Late 2014 I was once again travelling to Africa where I would be leading a photographic group on mobile tented safari in Botswana, Southern Africa’s most prestigious wildlife destinations. Although it had been a busy year and I wasn’t looking forward to another long plane ride, once you’ve been “bitten” by the safari bug it’s hard to stay away. As Ernest Hemingway famously said “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy”… Cheesy though it sounds, alongside Alaska, the wilds of Africa are definitely one of my “happy places”.
I broke my travels with a couple of days off at Victoria Falls before commencing the safari, a chance to witness one of the world’s seven natural wonders and a good opportunity to fly my new SteadiDrone UAV to get some test aerial photos. More on that to come!
Then it was onward to Kasane then Savute where our tented safari would begin in the Chobe National Park of Northern Botswana, the country’s most diverse area of wildlife encompassing the Chobe riverfront, Savuti and Linyanti Marsh areas and the hot and dry hinterland of the Nogatsaa woodland. Known for its prolific population of Kalahari elephants, the park is also home to lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dogs, hyena, antelope, hippopotamus, warthogs, kudu, sable, impalas, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, buffalo, crocodile and any number of birdlife… Our only problem would be deciding which way to point the cameras first!
The accommodation during the safari consists of mobile tents erected and then taken down by our friendly camp crew at each location. A dedicated troop of locals, they were quick to greet us with an icy cold drink whenever we returned from safari, heating hot water in large steel tubs for our tented shower, and providing delicious meals beautifully cooked on site. This was “roughing it” with style!
Photographing wildlife in Africa is the dream of most travel and wildlife photographers, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. But part of that experience is also learning about the animal species we were viewing, witnessing their struggle for survival in a spectacular yet unforgiving landscape, and appreciating nature’s supremacy of design in creating this magical, never ending circle of life (before mankind came along and messed with it that is)!
A number of incidences spring to mind… Spending time with Africa’s “Painted Wolf” or Wild Dog showed how this highly social species has evolved to become the continent’s most efficient hunters with a nearly 100% successful kill rate. Working together in packs they can sustain speeds of over 60 km’s an hour before bringing down their exhausted prey with ruthless accuracy, often targeting beasts ten times their own size. Yet for all their success they are Africa’s most endangered large carnivore due to loss of habitat, resulting in more competition with other predators and a decreased food supply which has meant the dogs are a victim of poaching and will often be killed by farmers in order to protect their livestock. They are also at risk from disease passed on by domesticated animals. A subtle reminder of our oftentimes harmful influence on many of nature’s triumphs.
Alongside this were experiences such as my over water shot of a mother leopard and her cautious cubs drinking from a water hole during the very early morning hours. We had come across their trail well before sunrise and tracked them for a while before working out they were heading to this water hole. By circling wide we were able to get to the opposite side of the water hole and be securely in position well before they arrived, being rewarded with a very stunning view of this intimate scene.
Another of the big cats that we photographed in Africa was a young male lion leaping over a watery ditch as he headed towards the rest of his pride. Having predicted the direction of his journey we were set up for the shot, but I was worried he was getting too close for my 400mm lens! When he eventually leaped across the small stream he was full frame and it came down to reaction time and being totally ready to capture the action. Which is after all one of the most important rules in any kind of wildlife photography!
I often get asked why I choose to shoot with ISO sometimes higher than may be required. It comes down to what you hope to shoot and simply being ready for anything. If the subject of my image ends up being a slower moving animal I can always dial the ISO back. But if there is the remotest chance something could happen at pace then I’d rather be ready to fire without losing any reaction time – I prefer a sharp image, even with slight noise, than a cleaner image that has unnecessary movement blur, and with the performance of the modern Nikon cameras avoiding high ISO is really a thing of the past.
My image of two young elephants play fighting in the river is a case in point. Wildlife photography is unscripted and you never know exactly what you are going to be spectator to at any given moment… All you can do is hope and be ready.
Another favourite image from that trip – also shot on my new Nikkor 400mm 2.8E FL ED VR – was of a Pied Kingfisher as it darted and dived around the waterways in Africa. We had all been hoping to capture an image of these amazing birds, but they are simply too fast to try and track them in your frame. To create this image we were watching the Kingfisher as it hovered above the waterway, trying to estimate its dive trajectory and where it would hit the river. I told my team to pre-focus on the water and when the bird made its dive, use continuous autofocus on the splash and fire multiple frames to capture the kingfisher as it rose back up from the surface. An unsuccessful dive for him but a great photographic result for us! The shutter speed of 1/1250 second was enough to freeze the water droplets from the splash yet the bird’s wings beat so fast there is still some movement blur in the water coming off the wings, which adds to the feel of the overall image.
There is so much to see in Africa we didn’t want the days to end, and so it became habit to take our “sundowners” in the safari vehicles while parked up at the nearest water hole, where we would watch the elephants who often came down to drink and cool off at sunset. For my favourite sunset image of this group of elephants I climbed out on to the roof of the safari vehicle to give me a better angle so as to place the elephants cleanly against the golden backdrop of the water. A fitting memory from a very special trip, and yet I am already dreaming about next year and counting the months until I return to Botswana once again.
All images copyright Chris McLennan