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Photographer Heaven


Simon Espley

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

It was a chilly (by Lowveld standards) and breathlessly still winter morning as the three of us headed north from our Hoedspruit hometown for the 50-minute drive to our adventure for the day – two underground photographic hides. We wanted to be in the first hide before the rising sun, in pursuit of the ‘golden light’, so it was pitch dark as we headed out. The francolins and scrub-robins had not even begun to herald another spectacular bushveld day.

‘You have to spend a full day in the Indlovu River Lodge hides Simon, the experience will blow your mind’, was the raison d’etre proffered by Villiers Steyn, good friend, photographer, and safari guru of note. Also roped in was Owen Grobler, keen amateur photographer, and volunteer leopard monitor on the wildlife estate that the three of us call home. And so, we headed out to Karongwe Private Game Reserve with packed food and refreshments to last the day. I don’t own an SLR camera, having decided many years ago to use my moments on safari absorbing every second and living the moment. My iPhone is perfect for my photographic needs, as was the Samsung Galaxy before that. Yes, my photographer friends do snigger behind my back. Villiers and Owen came armed with enough big equipment to go to war.

Twelve hours later, I was elated, exhausted and ready to rest my eyes.

Regular visitors to the hides include tree squirrels, vervet monkeys, giraffes, warthogs, baboons, zebras and nyala.

The underground photographic hide experience is for two kinds of people. First, of course, are the photographers that are after that ideal shot – be they pro or amateur, novice or experienced. Second, me, is the type who enjoy hour after hour of quietly observing nature do her thing, be it dainty blue waxbills risking a splashy bath or skittish zebras farting and kicking up dust as they scrap for the best drinking position. We enjoyed plentiful waterside to-and-fro that day, from a constant stream of impala, zebra, nyala and warthog to a furtive slender mongoose viewing us with suspicion from a few meters away before settling down to slake his thirst. For me, the highlight was the avian candy on offer – from flocks of fidgety bronze mannikins and common waxbills to dapper green-winged pytilias and a plump green pigeon that helicoptered in for a thirsty gulp before heading back to the nearby riverine trees.

Photographic hides
A flock of bronze mannikins, green-winged pytilia pair with blue waxbill, emerald-spotted wood-dove, Cape glossy starling and golden-breasted buntings

Karongwe is Big 5 country, and other visitors to the hides have captured herds of elephant and buffalo, lion prides and solitary leopards as they come in to drink. As usual, what you see is governed by the time of year and by how much water there is on the reserve.

I also enjoyed watching Owen and Villiers in action, as they set up their cameras for specific shots, made mistakes (avec exotic expletives) and celebrated some epic shots. Particularly amusing for me was watching Owen try again and again for that perfect bird ‘take-off shot’. Both gentlemen endeavoured (in vain) to capture the split-second a resident brown-hooded kingfisher hit the water to snatch a quick drink and dunking – which he did several times that morning.

There is something innately satisfying about that first cup of steaming coffee and dunked rusks, as you settle in to watch the awakening day, and tucking into your packed lunch after a morning of wall-to-wall action. And then, as the early evening shadows lengthen, those snacks accompanied by something a bit stronger adds to what is an epic African safari experience that is vastly different to the usual game drive or bush walk. Does life get any better than spending the day with friends enjoying what nature has to offer?

This is a Big 5 area so potentially dangerous species also visit the waterholes – caution is advisable outside of the hides.
Africa Geographic Travel


There are two underground hides on offer at Indlovu River Lodge. Hoseng Hide faces west and is, therefore, ideally positioned for early-morning photography. The distance to where most wildlife drinks is a mere six meters – perfect for bird and up-close photography. Thapama Hide faces east and so is ideal for later afternoon photography, and the distance to the subject matter is 12 meters.

Both hides comfortably accommodate up to five guests and are equipped with comfortable wheeled high-backed director’s chairs, carpets to minimize noise and moveable gimbals. There is an iron bar to mount the gimbal and for bean bags. Mobile phone reception at the hides was non-existent, allowing for total immersion in the hide experience without distraction. The eye-level underground aspect enables you to shoot from ground level, across the water. Watch this video about the two hides at Indlovu River Lodge.

Photographic hides
Top left: Hoseng Hide, top right: Thapama Hide, bottom: Villiers and Owen work the scene


Indlovu River Lodge is located in the 9,000 ha Big 5 Karongwe Private Game Reserve, a short drive from the town on Hoedspruit.  The lodge can accommodate up to 20 guests via seven villas and suites in a beautiful garden setting under huge jackalberry trees.

WATCH: Villiers Steyn, aka ‘The Safari Expert’ made this video about our day in the hides at Indlovu River Lodge.


Photographic hides
Indlovu River Lodge

Keep the passion.

Simon Espley – CEO, Africa Geographic

Photographic hides
Common waxbills gathered in flocks to drink their fill – safety in numbers

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