Tea­gan Cun­niffe gets thrillingly close to ele­phants on a photo sa­fari in the Delta

Morn­ings can be a stress­ful time in the bush. Dawn’s soft, del­i­cate light is also the source of pho­tog­ra­phers’ angst: it’s a race to find a suit­ably pho­to­genic sub­ject be­fore that same light turns harsh. Our guide, Re­lax Rele­mogeng, led us on the search. The 4x4 plunged into bon­net-deep streams and emerged, drip­ping, on the far banks. We peered into trees, scoured the sky­line and clutched our jack­ets closer as the cold air seeped through the fab­ric. There! Perched on a branch, a lilac-breasted roller hud­dled against the morn­ing chill. Re­lax slowed the ve­hi­cle and we hoisted our tele­photo lenses.

I was in Botswana, on my first-ever photo sa­fari. I had avoided these in the past – there’s some­thing about hoardes of pho­tog­ra­phers all fir­ing away at the same sub­ject that puts me off – but Toby Jermyn, the co-founder of Pan­golin Photo Sa­faris, had as­sured me this would be dif­fer­ent. ‘You’ll see,’ he said. ‘The re­serve is huge and our groups are small. You’re likely to be the only ve­hi­cle at a sight­ing.’

And he was right, for the most part. The Kh­wai Pri­vate Re­serve is enor­mous: 200 000 hectares, to be spe­cific. It shares un­fenced bor­ders with the Kh­wai Com­mu­nity Re­serve, Moremi Game Re­serve, Chobe Na­tional Park and the Okavango Delta. This area is home to stands of mopane and lead­wood trees, water­ways criss-crossed by muddy lechwe tracks, plump hip­pos and nu­mer­ous leop­ards.

We’re in the south­ern sec­tor; at 60000 hectares, it’s al­most the size of the Sabi Sand Game Re­serve. It was pre­vi­ously a hunt­ing con­ces­sion but, fol­low­ing Botswana’s to­tal ban on hunt­ing in 2014, was trans­formed into an ex­clu­sive pho­to­graphic and tourism des­ti­na­tion. The word ‘ex­clu­sive’ can gen­er­ally be sub­sti­tuted with ‘not for South Africans’, so I’m de­lighted to find my­self shar­ing a ve­hi­cle with not just one but four fel­low Saf­fers. There’s Deon van Aarde, who’s snuck away from work for a long week­end and is fer­vently hop­ing his boss won’t no­tice. Then there’s Willem and Em­marie Bre­it­en­bach, who ar­rived in their own 4x4 but, see­ing as it’s still sub­merged in a river chan­nel three hours from camp, won’t be leav­ing in it. Willem has only just re­cov­ered from the lo­gis­ti­cal trauma and joined in on the hol­i­day, with Em­marie us­ing his sec­ond-hand Nikon gear. She’d just started tak­ing pho­tog­ra­phy more se­ri­ously and was hooked. The fourth per­son is hum­ble Nelis Wol­marans, the pho­tog­ra­phy guide and host dur­ing our stay. A for­mer wildlife guide, he’s a font of prac­ti­cal ad­vice and as­ton­ish­ingly good at tim­ing his shots.

The five of us stared at the lilac-breasted roller, will­ing it to take flight so we could catch the colours of its wings. The bird stared back, feet fixed to the branch. Ten min­utes crawled past. Fif­teen. Our

‘The 4x4 plunged into bon­net-deep streams and emerged, drip­ping, on the far banks. We peered into trees, scoured the sky­line...’

arms creaked un­der the weight of our heavy lenses, and mine were the first to waiver. With a sigh, I placed my lens on the empty seat next to me. On cue, the roller took off. Cam­eras fired in quick suc­ces­sion, the sharp sounds rolling into one stac­cato blur. Then si­lence.

‘Ooh, sher­bet!’ said Em­marie. ‘I missed it.’

I spied Nelis’s LCD and glimpsed a sharp im­age of the bird in flight, wings grace­fully ex­tended and eyes glint­ing dev­il­ishly, as if se­cretly laugh­ing about keep­ing us wait­ing so long. Willem gazed down at his im­age, a sat­is­fied smile on his lips, while Deon cursed flight feathers that ob­scured the bird’s head on an oth­er­wise per­fect shot.

‘Wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy is all about speed, the cor­rect ex­po­sure and be­ing as pre­pared as pos­si­ble for the un­ex­pected,’ Nelis ex­plained to Em­marie as we bounced to­wards our morn­ing cof­fee break. The smell of wild sage, brushed by our wheels, hung in the air. ‘The ex­cit­ing part is not know­ing what may cross your path and when. So when scenes un­fold, you need to be ready. Use a de­fault set­ting that will al­low you the best ex­po­sure and speed for the light con­di­tions you find your­self in, and con­stantly ad­just these as the light changes.’

Em­marie nod­ded ea­gerly be­fore frown­ing down at her Nikon, per­plexed. Nelis leaned over to as­sist.

‘The prob­lem with hunt­ing sa­faris,’ Re­lax piped up from be­hind the steer­ing wheel, ‘is that once the an­i­mal is dead, it’s gone. With pho­tog­ra­phers, that same an­i­mal is there over and over again.’ Re­lax should know – he was ini­tially trained as a hunt­ing guide. It’s not just the an­i­mals who ben­e­fited from the change in leg­is­la­ture. (Alarm­ingly, the Botswana Par­lia­ment re­cently adopted a mo­tion to con­sider lift­ing the ban on shoot­ing ele­phants out­side the re­serves.)

A few days and many missed pho­to­graphs later, I’ve re­alised that there’s more to wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy than I’d naively thought. I’m awed by Nelis’s abil­ity to merge tech­ni­cal know-how with an un­der­stand­ing of an­i­mal be­hav­iour: a crit­i­cal skill for pre­dict­ing what your sub­ject might do, and how to plan cam­era set­tings and fram­ing ac­cord­ingly. Hav­ing a photo guide on hand is in­valu­able.

The big­gest sur­prise, how­ever, stemmed from the group it­self. It had cre­ated a non-judge­men­tal learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment, where tips and past pho­tog­ra­phy ex­pe­ri­ences could be shared. What’s more, trav­el­ling with a group that shares your pas­sion frees you

‘It’s all about speed and pre­par­ing for the un­ex­pected. When scenes un­fold, you need to be ready’

up to get even bet­ter im­ages. Head out at an un­rea­son­ably early hour? Ab­so­lutely! Ev­ery­one wants dawn light. Wait out a shy tree squir­rel? Of course! With that clear blue sky as back­ground, it’ll make a great por­trait. There are scant few with as much pa­tience as en­thused pho­tog­ra­phers hop­ing for a good shot. Ev­ery­one’s im­ages are quite dif­fer­ent – a re­sult of tim­ing, dif­fer­ing abil­i­ties and equip­ment, as well as their in­di­vid­ual ‘eye’.

Mastering the prac­ti­cal side of your cam­era is just one part of cap­tur­ing a great pho­to­graph. It’s also about keep­ing your nerve when the ac­tion starts to build and you find your­self in the midst of it.

‘The roof is go­ing to fold!’ I thought in panic, leap­ing back­wards as an ele­phant’s foot smashed down next to my head. A roar filled the air and dust burst through the win­dow of the ele­phant hide. The ship­ping con­tainer had looked sturdy enough… from the out­side. Now the buck­led roof and warped sides pressed in dis­turbingly and, frankly, be­ing at eye-level with an ele­phant’s toe­nail is a stark re­minder of its size.

The air smelled sharply of sul­phur – a com­bi­na­tion of muddy wa­ter and ele­phant urine – as 13 bulls tus­sled over the wa­ter source in front of us. An an­swer­ing nasal scream ripped through the air and my nerves jan­gled again. A sec­ond bull came into view and locked trunks with the ele­phant above me. They ca­reened to the right, barely side-step­ping the hide, and a trunk snaked in through the win­dow, knock­ing my Go­Pro to the floor. I teetered be­tween ex­hil­a­ra­tion and ter­ror as I hur­riedly switched lenses, tak­ing ad­van­tage of such in­cred­i­ble prox­im­ity to the giants.

Nelis’s cam­era rested on the seat be­side him. Be­ing this close to el­lies, com­pletely wrapped up in their en­ergy with­out dis­turb­ing them, is an over­whelm­ingly spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ence. He was sim­ply en­joy­ing the mo­ment, some thing pho­tog­ra­phers of­ten for­get to do. Next to him, Em­marie scrab­bled in her bag for an­other mem­ory card. ‘Did you get the shot?’ he asked.

Her an­swer, an em­phatic yes, was clearly writ­ten in her broad smile.

RIGHT Re­lax Rele­mogeng guid­ing the ve­hi­cle over the deep-wa­ter chan­nels, with sharpeyed tracker Ne­gro Xat­ego at his side.

LEFT Wait­ing for hip­pos to pass un­der­neath the bridge.

ABOVE The tents at Pan­golin Kh­wai Camp look out onto open wetland. Guides es­cort you to your room at night in case of wildlife en­coun­ters. OP­PO­SITE, TOP A break for Amarula-hot choc-cof­fee (don’t knock it un­til you’ve tried it!); the nightly roar­ing of lions will have you look­ing over your shoul­der dur­ing fireside con­ver­sa­tions at Pan­golin Kh­wai Camp. OP­PO­SITE, BOT­TOM Photo guide Nelis Wol­marans takes time out to en­joy the an­tics at the ele­phant hide; a fe­male wild dog keeps alert for dan­ger while the rest of her pack snooze in the shade.

ABOVE There are more than 20 leop­ards in the south­ern sec­tion of the re­serve, in­clud­ing this mother and cub. OP­PO­SITE Guests can watch ele­phants play in the wa­ter from the deck at Hyena Pan Camp.

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