Bumping through the bush, off-road in the dark, on the lookout for lions was just one of the many thrilling highlights of our first ‘Uniquely Zimanga’ safari last month. With seven nights on the reserve, and exclusive use of the Doornhoek Lodge, there was time and flexibility in our programme to fit in some additional night-time photography, spotlighting the king of beasts after our late afternoon photo sessions on a couple of occasions, safe in the knowledge dinner would be kept warm for us on our return to base.

Zimanga lions at night

Zimanga lions at night

It was clear from our fantastic night sessions that, following their introduction to Zimanga last summer from neighbouring Zululand reserves, the lions are settling in nicely. The manes of the males are filling out temptingly, and judging from the way the young guns were showing off in front of the females, it might not be too long before the reserve has its very first cubs.

African fish eagle at lagoon hide

An African fish eagle buzzing the lagoon hide

On one memorable afternoon session our guests found themselves photographing fish eagles in flight from the low-angle lagoon hide until last light, followed by cold beers by the dam with reserve owner Charl Senekal (watched closely by a pod of curious hippos). Refreshed and recharged  we then embarked on the last exciting photographic mission of the day… spotlighting two young males as they prepared to join up with the lionesses for a night on the prowl.

ZImanga lion yawning at night

Open wide! Zimanga’s lions are one species we definitely don’t get out of the vehicle to photograph

When we finally caught up with them the lions yawned expansively revealing their impressive canines, and pulled themselves up to full and awesome height. The spotlight sculpted their fearsome faces against the velvet black of night and made for some high octane and dramatic shots. All you could hear was their low rumbling contact calls… and, it goes without saying, the constant clicking of our cameras.

Elephants slaking their thirst at the overnight hide

Elephants slaking their thirst at the overnight hide

Elsewhere on the reserve our second small crew of guests were stationed in the overnight hide, reheating steaks and settling down for their nocturnal ‘watch and wait’ in what must be the best-appointed photography blind on the planet. The reward for their patience were two elephant bulls pitching up in the pitch dark to slurp up water thirstily just four metres from their lenses and then squirt it out again to provide some of the best images of the week.

Both groups were lucky enough to experience the thrill of seeing and photographing elephants in the dark at such close range without the need for flash, in the overnight hide. In particular the other groups’ shots of a trio of elephants, including a nervous youngster that kept putting its trunk in the mouth of one of the adults for reassurance, caused many an ‘oooh’ and ‘wow’ when we all reunited over breakfast on the lodge verandah the next day.

White rhinos at the overnight hide

In reflective mood – white rhinos at the overnight hide

Other overnight hide highlights on this trip included a curmudgeonly buffalo, chewing on a blade of grass, like some grizzled oke from a spaghetti western, and two rhinos posing like book-ends and throwing wonderful shapes (that were even better with the bonus of those reflections).

Whitefronted bee-eaters

Whitefronted bee-eaters at their phantom breeding site

The extra time our ‘Uniquely Zimanga’ package afforded us on this ‘photographers’ reserve’ provided us with enough flexibility in the programme to respond to what was best on the reserve at the time. An unexpected bonus was being able to make use of the mobile bee eater hide – not normally in action before September’s breeding season – as these jewel-like birds were in the throes of a phantom breeding phase; roosting in holes in the sides of a steep, dry riverbank that was perfectly lit by the morning light.

Additionally, when the lions dined out on an impala they’d killed on another afternoon we were able to collect their leftovers and use the carcass at the reserve’s vulture restaurant the next day to photograph the soap opera of carrion feeders turning up to squabble over the scraps at the aptly-named scavenger hide. The dramatis personae included mischievous pied crows, beautiful tawny eagles, a host of white backed vultures and four medieval-looking lappet-faced vultures – all posing at perfect range, at low level and against a beautiful mountain backdrop that drops off perfectly for great action photography.

Scrapping over the scraps - a lappetfaced vulture lets a whitebacked vulture know who's boss

Scrapping over the scraps – a lappetfaced vulture lets a whitebacked vulture know who’s boss

We had a feeling our visit might be action-packed from the start when our guests found themselves in the middle of an adrenaline-fuelled natural history drama that exploded right in front of their lenses on their very first afternoon on the reserve. The plan was to track the resident pack of rare wild dogs to where they’d last been seen resting up for the afternoon – we’d get off the vehicle and photograph the dogs socialising as they got ready to hunt. Instead we found ourselves right in the middle of the frenzied pack as it brought down a young wildebeest almost the moment we arrived at the spot – trumping Planet Earth II for a jaw-dropping opener to our programme.

A blur of action - wild dogs playing after a kill

A blur of action – wild dogs playing after a kill

Up close and personal - photographing cheetah from on foot

Up close and personal – photographing cheetah from on foot

It could have been a tough act to follow given this was only the first day!  But the reserve still had plenty in store for our sharp-shooters. As one guest put it when it came to leave the lodge – our home for the week: ‘We’ve had a ‘wow’ every day’. And another ‘The only thing that could make a week here better would be having another week here!’

Thanks again to our guests for being such a great bunch and fun company, to Dean Wraith for his great guiding and excellent driving, to Victoria Lundgren for making the lodge so welcoming, to Xolile and Zonke for feeding us so well and to owner Charl Senekal who was our entertaining and generous stand-in guide mid-week. Hearing him discuss his vision for Zimanga going forward whetted everyone’s appetite and made our trigger fingers very itchy indeed!