There is a horrible noise emanating from the corner of the room. I pulled back the cosy warm duvet and felt the cold fresh air from the tail-end of an African winter wash over me. I keep forgetting to change that vile tone that I am using on my iPhone alarm clock.
My eyes were blinking while trying to focus on the blurry images in the room so that I could get orientated to my new environment. We arrived at Riverside Resort Hotel last night, after a five-hour drive down from Johannesburg. We had arrived in Mpumalanga South Africa to visit the famous Kruger National Park.
There was a murmur from the bed, somewhere under the duvet; words to the effect of 'tea?'. I shuffled barefoot across the cold floor tiles to the reception table, flipped the switch for the kettle to boil and watched the room illuminate in a ruby glow.
Game viewing is best done at dusk and dawn when the sun isn't so scorching, the animals are more active and tend to migrate to the known water-holes. Mirroring these movements and coupled with golden hour are also the best times of the day for wildlife photography with its warm, soft light and long shadows.
A 15-minute drive from our hotel brought us to the Malelane Gate, which is one of eleven gates giving access to the game park. Despite the early morning wake up call, we were fourth in the queue at the gate entrance which opened at 6-am. In the winter months (April - August) in the summer months the gates open at 5:30-am (September - March).
If you are fortunate enough to have secured accommodation within the Kruger Park itself, these movement and access restrictions do not apply.
After paying an entrance fee of around $24 per person and completing the necessary admittance administration, we entered the Park with much excitement and anticipation.
While waiting for the gates to open the cars in the queue grew steadily with every minute.
With more than sixty cars on our heels, we felt a slight amount of pressure to choose the 'right' road that would lead us to our first sightings for the day. The main road leading through the Park is tarred and in good condition. All tributary roads branching off the main tarred road are dirt tracks. Travelling on these dirt tracks resembles a wash-board that will shake, rattle and jostle your car from its headlights through to the tail-pipe and everything in-between.
Taking the 'wrong' road could be an act of self-penalising behaviour. For example, you could get caught behind an open-deck game viewing truck packed with safari-clad sight-seers.
The driver will want to protect his precious human cargo from possible dust that you may kick up should you manage an overtaking manoeuvre.
Therein starts the game of block and swerve while you choke on their dust. The leading safari truck will be the first to spot the wildlife and immediately take up the prime viewing position blocking any potential on-lookers.
Compounding this issue will be the follow on cars from the queue, sandwiching you between a safari truck in the lead and the rest of the tourist mob at the rear.
All these delays eat into your critical photography golden hour, time window, narrowing your chances of capturing that coveted wildlife photo.
Pre-planning your wildlife photography safari.
Tip the odds in your favour by conducting a desktop planning exercise before D-day.
Pull up Google maps and plot all the nearby rivers and watering holes closest to your gate of entrance. Enter the map, co-ordinates into your navigation device in order of priority. Have at least 3-4 different options ranked according to distance from the main entrance gate, as well as the latest sightings of animals in your target range. If you draw a blank with your first option, then you immediately have alternate options available without any delays.
Latest Sightings App.
This App (available for IOS and Windows) is the perfect tool to make an on-the-ground assessment of where the animals are currently roaming. This information will support your Google map options listed above.
Bean Bag support.
A bean bag forms a solid support base for your camera lens, giving you that additional stabilisation needed for capturing pin-sharp images. They are relatively inexpensive and available from most reputable photographic stores. Should weight be a concern for your carry-on luggage, then empty the filler from your bean bag before leaving your home country and purchase a substitute filler in South Africa.
If money is not a problem, then look into acquiring a gimbal tripod head, allow you to mount large, heavy lenses and camera bodies so that they are perfectly balanced on their centre of gravity.
Dual Camera Setup.
If you are in the fortunate position to own two camera body systems, then I would recommend that you set up a mid-range and telephoto lens on each of these cameras.
My primary setup consists of my Canon 1DX Mark ii fitted with an EF 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Mark ii lens. My secondary rig is a Canon EOS R with an EF 24-70mm F2.8 L IS USM Mark ii lens. This setup covers me for most focal ranges with ease of transitioning between rigs when under pressure.
Shooting Mode - my recommendation would be that you alternate between shutter priority and aperture priority. Use shutter priority when the animals are on the move and aperture priority when the animals are at rest. The importance of camera familiarity will become evident when switching between modes as the scene in front of you reveals itself.
The available light will determine ISO settings at the time of exposure. On foundation, you always want to shoot at your lowest available ISO setting.
For your Drive Mode setting, choose Continuous Drive mode. Multiple continuous frames will allow you to capture the action as it unfolds. For example, a Fish Eagle suddenly dives down in a steep almost vertical descent with increasing velocity and using the sun to shield its approach, snatches a surface feeding Tilapia from the lake. Using continuous mode will ensure that you capture that exact moment of the fish leaving the sanctuary of the lake firmly in the grasp of powerful talons. Using continuous mode will make the difference between a 'wow!' photograph and a 'weak' photograph, with a lovely sequence of images leading up to the 'gotcha!' moment.
When photographing wildlife, especially with close-ups, you want to get the eye of the animal closest to the camera in focus. Achieving pin-sharp focus on the eyes by selecting a single autofocus point that provides a precise focal point on your subject.
The Canon 1DX Mark ii is well sought after by sports and wildlife photographers where camera burst speed is everything. Bringing my Canon 1DX was primarily motivated by the 14 frames per second (fps) and the 61 selectable AF points spread over an expanded area. The ability to move the AF point away from the central portion of the frame transforms the utility of an AF system. Unless I am composing a close-up or zoomed-in composition of my subject, I would typically place the interest of the image closer to the frame's margins.
Capturing my exposure commences with the selection of an Auto-Focus (AF) point that I would like to use to frame up my image and press the camera's AF-on button. The camera's Servo-AF system (Canon) will kick off and start tracking the subject with my finger hitting the shutter release once my composition is framed up.
My familiarity with the Canon camera system has allowed me to become quicker and quicker at being able to select and move my AF points around the frame. This ability has paid huge dividends when working under pressure or in low light conditions.
While roving through the African bush, the wildlife became increasingly scarce as the sun rose higher and higher and the heat sent all living creatures in search of shade.
By late morning, our car's air conditioner started to lose the battle against the suns soaring heat. We followed the example of the wildlife and entered the map co-ordinates for shade on our Garmin navigational system, which lead us to the Mugg & Bean Restaurant and Coffee shop. The Restaurant is located at Lower Sabie and built on a large viewing platform along the banks of the Sabie River. This elevated viewing deck provides an unmatched view of the river, the bush and the wild animals loitering in the shady trees along the riverbank, together with the hippopotamus and crocodiles within the river itself.
My brunch consisted of a large mug of filter coffee, two lightly toasted slices of rye bread, topped off with two poached eggs and two crispy rashers of bacon with a fried banana thrown in for a little sweetness.
A dab of freshly ground pepper and some sea salt to flavour made the perfect meal. Our brunch conversation centred around what images we managed to capture that morning. Our initial plan was overly ambitious and was to photograph the complete set of the Big five - namely, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard. Our determination and persistence had paid off with Lion and Leopard being the only outstanding images from our wish list.
That sunrise breakfast was just what I needed. That feeling of contentment gave in to my second or fourth cup of caffeine. The lounge chairs seemed to become softer and even comfier than before. The winter mornings freshness soon evaporated, and the warm cosy rays of winter sunshine emerged. Laziness quickly crept in and made continuing with the safari a real test of will power.
We sat quietly enjoying the moment, our thoughts punctuated by the squawks of competing starlings. Their bright emerald colours flashed in the sun, as they fought for food on the tables of departing patrons.
The entrance to the Restaurant has an information board containing the latest sightings of various animals on the day. A new update to the board had everyone excited and dashing for their cars. A leopard sighting about 5-kilometres south of our current location along the Sabie River, lead to us joining the mad scramble to get back to the vehicles.
After 4-hours of driving around in search of the elusive Leopard, we decided to park up under a shady Jackelberry tree and finish off whatever remained in the cooler-box. The windows were dropped to a safe height to allow for a refreshing breeze to pass through the vehicle. The atmospherics of the surrounding bush was complete silence at first, then after a few minutes, the typical noises associated with the bush started to return. Crickets, bee-eaters, hornbills and 'grey-go-away' birds began their usual chants.
Within 30-minutes of quietly waiting in that one spot, we witness a large herd of elephant pass within meters of our car, and shortly after that, a spotted hyena made an appearance.
Sometimes parking up and waiting can also yield results.
The afternoon started to drift towards sunset, and we decided to try and get some water hole sunset shots along the Sabie River. By the time we arrived at the large pool, the light was disappearing fast. The resident hippopotamus strutted their stuff, and the crocodiles drifted along with the river current forever on the prowl.
The sky also played her part by displaying a majestic orange, yellow, red and magenta sunset contrasted against an ever-fading blue sky. As the golden hour passed into the blue hour, the sudden realisation hit us that there was a cut-off time to get out the Park within the stipulated times.
To comply with the road speed limits within the Kruger National Park, would have meant, that our original gate of entry being Malelane, was beyond our reach. Instead, we opted to head for the Crocodile Bridge Gate, which was almost 18-kilometres closer to our current location. With minutes to spare, we sped through the Crocodile Bridge gate with about a dozen other vehicles in tow, all eager to make the cut-off time.
An African safari should be on everyone's bucket list. It is a uniquely African experience that will remain within you time everlasting, calling you back, again and again. We will be answering that call, maybe that call will be to experience the Great Wildebeest migration in Kenya - who knows.