We remove our shoes as if entering a hallowed space. House (or should we say ‘hide’ rules). We take our seats in silence.  As our eyes adjust to the dark there’s a real sense of excitement.  Cameras and lenses are quickly fitted to the resident tripods in the hide, bums are settled down on the swish, executive chairs (better than those in our own office at home) that will allow us fluid, silent movement during the hoped-for performance. Water bottles are placed at the ready – action photography can be thirsty work…

Whitebacked vultures (Gyps africanus) flying in to feed with tawny eagle (Aquila rapax), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016

Whitebacked vultures and a tawny eagle fly past the carcass

When everyone’s sitting pretty the door is closed, cocooning our small band of wildlife photographers inside. No going outside now. No breaking the spell. Our nervous subjects must not know we’re spying on them.

Good to go, we turn our attention to the view ahead where the stage is set. The rising sun is slowly bathing the flat open ridge of the aptly named Scavengers’ Hill in beautiful soft shades of violet, dusky pink, glowing orange and scorched red. In our mind’s eye each of us is already framing images against this most perfect of photographic backdrops. The edge of the ridge falls beautifully to the valley below and the distant hills. With the carcass in place on the bare ridge (thanks to our guide and accomplished photographer Hendri Venter) all eyes, and lenses, are firmly directed towards it. It’s as though we’ve come to worship at some secret, sacrificial altar. As some of the first UK photographers to shoot here we feel a bit like initiates to some exclusive cult.

Whitebacked vulture (Gyps africanus) gathering to feed, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016

Vultures gathering to feed

The light is perfect. But there’s that nagging question. Will the vultures we can see already perched teasingly on scattered trees in the distance venture down to the carcass that’s been placed in front of the hide before the light’s too harsh? As we’re taking it all in, and making last checks of cameras and settings, a couple of magpie-like pied crows arrive by way of a warm up act. We know how every effort has been put in by hide designer and award-winning photographer Bence Mate, together with reserve-owner Charl Senekal, to help ensure the images here will look good. But the rest is down to nature – and us – and there are no guarantees.

The pied crows are now hopping on and off the carcass – a bushpig killed in a recent bushfire near the reserve –  and posing on the horns of some kudu remains the vultures have long since finished with. This gives us a chance to find our range and flex trigger fingers. When the ‘vullies’ do come down, one thing’s certain, we won’t have to rely on huge telephotos. Around 200 to 400mm is the ticket here. Our Canon 100-400mm f4 zoom will work nicely for flight as well as action shots of the birds feeding – when, fingers crossed – there’s a frenzy of sharp bills, talons and flapping wings as the carrion buffet begins in earnest.

Blackbacked jackal (Canis mesomelas) with whitebacked vulture (Gyps africanus), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016

Blackbacked jackal spooks a whitebacked vulture

The tension in the hide builds as more vultures fly in. Frustratingly they’re gathering off to one side – as if waiting in the wings – just beyond our reach. We’ve seen this tentative, slow build-up before at vulture restaurants elsewhere in Africa – so we’re quietly reassuring our guests. Let’s just hold our nerve. But then just as a small pioneering group of bolder birds gather up enough courage to investigate, a plucky jackal enters from stage left to check what’s for breakfast, putting up the vultures momentarily and sending them back to the ‘dressing room’ at stage right.

Blackbacked jackal (Canis mesomelas) with whitebacked vultures (Gyps africanus), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016

Blackbacked jackal with whitebacked vultures waiting their turn

The immediate rivalry between these opportunistic feeders makes for some great shots, and is awesome to observe. But will the jackal put the hesitant vultures off? More fly in – great – click, click, click, but then, drat, fly out again. We’re back at square one.

Occasionally one bird makes a break and walks towards the carcass, lifting alternate talons aloft threateningly as it stomps awkwardly to the carrion dinner. Surely it will all kick off now. But on each cautious approach it either gets spooked by its own shadow or is chased off by an emboldened crow. It’s fascinating to watch, a chance for characterful portraits, and actually rather comical as the high-kicking vulture brings to mind a demonic John Cleese in full Python-mode.

Whitebacked vulture (Gyps africanus), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016

A cautious, and comical, approach

The jackal returns, more vultures arrive, a few leave and the carcass remains almost intact. We are busy making pictures the whole time – flight shots, portraits of groups of the birds, the standoff with the jackal, the dancing crows. But we know this is the support act, the build-up to the headlining performance when the feeding frenzy begins.

And when it does, it does so in earnest, out of nowhere, taking us almost unawares. Soon there are some 80 or more feeding and squabbling vultures, a crazy mess of feather and sinew, piercing bills and dust clouds as red as dried blood.  We haven’t time to breathe let alone think. It’s completely overwhelming. A truly awesome spectacle.

It’s why we’ve come here, of course, but, in the end, it’s so much better than we dared to hope for. We emerge from the hide when Hendri comes to pick us up (40 mins later than allotted because the vultures have been so busy and we can’t go while there are pictures to be had). We’re beaming. Now there’s time to think about just how hungry we are after the carrion feast and the photo-fest. Breakfast next stop…

Whitebacked vulture (Gyps africanus) feeding on carcass, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016

Free-for-all – vultures feeding on the carcass