In September 2010 I led a workshop of 14 students on a two-week trip through Botswana's prime wildlife locations. This is the blog from that trip:
Day 1: Meet and Greet
Sept 4—I spent my "chill" day baking at Montsentsela Tree Lodge in Maun, Botswana, where the rest of the group will arrive today. Temperatures here are a bit outlandish for the end of winter, with yesterday's high hitting well over 90°F. Amazingly, it's hotter here than it was when I left home in the midst of a heat wave.
Flying from Joberg to Maun reminds you of just how empty Africa can be at times. Looking at images shot through the window of the plane on the camera's LCD looked like nothing more than a bunch of dust spots. Of course, a lot of what I could see was dust. A huge boost in contrast doesn't help much:
Driving out of Maun to the lodge was filled with surprises. Maun now is up around 75,000 residents (temporary and permanent), has many more small lodgings, a few of them heading upscale. The old airport is still operative, but not for long, as the country is building a new airstrip immediately adjacent that will handle everything up through the biggest 747. In heat. Which means that the new runway they're working on is ginormous and dwarfs the old one. Maun won't be a sleepy little town much longer, if it hasn't already started the Big Change.
Meanwhile, water is still surging down the Okavango into Maun. There's spontaneous water all over the place, as areas that have never flooded are now filled with water. Adam Hedges, our local organizer and guide, says the water is finally starting to pull back a bit, but it has created lots of havoc for mobile safaris like ours. Today one of our drivers is out scouting to make sure that one of the camp sites we were planning to use later in the trip hasn't succumbed to the wet. [Post workshop comment: it had. At least the access road to it, so a new access had to be created.]
Note all the trees in water here and the lack of a bridge in the road. This is water where it hasn't been in a long, long time.
Botswana is a unique country. About 37% of the land here is either National Park or Wildlife Refuge: owned by the government and controlled by lots of fees and regulations. Obviously, that means a lot of bureaucracy, but on the plus side you get large tracts of land where the animals are free to roam and be wild. That's one of the reasons why we're here. But the paperwork to get an overland expedition through these protected areas mounted apparently isn't simple. Adam tells me that he has 22 different permits for our trip. As he likes to describe it (and he's not the only one in Botswana to do so): "this is a third world country with a first world bureaucracy." This from the head of the safari tour operators association! The clipboard of permit paper and triplicate forms on Adam's dashboard as he meets me is almost a half-inch thick. Thankfully I didn't have to fill out any of it.
Surprisingly, the bureaucracy doesn't seem to apply much to tourists. No visas. Just get off the plane, fill out a short form, get in line, have your passport stamped. Mine was stamped by one of the cheeriest and friendliest customs agents I've ever encountered. It always amazes me that in most countries the first local you meet is a grumpy or surly customs agent. Shows you how tourist friendly the world is. But my Botswana agent proved you can be friendly and still do your job.
Off to greet the first arrivals. Mostly lecture and some test shooting on schedule for later today, along with the requisite drinks and welcome dinner. Things won't really get rolling until Day 3, but when they do, watch out, as we're going head first into some prime territory where we're not likely to see another safari group, but plenty of animals.
Day 2: Around Tree Lodge
Sept 5—Because Montsentsela is a game farm, today we practiced some game drive basics, such as how to position and support cameras in vehicles, how not to bonk the person in the seat in front of you with your 600mm lens when coming down from the roof, and other similar things. Not an earth shattering day, but I want everyone to be in full command of their equipment and not rocking the boat when we get to our first interesting sightings in Moremi.
Also on the agenda was some basic focus and exposure practice, to make sure everyone was ready to deal with the situations we'll be encountering. And finally, I worked with my new students on the unique way I teach composition.
Late in the afternoon, I finished my lectures and Tony, my assistant, made his on things to watch out for when shooting wildlife. A few people took some time to chase after the ubiquitous birds around the lodge.
In short, a day with a lot of review of the basics. A side result of this review and practice is that Tony and I watch to see if we see any bad shooting habits. We want to start correcting those before the Big Shot comes along.
While all this seems boring and mundane, it isn't. I've yet to conduct a session like this where we haven't found some misunderstanding of a setting or some small handling error that'll show up in images. Moreover, many of the guests on these trips have hectic day jobs. They don't shoot every day. It takes them a bit of time to get back into the swing of things, so I try to make sure that we have everyone up to speed before putting them into the great environment we're about to enter. The one thing I don't want to have happen is have a group full of workshop students who are still trying to figure out focus and exposure when we come up on some unique or seldom seen sighting on the first drive of the workshop. Sometimes I think I'm clairvoyant. (In case you didn't notice, that was more foreshadowing. Actually, it was a repeat of earlier foreshadowing. All of which becomes more obvious tomorrow.)
Day 3: Wild!
Sept 6—Okay, so we practiced focus, exposure, and composition yesterday. All of you reading this blog are thinking "Thom's just adding a padding day to the workshop for nothing." Read on.
We moved out of the lodge about on time, but by the time we stopped in Maun for a few last minute supplies and hit the road to the park for real, we were running a bit late. No problem, there's not a lot between us and the park, so we'll just drive on through.
Indeed, there is very little North of Maun. The asphalt becomes packed dirt becomes washboard becomes sand.
Once through the Buffalo fence we expected to see a few impala and other common sightings, but our first stop was...wait for it...wild dog. Not just a fleeting glimpse, either, but a full pack resting under a tree not far from the main road into Moremi.
The funny thing is that my vehicle, the first in our group of four, drove right past the wild dogs. I was watching the left side of the road so didn't see them. Fran in the back meekly said she had just seen something like a small dog with big ears. After getting more of a description, Adam and I both thought "jackal" and kept driving. But the second vehicle didn't make that mistake: when they saw it they knew what it was. Within a few minutes, all four of our vehicles were positioned nicely shooting wild dogs taking a mid-day break.
To put this in perspective, wild dog is the one animal that no guide in his right mind will promise that a client will see during a trip like this. Even a two-week trip. That's because there are very few wild dogs left in the wilds. They cover huge territories, and when they're on the move they move fast and continuously. Most photographers, if they see one, see only a tail heading off into the bush. And here we were sitting with an entire pack of them perfectly oblivious to us.
So now you know why I was so bent on practice before heading into the bush. I was actually quite pleased to see that none of the vehicles were rocking, no one was firing off wild bursts of random shots, and that no one was having issues with focus or exposure. In short, the practice paid off.
The day continued with other interesting sightings, but we'll get to more animal stuff later in the blog for the trip (I'm not going to out all the animal stories on day one of a two-week trip!).
So we'll skip to dinner. Where we had a significant birthday to celebrate. This, of course, requires that you bake a cake. So our birthday girl gets the cake and knife to cut it. And she tries really hard to cut it and it just keeps crumbling and crumbling and...well, that's because you always give the guest the gag cake first ;~). Basically, you put a rice frosting on a pile of elephant dung and watch with amusement as the unwitting victim tries to cut it. It can't be done. Moreover, you wouldn't want to eat it. So once the locals get their laughs at the expense of the paying customer, the real cake comes out and all is well. (I hope.)
After dinner, I'm laying on my cot reading something on my iPad when I hear Tony in the latrine at the back of the tent say "Man, you can't believe the view from the toilet." Okay, Tony, let's pony up the image so everyone can enjoy what you saw on your evening constitutional.
Day 4: First Full Safari Day
Sept 7—Today was our first full and true safari day of the Botswana workshop, so let me take you through the various parts of the day.
At 5:30 am our tent stewards (yes, everyone has their own tent steward, who also cleans your tent and does your laundry) brought everyone fresh washing water and greeting us with a human and very friendly wake up call. Upon arising, a continental breakfast awaited us around the camp fire. Once powered up with coffee, tea, and whatever else got people going, it was time to load the vehicles.
By 6:20 we had left camp.
At 6:21 we stopped to photograph lions.
Yes, it was going to be that kind of day.
Once we all got tired of the lions, the four vehicles went separate ways looking for more game. Judging by the radio communication, everyone had a very successful morning. Of course, part of any successful game drive morning is a mid-drive stop for tea, which we all did together at a hippo pond. (Yes, we're on the British schedule here. The extended British schedule, with five or six food and tea servings a day.)
By 11am we were all back at camp and it was time for brunch/lunch. Our chef seems to manage to make a wide range of interesting salads and hot dishes, and they're all good. You wouldn't think that we were in the middle of nowhere living in tents by the food we're consuming. For those that know me, I'm told that Adam loaded six cases of Coke Light (what they call Diet Coke here) on the truck for just the first part of the trip. So no worries, I'm fully fueled.
We're in camp from 11am until 3pm, at which time it's more tea and pastries--how did those British ever conquer so much of the world if they were always stopping for tea?-- before getting back into the vehicles and resuming game drive mode. Again we sent all the vehicles different directions. (For those that are curious, Tony and I move between vehicles each day, so that all the paying clients have one of us in their vehicle about half the time. Because we're the migrant ones, Tony and I tend to get the worst seat in the vehicle, which is usually next to the driver. But it does have one benefit: we're shooting down low. That's balanced against all the drawbacks, including that it usually is blocked from shooting to about an area of about 45° and it has far less room for equipment and personal items than the rows behind us. Since we position the vehicles for the workshop students, Tony and I sometimes find ourselves without a shot. But most of the time we find positions where all of us can shoot successfully. With only three photographers per vehicle there's generally enough room for everyone to find an angle they like.)
The afternoon drive netted each group something a little different. My vehicle got lucky with a large herd of elephants (34 by my count). We were able to follow them from out of the Mophane woods over to a wallowing hole, down the grass and into the water, then back into the woods at the end. The matriarch and the dominant bull both tolerated us completely, which meant that we were able to position the vehicle multiple times as we tried to get the right angle for all the different shots the herd gave us. Meanwhile, on the radio I could hear that another two vehicles were doing the same thing with a group of hippos and eventually some buffalo. I'm not sure what the fourth vehicle did most of the afternoon, but they seemed happy with what they were doing and mostly stayed in radio contact only to let us know they were still out there.
I've got a lot of variations on this, as do the students who were in my vehicle. None are what I'd call perfect. Note that my low angle made it difficult for me to isolate the elephants from the horizon. Also, look closely at the trunk positions. I've got some where the baby is holding mom's tail, but the other trunk positions aren't so great, I've got some where the trunk positions are 100% in sync but the legs are too static (doesn't look like they're walking). Wildlife photography is tricky. And it gets trickier the more animals you have in a shot. One animal, not too tricky. Five animals moving, very tricky.
Towards sunset, we tried to get all the vehicles back together for a sundowner (another drink and snack). Herding vehicles of photographers who are satisfied with what they're currently shooting to a single rendezvous point is like herding cats. Several of us had a few diversions before we finally reached the agreed upon place, known as Old Camp 14. But it took us so long it was literally a sunalreadydowner. We arrived. We shot the remains of sunset. We drank. We drove back to camp in the dark.
Technically, in Moremi you're not supposed to go "off road" or drive after dark. It's actually difficult to avoid both those things. This year, the "roads" aren't always passable, so new "roads" have appeared. We generally don't try to go straight overland, but sometimes we don't have a lot of choice in the matter. And we often do go a bit off road to position vehicles on animals. Likewise, it's difficult to time game drives to actually arrive back to camp before dark. If you get stuck on a great sighting far from the camp, you obviously don't want to abandon that too early. The reason you do game drives at the edges of the day, after all, is because that's when the animals are most active.
So yes, we probably are slightly over the line of the law, but we try to stay within the spirit of the place and not contribute to degradation of the area. When you see pictures of the delta from the air you realize that it would take one heck of a lot of off-roading to even approach the path making that the big animals are creating through the terrain. Indeed, many of the "roads" started out as game tracks.
During the entire day we saw exactly one other vehicle besides ours, yet we covered a pretty large area. Degradation due to a few excursions off the double-track isn't a high impact thing here. (Yes, it can be if you do it in the wrong place, but we're very careful about where we're putting the vehicle. Also, unlike in the South African reserves, we never drive over vegetation.) But I'll show both what our vehicles and the animals are doing in more detail later in this blog.
Since we're back in camp after dark, it's usually a quick hot shower (yes, hot), then on to more British style drinking (pre-dinner drinks). Then it's dinner, a bit of campfire talk, then bed.
If you add it all up, we're up for 18 hours a day, consume "tea" seven times a day, and have three pretty full meals and three small snacks. What we have little of in a safari day is sleep.
Day 5: Mufasa
Sept 8—So here's the scene: the tent I'm sharing with Tony is about twenty meters from our guide Adam's tent. Last night no more than twenty meters beyond Adam's tent lay a huge, sated male lion. His belly—the lion's, not Adam's—was so distended from his latest meal he could hardly walk. His stomach almost reached the ground when standing.
Within an hour of lights out last night, Tony started conjuring up the most impressive snoring storm I've heard from him in the years we've been working together. Tony would let out a great snore. The lion would let out a territorial challenge roar. Tony would snore. The lion would roar. This continued for at least twenty minutes as Tony faced off the lion in a clear territorial dispute. Surprisingly, the lion blinked first. Suddenly the next roar was from a little further away. Eventually, the lion just moved off, not sure what it was that was claiming his terrain so boldly. Of course, at that point, I still had one lion to contend with and he was still in my tent raising a ruckus.
So this morning, Adam bestowed upon Tony a new nickname: Mufasa. King of the Jungle. I think I have to commemorate that some way memorable, don't you? I'm thinking of getting a small metal plaque engraved with the nickname and having it mounted on Tony's tripod. That way everyone that encounters him knows not to be in the tent next to his...
Ribbing aside—and Tony's good natured about it, so no harsh emails folks—we still had some things to do today. I asked everyone at breakfast what they most wanted to see. Leopard. Amazingly, the wish was granted within seconds of leaving camp this morning, as about 100 meters beyond where the lion was last night was a leopard in a tree.
The leopard spooked when the first vehicle approached, coming down out of the tree and off into the brush. Probably because she knew she was in lion territory and was a little nervous about all the roaring going on the previous evening. But once she got out into a field and onto a termite mound, she calmed down enough for us to approach. Better still, she posed herself perfectly on the sunlit side of the mound and curled her tail up in a cute way that everyone was instantly attracted to photographing. (Curled tail is not a "cute" trait at all; curled means "agitated.")
We stayed as long as we dared, but we had a plane to catch, so reluctantly--and very reluctantly for the three cat aficionados in the last vehicle--we drove on towards the airstrip. Only to find eight lions posing very nicely and even performing some nice pride interaction behavior. Once again out came the big lenses, and we worked the scene for as long as we dared.
As I wrote earlier: we had a plane to catch, so the rest of the drive was a Ferrari safari to the airstrip, where our two chartered planes showed up shortly after arriving (we were right on time, the planes were on Africa Time). Our destination now was Camp Okavango, a little island oasis in the middle of the water-filled part of the delta. We kept the plane low, and the parade of animals as we passed overhead was impressive. But most impressive was a long line of elephants we saw wandering through one of the reed patches towards water.
From the air you get the full impact of the Okavango. Wet and greener to the North Northwest, dryer and browner to the Southeast. Threads of animals tracks everywhere. Small herds of animals here and there. Just an amazing assortment of wild going on below us. Including two herds of elephants moving up one of the water channels:
I was in the front of the plane with a wide lens, so had an odd angle trying to shoot back under the wing; I had to have the pilot pivot the plane slightly to get this shot. But Vince in the back of the plane with a longer lens had a good shot of them as we first crossed the channel:
Earlier in the blog I mentioned that we try to be as friendly to the land as possible, but that the animals do a fair amount of roughing up of the land. From the air in the delta you see evidence of that everywhere:
Yes, those are all animal tracks. In fact, many of what passes for roads in this part of Africa started as animal tracks. Ecosystems are strange things. It's incorrect to believe that an ecosystem has a perfect natural state. Ecosystems are living things in and of themselves. Seeds get dislodged, water channels move due to animal paths, everything is in a constant state of flux. You can't "preserve" places like this, you can only try not to change the impacts of or influence the natural changes going on. Ten years ago, this little strip of land looked different. Ten years from now, it will look still different. But that should be a "natural" different, not a human-caused one.
The flight was over far too soon. Because the airstrip at Camp Okavango has been below water most of the year so far, we couldn't land our Cessna Caravan there and instead landed at the nearest other grass strip that hadn't been flooded. Next, we boarded our third safari transportation mode of the day: delta boats. While the distance from the strip to the island where Camp O is located isn't large, the way is through ever-twisting tendrils of stream running between reeds swaying in the wind. Crocs on the banks. Talapi in the water. A gentle flow of the water pushing us southward.
At times, the banks felt like they were closing in on us. Heaven knows what a paranoid claustrophic person on Lariam would think of the ever constricting waterways we used, but it was a very different experience from the Land Cruisers, and everyone had a big smile on their face when we reached Camp O.
But the day was not done. After the requisite afternoon high tea we were off in two person canoes to be poled through the nearby delta. Much macro mahem ensued as little frogs, dragonflies, water lillies, and more came into our viewfinders from only a few inches above the water and a few inches from the subject. To wit, here's my shot:
And here's how close Tony when he was trying to get the same shot:
At the end of a couple of hours wandering through the sedge, we gathered for a group picture, and came onto the camp's barely dry airstrip, where we had our sundowner (and all the photographers did more shooting than drinking).
Another long Botswana day, and one with so many little twists and turns for the students that everyone had a big grin on their face by the end of the day.
For the record: four forms of transportation and everything from 600mm shots at distance to teeny macro work at canoe side. Now that's a day's worth of photography.
Day 6: At the Speed of Africa
Sept 9—After every long transport day, even one as enjoyable as yesterday, I try to make sure that we have a slow day that follows. Being constantly on the move--the most we spend at any place on this trip is three nights--means that if you don't have a simpler, slower day every now and then your gear ends up in a random state of chaos and your get more and more anxious along the way. Neither makes for great photos. So today we're getting up a little later, starting slower, and doing things at a more relaxed pace.
Once we had consumed breakfast our destination was Lopis (LOW-pez) island. This meant another boat ride through the reeds where we found a beautiful purple heron to photograph. We got almost the whole heron experience: standing there appearing to do nothing (but actually fishing), a bit of grooming, a successful fish grab, and eventually the heron moved off of the spot further into the reeds. We were hoping for a heron take-off, but the bird wasn't stressed with our presence and pretty much just ignored us as we tried to keep the boats positioned in the current. Like a lot of things in Africa, the heron is well camoulflaged for its environment:
You might be surprised to find that there is a current in a system that essentially doesn't outlet into anything. There is. It's gentle but constant. As the water piles down from Angola and ends up in the Okavango it gets pushed through the mostly flat sands of Botswana. On wet years like this one, the push is relentless and water reaches all the way into the Savute Channel and to places like Maun. In dry years—which Botswana had a 40+ year string of until last year, the water doesn't push very far down the delta and the Savute Channel is dry. Still, the water runs until it evaporates, so there is a current.
After dozens upon dozens of bends in the channel we reached our destination. On Lopis Island we went on our first walking safari. We saw plenty of animals, though with a big group like ours they tended to walk away from us pretty quickly. Still, seeing gazelles, wildebeest, baboons, bushbuck, and more from ground level changes one's perspective on safari. From the vehicles, especially looking down on things from the roof, one doesn't feel very vulnerable. Walking through the bush like the animals does. That was made even more obvious when as we came back to the boats we passed a pile of wood knocked down by elephants and we saw a mamba slither off into the pile. Mamba is one of the things we don't want to see on the trip if we can avoid it, but there it was, fortunately scared off by the large group of walkers. This is one of the reasons why we stay together in our walks, actually. There's a small degree of extra safety in numbers, and there's absolute danger if someone walks off on their own. (For the record, Adam had his gun with him.)
The afternoon was a walk on another adjacent island, and this one proved more fruitful (a smaller group went, as about half elected to hang around camp and catch up on chores or try their hand at bird photography (the grounds here are like an uncaged bird exhibit at the zoo: you're likely to see any and everything). A monitor lizard ran by the group giving every one their first good reptile shots. Moreover, they managed to find some elephant on their walk and got to see them from a closer and different view, too.
I used some of the down time between walks to do more image reviews. There's already been some very good shots taken, but all of us are still struggling from time to time with getting unwanted things out of our pictures. The grass and bush here is dense and nearly ubiquitous. Unwanted stumps or termite mounds seem to pop up in the background more often than anyone would like. Groups of animals get a lot of overlap amongst them, which is difficult to deal with. The big thing everyone is learning very rapidly on this trip is that you need to be constantly on the lookout for things popping up in your photo that you really don't want. It's easy to get distracted by the fantastic leopard laying in front of you, but you can't get too myopic or Africa will throw things into your shot you don't want. You can only do something about it if you see it. So getting everyone to see all that clutter is one of my jobs during image review. (What do you do about it? Move the vehicle is one thing you can do. Even moving a few inches one way or the other sometimes gives you clear shots.)
Meanwhile, Tony and Vince decided to spend the day at the bar. Well, not quite at the bar, but just in front of the bar. That's because there was a lot of bird activity in front of the lodge, including a weaver's nest (look for the two mouths open just above the mom's head):
All in all, today was a day about slowing down to the pace of Africa. We weren't in a hurry for anything. We didn't wander far. Some didn't wander at all. We walked slowly and deliberately in the bush. The interesting thing is that when you do slow down and get to the pulse of Africa, good things start to happen. You see little things you didn't see before. You're even more aware of the sounds and smells. You see the tracks and the scat and other evidence of the animals' presence. Hitting the pace of Africa is when you start making better photographic decisions.
Day 7: Ele in the Channel
Sept 10--Our stay at Camp O was short. Too short. Everyone regretted having to say goodbye to our little oasis in the delta.
Today we were back on the move, using boats to get from Camp O to our mobile tent camp, which has been moved to Xakanaxa.
Boating through the reeds in the delta alternates between boring and exciting. Most of the time, it's pretty much the same thing over and over: narrow twisting water channel with reeds on both sides. You've got maybe a 100 meter view of water in front of you until the next turn and both sides of the passage are wall to wall reeds. The channel itself just twists and twists and twists. So to get from point A to point But you might travel ten times further than you would if it were a reasonably straight line. Because the lead boat had a roof and two people at a time were up there, every now and then the second boat I was in would see two heads going the other direction above the reeds on one side of the channel.
The infinite reed boredom gets broken by a few tasty little treats, though. Every now and again you stumble upon something like a crocodile in the reeds. This morning we encountered one dead croc floating belly up and ready to pop. Normally after a couple of days laying dead like this, we'd have seen vultures circling, but the vulture story here in Botswana is a sad one.
Pouchers don't like vultures. That's because a swarm of vultures flying above your illegal kills gives the anti-poaching police somewhere to look. So the remaining few poachers are now into poisoning the vultures. They'll put out a carcass with poison on it and kill off a ton of vultures without firing a shot. Unfortunately, the poachers are exceedingly short-sighted. Vultures are a necessary part of the ecosystem. For most carcasses in the wild, there is a parade of things that appear in sequence. But the vultures are one of the key participants, as they open up portions of the animal that others can't. Moreover, the vultures are part of the anti-bacterial control on carcasses. The more you learn about the way life in the African wilds works, the more you discover that every last creature is part of a much larger system, and if you remove one creature, other things start to break. Thus, the huge loss of vultures in the area adjacent to Moremi is a big deal. Ultimately, it's going to have an impact on every animal here.
After more than an hour of stumbling through reeds we got to one of the big lagoons that dot the delta. In the center of that first lagoon was our next bit of excitement: an island just overrun with nesting birds. Egrets, Marabou Storks, Cormorants, and a seemingly unending supply of other birds put on a show, as they took off, landed, and built nests. Heck, I even saw two Marabou mating (which isn't exactly a pleasant sight). We spent almost an hour with Bird Island, and we barely moved more than 100m along its shore.
But the big excitement of the day was still to come.
After lunch we entered back into more labyrinthian passages of reeds. Some of these passages narrow down to 10 feet or so, and most are rarely wider than 20 feet. So we're always in a some very tight quarters. As the first boat rounded one turn in the reeds they saw a dark hump in the water. The immediate reaction was "hippo." But it wasn't, it was a submerged bull elephant. That fact became known very quickly as my boat came round the bend and the elephant surfaced and went through his aggressive posturing. I'd have been aggressive, too. Here he was enjoying some sort of bath in the middle of nowhere when along comes some noisy things stirring up the water. For a photo group, though, this was one of those superb photo ops you wish for but never promise. We got ear flaps, trumpeting, water splashing, posturing, and much more before the elephant finally tired of trying to scare us off and found an old game trail into the reeds and disappeared. Not that it could have scared us off. We needed to wait for it to clear the channel in order for us to proceed to Xakanaga.
It didn't matter what else happened the rest of the day, everyone will remember the ele in the water. So I'll just close with that and let you imagine all the wonderful things we saw afterwards.
Oh, no, I can't quite end that way. Here's the scene at lunch (taken with my iPhone):
Day 8: All Quiet on All Fronts
Sept 11--Every safari has its up days and its down days. Up days mean predators and exciting behavior. Down days mean prey with heads down or standing still, and darned few of them.
Today was a down day and not much happened. Considering the date, I suppose having not much happen might be construed by some as a good thing.
In eight hours of driving we saw relaxed impalas munching on grass, troop after troop of monkeys and baboons just playing and grooming, and not much else.
All four of our vehicles set off for different parts of the Xakanaxa, so we covered almost all of the area during the day. Not a single predator track was seen, let alone a predator. Okay, a croc is a predator and we saw the same one sitting at the same place as we did last night, but how many times can you photograph that?
I'm perfectly fine with down days. The camera stays in my lap and gets a rest, too. This is a very pretty area that we're in, and it's changed a lot since the last time I was here (due to the extra water coming through the delta, no doubt). So I'm perfectly happy to enjoy the scenery. I could tell a few of the students were getting frustrated by the end of the day, though. Fortunately we were saved from total boredom by a little driver mistake: in trying to get to our sundowner spot, one of the drivers stuck his Land Cruiser butt end into the muck of one crossing. This proved amusing in many ways.
First of all, our tour operator's wife was in the stuck vehicle, but our tour operator was driving a different vehicle. Second, no one knew where the stuck vehicle was. Upon getting stuck, the driver got out and walked around a corner in the road and disappeared, apparently to scout where he was and whether there was anything useful to getting himself unstuck. But this left us in radio communication with a vehicle full of people who didn't know where they were. So when we asked what they could see, the answer "termite mound" was highly unhelpful. There must be a termite mound every 100 feet in Botswana. Knowing that the water crossing they were stuck in wasn't very long wasn't helpful, either. There are tons of short water crossings in the area. At each increasing query and answer, we could all tell that our tour operator was getting a little rattled by not knowing where his wife was stuck as the light went down. Describing where they were wasn't going to help us find them.
So we had them blow their horn, but none of the other vehicles could hear it. Our tour operator kept asking her to describe things and where they'd been, but we couldn't quite narrow it down from the answers. Fortunately, we kept moving towards where we thought they might be, and eventually the horn trick worked and we found them just as their driver came back from his reconnaissance of the area.
Unfortunately, all was not well. Two of our photographers had their camera bags stuffed in the far back of the vehicle, the part that was partially submerged for the half hour or more where we were trying to find them. Note to the world: most camera bags offer a bit of water resistent in a situation like this, but they are not waterproof. One bag had just barely soaked through the outer layers and was wet the inside, so the equipment in it managed to live for another day. The gear in bag two, however, which was lower in the vehicle and more submerged, didn't do as well. A 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and 70-300mm all got water in them. I'll have more to say about "equipment casualties" at the end of the workshop, but suffice it to say if you ever get stuck in the water on safari in Botswana, get your bags up off the floor.
On the other hand, one of the members in that vehicle did get a nice sunset shot when we pulled them out:
Day 9: Big Cats
Sept 12--Another quiet morning, but one that that ended with finding a pride of nine lions with a huge, beautiful male. Not much to say other than we were with the long lenses a lot, as the lions kept well away from us.
And another quiet afternoon.
So perhaps it's a good time to write about the difference between safaris in different areas of Africa. I'm going to describe six different areas that are target rich for wildlife shooters:
The best known of the African parks is the Serengeti. It's also the place I'd tend to suggest last to people as a first safari experience. That's because the parks in Tanzania are tightly regulated, and Serengeti is huge. What that means is that you can't drive off road (your driver will be arrested and fined US$500, so I hope you're a very good tipper if you try to talk them into violating the regulations). And the road system in the Serengeti isn't exactly dense. So you spend long periods of time driving down roads and seeing distant animals. If you go to the Serengeti, bring the longest lens you can, you'll need it. That's not to say that things don't happen near the roads sometimes, but when they do, there will be a dozen or more vehicles on the sighting very quickly. Indeed, things drivers look for are large quantities of vultures circling (kill) or large quantities of Land Cruisers stopped (usually means a cat). On the plus side, the Serengeti is very photogenic, and many of the huge open landscapes you've seen in safari images are probably from that region.
Also within Tanzania is the Ngorongoro crater. This is the caldera of a volcano in which a huge variety of animals have congregated and formed a miniature African ecosystem within an ecosystem. Pretty much everything of interest can be found in the crater, including the uncommon rhino, but again it's "stick to the roads" and "lots of vehicles on every sighting." It's better than Serengeti in the sense that the area isn't huge, and it does have a reasonable density of roads, so things do tend to happen near a road. But it's become much like an overcrowded drive-through zoo. Getting good sight lines without other vehicles in them is tough. And if you sit on a sighting for a long time, a ranger will come shoo you away.
But Tanzania is a stable country, has a decent infrastructure in support of tourism, and has (mostly) a dedication towards trying to keep the wilds wild. Those are all good things. But the experience has degraded over the years due to the quantity of tourists coming through those two most popular areas. I should also mention that most safaris are in closed vehicles in Tanzania, though there are still plenty of open vehicles out and about.
In Kenya the Serengeti leads into the Masai Mara. The river between the two countries is where the water crossings of the big annual migrations take place, and made notorious by all of National Geographic's various over anthropomorphized stories of Wildebeests surviving the crocs patrolling the riverbanks. The terrain on the Kenya side is a little more hilly than the Serengeti, but the good news is that some modest off-roading is tolerated. The bad news is that there are a lot of low cost "safaris" based on four-wheel drive camper vans coming down from Nairobi, and the guides driving them know nothing about what it is they're in the middle of and don't have much respect for the terrain or the animals. More than once I've had one of these guys come flying into a cat sighting and scare the animal off, then chase after it. If you can't get the idea from that description: Kenya doesn't regulate like Tanzania does. The "good" operators try to do the right thing, but there are too many "bad" operators in the Mara now.
South Africa has Kruger, which is a lot like a very bushy Serengeti (tightly regulated, no off-roading, hard to get solid sightings on animals with the vehicle positioned as the photographer wants it to be). Bushy isn't good for a tightly regulated area, as it means if the animal isn't right on the road, you're dealing with sticks and twigs and branches and leaves and everything else conspiring to block your shots.
Which brings me to the reason why I run my wildlife workshops in the private reserves of South Africa and in Botswana. In the South African private reserves you use fully open vehicles, which is nice (as long as you're ready to deal with the support issues). The preserves all are adjacent to Kruger, so the animals are wandering between the preserves and Kruger all the time without knowing where they are. But the preserves allow offroading to position a vehicle, have guides and trackers who are driving through the same areas every day and know the stories of almost all the animals on their preserves. As far as I'm concerned, four to six days at the right lodge in Sabi Sands or Primavarti is by far the best entry level safari experience you can book, especially if you arrange to have a private photography vehicle. By far. You will photograph pretty much all the animals you want to, and you will do so up close and with shorter lenses than you need elsewhere. For more on the private reserves, check out my blog for the South African workshop.
Botswana is like a mix of the best of the Mara and the best of the South African private reserves. Some of the area we traverse is National Park and fairly tightly regulated. Outside of Chobe National Park, there's some tolerance for positioning vehicles, though not the outright offroading you do in South Africa's private reserves. Moreover, except for perhaps two areas (Xakanaxa and Chobe), there isn't a lot of visitation, so you don't see a lot of other vehicles and don't tend to get the congested sightings you do in Tanzania and Kenya. Heck, we were on a pack of wild dogs right next to the road outside the park near Maun and only one other vehicle came by and stopped to join us. Botswana is still a pretty "wild" experience compared to the other great game places in Africa. Botswana also has private concession areas, too. And in those, as you'll soon learn, you can do other things that are interesting and nearly impossible in some of the better known African safari destinations.
Day 10: Kill, kill, kill
Sept 13--It was a late start (7:30) today because we're in "move mode" again. Today we break the camp and drive to Kwai, where the camp magically reappears by the time we get there. I've got to hand it to our tour operator, he's got this mobile tent camping thing down to a science. It's absolutely amazing just how seamless the whole thing works. Of course, we've got this mammoth truck that carries everything:
Before we started the main drive, we had time for a mini game drive in the area we've been exploring. Last night we had hyena in camp and we heard lion calls not too distant. So we looked for lion tracks outside camp. And found them pretty quickly. We followed the tracks for almost 5km before we lost them at a wet area, went around the mud and picked them up on the other side. Indeed, we followed the tracks of two male lions about as far as we could, which was Northgate, the top entrance to Moremi. Unfortunately, at that point we needed to head towards Kwai, so we had to abandon the chase.
I should point out that lions can cover enormous distances at night. Male lions will often do full territory checks in a night if they've had a recent meal or suspect another cat is encroaching on their territory. It seems that our males were doing exactly that, heading out to the fringes of the wet delta before tracking across their territory and back.
Fortunately, not long after we left the lion tracks we found our first kill.
You were expecting a lion kill, weren't you? Sorry, but this was snake kill. Snake kill? Say what?
As we were on the main road between Moremi and Kwai both the driver and I spotted something scurry off the right side of the road as we passed. But something was wrong. We both thought perhaps we had run over a snake, as it looked like a snake with a flattened head. To our surprise, the "flattened head" turned out to be a perfectly healthy snake holding a lizard sideways in its mouth.
At first we thought we were looking at a Mole Snake, which is non venomous. Thus, we got out of the vehicle and got to 70-200mm minimum focus distance and started shooting. But it soon became clear this wasn't a Mole, but something else. Oops. Fortunately, with a kill in its mouth we weren't in any danger, and the guide knows all the venomous snakes that are supposed to be in the area and this wasn't one of those. But we had to look it up just to make sure. Phew! Non-venomous.
We stayed long enough to see the process of our snake friend repositioning the kill and getting it down the hatch, after which both the snake and our vehicle slinked back off into the bush.
Lest you think a day traveling from place to place in Botswana is just an easy drive in the park, consider this:
There's a lot of water where there should be roads, and the bridges aren't exactly what you might be used to:
It's no fun (or a lot of fun, depending on your perspective) for the drivers, either:
Just prior to lunch, we came across kill number two. You're still thinking lion, right? Wrong again. This one was even more unlikely to be seen than the first.
The kill in question? The egg of a ground-nesting bird. The killer? A monitor lizard. Over the years I've seen a lot of monitor lizards sniffing around the landscape, but I'd never previously seen one successful in finding an egg. In fact, I've been so unsuccessful at seeing that I once thought about stealing a hard boiled egg from breakfast and putting it in the field with a monitor (no, I'd never do that, but one can daydream).
Note the bird just behind the monitor. It was trying to defend its nest. Unsuccessfully—the monitor lizard is bigger, meaner, and will take a bird if it has to.
Today's kill wasn't exactly a photographic event, as the monitor was a little too far from us and surrounded by low grass, but there was that unmistakeable moment when he raised his head upwards, cleared the grass with an open mouth, and swallowed the egg. So now that I've seen it, I have to figure out how to photograph it ;~).
And for our finale to the day, we found a leopard in a tree with a baboon kill in the bush below it. So we got the full leopard experience: up the tree, sleeping in the tree, walking in the tree, down the tree, eating the kill, laying in front of the kill, and wandering out to find water. We even had a group of elephants tentatively pass by the leopard and its kill. I wrote about the safari experience in other places yesterday, so I need to have full disclosure here: at one point we had nine vehicles on the sighting, four of them ours. This is in an area of Botswana that is rather dense with safari lodges. Nine vehicles. If we had been in the Serengeti with this good a sighting, there would have been thirty.
This evening we worked on some star shots and star trail shots during and after dinner. I showed Tony's at the beginning of this. Here's my setup shot before we did the star trail action. The shadows being cast across the lower left are all our tripods and Tony and I doing some double-checking before joining dinner (the mess tent lighting is casting the shadows).
(Just a reminder: with star trails, the circle centers around the northern point (North Star) or the southern point (where the Southern Cross points), depending upon which hemisphere you're in. Basically, all we had to work with at this camp were trees and stumps, and most of us decided to use that central tree as the rotation point for the trails. This wasn't so much about getting a great shot--though many of the images came out nicely--as it was about training and practicing at how to set up a night shot. One of these days I'm sure I'll have more to say about that ;~).
Day 11: The Ele That Walked to the Leopard
Sept 14--The morning drive was rather uneventful, but highly informative. Last night another group covering the same area as us was lucky enough to see a wild dog pack kill a small kudu right at sunset (would have been tough to photograph with so little light). So we headed out this morning to go see the remains. Holy moly. All that remained was bones.
In less than 24 hours the wild did their thing, with all the creatures of the night conspiring to consume virtually every bit of skin, muscle, meat, and organ of the kudu. I'm sure the dogs did a lot of the damage, but the kudu was picked clean and we saw plenty of other tracks and evidence that suggested that vultures, hyena, and more, had managed to get their share. As I wrote earlier, every animal, insect, and even plants, plays a part in the great life cycle of the full ecosystem. Yesterday the kudu was a living, breathing, kicking part of the ecosystem. Today bits and pieces of him are spread all over the area.
On the afternoon drive my vehicle encountered a very calm bull elephant as we went left when the other vehicles went right. Of course we stopped to admire and photograph him. His left tusk was long and impressive, his right tusk much worn and shorter. Elephants, like humans, are left- or right-handed. Uh, left or right-tusked, that is.
Another vehicle showed up and our bull friend decided that he wasn't going to pose for them and headed into the woods. We should have followed him.
Instead, we drove in a broad circle in the area, eventually getting to the river. Which is where we found—yes, you guessed it—our big bull friend. He again tolerated us quite well, so we resumed his modeling session, this time with the full drinking ritual. Plus he had friends now. So we spent some time photographing them, too. Since we had started late this afternoon (more on that in a moment), the light was turning into that gentle late warmth that makes the African wildlife scene so magical sometimes.
Another vehicle showed up and our bull friend decided that he wasn't going to pose for them and headed back into the woods. We should have followed him.
Instead, we heard a distant kudu alarm call, so we decided to go pursue that. About the time we figured out that we had gone too far for the call and needed to head back a bit, we got a radio call from another of our vehicles that was behind us: leopard in tree.
So we quickly drove back halfway towards where we had been only to find a leopard in a tree and our friendly bull elephant underneath it, calmly chewing down the bush under the tree. This time eight other vehicles showed up and our bull friend decided that he wasn't going to pose for them and headed back into the woods. I wonder if we should have followed him?
Instead, we stayed with the leopard, got a couple of decent shots right as the sun got at its lowest, and then packed out for our sundowner.
"Sundowner" is a safari tradition: you find someplace nice to watch the final drop of the sun into the horizon while having the drink of your choice. Here, that usually means a view through acacia or other interesting trees, so sunsets can be quite nice. Normally after sundowner you head back to camp, but today we had a special treat in store: night driving. Because we're in a private concession area, we're allowed to use spotlights during the night.
So, armed with a spotlight and standing up through the roof, I searched the area for tapetum lucidum. That's the mirror at the back of most animal's eyes (but not humans, who have blood vessels only). The color of the reflection usually tells you something about what you're seeing. I seem to be great at finding the red eyes of crocs, as I found many. I also managed to acquire a wild cat (small African predator), but as we tried to close on him he bolted.
At night you see lots of animals you don't during the day. Tonight we didn't manage to do too well on that front, getting mostly the things we'd seen during the day (including, amazingly, our elephant friend one more time). But you get nothing if you don't try. We finished with a Fish Eagle Owl on a tree next to the road, then heading back to camp for dinner.
I wonder where that bull elephant is now?
Day 12: Cats All Day
Sept 15--We heard the lions early this morning as we awoke. They were nearby. As we discovered, very near by. After breakfast, we drove across the stream behind camp and there they were, right across the river from us. Two very nice males, three huge females. They were skittish, though, so we approached cautiously and one vehicle at a time.
What usually happens on lion sightings is that you wait. And wait. And wait. Lions don't do much between the times when they do a lot. Normally, safari-goers think of lions as sluggish, as the only time they see them are when they're sleeping. Sometimes you'll see them doing the slow walk that they do when they're on patrol. But nothing about the way you usually see a lion suggests that they are remotely fast at anything.
As I noted, today's lions seemed very skittish. Our suspicion is that one of the females has a cub tucked away somewhere not too far away and is back hunting with the group while lactating (we could see that she was lactating). But that skittishness showed our workshop participants just how fast lions are. Which is wicked fast. They are perhaps the fastest accelerating animal out there.
So how did that happen?
Well, after lunch we came back to the lions and were shooting them doing mostly nothing again. Andrew, one of our driver/guides, was up on the roof of our vehicle, but sitting, a common profile the lions are used to. But a radio call from one of our other vehicles on the sighting asking about where the fifth lion was prompted Andrew to stand up a bit and point. Instant lion chaos as they bolted upon seeing something unusual out of the top of the vehicle. Had anyone pressed their shutter release as soon as they saw any motion--and I don't think anyone did--they probably would have still only gotten half of the bolt. I estimate that the lions hit the bush line 30 yards away in a bit more than a second. We were less than 30 yards from them when they bolted. You do the math.
We've been doing afternoon safari walks with subsets of the group each day here at Kwai. We do it in small groups both so that we don't spook things, but also because with two guides this means a high degree of eyes on ground. Yesterday's walk provoked something that happens rarely: Adam chambered a shell in his gun. Apparently, they smelled carcass in a bush at one point during the walk, gave it wide berth, but when they came round the same bush on the upwind side later in the walk, they heard a loud and insistent "bark" from the bush. Lion giving the "I'm going to fight you if you come closer" call. Fortunately, it turned out to just be one of those pants spoiling moments. Today's walk was much more uneventful, though we did have some nice elephant to commune with.
Our night drive tonight was entitled Thom the Cat Spotter. In the tracker position with the light, I almost immediately found a very cooperative serval cat.
She posed long enough for three of our vehicles to get good sightings on her. My next spotting was our three female lions on the move. I caught them in the brush from the side before they emerged out to the road, after which we followed them slowly until they reached the river crossing. Two of the cats stopped to drink, and all three eventually crossed, which was good, because the rest of our vehicles were on the other side where they could pick them up while we went a bit upstream and made a night water crossing.
These lions are about as people averse as I've seen, so we didn't track them long lest we further irritate them. But it was fun seeing how far they'd managed to move in a short period of time and seeing them start the night's hunt. Perhaps tomorrow we'll see the results. Perhaps not, as we don't have much time tomorrow morning before we have to make the long drive through Savute to Chobe.
Day 13: The Long Haul
Sept 16--Today is another of those long travel days. We left Kwai early and headed up and out of the preserve towards Chobe, our final Botswana destination. It's over 400km of the world's worst roads.
The Kalahari sand that comprises the road is alternatively packed and unpacked, alternately flat and ridged. So the vehicles don't really travel a straight line, though the road does. It was a long, hot day. And it was made longer by multiple flat tires, to the point where we now have one spare left for four vehicles (all our vehicles carry two spares, so do the math). Unfortunately, Andrew, one of our guide/drivers, seems to be bearing the brunt of the tire onslaught, as he's already down three tires.
To show just how desolate the area we're traveling through is, we ate lunch under a tree in the middle of the road. Which is where our crew trucks passed us on the way to set up the next camp:
Not that there aren't some things to see on the way. We stopped at Bushman Hill to look at early rock paintings and found a lion on the other side of the channel taking a siesta.
The road won't always be quite so bad, though, at least in the final section, as Botswana is now on a big infrastructure improvement kick. Besides the new airports everywhere, including the one that'll take 747's at Maun, Botswana is finally getting serious about paving roads between the bigger towns and villages. We had to weave an insane path over and around already paved but not yet open road for many of the final miles of the trip, but next time I'm here, it will be macadam all of the way from the first village to Chobe. That'll still leave a big chunk of sand, but it'll also make the long trip more bearable.
The big payoff for the long bouncy ride through the heat of the day is Chobe. Mass quantities of animals. As we got to Chobe, we got our first taste of that. As in thousands of buffalo and hundreds of elephants in a single sighting. We'll have much more of the masses tomorrow, but it was nice to show the students that there really are large herds in Botswana.
To prove the point, we finished the evening game drive staring at over 250 elephants congregated at the water. I'm pretty sure that no one on the trip thought that the elephant shot they'd get at Chobe was going to be a large pano. (Think about it: 250+ elephants take up a lot of space.)
Tomorrow ought to be an animal show to end all animal shows. Exactly the way I planned it (;~).
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 15: Human 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 a few small changes in summer of 2013. 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.
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.
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 a 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 Jo-berg 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 Jo-berg.
- My two SB-900's and two m4/3 bodies were stolen out of my locked, checked bags in Jo-berg 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 thieves forgot to take the AC power pack ;~).