My African Top 5 – Photography Moments
I’ve had a lot of memorable moments during my trips to the African continent. Some were joyous moments with family and friends, some were exciting, some were difficult and tough, and some were downright scary. At times, I feel I’ve done and seen it all, even though that is obviously a lie. I’ve experienced a lot of things, but, thankfully, not everything.
The following list might not be the flashiest, nor have the most exciting encounters, but they are very important and defining moments for me personally. As some of you might know, during my time in Africa I came to love wildlife photography, and getting good photos of new species would eventually become an obsession of mine. It eventually ended up with me creating this website as a place to share this obsession with the world. That is why I think it is appropriate to do a trip down memory lane by listing up my most memorable and defining photography moments as a beginner in Africa.
1. The Day That Changed Everything
When listing up my favorite photography moments I might as well start with the day I well and truly got hooked, which encompasses not just one, but 3 photography moments. I know that’s cheating, but I don’t care!
It was a day during the early stages of my three months of volunteering at the beautiful Thanda Private Game Reserve, back in October 2012. It was a day like most other days as we went out looking for either of the two lion prides in the park. In my hand, I had my brand new Canon 600D with a standard zoom lens attached. It was the very beginning of what would become a long and fruitful relationship.
We were driving along while our excellent driver looked for any tracks and signs the lions might have left behind on the road during the previous night. Suddenly we get a call on the radio. It was in Zulu, so the bunch of us in the back had no clue what was being said, but one word caught my attention: “ingulule”. I only know a few words in Zulu, and most of them are words for animals. Ingulue is one such word. The driver suddenly changed direction, because know we were off looking for something else. Something yellow, spotted and very fast. You guessed it, a cheetah.
Not long after, there they were. My first encounter with the two laziest cheetahs in the world. Two brothers so tight you’d rarely see them more than a few meters apart (unless, of course, there is a girl involved). It was a fantastic sighting as the two of them just laid there flat on the ground next to our car. It was my first opportunity to get some nice close up shots of cheetahs, so I blasted away. I got a few nice ones, but I was especially happy when I caught one of them on his back as he was changing sides. That photo is still one of my personal favorites today.
We left the two lazy cheetahs behind to continue with our lion-finding mission. We didn’t have to wait long until we found another bunch of lazy cats. All nine members of the North Pride were present and probably sleeping off a big meal. All except the four cubs of course, who wanted nothing more than to annoy the bejesus out of the adults by biting ears and attacking tails. Again, I blasted away with my camera. I got a few nice shots (and a video), but it was one of the small girls that stole the prize by adorably laying down on a dead stick for a nice capture.
We eventually left them and went back to camp, before returning to find them again the very same evening. They had, incredibly enough, moved during the day to lay down to relax somewhere else. This time they were all laying on top of a small hill, and even the cubs were lazy this time. More photos were taken, and another personal favorite was in the bag. This time of the very same cub as in the first, but this time looking all content and relaxing with eyes closed. After our vehicle left the North Pride that evening, they became the center of some real drama. An open safari vehicle with a bunch of tourists from the luxury lodge managed to get itself stuck down in a ditch right next to the lions. The lions had supposedly all looked down on them from the top off the hill with hungry eyes (according to the tourists). They were stuck there until the sun set. Apparently there was a lot of crying and wetting of pants. The lions eventually left and another car could then finally get them unstuck. The lions had probably just been wondering why those annoying people never left.
I was so happy when I eventually got to see how well those photos came out. After that I decided to focus more on my photography, learn as much as possible on the subject and continue to improve my skills. 3 fantastic and memorable sightings that ended up changing my focus from an amateur photographer to a serious hobby photographer.
2. Boring Bird Is Not Boring
Now this is just the one sighting, I promise. I had been photographing for a while already when this one occurred. I had even started the very first version of what would eventually become this website. My focus up until that point had been to get good photos of mammals and large birds, such as eagles and hornbills. Most birds, especially small ones, was not a part of my main focus as a photographer. Then one day in September 2014, a small and inconspicuous bird would change it all.
I had been out working the whole day in Tembe when I came back to camp. With the camera over my shoulder I walked down to my room, only to notice this tiny little thing jumping around in the grass in front of me. I realized it was a small bird. For some reason it did not seem at all bothered by my presence. I thought it would be a great opportunity to get some photos, so I started shooting away. The little bird jumped around, flew both up and down, and gave me a bunch of nice poses. It was an immensely charming little thing. After a few minutes it disappeared into a dense thicket only small birds could get into. Satisfied with the photos I left it alone in there.
I immediately dived into my field guide to ID the bird. It was a green-backed camaroptera. I had never heard of it before, but it was now one of my favorite bird species. After seeing how well the photos had turned out I just had to upload the photos and write a piece on my website about this species right away. Of all the cool birds in Africa, the “boring” green-backed camaroptera became the first bird species on my website. After doing a bit of research for my piece I got to understand why it never flew away. It wanted all the tiny insects I disturbed when moving around trying to photograph it. Win win!
After this, all birds became a part of my obsession. Both large and small. I would even go so far as to park my car for 40 minutes next to a pool of muddy water as I waited for swallows to land for a drink. It was always a tiny bit embarrassing explaining that to tourists who asked me if I had found something interesting. Nope, just waiting for the swallows to have a drink. No lions to see here.
3. Charging Batteries With A Black Rhino
As the end of my time in South Africa was approaching and my website was up and running, I had still not gotten any decent photos of a black rhino. I had seen and photographed more white rhinos than I could count, but the elusive black rhino kept eluding me. I had only had two decent sightings of a black rhino, but did not get any good photos at either one. The first sighting was at night, and during the second my main focus was to try and avoid getting a black rhino horn through the door of the Audi rental I had that day. Black rhinos are never easy to photograph, but I would eventually get a third chance.
One of the few problems I had with my Jeep was the fact that the battery would empty itself if not used regularly (yes, I did change the battery). It was probably during a week off from work and I hadn’t used the car for a few days when the battery was suddenly flat. My wonderful landlady came to the rescue and helped me jump-start my car with hers. I actually didn’t need the car at the time, but since you need to keep the engine running for a while to properly charge the battery I saw it as an opportunity to take it for a late evening ride. With the nearest nature reserve, the Eastern Shores of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, only a couple of minutes away I decided to go look for some animals.
The sun was about to set when I decided to drive another kilometer or so before heading back. As luck would have it, just down the road I found the most aggressive and short-tempered animal on the African continent, the black rhino. To make things a tad bit hairier I had to keep the noisy engine running at all times just to be sure the car would actually get me back home again. Luckily for me, this particular black rhino had forgotten the proper black rhino etiquette and acted more like a docile cow than a raving madman. It gave me the perfect opportunity to get my very first proper shots of a black rhino (even though none of them came out fantastic). He even walked straight past my car without taking any notice of the noisy machine parked next to him. It was an incredible experience, as black rhinos are notoriously difficult to get close to because of their famed nervousness and bad temper.
4. Giraffes In A Line
This is one where I will let the photos do most of the talking. I love giraffes, and I have seen my fair share of them, but getting a whole group out in the open like this is not common. With the perfect light of the evening sun, it was a photographer’s dream. The giraffes also did their absolute best to cooperate. If anyone’s wondering, they were taken at the Western Shores of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, right next to St Lucia Estuary, my home away from home.
5. Last Minute Leopard
This is probably one of my favorite photos ever. Not because it is such a great photo, but because of how much it means to me personally. First a bit of backstory as to why that is.
In June 2013 I set out on what I always thought would be a dream project. I was going to research leopards for my PhD in South Africa. The designated parks were Tembe Elephant Park and Ndumo Game Reserve at the border of Mozambique. Most of the project was based on camera traps, so I actually never had to find the leopards myself to be successful. Part of the reason for me wanting to do a project on leopards in the first place, however, was because I wanted the opportunity to get more leopard sightings than you would normally by chance. It is, and always have been, my favorite animal in Africa, so when you fast-forward 18 months to a finished project and not a single leopard sighting, well, you can say I was a tad bit disappointed. Oh my, did I try to find those buggers. Morning and evening I went out looking, but never anything more than fresh tracks and the occasional roar in the bush. You can read more about my efforts in “How Not To See A Leopard”.
I had seen leopards before, during my time as a volunteer and in the Serengeti, but all the decent photos I had were nighttime shots. Now that I was fully engaged in my website, where I was trying to show off my best photos of various animals, it was incredibly annoying to leave South Africa without a single photo of a leopard during daytime hours. The fact that I had been a leopard researcher for the last 18 months made it outright embarrassing.
It was the very last day (yes, the VERY last day) of my time living in the town of St Lucia. The project in Tembe and Ndumo was finished, and all I had left was a couple of days in another reserve before heading back to Norway. I actually didn’t have the time to do anything that day, as I had too much to pack and sort out. Then I realized there was a tiny bit of drizzle in the air, and the day wasn’t too hot. The words of a friend and local safari guide suddenly came to mind: “On cooler days with rain I almost always see leopards during daytime hours at the Eastern Shores”. A truth that definitely hadn’t been mine up until that point, but since it was my very last chance in a very long time, I had to make a last minute attempt. I ditched my duties, and encouraged by my landlady, jumped into my Jeep and went into the Eastern Shores for the very last time.
I took my time and went well beyond halfway into the park until I realized it was too late in the day to find anything of interest, let alone leopards. It was midday as I was driving back when I came across a car parked on a hill. I stopped and asked them what they had seen, and to my great surprise and frustration, they told me a leopard had just crossed the road in front of them. It meant I had missed it by mere seconds. The leopard decided not to show itself, so the other guys left, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave just yet. It was my very last chance of spotting a leopard in daytime and I had to wait a bit longer.
10 minutes later it happened. A female leopard suddenly appeared out from the forest about 100 hundred meters away from me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and my heart was threatening to jump straight through my chest with excitement. It was still a bit far for a good photo, but she was slowly moving towards the road. I then decided to move forward towards the place I anticipated she would cross. To my amazement, as I slowly made my way forward, I realized she was not alone. Next to the road ahead of me was a massive male leopard. He just sat there, apparently without a care in the world. I couldn’t let this opportunity go to waste, so I stuck my camera out the window and began hitting the shutter release button like a crazy person, while still driving slowly towards him. I finally got the shots I wanted, and at the very last possible moment! He eventually went off before I got close enough for some good close-ups. He met up with his female partner and they both laid down in the shade under thick vegetation. It was now impossible to get any more photos of the two, but I still sat with them for about 40 minutes before they went off into the forest. How is that for a lucky last day!
That’s it for my first list of memories from Africa! My relationship with the Canon 600D has sadly come to an end. I am now the proud owner of a Canon 7D Mk II and a Canon EF 100-400mm IS II USM zoom lens, which I hope will give me a lot of joy in the future! Initial attempts at birds have been amazing, so I am expecting better photos of a higher quality from now on. Now it is just the hard task of finding animals in Norway… In winter…