Tag Archives: Kalahari

Meet the meerkat mob that stole the show

Playful young suricates get into mischief at the den one evening

It’s just before sunrise and we’re squatting uncomfortably in a clump of bushes in a quiet corner of our Kalahari restcamp.  We’re keeping quiet.  For two reasons. First up, our subjects are still snoozing, although we’re not too concerned about disturbing their slumbers (they’ll be up like clockwork with the sun in a few minutes). But more importantly we don’t want to draw anyone else’s attention to what we’re doing…

It’s not that we don’t like sharing, and we’re not usually this clandestine about subjects (we even took a detour and sneaked round the long way this morning in case anyone spotted where we were headed). With subjects this obliging we are unusually keen to keep this one to ourselves.

Keep schtum! We really need to keep this quiet – hence the secrecy

We stumbled upon the spot a couple of days ago, almost by accident, and we have spent a few wonderful mornings (and sun-downs) with the ever-popular species that occasionally has sleep-overs here. We worry if we draw a crowd the group could be disturbed and might not choose to sleep in camp with us again.

What are we up to?  We’re door-stepping meerkats.  We certainly feel like paparazzi skulking about secretively with our cameras and lying in wait for the money shot.

It’s a golden opportunity to observe these busy creatures intimately at low level

But the chance to photograph a family of suricates – fascinating, characterful, charming, comical and anthropomorphic as they are – out of our vehicle, up close, at ground level, interacting and behaving totally unselfconsciously (and with the prospect we might even be able to use a wide-angle lens if we take things slow and don’t push it) is not one to let go.

It’s summer here, when suricates breed, and we’ve been lucky to see a couple of photogenic ‘clans’ with young – including some really tiny babies ( more of them to come in a later post…)

The last time we had the chance to photograph meerkat families socialising as intimately as this, we were photographing at the real life ‘Meerkat Manor’ from the TV, at the home of the long-running Kalahari Meerkat Project, for a magazine feature. It’s not a place that grants access to photographers lightly so a meerkat den in a secret corner of our camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park a few weeks ago, with habituated residents, was going to make missing the odd the big cat sighting on morning and evening game drives for a day or two more than worthwhile.

Last out’s a sissy. Checking the coast is clear a single merrkat pops up to say hello

Just as cramp is setting in our lower limbs we see the first signs that our photo session is about to begin. A sleepy, long-snout noses out of the sandy hole followed by a skinny body. The early riser clocks that we’re here, but isn’t fazed by us.  This clan is used to people with cameras. This is because they’ve been spending the odd day here or there foraging on the campsite to the delight of tourists.

It was an amazing experience to watch them socialise right in front of our camera lenses
One meerkat would act as sentinel climbing a bush to check the coast was clear

Having spent a few days with them now we marvel at their ability to be in plain sight one minute on the campsite, then ‘puff’ they’re gone from right under everyone’s noses the next.  Nobody seems to notice them taking a cautious, sometimes circuitous, route home to the far reaches of the restcamp, picking their moments before clumping up in a tight, secure group when they need to cross an open bit of ground… followed discreetly a minute or two later by two self-conscious, stupid-looking photographers, trying hopelessly to look nonchalant…and invisible.

Emerging into the spotlight as soon as the sun is up – the morning meerkat show begins

Meerkat number one is now completely out of the hole and scoping around to check the coast is clear. The gang don’t always see eye to eye with their closest neighbours, a family of yellow mongoose, who get out of bed around the same time, but they’re nowhere to be seen this morning.  Like peas being shelled from a pod, the rest of the clan – all 14 – pop out of the hole in quite quick succession. It’s a treat to watch. They seem to ignore us completely and while a sentry climbs a nearby bush to keep watch, the morning rituals of getting up ‘meerkat-style’ begin.

Characterful and comical their antics keep us busy until they head off to forage
The pregnant alpha female and a youngster bask in the sun

On hot summer mornings like this these suricates won’t hang around long sunbathing so we need to shoot quickly and efficiently – without getting in their, or each other’s way.  We start framing shots of tight huddles of adults, and young interacting close to the burrow, using our 100 to 400mm zoom lenses so we can easily make a variety of compositions without moving position and disturbing them.  Gradually the huddles break up and we divide our attention between digging adults and playfighting juniors, clicking away hungrily before inching slowly towards one of the more confiding groups with a short lens.  This allows for a more dynamic perspective and one we certainly couldn’t get beyond the confines of camp where we’re confined to working from our vehicle.

When the time is right we inch closer with a wide angle lens – but don’t like to intrude

It feels intrusive, however, with a camera right in their faces, and given we’ve had such close access to them already, we quickly grab a shot or two and retreat to a respectful distance.

Scampering off for the day past the resident ground squirrels in camp

Before long they’re off and away, as on the other mornings, the gang fanning out as they forage – all the while chattering reassuringly to keep contact with one another as they frantically dig and search around with noses down.

It’s only when the den site is quiet and empty once again that we notice just how painful it’s been working hunched up on the uneven ground, sprawled in and around the prickly bushes and network of old ground squirrel burrows.  But that doesn’t matter. It’s not every day you get to wish ‘good morning’ to a bunch of meerkats; going eyeball to eyeball with the whole gang as they emerge from a secret hideaway that nobody else knows exists.

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!

 

 

Kalahari trip marks 20 years of our safaris

Lioness, Penthera leo, carrying cub, Kgalagadi Tranfrontier Park, South Africa
A memorable Kalahari moment from the old days – on film

It’s a big anniversary for us Toons in 2016. This year, this month in fact, we’ll be celebrating 20 years of safaris in Africa with a trip to the Kalahari – the very place where our photographic adventures first started.

Where did those two decades go? If you want living proof that Africa gets under your skin look no further. We’ve been visiting the continent two or three times a year since then for several weeks, often months, at a time, because, quite simply – we can’t get enough.

Steve Toon, wildlife photographer, Etosha national park, Namibia
Photography on safari in Africa is what we’re about – Steve checks cameras before a drive

That six month trip to South Africa and Namibia in ’96, what Steve refers to now as our ‘road to Damaraland’ conversion, convinced us to ditch our day jobs in journalism and hitch our wagon to wildlife photography instead. Spending almost all our time in the bush on that visit changed our lives completely. Crazily we gave up stable, well-paid jobs in the media for the hand to mouth, roller-coaster existence of the freelance wildlife photographer. It wasn’t easy – starting a new career from scratch – building a portfolio and a profile, getting established with the right photo libraries, mastering the arcane arts of marketing and the 24/7 demands of running our own business.

Leopard, Panthera pardus, male, Okonjima, Namibia
Velvia 50 film – great for richly satuarated portraits but frustratlingly slow for most wildlife

If we’re talking steep learning curves ours has been a Kilimanjaro. We’d just cut our teeth on film when the digital revolution happened. Just in terms of ISO we jumped from a gold standard of 50 (we’re talking the good old days of Fuji Velvia here) to routinely being able to shoot at 1,000 plus without much loss of quality – a huge step forward when so many of the critters in our crosshairs are crepuscular, high-speed or hyperactive.

African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) fishing, Chobe National Park, Botswana, Africa, October 2014
Cameras like the Canon 1DX have helped us keep pace with our more active subjects

Back in the day we spent an age, plus a fortune on postage, sending out manually labelled and catalogued slides to prospective clients around the world which once out for consideration could not be touted elsewhere. Our hard-won images were sat on for weeks, returned covered in gum from the photo printing process, often sent back scratched and in one or two cases lost forever.

In the field back then we missed so many great moments of action, and nuances of mood, now within our grasp. Exposure was a make or break issue and techniques needed to be nailed in camera – no second chances in the digital darkroom. Looking back it was probably a great way to hone our skills and pay our dues – but what would we have given for a couple of Canon 1DX’s back then?

BPS18 Ann in dune bedroom, Tok Tokkie trail
Waking up to another African dawn after sleeping under the stars in the Namib Naukluft
Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis, at dusk, Etosha National Park, Namibia
Big skies and big game plus the thril of not knowing what will happen next

So now we embrace the digital age for the additional freedom and creative scope it brings us, even if it has led to a surfeit of wildlife imagery and a consequent squeeze on earnings. It means we can run our photographic business from home in the wilds of Northumberland National Park, and increasingly from the remote African bush if we have to when we’re away on photo-journalistic assignments or running photographic safaris. And while it’s become tougher than ever to make a good living from photography – we’re doing something far more important – we’re making a life. No-one can take away the rich bank of wildlife experiences we’ve amassed over the last 20 years and the expertise and knowledge we’ve garnered by focusing hard on a well-defined subject area we’re totally passionate about.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana), Chobe National Park, Botswana, October 2014
Helping guests get great shots on our photographic safaris is the next exciting chapter in our African adventures in 2016

Would we make the same move today we did all those years ago – I’m not sure. But then again I think we would. The huge skies, the smell of the dust, that soundtrack of doves, those sunsets, that sense of excitement you feel before every game drive, crossing paths with an elephant or coming face to face, in the flesh, with a big cat, witnessing a unique bit of animal behaviour, or best of all having a completely wild, unscripted scenario unexpectedly developing to your photographic benefit. Nothing beats that. For us it’s just about one thing. Being there…

 

Six ways to add wow to your wildlife pictures

I can tell from the way we’re needling each other now after long days in the office, processing pictures, polishing pitches and chasing unpaid invoices, that it’s high time we were heading off back to the African bush. Our run-down engines are spluttering, our creative juices have evaporated, the RSI is flaring up and our pasty skins and bleary eyes, after hours in the ‘digital darkroom’ with blinds drawn, are truly zombie-like.

It’s got so bad that yesterday, just to keep going on the projects in hand, we had to down tools for 15 minutes to listen to BBC sound recordist Chris Watson’s wonderful Kalahari soundscape, broadcast earlier this week on Radio Four, on the iPlayer. It’s amazing how much renewed energy you can get just hearing the ping, ping, pinging calls of barking geckoes. A sound we’ll forever associate with evenings in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Reserve after a busy day ‘connecting’ with Africa’s awesome wildlife.

Fortunately it’s not too long now before we’ll be taking down our special ‘Africa’ crate once again (see our post ‘Six Things to Love About Photography in the Kalahari‘  about this important pre-trip, packing ritual). Re-charging our batteries and nourishing our souls in the wild just can’t come soon enough.

After years of doing this you’d think we’d have this wildlife photography thing nailed by now. But every time we look forward to travelling we resolve to improve our pictures and return home with better shots than before. While we certainly learned early on that there’s no silver bullet or short-cut to getting that great shot we have found a few simple techniques and approaches along the way that help our pictures pack a punch. Here are just a few (and then we must get back to work!):

1. Turn round
Turning your back, quite literally, on the prevailing wisdom that recommends photographing with the sun behind your shoulder immediately presents you with the opportunity to exploit the changing moods and magical effects of back-lighting. Back-lighting is a boon for wildlife subjects because it allows you to focus more attention on them. Distracting detail, and colour even, is held in check, (or is almost non-existent in the shadow areas) so there’s nothing at all to detract the viewer’s eye from the main event. Keep compositions clean and experiment  under-exposing shots a bit to further dampen down detail and saturate the golden light. Look out for back-lighting opportunities when photographing animals in water, when it’s cold, or in dry, dusty conditions. A golden spray of water droplets, a veil of condensing breath or a shimmering cloud of dust will really enhance the eye-appeal of your shots.

AMHAL17(D) Common (blue) wildebeest (gnu)
Shoot into the light to add mood, magic and mystery to wildlife images

2. Go wide
While the foreshortening effect of long lenses can be brilliant for throwing backgrounds out of focus in wildlife shots (and getting close to stuff in the first place!) the downside is your results can sometimes look a bit flat.

That’s why wherever we get the opportunity we like to use wide-angle lenses. Wildlife images made this way always look refreshingly different and have bags of immediacy because subjects appear so ‘in your face’. Unlike long lenses, the broad angle of view when shooting wide gives pictures a dynamic 3-D feel and allows you to include lots of in-focus background detail, too, telling a story about your subject’s habitat and immediately enriching your picture with context. Wide-angle animal close-ups work best at eye level with your subject (or below it) so you not only need to get very close, you need to get down low – often lying prone. The effect is to exaggerate your subjects’ size and characteristics, making them appear to loom out of your picture – straight towards the viewer.

AMHRW168(D) White rhinos
Low and wide is one way to go if you want to make dynamic images of large mammals

3. Think landscape
When we started out and had splashed all our savings on long lenses we photographed everything close-up – all the time. We still do close-up shots, of course, but we temper that desire to fill the frame all the time now because these shots don’t really communicate much about our subject to the viewer – the habitat it prefers or the eco-system it belongs to. They also don’t really capture the sense of scale of a subject or establish any relationship between the subject itself and the world it inhabits. These days we force ourselves to think more like landscape photographers; placing wildlife subjects in the wider scene as thoughtfully as a landscape photographer would frame a scenic shot. As always, photograph when the light is best to make the most of impressive skies and surrounding scenery.

AMHZ83(D) Zebra with storm
Good landscape techniques with a strong wildlife subject is a winning combo

4. Make eyes
Strong eye contact takes a wildlife image to another level since eyes are the first thing a viewer engages with. We’ve discovered that getting this part of the picture right is vital – putting the ‘life’ into wildlife images. We often pass up on a  subject with no catchlight in the eye because  we know the resulting image will look lifeless. You can add a catchlight at the post-processing stage, but nothing beats a natural sparkle. Always be ready to press the shutter at the precise moment your subject is wide-eyed and be prepared to shift your position in relation to the sun and your subject. If you can’t get a catchlight immediately, this shuffling of viewpoint often helps. Eyes are such an important feature we often try to make them the ‘essence’ or stars of a picture.

AMPL106(D) Lion
Strong eye contact, an alert stare and pupils clear to see will all help grab and hold the viewer’s attention

5. Break rules
Experiment, be creative, aim to find your own visual style and be prepared to dispense with photographic convention. A lightning bolt won’t strike you if you stray away from the rule of thirds. If you feel it will improve the aesthetics of your image, advance the story you want to tell, or convey the emotion you’re after – go for it. The best images are not the ‘me too’ wildlife clichés, but the ones that dare to be different. A word or two of warning ‘though. Be bold when you veer off the straight and narrow. If you’re too tentative you risk not pulling it off – and always do it for a reason.

AMHRW186 White rhino
Dare to be different – rules work, but can be broken too!

6. Be there
Our best and final advice  is quite simple – get out there with your camera as much as you can. Luck is a rare commodity, whatever you’re doing in life, but you can increase your chance of getting better wildlife shots simply by putting more time in. It certainly seems to work for us. That tired old saying ‘F8 and be there’ holds more than a grain of truth. So keep a camera with you at all times when you’re out where the wild things are – that winning shot is out there waiting for you.

AMPFS88(D) Cape fox cub with dead rat
Put as much time in as you can to get the most out – patience brings the privilege of seeing and shooting great wildlife behaviour in the field, whether at home or abroad

Seek out the top photo hides in South Africa

ABEM98 Black-shouldered kite in flight, Intaka
Black-shouldered kit in flight

Specialist hides, where you often pay a premium to photograph, are springing up at the moment like fungi after a flood. All good stuff perhaps, but let’s not forget, in these straitened times, there are still quite a few top-notch public hides that are perfectly positioned for getting excellent shots and most of them are a bargain. Here are a few of our personal favourites from our many visits to South Africa:

Intaka Island

ABWH157 Little bittern
Little bittern, Intaka

Shop ’til you drop or photograph birds to your heart’s content at this hidden Cape Town oasis with Table Mountain for a backdrop. This compact, and cleverly thought-out, urban wetland area has been created right at the heart of the Century City development so you can hop on a boat to the nearby shopping mall for brunch after a busy morning photographing various kingfishers, shy bitterns, ducks, geese, ibis and even the odd raptors that sometimes pass by.

ABKK38 Malachite kingfisher with beetle
Malachite kingfisher with beetle, Intaka

Best bit:  When we’ve visited,  when passing through the Mother City, natural perches were extremely well-placed for photography.

Our tip: Go early, and mid-week, if you want the best spot for photography – this tiny hide is popular and can be very busy on weekends.

Giants Castle Vulture Hide

ABEV79(D) Bearded vulture adult and squabbling subadults
Bearded vulture with sub-adults, Giants Castle

We haven’t been to this perennial favourite for a while – probably because it’s regularly booked out these days. Where else can you go eyeball to eyeball with bearded and Cape vultures as they soar effortlessly on the thermals against the stunning Drakensberg mountains of KwaZulu-Natal in a precariously placed eyrie of a cliff-top hide.

ABEV71(D) Bearded vulture subadult
Juvenile bearded vulture, Giants Castle

Best bit: A morning in this amazing state park-run hide is a wonderful experience even if you don’t pack camera gear and simply sit there absorbing the avian aerobatics and fly-pasts.

Our tip: Booking well ahead goes without saying, but if possible book out the whole hide (it’s not expensive) so you’ve got plenty of room and can use whichever camera portholes are best on the day.

Kumasinga Hide

AMHRW193 White rhinos in aggressive confrontation
White rhinos confront each other, Kumasinga

Staying in KwaZulu-Natal, this dry season hide that sits over a tree-lined waterhole in Mhkuze game reserve is no secret to photographers and bird-watchers alike. Since its recent refurbishment, however, we reckon it’s now even better for photography. Perhaps we were just lucky on our last visit, but the place was heaving all morning with nyala, wildebeest, impala, zebra, rhino, baboons, warthogs, the odd ellie or two and even comical terrapins.

AAT02 Marsh terrapins (African helmeted turtles)
Comical marsh terrapins, Kumasinga

Best bit: Photo opportunities here are rich and rewarding and you’re beautifully close to the busy morning animal activity  with the perfect orientation for the light.

Our tip: Be alert to what’s going on behind you when you’re there. There can sometimes be good opportunities for contre-jour shots in the very early morning on the less busy side of the hide.

Mata Mata Restcamp Hide

AMPL327 Lioness and cubs at water
Wary lioness with cubs, Mata Mata

We can’t resist including this one from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park because we’ve so many awesome memories of big cats coming to drink here by night and day. Of course you don’t need to be inside this purpose-built hide on stilts; you can watch the wildlife just as easily from the (sometimes flimsy-feeling!) camp fence, but the hide makes photographing with big telephotos that bit easier as there’s a handy ledge to support your lens and no wire to get in the way.

AMPL339 Lion drinking
Majestic male visits Mata Mata camp waterhole for a drink

Best bit: You’re right at camp so can pop down from the hide to turn your chops on the braai while you’re photographing the lions.

Our tip: If cats have been seen around camp in the morning, or are sitting up on the distant dunes in the afternoon, you may want to forgo an evening drive and sit patiently in the hide – they’ll generally move down to the waterhole for a drink just before sundown.

AMPL338 Young lions
Eyeing up the campers? Young lions from the Mata Mata hide

So these are just a few of our favourite ‘public’ hides for photography. Perhaps you have your own favourites?

‘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…

Six Things to Love about Photography in the Kgalagadi

We’re just getting ready to hit the road again – racing to finish late feature articles, tidying up loose ends in the office, processing last minute pictures and dragging down our ‘Africa’ crate from the shelf in the hall cupboard for our forthcoming trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and South Africa’s North West province.

The ‘Africa’ crate contains odd, but essential, non-photographic bits of kit that have proved extremely handy over the years. It’s the stuff that makes us feel instantly at home when it’s unpacked in the bush.

Quite a lot of the bits and bobs in there are linked to food (a passion second only to photographing wildlife for us both): an old cheese grater with plastic bits nibbled by jackals, a cracked plastic sieve which is still surprisingly useful, a cheap ice lolly mould with re-usable plastic sticks, and the torn, and thrice-mended, blue batik sarong we’ve used forever to cover our camera gear on game drives – our own personal security blanket.

The ice lolly mould? Bought from the tardis-like Banana Box general store in St Lucia in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province one time, the lollies it produces are now a must have on any summer visit to the Kalahari. After Steve’s iced instant coffee that is. There are moulds for six of them and one can of ‘Minute Maid’ fruit drink bought from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park camp shop splits miraculously to fill all six holes. Pop in the freezer et viola! For occasions when you’re in chalets rather than camping, of course, and not in Twee Rivieren, the main camp, as the shop there already sells ice cream. I can’t think of a better way to cool down ahead of a cold Castle lager at dusk.

I’m getting sidetracked. Suffice to say we’re going through our preparation rituals ahead of another visit to our favourite South African national park and its reminding us of all the things that still give us goosebumps about photographing there. These are…

1. The Curve Ball

AMPJ95 Blackbacked jackal chasing doves
Blackbacked jackal chasing doves

Our best pictures from a visit won’t be the ones we’ve pre-visualised for months before arriving. It’s what turns up out of the blue that’s the really exciting thing. This is why no amount of pre-planning, detailed research or the careful drawing up of a shooting list can really prepare you for a visit to the Kalahari.

The top of your photographic wish list might very well be the black-maned lions the reserve is famous for, or its now quite visible leopards. A majestic lion framed classically between a bright blue sky and that rich red sand, a gemsbok silhouetted on the top of a calcrete ridge, the decisive moment of a cheetah hunt? Bring it on. But red letter days like this are rare.

What we love about this place is that it seems to be the Kgalagadi that decides what the special rewards for your patience and those ‘dry’ pictureless drives will be, not you. Leave your mind open, let the thirstland rhythms work their magic and let the unexpected tiptoe in…

2. The Unfolding Story

Cape fox cubs playing
Cape fox cubs playing

The Kgalagadi is brilliant at story-telling. Perhaps its our old journalism training, but the never-ending, open, sandy terrain is a perfect blank page on which hundreds of animal tracks trace out the tales of the daily struggle for survival. With few roads, most of which follow the dry, fossil rivers where animals congregate during daylight hours, it’s possible to follow the footsteps (quite literally) of a subject you’ve photographed over several days. There are few places you can chart the different episodes and events in the inhabitants’ lives like this, whether it be the local lion pride, the silver fox family or the hyperactive meerkat colony. Observing them each morning and evening by their dens and burrows, and being drawn in and mesmerised by the various chapters in their natural histories, becomes more absorbing and addictive even than the wildlife photography itself…

3. The Wonderful Waterhole called Dalkeith

Cheetah drinking at Dalkeith
Cheetah drinking at Dalkeith

It looks like a large, badly made garden pond, fringed too neatly with bright stones that can wreck a composition and your exposure if you’re not careful. It can become a bit of a circus these days too when the park is busy – no more the quiet stake-outs of our early days when we’d often have the spot to ourselves. But it’s close enough to the track to make for arresting shots and still remains the site of some of our best, and most intimate, animal encounters and photographs. Three cheetahs drinking followed immediately, like a factory conveyor-belt, by a group of seven thirsty lions is just one memorable highlight. Dalkeith always seems to comes up trumps at some point on a visit.

4. Gold Dust

Springbok running at dawn
Springbok running at dawn

Great light mixed with swirling dust is a potent photographic combination. The Kalahari delivers both most days (although there’s often too much emphasis on the dust bit of this equation at times). These two magic ingredients make the place heaven for anyone with a keen eye and a camera…

5. Seasonal Surprises

Meerkat in Devil's Thorn flowers
Meerkat in Devil’s Thorn flowers

Okay so the Kgalagadi doesn’t have seasons as such, it’s dry and dusty most of the year, but there are times, after heavy rains for example, that bring fresh opportunities for the visiting photographer in this haunting landscape. The sudden blooming of semi-desert, when the dunes break out in bright yellow devil’s thorn flowers almost overnight, or the formation of an intense neon rainbow in an angry, purple, threatening sky, open up new perspectives for photography in a place we were stupid enough to think we knew backwards…

6. The Critters in Camp

Yellow mongoose with young
Yellow mongoose with young

Last, but not least. We can have as much enjoyment photographing the little creatures that have made their home in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park rest camps as we can training our lenses on the reserve’s famous big cats and magnificent birds of prey. We’ll take an obliging bunch of ground squirrels, a wily yellow mongoose or a bemused looking family of owls in a deserted camp any day over a mini traffic jam at a snoozing lion or a cheetah in deep shade out there in the park.

It’s refreshing to photograph out of your vehicle, to walk around and explore the outer reaches of the camp and to finally get down to eye-level with creatures that are relaxed and behave naturally in your presence because they’re used to people. Hang around with these guys long enough and you’ll be rewarded with interesting action and behaviour. It always seems to work for us…

Hand me down that crate!