some photographs of several remarkable high-rise homes that merited attention.
The massive ‘penthouse suites’ in question were the distinctive communal nests of colonies of tiny birds known as sociable weavers. The nests look like clumsy haystacks that have somehow ended up on the top of telegraph poles lining the road. In the absence of nearby trees the birds make use of these handy man-made structures to construct their remarkable nests. Marvels of engineering, the nests have multiple chambers inside housing up to 500 birds and can keep their occupants cosy in the Kalahari’s cold semi-desert winters and cool when temperatures rise to more than 40 degrees in the summer.
Our picture story about these fantastic bird houses was picked up by several news outlets earlier this month and you can see more of our images of their crazy nests via this link to one of the pieces in the Mail Online.
Sitting in the office in the grey old UK with rain streaking down the windows, we can’t help feeling cheesed off. Rainy weather means there’s no escaping the drudge work of our job. After seven weeks of being fortunate enough to photograph every day in wild places, and almost always in great light, we’ve come down to earth again along with the snow of recent days, the subsequent thaw and now the persistent drizzly rain of a slow-starting British spring.
We’re working through the mundane and monotonous tasks that always welcome us back from a trip. The not often talked about stuff that’s as much a part of being professional wildlife photographers as the field work – if not more so. Clearly this side isn’t our favourite part, even if as former journalists we respond like Pavlov’s dogs to a deadline. So we’re busy key-wording and archiving images as fast as possible, so we can put them out to work for us – assigning them to the right places in our portfolio, to various stock agencies and getting them ready for marketing, for preparing upcoming lectures and for promoting our photographic safaris. All must be done in the narrow window available between trips. There’s no escaping the fact that wet weather days are admin days. Bor…ing!
Exactly what type of office work we’re doing isn’t the issue; that depends on urgent deadlines, what’s hurtling towards us in the diary and, of course, on what, if any, photographic treasures we’ve managed to dig out on our latest photographic crusades. This time in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) the big cats, always stars, seemed to emerge as a key theme. So we’re post-processing big cat images all the while and pedaling as fast as we can. The only thing that can stop the treadmill is good weather (or dry stuff at least) providing us with the excuse to drop the office jobs we’re juggling and get back out there with our cameras…
Filling in the requisite data fields on photographs for various agencies which each require the procedure done differently, on a dull, damp weekend afternoon, we’re both missing the warmth, sunshine, reliable light, guaranteed subjects and sheer freedom of photographing in the bush in an African summer…
…Then scrolling through our pictures from the Kalahari section of our recent South Africa/Namibia trip it dawns on us maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Have we not become a tad spoiled?
How could we have forgotten so soon just how dry the KTP was for those first few weeks of our trip, and how desperate and expectant the animals, and the veld, seemed to be for the late rain to arrive?
When we remove our favourite images, putting to one side those shots we’ve earmarked as priorities for immediate post-processing, a simple, humble story emerges. Our incidental pictures, grabbed when driving back to camp once the best light had gone, a bunch of odds and sods really, languishing in Lightroom folders labelled ‘miscellany’, are quietly revealing the significant impact the rain finally made on the everyday lives of our KTP subjects when the clouds broke.
So we’re enjoying this small selection of images from a few weeks ago in the KTP in which the residents are making the most of something we all take for granted – puddles in the road. Simple shots, nothing loud, exciting, sexy or dramatic – just a handful of regular stock pictures gathered along the way that served to remind two whingeing wildlife snappers to suck up the rain, get on with it and accept that a good downpour isn’t a downer for everyone.
There’s no getting over the real sense of surprise you experience when you see penguins in Africa – of all places – and get great views of their antics – without going on a major, massively expensive expedition to colder climes. Even after repeat visits to the famous and unique breeding colony of endangered African penguins on Foxy Beach in Simon’s Town on the Cape – part of the Table Mountain National Park – it’s still a real joy to spend time photographing these compelling, anthropomorphic subjects.
Just last month on our latest photo trip to South Africa we got the chance to return to the handful of beaches where the colony has made its home since the early eighties. We caught up with the characterful penguins returning to the beach, and to their waiting hungry chicks, after a busy day’s fishing out at sea. The tide was high and photographing the penguins riding the surf and exploding out of the water onto the shore in waves of small groups tossed about by the foaming waters kept our fingers clicking furiously.
At first penguin-watchers more eagle-eyed than us were spotting the returning hunters well before they reached the shore – when they were just tiny dots near the horizon. The groups were back at the beach before we’d had chance to fix them in our viewfinders. We soon learned to distinguish the shapes and colours of a distant penguin group from the vast ocean backdrop and began to see the wonderful potential for pictures. Peering out to sea, we were now poised to track them, cameras primed as they surfed the waves at considerable speed back home to the land-based colony.
The penguins were fantastic to watch as they porpoised through the foam like polished torpedoes. One moment you would see them crest a wave, the next they would disappear beneath it, so hunting a tight-packed group and keeping the birds in focus was a bit of a challenge. Before you could say ‘nailed it’ they were bobbing up back on the beach in a penguin pile, picking themselves up and striding up the shore, chests and tums puffed out, fanning out like chorus line extras from an old Fred Astaire movie in full evening dress. Time for us to try again with the next incoming group…
A visit to see the birds is a ‘must-do’ on any travel itinerary in and around Cape Town. The colony is just a hop, skip and jump from the ‘Mother City’, one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, so the downside is you do have to share the penguins with others. But there are one or two quieter spots along the shore if you’re prepared to look a bit harder, and on the tiny, family-friendly Boulders Beach, right next door to Foxy Beach, there’s the chance of having a penguin toddle right onto your picnic blanket or join you in the shallows as you paddle. How cool is that?
African penguins are the only penguin species found on the African continent. There has been a breeding colony of the penguins on this beach since 1983. We first visited the penguins on Foxy beach in 1996 before the current tourist boardwalk was built. In those days it was possible to walk on the shore in and among the main colony. Since then tourism has increased so the extra protection for the birds is welcome. Penguin numbers in the colony were rising until about 2005 when there were 3,900 penguins. since when there has been a decline to around 2,100. This is thought to be due to a number of factors including global warming affecting fish stocks, over-fishing and the impact of oil spills and marine pollution.
Specialist hides, where you often pay a premium to photograph, are springing up at the moment like fungi after a flood. All good stuff perhaps, but let’s not forget, in these straitened times, there are still quite a few top-notch public hides that are perfectly positioned for getting excellent shots and most of them are a bargain. Here are a few of our personal favourites from our many visits to South Africa:
Shop ’til you drop or photograph birds to your heart’s content at this hidden Cape Town oasis with Table Mountain for a backdrop. This compact, and cleverly thought-out, urban wetland area has been created right at the heart of the Century City development so you can hop on a boat to the nearby shopping mall for brunch after a busy morning photographing various kingfishers, shy bitterns, ducks, geese, ibis and even the odd raptors that sometimes pass by.
Best bit: When we’ve visited, when passing through the Mother City, natural perches were extremely well-placed for photography.
Our tip: Go early, and mid-week, if you want the best spot for photography – this tiny hide is popular and can be very busy on weekends.
Giants Castle Vulture Hide
We haven’t been to this perennial favourite for a while – probably because it’s regularly booked out these days. Where else can you go eyeball to eyeball with bearded and Cape vultures as they soar effortlessly on the thermals against the stunning Drakensberg mountains of KwaZulu-Natal in a precariously placed eyrie of a cliff-top hide.
Best bit: A morning in this amazing state park-run hide is a wonderful experience even if you don’t pack camera gear and simply sit there absorbing the avian aerobatics and fly-pasts.
Our tip: Booking well ahead goes without saying, but if possible book out the whole hide (it’s not expensive) so you’ve got plenty of room and can use whichever camera portholes are best on the day.
Staying in KwaZulu-Natal, this dry season hide that sits over a tree-lined waterhole in Mhkuze game reserve is no secret to photographers and bird-watchers alike. Since its recent refurbishment, however, we reckon it’s now even better for photography. Perhaps we were just lucky on our last visit, but the place was heaving all morning with nyala, wildebeest, impala, zebra, rhino, baboons, warthogs, the odd ellie or two and even comical terrapins.
Best bit: Photo opportunities here are rich and rewarding and you’re beautifully close to the busy morning animal activity with the perfect orientation for the light.
Our tip: Be alert to what’s going on behind you when you’re there. There can sometimes be good opportunities for contre-jour shots in the very early morning on the less busy side of the hide.
Mata Mata Restcamp Hide
We can’t resist including this one from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park because we’ve so many awesome memories of big cats coming to drink here by night and day. Of course you don’t need to be inside this purpose-built hide on stilts; you can watch the wildlife just as easily from the (sometimes flimsy-feeling!) camp fence, but the hide makes photographing with big telephotos that bit easier as there’s a handy ledge to support your lens and no wire to get in the way.
Best bit: You’re right at camp so can pop down from the hide to turn your chops on the braai while you’re photographing the lions.
Our tip: If cats have been seen around camp in the morning, or are sitting up on the distant dunes in the afternoon, you may want to forgo an evening drive and sit patiently in the hide – they’ll generally move down to the waterhole for a drink just before sundown.
So these are just a few of our favourite ‘public’ hides for photography. Perhaps you have your own favourites?
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon