Tag Archives: ecotourism

Best boltholes – Five more South 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’. That’s from a blog we posted back in December 2013 when we unveiled five of our favourite southern African escapes – the ‘’we could tell you, but then we’d have to kill you’’ hideaways that have got getting-away-from-it-all just right’ (Five Favourite African Hideaways).

Paternoster beach, Paternoster, Western Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Life’s a beach: Paternoster, South Africa

With wind-driven rain lashing our windows here in the wilds of the Northumberland National Park for most of the festive season, and while we’re counting down to the start of our next African wildlife photographic adventure, here are a few more of our favourite places to visit after a heavy photographic session to whet your appetite  for travel and escape at the start of 2017…

Klein Gelukkie

Seaside pearl

Klein Gelukkie self-catering cottage, Paternoster, Western Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Enter the shady garden of Klein Gelukkie self-catering cottage, Paternoster

We do like to be beside the seaside…especially after several weeks eating dust in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park with eyes glued to our viewfinders every day, bodies parched by searing summer temperatures and pre-dawn wake-ups every single day.  It’s easy to burn-out after a long stint in this remote wilderness reserve so we like to recharge all our batteries for a few days before flying home when we can. Recently we stayed at Klein Gelukkie – a lovingly hand-crafted and cleverly-designed self-catering coastal cottage in Paternoster in the Western Cape that we’d stumbled across online.

Klein Gelukkie self-catering cottage, Paternoster, Western Cape, South Africa, September 2015
A thoughtfully added awning provides a shady lunch spot

What a pearl. Maybe it’s just us, but what we loved about this cottage is that it’s not right on the beach. With its own coastal garden, set behind the village, it’s way more tranquil than all the beach-front ‘posers’, yet has just as much seaside chic.  We really made use of all its quiet corners and beckoning seats, both outdoors and in, to snooze away the afternoons after walks on the shore or a lazy seafood lunch.

Paternoster is a polished pebble these days compared to our first visit when it was still a sleepy fishing village. Now a trendy escape it’s thankfully managed to keep a good deal of its original sea-bleached charm intact.  So you won’t be surprised to find we’re headed back there in two months!

Oudrif

Hobbit home-from-home 

Straw bale eco-hut, Oudrif, Cederberg mountains, Western Cape, South Africa, August 2015
Charming straw bale eco-huts at Oudrif with great views

Down the long-winding, dusty, dirt roads of the Cedarberg in South Africa’s Western Cape province, and then some, Oudrif eco-lodge is a hideaway in every sense of the word.  But don’t let the ‘off-tar’ journey, or that little word ‘eco’ put you off. The place does off-grid with playful style and quite a bit of comfort. We stayed in one of the five perky, straw-bale Hobbit houses tucked in by the Doring River complete with shady stoep (verandah) and huge picture windows so you can enjoy the view whatever the weather.

Spring wild flowers, Oudrif farm, Cederberg, Western Cape, South Africa, August 2015
Spring wild flowers on the doorstep at Oudrif farm in the Cederberg

We visited in the spring flower season and had stunning blooms right up to the doorstep. The amazing home-made bread, cooked over coals, and the rainbow of scrummy and imaginative salad sides dishes prepared by Bill and Jeanine, who created this welcoming haven, are reason alone to return some day for a second helping. Other highlights were the couple’s dogs, who adopted us during our stay, and the chance to pick up, and marvel at Stone Age tools littering a nearby rocky overhang where Jeanine pointed out ancient San paintings, and where a pair of barn owls just happened to be quietly nesting above our heads.

San rock art, Cederberg mountains, Western Cape, South Africa, August 2015
Getting down with the Stone Age folk in the Cederberg mountains close to Oudrif

Concierge Boutique Bungalows (& Freedom Café)

Café in a ‘can’ with rooms

Freedom cafe at Concierge Boutique Bungalows, sign for recption, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, October 2016
The direction to go when in Durban – the Concierge Boutique Bungalows’ cool city bolthole

This one’s a bit of an odd one out being in the middle of a city. But this ‘urban-Durban’ escape qualifies in our book because the welcoming, leafy courtyard café at its heart instantly transports you away from the hubbub. Being embraced all around by the hotel’s surrounding suite of heritage-listed bungalows, whose 1920s façades hide a series of funky, modern ‘boutique’ rooms with lavish tropical rain showers, really makes it feel hidden away.

Freedom cafe at Concierge Boutique Bungalows, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, October 2016
The containers of the Freedom Cafe are a joyful design and the food’s pretty interesting too
Freedom cafe at Concierge Boutique Bungalows, detail of table setting with craft beer bottle, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, October 2016
Freedom Cafe craft beer to cool down after city sight-seeing

In juxtaposition to the cool white walls of Durban-past, two shipping containers, bright brick red and black, have been rakishly cut together to create the Freedom Café right at the hotel’s hub. Its tempting, and innovative, breakfast and lunch menus are a real draw and we loved the quirky and comical ‘pop art’ sausage dog benches.

It’s even won an architectural award. The laid-back vibe here is catching and it’s hard not to relax even if we’re only popping in for a night en route to Zimanga private game reserve, just up the road in Mkuze, where we now host guests on our new photographic safaris.

Tankwa Karoo Guesthouse

Surreal desert fort

Tankwa Karoo national park, rusty steam engine and ox wagon, Western Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Rusty steam engine, ox wagon and endless skies – outside the Tankwa Karoo guesthouse

Outback South Africa just doesn’t get quirkier than here in the Tankwa Karoo National Park with its remote arid location and alien, dust-blown landscapes. Slow and low-key, the rich arid eco-system here seems to be gradually wrapping itself round abandoned farmsteads and rusting agricultural machinery. This is soul food for lovers of complete tranquillity and seemingly barren, endless vistas. No-one will find you on this remote border between Northern and Western Cape.

Inside the bar at the quirky Karoo roadhouse farm stall, the Tankwa Padstal, Northern Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Inside the bar at the Tankwa Padstal, the quirky Karoo roadhouse farm stall

There’s a great range of appealing accommodation to choose from spanning the brilliantly-designed Elandsberg Cottages in the wilderness camp to the restored farm cottages that come complete with modern comforts and antique furniture on the reserve.

Abandoned farmstead, Tanqua Karoo national park, South Africa, February 2012
The plains of the Tankwa Karoo national Park are dotted with photogenic old farmsteads

Perhaps the most unusual is the guesthouse complex, rising brutally out of the bare surrounds like a forbidding desert fortress. Don’t let that put you off because the place is very comfy inside, has bags of atmosphere and a very interesting back story. If you go, and you should, stop en route at the brilliant Tankwa Padstal ‘roadhouse’ farm stall cafe and bar. It’s cinematically weird and wonderful.

Die Tuishuis

Charming hicktown timewarp

Die Tuishuise renovated cottages, Cradock, Eastern Cape, South Africa, September 2015
The cheerful frontages of Die Tuishuis renovated 1840s cottages on a sunny morning

Time travel is completely possible if you visit the small town of Cradock in South Africa’s Eastern Cape where a neat row of 30 historic little houses have been painstakingly restored by Sandra Antrobus with 16 of them converted into award-winning tourist accommodation. Each house is tastefully decorated with the furniture, and ‘knick-knackery’ of its gracious 1840s hey-dey – think deep cast iron baths and huge hardwood bedsteads – and each has a different theme and feel (you can check the options out on their website). Our favourite has to be the African-inspired ‘Out of Africa’ cottage with neat little touches that would look right at home in a posh safari lodge. The bathroom even has a large-scale wirework windmill.

Die Tuishuise renovated cottages, Cradock, Eastern Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Time travel back to the past in Cradock

When we first visited, some years ago, a vast Karoo buffet, including the famous local lamb, was served in one of the cottages. That was until Sandra bought, and spruced up, the grand old lady that is the Victoria Manor hotel on the corner of the street and began serving meals and accommodating guests there. Built in 1848 it’s one of SA’s oldest hotels. We now sometimes add a night’s stay in the cottages after photographing at nearby Mountain Zebra National Park for a few days.  You could easily base yourself at Die Tuishuis and visit the park from there if you wanted a change from the park chalets .

Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra), Mountain Zebra National Park, Eastern Cape, South Africa, September 2015
Have you heard the scones at the Victoria Manor down in Cradock are delicious!

These days we like to self-cater to enjoy all the old-world charm of the cottages, but more often than not we still have breakfast in the restored hotel. It’s certainly worth a look around in there and – good tip – the home-made scones served at breakfast are legendary.

Pass the painted dog pinotage this way again

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) regurgitating food for pups, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
Supper anyone? Feeding 13 ravenous wild dog pups is a full-time job

It’s been the year for spotted dogs… Back in June we were trying to keep tabs on 13 tearaway pups running rings around their adult wild dog babysitters and ceaselessly pestering returning pack members for food.  It was hard to believe, but there we were, with our guests on safari, right by the den of these incredibly scarce predators as the pack conducted its daily meet, greet and eat sessions with the next generation of dogs.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) chewing old impala horns, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Capturing a great portrait means getting down and dirty

Arriving at the den site late afternoon to share time with the African continent’s second rarest apex predator is one of the highlights of 2016 for us.  It’s not every day you get the chance to get off a game-viewing vehicle and lie down to shoot such special subjects up close and at their level. The chance to get into the skin of your subjects and join their world for a while is what makes wildlife photography  so rewarding.

The patient, if uncomfortable and mildy-grubby wait, as a tangle of snoozy pups, safe within the confines of their shady den site, slowly re-awoke and ventured out on short exploratory missions to chew branches or play endless games of tug o’ war with shards of old animal bone was a privilege and a joy.  And the sudden explosion of noise and energy all around us when the adults returned to regurgitate food for the pups, when everything instantly became a blur of marbled fur, fangs, and frantically wagging tails is an experience we’ll never forget.

African wild dog pups (Lycaon pictus) feeding, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
It’s special to photograph a successful breeding pack of these very rare predators

One of our favourite species, African wild dogs are among the world’s most endangered mammals with a population currently estimated at around 6,600. Most are to be found in southern Africa. The chance to spend time observing them on Zimanga game reserve as we did this year, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where there’s the chance of wonderful photographic access to the breeding pack is truly something special…

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack exploring, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Fast forward a few months and now the pups were on the move with the adult dogs

Returning to Zimanga last month with our second group of photo safari guests we were obviously keen to catch up with the dogs and check how they’d fared. The news was mixed. The alpha female, and mother of the pups, had been killed by a crocodile, but the puppies were thriving and were as hyperactive as ever. Observing the group dynamics, it probably wasn’t going to be long before another dog from the pack stepped up to take on the role of alpha female, but my how those pups had grown!

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack at three to four months old, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
A brief pause for rest during the hunt

They were now regularly accompanying the adult pack members and yearlings on daily hunts; running through the bush, first this way, then that, only momentarily stopping to pose on a small mound of earth or prominent dam wall before haring off again.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) feeding on warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The Zimanga wild dog pack enjoying a warthog dinner at dusk

One evening we found them making light work of a fresh warthog supper. It was interesting to see how the adult dogs let the pups eat first.

African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) confronting spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The curious pups practise stalking a hyena cornered in the riverbed

And on one of the morning sessions we caught up with the pack in a dry riverbed in a stand-off with a spotted hyena they’d cornered. The hyena was a bit stuck.  Hemmed in by the prowling pack he’d wedged his back against a big rock for protection – fully aware that’s where he would be vulnerable to the chasing pack if he fled.  Eventually the dogs lost interest and the hyena took his chance. A step late, the pups raced madly up the steep sides of the bank in pursuit, but the hyena had got enough distance on them and was last seen disappearing over the horizon.

It was with such thrilling sightings in mind that we purchased a bottle of Painted Wolf Pinotage (Painted Wolf being another name for wild dogs, albeit not very accurate) for our first evening in Kruger National Park soon after. The winemaker donates a portion of the price towards wild dog conservation – www.paintedwolfwines.com  – if you want to find out more.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
Painted wolf wine did the trick in more ways than one

We were celebrating the end of a successful safari. A good red was the order of the day because temperatures had taken a sudden and unseasonal nosedive and with such an apt name it was soon safely off the shelves and in our basket. It went down well as we toasted our toes around the braai and looked forward to a few game drives in the Kruger to ‘wind down’.

Our choice of tipple turned out to be a lucky one too because in just a few short days in the reserve we ran into a pack of wild dogs on all but one of our morning and afternoon game drives.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
We were lucky to see lots of the Kruger pups too

Anyone who has visited Kruger will know wild dogs are not your everyday, common or garden sighting. Running into them at all is a special treat, running into them repeatedly is something else. We certainly hadn’t expected to be photographing wild dogs again this year.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
All eyes and Mickey Mouse ears – the Kruger pups wake up in the late afternoon

Like the ones on Zimanga the Kruger pack also had this year’s still-cute pups in tow (born around the same time as those in KZN as wild dogs den seasonally in the African winter).  And exactly like the pups on Zimanga they huddled together, sitting apart from the adults, fidgeting restlessly and squabbling endlessly – when not running amok of course.  We couldn’t get enough of them.

We’re crossing fingers (that’s holding thumbs if you’re in South Africa) that we might run into them again in Kruger in 2017 – as yearlings.  We may even buy another bottle of that red to boost our chances. We’re certainly looking forward to going back to Zimanga next year and seeing how the pack there is getting on.  There might even be some new puppies around then to terrorise and annoy the older dogs…and to photograph  of course.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pack member hunting, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
We’re already looking forward to following the Zimanga wild dog pack again

 

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

‘Hunny’ badger liking tortoise too much!

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis), Kgalagadi Transfrontierl Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2014
‘I can smell tortoise, I can see tortoise, but I can’t taste tortoise.’

It’s not everyday you cross paths with one of these tough little guys in the wild – and when you do see a canny and cunning honey badger it’s more often than not a fleeting glimpse and hardly ever a photograph.  Nine times out of 10 they’re gone before you’ve got your camera ready.

So imagine our surprise when we met this chap one rainy morning just before sunrise in the Kalahari’s Nossob riverbed. We hadn’t been up long and were still feeling groggily half-asleep. As a result we were pretty slow to react when we spotted it.  We almost drove past making it necessary to turn right around – a manouevre we knew from experience was guaranteed to buy this wily predator just enough time to effect his escape.

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis) eating leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, January 2016
Our honey badger getting to grips with a large leopard tortoise.

We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the animal was still there after all our clumsy faffing about. What was keeping it so busy and so preoccupied it didn’t want to flee the scene even with our vehicle noisily bearing down on it?

‘He’s got a tortoise. He’s got a big tortoise and he’s eating it!’

Perhaps you have to be an African wildlife afficionado to fully appreciate just what a rare and exciting sighting this was.  Magic. Unless you happen to be a tortoise that is – and certainly that particular tortoise. Feisty, fierce but full of character it’s not your everyday animal that can get through such defences. A bit like opening a can of corned beef without the key or a tin-opener.

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis) eating leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, January 2016
Winnie the Pooh with his jar of ‘hunny’?

Call us weird, but putting aside the harsh reality of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ aspects of this sighting,  we couldn’t help noticing similarities to that famous E H Shepherd illustration of a portly Winnie the Pooh with his paws in the ‘hunny’ pot as our badger delved deep into the tortoise shell to extract more of his tasty meal.

Given the honey badger was happy for us to gawp at him eating his breakfast in the rain we took lots of stills, shot some video and just watched.  The captures are not what we like to call ‘photographers’ photographs’; the light was poor, we had to use flash, and you can hardly call our results aesthetically pleasing, but the chance to  document a moment like this doesn’t come often. We probably won’t see this behaviour ever again.

It’s why we go to Africa.  In the hope that we might do!

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?

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…

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.