"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!