The daily report from my African Workshops
Note: while I wrote this blog contemporaneously during the workshop, what you're seeing here is on "tape delay." I'm playing back one day at a time so that you get the same day-by-day experience those of us in Botswana had. Newest entry is at the bottom. In some cases I'm using student images or those of my assistant instead of my own so that you get their view of a day, too. Thank you to all the students who've agreed to let some of their images be used in this blog. One comment, though, as the question came up in emails for the South Africa workshop: yes, my images sometimes look different than the students' in terms of post processing. I'm just taking what they give me and not trying to touch it up or change it in any way. I suspect some of the differences you see is simply not optimizing for small size. When I process for the Web, I have an optimization action that tries to preserve small detail.
South Africa Workshop Week One
South Africa Workshop Week Two
Botswana Workshop Week One
Botswana Workshop Week Two
Newest entry is at the bottom! Page currently contains Days 14-17 of Botswana workshop.
Day 14: Herd Behavior
Sept 18--Today was our last full day of safari. One of the highlights of the morning was going back to the far end of the park and shooting the nesting carmine bee-eaters. Thousands of the birds are mating and nesting just across the river, but there are so many that they spill over into trees on our side of the river, too. And every time a predator bird flies overhead, the entire bunch of bee-eaters go airborne in a swarm that turns the sky red.
But we're seeing swarms of everything today. Thousands of buffalos. 39 sable elk together (up until now we'd only seen one or two at a time). You name it, and it's in a herd. But no cats today, nor hyena.
Our afternoon consisted of a different venture: we charted a river boat and went out on the Chobe River for a cruise. Seeing the animals from the river is a different experience, especially since the elephants are coming down to the river to drink and bathe. Shot from the access roads, you're looking at elephant butts. Shot from the river, you're looking at elephant fronts.
But before we got to the elephants we seemed to get diverted into crocs. Our boat driver noticed that we all turned our big glass to the first croc on a bank that we saw and apparently interpreted that as "we want to shoot crocs." Until we managed to get that straightened out, we had a parade of crocs to shoot, at the expense of elephants wandering into the water.
Next time, though, we're going to have to charter two boats. With all our students and two of our drivers plus all of our heavy equipment (including tripods), we were probably beyond weight capacity of the boat. So we took on water at times and we got stuck in the reeds more than once. Still, we got some shots that we wouldn't otherwise have gotten, and the experience was a good one. As usual with our group, we were out longer than planned, and were by far the last boat coming back into dock.
Day 14: Herd Behavior
Sept 19--You'd think that getting from where we were at our final camp to Victoria Falls would be simple, but not much is simple in Africa. By African terms, it was simple.
In the morning we did a mini-game drive out of the park, though we didn't see much of anything other than vehicles from the lodges located in Kasane, all of whom were probably also seeing nothing. When you stay in the Kasane lodges or the lodges near the entrance, you get the mass vehicle experience. But it's not just about the quantity of vehicles at that end of the park, but also about the quality. Many of the groups we saw this morning were on their only 3-hour safari drive. First, you can't get very far into Chobe in a three-hour tour. Second, the tour guides used by the lodges at the entrance tend to be local and not as highly trained, so things like tracking are out of the question. For example, we were asked by one driver we passed if we had seen any sign of lions. Gee, you mean like the lion tracks you're driving over? Yes, it can be that bad.
The professional guides we're using have a bit of contempt for the Kasane-based guided tours, but it seems warranted. While we had a good experience in the park, I can't think of a single vehicle that I saw from any of the lodges that had stopped for something even reasonably exotic. Basically, on those trips you can expect buffalo, elephant, giraffe, zebra, impala, and maybe another species or two, and not to spend very long with any of them. It's a shame, really. You don't understand or feel Africa unless you're on the ground, in the middle of nowhere, with trained professionals that can tell you what you're seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and even some cases feeling. I'm proud of our guides. They are top notch in every respect, and gave us exactly the experience I was hoping for. (Should you plan your own trip to Botswana, you can get the same excellent treatment we got by using Capricorn Safaris. Tell them Thom sent you.)
As we left the park we diverted our vehicle to the local shopping mall to buy a huge bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yes, you read that right. KFC has made it to Kasane, Botswana. This dirty little treat was mostly for our guides, who have an 800km drive back to Maun where Capricorn is based. I imagine the next group may detect a faint chicken smell in the vehicles on their safari. I wonder if that attracts or repels the animals?
From KFC it was out of our safari vehicles and into transfer vans for the short drive to the ferry. We went through Botswana customs, pulled our bags out of the transfer van and into a small boat, crossed the Zambezi, and then entered Zambia, where we transferred to another bus.
That bus then drove us through the queued up cars and trucks waiting to be ferried across the river to the Royal Livingston, which is just above Victoria Falls. The logistics of crossing the river basically consume most of a morning, so we showed up at our luxurious final digs just in time for lunch. Six zebra and two giraffe stood outside our rooms (and I mean literally just outside the doors) as we arrived. I'm pretty sure the hotel herded them to our rooms because they knew we were a photographic tour. Still, it didn't surprise me that no one pulled out a camera to photograph them. The group is just about safaried out. And we need something more than "another zebra or giraffe" to get the adrenaline pumping again.
Everyone's not quite yet jaded enough to escape the wonders of Vic Falls, though. So late in the afternoon we organized a short hike out to various of the scenic overlooks. One thing to be aware of here--on both sides of the falls--is that the hotels and park service don't understand photography. The gates typically lock at 6pm, regardless of where the sun is. We photographed through sunset and just managed to sneak back in, but technically the gates had closed almost a half hour earlier. You can get out of the park after the gates close, but it's an almost 7km walk to get around the fences, onto the main road, and through the hotel's front gate.
And with that ending, we held our farewell dinner. A few of the group is hanging on for a day or more (I'm here for an extra day), a few are headed to South Africa for a few days, but about half are headed home tomorrow morning. And they'll have tens of thousands of pictures to sort through when they get home, so the safari will continue on through photos.
Everyone now has African stories to tell. I hope they tell them well. Africa can use the kinds of tourists we tried to be during our stay here. Unfortunately, there's a saying here in Africa that's quite telling: if the animals pay, they stay. What that means is that safari-type tourism here is subject to change. The recent recession definitely had a big impact on all the safari areas within Africa, and with tourism revenues down, everyone turns to other sources of income. Given Africa's vast mineral and resource wealth, it's easy enough to find other ways that the wild lands contribute to the economy other than safaris. So if you're interested in doing a safari in truly wild Africa, don't wait too long. Do it soon while you can and the experience is still an amazing one. Not only will you see something that is slowly being constrained and could go away, but bringing tourism dollars into Africa will actually sustain the wild areas longer.
For those of you interested in safaris like the ones I just did, I'll be repeating the Botswana itinerary with only a few small changes in summer of 2012 and doing a new all safari-based workshop somewhere else in Southern Africa (that's Southern Africa, not necessarily South Africa). Send me an email if you'd like to get on the list of people notified about these workshops when they are scheduled. But plenty of other great wildlife photographers do good safaris in Africa, so you don't have to wait for me to get back to Africa to get a great experience.
You'd think this would be the end of the blog, but it won't be. My next post will be a ton of photos I didn't include in the daily writings for one reason or another (usually because it came from another vehicle so didn't quite match what I experienced and wrote about that day). I'll also have a couple more end-of-trip posts that you won't want to miss. Even though the workshop part is over, we've got some more exploring to do. So stick around for more.
Some of the Rest
I've accumulated a few images that I wanted to share for one reason or another that just didn't quite fit into the narrative or the daily aspect of the blog itself. So without further ado, here are some additional images to ponder:
I'd like to thank the students that allowed me to share some of their images in this blog. I think it helps to see what others saw rather than just a bunch of my images.
We're still not done, though it will probably be a few more days before I get around to posting an update. We have some bonus wrap-up coverage coming, but I'm juggling a lot of tasks at the moment, so it might take me a few days to get the rest of the workshop blog finalized.
Sept 18--The South African and Botswana trips, like many in Africa, have a lot of logistics through rough areas. Keeping cameras clean and in top condition isn't always easy. As best as I can tell, we had the following equipment on the trips (I may have missed a few things, but I'm pretty sure of these numbers):
- 45 Nikon DSLR bodies, ranging from D5000 to D3x (plus 2 Canon bodies and a video camera)
- 4 m4/3 bodies
- 12+ compact cameras
- 3 600mm f/4 lenses
- 4 500mm f/4 lenses
- 12 200-400mm f/4 lenses
- 18 70-200mm f/2.8 or 80-200mm f/2.8 lenses
- 16+ laptops, mostly Mac
So the question is, how did all that stand up to the abuse we put it through? Here are the things I know about:
- Flaky connection between 80-200mm and bodies developed; controlled during trip by jiggling the lens a bit. Lens needs to go back to Nikon for check of mount alignment.
- On the rental 200-400mm's, of which there were several, they all seemed to have the tripod collar or foot come loose from time to time on the safari. Just make sure you have your allen wrenches with you and you can fix this in the field.
- One Canon G9 died early in the trip.
- One D2x sensor came to Africa with a dirty sensor that needed a lot of wet cleaning. We were never able to get it perfectly clean. The camera needs a CLA at Nikon.
- One D300 suffered a cracked top LCD when another camera landed on it during a big bump on safari. Camera still works, but needs to see Nikon for a new LCD cover.
- One cracked 70-200mm lens hood (too much impact trama from something while bouncing around in the vehicle). Duct taped back together and needs replacement.
- One GPS unit had its case cracked. Duct taped back together.
- Two 200-400mm's had autofocus issues during the trip. One was fixed by cleaning the mount, the other was fixed by cleaning the mount and doing a full AF Fine Tune in the field (yes, I brought charts).
- One 200-400mm focused inconsistently in the field, and it's focus ring came off and I had to reinstall it in the field. We never could get the lens back to 100%. That lens is back at Nikon for fix and adjustment.
- One 70-200mm was dunked in water in Botswana and survived, though it went to Nikon for a look at.
- One 24-70mm was damaged by impact with a boulder and went to Nikon for fixing.
- One 70-300mm was dunked in water in Botswana and required fixing by Nikon. Total cost of repair for this and the previous two was Canadian$394.
- One 17" Macbook Pro was fixed by the Apple Store in Joberg mid-trip when its logic board failed.
- One D200 eyepiece cup is cracked and has a piece missing (shouldn't let the lions bite it Eric ;~)
- Two D300's suffered DBS (Dead Battery Syndrome) in the field. Both were fixed by installing new firmware (yes, I carry firmware updates with me).
Overall, we subjected equipment to a lot of abuse. It's difficult to describe just how abusive such a trip can be on equipment, but it's constantly bouncing around, knocking up against things, getting subjected to vibrations, and is exposed to heat, dust, water, and more. Overall, not a bad record, and it probably would have been better had the one vehicle not got stuck butt down in the water for a long period of time.
Complete loss, however, was another story. Both negligence and theft came into play:
- One iPhone left in a field after shooting.
- Three lens caps lost while shooting.
- Two rubber feet from Gitzo monopods came off at some point and were lost. A rubber foot from my Gitzo tripod came off, but I found it almost immediately. Consider putting Locktite on things like this on trips like this.
- Multiple knifes (at least five) were stolen out of locked, checked bags, most likely in Joberg.
- My two SB-900's and two m4/3 bodies were stolen out of my locked, checked bags in Joberg on the way home. The airport there has a reputation for theft of small things from checked bags. Basically, anything that looks salable or valuable that fits in a jacket pocket tends to get stolen from bags that undergo additional inspection. My tripod and monopod were in the same bag, and they weren't taken. Indeed, the two SB-900's were taken out of their cases (which were in another case), probably because their cases are too big to fit easily into a pocket.
- Our backup projector was stolen out of checked baggage at JFK, though the theives forgot to take the AC power pack ;~).
Next up, we'll have some bonus coverage of one species that everyone was shooting.