Tattooed with bruises from off-roading. Eyes sore from peering into the bush (and through our camera viewfinders). Cold in the mornings, hot in the afternoons. Sun drilling down on just one side of our faces. Grit crunching between our teeth. Creased old khaki duds. Dust everywhere. Why put yourself through it?
The answer is currently staring down at us from a stately raintree in Botswana’s Khwai conservancy on the edge of the Okavango Delta. She’s draped over a thick branch, her head resting heavily on huge paws; her wide-eyed gaze meeting our own. This is our first visit to this conservancy and we’re super-excited to meet our first resident of this special place.
Our little plane only touched down just a couple of hours earlier, yet here we are cautiously tailing a beautiful, thick-set (possibly pregnant?) female leopard we picked up about an hour ago – just moments into our very first afternoon game drive out on the reserve.
This 180,000 hectare wilderness, sandwiched between the world-famous Moremi and Chobe national parks, boasts just a small handful of lodges so tourist traffic is light. We’re guests of Pangolin camp. There are no fences between Khwai and the neighbouring protected areas and wildlife moves seamlessly from one reserve to another. Because the concession is private we also have the added bonus, for us wildlife photographers, of being able to travel off-road to get closer and also achieve much better angles on subjects.
Khwai’s noted for its regular predator sightings, its water channels attract good amounts of game and birdlife, wild dogs pass through, denning there in the winter months and there are buffaloes and elephants aplenty. So you can imagine how keen we were to explore the place on this recce. Despite all we’d read, we didn’t expect to have two hours of prime leopard-time on our very first drive.
When we first clapped eyes on our spotted friend she was resting at the base of a tree. Well-camouflaged in the swaying, sun-bleached grasses, it took a while to pick her out. The light was still harsh and there wasn’t really a good image to be had. But you don’t pass up, or pass by, a sighting like this one. We waited patiently for better light and the chance she might move.
We didn’t have to wait too long. For the next couple of hours we followed closely, but carefully, as she restlessly prowled around, trying out different trees for size. She climbed them effortlessly, bounding up the trunks, selecting the right branch and snoozing for a while, then climbing back down and beginning her evening perambulations.
The light softened, then turned gold. The blue hour came and went and still we kept our eyes and lenses locked on her. When all available natural light was gone, we resorted to using a spotlight – gently and sparingly – marvelling at her grace as she stretched before starting out on her long night of hunting. We stayed with her until the very last moment, then bade her goodnight and watched her disappearing into the blackness.
It was the best of Botswana welcomes.
In the following few days we got lucky with wild dog, spent time with a cheetah that had just killed a reedbuck, held our noses while photographing a hyena clan enjoying dead hippo for their picnic, and found a very handsome male lion lurking in the long grass. We had sniffs of other leopards too, but in the end the trails went cold.
We also spent time trying out the conservancy’s famous low level elephant hide where massive adult bulls regularly come to drink and pass almost too close for comfort; kicking sand in your face (and lens!) It’s an awe-inspiring experience which should be enhanced even further when a second low-level hide is opened elsewhere on the conservancy sometime soon.
We even found ourselves with front row seats at the bush premiere of Nat Geo conservationist and explorer Steve Boyes’ fascinating new documentary film ‘Into the Okavango’ which had its TV world premiere this month on Nat Geo Wild. Before the titles rolled (we were joining US journalists who were there on a press trip and also passing through Pangolin camp), Steve gave a talk about the epic four-month expedition to explore the river system that feeds the Okavango, discussing the making of the film and his passion for this vast wetland wilderness that wrapped us round beneath the stars .
And all the while, as elephants rumbled in the distance, we chomped on popcorn, just as you would in any local multiplex.
It was too short a visit. Just a few hot, dusty, memorably magic days.
It seems there’s an obsession with action in wildlife photography these days – understandable perhaps given the dynamism of a well-executed example, coupled with the technical ability of today’s top-end digital cameras to seriously increase the overall hit rate. But sometimes this comes at a cost to the ‘humble’ animal or bird portrait, sadly, and strangely, undervalued and ignored as a result.
The perception seems to be that action shots are tougher to nail and so therefore trump wildlife portraits which are seen as too easy or less interesting to the viewer. On the surface that might seem a fair assessment, but with modern cameras doing a lot of the work when it comes to fast-action photography you could argue the very best wildlife portraits – those that communicate something more, or something deeper, about the subject – are not at all easy to pull off and can often be more evocative, emotive and powerful than action photography, while equally as compelling to the audience – just look at the images that top the portrait categories in the world’s leading photographic competitions for example.
Making better wildlife portraits, like everything, takes practice and time, but there are a few things we’ve learned over the years that will help give your animal portraiture more punch. The text is a reworking of an article we had published in ‘Australian Photography’ magazine a few years ago that came to mind the other day as we began preparing to head off on another photographic safari. The images are a mix of new and old from our files…
1.Picking the right subjects
The best chefs select the choicest ingredients and simply let them sing. They know for the best results they need the best raw materials. The same goes when shooting wildlife portraits. Be ultra picky and shoot only the finest, most striking subjects. Wild animals are not models, but if you take your role as critical casting agent seriously, searching out the most charismatic critters, you can find half your work is done. Unless we’re looking to make a photographic point about a wrinkled, old, wounded specimen we pass over poor-condition subjects and those with ‘cosmetic’ flaws, that might niggle and distract a trained viewer. One floppy ear when both should be erect, a torn lip, worn or lifeless fur, missing canine teeth all could mar your results unless you make it absolutely clear to a viewer that’s what you intended. Many wild animals have scars – some photogenic, others less so – hence the need to scrutinise potential subjects vigorously. It’s surprising how easy it is to overlook fine details in the heat of the moment – only noticing them on the computer when it can be too late.
2. Making eyes
Check carefully you’re focused on the eyes –the most important part of any portrait. Direct eye contact with the added spark of a twinkling catchlight are the gold standards to aim for here. If not looking straight at you then wide-awake peepers will help wildlife portraits pop. Snoozy-looking subjects just won’t cut it. To give eyes an extra gleam you could try a dab of fill-in flash or make the most of any handy natural reflectors like water, when animals come to drink, bathe or socialise, to bounce extra light into your subject’s eyes for an added twinkle. Careful positioning of a subject’s eyes within the frame will also help enhance their impact. The ‘golden-ratio’ or rule of thirds works well here. Many animal portraits you make will be in ‘portrait’ format and you’ll find that your image will be more visually appealing and engaging to the viewer if you place your subject’s eyes on or near where an imaginary line bisects the image roughly two thirds up from the bottom. That said rules are to be broken and really extreme close-up portraits cam be very arresting if only a single eye is shown.
3. Sculpting with light
The general advice when shooting animal portraits is to go with bright, slightly cloudy conditions. Light cloud cover acts like a giant diffuser softening harsh shadows and rendering fine fur and skin detail and colour beautifully. On sunnier days make do shooting animal portraits in light shade. All sound stuff, but if it’s a drum-roll and drama you’re looking for you’re going to need more moody lighting. Low-raking bright sunlight works a treat if you want to crank up the atmosphere. We love using strong side-lighting at both ends of the day to help define a subject’s strong features such as horns, wrinkly hide, and so on. Angled-light throws a subject’s face into sharp relief, illuminating some elements more than others, producing a 3D, sculptural effect. If you like the result, experiment with more extreme low-key techniques where even larger areas of your subject are unlit. Shooting subjects against a dark backdrop and underexposing a bit will help, although you can always tweak backgrounds later in post-processing if you’re not confident. Portraits made this way can have a powerful quality so play around until you get it right.
4. Being background savvy
Keep backgrounds simple for portraits. Your subject has the lead role – the background plays second fiddle – so steer clear of anything that might steal attention from your subject. Be as colour-wise as a designer too – alert to backgrounds with a palette that complements or contrasts well with your subject. Shoot fairly wide open, where you can, to throw the background out of focus; bearing in mind you’ll need enough depth of field to ensure your subject is pin sharp from the nose-tip to the eye. In long-snouted subjects that can mean stopping down quite a bit so we try to ensure subjects are not positioned too close to the background. It helps here to exploit situations where a subject is sitting out in the open or standing proud of its surroundings. If this isn’t possible, try a low-angle and isolate your subject against a bright blue or pale white sky ( keep a close eye on exposure as you go). By ensuring backgrounds drop away we can stop down as much as we need to make sure our subject’s sharp throughout while being confident the distant background won’t intrude. Always try shifting your viewpoint in relation to your subject to assess the different background options a fresh perspective might give you.
5. Building character
The most successful wildlife portraits communicate a strong message about the animals they portray. Consider what you want to emphasise to the viewer most about your chosen subject – the imperiousness of a male lion, the intense concentration of a hunting heron, the don’t-mess-with-me attitude of a grouchy old buffalo. Because you haven’t the luxury of lots of background context in a portrait shot you’ll be relying on lighting and composition to help you communicate the spirit of the species. Bear in mind that curving, sinuous shapes, blurred edges and soft lighting are better suited to vulnerable, small or elegant subjects. Hard lines, high contrast and strong, directional lighting work best for big, bold, intimidating creatures. Aim to match the mood of the image with the key characteristics of your subject.
6. Getting closer still
If you find your portraits still don’t pack a punch it could be you’re not getting close enough. Extreme close-ups, with frame-busting facial features, can be hugely effective providing you crop and compose them well. Close cropping needs to look deliberate or it can look like a mistake – as if you misjudged things and accidentally clipped bits at the edges of the frame. So if you’re going to try this, don’t be tentative. Extreme close ups tend to work best with large, or menacing and fearsome creatures and those subjects with really fascinating, ugly or heavily furrowed faces. Be bold.
7. Concealing to reveal
Mystery adds the spice of intrigue to a portrait and one of the simplest ways to add mystique is to take something away. If you want to hold the viewer’s attention – leave something to their imagination. Try photographing just part of a subject’s face and head. Your subject might be partly hidden by a rock or you could crop in so closely that only part of the face, or just one eye, features in your shot. Doing this helps throw attention on the ‘curated’ features you choose to include. This selective cropping can prove useful in conveying a message about your subject too, for example, showing only part of a leopard’s face might communicate the idea that staying hidden is this stealthy predator’s modus operandi.
8. Framing portraits
An effective way to emphasise and draw attention to your subject is to frame it. By framing we don’t mean hanging it on the wall in the conventional sense, but creating an inner frame within the confines of your image to pull a viewer further to your focal point. We’re always on the look out for backgrounds that contain a natural frame into which we can place our subject – the curving branch of tree neatly overarching an animal’s head, perhaps, or a ‘window’ in dense foliage. If there’s nothing suitable that suggests itself, try using a shallow depth of field. Photograph wide open, lock focus on your subject and then shoot with your camera very low and very close to the foreground, whether it’s grasses, a bank of sand or tangled undergrowth. The shallow depth of field will mean everything, other than your subject, will be out of focus – framing it softly.
9 Holding up a mirror
Take a look at successful wildlife portraits and you’ll see many appeal because they’ re anthropomorphic – their content reflects back our own human behaviour and emotions, from tenderness to humour to aggression. Recognising the kind of behaviour, or subject, that will resonate with the viewer in this way is the easy part – capturing the exact character or moment of interest is the hard part. Being there is half the battle. So spend as much time in the field as you can patiently watching and waiting. And when you find promising subjects stick with them for as long as possible. Wait to see what happens next. Something usually does.
10. Ignoring all the above
The above tips work routinely for us, but that doesn’t mean you should follow them slavishly or that’s all there is to it. The trick is to evolve your photography and try something different. We’re always looking to take our photography forward and find something fresh whether it’s unusual angles, unconventional framing, creative blur and so on. At the end of the day it’s your call. But whatever you decide there’s one single thing to remember to be sure of success.
The rugged plains that line the eastern fringes of the Namib desert are a photographer’s paradise – especially when this hauntingly beautiful landscape is bathed in amber light providing just the right backdrop for our subjects – providing we can spot them…
Stunning as these surroundings are, this place is no Eden for the special creatures we’ve come to capture on camera – especially in 2018 after several years of prolonged drought has put a question mark over their future survival.
Each year, tourists from across the globe make the journey to this little bit of nowhere to see the famous wild horses of Garub, southern Namibia. Earlier this year we joined them, hoping to see how they were getting on some 20 years since they galloped across the southern Africa sabbatical that kickstarted our careers in wildlife photography.
We weren’t holding out much hope as we reached Aus, the nearest little town which relies on the tourist dollars the horses, and their century-old story, bring in. That’s because the first scan of our surroundings suggests there’s nothing left for them to eat on the plain all around us. We certainly don’t think, if we do find them, they’ll look anything like the fit, prancing silhouettes on the road signs that warn us we’ve finally reached their desert home.
The Garub waterpoint the horses frequent is marked from the B4 road some 20km west of Aus. It’s best to go there first thing in the morning and again in the late afternoon, increasing your chances of seeing and photographing these famous equines and the other local wildlife, like oryx, it attracts. And that’s where we‘re headed now with some trepidation.
No-one’s exactly sure how the horses came to be here. They are the descendants of escapees from a local stud some 100 years ago, that bred racehorses and work horses in the Namib desert’s diamond rush era, or they’re the former mounts of soldiers stationed in the area in World War 1. Or both. The certain thing is that they’ve been running wild ever since, free from the service of man, isolated from civilisation and fully adapted to the harsh conditions of this unforgiving habitat. They’re now regarded as a breed apart; the ‘Namibs’.
Since October 2015 supplementary food has been provided for them, on a regular basis, by the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation to ensure they don’t starve and get enough roughage following the drought. Between 2014 and the start of this year the area is said to have had little more than 5mm of rain. The feeding strategy has helped the struggling horses considerably, although some old stallions and mares have not responded well and still look in poor condition when we finally get our ‘eye’ in and start spotting them. We sadly don’t see any foals. Their future is uncertain, increasingly prey to hyenas, the struggling population has declined heavily in recent years. Some believe numbers are so low they could soon go extinct.
In good conditions, when food is plenty, the horses play. When we finally see them, scattered over the plain, there’s clearly no time for leisure activity. They’re busy feeding; heads down the whole while. Well, at least they’ve found something to graze on. A closer look at the seemingly empty landscape reveals a welcome hint of green – small flushes of fresh growth following the rain showers of recent days. Feeling just a little more hopeful for their future we set about framing ‘animal-scapes’; picking out tiny horse shapes that look lost amidst the overwhelming beauty of the Namib-Naukluft reserve.
It’s not just the difficult climatic conditions that cast a shadow over the wild horses’ future. The reserve exists to protect indigenous fauna and flora, yet the horses are incomers, not indigenous ‘game’ – with the inevitable issues that brings. Although research carried out over two decades suggests the horses have no adverse impact on the eco-system, a debate about their preservation is raging. Should the indigenous hyenas that have been picking off the weaker feral horses be managed, or fed themselves elsewhere, as has been happening, to hold them at bay? Should a special sanctuary for the horses be set up? Juggling the cost of their care, weighing the appropriate level of conservation intervention and addressing the valid concerns of the tourism industry is a difficult balancing act. For the moment the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation is desperately fighting to keep the horses in their core area through its targeted feeding.
For ourselves, returning to see them after 20 years, we’re surprised at just how much we’re drawn to them. It would be very sad to see them go after they’ve battled this long to beat the desert’s hardships and have finally found an arrangement with their surroundings.
The fundamental appeal of the Garub horses is clear – it’s the romance of wild spirit in a wild terrain. It’s that sense of freedom and co-existence with the environment that speaks to something in all of us. But now that harmony has been put at risk…
The Namibia Wild Horses Foundation warns visitors against handing out food to help the horses because it draws them away from the feeding points and may not provide the vital nutrition and roughage they need. People wanting to help the horses can contribute to the feeding programme by contacting the Wild Horses Foundation where you can also find out more about the horses.
Where to Stay if You Want To See and Photograph the Horses
If you want to photograph, or simply observe the wild horses, the nearest place to stay is the wonderfully horse-themed Klein Aus Vista resort on the edge of the rocky Aus mountains. (There’s also accommodation in Aus itself, the nearest ‘town’, including a good hotel where we broke our journey for coffee and cake ).
Klein Aus Vista has a range of accommodation from camping to rustic chalets to the Desert Horse Inn, where the well-appointed suites are served by a ranch-style communal area with a pool and good restaurant. There are walking trails around the resort and amazing night skies overhead. klein-aus-vista.com.
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.
It was a big fillip for our Beat about the Bush blog recently when our post from last year, the Marmite Moments of a Photography Couple, reached a shortlist of three nominated for best blogger/vlogger on Africa in the first media awards hosted by the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) in London.
The annual ATTA Media Awards have been set up to celebrate the best travel, conservation and tourism journalism on Africa – so you can imagine just how chuffed we both were to get nominated.
We couldn’t attend the awards bash in London earlier in the summer as we were – you’ve guessed it – away in the African bush. But we’re determined the good news will kickstart us into posting here a bit more now. Unfortunately we’ve been a bit quiet in the last few months, partly due to being busy building up the new photographic safari side of our business…
But hey, now we’ve got a blogging reputation to keep up!
‘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).
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
Concierge Boutique Bungalows (& Freedom Café)
Café in a ‘can’ with rooms
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Charming hicktown timewarp
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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…
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon