Any amount of time spent in the wilds of Africa should leave you feeling inspired, refreshed and totally in love with the continent all over again.
This is exactly what was in store for my good friend and private guest Dave Marshak. This safari experience would change his life.
Dave had been on safari with me previously. We had visited Hwange and Mana Pools and had fabulous times in both. I was thrilled that Dave asked me to work on a private safari experience with him to South Africa. He had never visited before.
Now for those who follow Dave’s photography page on Facebook, you’ll know that he has a little crush on African wild dogs. By little I mean an all consuming flaming fiery addiction!
Problem is, he had never set eyes on a living dog before!!
This was Dave’s 6th safari and 7th year visiting Africa, most of those in search of these elusive and endangered carnivores. On two of these occasions dogs appeared only a day or two after he would leave!! If there were on guy that had bad luck when it came to finding dogs, it was Mr Marshak.
That said, we set out in search of these incredible animals in Madikwe.
This stunning game reserve has a reputation for being a stronghold for the dogs, and our hoped were high! In the same breath we were also careful as to not focus entirely on the quest for the dogs. There’s so much on offer in Madikwe and were were willing to take full advantage of all that came our way!
Grant Marcus, a stellar safari guide based at a private lodge called Nkurru was tasked with finding the dogs for us, and on our first morning we set off towards the south of the park where Grant knew the dogs spent the bulk of their time.
After tracking the dogs for more than 2 hours we stopped to investigate some tracks left behind by a male leopard. As I jumped back on to the safari vehicle our ears were alerted to the presence of dogs, the high-pitched wining sound of the pups unmistakable!
By the sounds of it, they were close, perhaps 100 – 200 meters away from us, at the base of a steep rocky hill.
Could this be true? They were so close to us and all of us were absolutely convinced we would find the animals that have eluded Dave for so many years, on our first outing! Well, as I am sure you are guessing, we did not. I was dumbstruck. We spent about 3 hours walking the slopes of that steep hill and came up with nothing, not even a track. By 11am the sun was high and beating down on the back of our necks. We were on foot as the area was inaccessible by vehicle. We once more got audio of them, but it was clear to us that the dogs were one step ahead of us and were too far up the ridge and would likely disappear on to the plato far ahead of us.
We had to call it a day, heartbroken and excited at the same time! It was the closest Dave had ever been to African wild dogs, and we were determined to have another go the following day in order to track them again!
The following morning was spent looking for the dogs, but it was not until our last full day that all came together for a pretty magical morning. More on that later…
The last 5 months in Madikwe have been very tough on the animals and the environment. Rains have been scarce and to compound matters, the year before was just as tough with very little rain. Even though these dry conditions are superb for photography, we were very mindful of the fact that the land needed rain, it needed the life giving waters from the clouds above to refresh the hills and the fill all the pans and waterholes.
Every day the dark heavy clouds would build, but none of them would release their much needed precious content over the parched plains of Madikwe.
As the year moved in to the month of April all of the smaller waterholes were dry as a bone, and the larger ones were under strain to support the immense needs of the park’s wildlife community. If no rains fall within the next few weeks, Madikwe will be in for a trying dry season.
That said, as photographers Dave and I were there to capture the essence of Madikwe, to search for those special elements that portray this magnificent ecosystem as a whole.
You have to adapt to your environment. Even more, you have to adapt your approach to the season. As Madikwe is challenged by the lack of water, there’s a story in there to capture, a story that needs to be told.
Elephants were out in full number, especially at waterholes. There are some concerns currently as to the number of elephants within the park’s boundaries, but we took full advantage of the excess and were entertained around almost every corner.
The action and activity at the waterholes kept our shutters firing. There were so many little elephants calves, and from a personal perspective, I think I took some of my best baby elephant images to date.
These little elephants just always provide you with endless entertainment. They are always up to something, be it annoying its mother or chasing buffalo, playing with a log or trying to figure out the use of that long pipe attached to the front of their heads. There’s always something to see, always a great moment and memory to capture.
The waterholes proved to be the place to find most of the other wildlife as well.
The power of water within an environment is immeasurable. It provides life for all, nothing would survive without it.
Predators will take full advantage of this opportunity. We found two lionesses on one particular morning doing exactly this. They were young and the rest of the pride were likely in the vicinity but were not seen.
They would wait for prey to come down for a drink, and we watched them make several attempts at catching warthog, wildebeest, zebra and impala.
Their blood-stained legs gave the impression that they had already eaten their fill, and simply came down to the water for a drink. Lions are opportunistic though and would never pass up the chance of a kill. The inexperience coupled with the lack of need made for poor attempts at hunting.
Thanks to a well positioned hide at the waterhole, we could watch some of the action with a cup of hot coffee in hand, an absolutely awesome morning on safari!
I have a special place in my heart for elephants, and as much as possible I will always try to capture them in a beautiful manner. It is not always easy as they are big, dark animals. Most of the days were rather cloudy so many of the sightings were slightly challenging concerning available light.
That said, there’s always lots of fun to be had when elephants are around.
The trick is to be on the look out for special moments, interactions, postures and behaviours. If you see an interesting story, look for a way to capture this, to portray that special moment to the viewer in a captivating manner.
Elephants are fantastic photographic subjects and this becomes especially obvious around waterholes. They are excited, energetic and often engage with members of other herds.
Dave has a real passion for wildlife, and armed with his camera wants to brings African wildlife to the rest of the world. Our experiences in Madikwe really touched him deeply and pushed his limits in what he thought he could capture.
This is a massive benefit of a privately guided safari. You will not only be challenged if photography is your passion, but you were gain insight into the secret lives of animals like never before. It gives you 1 on 1 time with your chosen Wild Eye guide, and we will ensure a transfer of experience like few others can deliver.
A whole new challenge for Dave was photographing wildlife at night, in a soft and natural manner. It does raise several challenges but Dave excelled as we were presented with fantastic sightings after dark.
It may seem obtrusive at times, but we never kept the light on the animals for extended periods of time. Slivers of light would illuminate our subjects, and our capable cameras and skills would do the rest.
Photographing after dark and allowing light to creatively reveal your chosen subject is special and will create incredible results.
An animal Dave had only encountered once in his 7 years of African safaris, is the elusive leopard. Understandably, this was high on his wish list and although leopards can be some of the most difficult animals to track down, we gave it a hard try and managed to get Dave a fantastic sighting of a gorgeous female leopard.
We spent over an hour with her, and even saw her stalking a herd of impala. It was by far the best leopard sighting that Dave has ever had, and was undoubtedly an experience both of us will remember.
We also enjoyed several sightings of a powerful male cheetah coalition. These four brothers are renowned for their ability to capture large prey, even up to the size of eland cows. That’s massive! Dave got to see them chasing after Zebra and Wildebeest, but with no success.
So, back to our quest for those African wild dogs…
They dogs just stayed one step ahead of us. We found tracks, we had heard them vocalizing up in the mountains, we had seen carcasses of animals they had fed on. All the signs were there, it was so tantalizing!
Our breakthrough came on our second last morning!
Once again we left the lodge at 5am, more than an hour before sunrise. Our hopes were high as we made our way back to the area we knew they were spending time within.
We found tracks of the pack on the move heading to the south-western corner of the park, and as a few other game viewers started their safaris, instructed them to inspect the areas we thought they would have moved in to.
“Stations, located 2 wild dog pups” was heard over the safari radio! Yes!!
That was it, they were found and we were not far from the area!! The adults were on the hunt and characteristically left the pups behind. They soon returned and the whole pack started moving south.
After 7 years of searching for these magnificent predators, Dave finally laid eyes on his precious dogs! It was a moment I was so privileged to share in! To see these excitement in his eyes, the fulfillment of a dream, was pure magic!
Not only did Dave get to see his incredible dogs on the run, he got to see them hunt and feed on an impala ram they had caught. How spoilt was he not? This was as good as it could have been! It was as if the dogs knew they had a massive fan in their presence, and they really put on a spectacular show for us!
See, I am a firm believer in EXPERIENCES! Even though Dave badly wanted to see these dogs, had he not succeeded he would have left with a fire in his heart, a passion to continue the quest.
The danger arrives when you allow the expectations to consume you. You arrive with a checklist, and leave disappointed.
A safari is a journey, an experience, an opportunity to come face to face with magnificent animals! A private safari, such as the ones Dave enjoys allows for the opportunity to first and foremost create these intimate encounters and life-changing experiences.
Born from these encounters are photographic opportunities, moments where you can capture what you have seen.
Perhaps I am naive, or perhaps I am old school, but that is how I feel.
The last few drives in Madikwe were fantastic. The burden was lifted and we could enjoy nature without the need to find anything.
Privately guided safaris such as this one is what I live for. It is an opportunity for me to share everything that I know with special people. It allows you the opportunity to learn, to ask, to experience.
Dave, thank you for being an incredible friend to me, and for taking me along for the journey! I sincerely look forward to the next one, wherever that may be!
Until next time,
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