Don’t fight the light!

I have recently returned from an unusual trip into the bush. It was unusual for several reasons:

“When you are on the game vehicle at first light, there is a cool breeze in your face and a sense of freshness in the bush. The latent temperature change releases the fragrances of the bush veld. The last whoops of homebound hyaenas and jackals can be heard and male francolin are urgently reasserting their territory. There is a sense of expectation mixed with a deep sense of peace.” – Mike Haworth

It was my first opportunity to get into the bush since South Africa’s lockdown in late March 2020. It was absolutely fantastic to be back in an environment which I find so interesting, full of life and devoid of all the human noise. The wildlife did not miss us one little bit during the “lockdown”!

During the five days we spent in the bush, four and a half days were deeply overcast with drizzle and it was cold – not what we expected at the start of spring in southern Africa.

Our trip was hosted by Wildeye and led by Andrew Beck. This photographic safari company prides itself on teaching its guests to see the world differently. The challenge was set. The light was difficult, the weather rainy and and the temperature cold. The lodge was superb but getting on the open game vehicle in that weather was an altogether different challenge. Once the vehicle was moving, the drizzle turned into driving rain and the cold got freezing, to say nothing of the visibility.

We consider ourselves die hard wildlife photographers, so bad weather was not going to stop us getting out into the bush with our cameras. The big question was whether we would be able to get any photography going with such low light and wet drizzly conditions. I wear glasses which added to the visual challenge.

Several wildlife photographic principles came into play. The first and crucial rule is that you have to get out there to find the opportunities to photograph interesting wildlife scenes, behaviours and interactions. You can not dream about them sitting in front of the fire in the pub at the lodge.

The second rule which was properly reinforced on this trip was – “don’t fight the light, work with it”. In this regard, I have to thank Andrew Beck from Wildeye for living this principle. Are you going to take award winning images in these conditions, possibly but very unlikely? Are you going to get the most photographically from your trip? Absolutely! You will learn about light, its directionality and its colour, and you will work your exposure triangle.

I rate myself a keen wildlife photographer, but on a few occasions when we went out in the afternoon it was overcast, drizzling and cold, I had severe doubts. After an hour or two, wet and cold, I figured the drive in the open game vehicle into the bush was a fool’s errand. Andrew must have done this many times before, so judged the probability of getting something interesting was better than even, and he was right.

What we did not take into account is a couple of factors which were in our favour. Firstly, our full frame sensor cameras can handle high ISOs and low light. Secondly, we could go off road to get into as good a position as possible. Thirdly, the vehicle had hand held spotlights which was our light source in dark conditions.

Lastly, mother nature has an unpredictable way of opening up her universe for those prepared to venture into her world on her terms. She will reveal some of her intimate secrets for those prepared to be patient, and who seek to understand and are prepared to look and listen. Nothing happens in a linear way in the bush, it is too complex, too multi-factored and too dynamic. One afternoon we had been driving in the cold and rain for about two hours seeing very little and the low low was fading, when all of sudden the tracker found fresh pug marks in the sand road. The tracks revealed a large leopard had recently moved across the road. By listening to the sounds of the bush we found a lone male leopard in the dark.

It is an amazing feeling to sit quietly in the dark watching this large male leopard. He was alert, sensing all the scents and sounds on the breeze. As humans, we can only marvel at their sensory awareness – there is so much news in the wind!

The rain stopped. This was a new male leopard in the southern area of Sabi Sabi section. He knew he was in some else’s territory but was hungry and was following a small herd of impala. We watched and followed him for a while and them left him to hunt on his own terms.

The next evening it was still raining and cold. It was dark and we were off road following another large male leopard called “White Dam”. One of the several aspects which amazed me about this incident was while we were banging and crashing with the vehicle trying to follow him off road through the bush but he managed to either hear or see a Grey duiker in the dark and rain. In an instant he dashed off to his right and caught it. How he knew the duiker was 10 to 20 metres off to his right in the dark and rain with us behind him I will never know. The spot light shows the conditions.

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” ~ Plato

For some inexplicable reason this male dragged the grey duiker probably three to four hundred metres from where he caught it. None of us knew why he decided to drag his kill so far when there were plenty of decent sized trees close by. It may have been because he sensed other leopards in the area or the cry of the duiker probably alerted hyaenas and he wanted to get his kill as far from that area as possible.

This male leopard ended up hauling his catch up a Marula tree only to find he could not secure it properly to feed.

After a few attempts to secure his prey in the Marula tree he decided to bring the duiker back down to the ground to feed.

He managed to feed in peace and we left him in the dark to enjoy his hard earned dinner. Just the skill and strength of hauling his prey up a wet Marula tree trunk was an incredible feat, in my estimation.

“Life isn’t just about darkness or light, rather it’s about finding light within the darkness.” ~ Landon Parham

One of my favourite aspects about Sabi Sands reserve is that almost all of the roads are sand. This means there is minimal dust and the road offers a much smoother ride. More importantly, the sand is like the bush newspaper revealing all the activity of the wildlife in that area.

Sabi Sands has latticed network of sand roads which create the boundaries for blocks of virgin bush. The tracks on the sand roads create a map of what has passed, when, and which direction. This is a great help when tracking well camouflaged predators in thick bush. The trackers also listen carefully for squirrel, monkey or bird alarm calls which signal that a predator is in the vicinity. Our guide Greg Henman and tracker Nhlanhla, worked as a team and were an excellent tracking unit. Greg would often stop the vehicle, turn off the engine and just listen. On a few occasions this tactic yielded results which we would probably have never known unless we had just stopped and listened. After living in the city where your senses are overwhelmed by sensory overload, you need a guide who is tuned into the ways of the bush to interpret its the sounds and signs.

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” ~ William Shakespeare

Another aspect which made the trip more enjoyable was that everyone at the Bush Lodge in Sabi Sabi were so pleased to see guests filling up the lodge, with the sound of animated chatter over meals and laughter flowing out of the pub, a place in the evening where long tales are told with great flare and exaggeration.

I have a few more posts to share on this trip to highlight the unique photographic conditions where we saw some unusual interactions between predators.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.” ~ Maya Angelou

Explore, seek to understand marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

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