Article and photos by Stephanie Brooks
“Every morning in Africa, a Gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a Lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest Gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Lion or a Gazelle… when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” (author unknown)
I had the pleasure of traveling to South Africa (with two photography colleagues) to the Leadwood Nature Reserve in Timbavati, South Africa. The 15 hour plane ride (the hardest part) was well worth it because of the adventures, memories and new experiences we garnered.
I found comfort in leaving all of the travel plans to Buddy, as he crafted the itinerary for the entire trip. It was nice to be able to show up and have a trusted, reliable and knowledgeable person handle all of the particulars and guide us as we travelled to an unfamiliar continent, country and culture. Buddy has a great knowledge of South Africa and took care to transport us safely to our various destinations. Our accommodations were clean, comfortable, and safe.
We travelled to South Africa in July, which is their winter season. We were prepared for it, as we packed wool hats and scarves, and warm jackets. Dressing in layers was important, as the morning temperatures start out at 38 degrees Fahrenheit. However, by mid-day the temperatures rose to the 70’s or 80’s. Evening temperatures dropped back down to near freezing.
The Bush – A week of Wildlife Photography
If you are looking for a Ritz Carlton Experience then this is not for you. If you are excited about photography and wildlife, you will be immersed in the world of wildlife photography and be surrounded by scenic landscapes and amazing, regal, and most beautiful animal life ever.
Our group consisted of 11 photographers of all skill levels, from novices to the most experienced. From an equipment standpoint, we had everything from a point and shoot to the Canon 5D. Our days consisted of two rides into the Bush each day and a critique session of favorite photos that we submitted daily. Our critique sessions were led by co-leader, Paul Salvado. Paul is a South African Photographer who has been shooting for three decades and has earned a fellowship through the Photographic Society of South Africa (PSSA). During those sessions we learned that patience is an important key to photographing animals in the wild. Must haves are:
1) Ears alert.
2) All legs showing.
3) Sharp image.
4) Sparkle in the eye.
By the second day and throughout the rest of the week, we constantly reminded one another what to look for. That was significantly different from earlier days when all you heard was click, click, click. As the days passed, we progressively became more selective with our shots and conscience of our subjects. The successions of clicks were fewer and farther between. There is a 3 hour break between the morning and evening Bush Drives. That time is best served as an opportunity to review photos, processing and choosing the best of what you shot that morning. This break time slot is also good for seeking and/or providing instruction. We discussed optimal camera settings, how best to utilize depth of field, or even how to add a vignette.
Because of the diversity of our various photography backgrounds, skills and abilities, there were different learning curves, which led to some great mentoring, fun competitions and a darn good time! Each evening, we had what is known as, “sundowners”. This is when we parked at a location in the Bush and socialized while feasting on snacks and libations as we watched the sun go down. Sundowners occur, at sundown.
The sunrises and sunsets in South Africa are spectacular! Any description I could try to give you regarding their beauty would not do them justice. The colors are as vibrant as an oil painting, with the reds and oranges as vivid as a blazing fire. Clouds blanket the sky like soft cotton. The landscape of South Africa is amazingly beautiful. Each day we were offered opportunities to capture that beauty photographically. Africa is a magical place, where you could awake to birds singing an intricate composition or to a pride of lions roaring. Where else could you experience that?
Dinner was a time to sit around the fire and enjoy one another’s stories. Food was always delicious and hit the right spot. By days end, you are exhausted and ready for bed! We rose early each day and began around 6:30 a.m. You’ll be surprised at how much exercise you are getting while there. You need to be fit enough to continuously climb on and off the Land Cruisers. You’ll begin to feel muscles you didn’t know you had. I would suggest that well before you leave on your trip that you get in some type of exercise routine so you don’t shock your body! The rides can be rather bumpy, especially when they drive into the Bush to track lions or leopards. When riding in the Bush, you will have to pay attention, hold on tight and duck often to avoid branches from trees and large bushes. It is an exhilarating experience!
General rules of riding in the vehicle are: stay seated, keep all limbs and items inside and most often remain quiet or speak softly. You will be amazed at how close you get to the animals. If you’re like me, initially, you may be unable to take a picture because you are adjusting to the fact that there are a pride of 4 grown lions no more than 5 feet away looking directly at you! Out of pure excitement you may start taking pictures right away. However, the best time to shoot is after the driver finds a safe spot and shuts the truck engine off. Even when the truck is off there is still movement from the other riders that may cause your camera to shake. It is a good idea to bring a bean bag to rest your camera on to help steady your camera. The Bush is not a place for a tripod or monopod! The beauty of the Magnum Excursion compared to other safaris is they limit the number of people invited to the excursion. Therefore, everyone has an end seat in the vehicle, which optimizes your view. You don’t have to worry about someone sitting in the middle or to the left or right of you. We switched sides daily so everyone got an opportunity to shoot from various viewpoints. And while this was awesome, we still sometimes found ways to get in each other’s way.
In the Bush you follow the animals and actually start to “build relationships” with the animals (In your mind of course). You hear their stories and begin experiencing their “Circle of Life”. We witnessed the 4 lion brothers feasting on a baby giraffe while the mother giraffe watched from a distance. You actually see the animals in their environments. It’s like watching National Geographic live.
From a day-to-day standpoint in the Bush, the most important people are our guides, drivers and trackers. Andries was our excellent driver, tracker and guide and was part of the Leadwood staff. Colbert was a guide, driver and tracker who contracted himself to our reserve but also does the same for the reserves in the area. Both men are professional guides and trackers and are highly knowledgeable about life in the Bush. More importantly, they constantly educated us about the Bush, the various animals we encountered and how best to behave so that we were kept safe. Once we felt safe, we could then relax and focus on taking the best shots. Each day, we tracked the animals through the Bush. Andries and Colbert not only made sure we saw animals daily but made sure they positioned the vehicles so we were able to get the best photos we desired. They took great care of us every step of the way. Our safety was truly in their hands.
Magnum Excursions will not disappoint and will make your journey one that will be etched in your memory forever. You will leave the Bush Adventure ready to return!