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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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…
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…
There’s no getting over the real sense of surprise you experience when you see penguins in Africa – of all places – and get great views of their antics – without going on a major, massively expensive expedition to colder climes. Even after repeat visits to the famous and unique breeding colony of endangered African penguins on Foxy Beach in Simon’s Town on the Cape – part of the Table Mountain National Park – it’s still a real joy to spend time photographing these compelling, anthropomorphic subjects.
Just last month on our latest photo trip to South Africa we got the chance to return to the handful of beaches where the colony has made its home since the early eighties. We caught up with the characterful penguins returning to the beach, and to their waiting hungry chicks, after a busy day’s fishing out at sea. The tide was high and photographing the penguins riding the surf and exploding out of the water onto the shore in waves of small groups tossed about by the foaming waters kept our fingers clicking furiously.
At first penguin-watchers more eagle-eyed than us were spotting the returning hunters well before they reached the shore – when they were just tiny dots near the horizon. The groups were back at the beach before we’d had chance to fix them in our viewfinders. We soon learned to distinguish the shapes and colours of a distant penguin group from the vast ocean backdrop and began to see the wonderful potential for pictures. Peering out to sea, we were now poised to track them, cameras primed as they surfed the waves at considerable speed back home to the land-based colony.
The penguins were fantastic to watch as they porpoised through the foam like polished torpedoes. One moment you would see them crest a wave, the next they would disappear beneath it, so hunting a tight-packed group and keeping the birds in focus was a bit of a challenge. Before you could say ‘nailed it’ they were bobbing up back on the beach in a penguin pile, picking themselves up and striding up the shore, chests and tums puffed out, fanning out like chorus line extras from an old Fred Astaire movie in full evening dress. Time for us to try again with the next incoming group…
A visit to see the birds is a ‘must-do’ on any travel itinerary in and around Cape Town. The colony is just a hop, skip and jump from the ‘Mother City’, one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, so the downside is you do have to share the penguins with others. But there are one or two quieter spots along the shore if you’re prepared to look a bit harder, and on the tiny, family-friendly Boulders Beach, right next door to Foxy Beach, there’s the chance of having a penguin toddle right onto your picnic blanket or join you in the shallows as you paddle. How cool is that?
African penguins are the only penguin species found on the African continent. There has been a breeding colony of the penguins on this beach since 1983. We first visited the penguins on Foxy beach in 1996 before the current tourist boardwalk was built. In those days it was possible to walk on the shore in and among the main colony. Since then tourism has increased so the extra protection for the birds is welcome. Penguin numbers in the colony were rising until about 2005 when there were 3,900 penguins. since when there has been a decline to around 2,100. This is thought to be due to a number of factors including global warming affecting fish stocks, over-fishing and the impact of oil spills and marine pollution.
We’re stuck in the office on a typical British summer’s day (cloudy with a chance of rain showers) wrestling with photo processing, marketing, boring admin and magazine deadlines. Each of us is waiting for the other to go downstairs and brew a mug of coffee or make that much-needed call to the boiler-repair guy. Who was it said wildlife photography’s a glamorous, well-paid job? At moments like these (and there are many) the mind easily drifts off to past photo opportunities and adventures. Like the time we finally got the chance to photograph that African savannah classic; a cheetah mum with cubs on the top of a termite mound…
Okay so perhaps it’s not cool to want ‘me-too’ pictures of a subject photographed tons of times before. But we’re not too proud to admit that sometimes we do. We can’t help it. Especially when there’s the chance to spend a morning photographing a fantastic feline, and her playful offspring, in good light in a great location – just as we dreamed about doing when we first started out in this game and saw great shots of cheetah by wildlife photographers we aspired to emulate.
The thing is that until that day we’d never had much luck with cheetah cubs. From the Kalahari to Kruger, the Karoo to the Kunene, we’d been fortunate to watch and photograph wild cheetah in some of southern Africa’s most spectacular locations, yet somehow cute little cubs just eluded us. So when our guide told us he was confident of finding us a mother with three quite small youngsters, we snapped to attention.
We were staying at Phinda, the upmarket operator &Beyond’s private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. It was three years ago now, at the start of our Project African Rhino photo-journalism campaign. We were there to find out about the important rhino conservation work being carried out on the reserve (today &Beyond is part of a bold initiative to relocate around 100 white rhinos from South Africa, where they’re being hit really hard by poaching, to Botswana, a country with low density rhino populations and a good anti-poaching record).
The opportunity is too good to miss. We’d worked with specialist guide Daryl Dell and tracker Bernard Mnguni before, tracking leopards that were part of a long term research project on the reserve, and we knew teaming up with them again would be both fun and rewarding. Our trigger fingers were itching.
Phinda’s always been a great place to see cheetah. On our last visit we’d had a cheetah explode from the trees by our vehicle and hunt down a young impala. Lots of research is carried out on the reserve’s cheetah, making them some of the most intensively monitored cheetah in South Africa. While we were there conservationists were collecting skin samples for DNA testing to gain a clearer picture of the familial relationships between the individual cheetah.
We headed out for the open terrain of marshland in the north of the reserve, where the cubs had been spotted the previous evening. Our search began by patrolling the track along the edge of the floodplain, Bernard on the tracker’s chair up front, scoured the sand for fresh spoor (pawprints).
It was Daryl who spotted her first – the tell-tale, compact, square head of a female cheetah poking out from a clump of grass. You needed a trained eye to pick her out, but there she was keeping on the look out for trouble, and seeming more than a little nervous. We turned off road and nosed the vehicle cautiously to within 20 metres or so. We could see right away why she was so wary: sprawled in the long grass by her side were three cubs, and by her feet, the remains of a fresh kill.
It was tempting to start photographing at that point, but the three were partially obscured by long grass and there was little chance of framing clean compositions. The background was cluttered and we were looking down too much. Daryl, who knows the place like the back of his hand, motioned to a low termite mound nearby and whispered to us that she just might go up there to check everything was safe before settling down for the day. Cheetah often use vantage points like this to scan the terrain, but could we be that lucky? Many of the classic shots of cheetah on termite mounds you see are taken in East Africa and even there you need to be in just the right place at the right time. Picture perfect encounters are not as common as you might think. Could Daryl be right? Did we have a chance at photographing this classic cheetah behaviour we so wanted? And with cubs to ice the cake too?
The youngsters seemed more interested in snoozing than moving position, but we could see their mother was restless. After a few minutes we watched her get to her feet. She stood and looked around for what seemed like an age. Then she walked. She walked straight. Straight to the termite mound. Daryl grinned. I don’t think he could quite believe it either. In no time at all she was atop the mound, posing perfectly, lean and long-legged, fur glowing golden in the warm light of the newly risen sun.
Over the next hour we were treated to the early morning rituals of a young cheetah family. All four were draped over the mound, like a scatter of fur rugs. The adult and two of the youngsters seemed content to rest in the warm sunshine, but one cub had other ideas.
He played with his tail, then mum’s tail; then started pouncing on her head. She was tolerant at first but soon had enough. She quickly pinned him down and gave him a cat’s lick of a wash with her rasping tongue to calm him down. Freed from her grip, he turned his attention to the other two cubs, but they weren’t interested in playing, and eventually he too was comatose. Our fantastic photo session was at an end. To spend so much time in their world had been truly special – but now we had to rejoin our own.
Back at the lodge reserve manager Simon Naylor told us that at that time Phinda’s cheetah had produced more than 100 litters and more than 250 cubs since the first 15 animals were reintroduced from Namibia in 1992-94. ‘It’s been one of the most successful cheetah reintroduction programmes in South Africa. Phinda was the first private reserve in KZN to reintroduce cheetah successfully,’ he told us. ‘It’s one of the best, if not the best place in South Africa to view wild cheetah,’ he added.
Right now we’d give anything to be back there… Now where’s that boiler repair man’s number?
Steve’s cleaning our cameras. His next job will be to make up some chilli and curry spice mix packs to add to our spice box (much easier to do now than faff about in the dark at camp).
Me? I’ve cleared the memory cards from earlier in the week, printed off our packing and food shopping lists and have just started gathering together assorted items for the ‘bits n bobs’ bag – a universal sink plug, a sewing kit, some superglue – weird but handy stuff that wouldn’t look out of place in Mary Poppins’ carpet bag.
We’re about to head off back to the bush on another African photo safari. With just a few days to go before our trip gets underway we’re starting to get excited about the things we might see and, better still, photograph. This time we’ll mainly be photographing in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, visiting old favourite corners of the Zululand bush and some new ones. We’ll report back on these later – hopefully with some of our results. Trigger fingers crossed we’ll have lots of great photo ops.
We’ll be visiting the newly built hides at Zimanga private reserve, as well as doing some game drives there. It’s on the itinerary of our new photo safaris for 2016 which we’re really chuffed about because this exciting new wildlife reserve is being set up with photographers, as well as wild animals, in mind (at last hides that take our needs into consideration!). We’ve just heard that the alpha female wild dog there is heavily pregnant which is brilliant news. Wild dogs, one of Africa’s rarest apex predators, den in the winter months, now fast approaching in South Africa. Sadly I think we’ll be there a tad too early, on this occasion, to see any playful wild dog pups.
We’ll also be putting our new Canon EF 100-400mm zoom lens through its paces – trying this out in the bush for the first time. We’ve always resisted purchasing big telephoto zooms in the past, opting for the reliability and quality of fixed primes, but…never say never. The thing is there are plenty of times on safari when the ability to zoom out quickly, rather than grab another body or switch lenses would be the ideal. Our 70-200mm lens, for example, is often the perfect fit for ‘shooting’ elephants, and a firm favourite when we’re working in reserves where we can go off road and approach our subjects more closely.
But on those lucky occasions when a lion, or lumbering rhino, walks right towards you through the veld – a quality 100-400mm would be just the ticket. We’re hoping we’ve now successfully plugged this gap in our defences. Certainly when we saw the positive reviews about optical quality this particular zoom was getting we felt the time was right to welcome one into our kit bag. We’ll let you know how it performs on our return and whether we’re now big zoom converts…
Finally we’ll be hoping to find out more, too, about what’s happening on the conservation scene, with a particular focus on rhinos, for our Project African Rhino campaign. The project will have been running for three years next month. Where did that time go? When we began we thought after three years we’d probably wind it down, but clearly there’s too much terrible stuff still going on, and so much great work being done that we can’t just abandon the two African rhino species and the conservationists out there fighting for them.
So far we’ve been really encouraged by all the feedback we’ve had while we’ve been raising awareness about the poaching and its fall-out and we’d love it, if you like our work here, for you to check out our companion blog to this one and perhaps give our rhino project Facebook page the thumbs up too…
Next stop – Africa.
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon