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10 Years Of Safaris

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This year I am celebrating 10 years of hosting wildlife and cultural photographic safaris. In this thread I will take a look back on those 10 years and relive some of the stories and images that I made on safaris during that time.

 

So where and how did this safari stuff all begin?

 

The idea of putting on safaris was sparked way back in 2006, in the very early days of the Nikongear forum. A member named Jorge contacted me and asked me if it would be OK if he started a thread asking the rapidly growing NG membership if anyone would like to join him on an expedition to Patagonia in a Land Rover Defender he had recently bought and was going to drive from Chile through the Patagonia region.

 

I was absolutely captivated by this idea, not just in the hope of joining such an expedition myself, but because it seemed like a perfectly logical thing for me to do myself here in Africa. I didn’t get to join Jorge on his trip and I am not sure if any of the NG members did either, but the seed of an idea had been planted firmly in my mind.

 

The idea began to sprout in 2007 when a member named papa-g joined up on NG. Geoff Cronje was a very well travelled guy who just so happened to live about 30km from me. He had recently gotten into photography and after he bought a Nikon telephoto lens from me, a friendship grew and we began to discuss the possibility of hosting a photo safari for NG members here in South Africa. Geoff would design the tour and I would do the organising and marketing.

 

At the time I was going through some very difficult personal circumstances. The company I had started a few years earlier was facing a bleak future (or lack of any future at all). Long story short, don’t build a business that is entirely dependent on one supplier, because when that supplier disappears, so do you. So at the beginning of 2008 I found myself in a bit of a tight spot, my company had closed and I was being hounded by debt collectors.

 

However, in spite of the difficulties I was going through, I had my eye set on this safari seed. I was going to make it work, one way or another because I knew that if I could just get it going properly, everything else would fall into place. I met with Geoff a few months into 2008 and we started talking seriously about putting on our African photographic safari. Then tragedy struck.

 

I was sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon in July when I got a call from a mutual friend telling me that Geoff had died. What? How? Apparently he had collapsed of a heart attack after having an altercation with a security guard over a parking space at his workplace during the Durban Airshow. It felt surreal. I felt as if God had set up a permanent raincloud above my head. In the meantime I was eking out a living doing odd photography jobs and helping people build websites. It wasn’t a great time for me at all.

 

I was undeterred though. A few months after Geoff died I started earnestly looking for somebody in the travel industry who I could partner with and get the photo safari business off the ground. I needed somebody who not only knew the game and could put together itineraries based on what I wanted to do, but who would also meet all the requirements as far as South Africa’s tourism legalities were concerned. I didn’t want to start a new business myself after all the drama I had been through with the one I had just been forced to close. I wanted to stay a sole proprietor with as few administrative responsibilities as possible and get paid commissions from the suppliers involved in the safaris.

 

So I placed an ad on a local tour guide portal outlining what I wanted to do and that’s when Pepe Jones (real name Penelope) popped up. She came up with a proposal that was much better than all the others I had been sent from other operators. I got Bjørn Rørslett to join us as a drawcard and the first Nikongear Photo Safari was born. We had 6 people sign up. The numbers were a bit short of the 9 I had been hoping for, but it was better than calling the whole thing off, so in August of 2009 the first NG photo safari finally happened.

 

For our road trip Pepe had arranged this colossus of a Land Rover Defender called the Kalahari Ferrari as well as a Toyota Quantum bus to ferry the 9 of us (me, Pepe & Bjørn included) around the eastern parts of South Africa and Swaziland over 2 weeks. I drove the Quantum and she took the Landy. Looking back, it’s a miracle that we didn’t end up as a tragic global headline, because the brakes on that Land Rover failed twice on our trip. It was also seriously unstable and the back of it fishtailed constantly at speed. Driving behind it I had visions of Nikon equipment and users being flung from it’s massive windows as it wound its way up and down the mountains of Swaziland. Headlines indeed!

 

That first safari was a real eye opener for me. We had some very interesting people join it. Some got along well, others didn’t. In spite of it all some strong friendships were made (which still exist today on the new NG) and I learned a great deal about not only what not to do on a photography safari, but also about managing guests' expectations.

 

For me the most important take away from safari #1 was that national parks in South Africa were not where I wanted to take guests. Apart from being logistically challenging for photography (you can only leave camp at sunrise and you must be back before sunset), animal sightings all depended on luck. In a big park like Kruger you cannot travel off-road and if anything interesting is happening near the road you will find yourself in a jam of other vehicles all straining to see the same thing. Situations like these tend to bring out the worst in people, which is not a good ingredient for a successful photographic safari. 

 

In spite of the dramas with vehicles and the occasional butting of heads between tourists, two weeks later I found myself back home and already planning the next adventure, one that would be entirely different and that would set the tone for the way things have been done on my photographic safaris ever since. But that’s a story for the next instalment. In the meantime here are a few images from Safari #1.

 

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The infamous Kalahari Ferrari parked outside my house on day 1 of the safari. 

 

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Our first animal sighting was a giraffe in Hluhluwe Game Reserve. 

 

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One of my favourite zebra images. This was taken in Mkhuze Game Reserve, just north of Hluhluwe. 

 

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Left: Cheetah at Emdoneni rehabilitation centre.                                                             Right: A Zulu "warrior" at Shakaland, which is a bit of a tourist trap. 

 

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Driving North towards the St. Lucia wetlands. 

 

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In the waters at Lake St. Lucia you will find loads of these malevolent creatures. 

 

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The scariest ever moment was when this elephant in musth charged us.                  Re-worked image of the mountains in Malolotja that form the border between Swaziland and South Africa. 

 

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A carver at the market in Manzini, Swaziland, working on a small drum I bought for my son (he still has it!).

 

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We got as far north as the Tropic Of Capricorn. Well, I suppose that would be far down south for most of you! This also gives you an idea of the sheer size of the Kruger Park. 

 

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Your safaris always sound so interesting -  I must get round to coming back to Africa at some point, perhaps once the kids are grown up😉.

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Thanks Chris. We have been to some very interesting places over the last 10 years, and the plan is to keep going to even more of them in the future. Next year's trip will be a new location, but a very good one. :) 

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Safari #2 - October 2010

 

As I mentioned in the previous instalment of this series, the biggest take away from Safari #1 for me was that road trips weren’t the best way to experience a wildlife photographic safari. Neither was going to national parks where we couldn’t get close to animals, or even if you could, you had to jostle with loads of other cars full of people also wanting to see the same animals. What I had to do was come up with a solution that addressed both of those issues.

 

I don’t recall exactly where it popped onto my radar, but somewhere I heard about Sabi Sabi, this private game reserve in the Sabi Sands (which is adjacent to the Kruger Park) where the rangers drove you around in open Land Rovers and also made use of radio communications between themselves as well as their Shangaan trackers to find animals like lions and leopards. They would also be able to drive you right up to these predators, going off road if necessary. It sounded to me like a fabulous solution for photographers wanting to get great shots of Africa’s Big 5 - in other words, most of the NG audience. The only problem was, it would cost a LOT to go there. If we were working on the same 2 week safari time frame as before it would literally double the cost of what we had charged for Safari #1. Hmmm…

 

I did some investigating and made contact with the management at Sabi Sabi to see if I could get some kind of a deal going with them if we booked out an entire lodge. I managed to negotiate that both myself and Pepe could stay at the lodge for free in their Pilot rooms (basic guide accommodation), but also join in the game drives and share all the provided meals with our guests. Instead of spending two weeks on safari, I dropped the time frame down to 1 week and Pepe added in optional safari extensions that she would take the guests on either before or after the main trip. After some number crunching we came up with an attractive safari and put it out to the NG community.

 

I was actually quite surprised at just how well received Safari #2 was, especially among members of NG who I had never even heard from before. I got a lot of emails and before we knew it, the trip was fully booked for October 2010.

 

The plan was that we would rendezvous in Johannesburg and stay at a lodge near the airport. From there I would fly with our Safarians to Nelspruit airport, which is about 90 minutes drive away from the Sabi Sands Shaw’s Gate. Pepe would drive most of the guests luggage and gear from Johannesburg and meet up with us at Nelspruit, where we would get a final road transfer to Sabi Sabi.

 

When our plane touched down at Nelspruit we emerged onto the tarmac to face an ambient temperature of something like 38˚C. It was also extremely dry, like a million hair dryers were blowing in our faces. Oh dear Lord, I thought, I will not survive a week of this. At that time I was fairly overweight at about 110kg, so extreme heat didn’t agree with me much at all.

 

By the time we arrived at Little Bush Camp in Sabi Sabi, the temperature hadn’t dropped and we discovered to our horror that the camp had almost been consumed by an intense bush fire the night before. It had been touch-and-go for them to evacuate the guests who had been staying before we arrived, but fortunately the entire staff of Sabi Sabi had rescued the situation by battling the flames themselves with blankets and whatever else they could find to arrest the flames. It is a remarkable measure of the calibre of people who run Sabi Sabi that they would put their own lives on the line and work throughout the night to protect their work space.

 

After camp manager Hugo gave us a brief introduction to how things work at Sabi Sabi, we had some lunch and then we got ready to explore the reserve with our two rangers, Richard & Rika and their respective Shangaan trackers (Jack & Solly). By then the heat had begun to die down a little and the sun was hiding behind some cloud cover making it a little less unpleasant.

 

Sitting in the front passenger seat next to Ranger Rika as our first drive got underway, I was trying to understand what was going on with the radio comms between her, Richard and the other rangers out on drive. The language they were speaking was a bamboozling mixture of English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Shangaan, but the gist of what I was hearing was that they were looking for something called a “skankaan”. Skunk? Why would they be looking for a skunk? Rika, who I had an immediate rapport with, just smiled and told me to wait and see. Ok. No problem.

 

About 20 minutes later we came across a very excited Ranger Richard, who joyfully pointed out that he had found the skankaan before Rika did. It was a male cheetah lying in the long grass of an open veld, also trying to beat the heat. Wow! What a find on our first drive!

 

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As several thousand frames were going off around it like a mini-blitzkrieg, our cheetah roused itself and in the dimming light began to walk around, taking in its surroundings. Off in the distance was a white rhino and her calf, and just a little further beyond them was a small herd of impala, also known as Bush MacDonalds because of the M-shape of their rear end (and the fact that they are the primary food source for many of the predators).

 

Rika’s brow furrowed slightly as she started the Land Rover to follow the cheetah. “I think he’s going to hunt down one of those impalas” she said. “Get ready!”

 

By now it was getting pretty dark and the Nikon D700, while capable of decent low light performance, wasn’t the ideal camera for this task while connected to a huge Sigma 120-300mm f.2.8. I made a decision that I think was probably the right one as we watched the cheetah begin stalking the impala while using the rhinos as cover. I would rather witness the chase with my eyes than try to keep track of a well camouflaged cheetah chasing down an impala at 80km/h.

 

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What happened next will always stay with me. The cheetah burst into attack and the impala began scattering away helter-skelter across the veld we were on. It was an incredible thing to witness as that animal hit its straps in hot pursuit of its dinner.

 

He didn’t get his quarry, but in recovery he ran onto some of the scorched ground that the bush fire had left in its wake, making him pop out of the dark surroundings perfectly for one of my favourite shots from that safari.

 

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Over dinner that night we could barely contain our excitement, many of us suggesting that we may as well go home because it was never going to get better than that. What an introduction to Sabi Sabi!

 

The next six days went by in a flash. We saw lots of elephants, way too closely for my liking but much to the amusement of Ranger Rika who at one point thought I might need defibrillation as a matriarch passed by closely in front of us. We also experienced a pair of male lions roaring up close as night fell. A lion’s roar is indescribable. It’s almost as if they are doing something to the atmosphere because you can feel a vibration in your chest as they push their sound through the air. According to a book I have about lions their roars can be heard from as far as 3km away and are used to announce themselves as dominant in the area.

 

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Rika & Richard gave us the time of our lives

 

By the end of our week in Sabi Sabi we were all elated and had hard drives bursting with thousands of images. It was just an incredible experience that by far exceeded all of our expectations. However, it would be another 2 years before we got to go there again for Safari #3.

 

Be sure to click the Follow button on this thread to get notifications of new additions to the safari story.

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I was there!  It was a great trip.

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Indeed you were, Anthony! I have evidence. :) 

 

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Graham (sitting in the back row here) came back on our 2017 trip and will be joining me again in June this year but at the Selati lodge, not Little Bush Camp. Next year the plan is to visit a different game reserve closer to where I live, namely Phinda. 

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Memories!

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2012 sticks out in my memory for several reasons, both from a personal and professional standpoint. It was the year that I discovered the possibilities of the Micro Four Thirds system when I bought an Olympus OM-D E-M5. It was also the year that I brought my body mass index from over 32 down to 24, most certainly skewing my timeline away from premature death. I also registered the Fotozones domain name in 2012, so it was definitely a memorable year.

 

As had been the case on the previous trip to Sabi Sabi, my main dilemma in the build-up to the 2012 trip had been deciding what camera equipment I was going to take and more importantly, how was I going to get it there? At that time I was still pretty heavily entrenched in the Nikon system and I had a nice collection of lenses, including the Sigma 120-300/2.8 OS. This was a great lens for safari and I also had both the 2x and 1.4x TC’s for it, making it even more versatile. I also had Sigma’s 70-200/2.8 OS which I had used very effectively with the 2x TC on the previous year’s trip. They were both pretty sharp lenses.

 

Bringing all this gear as well as my newly discovered Olympus E-M5 (for which I had sold one of my Nikon D700 bodies) wasn’t easy because it tipped my carry on luggage well over 15kg together with my laptop. The limit for local flights with SAA (the airline we used) is 8kg, so I had to pare it all down a bit. I ended up taking the 120-300mm and I think a couple of smaller lenses for the Nikon system, plus the Olympus and a couple of Panasonic lenses I had acquired. Somehow it got through the security as carry on luggage at my home airport, as well as on the flight back. If I had been stopped I was going to ask the airline why the previous year when I personally weighed over 100kg and now weighed only 82kg, why I wasn't allowed more hand luggage? Fortunately it never came to that. 

 

Anyway, amidst all this change in both gear and personal girth, October 2012 safari time arrived and would you believe it if I told you that on our first drive at Sabi Sabi we once again saw a predator hunting? Sounds far fetched but it’s absolutely true. We came across a young lioness who had become separated from her pride a few days earlier. We found her in the shade of a large tree but after a while she got up and in the light of the setting sun she climbed up a small hill and posed beautifully for us. Wow. It was probably one of the most perfect photo opportunities one could ask for.

 

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You can tell from the prominence of the rosettes on her legs and underbelly that she’s still fairly young. Those spots usually fade as the animal gets older, disappearing entirely in males.

 

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This is one of my favourite lion shots from all the safaris. This male had just raised his head to see what all the noise was (think shutters going off like a squadron of spitfires attacking a WW2 target) and the morning sun seemed to ignite his mane and face. 

 

The Southern Pride of lions as they had come to be known, were very successful in the Sabi Sands, particularly for their ability to hunt down the fearsome buffalo, which is also a members of Africa’s Big 5. We encountered this pride many times during the safari, but we were also introduced to one of the most successful male leopards the area has known, namely Sandriver. This male leopard became very well known for his ability to dominate and defend his territory, even with only one functioning eye. He had lost the use of his right eye in a battle with another leopard, but this didn’t seem to slow him down at all. He was magnificent and powerful with a neck like a Sumo wrestler.

 

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Every day on this safari was exciting and Sabi Sabi had certainly welded itself onto our hearts as a place that we could call our “safari home”. We would return every year afterwards and each time we’d get a taste of something different.

 

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A male white rhino suffering dreadfully from an infestation of ticks and flies. 

 

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Make dung beetle with a perfectly formed ball for his discerning madam. 

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