The tracker gives the signal and the landie moves into the bush following the creature into its hiding place. We make our way over rocks, logs and hidden obstacles all the way down into the riverbed. Not sure if this is allowed, legal or officially permitted I look around for reassurance. Everyone is at ease and soon I start to enjoy the search while dodging branches and spider webs and trying very hard to steady myself as the vehicle moves side to side in the riverbed sand. And there he is. Lying down in a well defined animal pathway almost inviting the photographers to ply their trade. At once I start shooting as if my very existence is dependant on it. I’m not the only one as I hear the crescendo of shutters going off around me. In amongst the commotion I notice the photographic host slowly and methodically lift his camera. He checks his flash, all his settings, slowly steadies himself and eventually fires off a shot or two. Too late I think; this leopard will be gone very soon and only we, the guests, will have a proper shot. Success through high volume photography rather than skill. The leopard stays and the shutter cacophony slows to an occasional burst of shutter when he does stirs.
I hear the guide say something to the tracker in Shangaan. He then turns to tell us that he knows this leopard. It is his “old friend” Thombela. He is a leopard without a territory not seen in a long time. That area has its own resident male leopards. This one was in a fight with a bigger stronger male some time ago. Thinking this guy had passed away as a results of his severe injuries at the hands of Tyson (the other leopard), the guide genuinely sounded pleased to see Thombela in good health and in the area again.
Wow, what a sighting. I shot more pictures of a leopard in the space of a few minutes than in a lifetime of regular nature reserve visits. Driving away I not only knew the name of this leopard but I also knew his age, his history, and where the scars to his face and side had come from. I had a lot to be happy about. That was true only until the moment I saw the photos taken by the photographic host. Where I had a series of bland, underexposed, sporadically blurry, never properly composed photos, he had a few simply sublime photos. Each one sharp, perfectly composed, moody with subtle fill-in flash, and more often than not showing some action not previously noticed. A yawn in one and a menacing look in another.
Not having much time to ponder what had just happened, the Land Rover picks up speed. Word had come through of something exciting somewhere. We get to a small waterhole where sleeping and lazily sitting around are twelve African wild dog. Their interactions are playful and all seem docile, placid and jovial. It is the proverbial calm before the storm. One by one the dogs get up and move off. They trot, scurry and dart through the long grass with purpose. Our tracker points to some impala that the wild dogs have noticed long before we did. We turn down a side road hoping to intercept them crossing the road when chaos and mayhem ensues. We hear impala alarm snorts coming from where we last saw the dogs. One impala emerges running flat-out out of the dense bush followed closely by two pursuers. Then another clump of impala rush past us with dogs in pursuit. Then another, and another. Soon we are in the middle of impala running in all directions dodging and eluding the relentless hunters. The dogs split up and regroup in pursuit. The white tails of fleeing impala can be seen all round. It is a wildlife photographers dream and nightmare. So many amazing opportunities, however it is difficult to focus and track one particular hunting dog or fleeing impala.
One impala emerges running from our right into the road in front of us where she makes a sudden turn towards us. In a flash she is unceremoniously tackled from the side by a speeding dog, knocking both to the ground. The impala gets to its feet first and with no time to spare manages to make an escape. It’s a lucky escape. And just as quickly as the hunt started it subsides and the bush is left eerily still and silent as the guests try to catch their breath.
I take a look at my photos. A few of running dogs, and one of an impala jumping out of the reach of a luckless dog. Terrible photos but irreplaceable memories. All keepers for sure.
This all seems to amazing to be true. You will be forgiven for assuming this was the highlight of my trip. One could guess that this is the dream description of what I, as a wildlife and photography lover, would die to see. Not even close. This is just the first gamedrive of my trip. I pinch myself to make sure.
We follow the regrouping dogs until sunset as they slowly make their way into the night. This leads us to the perfect time and place for a sundowner and time to meet the team. Our guide and driver, Morne, and tracker and bush guru, Prince, also double as outdoor barmen. Wim is the ODP host who serves as photographic advisor and mentor, animal behaviorist and (with a drink in his hand) as general entertainment. We are joined by the other ODP vehicle with host, Greg, and his crew of guests. We meet, mingle and swop stories of the day’s sightings. The weather is perfect, the sunset beautiful, the setting sublime and the conversation heighten with enthusiasm.
We make our way back to the lodge where we have time to freshen up, download photos and make our way to the bar for a quick pre-dinner drink. The drum signal that dinner is ready is followed by a quick assembly of the guests in the boma. Each course is announced by staff who have to endure the distracting yet humorous monosyllabic ululations of hungry ODP guests. After dinner we make our way back to the bar for a nightcap or rather a “loopdop”. Make that a succession of loopdoppe as the ou manne of the trip show the laaitjies how to drink and how to tell a dirty joke and a tall story. Round after round the jokes get dirtier and the stories funnier. With stomach muscles still aching from laughing too much we call it a night. The ou manne retire the night as the clear winners!
We make our ways back to our rooms with our lodge escort (in case of a wild encounter) showing the way. With my Jameson head lightly spinning I drift away replaying the leopard and wild dog sighting in my mind lulled by the sound of distant hyena, the ceiling fan and my roommate, Sean snoring in the room next door.
The 5 am wakeup call would be too early everywhere else but here. I am up and with a double coffee and a rusk I am ready for the first morning gamedrive. Another cracker. Not long after dawn we find a leopard walking in the road in beautiful golden hour light. Morne identifies him as Mafufunyane. Funenyane means aggressive one. Mafufunyane means he is the most agro of the aggressive. He is one of the dominant males of the area making his final rounds of his territory before finding a place in the tall grass to sleep which is something he is very good at, as we were to find out. We got some very nice photo opportunities which came to an abrupt end as he lay down and fell asleep almost instantaneously.
While waiting for Sleeping Beauty to stir our group of guest and staff started to get to know each other better. Last night broke the ice and driving together for two 3-hour gamedrives a day forged photographic friendships. Our vehicle for the five days included the couples, Michael aka “Bossie” and Nerina as well as the Andre and Merina. No real need for surnames. Out here we are all on first name basis, even with the animals. Sean, my roommate, had come along as a photographer and videographer capturing content for ODP’s media campaign.
We continued and found lots of game including rutting impala, fighting warthogs and goofy wildebeest horn-sweeping the dusty ground. We had a stop for coffee and rusks before returning to the sleeping Mafufunyane a short distance from where we saw him last.
Back at the lodge the buffet breakfast was followed by “free time”, and more eating at lunch. Free time can be used for sleeping, swimming, going to the spa or the gym. Another option is to join Wim and Greg in the rec room to ask them about anything photographic (like settings, flash, software, workflow) or wildlife (behavior, anticipating action). These sessions are geared towards being more specific and in depth than the guidance of the host while on a gamedrive. The format is very informative, casual and flexible ranging from one-on-one Q&A’s to group lectures.
After lunch it was time for the afternoon gamedrive. Our first stop was smack-bang in the middle of a big herd of buffalo with very good photo opportunities including oxpeckers. Yet again we stopped off at Mafufunyane who had changed position to the shady side of the bush we found him lying next to this morning. We stopped to photograph the sunset when a call came though to what sounded like we were heading to a skunk sighting. Turns out what I heard sounds like the Shangaan word for cheetah. We found the big male cheetah next to his quarry, a male impala. Flash and spotlight photography is not allowed for diurnal animals so we had to finish our photography before the sun finally set.
After the customary sundowners (watched over by two jackal), we headed for the lodge when our trusty Prince found a genet and a Pearl Spotted Owl who was completely unfazed by our attentions and flashes.
Back at the lodge we downloaded photos, had pre-dinner drinks, dinner and another few rounds of loopdoppe. The difference this time was the laaitjies and the ou manne faded and retired to bed before 10pm. I did not even have time to notice Sean snoring as I fell asleep instantaneously, leopard-like, and woke up the next morning in the same position.
By day three we had established a routine. 5am wake up call, coffee, gamedrive with more coffee, back for breakfast, free time, lunch, gamedrive with sundowners, pre-dinner drinks, dinner and loopdoppe. In other words lots of gamedrives, lots of photography, lots of eating, lots of drinking (but not in the I-have-a-problem sense).
In the morning drive we headed straight for the cheetah from last night only to find our lazy friend, Mafufunyane. He had stolen the kill and was trying to sleep off his obvious overindulgence. It had become an ongoing joke that Mafufunyane must have his own carrier who every so often moves him from place to place to sleep or eat.
We left to make way for other vehicles when we came across a tracker on foot called Mums, who in his extraordinary deep voice assured us there was nothing exciting in the direction we were going. He could not have been more wrong. In the next few short hours we found five rhino, a elephant, a cheetah and the same twelve wild dogs in amongst other game like impala, warthog, nyala, giraffe and waterbuck. The rhino included a very big male called Londoze who, according to Wim, had a pocketful of impure intentions with the four cows. The elephant turned out to be the only one of the trip. Although not confirmed the cheetah was the same one we saw last night. We followed him off-road to a stream where he had a skittish drink. The wild dogs were playing and chasing each other in and out of a small dam. Literary hundreds of photos later it was time for breakfast.
By now the great debate of which camera brand was best had become a talking point at every other social meeting. Diehard fans and recent brand converts of Canon and Nikon were continually engaged in comparisons based on quality, price, functionality and everything in between. In short Nikon was the better film SLR while Canon had, up to recently, the better digital SLR. That is until the Nikon D3X. The friendly banter never ended and a clear winner of the battle of the brands never emerged.
Our afternoon drive took us straight to the wild dog that were joined by three old muddy buffalo bulls that made for interesting interaction. Later we found Tyson, the other big dominant leopard. He is indeed very big, however he was, you guessed it, sleeping in long grass. After sunset we found an owl who is now, quite possibly, the most photographed African Scops-owl in history after two vehicles of photographers went paparazzi on the little bird. This was the second owl Prince had found in two days and he earned himself a few beers for his efforts.
Drinks, dinner and more drinks was followed by an early night as we all promised that tomorrow night would be the big final goodbye kuier in the bar. I was asleep before you could say Witliesbosbontrokkie (Afrikaans for a Chinspot Batis), a little bird we had seen earlier. Dankie Bossie for the new word.
Day four started with coffee and the gamedrive started with a cheetah. We tried to keep up with the cheetah while following him through the bush dodging logs, bushes, thorns, boulders and other game vehicles. He was on a clear mission. Hunting! We lost sight of him and soon we had all given up hope of seeing him again. Prince however pointed the way and through several gully’s and over many trees, rocks and termite mounds he lead us straight to a heavily panting cheetah with a scrub hare at his feet. Our tracker Prince was now the tracker King.
While watching the cheetah eat the entire hare we were presented with a surreal proposition. It was one of those moments that make the Sabi Sands as popular as it is. A big pride of lion had made its way into the area. Also, a leopard with kill was in a tree nearby.” Where would you like to go?” was the question. “Mmmh” I thought. Cheetah feeding, leopard in tree or big pride of lion. So off we went to the lion. Fourteen of them, all sleeping. Five adult females and different aged cubs and sub-adults made up this big pride.
The afternoon drive took us back to Mafufunyane still feeding on the impala from yesterday. Many photographs later we headed for the lion that by this time were on the move. One of the many highlights of this trip was following the fourteen lion in single and double file walking down the road at dusk. What a sight. We were regularly surrounded by lion from all sides. Far too often, out of complete darkness, a lion would find itself way to close than our primeval instincts normally enjoys. They were obviously hungry and ready to hunt. We had to leave but I was sure they were going to eat sooner rather than later.
We made it back for dinner and afterwards our promised final go-big-or-go-home kuier in the bar. Yet again the ou manne set the pace. Round after funny round had the undertone of finality to it as it was our last night. There was a sense that everyone was content and had had a very special few days at Elephant Plains. The sightings and photographic opportunities were amazing and could not be topped. At around 11pm we called it a night, and I was asleep soon after eating my final complimentary pillow nougat.
We expected our final gamedrive to be an anticlimax, but it turned out to be an incredible goodbye. Before the first sign of light we had already found the lions. They were lounging around in the open next to a little dam. They had obviously eaten during the night. Flash and spotlight photography gave way for golden hour photography without the usual clutter of long grass. We moved on only to find the wild dogs again. They put on a show as if they wanted us to take amazing photos. CF card after CF card was filled with images of running, playing, mock-fighting and swimming wild dogs. There would be flurry of activity interspersed with resting in the shade which gives us all some time to clear overfull CF cards. What an amazing wildlife sighting and killer photography coup.
This ODP safari is, to me, a classic case of the sum total of the experience adding up to more than the individual parts. From a photography point of view, which is the reason for the safari in the first place, I learned considerably more than I ever imagined I would. I learned more about lowlight and flash, action and panning, the proper use of depth of field as well as how not to be afraid of manual photography (I am a self-confessed AV setting junkie). With the sheer volume of photos a proper workflow is needed and we all had the opportunity to learn firsthand how the professionals Wim and Greg handle it. The lodge was amazing with professional welcoming staff and unassuming yet excellent 5-star quality accommodation. The company was fun and friendly. The wildlife sightings were sublime. Put together the whole experience was perfect and awe-inspiring.
I am desperate not to get too carried away; however I consider this safari as an eye-opening and life changing experience. I am already planning for the next one.
By Louw van den Heever
All images © Louw van den Heever
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