Hi everyone! I'm sorry the blog hasn't been updated this month. As I mentioned before, we were a bit off the grid. I just returned from two amazing weeks in wild Africa and man, what an adventure it was! The trip was a safari designed just for photographers with Journeys Unforgettable. During the trip, I was teaching Lightroom and Photoshop and then helping out in the field as well.
We flew from Las Vegas to Atlanta and then on to the city of Jonannesburg, South Africa, where we met the folks we'd be traveling with for the next two weeks. There were a total of 14 people. We had one night to get acquainted, have dinner and come to terms with the fact that we were, indeed, in Africa! The next morning we set off for our first camp, in Zimbabwe.
The camps are only accessible via bush plane, and when you fly in, you literally land on a dirt airstrip (provided there are no animals wandering around on it!), the planes leave and you are in the wild. The camp's guides are there to pick you up in open Land Rovers. The first camp was called Little Makalolo and consisted of about seven "tents", an open dining area, an open living area and a nice little plunge pool (from which the elephants often like to drink!). Of the three camps we stayed at, this one the one that was closest to the wildlife and the nearby water hole made it so that you often had a view of elephants, zebra, giraffe, sable and many other species.
During the course of the safari, we pretty much stuck to the same schedule. We would wake up at 5:00 am, have [much needed] coffee and a continental breakfast, and then set out on the morning game drive. We would be in the open Land Rovers and we'd usually each get our own row in the vehicle. This made for the most convenient shooting situation because I could keep my gear all out, and move back and forth as needed. Journeys Unforgettable also provided Wimberley heads with a special modification that would allow it to mount on the vehicle. This was great because I had rented a 500mm lens from LensProToGo and it would have been hard to manage without the Wimberley. (I'll post a video on the Wimberley setup later) We would be out shooting and exploring until 11:00, when we would return to camp and have brunch. Then the gang would have an hour or two to nap, edit images or just hang out, before I gave my presentation on Lightroom or Photoshop. At 3:00 we would have an afternoon tea and then head out again. We'd be on our afternoon game drive until sunset, when we would have what was called a "sundowner." We learned that this was pretty much a glorified happy hour. We would stop somewhere beautiful, often with a view of some wildlife, get out of our vehicles, and have drinks and snacks as the sun went down. When we returned to camp, there would be an amazing dinner waiting for us. All of the food was delicious, and it was different every day. They even had vegetarian options for Karen. Not a bad way to end the day!
We were visiting Zimbabwe during the end of its dry season, right before the rainy season was to start. This actually made it easier for us to find lots of animals because they were all congregating around the small number of water holes that actually had water left in them. If we had waited a few more weeks, the rains would have come and the animals would have been much more dispersed because they'd have more water holes to choose from. We saw a lot of animals at this first camp but the elephants took the cake. We would see dozens of them at a time!
We stayed at Little Makalolo for four nights and then flew to our second camp, which was located in Botswana. The second camp was called Savuti, and it was the favorite for both me and Karen. The main area was open just like the last camp, but it had a lodge-type feel, with hardwood floors and rich colors. The whole camp was also raised up a bit and the common areas and tents were all connected via boardwalk-type pathways. I think the best part was our room, though. The interior was beautiful, with hardwood floors, brass sinks and a "loo with a view." We also had a patio/deck out front that overlooked the Savuti Channel and we could often see elephants crossing the water right in front of our tent.
The whole atmosphere in Botswana was almost a 180 from what we experienced in Zimbabwe. While Zimbabwe was dry, this area in Botswana was incredibly lush, with the channel winding all over the place. The elephants here were quite fat and happy compared to the ones we'd seen before. The other different thing about Botswana was that the guides could go "off-road." In Zimbabwe, we were in a national park that had some dirt roads the vehicles were limited to, but in Savuti, there were no such rules, and we really got to see what the Rovers were made of. Those things could take down small trees without even slowing down. Three feet of water? No problem.
Again, we saw loads of animals in this area, but there are a few things that stood out. The wild dog is one of the most endagered mammals in Africa, and we actually got to see an entire pack of them. It was really interesting to watch them interact, because they have more of a family-type structure than any other animals. We also got to see mating lions... just a few meters away. I learned that when lions mate, they go at it for three whole days, doing their thing every 15 minutes! Because of the amount of water, we were able to go out on boat rides in addition to game drives. This was a pleasant change, and let us shoot hippos from water-level, as well as a wider variety of birds.
If you know me at all, you'd probably guess that I wouldn't last the entire trip without doing some light painting. I did a quick demo for the folks while we were at Little Makalolo, and during one of our sun-downers in Botswana we did some more. Everyone seemed to have a lot of fun with it, and it was a nice change from the animal photography we were doing during the day.
We stayed at Savuti for four nights, and then flew to our third and final camp: Little Vumbura. This third camp was also in Botswana and was also surrounded by water. In fact, it was on an island so we had to take a short boat ride every time we left the camp. The common areas here were the most open of all the camps and was a great place to see the sunrise over breakfast.
At this camp, we also had the choice to do a boat ride instead of a game drive, which was nice to do once or twice considering the temps were hitting 110 degrees. They also had these very narrow boats called mokoros that the guides would navigate with a long pole while standing up. From these, we could really get into the reeds of the channel and see the super tiny reed frogs, as well as lilies and tiny birds that liked to hide and nest near the water.
We also had some amazing "on-land" experiences near this camp. First of all, we were able to find a female leopard on the prowl. Not only did our group get to see her hunt and snag a meal, but she carried her catch up a tree and hung around for the next few days eating and protecting it. We were able to go back to her over and over and she was just amazing. One of the shots I wanted to come home with was a cat in a tree, and this gal was very accomodating! She could care less that there were vehicles around. To her, they were just part of the landscape.
We also got to see some wild dogs in action. This will actually be hard to describe because it was so intense, but here goes. The guides knew the routine of these dogs, but it was very rare to actually see them hunt. However, we managed to find the pack at sunset, just as they were waking up. The young cubs woke up first and stirred up the adults. They were anxious for their meal. The adults eventually woke up, and they had this whole meet-and-greet ritual. It really was quite fascinating. Then our guide turns to us and, very seriously, says: "So when we go, we go. Make sure your gear is stowed." We stowed our gear. The guide saw the adults start to leave the pack and pick up the pace. They were going to hunt. Before we knew it, our Land Rover was FLYING through the bush. There are no roads, mind you. We were whipping around trees and taking down bushes. We were holding on for our life, and it was awesome! The dogs were going to get their dinner, and we were right there with them. Before we knew it, they had found an adult empala and took it down. What's interesting is that once the adults catch their prey, they completely back off and let the young cubs eat first.The actual kill was a bit gruesome, and Karen hardly even watched, but such is the circle of life. After this, we thought the night was over. We found a safe spot and climbed out of the vehicle for some beverages. About a minute later, our guide yells, "Get in the vehicle! Get in!" We weren't in danger, but the dogs were at it again. No sooner did we climb in that he was off again. Flying. They first tried to go after some warthogs, but backed off (wart hogs are apparently very bad-ass) and then they went for an ENTIRE HERD of wildabeest. Now the wild dogs are some of the most efficient hunters in Africa, but what happened this evening was amazing. The wildabeest fought back. They were protecting their young, with a vengeance. There were dogs chasing wildabeest and wildabeest chasing dogs, all under a full moon. It was insane. Our local guide and photographer, Dana Allen, has been doing this for over 25 years and even he said that he'd never seen antything like it.
I'm going to wrap things up on that note, but defintely check in to Karen's blog, The Pixel Diaries, because she is writing a detailed, three-part series on this whole trip. Also, I will be doing some posts on the gear I brought and used during the safari, so stay tuned for that.
We are currently planning a return trip to Africa with Journeys Unforgettable in Namibia. The trip will most likely take place in September of 2013, but we will have official dates and information up soon!
More to come...