We have just finished two awesome weeks in Africa and there are a lot of contrast between the two weeks. Week one was in Chobe NP, Chobe Forest and Kasane region of Botswana. The week can be subtitled “The fast and the furious” (more on that later). Week two was a photo workshop in Timbavati, South Africa led by our Paul Salvado. The second week had lots of action, but from the photo skill development I saw as the week progressed, I think this week would be subtitled “We’ve only just begun” (again, explanation to follow).
Botswana – Fast and Furious
The purpose of the Botswana trip was not specifically a Magnum Excursions event, but rather was for the purpose of checking out equipment, locations and personnel with which we’ll be working during our three 2014 Photo Excursions to Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. My time in Chobe was short, arriving on Sunday afternoon and departing on the 1 pm Wednesday jet flight back to Johannesburg, but the week exceeded my expectations. During the week, we were hosted by Pangolin Photo Safaris and their co-owner Guts. Pangolin has developed some unique tools for photographers and we will have exclusive use of these during our 2014 Chobe Excursions.
From a lodging standpoint, we visited 5 lodges: some new properties and also some old favorites that have just had a face lift. We talked with staff, checked out rooms, en suite baths, grounds, main lodges, kitchens, etc. The good news is that actually there is not a bad choice in the lot. We’ll be writing more about these locations in a future article as well as expanding on the benefits of our selections on our Africa Excursions web pages.
We also checked out three new ways to photograph in the region and the guides/ownership that will lead us with that equipment. To properly check out these new tools, of course we had to shoot a few photos. Specifically we shot 3900 images in our 4 days (6 game drives/events). That’s a lot of shooting, which hints at the quality of the new options.
- The Photo Boat – We’ve finalized arrangement for photo boats for the 2014 Excursions. A photo boat is a 9 meter long, low draft (read flat bottom), wide boat equipped with 8 chairs, each having a Wimberley style gimbal mount that pivots with the chairs. One boat is in operation and worked excellent. The second boat is currently under fabrication and will incorporate several improvements learned from the initial boat.
Just as important as the chairs and camera mounts is the width of the boat and shallow draft. The boat is unbelievably steady allowing photographers to move around at will with little distraction to fellow photographers. The shallow draft allowed the boat to get in close to numerous tight positions other boats cannot get to. This is part of what allowed the ‘fast and furious’ subtitle as we were able to swing ahead of swimming elephants, elephants grazing shoulder deep in grass and lilies and to safely move in on large pods of hippos to catch intimate shots that filled the frames … but it wasn’t just great for hippos and elies, we also were able to coast up very close to impala, kudu, baboons and crocs and they did their thing along the waterfront. We could nimbly position the sun and subject to get just the lighting we wanted. This was some of the best wildlife shooting I have ever experienced.
- The Unimog – a Unimog is a huge 4×4 vehicle. This Unimog has been equipped with 8 guest chairs and a series of 16 shooting supports, each attached to bean bags I had my doubts about this beast as I wasn’t sure the shooting angles would be optimal. Actually during the shoot, I didn’t experience any subject conditions that seemed too low. Further, the ability to walk around the vehicle to get to the shooting support that was unobstructed was a plus I had not considered. Another benefit was that many birds and baboon were at shooting height where in traditional 4×4’s one tends to shoot upwards at birds. The Unimog passed as a photography weapon to be featured in our 2014 workshop.
- The ‘elephant bunker’ – Many camps in Africa have ‘hides’ which a) are often elevated and b) you must be dropped off at early and then fetched later. This hide is different. It is positioned below ground, constructed of reinforced concrete with 8 wide slot openings at water level of a water hole in Chobe Forest. Access to the bunker is through a long tunnel which terminates at a locally owned bar – yep, you can sit up top having a drink of your choice until you see game approach the water hole and then scurry down the tunnel to photograph. You are very close to your photo subjects, with many shots best achieved with a wide angle lens, but you’ll also be able to use a telephoto to get really close, low level shots of birds and mammals drinking. Another big plus of the bunker is that it is located in Chobe Forest rather than Chobe National Park. The properties are adjacent, but regulations require everyone to be out of the National Park at sunset (around 6 pm). In the Chobe Forest, you can stay all night … and we might just do that as the nocturnal view was amazing.
We viewed the endangered ground hornbill, a dozen giraffe, wart hogs, elephants, bush babies (not at water hole) and wild dog (also not at the water) in the Forest. Further, this location could be superb for teaching folks how to shoot star trails or the amazing Milky Way images you can view under the African night sky. As you can tell from my photos and my enthusiastic write-up, this will be a differentiator from safari’s offered by others … and we’ll have exclusive access when we are there!
All of this in a 4 day visit. Wow. Leaving Botswana, we were exhausted, but after a one night stay with great friends in Johannesburg, we were onward to our Timbavati workshop.
Timbavati, Kruger Region, South Africa – We’ve only just begun
This photo workshop was led by our Paul Salvado. I’ve been to Leadwood Private Camp in Timbavati once before; however Paul has been a half dozen times, so he knows the region like the expert he is. This group of 9 workshop participants had a varied level of photography experience coming into the workshop from what I would term ‘intermediate’ all of the way down to ‘beginners’. The ‘intermediate’ photographers understood most camera settings, but mostly had experience shooting in shutter priority mode. Related to post processing, the two intermediate folks used Coral Paintshop, but had no experience creating layers or masking. Our beginners were at the basic level of learning how to properly focus and how to control depth of field. They also had not received much experience in composition.
Jumping to the conclusion, by the end of the week, our nightly photo review had become a full-fledged challenge with images worthy of any photo club competition. Paul is a Fellow in the South African PSSA and an expert at classic presentation of wildlife images. Paul is very honest with feedback, supplying critiques that initially may sting, but definitely shape your photography in a very short time period. Don’t get me wrong, Paul is encouraging and friendly, but he doesn’t pull punches as his job is to nudge your skills forward during the week. Nightly entry of images is optional, so don’t think you have to submit; however, the excitement of improving even had one of our guides, Andre entering photos by the end of the week to get the helpful feedback and learning. We’ll be using Paul as an evening workshop lead in our July 2013 Timbavati Excursion as well as our 2014 Timbavati dates.
During the week, we also took one evening to share technique on shooting night shots. This was a short, impromptu event, but I hope will become a regular addition to the program in upcoming Excursions.
On a closing note, there were a few non-photographers on this trip that had a great time; however, we must note that by the end of the week, two of these non-photographers were searching internet pricing as they planned on buying dSLR bodies and lenses upon returning home. We hope to see them WITH CAMERA on an upcoming trip, but camera or not, they are now new and great friends of ours.
Oh, and regarding wildlife, well here are few numbers:
- Magnum Excursion’s Buddy Eleazer shot 5,200 shots in the 7 days in Timbavati.
- On two separate days, we photographed the entire ‘Big 5’ in a single day (Cape Buffalo, Leopard, Lion, Rhino, Elephant)
- We had 12 leopard sightings (Buddy shot 619 leopard images)
- We had 5 lion sightings (Buddy shot 530 lion images)
- We spent time with a crash of six White Rhino one day and a huge male another (Buddy shot 322 Rhino images
- We saw wild dog packs twice (not a strong photographic opportunity, but Buddy did get 20 images)
- From the lodge during our supper, we watched a leopard catch a large catfish from the river and haul it to the woods.
- We spent time with a young hyena at the den (Great photo op and Buddy shot 320 images).
- Other animals photographed numerous times include: crocs, elephant, giraffe, zebra, steenbuck, wildebeest, kudu, water buck, impala, wart hogs and many, many bird species.
A fantastic two weeks in Africa. Each location presented amazing viewing. Pick one, Pick both. Each is different, each is special … and now it’s time to board my flight to JFK. I’m already looking forward to returning in July!