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Photographer of the Year Winners Trip 2021



Simon Espley

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

old camera

Tongues lolling and bulbous tummies protruding shamelessly, the painted wolves took advantage of dappled shade in a mopane glade to grab a few moments of shut-eye in the heat of a September afternoon in Khwai, Botswana. We too bunkered down, enjoying this moment of relative coolness in a parched landscape heading into the legendary ‘suicide month’ of oppressive heat before the first rains transform the landscape. September is prime game-viewing time – don’t tell a soul.

This young male cheetah was besotted with elephant dung

This is painted wolf (wild dog) country, and we encountered this group of ten on several occasions as we meandered along the bush tracks and floodplains for six blissful days. We also enjoyed regular encounters with mating lions (which strolled through camp one morning), a mother cheetah and her adolescent cub and, of course, elephants. So many elephants. During one particularly memorable game drive, we spent hours with the ‘dogs’ (again with fat tummies and bloody faces) while the mother cheetah and her cub played about 300 meters away in full view. The cub had a thing for elephant dung, hunting down and attacking them with intent.  We also found two skittish young cheetahs who were new to the area –  perhaps passing through in search of their own territory.

Khwai is predator-central; every game drive delivered several encounters

This was our 2021 Photographer of the Year winning group

– with a few personnel adjustments due to Covid-related travel complications

We spent six days in the vast Khwai Private Reserve, sandwiched between Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve, sharing a name with the neighbouring legendary Khwai Community Concession. Of course, we enjoyed many extraordinary moments in Khwai, as Africa did her thing – enthralling us with her bounty and guile. We also enjoyed fireside chats that will stay with me for a long time to come. Safari adventures tend to shed barriers and foster cultural exchanges that open our horizons and make us better people. This was an exceptionally rewarding safari for us all, and long-term friendships were forged.

Top left: Our guide ‘KG’ Bapute at Tuludi was very patient with his camera-toting guests. Top right: Sy Nawa, our guide at Sable Alley, poses next to a large lion who was chilling out in the lodge parking area. Bottom: Our party posing in the glow of the setting sun
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Two encounters stood out for me and are deserving of special mention

We spent most of one day in a sunken photographic hide at a pumped waterhole near the Chobe boundary (unfenced, of course) and ogled as huge elephant bulls arrived in droves to quench their thirst and socialize with old acquaintances. Many fights broke out as thirsty elephants jostled for position – some more determined individuals driving opponents back many skiddy meters – to the tune of squeals, trumpets and clashing ivory. Sometimes all of the elephants would vacate the water in haste and stand some distance away as if ordered to do so. Then, sure enough, within seconds, a particularly large and dominant bull would swagger in and calmly have his fill of the precious water. The experience is pretty surreal, as these giants loom above us, providing views of bellies and the underside of those huge wrinkled feet as they pad by within touching distance. The impressive collection of big camera lenses lay untouched in the corner, entirely superfluous. We emerged from our underground hide in awe of these incredible giants and acutely aware that elephants have very complex social lives and can communicate over vast distances.

Our enthralling afternoon in a sunken hide near the Khwai / Chobe border

We were tracking a leopard during one game drive when we stumbled on a magnificent sight – probably my Moment of this safari. The Khwai River has many smaller channels and lagoons that were drying up at this time of year, leaving stranded fish and crustaceans. And working that bounty were thousands of birds – pelicans, herons, storks, ducks and fish eagles  –  taking turns to shepherd the fish to shallow areas for harvest. The energy of the moment was off-the-charts, and we spent a few hours entranced as this rolling mass of winged predators worked the shoals. (video) In the background, a fish eagle had burgled a massive catfish from a rather indignant marabou stork and was trying unsuccessfully to take off with his pilfered catch. Our return to camp found us again deep in thought about how nature works. And then, just as we thought the day could not get better, we were treated to a scrumptious lunch on a wooden platform overlooking the floodplains – in the cool shade of massive sausage trees.

A portion of the flock working shoals of stranded fish


Surprise bushveld lunch on an elevated deck in the shade of a sausage tree overlooking a floodplain

Our lodgings were superb

I had stayed at Sable Alley on a previous safari and knew to expect bushveld luxury, excellent service and delicious food. I was not disappointed. However, it was Tuludi that blew me away. This recently-built lodge has taken bushveld luxury to new levels, with enormous bedrooms and so many private spaces in the common area it feels as if the entire lodge is yours. My favourite area is a treehouse library above the lodge common area and overlooking the floodplains – a wonderful private space to put one’s feet up and enjoy a quiet alcoholic beverage. Or two. I will be back. Two of our group were so taken by Tuludi that they have booked their family for an extended stay in 2022, and of course, they will enjoy our club member preferential rates.

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