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Le Flaneur de la Photographie en Safari en Afrique du Sud 
The Wandering Photographer on Safari in South Africa

As we headed down a dirt path in our open land rover looking for more animals to photograph, the radio suddenly crackled to life with an incomprehensible mix of Afrikaans and local tribal language. I was on my second game drive in the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve adjacent to Kruger Park. We had already had a good drive, with excellent images of wildebeest, kudu and impala--some literally in the front yard of the Nkorho Bush Lodge where I was staying - but the tone of the person on the radio indicated something special was up.

When the message finished, Gowie, the ranger driving the vehicle, turned to me with a big smile and said, "You want to go photograph a leopard in a tree?" He knew the answer before he asked, and we were off into the bushveld, as the land the animals roam in South Africa is called, to where he had been told the big cat could be found.

I have not had many opportunities to photograph animals in the wild, and capturing an image of a leopard in a tree was an unspoken dream. Now I was on my way to do just that.

When we arrived there were two other land rovers already there. The rule here is that no more than three can be at a sighting at any one time. As we got closer, there the leopard was, straddling the tree limb like a big housecat draped over the arm of a living room sofa, sleeping the way all cats do. However, as I looked through the viewfinder, the poor light had the leopard deep in shadow. The images would be OK, but not what I had hoped.

Shortly, the other vehicles departed and Gowie moved us closer to the tree - we were less than 30 feet (10 meters) from the leopard. Suddenly, the sun broke through, as the leopard decided that we at least deserved a look. Raising her head in the mottled light caused by the branches above her, she stared directly at us, giving me the image of which I had dreamed.

Gowie told me this female leopard had been given the name 'Seshuana' by the native rangers, which means "little orphan girl," as her mother had been killed when she was very young. As a result, she was a bit small as leopards go. After a short time, to our delight, Seshuana decided to move to a different location and came down from her perch.

She was absolutely stunning; a truly gorgeous animal; but I would not want to meet her outside of the vehicle. The animals have become used to the vehicles and know they cause them no harm, so they are not bothered, but one should never forget that they live and hunt here; we are just visiting and outside of the vehicle, we're part of the food chain.

I snapped away as Seshuana walked through the velt, looking for a new place to relax in the shade before the day's heat started to build. Finally, she headed off into some really heavy velt where we could not follow. Capturing her images was the perfect end to this particular game drive.

Each of my four game drives had its special moments. The previous evening's drive had been equally fascinating. Virtually as soon as we left the camp, we encountered a small herd of huge African buffalo grazing nearby. These massive animals did not seem to notice as I photographed them at very close quarters.

A bit further on we came upon a male lion lazing in the brush. We pulled within six feet (2 meters) of him to let me get some good close-ups. Gowie wondered aloud where his buddy was, as this male and another usually travel together. At that instant, about 20 feet away, the other lion raised his head. Since he was actually in better light, we drove over to get his picture as well - then, jealous I suppose, the first lion came to join the photo session.

Leaving the lions, we headed off in search of new adventure. Quite soon we ran across a large herd of elephants, including babies, being led through the velt by a big female. It had become overcast and they were moving quite fast, so getting good shots proved difficult, but then the real complication arose.

A huge male elephant in 'must' (the term for sexual heat in elephants) was trailing the herd of females. He was not pleased with our presence, and showed it by uprooting trees and tossing them in our direction, as well as engaging in the occasional mock charge. This clearly was no zoo!

To cap off the drive, we headed to where a young leopard had been spotted in a small tree awaiting his mother's return. He was about six months old, but the light had faded by this time and I could only get shots of him with the help of the vehicle's spotlight. However, not a bad drive, as we had seen four of the 'Big Five' animals everyone talks about (we missed a rhinoceros) in one afternoon.

On the way back to Nkorho we stopped for the traditional 'sundowner' cocktail in the bush. Freeman, our tracker, produced a table from nowhere, and drinks were served. As I stood there enjoying my wine and savoring the experience, Freeman came up to Gowie and told him he had spotted a snake in a tree quite close to us - how, I have no idea. This was followed by several minutes of the rest of us saying "I don't see it; do you?" Finally, I did spot this smallish (3 foot or 80 cm), thin, green snake entwined on a tree branch.

I said "Oh, there he is; is he dangerous?" Gowie answered that if he bit me I would have about two hours to get medical attention or I would be dead. Amazing! We had watched an elephant tearing up trees to keep us at bay just an hour before and probably the most deadly thing we encountered was a relatively small green snake! This was Africa indeed!

At the lodge later that evening dinner was interrupted by the incredible roar of a lion as he prowled the camp's parameter. The rangers shined a spotlight on him and the nearby impala sounding their characteristic predator warning. Nkorho has no fence; just electric wires strung high to keep out elephants, who can be very destructive. They tell you not to leave your room after they turn the lights out in the evening - no kidding!

My final two game drives in Sabi Sands yielded equally exciting and photographically rewarding encounters with various game. Most notable were an encounter with two relatively young male elephants, who came to check us out--with one putting his trunk about six inches (15 cm) from the unflappable Freeman, who was perched in a seat welded to the front fender of the vehicle, to take a good 'sniff,' and another leopard encounter with a big male lounging by the side of the road. Fantastic images of these elephants and the leopard, but also of zebras, giraffes and the various types of antelope made each and every drive an event to be remembered.

Prior to going to Sabi Sands, I had spent four days in the Kruger National Park on a safari organized by Safari Rangers, who also booked me into Nkorho as part of the same package. I had been picked up at my hotel in Johannesburg bright and early one morning by Wilhelm, the driver and guide from Safari Rangers. I had expected to tour in a minivan or even a bus, but was delighted to find an SUV with just April and Anthony, a delightful young couple from Tennessee, as the only others on the safari. The four of us headed off on the five hour drive to Kruger.

Kruger is an immense National Park, stretching for over 200 miles (320 km) along South Africa's northeastern border with Mozambique. Visitors are allowed to drive through the park on their own, so it is quite different from Sabi Sands, where the land rovers can go cross country. Kruger's rules are quite strict. You cannot leave the roads or your vehicle. Apparently, a few years ago a Taiwanese visitor decided to get out of a vehicle and pose with some lion; as the South Africans say, "He got chomped!"

Despite having to stay on the roads, the game viewing in Kruger was spectacular. Shortly after entering the park we saw our first game, including some rhinos lazing in a mud hole and looking a bit like big rocks. Further along, we noticed a number of vehicles pulled to the side of the road and stopped to see what the attraction was. Wilhelm spotted a rare wild dog in the grass not far from the vehicle and I started snapping away. Then, amazingly, April, who was sitting behind me, looked down by the side of the road and there, not 10 feet (3 meters) from us was a pack of about six wild dogs sleeping in a group. The need to be very observant to see wildlife became abundantly clear.

The game viewing was excellent, and at dinner in Pretoriuskop Camp where we stayed that night, we determined that we had seen fourteen different types of mammals, numerous exotic birds, and a couple of crocodiles just that day. During the four days in Kruger, we saw a total of 25 different mammals, including a brief encounter with a rhino we surprised in the road and of which I could only get a very quick image through the windshield of the car before he had dashed into the velt. Yes, believe it or not, as big as they are, rhinos can dash!

While the Kruger and Sabi Sands experiences were different, going to Kruger first enabled me, with Wilhelm's help, to become better acquainted with the wildlife at a more relaxed pace than was possible at Sabi Sands. Similarly, the photographic opportunities were different, but rewarding, each in its own special way.

Practical Information
On safari, I think there are a few 'musts' for serious photographers. Long lenses are essential. 

I use Minolta equipment Maxxum/Dynax 9 & 7 and took a number of images using my Minolta 500mm f8 reflex lens. I also used my Sigma 70-200 mm f2.8 with a 2x teleconverter extensively. 

The weather was often cloudy and I used Fuji Provia 400F film almost exclusively and would suggest digital users set their ISO at 400 or higher. 

I also found using a monopod to be extremely helpful as it gave me flexibility as well as added stability in the vehicle, which is essential for sharp digital or film images using long lenses.

When To Go 
As my trip to South Africa was on business, I had no choice and visited in their summer, which is the rainy season. It is hot and the bushvelt is green and lush, making animal sightings more difficult. 

Many guidebooks advise visiting in winter (the Northern Hemisphere's summer) when it is cooler and there is much less water available, causing the animals to congregate around water holes and making photography easier. As is probably clear from this article, I do not know how I could have had better animal viewing, but I will go back in the winter at some point to see.

I was extremely pleased with the organization, services and price offered by Safari Rangers (www.safarirangers.com), and Nkorho Bush Lodge (www.nkorho.com) is, in a word, incredible - a true "Jewel of Africa". There are, of course, many other excellent tour operators and camps to be found on the internet.

 

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