Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Finding Rhino Man
Please Help me Find Rhino Man
I was fortunate enough this past weekend to attend the running of the annual Comrades Ultra Marathon, which takes place between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban. This year the race was, what has become known as the “Down Run”, starting in Pietermaritzburg, and finishing in Durban.

I am by no means an athlete, and after seeing the torture that so many individuals put themselves through, one can only stand back and admire the sheer determination and dedication these individuals show to their cause, in an attempt to complete what must rank as the ultimate endurance event on the running calendar in South Africa.


At the start of the race, I stared disbelieving at a man, who had donned an over sized Rhino Suit, as his appropriate running apparel. This was in stark contrast to the thousands of other runners who wore the bare minimum; flimsy light shorts and paper thin running vests.
I was certain that he would discard the costume in time, as it would become a self-imposed prison of death if he were to contemplate running the entire distance with his closed, heavy, ungainly suit that would restrict his movement, let alone prevent the sun from evaporating many litres of perspiration that would be tapping off his skin in the hours to come.

Our first stop as a support team, was at the top of a hill known as Polly Shorts, around 10km from the start, and Mr. Rhino Man came trundling past in good spirits, still fully clothed in his costume.

Cato Ridge was the next opportunity to see him, along with a multitude of other colourful characters. Looking at my wrist, keeping a watch on the clock, it was then that I noticed my two Rhino Awareness trinkets; A RHINO FORCE bead bracelet, and another black band, much like the Livestrong Foundation bracelet, but this was for RHINO REVOLUTION. I have had these 2 bracelets for the past 5 years, in which time I can honestly say that neither has left my wrist once.

Our Rhino Populations are fading away, and will soon just be a distant memory.

It was a no-brainer that if anyone was going to create some awareness for the plight of the rhinos that are being slaughtered at an alarming rate, it would be the Rhino Man. I slipped the bracelets from my wrists, and they were presented to him to adorn his own wrists, which he did with the greatest enthusiasm, even stopping, turning back, and asking to hug my wife who had run alongside him to help him get them onto his wrists.

That such a small action could cause so much emotion in Rhino Man goes beyond human understanding, but suffice to say, both me and my wife were very emotional, thinking of the nightmare faced by the Rhino population in Africa, especially South Africa at present, and the sacrifices, pain and torture that Rhino Man was willing to put himself through to highlight this plight, caused a welling up of tears in both our eyes.

At the bottom of Cowies ( Pinetown ) we got our last look at Rhino Man, and things were looking less sprightly than they had 9 hours earlier at the start of the race. But at this stage Rhino Man had already completed 70km of the race. I may just have lasted 2km.

Whether Rhino Man completed the race or not, to me remains a mystery, but in the same breath, remains immaterial to the accomplishment already achieved 10 times over, by his presence over the 70km that I know of.

Mr Rhino Man, I take my hat off to you, as should every other conservation minded individual that walks the earth, along with every one of the almost 18 000 participants of the race, who are better equipped to understand the suffering that you were willing to put yourself through, to bring to the forefront, the message you wished to convey on Sunday.

2m x 1m Canvas that adorns the wall in my own office at home

I am a simple man, one without expendable cash, but what I do have is a wish to somehow reward you, and thank you for the effort that you put in. As an enthusiastic wildlife photographer, I have had relative success in selling a few images over the years, and a very popular photo of mine I want to donate to you. I would like to gift to you a Signed Limited Edition mounted Canvas, or Print.

You may be humble and wish to donate the said Image ( Seen above and below ),to the organization of your choice, or to the one that you were representing, and I will honour this wish, but I would want you to have a keepsake, and a reminder that your efforts were appreciated on Sunday, and thus I will be willing to give 2 of the mentioned photographs.

Rhino - Which Way

One I would be honoured to have you hang in your house, and the other can be donated to your choice of charity or registered reputable organization. It could be auctioned off, or raffled, which would ensure some much needed funding to assist in the protection of our very fragile Rhino Populations in South Africa.

Please could all the people that have taken 5 minutes out of their day to read this post, take another 2 minutes, and share this as widely as possible, that in some manner, Mr Rhino Man may become aware of my search for him, and make contact with me. 2 Minutes of your time is nothing when compared to the 12 hours of suffering and sacrifice that Mr Rhino Man endured.

Thank You

Rudi Hulshof

Monday, January 20, 2014

Success with Time

Success with Time

Sigma Wildlife Photo Competition Winner

Entering photographic competitions can be a very intimidating matter, to say the least. The failure to place or get awarded, far outnumber the accomplishments of receiving praise and accolades of competition success.

Too many times we tend to judge our own abilities by the outcome of a competition, and this leads to despondency, and often anger and disappointment when comparing our own obvious “winning” image with that of the true victor.

I have been fortunate enough to have placed well in a few competitions, ranging from getting to the final stages of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year a few times, being awarded as a Highly Honoured Recipient in Natures Best Wildlife Photographer of the Year, reaching the finals of the Mazda Wildlife Photographer competition numerous times, and getting highly commended certificates in the Getaway Fujifilm Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

I never managed to win a competition though, but perseverance and sheer will and self-belief allows a person to brush off the disappointments, and continue bumping your head in the hope that one day your vision with a particular image may be interpreted in a similar manner by the judges.

This morning my luck and fortune changed, and I eventually managed to secure a much needed, and morale boosting WIN, in the Sigma South Africa Wildlife Photography Competition.

After many disappointments, a photograph that I had earmarked as a possible winner in some form, just never seemed to make the cut. The lesson I learnt, was that; as much patience as was needed to get the eventual shot, in the same way, patience is needed when entering those images into competitions. I persevered, and eventually got the reward.

My first reaction when told I had won, was actually one of guilt, a strange sensation to experience when it should be one of unbridled joy. My heart goes out to all of the entrants that are left dejected and disappointed, that they did not win. This is a feeling we all know too well, and I really do feel that at any stage, any image can be judged a winner over another. With a different judge, I may not have been so lucky, and may have yet again been faced with a rant at the useless judges.

My only advice to everyone planning to enter competitions is that you really do need to keep believing in your photography, and continue trying. At some point your luck will change, and you will get the reward for all the hard work put in over the years. Gary Player said it best: “The Harder I Practice, the Luckier I Get”

Thank You to all fans and friends for always believing in me, it is the motivation and appreciation from you all that help keep me focused on the end goal.

Below is a short description of how and where the winning photo was taken, with a few more images from the same sighting.

I was conducting a guided safari one morning in the Western Section of the Sabi Sands Game Reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park with an Australian group.

We had heard about 2 female leopards fighting in the area, and started heading in that direction. Soon thereafter a male was found close by, and it became obvious that the females were fighting for the male’s attention.

Resting Between Mating

Once the fighting subsided, which I unfortunately missed, the victorious female linked up with the male, and the process of mating was initiated.

Action from behind

Dismount from behind

We observed them mating over a period of about 45 minutes, but they were always facing away, or were side on. Moving the vehicle into a more suitable position was not an option, as the female was very nervous, and would move away whenever an engine started.

Nervous female in the background

Just before Winning Image was taken
After a long wait, the female initiated mating, by seducing the male, presenting herself to him, and eventually this time they were facing us, at which point I got excited for the possible shot to be captured. Understanding the behaviour I waited while the mating was taking place, and prepared to fire off some images as the male dismounted the female. I was resting the camera and lens on a bean bag on the edge of my land rover door, and took continuous shots hoping to capture the action depicted in the frame.

Side on Aggression

Side on Dismount

Who is the Boss?

Needless to say I was overjoyed with the resulting image.

I pushed the ISO up to 400, so that the shutter speed could be fast enough to freeze the action, at the biggest aperture that I had available – f5.6, at 400mm zoom. This aperture was chosen to try and have defined subjects ( Leopards ) against a background that was as blurred as possible, trying my hardest to have a shallow Depth of Field view. I was fortunate that I had time to adjust the settings of the camera, predicting the action to come beforehand, and then even luckier having the leopards oblige by moving into a position suitable for the image I had hoped to get.

Resting before next bout of copulation

Happy Mommy to be!

Please remember to click on the image to see a larger version!


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Never To Be Forgotten

Never To Be Forgotten


Experiences, whether joyful or miserable, worthy or wicked, all add to the development and evolution of our being and shape the people we are, and the individuals we either become or strive to develop into.

This statement may seem somewhat out of place on a blog site that has been fashioned to focus on the memories of a life spent traveling Southern Africa and working in various nationally treasured wilderness areas, but there have been certain notable occurrences that cannot be omitted from the archives of my memory. However painful the emotions may have been, they need to find a place in the recorded memoirs that find life through the written word here on Rudi Hulshof’s Classic Africa.

I recently sounded the death knell of a Blog that I created almost 4 years ago, which focused almost exclusively on Wildlife Photography. There was the odd article that was posted that was divergent, and would shed light on more diverse subject matter, such as unforgettable experiences, uncommon and unusual sightings, and career updates.

Of all the posts that I deleted, one could simply not be erased by the modest click of a mouse button, as it carried with it too much importance in my life. A lesson in perseverance, one which showed me that through sheer determination, and the predisposition to survive; we can overcome impediments that manifest themselves on our path through life.

The time tense may not be correct, as this story was written over 2 years ago. I have decided that the Tribute Piece was packed with raw emotions, and thus should be posted, as it was written at that particular time:

A Tribute to Mambirri – Your Rest Is Well Deserved

There is the inevitable sorrow that will forever be associated with the loss of an animal that has become familiar to rangers, guests, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts worldwide. In the Western Sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, we feel this emotion at present, due to the loss of a true little lady leopard that perished earlier this week.

Mambirri, (Translated to – Two from the Shangaan language spoken by the local Tsonga tribe) named so because of her 2 spot identification marks above each whisker line, was a leopard that called the area already mentioned above: home for a period of about 10 years.

Born in 2002 to Makwela, and fathered by the Wallingford male, she was part of a litter of 3 females that all survived and matured to independence, early in 2004. It was at this stage that this leopard became my favourite because of her remarkable resilience, and her will and fight for her very existence.
Makwela - Mambirri's Mother

Wallingford - Mambirri's Father

I cannot recall the exact dates, but around the time of her independence, Mambirri was ambushed by a powerful lion pride at an area littered with large rock-strewn boulders. She was surprised and caught unexpectedly, and given a serious beating by the lions, in an attempt to eliminate her, a carnivore, as competition for the same food source. She was left torn to shreds, and unable to move on all four legs, persistently staggering around on three paws. How she managed to survive from clutches of the lions remains a mystery till today.

For a few weeks, we agonised as we saw her losing condition rapidly, due to a cigar sized hole bitten completely through her front right paw. Soon, we did not see her at all anymore.

The “way of the wild” was what everyone declared, and we made peace with the fact that she had either died of starvation, or that she had been killed by larger predators, some of whom were already responsible for her advanced weakened state, from where survival was next to impossible.

Mambirri had all but disappeared from everyone’s thoughts, when on a particularly scorching day, 8 months after her disappearance, a leopard was located deep in the southern parts of the traversing area, feeding on a Duiker that had been hoisted into the upper branches of an Apple-leaf Tree. Much debate followed about the “new” leopard in the area on the radio frequencies, until we could get a clear view of her identifying spot pattern, and the healed front right paw, that still showed the distinctive scar from her lion bite. This Leopard could jubilantly be positively identified as Mambirri.


She was slightly more nervous than before, an expected behavioural trait after not being exposed to Safari Vehicles for many months. But, after a few weeks she had started to relax, and became habituated to her audience’s presence in the Land Rovers, to the point where she would practically brush past the cars on her travels around her newly established territory.

Her unending discomfort and agony was noticeable as she strode with a limp for a few years, before normality returned to her gait for periods of time. Every winter though, we would see her stiffen up, and the strain return, and with it her limp would be aggravated. Her front paw had clearly healed to the point of being able to function and survive, but would never be the same as before. She would have weakness associated with it for the rest of her life. Mambirri had lasted and endured, by scavenging, and hunting the smallest of prey items; mongoose, monkeys, rats, birds, etc, until she was again strong enough to focus her intent on large prey items. What a fighter, never giving up!

Her growth had undoubtedly been stunted, due to the absence of any substantial nutrition during her time spent away from human exposure, and her development, and ability to reproduce was questioned. Was she going to be the last of her blood line? Regardless, the rangers were all delighted to again be able to view one of the most unperturbed, relaxed, and discussed leopards in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve at that stage.

Skipping forward a few years, Mambirri successfully raised 2 separate litters of cubs, which respectively resulted in her 2 mature independent adult female daughters establishing their own territories. In managing this feat, against all odds, she ensured that her legacy lived on.
Metsi - Mambirri's First daughter who herself has already raised 3 cubs from 2 litters successfully. 

Kashane Male Leopard
 It was about a month and a half ago that Mambirri was observed mating with the Kashane Male Leopard. These two honeymooners vanished for a while, moving into territory that our rangers are not permitted to drive through. We were getting reports from the neighbouring lodges who were seeing them and following the antics, and a week later a skinny, ravenous Mambirri was found again, within our traversing boundaries, after completing her marathon bout of coupling with Kashane.

She had started to devote time, in an effort to establish a new territory, to the range left unoccupied after the untimely death of Makubela Female Leopard in July, and appeared to have bestowed her old territory upon her newly independent daughter Nthlangisa.

Nthlangisa - Mambirri's youngest and last daughter who has recently been seen lactating

Mambirri’s condition was getting rather desperate because of the prolonged period without a substantial meal. Her starvation and hunger reached new levels of desperation, when she was observed diving head first into a lake, in an attempt to catch a Nile Monitor that was swimming past, something rather out of character for a normally water weary beast. This was unsuccessful though, and the lodge staff were again on edge to see how, not if, she would manage to survive her newest challenge.

Her dire situation prompted her to take a risk and attempt to catch a warthog in front of Idube Private Game Reserve where I was based.

Sitting in the office I heard the squeals of a distressed animal, and rushed out to try and investigate the source of the racket.

A notorious warthog sow, regular within the lodge grounds, ran past me agitatedly searching for her sole piglet that had been accompanying her over the previous 3 months. It became apparent after much frantic grunting, that it was not returning, and had been caught by a predator. Sprinting through the lodge to collect a vehicle, I aimed it in the direction of a small dam in the front of the lodge, alas, this did not help, for as I drew adjacent to the lodge, my staff alerted me to the fact that an injured leopard had just limped through the bar and boma area, into the dry river bed running past front of the lodge.

A Warthog photographed within the gardens at Idube

Vervet Monkey alarm calls over the next two days gave away the presence of the feeding leopard, but the area that she had chosen to stay hidden away, with her prize meal, made finding or seeing her impossible. Late at dusk on the evening of the third day, Mambirri strolled to the lodge water hole, quenched her thirst, and lay down. This was my chance to go and observe if there were any lasting effects from the reported injury my staff had seen. I had to take note of the earlier rumours about her being injured, and went to investigate, only to see her right front paw, the self-same hindrance from her youth,  in a horrifying state, torn apart down the middle, all the way from her wrist, with 2 toes flapping on either side of the separation.

It seemed her previous wounds, and damaged paw had come back to haunt her, and I could only guess that in an attempt to save her piglet, the warthog sow had charged towards Mambirri, at which point, Mambirri had in all probability endeavoured to slap away the advancing mother, which led to her receiving a razor sharp tusk through her paw. The Ivory tusk would then have ripped out between her toes.

Mambirri vanished in the time that it took me to return to the lodge to get a vet dispatched via the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Management, and no further action could be taken.

 (A vet would have been called, not to necessarily assist in reconstruction work on a wild animal, but to remove an injured animal from an area where she posed a danger to staff and guests alike. As the Lodge Manager, the liability of such an attack, and responsibility that goes with it, made the call for a vet essential, and far more than just an emotional one regarding personal feelings when dealing with known animals.)

The following morning she was again within the lodge grounds, behind the kitchen, and a leopard, especially and injured one, cannot be left to wander around guests or staff. We contacted the state vet, and wildlife managers from the Sabi Sands to come and dart her, to remove her from the Lodge, and we trusted they would have assessed her condition and made the difficult decisions regarding her possible treatment at that time.

Between me and a fellow ranger, we followed her the entire day, as she slowly hobbled a total of about 300m, often losing her in the lush greenery that would envelope her whenever she would sit or lie down. On two occasions, with word that the vet was en-route, we could not find her in the thick vegetation, which meant leaving the safety of the car, and walking in the hope that she would raise herself up, and expose herself that we could continue our pursuit. This happened, and twice she allowed me within 2m of her, before standing up and slinking off. She knew she was weak, and I believe she knew we were there to assist, and thus never displayed an ounce of aggression towards me.

The vet arrived, but regrettably, the dart used to tranquillise her, never plunged when it penetrated her rump, and she disappeared before we could get another dart into her. With the light fading, the operation was postponed till we could again find her, if it was even needed. We had hoped that she would survive, and perhaps heal, but were somewhat pessimistic about the probabilities in her favour.

Mambirri in all her Splendour

Mambirri had been lost for two weeks, with no further indication of her whereabouts, or chance to get a vet to dart her, when the Local Village of Justicia notified the reserve that a leopard had been seen by residents, outside the reserve boundary fence, and was posing a threat to the lives of the inhabitants and their children. For over 2 weeks she was seen repeatedly, marauding the chicken coups of the subsistence farmers in the village, decimating their chicken and goat stocks, and posing a threat to the towns folk. Every time a report was received, a team was sent to find the leopard in order for a vet to come and dart her, to relocate her into the middle of the reserve, away from local habitation. But, sadly, she evaded the teams time and time again.

On her last night, a report was generated and communicated to the Sabi Sands Management that she had been seen charging at some people, and the team again went out in a concerted effort to find her. They located her within the reserve boundaries, and whilst waiting for a vet to arrive, she again made an effort at entering the local village, by scaling the 2.5m electric fence surrounding the Game Reserve.

Noting the severity of her injury, a decision was made that she needed to be put down, before harming, or even killing a person, or further jeopardising these people’s livelihoods by catching and destroying any more of their poultry or live stock.

Whilst attempting to escape the reserve, her will and determination was noted by the two man team from the reserve management, who mentioned that she would crawl inside the electric fence strands, and climb over the fence, wedged between the live wires that would be shocking her (enough to deter Elephants and Rhinos, at 10 000 Volts) and the square mesh fencing we call Bonnox. To endure the pain of such a shock is enough to send any grown man falling like a felled log to the floor.

She was euthanized immediately, and her remains taken to the hub of the Kruger National Park, Skukuza, where a post mortem was scheduled.  

An immediate post mortem was conducted, and the results were that she had severely dislocated and a few broken bones in her foot. Her foot had, as had been observed, been split in two, with half of her toes hanging on each side. The injuries were too severe for her to survive in the wild, and thus she had resorted to raiding the village at nights to get food to survive.

Had we managed to get her darted the first day, we would not have been able to do much for her, as her chances of survival would have been zero, she would have had depleted mobility, no chance of chasing prey, no real chance at protecting herself from rival predatory competition, and she would have lost the ability and agility to climb trees, or protect her food source, by usually hoisting it into the trees away from hyenas or lions.

Further damming internal complications were revealed in the post mortem examination, which also supported the theory that she was not going to survive much longer. Her stomach contained only chickens, a simple protein source not sufficient for a wild leopards nutritional survival needs. More alarmingly, she was in the final stage of liver failure, caused by her body producing, and needing to process the unnaturally large amounts of adrenalin to combat her constant pain. The Liver failure alone would have killed her within days. Her adrenal glands and kidneys too were severely enlarged, and internal organ failure here too was immanent.

I would like to think that her suffering was ended mercifully, albeit unnaturally, and find solace in that fact. Her death comes as a relief, rather than just a sense of loss and sadness to us that knew her.

Like tracks left in the sand, Mambirri left a mark on all those that ever saw her!

Rest now Little Lady, you experienced enough suffering in your life.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The best shots are never taken.

"The Best shots are never Taken!"

Jan Hamman, one of South Africa’s most famous sport and wildlife photographers was quoted before his passing with the above statement. 

This relates to every single professional or serious amateur photographer around.

I undeniably found that out a few years ago on a trip to the North.

We never seem to be content with what we have captured, or we berate ourselves when an opportunity presents itself, only for us to be unprepared, ill equipped, or simply snoozing.

In 2009 I was invited, along with my then girlfriend Melinda, (who luckily later become my wife) to accompany some of our good friends on a relaxing trip to a private syndicated lodge in the Tuli area, in the renowned Mashatu Game Reserve.

It was a trip that had been planned, and prepared for over a period of months, and the anticipation grew daily in our house. Botswana, we were on our way! 
Camera gear was cleaned and packed, travel arrangements were scrutinised meticulously to ensure no mistakes and no hiccups regarding customs and getting laptops and camera gear across the border manifested themselves. My dearest partner took charge of the food and sustenance shopping arrangements for the self-catering at the lodge, and menus were discussed with Nats and Jono so that their children were also catered for sufficiently. Things were, to use an age old cliché – “falling neatly into place” for our anticipated trip.

I had an extra headache, a burden I had to bear alone, in the form of a small black box, burning a hole in my pocket, housing an engagement ring that needed to accompany me on the trip, as I had planned to propose to Melinda at a specific spot in the Kruger National Park directly after our Tuli experience, on the second leg of our holiday. My biggest worry was how I was going to keep the box hidden until the said day arrived. Needless to say, I walked rather uncomfortably for the 5 days we were in Botswana.

Our spirits were dampened before our departure from Welgevonden Game Reserve, where we lived at that stage, due to unrelenting rain and thundershowers the entire week before our departure date. The weather not only affected us locally, but the entire Limpopo and North West provinces were being lashed by torrential downpours, the scale of which had not been seen for many decades. Along with the falling rain, so too fell our enthusiasm to sit on an open game viewer, being drowned by rain drops the size of grapes.

Miracles do happen though, and two days before our departure, the skies cleared, and the sun shone brilliantly. We were going to have a ball.

The one thing that I learnt when we arrived at the border post at Pontdrift was, that when the rain stops, then only, does the river start flowing, as thousands of tributaries from hundreds of kilometres away start channelling their contents into streams and rivers that eventually pour into the Limpopo River.

Rudyard Kipling, in his short story – The Elephant’s Child, referred to this iconic river as – “The great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River.” Today I can attest to the fact that he was sadly misguided, and his famous descriptive quote completely misleading.

We set eyes upon torrents of brown and black water flowing past, carrying trees and debris the size of busses, and bigger, passed us at such a speed, and creating mind-boggling sized waves, that I could have sworn I saw Herman Charles Bosman himself surfing past upon a Nyala Tree, uprooted somewhere near the Groot Marico district.

There was no green, no grey, and nothing greasy about this River folks, this was pure adrenalin, raw power, a spectacle of nature, and a certain free ticket to Xai Xai in Mozambique if you were to fall in.

Let me rewind slightly though, as I have managed to get ahead of myself.

We arrived in our diminutive 2 vehicle convoy at the South African border post, and climbed out of the cars, only to dive for cover from the fighter jets buzzing overhead…. Wait, that was the roaring of the river, still well out of sight at this stage.

One only gets to see the water once you have cleared customs on the South African side, and you walk down towards the small cable car hut from where you get loaded into the even smaller “bread basket” that gets swung out over the river in the hope of reaching the far side.

Clearing customs, astonishingly, was as easy as; well, let’s just say, slipping on a greased up workshop floor would require a degree if compared to our painless passage into the vacant no man’s land between the two Customs offices. I still believe my theory that the overripe Maroela fruit, the size of Oranges, found lying under the trees at the entrance to the buildings may have contributed to the jovial atmosphere. (Be sure to stop by at the end of January each year to sample the “fruits” of their labour (pun intended), and help prove my theory.

Carrying luggage, food and camera equipment was rather tricky because of the mud packing on in thick layers to the soles of our shoes, but we eventually made it to the departure centre, not clean and unscathed, but stained and filthy from constantly slipping down steep sections of the sodden river bank.

A long queue of tourists waited before us, and it was only once we started approaching the suspended cable cars that we saw the true reason for the extended delays. There was only a single useable cage to ferry people and supplies to and from either side of the river. The second cage was there, but earlier in the day had sagged too much under a heavy load, and had ended up submerged in the rushing water, only to be bent, buckled, and damaged beyond a point of being safe enough for human transport. This was getting rather tense, to utter an understatement.

Then and there I took the decision to leave my Camera equipment behind, for fear of losing it over the side of the cage, never to be seen again, as I visualised it melting away into the boiling pot some people referred to as a river. I just could not take that chance, not with the many thousands of Rands worth of lenses, cards, and camera bodies, resting serenely in their Pelican Case. They would be better served staying safely locked away, snug in their very own little compartments, sleeping peacefully in the locked boot of my car.

To this day this decision haunts me, and will continue to do so for many years to come. As mentioned earlier, “The best shots are never taken.”

Quite predictably we managed to cross the 200m section of river, suspended many meters above the angry torrent of raging fury, unscathed and bone dry with all the belongings we had chosen to risk taking along on our international adventure.

Loading everything into the Land Cruiser game viewing vehicle took a few minutes longer than the even quicker process of clearing customs on the Botswana side. A sprinkling of Tswana came in handy when greeting the stern faced officials who were tasked to stamp our passports. That, and a welcome gift bag of conveniently confiscated biltong that needed to be “destroyed” to prevent the spread of dreaded Foot and Mouth disease. I do hope they enjoyed it as much as I had done on the long drive to the border. It really was a remarkable batch that I had purchased at a well-known butchery between the small town of Vaalwater, and the growing Eskom funded metropolis of Ellisras.  

It was too late to venture out on drive that first afternoon.

In unison we agreed that time spent acclimatising ourselves to our own private lodge, and a period spent packing out and stocking the fridges would be a more productive way to spend the afternoon. We would start fresh the following morning.

It was a mere 10 minute drive to the lodge, but it honestly felt like a lifetime, as we passed by the most awe-inspiring scenes I had ever witnessed from a photographic and wildlife perspective. I was already contemplating braving the current, ready to slap any opportunistic crocodile, and swim across the River to reclaim my abandoned camera bag back in South Africa.

The lodge eased some of the pain, only momentarily though. A refreshing pool, crystal clear with a deep blue hue, welcomed us at the entrance, as did a handful of helpful staff who assisted in unloading our bags of groceries and drinks. I ensured that the beers had stayed cold on the drive to the border, and was certainly not tardy when it came to cracking open a crisp ale to quench the thirst on a stifling hot afternoon.

Large cavernous suites were appointed to us, and the cool air-conditioned gusts, escaping the opened doors, enveloped us and drew us in like moths to a flame, or in my case, like mosquitoes to my feet. 

Unpacking took an age, any reason to spend indoors to escape the 40 degree heat was utilised to the fullest.

The time came for dinner though, and the outside boma which had been beautifully set up with flickering lanterns, candles and a roaring fire, by the attentive staff was our next port of call. We enjoyed fun, laughter, a few tears from the children, and a great braai that evening, listening to the rasping leopard’s sawing in the tree line just out of sight, followed by the unmistakable bark from a bushbuck, obviously aware of the predator’s presence.

The following four days felt like Deja Vu, that typical Groundhog Day feeling.

The pain of not having my camera became unbearable, driving me to try unsuccessfully capture some of the scenes on my 3.2MP camera attached to my phone, a pointless exercise in an attempt to remain sane.

From morning to night, my only respite from self-pity came from the hours spent in the pool at the lodge between game drives. The safaris were taunting me, teaching me a dear lesson, never to leave my camera behind again.

Each drive was the same, departing from the lodge, Joe, the ranger assigned to escort us around the reserve, would stop before even leaving the confines of the camp to point out a new bird that we had not yet seen or ticked off our twitcher list. The agony started and continued along the riverine fringes. 

We would drive past gigantic Apple-Leaf Trees, filled with up to 40 Eagles of various shapes, sizes and descriptions, the Leadwood Trees held even more, and they were embarrassed by the even larger Nyala (Mashatu) Trees, where the counted average raptor number was over 50.
These were not isolated trees containing resident and resting raptors, this was the norm for every tree over 5m in length. An inconceivable amount of raptor activity and presence was the order of the day, and there is no exaggeration to the statement that we were driving past, literally within touching distance, innumerable eagles and raptors in a single minute.

Tawny Eagles, Bateleurs, Fish Eagles, Wahlbergs, Brown Snake, Blackbreasted, Steppe, African Hawk, you name it, that eagle was present. Vultures, Hawks, Kites, Goshawks, the list really does go on and on, and what do I have to show for it, just a tick in a bird book, and a memory that will last a lifetime. 

Photographs? Well, none!

Bumbling along the roads gave us an immediate answer to why the raptors had taken up residence. Our constant flushing of the eagles that were sitting on and beside the road directed our eyes from the skies for a few minutes, and that is when we realised that the popping sounds coming from the wheels were not the tyre tread clipping loose stones and gravel, but in fact the unavoidable contact with a veritable plague of hatchling African Bull Frogs that were dispersing from the adjacent wetland, created in the flat flood plains of the Mighty Limpopo.

The rains had filled the vast floodplain, to create, quite easily, a 25 square kilometer patch of Eden comprising a wetland and marsh area, which transformed the usually featureless barren floodplains, into scenes more reminiscent of the great Okavango Delta, teeming with both bird and amphibian life.

Here too the jaw dropping exhibition continued, where we were witness to layers and layers of thousands upon thousands of storks from a variety of different species, gorging themselves to bursting point on the helpless little frogs and tadpoles, attempting to scatter in an environment teeming with death and mayhem at the end of a sharp beak.

Heading away from the floodplains and large marsh, we ventured further in land, expecting lush green fields of grass, bursting with life from the recent rains responsible for the creation of the wetlands, but of this there was none!

Replacing the greenery, was an ocean of the most vivid buttery yellow flowers comprehendible, fashioning an endless carpet stretching as far as the eye could see. This was a first for me, and the most unfamiliar, yet most outstanding backdrop for the hundreds of elephants we encountered daily, moving to and from the different water courses. Living the experience of observing baby elephants, joyfully plucking at the blossoms has etched memories so intense in my soul, that I will treasure and appreciate the time spent with them, till the day my memory fails me for the last time.

This is invaluable, but I do still long to have been able to capture those sights, immortalise a moment of time and generate a visual time stamp to reminisce, to remind me of the spiritual awakening I sensed in conjunction with the life that abounded at that specific point in time.

We would return to the lodge, refreshed by our experiences, though, refreshed may not be what our physical appearance would portray after being bumped around on the back of an open vehicle for 3 hours in the searing sun.

The path home would route us past fields of green that actually did exist in pockets, isolated, but present none the less. Here the natural spectacle would find no conclusion. Waves of Red Billed Queleas would ebb and flow across the grasslands like living tsunamis. Seed being the driving force behind their presence in numbers indescribable. To witness tens of thousands of these birds exploding from the grass as a single fluid entity, and to see them obscure the bright sky as they quivered overhead in a ballet of flowing motion can only be fantasised about.

I have been able to recall details from that journey like few others, and I attribute the imprinted memories to observation and appreciation.

I do however hunger to return one day, when environmental conditions are again favourable to the manifestation of situations and circumstances that may get close to the recreation of the sightings that I never anticipated, and never imagine possible again.

This time however, I will take my camera along, come hell, or in this case, high water!

“The Best shots are never taken”, but they are remembered!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Scatter Cats

Scatter Cats

I got a surprising message from a friend in the George area on Monday afternoon, congratulating me on my winning Image.    ???????

I know that over time, I enter images here and there into various competitions run by certain magazines, but for the life of me did not know what he was speaking about. A few messages later and he informed me that the latest edition of a local magazine, called SA Country Life, had my image awarded with the first prize in their competition called Image Club.
Winning Image as it appears in Magazine
Needless to say I went to the news agency down the road and purchased a copy for my collection. Only then did I see what image it was, and that has led us here, as I fondly remember the sighting as though it was yesterday.

From a Wildlife Photography perspective it was and remains one of the most amazing sightings I have been privileged to photograph.
I say this, not because of the subject matter, but, for the environment in which I was able to capture images on that particular day.
Winning Image

At the Lodge – Frustration

Being the manager of a lodge is great, but the frustration is even greater when you listen to the amazing sightings that the rangers are finding out on drive via the radio glued to your belt, and here you are, stuck with an electrician trying to get plugs working in the lodge kitchen before the guests return expecting a nice hearty breakfast.

This morning was no exception, and I had to grind my teeth listening to the rangers chatting about 2 mating leopards not more than 5 minutes’ drive from the lodge.

Kashane and Hlaba Nkunzi Mating 
In the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, the guides and staff become accustomed to certain animals, as they are territorial, and thus after a while they are named, so as to prevent any confusion regarding the animal’s identities. This also helps in keeping a record of the various bloodlines that are present and develop over the years, which in turn again makes for interesting discussion when animal histories are shared with the guests and other online enthusiasts.

Kashane Male Leopard ( Kashane = Far Away, because he was born over 30km from where he established a territory ) and Hlaba Nkunzi Female Leopard ( Named after a dam around which she grew up and established an initial territory – Hlaba Nkunzi Dam ) were followed for over 2 hours on this perfect morning as they mated at regular intervals.
Hlaba Nkunzi
I was green with envy at not being able to see the action, or capture images in the perfect golden morning light, but knew that I may just pop out after all the rangers had returned from drive later in the morning. This though was of little solace, as the light would not be suitable for Wildlife Photography, and being that late, would be, too harsh.

Destiny would dictate that for some reason the sighting only improved later on.

Once most of the rangers and their guests had had the chance to live the experience, I decided to pop out to the sighting and see what was happening.

My second bite of the tongue, through sheer frustration, came when walking to the car, and hearing the rangers mentioning that the leopards had been disturbed on their honeymoon by 3 lions that had been drawn to the area because of the very vocal mating process the leopards were indulging themselves in.

Inevitably I needed to wait, as was, and is the protocol: to allow rangers with paying guests first rights to the sighting. So I sat, and sat, and eventually switched my radio off, before I sent it flying into the troop of baboons filing past the staff houses at that time.

I was missing it all, and there was nothing I could do about it.
About an hour passed and knowing the chance of the sighting still being active was minimal, I switched channels, and listened to the updates. Incredibly there was still an ongoing chance to view the cats, as 1 ranger had remained with them, whilst the rest got their needed “fix”, and had moved on to whatever next may appear before them.

I loaded up my camera equipment, and jumped into my jalopy of a maintenance vehicle, and drove ( chugged ) towards the area.
My jaw dropped when I saw into which tree Kashane had climbed into to escape the much larger Lions. It was the dream tree, an enormous dead skeleton of a Leadwood Tree. No distracting branches or leaves to obscure the subject, and at that time some of the most incredible blue sky as a back drop.
Kashane In Leadwood Tree

I positioned myself a few times, getting different angles, and at various distances, but could never quite understand why my memory cards were filling up so fast. I snapped a total of 16GB worth of RAW and jpeg images in the hour or so that I spent there, all on my own, barring my wife who was as glued to her camera’s view finder as I was.
Clouds moving in
We not only managed to see Kashane in the dream tree, but also had chances to photograph Hlaba Nkunzi in a Boerbean Tree about 50m away, and the 3 lions between the two trees, looking up longingly at their competition and enemies, safely out of reach in the upper branches of the respective refuge trees.
Fine Art Editing
From Below

The lions eventually tired from the searing heat, and moved off to a dam nearby, and left the leopards, both still too nervous to descend.
Ximungwe Lioness staring at Kashane

Mapogo Male Peering at Hlaba Nkunzi
There were times when the clouds started to build up, but offered little respite from the heat to the very exposed Kashane, but hlaba Nkunzi had managed to fall blissfully asleep in her cool leafy tree.

Work beckoned, and I needed to get back to my duties, so we left the leopards and returned to the lodge, where I waited apprehensively for the images to download from my memory card, to my temperamental laptop.

Fortunately they were all saved and transferred, and today I am able to share some of them with you all.

Artistic Manipulation of Scene