Tag Archives: Cheetah

The Marmite moments of a photography couple

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) with cub, Kgalagadi Transfronter Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, June 2016
We’ve waited a long time to photograph cheetah cubs this size in the Kalahari

Wildlife photography really is a Marmite profession. We’re either tearing each other’s hair out through frustration or hugging each other for sheer joy. There’s no middle ground.

We were reminded of this fact again recently on our last visit to the Kalahari, a few short weeks ago, when we managed to shoehorn ourselves into a packed Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for a couple of weeks last minute before the first of our new African photo safaris. The idea was that some time spent in one of Africa’s last wilderness areas would refresh us after a particularly hectic time back home in the office trying to twist editors’ arms into running our material etc etc.  We reckoned a good photographic ‘tune-up’ in the field before meeting up with and leading our first safari guests would be just the ticket.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
Leopards were like buses. Two came at once on our recent visit to the KTP

A good idea in theory, but we’d forgotten to factor in the Marmite effect. For the first week we struggled to find a rubbish subject to train our lenses on, let alone a decent one. Ordinarily in these situations we’d change camps to see if other parts of the park proved more fruitful, but the place was chock full. Daily marches to reception to see if there was a cancellation somewhere drew a blank and the dust started to build up on our barely-used gear.

Lion (Panthera leo) cub, Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
To get lion and cheetah cubs on a short visit was special

Anyone who has been to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park will know that seldom are things served up on a plate in this vast thirstland landscape. It’s never easy getting great images even though it is one of our top spots to photograph in.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
This female walked straight towards our lenses

Goodness knows how many hours we’ve spent parked up waiting for something to happen, or driving up and down the same old sandy, corrugated tracks that trace the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob.  Patience and persistence are essential tools in the armoury in this semi-desert eco-system. Nine times out of ten the cheetah we’ve been following for hours doesn’t hunt, or the chase explodes in the wrong direction  leaving us with nothing but a big anti-climax for our efforts. Leopards stay tantalisingly out of camera reach on the far calcrete ridges or glare down disdainfully from the intensely-dappled shade of a camethorn tree – a perfect jewel marred by its bad setting. Great to witness but lousy to photograph subjects can sustain a photographing couple only so long.

This photographic drought was something else. The days were fast slipping by and we had zilch to show for it. Our grumpiness was getting worse…

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) cubs, Kgalagadi Transfronter Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, June 2016
You can’t stay grumpy for long when you have photo opps like this

Then suddenly the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Would you credit it? Out of nothing we suddenly found ourselves with seven leopard sightings in as many days (something of a personal record for the KTP). Not one but two confiding female leopards chose to share their early morning patrols with us, posing close to the cameras, which is not your typical wild leopard response to interlopers. Three tiny cheetah cubs (still with their white fur hoodies intact and our first at this young age for several years) turned up out of the blue. They hung around for ages  with mum  so we had both evening and morning drives with them playing and getting up to mischief while we clicked away. Then, en route for our second helping of said cheetah cubs, we tripped over a couple of really little lion cubs beautifully lit at dawn.  They were totally under our radar until that morning. You couldn’t have scripted a more opposite week to our first one.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
Twenty years ago we hardly saw leopards they were so shy in the Kalahari

What a trawl of anniversary presents! We’ve been celebrating 20 years of visits to the Kalahari in 2016, but we never expected we’d be doing it with such brilliant photographic encounters as we had that second week. More Marmite please…

Lion (Panthera leo) with cub, Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
What a way to celebrate 20 years of visiting this magical African wilderness

Kalahari Big Cats – the Might and the Mane

We seemed to have the lion’s share of big cat sightings on our trip to the Kalahari last month. Always cool for cats, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park surpassed itself on this occasion and provided us with not one, but two sets of cute lion cubs to contend with, a camera-friendly female leopard posing on the red sand as if it were the red carpet, some cheetah cubs washing up after their dinner of springbok tartare and a bunch of muscular, black-maned male lions strutting their stuff up and down the Auob and Nossob riverbeds.

That all added up to some spectacular wildlife encounters and adrenaline-fuelled, feline photographic opportunities despite the 40 plus degree temperatures in the shade. You can imagine the two of us, hot and bothered, getting camera gear and gearstick in a tangle in our excitement to soak up (capture and expose correctly!) all those awesome big cat sightings.

It’s never easy trying to manoeuvre a vehicle speedily and efficiently into the best position for the light, relative to an often moving subject, at the same time as changing camera settings in a nano-second, in a small space, all the while  ensuring you’re well-braced for each shot. The results can’t ever reach up the the magic of the real-time moment, of course, but here, as they say, are just a few of the ‘mane’ highlights…

Leopard (Panthera pardus) female, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Most leopards are camera shy. Not her posing near her kill.
Lioness with cubs (Panthera leo) drinking in the Kalahari, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
A wedding anniversary photo bonus for us to find this mother and cubs.
Lion (Panthera leo), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Black maned males like this chap are the pride of the Kalahari.

 

Lioness with cub (Panthera leo) in the Kalahari, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
This little chap needs to walk off that full tummy as he goes to the water with mum.

 

Cheetah cubs ( Acinonyx jubatus), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
We found these spotty siblings relaxing in the shade after a springbok meal.
Lioness grooming cub (Panthera leo), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Watch it mum that’s a big tongue you’ve got!

 

 

Well-spotted – Cheetah family posing at Phinda

Cheetah with cub (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
Cheetah with cub on a termite mound – a bucket list photo opp

We’re stuck in the office on a typical British summer’s day (cloudy with a chance of rain showers) wrestling with photo processing, marketing, boring admin and magazine deadlines. Each of us is waiting for the other to go downstairs and brew a mug of coffee or make that much-needed call to the boiler-repair guy. Who was it said wildlife photography’s a glamorous, well-paid job? At moments like these (and there are many) the mind easily drifts off to past photo opportunities and adventures. Like the time we finally got the chance to photograph that African savannah classic; a cheetah mum with cubs on the top of a termite mound…

Okay so perhaps it’s not cool to want ‘me-too’ pictures of a subject photographed tons of times before. But we’re not too proud to admit that sometimes we do. We can’t help it. Especially when there’s the chance to spend a morning photographing a fantastic feline, and her playful offspring, in good light in a great location – just as we dreamed about doing when we first started out in this game and saw great shots of cheetah by wildlife photographers we aspired to emulate.

The thing is that until that day we’d never had much luck with cheetah cubs. From the Kalahari to Kruger, the Karoo to the Kunene, we’d been fortunate to watch and photograph wild cheetah in some of southern Africa’s most spectacular locations, yet somehow cute little cubs just eluded us. So when our guide told us he was confident of finding us a mother with three quite small youngsters, we snapped to attention.

Steve Toon photographing cheetah, Phinda game reserve
Steve photographing one of Phinda’s cheetah with top guides Bernard and Daryl

We were staying at Phinda, the upmarket operator &Beyond’s private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. It was three years ago now, at the start of our Project African Rhino photo-journalism campaign. We were there to find out about the important rhino conservation work being carried out on the reserve (today &Beyond is part of a bold initiative to relocate around 100 white rhinos from South Africa, where they’re being hit really hard by poaching, to Botswana, a country with low density rhino populations and a good anti-poaching record).

The opportunity is too good to miss. We’d worked with specialist guide Daryl Dell and tracker Bernard Mnguni before, tracking leopards that were part of a long term research project on the reserve, and we knew teaming up with them again would be both fun and rewarding. Our trigger fingers were itching.

Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, killing young impala, Aepyceros melampus, Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa
The cheetah came crashing out of the bush and nailed the young impala right in front of us

Phinda’s always been a great place to see cheetah. On our last visit we’d had a cheetah explode from the trees by our vehicle and hunt down a young impala. Lots of research is carried out on the reserve’s cheetah, making them some of the most intensively monitored cheetah in South Africa. While we were there conservationists were collecting skin samples for DNA testing to gain a clearer picture of the familial relationships between the individual cheetah.

We headed out for the open terrain of marshland in the north of the reserve, where the cubs had been spotted the previous evening. Our search began by patrolling the track along the edge of the floodplain, Bernard on the tracker’s chair up front, scoured the sand for fresh spoor (pawprints).

It was Daryl who spotted her first – the tell-tale, compact, square head of a female cheetah poking out from a clump of grass. You needed a trained eye to pick her out, but there she was keeping on the look out for trouble, and seeming more than a little nervous. We turned off road and nosed the vehicle cautiously to within 20 metres or so. We could see right away why she was so wary: sprawled in the long grass by her side were three cubs, and by her feet, the remains of a fresh kill.

Cheetah female (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
Luck, and typical cheetah behaviour, was on our side as she climbed on the nearest mound

It was tempting to start photographing at that point, but the three were partially obscured by long grass and there was little chance of framing clean compositions. The background was cluttered and we were looking down too much. Daryl, who knows the place like the back of his hand, motioned to a low termite mound nearby and whispered to us that she just might go up there to check everything was safe before settling down for the day.  Cheetah often use vantage points like this to scan the terrain, but could we be that lucky? Many of the classic shots of cheetah on termite mounds you see are taken in East Africa and even there you need to be in just the right place at the right time. Picture perfect encounters are not as common as you might think. Could Daryl be right? Did we have a chance at photographing this classic cheetah behaviour we so wanted? And with cubs to ice the cake too?

The youngsters seemed more interested in snoozing than moving position, but we could see their mother was restless. After a few minutes we watched her get to her feet. She stood and looked around for what seemed like an age. Then she walked. She walked straight. Straight to the termite mound. Daryl grinned. I don’t think he could quite believe it either. In no time at all she was atop the mound, posing perfectly, lean and long-legged, fur glowing golden in the warm light of the newly risen sun.

Cheetah with cub (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
We now had our own classic encounter with cubs for a bonus

Over the next hour we were treated to the early morning rituals of a young cheetah family. All four were draped over the mound, like a scatter of fur rugs. The adult and two of the youngsters seemed content to rest in the warm sunshine, but one cub had other ideas.

Cheetah cub (Acinonyx jubatus) tormenting mother, Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
One playful cub tries to get the better of mum who just wants a rest
Cheetah cub (Acinonyx jubatus) tormenting mother, Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
If you can’t beat ’em…mum joins in the game with her cub

He played with his tail, then mum’s tail; then started pouncing on her head. She was tolerant at first but soon had enough. She quickly pinned him down and gave him a cat’s lick of a wash with her rasping tongue to calm him down. Freed from her grip, he turned his attention to the other two cubs, but they weren’t interested in playing, and eventually he too was comatose. Our fantastic photo session was at an end. To spend so much time in their world had been truly special – but now we had to rejoin our own.

Simon Naylor, reserve manager of &Beyond Phinda private reserve, at white rhino bomas, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, February 2013
Reserve manager Simon Naylor tells us why Phinda’s a top spot for cheetah

Back at the lodge reserve manager Simon Naylor told us that at that time Phinda’s cheetah had produced more than 100 litters and more than 250 cubs since the first 15 animals were reintroduced from Namibia in 1992-94. ‘It’s been one of the most successful cheetah reintroduction programmes in South Africa. Phinda was the first private reserve in KZN to reintroduce cheetah successfully,’ he told us. ‘It’s one of the best, if not the best place in South Africa to view wild cheetah,’ he added.

Right now we’d give anything to be back there… Now where’s that boiler repair man’s number?

‘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…