From lions to little bee-eaters, the diverse and abundant wildlife kept our trigger fingers exercised once again on the latest of our two destination African wildlife photo safaris to the Chobe river and Zimanga private game reserve last month.
Whether it was splashing elephant families feeding right in front of our lenses, pied kingfishers hovering repeatedly at perfect range, red lechwe antelope and buffalo silhouetted against vivid sunsets, storks in flight and some of the best yawning hippos we’ve had to date – it was certainly a houseboat house-party on the Chobe river in Botswana – for the first time with the Pangolin Voyager houseboat as our base.
The Chobe never ceases to amaze and we had wonderful wildlife encounters and photo opportunities throughout including a rare sighting for the area of three spotted hyena feeding on the leftovers of a kill we’d seen lionesses feeding on the previous day.
To get warmed up at the start of the Botswana section of the trip we began with two land-based game drives into the Chobe National Park. It wasn’t long before our guide ‘Killer’ (yes really – his mother had a difficult birth and a keen wit!) put us in poll position for some lions that had been seen earlier that day before our arrival in Kasane. (It gets better: Killer comes from a rural village in Botswana called ‘Catchacow’ – yes really.) A beautifully lit, well-fed lioness lounging on the sandy bank of the river together with two impressive males who obligingly woke up from their after-dinner nap right by us to interact, rub muzzles and yawn mightily for our hungry sharp shooters, wasn’t a bad start by anybody’s standards…
Transferring to the exclusive-use houseboat for the next four nights proved the perfect base for our small group photo activities. Sleeping on the river allowed us to maximise time on the specially-adapted photo boats. This mighty and majestic African river really did became our home from home. The daily commute to photograph from the water, returning to the Voyager to rest, recharge and fuel up on Sabrina’s yummy home-cooking and bakes, was a lifestyle our group took to with ease. Even when the light grew too harsh for decent images, we could still watch the comings and goings on the river and in Chobe National Park, from the comfort of our sundeck or lounge back at HQ.
Marvelling at the mind-blowing Southern Hemisphere starscape from up top after dinner was another bonus of making our home on the river; although it was always hard to tear ourselves away from the dinner table chit-chat over drinks about the day’s best sightings and shots.
Photographic highlights of our time on the river included the vibrantly-hued little bee-eaters our guide Laskey found huddled together in neat rows against the morning chill; an abundance of kingfishers from miniature malachites to the preening giant kingfisher via the constantly hovering pieds; watchful hippo families basking on the banks, the territorial males pretty much yawning to order; African jacanas lilypad-hopping at eye level from the boat on wonderfully still water; and an endless array of waterbirds, crocodiles, elephant and buffalo herds and an ark of other iconic African species.
Chobe was just the first of two-destinations on this photo tour; our next stop being Zimanga private game reserve in South Africa, which is fast gaining a reputation across the globe as a top location for wildlife photography with its superb, purpose-built low level hides, its unprecedented access to photograph big game 24/7 and its habituated breeding pack of wild dogs.
On every visit owner-manager and award-winning wildlife photographer Charl Senekal updates us on his plans for this fast-growing photography reserve. On this visit we could see work was already well under way for the opening of a second lodge on Zimanga next year. (In 2018 all our Zimanga trips will be based on the reserve – with exclusive use of the lodge’s stylish and comfy accommodation for our small groups. This allows us to offer the option of photographing in the overnight hide to all our guests next year.)
As on the Chobe it was the lions that came out first to welcome us on our first trip out on the reserve, leading us along the path where they were hunting just before sun-up. Another highlight for one of our groups (we split into two smaller groups when we’re on Zimanga, generally working between hides and games drives) was a surprise encounter one morning with a shy and feisty black rhino bull out in the open patrolling his territory. Our guide Geordie hadn’t seen black rhino on the reserve for three months so we felt honoured this chap popped out briefly to pose for that classic shot with an iconic umbrella thorn.
The scavenger hill hide was productive once again, with a smorgasbord of raptor species flying in including a handful of marabou storks – the first we’ve photographed on the reserve – patrolling the plateau like a band of sombre funeral directors. There was plenty of scope for great action shots as the dramas played out during the morning session between various vulture and bird of prey species. It was a great chance to capture the ‘pecking order’ in action as the pesky pied crows plagued the larger species by pulling their tail feathers and jumping on their backs.
Other memorable highlights of our three day visit to the reserve included a very successful session at the Mkhombe reflection pool hide which is set up for stunning morning bird photography at low level and an end of the day session with a cheetah we were lucky enough to be able to silhouette against the Zululand skyline as she topped a ridge on the reserve.
The reflection pool hide was the busiest we’d seen it for a while, with a continuous stream of small bird species arriving to drink, and occasionally bathe, including three striking barbet species plus their reflections. We even had unexpected mammalian visits including banded mongoose (sadly too briefly to photograph on this occasion), several warthogs and a lone wildebeest. It seems the large mammals didn’t get the memo about this being a hide designed specifically for smaller birds!
Last, but not least, we ended our visit with a fantastic afternoon’s session following furiously on the heels of Zimanga’s breeding pack of wild dogs as they set off at speed to hunt, criss-crossing the reserve at a cracking pace; their beautiful marbled markings flashing in the late afternoon sunshine. Seeing them explode into life after their mid-day slumbers in the shade up close was a special experience and a fitting, if bitter-sweet, way to end our trip.
Thanks to everyone for making the trip, and our inaugural outing on the houseboat, a big hit with many laughs, adventures, corny jokes (you know who you are!) and stories shared, in addition to the photographs and memories saved on mechanical and human hard-drives.
Special thanks go to the Pangolin ground staff, Janine, Charl and Sabina, to Martin and the Pangolin Voyager crew, to our guides in Chobe, Killer and Laskey, to Geordie our guide on Zimanga, to the Senekal family, and to Jean and the staff at Ghost Mountain Inn, Mkhuze, for literally going the extra mile this time to ensure things ran as smoothly as possible right to the end!