Nature is always unpredictable and try as you might you can never know for sure what sightings or images you will get when you head out into the field.
That said, you can stack the odds in your favour by going to the right place for the type of images you want to create and spend a lot of time out in the field. Oh, and then there is luck as well. Luck always helps.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of private guiding a group of guests to the Londolozi Private Game Reserve and we set out with very particular images in mind. You see, the Sabi Sand Game Reserve is without a doubt one of the premier wildlife destinations when it comes to Big 5 viewing – in particular lions and leopards – so when my client told me what kind of images and wildlife photography experiences he was after Londolozi was the first place that came to mind.
To say that the game viewing and wildlife photography experience at Londolozi is amazing is an understatement of epic proportions. So many people still only look at whether there is a lot of game or not where the real magic – the real wildlife photography experience – goes so much deeper than that.
How long can you stay in sightings? Do you have to leave because another vehicle is waiting to join the sighting? Can you position and reposition again and again to make sure you are ready for when the subject and scene combines to create that perfect photographic moment? Do you have the essential game viewing luxury of a maximum of 3 vehicles per sighting? Do you have experienced guides that know and understand animal behaviour and, in the case of the resident predators, the individual animals’ behaviour? When working with a spotlight are the guides ethical and can they work together to create amazing photographic moments without influencing the subject’s behaviour? Are the guides more concerned with their guests’ angle and positioning then their own photography? The list goes on and on and it’s a list that too few people unfortunately look at and consider when planning a safari. What good is finding mating leopards if you have to leave after just viewing it for 15 minutes?
So after meeting on Instagram, sharing images and thoughts for quite some time and then digging deeper into the experience they wanted we confirmed our private safari to Londolozi from 24 to 29 April 2016!
With highlight after highlight and amazing sighting after amazing sighting I wasn’t quite sure how to add all the amazing sightings, images and experiences into one post so I thought I’d just choose one random image per drive and share a little about each image. I will wait for Engin to finish all his images and he can share more of the incredible photographic magic we shared in due course.
Game Drive #1 – Afternoon
Not more than 10 minutes from the lodge we found a female leopard and spent the entire afternoon and early evening with her. Yes, almost 4 hours of amazing wildlife photography.
Some of the images we were after included a leopard up a tree, a leopard with soft fill light and blue background and a rim lit leopard and on the first evening we nailed all of them and then some. Again, the reason this was possible is because of the way Londolozi manages sightings and focus on the experience of wildlife photography – the process of spending time in the field and making images – rather than just the photography where you grab a few shots and race on to the next sighting.
Our trip was off to an incredible start and we were set for an amazing 5 days in the African bush!
Game Drive #2 – Morning
If you had to ask me whether you will see Wild Dogs when visiting the Sabi Sands I would probably give you about a 40% chance at best. Yes you do find them there but you won’t specifically go to the Sands to see Dogs.
Soon after leaving the lodge our trackers picked up tracks and, long story short, we found them about 30 minutes later and proceeded to spend the entire morning with the pack. Yes, the entire morning. It was just our two vehicles in the sighting – we had two private vehicles for our group – and we did not see another vehicle the entire morning.
Seeing Wild Dogs is always great but having them to yourself for an entire morning as they wake up, feed each other, play fight and then start hunting is truly priceless!
Game Drive #3 – Afternoon
We knew they were close to the river and we set out to find them. Two female lions with two young cubs.
Apart from the fact that we again had the sighting to ourselves for the entire afternoon a few factors made this sighting special.
We initially found the two females sleeping on the cool river sand and sat with them for a good hour or so waiting for them to wake up. What we were waiting for was for one of them to wake up and to either call the cubs or lead us to them and our patience was rewarded. As the two females starting getting active they moved to the opposite river bank and the one started calling. What played out from here was the stuff wildlife photographers dream of.
The female went up onto the bank of the river which, from our point of view, was great as she was now almost eye level with us as we were parked in the river. One by one the two cubs came to mom and played around on the sand bank. After a short while mom led them down to the river where they proceeded to cross the shallow river – yes the cubs as well – to where the other female was still grooming herself in the river.
After spending another few minutes the pride moved across the river and ultimately disappeared into the thickets which was our cue to go for sundowners and reflect on an amzing and very special wildlife sighting.
Game Drive #4 – Morning
We found her just after sunrise.
We spent the entire morning with her as she woke up, climbed a tree, fed on her kill, came down and then posed for a few more portraits.
And again, it came down to the quality of sighting and photography than just purely another leopard sighting.
It was awesome!
Game Drive #5 – Afternoon
Ok this one needs a bit of an explanation.
As we were heading back to the lodge after our morning drive we found a large male giraffe that got stuck in a waterhole. It seemed like the big animal had slipped in the mud and was now, due to his size and difficulty of trying to find his footing in the muddy waterhole, stuck on his side.
Yes it was very difficult to watch and we didn’t stay very long and yes we had a very long discussion as to whether it’s right to get involved or not and over breakfast quite a few people were quite distressed by the sighting. This is a topic for another time but in the end the ecologist and some of the guides went to check up on the giraffe but unfortunately he had, when trying to get up again, fell in an awkward manner in the water and died. Nature can be cruel sometimes and things like this happens whether we are there or not but like I said, a discussion for another time.
When we returned to the scene in the afternoon the giraffe carcass was in the middle of the waterhole and the entire scene was easier to watch, almost clinical, now that we knew the giraffe was dead.
As this story ended another one started.
During our morning drive, before we found our leopard, we spent time with two large male lions who were only about a kilometer from the waterhole where the giraffe had died and we were hoping that they would find their way to the waterhole. The wind direction was right and we knew that the two very full male lions would be looking for water. The stage was set.
Our bet paid off and after checking up on the lions and then waiting at the waterhole the two males slowly approached the waterhole. The scenes that played out as the two large cats tried to get to the carcass which was in about a meter of water was incredible to see and photograph. So much so that we quickly went back to the lodge to get a bite to eat and then head back to the waterhole where we sat in the rain for a few hours watching and photographing this African story unfold.
Every once in a while a sighting comes along that you know you will never see or experience again.
This was one of them.
Game Drive #6 – Morning
It’s always very difficult to follow up a once in a lifetime sighting and the next morning it was almost as if Africa gave us a chance to breathe after the intense and emotional day before.
This morning’s game drive was a lot quieter than the ones before but we still had great photographic opportunities of rhino drinking while a group of about 6 hyena lay watching the as well as a large breeding herd of elephants.
When you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a sighting, regardless of what it is, and you don’t have to worry about how long you can spend and when you have to leave the sighting you slow down to Africa’s pace and truly appreciate the experience of being out in nature.
Game Drive #7 – Afternoon
We found her again.
The same girl as a few nights before and we again spent the entire game drive with her as the sun set and the types of images we could create changed. She was still full from her kill and was very relaxed as she slowly groomed herself and got ready to head into the night. This made for a great opportunity to get some close up portraits of one of Africa’s most sought after wildlife photography subjects.
A little while later, as she started moving away from her kill, we followed for a little while and then in the distance we saw a lone male Impala. Would she hunt?
We stopped our vehicles and turned off all the lights. This is common practise in order to not influence the natural hunting behaviour and benefit either the predator or the prey. When done ethically and the lights and spotlights do not change an animal’s natural behaviour, like in this case, I have absolutely no problem with using spotlights. Many guides out there do way worse things in the broad daylight that influences animal behaviour so for me the way the guys at Londolozi manage this process is way more than acceptable.
Sitting in the dark listening to the African night and waiting for a potential kill is an experience all on it’s own. It is dead quiet and even though the leopard lost interest and moved off – she was still full from her kill remember – the silent moments we spent in Africa was one of the highlights of the trip.
Game Drive #8 – Morning
We woke up to lion’s roaring and they were close.
Within about 15 minutes from leaving the lodge we found the two females with the two young cubs and without them knowing it they put on a helluva photographic show. The small pride chose to spend the morning warming up on a few massive boulders in the middle of the Sand river.
The light was amazing, the scene almost scripted it was so perfect and our morning was spent around the boulders.
Again, it was awesome.
Game Drive #9 – Evening
Our last evening drive, on our last evening of safari, ended like a fairytale. I have been working in the lodge and hospitality industry for a long, long time and I can tell you that Londolozi does one of the most incredible bush dinners I have ever seen.
This was the perfect way to end off our last evening game drive.
Yes, I am all about the experience of wildlife photography but there are a lot of moments in between the photography that will stay with us long after you’ve filed your images in Lightroom.
An amazing dinner.
Under a canopy of stars.
Game Drive #10 – Morning
All to often the last game drive of a safari is a bit of a quiet one as people like to sit back and soak up a last bit of Africa before heading home. It’s almost as if you are processing the amazing experiences and the last drive is just a way to wrap up the whole experience.
During our last game drive we didn’t have time to process anything or think about anything other than the incredible leopard sighting that we again had to ourselves for almost two hours.
Short version – female leopard and her 11 month old cub on an Impala kill. They fed, they played, the ran around, they made for awesome photography.
After the sightings we had during the trip I didn’t think there was even a chance to have another next level sighting. I’m glad to say that I was wrong!
So there you go.
It was extremely tough to choose images for this post as apart from what you see above we had many more incredible sightings. Cheetah, big five a couple of times over, loads of general game and good birding. Londolozi definitely didn’t disappoint and these 5 days stands out as some of the most amazing sightings and photographic opportunities I have ever had in such a short period of time.
Apart from the amazing lodges staff and lodge managers I have to give a huge shoutout to James and Don who were our guides at Londolozi. Working with guys like you makes my job much easier and I look forward to sharing more bush time with you guys soon. You guys are rockstars!
Once you’ve finished this post go and check out the post that James did on the Londolozi blog which shows many more images from our private safari. Definitely worth a read!
To Engin and your crew – thanks a lot for sharing this incredible African experience with me. It was an amazing privilege and true pleasure to host and guide you on this amazing African adventure and look forward to our next safari together!
Until next time,
PS: I am working on an amazing Wildlife Photography Workshop that I will be hosting at Londolozi in 2017 so drop me a mail if you’re keen to join or of you’d like to arrange a private guided safari to this premiere Southern African wildlife destination.
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