“Leopard,” I heard our guide, Andrew, shout, “And a cub in that tree”.
We had barely left camp on our first game drive and we had already struck leopard. It was too much for my eyes to comprehend. It was pure dumb luck, the kind that would make you “Pphhhht” disparagingly at the fortunes of the latest lottery winner. Thirty minutes after driving out the lodge gates, we had already seen two members of the big five, and now a third, the one most cherished by most visitors to the bush. It was an unbelievable start to the trip which turned out to be a good omen too.
I had joined up with Cheetah Plains Private Game Reserve, located in the famed Sabi Sands Game Reserve, for a photographic Safari held in conjunction with Nikon Travel Africa. Their specialist photography vehicle takes just four people, who are accompanied by a guide and wildlife photographer, allowing for unprecedented access to wildlife and moments you would not ordinarily be privileged to experience. The vehicle is also fitted with swivel camera-mounts, purpose built for photography – they really come in handy when you need to take that steady exposure in fading light.
An early start
The day begins with a gentle tap on the door at 4.30 in the morning. It’s an early start, but if you’re there to take photographs you have to catch the golden hour, the one after sunrise and before sunset respectively, renowned for offering photographers the best light. A quick cup of coffee and a snack, and by 5 you’re off for your first drive of the day. Each day is different and no day in the bush comes with any guarantees. The beauty of being on a photographic safari, in a small group is that you get to focus on a wide variety of sights and sounds – one morning we were on our hands and knees taking photographs of a tortoise, the next chasing a young pride of lion as they paced through the bush, then, we were sitting quietly for a full 30 minutes, listening to a korhaan make it’s odd “plopping” call.
Brunch, photo-review and siesta
By ten o’clock you are back in camp and a full complement of breakfast choices awaits to help replenish spent reserves. We met at 11.30 for Wim Voster, our photographic guide, to take us through some basic photography theory and share his tips on taking wildlife photographs. We also discussed and compared photographs we had taken during the course of the safari – seeing how differently people take photographs of the same scene is quite a learning experience in itself. The afternoon was ours to laze away, either in the spacious comfortable bedrooms, or by the pool overlooking the waterhole (my favourite spot!).
By 3.30 we were back on our feet for yet more coffee and cake and come 4pm we were out driving again looking for the wonders of the veld. No drive is complete without the customary sundowners of course, and one of my most cherished memories from the trip was on just such an occasion. We had had tremendous luck throughout the trip – seeing leopard, lion cubs and spending a magical hour with a hyena and her young pups at their den. But on our final evening drive we had seen very little by comparison. As we stood in the veld, sipping our drinks with a wide expanse of bush spreading out towards the distant, setting sun, we reflected on this, agreeing that we had probably used up our store. Just then, trotting down the road in its determined way came a honey badger, utterly oblivious to us in the twilight. Just 5 metres away it stopped, sniffed the air and gave us a good, long quizzical look. It was a priceless moment that caught us all unprepared and camera-less, and all the better for it as we exchanged hushed awe before the honey badger turned and trotted off on an alternative route .
That evening we caught a fleeting sight of serval and then spent a good hour with 3 lazy young male lions as they did their utmost to do absolutely nothing. They even avoided standing up to deliver a thunderous chorus of roars – quite something to experience from just meters away let me tell you!
By 8 o’clock you are back in the camp. There’s time for a quick wash before dinner is served by candle-light under the Amarula trees while Scops owls hoot in the distance. A delicious meal and red wine helps you reflect on the sights of the day and go over a checklist for the morning. After dinner you’re ushered back to your private lodgings by one of the guards (for fear of the ever-present leopards snatching you) for a comfortable night’s sleep, ready to do it all again in the morning.
A photographic safari is the ideal way for any photography enthusiast to experience the bush and I couldn’t recommend the experience more highly. Not only are you exposed to a constant stream of creative stimulus but you have all the creature comforts and photographic aides to meet your hearts’ desire.
Photographic Safari dates
See the Cheetah Plains website for more information: http://cheetahplains.com/static/photographic-safaris
Their next scheduled trip is 22 – 25 February 2013.
Tel: 013 751 3270
What you’ll need
With an experienced wildlife photographer on hand the trips cater for all levels and whether you’re a complete beginner or serious amateur there will be plenty of knowledge to be gained. I’d recommend a decent DSLR and telephoto zoom lens to make the experience worthwhile. You don’t need top of the range but a minimum 200-300mm lense is advisable if you want to capture those close-ups.