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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
From surfing penguins in South Africa to…leaping salmon on the Tyne. There’s a definite watery theme to our photography at the moment. We’d hardly finished saying goodbye to the two oceans of the Cape peninsula last month than we suddenly found ourselves staring into yet more foaming waters – in this case the iconic north-east England river near our home.
We’d wanted to photograph the splash and flash of jumping salmon for a while. Although we live in the perfect place to do it – the Tyne is England’s prime salmon river and the annual salmon run’s an autumn highlight in these parts – it’s always ended up being one of those ‘doorstep’ subjects we’ve never quite got around to doing precisely because they’re so handy. You know the ones. You intend to have a serious go photographing them, and even note it down on your shooting list for the season. But then it drops off the bottom again because you tell yourself they’ll still be there again next year and it’ll be a good project to do then because you kid yourself you’ll have more time to devote it in 12 months.
It’s a bit weird this particular local shot has eluded us for so long given the fact Steve’s a keen angler – any excuse to stare into a river and dream of finding a free day for some fly fishing is welcome in his book. That coupled with the fact we’d previously done a photo story on the fascinating work of the nearby Kielder dam salmon hatchery.
As a result we have photographs on file of all stages of the hatchery’s work from salmon eggs to smolts, but not a single image of a splashing wild salmon flip flopping in the river. You could well say it was the shot that got away.
This autumn we hadn’t even put the salmon on our shopping list of pictures. I think we completely forgot about it. It was only when we were passing by chance, and, attracted by the crowds of spectators gathered above the weir, leaned over to see for ourselves that we truly appreciated what a compelling and photogenic wildlife subject we had within our reach. Why had we left it so long? The sheer numbers of fish exploding out of the teeming waters was staggering, the energy of it all breathtaking, their migration story mind-blowing, their jewel colours against the dark pools of the river mesmerising. They really do look for all the world as though they’re flying. The challenge to capture them on camera was overwhelming. From nowhere the salmon were top of our ‘wish list’ and we rushed home at once to get the camera gear.
For a couple of days, while the water was high enough and when the light was bright enough to give us the requisite speed for sharp action shots and that all important glint of silver on our splashing subjects, we primed our cameras and trained our lenses on the salmon show.
We very quickly discovered it was no use trying to predict where and when the salmon would leap. They’re just too fast. You need to pick your spot – just as a fisherman would. So to catch our fish we trained our cameras on the busiest part of the weir where the highest number of fish and the biggest specimens appeared to make their leap of faith – making sure we had plenty of speed, a fast frame rate and enough depth of field. Then it was just a matter of waiting patiently for the magic moment when a salmon leaped into our view – a bit like waiting for that tug on the line. Click, click, click…
The technique seemed to work okay and we were quite pleased with our first attempts. If we don’t get back again to exploit the remaining window of opportunity this season we’ll definitely be back to try again next November.
Success seemed to be all about holding our nerve as we learned to our cost on more than one occasion. Because it felt stupid at first to narrow our view so much when salmon were leaping along the full length of the weir we kept being tempted to shift position. Don’t. Even though it’s hard to stay focused on the same spot when you start seeing lots of bits of salmon leaping in the corners of your frame, be patient, the fish will jump into your frame at some point. If you take your eye away from the viewfinder, and your finger off the shutter release for just a split second, it’s guaranteed the biggest, best salmon that day will jump perfectly, just where you want it in the frame…
Before 2015 gets underway, it might be a good time to hand out some more Beat About the Bush Trip Awards (BATBAs) – the ‘gongs’ given out when we’re back in the office reliving our exploits. The official awards season is almost upon us and we don’t want our humble blog to get eclipsed by the Oscars.
As a way to round up a bunch of disparate stuff after a photo trip before attention turns to the next project, trip awards seemed an okay idea when we did the first lot (see our blog of April 29, 2014). With barely a week’s gap between our most recent Thailand and South Africa trips however, and a nasty and lingering ‘lurgy’ plaguing our return home, we’ve not had time to repeat this contrived excuse for a blog subject until today.
So enough with the apologies already. Let the drum rolls begin…
BATBA Award for the Wettest Photographers
And the BATBA for raging bull elephant goes to …. This one might alternatively be headlined ‘Elephant gets its revenge on wildlife paparazzi’. We’re still rather shamefaced about it now when our lost pride’s been regained and our camera lenses have been well and truly dried out. We definitely got what we deserved when our boatman drifted a little too close to this big guy for comfort one afternoon on the Chobe river in Botswana late last year. We’ve certainly got a sneaking admiration for this elephant who put us firmly in our place by dumping a full trunk of river water over our heads. We’ve spent years reminding people to respect these massive mammals and warning them not to get too near. Pity we couldn’t heed our own advice on this occasion. What’s even more annoying than the dousing, however, is that while one of us did have the presence of mind to press the shutter button we didn’t get the end of his dripping trunk in the frame!
BATBA Award for Best Wildlife Drama
On a more serious note the Chobe river was also the location for the wildlife highlight of our second visit to Africa in 2014. Once again we were really lucky to have more than our fair share of highlights last year. In 2014 our list of would-you-believe-it encounters was topped by the sight of a huge herd of cape buffalo huddling together, and looking more than a little stressed out, as they paddled purposefully across the river. We were led to understand the swimming herd had been pursued by a pride of a lions the previous night and was keen to cross for refuge, but we’re really not sure why they seemed so intent on crossing at that moment. Being on a small boat (with a more experienced guide than the infamous ellie incident above) we were able to get reasonably close, without disturbing them, and certainly close enough to see the panic in their eyes as they struggled in the water with just the whites of their rolling eyes and a tangle of horns bobbing above the choppy waters. It looked for all the world like a huge, heavy oil-black rope was being dragged laboriously through the water. We felt really lucky to be close by just when it happened and, selfish as it sounds, to have this special sighting all to ourselves. It was fascinating to see how these tough guy, Big Five beasts, so dangerous on terra firma, looked completely vulnerable and out of their element in the water.
BATBA Gold Award for Best Day Off
Some days it’s quite refreshing to point our cameras at something other than the wildlife when we visit a place. Quite often when we we’re away we’ll try to tack on a little bit of time for some touristy stuff. Inevitably the cameras end up coming out even though we’re meant to be enjoying a bit of downtime from ‘work’. Back in late 2014, in Bangkok, after an intense week in the Thai forest reporting on the Siam rosewood poaching story, we became so immersed in photographing the glittering Grand Palace we hardly noticed the intense heat, the thronging crowds or the passing hours. We spent ages snapping away, soaking it all in. Sometimes with no pressure to get a particular shot, or any shot at all, no deadline, no shooting list, or commission it’s nice to rediscover the joy of photography for its own sake.
BATBA Award for the Recession
Nothing to do with austerity measures this was all about getting a handle on the haunting beauty of Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park. One evening, towards the end of our time in the forest, when travelling just outside the park at dusk we noticed this wonderful recession in the forested hills as if a series of coloured cards had been carefully arranged by someone to create the tranquil effect. Not the best landscape shot we’ve ever taken, it nevertheless enabled us at last to make our peace with a landscape that had swallowed us up when we were bang in the middle of it struggling to make sense of it on camera. Dwarfed by the wall of huge trees, roofed over by the thick, dark canopy, our ears ringing with the shrill whoops and shrieks of unseen birds and gibbons it seemed such a forbidding and claustrophobic place. Seen with a sunset glow from a distance and in silhouette Khao Yai was a sleeping giant – softened and tame, at least, for a while.
BATBA Award for Best Book
We did a ‘book of the trip’ award last time in April 2014, but had to do it again for ‘Leopard in My Lap’ (published 1955). We stumbled across it in Barter Books, the treasure trove of a second hand book emporium in Alnwick, near our home in Northumberland. Go there if you ever have the chance. The book’s by another, much more famous, but now pretty much forgotten husband and wife duo specialising in African wildlife, called Armand and Michaela Dennis. She did the text he did the pictures. The forerunners of today’s celebrity wildlife film-makers and TV presenters, their adventures make for an interesting, often hilarious, sometimes concerning read. When we tell you it’s illustrated with lots of plates of peroxide blonde Michaela in the bush looking as glamorous as a Hollywood starlet while cuddling a series of African mammals as the title suggests, you’ll begin to get the idea. Thankfully wildlife photography’s come a long way in the last 50 years…
It was great to see the legendary Richard Bonham, co-founder and director of the Big Life Foundation in Africa, being recognised by the conservation charity, Tusk Trust, with a special award presented by the Duke of Cambridge in London. The prestigious Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa was presented to Richard this week in recognition of his lifetime contribution to wildlife conservation and the Maasai community in Kenya.
It’s not long ago we were skimming the tops of the thorn trees in Richard’s plane, having cadged a lift back to our accommodation after photographing his pioneering community conservation work with the Maasai near Amboseli. He’s a very experienced bush pilot, ironically rumoured to have a fear of heights, which we can certainly vouch for given the number of giraffes we seemed able to eyeball directly between take-off and landing!
Generously he’d invited us along to witness what must be one of the most colourful and carnival-like conservation projects in the African bush. It was pay-day – a chance to see in action the high point of the innovative predator compensation scheme which has helped reduce human-wildlife conflict and save the local lion population from near extinction.
Like any pay-day the air was electric with excitement. The whole village turned out, even tiny babies and the very old. Some came slowly in the heat on foot, others rocked up flashily on motor cycles. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their best – a wonderful mix of fashionably modern and traditional Maasai styles accessorised boldly with beadwork and the obligatory mobile phone.
The pay-out scheme, devised by Richard, but run by the local community, compensates Masaai livestock owners for the loss of animals that fall prey to lions and other predators – reducing the incentive for herders to take matters into their own hands by hunting down and killing lions. Provided ranchers can prove stock was lost to predators payment can be claimed from the fund.
The day was a huge social coming together, a celebration almost, with endless noisy gossiping as you’d expect. Any disputed compensation claims are thrashed out in the shade of a big tree with a jury of locals hearing every case in detail. Richard sat in observing many.
With fewer than 30,000 lions remaining in Africa and many lion populations in decline the scheme has so far proved a big success. Running for more than 10 years now there’s been a dramatic 90 per cent drop in lion killing since it began and the local lion population is not only healthy it’s growing. In addition two bordering communities have set up similar compensation schemes with the result that a one million acre corridor for predators has been created.
The predator compensation fund is just one of Richard Bonham’s many achievements in wildlife conservation that’s been deservedly recognised this week. It’s one we were lucky enough to see first-hand even if only for a day – a day of amazing experiences and exchanges with a remote, shy, but welcoming Maasai community, rounded off by a low-level plane ride over the African plain we’ll never forget… Congratulations Richard!
To find out more about the scheme and Richard Bonham’s work visit www.biglife.org
We’re now just about half way into a three-year photojournalism project we’re doing on African rhinos, aiming to raise awareness of the varied and complex issues involving these amazing animals and their conservation in the wake of the latest poaching onslaught.
Rhinos have been a favourite of ours since we started out in our second career as wildlife photographers, partly because at that time we couldn’t afford long lenses so spent a lot of time photographing bigger game, which we didn’t need a 500mm lens to get decent shots of!
As a result of all the time spent in their company we wrote and photographed a book about them. That was ten years ago, when efforts to protect rhinos were proving extremely successful and their future looked pretty good. But when we saw what was happening as a result of increasing demand for rhino horn in the past few years we couldn’t just stand by. So we started Project African Rhino to get editorial features about the situation into print and raise awareness through our pictures and we began to blog about everything rhino. Next year as part of the project we’ll be producing a new book and hopefully an exhibition too.
To date the project has taken us to East Africa, Namibia and South Africa. The latter has been particularly hard hit. The country is home to the world’s largest population of rhinos and this year has seen a record 919 killed in the poaching crisis.
Sadly the situation is fast reaching a tipping point where the poaching starts outstripping breeding rates, and rhinos will go into decline. The reason? Rhino horn, trade in which is currently illegal, is worth more than gold and cocaine. Demand for it is increasing in places like China, where it’s used for special libation cups and in traditional medicine, and Vietnam, where it’s seen as a status symbol, used as a cool way to detox after a heavy night out, and is incorrectly believed to cure cancer.
Highly organised crime syndicates are involved in the poaching and trafficking of rhino horn and their methods are often very sophisticated. The cost of securing wild rhinos in game reserves has soared and conservationists are having to resort to clever tactics, like the use of drones and DNA forensics, over and above standard anti-poaching patrols, simply to stay ahead of the poachers. We hope to keep rhinos in the spotlight for at least the next 18 months or so and you can follow our progress via the project blog.
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon