Article and images by Lee Levin-Friend
(Lee was a participant in the Magnum Excursions May 2012 workshop at Leadwood Private Camp in Timbavati Game Reserve, adjacent to Kruger National Park in South Africa. We look forward to Lee joining us again on an upcoming excursion … and from her excitement regarding the first trip, we’re pretty sure we’ll be seeing her!)
I am not a wildlife photographer. But, after my first trip to Timbavati in May, I am not so sure that is true anymore.
The first thing I can say is that a trip to South Africa will change your life. In Pennsylvania, we have wildlife–white-tailed deer, fox, wild turkeys, ground hogs, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, and black bears to name a few. I have viewed all of those I mentioned (except for black bear) in the backyard on my property. But, nothing, and I repeat, nothing, can prepare you for REAL wildlife – elephants, lions, leopards, giraffes, and buffalo!
In addition to my first trip to South Africa, it was my first photography-concentrated trip. Photography and game viewing were the main goals. No cathedrals, museums, city streets, boutiques, or casinos on this trip-just pure, concentrated photography and critique.
Our days were jam-packed with activity: 6 AM game drive, return to the lodge for brunch, 3 PM game drive, return to the lodge for dinner and review of the day’s images. Each drive lasts for about 4 hours depending on the sightings. Our guides/rangers/trackers would not leave nor ignore an exciting sighting just so that we could eat. I certainly agree with their philosophy.
During my trip, we viewed six different leopards. Leopards almost every day! Most game viewers are considered lucky if one leopard is sighted during the entire week. I shot stills, mostly, but I also had the opportunity to do some video with my Olympus E-5. My 50-200mm lens with a 1.4x tele-extender was practically glued to my camera. With this kind of range (approximately 500mm in 35 mm terms) I was able to capture about 98% of my subjects. Timbavati and its denizens offer the photographer subjects that are “up close and personal”.
Before I continue, I’d like to discuss some of the fears that I had while in the OPEN vehicle. There are no glass enclosures around the occupants of the vehicle, no metal cages, no wire, etc. These vehicles are large Land Rovers that have three rows of seats that are banked. We had two people per row. Generally, the set-up was one serious photographer and one observer or casual photographer, on each row. The guides attempted to feature the game on the “photographer” side of the vehicles, but sometimes the animals don’t understand the plan. I had a difficult time on the first day when we were in the middle of a huge elephant herd in a dry riverbed. I would guess that there were about 30 elephants, some very large and some very small moving about and around us. I felt a bit overwhelmed and anxious.
Of major importance on game drives is to have a very experienced ranger who is keenly aware of animal behavior and is constantly watching for any changes in animal demeanor. I was assured that the ranger would not hesitate to leave a sighting if danger were imminent. My fear lessened on the following days. I couldn’t believe that I was photographing a leopard from 5 feet away. I also couldn’t believe that I photographed a male lion moving toward our vehicle in the golden, late afternoon light!
Yes, the big 5 are exciting, but, I don’t want to minimize the beauty of the grazing animals like zebras, impalas, kudu, and waterbuck. They are magnificent photographic subjects and should not be overlooked.
It’s really necessary to bring a laptop for some quick processing to prepare for image sharing before dinner. This may create a problem for restricted carry on rules with some airlines. I carried a laptop shoulder bag, a tote purse (with my iPad inside), and my rolling Pelican 1510 (an indestructible camera case.) I didn’t have any problem. I had been told, by an experienced African bush photographer, that South African Airways knows that photographers came with everything but the kitchen sink in their bags. Therefore, airline personnel look the other way in enforcing carryon rules. For the next trip, I’ll plan on a backpack with my laptop, iPad, and personal items, as well as my Pelican. I don’t want to take the risk of having to send my camera bag through baggage channels.
Another item that is important and very rarely discussed is the problem of needing a “rest room” while in the bush. There are no port-a-potties in the South African bush! About halfway into the morning drive (and evening drive), the tradition is to stop for coffee/tea/wine. It is then, and ONLY then, that the rule of “do not get out of the vehicle” is broken. Our ranger determined a safe site for us to break and then scouted out a place for “men” and “women”. Usually, this was behind a large bush! We did our business and rushed back to the group gathering for hot coffee and rusks, which are just like biscotti. It’s a good idea to bring hand sanitizer with you. It’s also a good idea to wear sturdy hiking boots, since the ground materials are sometimes rough and prickly.
When we returned from our evening drive, and before dinner, we were treated to videos or photography of the African bush created by our group leader who is a fantastic photographer. Also, each one of us contributed our best three images of the day for discussion and critique. Because we were 8 South Africans and 4 Americans on this trip, we had two vehicles. Although the rangers communicate by radio to alert the vehicles of game sightings, at times each vehicle and photographers experienced different views. This made our evening critiques even more exciting.
After a particularly disturbing game drive in which we viewed (from about 15 feet away) two large male lions who were devouring a giraffe, I had a discussion with our guide about the lion cub that they had also killed. I expected to see predators killing their pray and I accepted that it is normal. But, I was very disturbed that the two males from the South who had made their way up to the Northern Timbavati also killed a cub from the local pride. Viewing this murdered cub was disturbing because he was the same species. Our guide explained the “circle of life” and that the cub would be a meal for hyenas and vultures, who, in turn, would be food for another. The behavior of the intruders was a way to make room in the pride for their progeny when they mated with the females of the local pride.
Below is video of the lions on the kill. Note the ‘blazing cameras’ in the background. You will also hear our guide communicating with his fellow guide as there is an accepted policy of limited people at Big Five sightings as not to stress the animals.
Because each guide from all of the lodges in our area of Timbavati communicated by radio to alert each other to game sightings , I would hear Shangaan (Editor note: The indigenous Tsonga are a diverse people, generally including the Shangaan, Thonga, Tonga ethnic groups. Together they numbered about 1.5 million people in South Africa) words…ingwe (leopard), ngala (lion), bamba (attack), nyati (buffalo). I brought a book with me to record the words I heard and learned for the day. Our guide taught me the correct spelling and pronunciation.
A bonus to a trip like this is the opportunity to meet people from different countries and cultures. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the trip and cherish my experiences with the people and the beautiful animals of South Africa.