We’ve been in the hide barely 20 minutes when the white rhino arrives. He’s a big male, patrolling his territory at the end of the day, confident and assured. It’s a rare cloudy day, but under the darkening overcast sky we get some lovely moody wide-angle shots from our sunken observation point, barely four metres from the massive creature. He doesn’t hang around, a quick sip and he’s on his way. There are females to check out, rival males to warn off, a rhino bull’s work is never done.
The rhino is a bonus, but he’s not the reason we’re here. We sit munching hot chicken pies and sipping cold beers, watching the darkness fall. Time to switch on the two big LED panels, throwing a pool of light over the waterhole on the other side of the high spec one way glass that separates us from the wildlife. The only sound is the quiet hum of the solar-powered air conditioning, but thanks to the cloud cover it’s a pleasant evening, not at all stuffy, so we switch off the A/C and enjoy complete silence.
Not for long. A frog hops out of the water and perches on the narrow sill that runs along in front of the glass. He inflates his vocal sac and starts calling, loud and prolonged. More eyes pop up out of the water and join in, and in no time we’re being serenaded by a choir of lovesick amphibians, making a remarkable racket. Not for the first time today we marvel at how Africa constantly surprises us.
It’s a good 90 minutes before the first big game pitch up, but the time passes quickly. There are photography books to browse, cups of tea to drink (or another cold beer), the internet to surf. Yes folk’s there’s even Wifi. Zimanga’s overnight hide has to be one of the most sophisticated and comfortable hides in Africa. The working part of the hide has plenty of room for four people, seated on comfortable executive-style swivel chairs, and equipped with high quality tripods with gimbal heads. Behind the chairs, separated by a black curtain, are four bunk beds. If we fancy a snooze, we can rest assured we won’t miss any action – a network of motion sensors outside the hide sound a low alarm when anything approaches.
Behind a light-tight door is a separate room, equipped with fridge, microwave, kettle, sink, crockery, a small library of books, and a spacious flush-toilet cubicle with hand basin. There’s a fast internet connection, and an emergency phone in case of any problems. It’s more sunken hotel suite than photography hide.
All the comforts of home are appreciated, but it’s the photography we’ve come for, and we’re not disappointed. Three Cape buffalo are our first nocturnal visitors, huge, muscular animals with massive spreading horns and don’t-mess-with-me expressions. Cape buffalo are among the most dangerous animals in the bush, but these boys are nervous. Lion have been in the area today, and the buffalo appear to sense it. The biggest bull approaches the water slowly, his companions standing back, sniffing the air, alert for danger. He drinks thirstily, flanked by his watchful escorts, and the three animals create a perfect composition, enhanced by beautiful reflections in the still water.
We’re using wide angle lenses, a 17-40mm and a 24-105mm, both ideal for the range and subjects. There’s no need to use flash, indeed it’s not allowed, the LED panels provide plenty of light, and with ISOs of 1600 to 2000, we get shutter speeds of between 1/25th and 1/50th second at f4. Although the light is generous, it’s tricky for our camera meters, and we override metering, shooting mostly at around -2EV on what evaluative metering would have suggested, to avoid our subjects burning out. It’s not technically difficult photography, so long as we regularly check exposure on the screens on the backs of our cameras.
Once we’ve got some good shots in the bag, we flick a switch and kill one of the light panels. The buffalo are now strongly side-lit, dramatic lighting that enhances their muscular bulk. Zimanga’s management are planning to add dimmer switches to the panel controls, to allow even more control, but already the chance to photograph animals as we’ve never seen them before is a rush.
Over the next few hours, we’re treated to visits from zebra, wildebeest, and more buffalo – sometimes several of each together. Sometimes there are long gaps between visits, sometimes not, but we’re never bored, enjoying the stillness of the African night and the rare opportunity to be out in the bush when everyone else is tucked up in bed. We manage to grab an hour’s shut-eye, but it’s hard to tear ourselves away from the floodlit water, the anticipation of what’s to come next, and the adrenaline surges when animals arrive.
First light dawns all too soon, but the photography isn’t over. More wildebeest turn up, then a stream of warthogs, grabbing early morning drinks before they set off for a day’s foraging. There’s plenty to keep our camera’s occupied, until our lift arrives at 9am. It’s a short drive back to the newly opened chic ‘Homestead’ lodge for a well-earned breakfast and a chance to catch up on some sleep before our evening game drive.
Zimanga’s overnight hide has only been open a couple of months, and we were among the first guests to experience it. Already it’s attracting plenty of game, including elephants and lion. Sadly we missed the lions by just a night – so we ‘re hoping for better luck next year with our guests. We’re also hoping for a clear, starry night – some superb images of big game under the Milky Way are already being produced.
For logistical reasons and because there’s already massive demand, overnight hide sessions are only available to photographers staying at Zimanga’s own accommodation, for a minimum of four nights. If you fancy having a go we’ll be offering the option of a hide session to everyone who books onto our new ‘Uniquely Zimanga’ seven night safari in April/May 2017 (find out more about the range of hides on offer). It’s an opportunity not to be missed.