Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Tour Report by Keith Marallich (with an amateur photographers’ take on the Zimanga Game Reserve)

Right from the get-go, I will apologise for any technical photographic jargon that may creep in, but this blog is meant to excite photographers…but, nothing, absolutely nothing, stops anyone else from reading this. I consider (no, no, no, I don’t consider, I know!) that I am an amateur photographer and nothing more, nothing less.  Firstly, let’s get the definitions out of the way…(oh, and the technical jargon is as I, as an amateur photographer, understand it).

An “amateur” photographer is someone that takes photos for fun and maybe with some passion. They enjoy the art of photography, and appreciate the ability to preserve memories and moments.

Professional photographers are compensated for their photographic work. They have practiced and trained themselves to become at least competent at photography and to do it for others. The other hallmark of a professional photographer is that they are a business entity, from one person operations all the way to large studio outfits with many full time employees and assignments. Professional photographers use proposals, contracts, and such-like. They probably know how to perform at a consistent level every time through practice, perseverance, effort and will require professional, or at the very least, semi-professional equipment to do their work.

Apart from being an amateur photographer, I am also a tour guide and have been guiding tourists from countries from all over the world on more than 360 overland tours in Southern Africa – (overland tours are those tours where one stays at least one night at an overnight venue on a tour – but by far the vast majority of these tours have been for much longer than one night). The company that I work for - Far and Wild Safaris – focus mainly on wildlife and I reckon that at least 99% of all these tours have taken in at least one wildlife venue on an itinerary, whether this be to our well-known national parks, lesser-known provincial parks, world-class private game reserves or smaller game lodges - and I’ve been lucky to have visited many of them. On some of these tours we may take in four or more wildlife destinations during a single itinerary.

I have grown accustomed to taking my camera along on most of these tours – not all, mind you, but on most. I distinctly remember being on a short-ish tour to the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park a couple of years ago and not having my camera, when early in the morning of the second day I chanced upon a pride of lions. The male then promptly stepped up to a small pool of water, in beautiful light, and started drinking. You’ve probably all seen those images where the lion is kneeling down, amber eyes reflecting the early morning sun, water dripping from his jaws, his whole being reflected in the pool of water in front of him because of the beautiful light and wished that you had taken this photo. Well, I was there, but my camera wasn’t – and I am only now recovering from the kicking I meted out to myself!

A few years ago the Zimanga Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal opened its doors to guests – and what a revelation. They have styled themselves as Africa’s first photographic reserve and they offer unique features that is music to the ears of wildlife photographers and wildlife enthusiasts alike. I have been to Zimanga a few times in the past two years or so (but obviously not enough times – enough being at least once a month - dream on!). Sadly, in all of these cases, bar the last one, I have only visited Zimanga with clients for a single session only (a session being one game drive or one hide session). On my last visit to Zimanga, this at the end of August, beginning of September this year, I was with two clients. (These clients are actually more like friends than clients, us having been together now on at least six or seven tours). They are both keen photographers, and last year, whilst we were in the Kruger Park together, I prevailed upon them to come to KwaZulu Natal on their next visit to South Africa and pay Zimanga a visit. They heeded my call and we had five sessions booked at Zimanga. Our tour started in Durban, with an overnight stop in St. Lucia en route to do a game drive in the Eastern Shores Game Reserve in the afternoon, followed by an early morning boat ride on the lake the next morning, before proceeding to Zimanga for our first wildlife session.

But before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you this – my equipment is very basic. At this stage I had (and still have) a Nikon D90 camera body (almost obsolete and having ceased being produced by Nikon many years ago), an 18-135mm Nikon lens (also very old, but it still works) and then an 80-400 f4.8 - 5.6 Nikon lens (one of Nikon’s first 80-400 lenses, long since out of production). That’s it, no bags full of cameras, converters, lenses and what not – just these three items. Well, by that evening it was down to two items. You see, when we returned from the Eastern Shores we did the obligatory stop at the local supermarket in town to replenish our stocks of drinking water, and as I opened my door to alight from the vehicle, so too my camera, with the 80-400 mm lens attached to it, also alighted from the vehicle, but of its own accord. This simply means that no-one, least of all myself, had any control over it. The resultant fall from the high vehicle, and the thudding collision of the camera/lens combination with the tarmac, resulted in the lens resembling the u-bend of some plastic sewerage  pipe – the lens was now at an almost 90° angle mid-way down its barrel! Everyone knows that a bent lens is like a bent barrel of a firearm – it won’t work! I was now in a bit of a funk! I had the early morning boat trip the following morning and then five wildlife photographic sessions at Zimanga ahead of me and all I now had was a working camera and an 18/135 mm lens, not quite "long" enough for use in any of the hides that we were visiting.

As luck would have it, my clients (friends) loaned me one of their camera/lens combinations for the boat trip, and even though I was now shooting with unfamiliar gear, I did manage to get one or two half-decent images - here below are two of them.

After the boat trip it was on to Zimanga. The guides at Zimanga are very good wildlife photographers and Hendri Venter, who was to be our guide for the five sessions, was also a Nikon owner. I was very fortunate to be able to rent his Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens at what I thought was a very reasonable tariff for the duration of our sessions and I am grateful to him that he would take a chance on letting me use this lens, which, if I am correct, is worth at least twice as much as my two lenses and one camera combined, with my spare battery, camera bag and data cards all thrown in for good measure! Anyway, armed with my Nikon D90 and a now very superior lens, our first session was at the Lagoon Hide at Zimanga.

There are currently five photographic hides at Zimanga, including two “bird bath” hides called the Mkhombe and Bhejane Hides which are ideal for small bird photography.  The larger Lagoon Hide focuses on waterbirds, with Umgodi Overnight Hide the only hide that is custom designed for large mammal photography. The bee-eater hide is a mobile unit that can be placed in close proximity to where white-fronted bee-eaters nest and produces good results of these colourful birds.  The last hide (at this stage) is the Vulture Hide which, when there is carrion available, attracts a number of, wait for it… vultures, hyena, jackal and the like. These hides have been designed and built by Charl Senekal, the owner of Zimanga and Bence Mate who is not only a former winner of the coveted BBC wildlife photographer of the year award but is a world authority in hide design, construction and photography. Each of the hides is designed for its potential subject whether it is a large mammal like a giraffe or elephant or the smallest of birds like waxbills and twinspots. The photographers are invisible to their subjects behind one-way glass so as not to startle the subject with any movements or sounds. The hides allow photographers a non-intrusive method of wildlife photography and although the subjects are free-roaming, and hence no sighting is guaranteed, the hides tip the balance heavily in favour of the photographer to get that photo that they always wanted – a “keeper” as they say.

I feel I must just focus on (did you see what I did there?) this phrase from the last sentence above, “no sighting is guaranteed” because it is relevant to what followed next. Upon our arrival at the hide, an African fish eagle that had been in front of the hide took off and landed in a tree nearby. Good, I thought, he’ll be back and I so desperately wanted to photograph a fish eagle. It was not to be – oh, he teased us a few times with a fly-past at a distance, but not once did he come into camera range…oh well, next time. Anyway, there was the ever present black-winged stilt, the ubiquitous grey heron, some Egyptian geese, pied kingfisher and such. Here are three images below from that afternoon session.

The following morning was a game drive, and there are very few game drives that I had been on during the last twenty years or so that can compare to this one. First off we came across some lions and one of the young females took it upon herself to give chase to an ostrich that was nearby. The ostrich of course easily managed to evade her and seemed almost to tease the lioness, as this activity happened quite a few times. I did not get any photos of this action, as the bush was reasonably thick and the light was still very, very low, but I did manage to get these images below.

Thereafter we went to look for cheetah –Hendri was quite sure he knew where a cheetah was, and it was not long before we found him. The next thing that happened – and this was a new-ish experience for me – Hendri invited us off the vehicle to approach the cheetah on foot! As we quietly approached the cheetah, he promptly got up, and without any concern for our presence, ambled off, with us in tow. Why I say that is was a newish experience for me to follow a cheetah on foot, was that I had done this before, but it was not a regular occurrence and happened only a few times. What made the difference was that I was now carrying a camera with a heavy lens, something I was not used to, and the cheetah wasn’t stopping! After at least a kilometre of following him, he decided to lay down and we were able to photograph him to our heart’s content. Whilst photographing him, we heard some elephant trumpeting off in the distance, so Hendri decided to go and fetch the vehicle, leaving me behind with the rest of the guests to ward off any elephant, should they, in the unlikely event, chance upon us. Upon his return Hendri decided we would have our early-morning coffee break at this location. Can you imagine it…us enjoying coffee and rusks in close proximity to a wild cheetah, whom we could photograph at any time between sips of coffee? I even managed to capture a fly in one of these photos...

As we left the cheetah, the light was by now fairly harsh, when we chanced upon a pack of wild dogs. Now anyone who knows wild dogs will also know that they have incredible energy – and they were using this energy by trying to catch warthog. A pack of them went flying past us, too quick to photograph and in the distance we heard the squealing of a warthog in distress. In distress it certainly was – it had been caught by the dogs. The kill was over in the blink of an eye (almost), as is the wont of wild dogs, and the adults got busy as quick as they could in ripping the unfortunate warthog to bits and feasting as quick as they could. As soon as the pups arrived at the kill, the adults pulled back so that the pups could feed. Unfortunately this all took placed in dappled shade with fairly high bright light, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me, so even in these harsh conditions I took some images. The first photo below has no photographic merit, but does show the kill (with a still alive warthog at this stage, but it thankfully died a few short seconds later - nature in its most raw form!). The second photo is of one of the pups after it had eaten. Oh, what didn’t I tell you? Oh yes, we also approached these wild dogs on foot once they had relinquished their kill to the pups, but this time with the vehicle nearby – definitely a first for me! It was just a pity that they were in dappled shade with harsh lighting conditions, but hey, now I’m nit-picking!

So that was the morning session and this afternoon it was to be the Bhejane Hide. At the outset I must say that South Africa, and KwaZulu Natal in particular, is experiencing its worst drought in recent history, with the result that we saw far fewer birds than I had seen on previous occasions. This is understandable, as birds eat seeds (and there was very little grass, hence very little seeds), they also eat fruit (and none of the trees and shrubs were bearing any fruit in the drought) and insects (which, during this extremely dry season, were almost non-existent), so the bird sightings, compared to previous visits, was minimal. I must also point out that I had been in the Kruger Park, Mkuze and the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park pre and post this visit to Zimanga, and here too the birds were very scarce compared to earlier years, due to the drought. Whilst sitting here, at one stage, for about 30-40 seconds (yes folks, seconds, not minutes), a group of banded mongooses arrived at the hide to drink. They were falling over themselves to get to the water and I had no time to get my settings right (like a better depth of field, for example, which would have made a difference) before they had disappeared again, just as quickly as they had done when they arrived. Oh, I also mentioned a twinspot in one of my first paragraphs – here too a photo of a female pink-throated twinspot.

The following morning we had a session at the Mkombe Hide and the birds were still few and far between compared to what I had experienced on previous visits – there was no change to the drought conditions during the night! As few birds as there were (and not a single kingfisher), I still managed to get some, what I think, are reasonably good images, three of which are below, a pair of golden-breasted bunting, a southern grey-headed sparrow and a trio of laughing doves.

That last afternoon at Zimanga was again a game drive. We came upon quite a lot of general game during the drive (with some elephant just outside the Lagoon Hide – one image below) but the sighting that really excited me was the presence of elephant in the late afternoon. We were parked in the open safari vehicle, with elephants on the dam wall and the sun setting behind them. There was some cloud to add interest to the images and the elephants were moving about, so that I could isolate just one or two or more animals in a group. If you had read any of my earlier blogs in the previous years, you would be aware that I have always maintained that I had never been able to take a decent photograph of an elephant – I hope these few below have changed that.

Just some quick info on my photography. Most photographers try and develop their own style, whether intentionally or just by doing something similar over a long period. I am no exception… I shoot on aperture priority, I usually shoot at as large an aperture as possible (because most of my photos are hand-held, this to maximise shutter speed and minimise camera shake) and I usually fiddle around with the exposure, mostly under-exposing but also sometimes over-exposing, depending on the conditions. I will also adjust the ISO from time to time, but I try and use as low an ISO as permissible - my old camera tends to produce a lot of 'noise' (in the old days of film this was known as 'grain') at high ISO's. Other than those occasions when I am in a hide, I am shooting hand-held (and mostly then just ‘grab shots’ – those shots where you are contorting your body past someone’s’ shoulder on the other side of the vehicle to get an image, with all sorts of movement going on in the vehicle and trying not to get the side mirror in the photo). This is because quite a few guests, mind you, not all, but a few of them are those guests that have a different idea of how to experience wildlife from mine. They have heard about the ‘big five’, are maybe not keen photographers, and want to ‘tick’ as many sightings as they can. They maybe don’t want to sit and watch the interaction of a herd of impala, or the antics of young elephant or baboon or maybe some giraffe interacting with one another or waterbirds foraging in the shallows (most people know that sooner or later the bird will likely catch something, a fish or a frog, anything, and you’ll have some excitement) – they want to see the animals, as many as they can, in as short a time as possible, maybe take a photo, and then move on to the next sighting. As I do the driving when I am on tour in the public parks, I really travel light, with only what was then my 80-400mm lens and camera body (between my feet, on the floor, and that's why they fall out of vehicles!). The lens I rented from Hendri, the 200-400 f4, was used for all the images above, except for the elephants on the last afternoon, where I used my 18-135mm lens. I also crop quite a lot of my photos, for the simple reason that my maximum lens is a 400mm and when subjects are small in the frame because of distance from me to the subject, I crop the image to hopefully get a more pleasing composition.

Now, Zimanga is different from the experience I described above. Zimanga primarily is for wildlife photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. Their hides are the best that I have ever been to and this is what the world-renowned and very talented wildlife photographer, Grant Atkinson, had to say on this subject:

Over the course of my photographic career, I have visited many hides. Even so, I found myself completely surprised when I entered Mkhombe Hide for the first time. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dark, light-absorbing interior, and to take in the comfortable chairs on wheels. All photography in Mkhombe takes place through a pane of super high-quality insulating, one-way glass, which means that shy subjects don’t get startled away. Having already seen the impressive quality of images obtained by Charl Senekal, I knew that I need not worry about any optical degradation. Setting up tripods perfectly is easy, due to the smooth and even floor. Despite the rising heat outside, we stayed cool and comfortable in Mkhombe thanks to a solar-powered air-conditioner. There is a heightened sense of anticipation when you are in position, waiting for subjects to appear, and in this regard, Mkhombe didn’t disappoint. A morning session produced 3 different kingfisher species, starlings, oxpeckers, honeyguides, waxbills, firefinches, doves and flycatchers, to name a few. The mammal checklist included vervet monkey, warthog, impala and a single elephant. At Mkhombe, your camera is virtually at water-level, and the background is a distant tree-line. We kept very busy with the variety of subjects, and their reflections. We also had interaction amongst some visitors, and some splash-bathing birds to test our reflexes”.

And that description of Grant Atkinson’s fits all the hides at Zimanga. But, and here is where they are different, their game drives. They feel no need, (as some lodges and their guides do) to show you the ‘big five’ in as short a time as possible. Their focus is on the experience and the photography. These guides, as I mentioned in one of the earlier paragraphs, are all excellent photographers in their own right and will position the vehicle to get the optimal sighting. They understand light, angles, distracting objects such as bushes, branches etc. in front of your subject and will try to get the vehicle in the perfect position to get these out of the way. (Oh, and they are also likely to anticipate what will happen next. For example, when we stopped to photograph the elephant, Hendri prevailed upon us to have patience until the light improved (and by improved I mean a low sun) and then I had a ball photographing these). How many times have I been on a game drive in the Kruger Park, Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park or elsewhere where we have seen something? Before I can position the vehicle properly, or even in the still-moving vehicle, the clients are prevailing upon me to STOP, STOP, STOP! So, I STOP. And the animal/bird or whatever is now partly or wholly obscured by a shrub/branch/termite mound/whatever, so I tell the guests that I will re-position the vehicle and position it (as I would have done in the first place). The animal/bird is now hopefully out in the open and can be viewed optimally for the conditions.

Well, at Zimanga one just has to let the guides take control – they know what they are doing and will do it to the best of their ability. If you are in any way an enthusiastic wildlife/nature photographer, or even just a wildlife enthusiast (maybe even only with a cell phone camera), Zimanga  has to be on your ‘bucket list’ It is not only for those photographers with professional equipment, most cameras will give you pleasing images here although only using a cell phone in one of the hides may be pushing it a bit. At the end of the day, a good image is like a good wine – it is what you like!