After an action-packed morning photographing more than 80 vultures swooping in to feed in a big scrum at the brand new scavenger hide on Zimanga private game reserve, followed by a raft of beautiful water birds (plus their equally beautiful reflections), a lunging crocodile at camera level and three fish eagle fly-ins during the same afternoon at the lagoon hide, one guest joked his trigger finger had blisters and he was lightheaded with so many subjects to point his camera at…
…add a hungry pack of hunting wild dogs, mating lions, an impressive elephant bull marching above the dam wall against the late afternoon light and tons (literally) of buffaloes stampeding in clouds of red dust – and it’s easy to see why he was feeling what he could only describe to the rest of us later at the cocktail hour as ‘a little bit giddy with it all’.
Our guests were certainly treated to an action-packed 11 days last month. There was little let up on the photography front with thrilling subjects and exciting action across all our photographic sessions – both in Botswana on the Chobe river during the first leg of the trip and, afterwards, at Zimanga in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa – a unique African reserve exclusively developed for wildlife photographers.
Time spent photographing on the specially-adapted photo boats in Botswana on the first section of the trip was book-ended by two very special elephant photo opportunities. We kicked off our time on the Chobe river with a classic African sunset scene, the kind the Chobe’s famous for, made perfect by a small, but obliging group of elephants feeding on the bank. Shuur our boatman was able to position us perfectly below them so our guests could frame wonderful silhouettes against a rich orange sky. What a welcome! It certainly gave the group a taste of the river’s amazing and abundant wildlife we’d be savouring over the few next days.
Bird photography was fantastic from the off – subjects, too many to roll-call here, included tiny jewel-like malachite kingfishers, streamlined African skimmers and huge marabou storks – the undertakers of the bush – staking their claim on the remains of an elephant carcass. Not forgetting the majestic fish eagles and a myriad other waterbirds of course. Leaping antelope, careful not to get their feet wet and very keen to avoid lurking crocs, as well as breaching, splashing and chomping hippos provided plentiful close-up mammal action from the boats too. Even during our morning coffee stops on the water – when we stopped to relax for a moment with a brew and a biscuit – we seemed to find fresh picture opportunities. A feeding baboon troop got us all clicking away furiously one morning when suddenly they began island-hopping during their breakfast – jumping almost as far as Greg Rutherford across the gaps in vegetation that interrupted their meal.
Lions feasting on a fresh buffalo kill by the river margins on a morning drive into Chobe National Park was an adrenaline-fuelled highlight on our trips into the reserve. Having enjoyed the special sighting of a honey badger fossicking about in the bush just moments before, we arrived on the scene just as two young male lions were tugging at the carcass. The lions must have run the buffalo into the mud in the night. Their faces looked almost black; the perfect foil for burning yellow eyes which seemed directed right at our excited row of sharp-shooters.
Then to cap everything off, on our last afternoon boat ride, always a sad time, we were grabbing our wide lenses almost as soon as we’d got our park registration. First we had three relaxed elephant bulls, half submerged in the water feeding just metres or so from our prow, splashing water from their trunks as they cleaned their ‘salad’ meal of reeds and grasses. Then it was a magical river crossing of several breeding elephant herds. The elephant mums and aunties gently encouraged the tiny infants along, complete with miniature trunk-snorkels, right in front of our boat and all our clicking cameras.
Transferring to Zimanga we were soon ensconced in the amazing, photographer-friendly custom-built hides designed by Bence Mate. On this trip we got to try out the new scavenger hide he’s designed with reserve owner Charl Senekal, himself a keen wildlife photographer, which has a wonderful location on a ridge which drops off to beautifully distant hills. It’s a great backdrop for flight shots and for the feeding frenzy when the vultures pluck up the courage to pile in on the carcass. Our guests were among the first UK photographers to photograph from the hide and were bowled over by the great action photography and lighting – even if it does mean getting up even earlier than normal to be in this particular hide while it’s still dark! We had whitebacked, Cape and lappetfacted vultures as well as a visit from an opportunistic jackal that sent the waiting vultures into a photogenic flap whenever he did a walk by. Our guests agreed the hide makes a thrilling addition to the array of world-class photographic hides already available on the reserve.
A new bar was set for the total number of shots taken across the two photo destinations. This now stands at just shy of 14,000!
We ended a wonderful trip with sundowners and a little landscape photography as a full moon rose above Ghost Mountain and over Zimanga reserve itself. On the short night drive home to dinner afterwards (nursing our sore trigger fingers!) we all watched spellbound in the dark as fireflies danced and darted like Christmas lights above a small water course – none of us wanting the moment, or the photography, to end…
A very big thanks once again to our guides and ground-crew – Kim, Shuur, Janine Krayer, and sharp shooter and wild dog whisperer Hendri Venter – not forgetting our September 2016 gang of guests and new photo friends – who made the trip another fantastic success. A number (suckers for punishment) said they planned to return and we’re already looking forward to welcoming them back for our first safari reunions!
NB If you’d like to join us on safari the first 10 night Chobe-Zimanga trip we’re running in 2017 is now fully booked, but there are still spaces available on the September trip and on the 7 night Zimanga only package we’re running for the first time next year. The latter includes the option to photograph in the new overnight hide on the reserve.