Guest Blog: Private Timbavati Photo Safari March 2017

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Better late than never, this is a guest blog by Charlene Koen from New Zealand who joined Andrew for a private Timbavati Photo Safari in March this year.

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When I contacted Andrew Beck to say I was coming to South Africa in February and wanted to go on a private guided photography safari to Madikwe, he replied that Madikwe was fully booked but there was a space available on a trip to the Timbavati and was this an option?  Definitely!!  I didn’t know much about the Timbavati area except that this was where white lions originated from.

Day 1

We met at O.R. Tambo International and hopped on a shuttle, arriving at Umlani Bush Camp mid-afternoon.  Umlani has no more than 16 guests, the staff are very welcoming and friendly and we were waited on hand and foot which left us to focus on our photography.  We each had our own hut which included an open-air bush shower.  Imagine having a shower at night while stargazing!!  Umlani is about getting back to nature.  It operates without electricity and the camp is lit by candlelight and oil lamps.  An amazing camp!!  The food is great and very tasty – a cooked breakfast, a hot lunch (the homemade bread was yummy) and a three course meal at night. 

After lunch and settling in, we were off on our first drive.  We had the luxury of not sticking to a timetable, departing and arriving back at camp when we wanted (within reason).  We also had with us for all five days, two amazing guides/trackers – Shadreck and Cabinet.  Their experience and knowledge is incredible.  As our group was small, the other two guests and I each had our own row of seats in the vehicle.  On each drive, we would swap around. 

Andrew set up back button focus on my camera and I must say that was a game changer for me.  Learning and putting into practice exposure compensation has also made a huge difference.  Understanding that as your camera sees everything as grey and as most of the backgrounds in our photos were green, meant that we needed to underexpose and vice versa.  If the background was brighter than grey, eg the sky, we had to overexpose to bring out the detail in our subjects.  We also learnt about aperture, ISO, composition and lighting. 

These were quickly put into practice on our first sightings – zebra, a European roller and a Swainson’s spurfowl.  Just before it started to get dark, a call came over the radio that a leopard had been spotted.  We decided to go and take a look (we even bypassed another leopard drinking on our way).  We were rewarded with the opportunity of spending the next hour and a half with an amazing animal.   Initially, this leopard (Marula’s son) was walking around on the ground.  We lost sight of him until Cabinet spotted him up a tree.  I must say being this close to a leopard and having him stare right into your eyes is quite intense!  Something I certainly have not experienced before and won’t forget in a hurry. 

There were multiple scenes we photographed – in the tree, coming down the tree and on the ground.  When it got dark, we switched to manual and spot metering and with the help of another vehicle, got some amazing rim and side lighting shots.  We focussed on the tail for a while and then moved our vehicle to get some frontals.  An excellent first drive!!

Day 2

The days start early at Umlani with wake-up calls at 4.45am.  There’s time for a quick coffee then you’re off on your morning drives at about 5.30am. 

Over the radio, we heard about a female leopard, Nyeleti.  We came across her in typical leopard fashion – up a tree.  We only saw her back for a while as she was feeding on her impala kill.  After about half an hour of photographing her backside, we changed our settings in anticipation of her coming down from her perch to the ground.  And sure enough she did.  We were then ready to snap away when she glanced up at her kill.   One thing I didn’t realise as I was snapping away, just how close she was to us as I found out when I moved away from my camera.  Wow!!

The next call over the radio said wild dogs had been spotted.  When we arrived at the wild dogs, there were other vehicles so we waited until they left.  As the light was low, we changed our settings for panning.  I love wild dogs and have tried panning in the past which hasn’t been hugely successful.  As there were seven wild dogs, I got a few shots that could pass.  They spied some zebra but seemed to run pass them further into the bush.  We followed but soon lost them. 

Our next sighting was a herd of elephants.  They were very relaxed, calm and didn’t mind us intruding.  There was a little one in particular that caught my eye who seemed to be playing with its foot.  I like patterns and textures so seeing we were basically right among them, this was a great opportunity to get some close ups. 

Not 5 minutes later we saw our first rhino of the trip.  This one had clearly been in the wars as there was a fair amount of blood on its face.  It was difficult to get pictures as it was on the move to some mud for a quick wallow before it was off again. 

After that, back to camp for breakfast, some down time and then lightroom tuition.

It’s not just about the wildlife – our first afternoon stop was at a deadwood tree which we photographed against the sky and clouds.   

A few minutes later we came across two male rhinos.  Later, we patiently waited for a lilac breasted roller to take flight.  You need to be quick though and also leave enough space for them to move into or else you don’t get the whole bird in the frame.  Good back button practice!!

As we were having our sundowners, a jackal came jogging past.  I picked up my camera and managed to get a nice panning shot.  Only half an hour later it was dark so we took some moon shots. 

Day 3

I think day 3 turned out to be my best day.  First up, in a riverbed were two rhinos.  Our composition excluded the sky and the environment included many different arrays of green with a great combination of light.  An excellent environment shot with no distracting elements. 

We heard of a leopard kill up a tree.  When we arrived, there were two hyenas dozing not far from the tree but no sign of the leopard.  We spent a while with them then decided to carry on. 

At our coffee stop, Andrew called me over to see impala footprints so I took some pictures of them and then we walked around a small waterhole to see what other footprints were around.  I love the fact that you can get out of the vehicle and do things like this. 

In the road we came across a dung beetle in action.  We all jumped out and took turns lying flat on the ground to take pictures.  Getting the opportunity to do things like that is awesome and visiting other places like Kruger on a self-drive, doesn’t afford you that luxury. 

On our afternoon drive we came across European bee eaters diving down into a riverbed.  Andrew said we would get frustrated taking pictures and we did.  We spent the next 10 minutes trying to catch them in our frames – a very difficult task indeed.  Any I did manage to get were all too blurry.  Trying to follow them was impossible.

Later we came across Nyeleti, the leopard whom we had seen the previous day.  She was in a tree eating an impala.  She was up and down the tree a few times as part of her carcass had fallen to the ground.  We were lucky to photograph her in a few different positions – eating, coming up and down the tree, looking up, sitting, lying and grooming.  We were blessed to spend nearly an hour with her. 

The next call over the radio got us all very excited – a white lioness had been spotted!!  Did we want to go – hell yes!!  The only problem was that the lions were on a part of the reserve that if they were to move, we could not follow them as the land belonged to someone else.  We waited patiently down the road for a few minutes until our turn.  We found her grooming herself with two others.   She got up, stretched and then went for a drink nearby.  One of the others joined her and when you look at them side by side, to see the contrast between dark and light is quite remarkable.  Unfortunately, my shuttle speed at the time was not fast enough so my pictures are not the best but to witness this makes up for that!!  After she quenched her thirst she lay down, yawned and rolled in the grass.  All up we spent 20 minutes with them.  We took a moment to share our excitement with one fellow photographer saying that they had waited all their life for this moment!!  What a special sighting.

Travelling back to camp we came across some young hyena sniffing at something on the road.  It was dark by now so we switched to manual and cranked up the ISO.  The use of the spotlight created some nice shadow pictures. 

After dinner we headed out to Marco’s dam to the treehouse where we were to spend the night.   We set up our tripods in front of the dam and tried our hand at photographing the night sky.  This was something I had always wanted to try.  After half an hour our guide left and we climbed the steep ladder up into the treehouse.  I drifted off to sleep listening to the night sounds hoping for a herd of elephants to come visit but unfortunately it was a quiet night. 

Day 4

Shadreck arrived at the treehouse at about 5.45am with coffee to start our day.  There was time to take some quick panorama shots.  Just as the sun was coming up, a lone hyena walked past the dam.  Within our first hour we had seen giraffe, zebra, elephants and a new leopard, Ntombi who was trying to have a snooze draped over the branches.  Another great close encounter with a leopard!

Our next two stops were photographing a glossy starling and roller against a bright sky which was something I hadn’t mastered because of exposure compensation until this trip. 

We came across a female steenbok standing in the long grass which in some parts was taller than her.  She posed for us for a good five minutes before she casually walked off.  It was a hard task to photograph her as with each movement meant a different blade of grass would pop up in front of her. 

Our next coffee break was at a watering hole where there was a lone hippo.  We sat on the bank for nearly an hour.  There wasn’t much action as the hippo spent the majority of the time eyeballing us but we were rewarded with a few yawns.  Every time the hippo moved, the light would change and we would have to quickly change settings to either underexpose or overexpose.  Our arms were aching after patiently holding our cameras waiting for some action shots!!

The beginning of our afternoon drive was focussed on tracking two male lions.  We found them snoozing.  In the half hour we spent with them we were able to get plenty of shots of them interacting with each other, stretching, yawning, rolling and grooming.  As we left we decided we would catch up with them later before they embarked on their night activities. 

Not long after we left the lions we came across two male rhinos.  Some oxpeckers were along for the ride so we concentrated on taking pictures of them doing what oxpeckers do best. 

Later, we went back to the (still) snoozing lions.  As the light was low we tried radial blur techniques until it was time for the spotlight to be turned on.  As there was another vehicle there, we were hopeful the chance to take rim lighting pictures would eventuate and there were a few opportunities but you had to be ready and quick off the mark.  The boys groomed themselves and were affectionate and nuzzled each other.  Lovely to see how they interact with each other.  We were lucky to have one of them roaring not far from our vehicle.  They finally left us after an hour and headed off down the road.  Shadreck found their tracks the next morning and said they had walked 12km.

Day 5

Our last drive had arrived.  I didn’t want to leave!!  Our first stop was at a deadwood tree which we photographed against a backdrop of gorgeous morning colours.  There is nothing quite like an African sunrise or sunset!!  We came across our last lion of the trip – a lone lioness lying in the road.  She got up and walked around.  It looked as if she was looking for something.  She sat in the long grass for a while before disappearing into the bush.  We stopped for coffee and found a golden orb spider in its web.  We were able to get some great close ups.  Our drive was nearly over but not before we came across Nyeleti for the third time.  We only stayed with her for a minute or two as our time was limited.  Back to camp, time for a quick breakfast then we had to be off to meet our shuttle back to the airport. 

It was sad to leave as I loved every minute.  The photography safari was awesome, the camp excellent and the company great.  It great to meet new people and who are sharing the same experience as yourself.  Even the spitting cobra that I saw slithering around the back of my hut and the screaming baboons on my veranda and roof in the middle of the last night didn’t dampen my experience!!  I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. 

Special thanks to the very patient Andrew whom we all learnt so much from and did a fantastic job of looking after us and seeing to our every need.

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About the Author

Andrew Beck

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Very few people can tell you what their passion in life is. Even fewer will be able to tell you that what they do for a living is in fact their passion. My love for the bush and conservation took me on journey which would not only allow me to explore the continent which fascinates me so much, but to share my passion for photography and conservation with others. Be sure to check out my my website and instagram account.

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