WILDLIFE ENTHUSIASTS OF EVERY KIND ARE SMITTEN BY BOTSWANA’S OKAVANGO DELTA, WHICH LURES THEM IN CONSIDERABLE NUMBERS. IF YOUR MAIN AIM IS TO SNAP BRAG-WORTHY PHOTOS, HERE’S HOW TO ESCAPE THE CROWDS
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.