The daily report from my Botswana Workshop
Note: while I wrote this blog contemporaneously during the workshop, what you're seeing here is on "tape delay." I'm playing back one day at a time so that you get the same day-by-day experience those of us in Botswana had. Newest entry is at the bottom. In some cases I'm using student images or those of my assistant instead of my own so that you get their view of a day, too. Thank you to all the students who've agreed to let some of their images be used in this blog. One comment, though, as the question came up in emails for the South Africa workshop: yes, my images sometimes look different than the students' in terms of post processing. I'm just taking what they give me and not trying to touch it up or change it in any way. I suspect some of the differences you see is simply not optimizing for small size. When I process for the Web, I have an optimization action that tries to preserve small detail.
South Africa Workshop Week One
South Africa Workshop Week Two
Botswana Workshop Week One
Newest Botswana Week 2 entry is at the bottom! Page currently contains Days 8-13.
Day 8: All Quiet on All Fronts
Sept 11--Every safari has its up days and its down days. Up days mean predators and exciting behavior. Down days mean prey with heads down or standing still, and darned few of them.
Today was a down day and not much happened. Considering the date, I suppose having not much happen might be construed by some as a good thing.
In eight hours of driving we saw relaxed impalas munching on grass, troop after troop of monkeys and baboons just playing and grooming, and not much else.
All four of our vehicles set off for different parts of the Xakanaxa, so we covered almost all of the area during the day. Not a single predator track was seen, let alone a predator. Okay, a croc is a predator and we saw the same one sitting at the same place as we did last night, but how many times can you photograph that?
I'm perfectly fine with down days. The camera stays in my lap and gets a rest, too. This is a very pretty area that we're in, and it's changed a lot since the last time I was here (due to the extra water coming through the delta, no doubt). So I'm perfectly happy to enjoy the scenery. I could tell a few of the students were getting frustrated by the end of the day, though. Fortunately we were saved from total boredom by a little driver mistake: in trying to get to our sundowner spot, one of the drivers stuck his Land Cruiser butt end into the muck of one crossing. This proved amusing in many ways.
First of all, our tour operator's wife was in the stuck vehicle, but our tour operator was driving a different vehicle. Second, no one knew where the stuck vehicle was. Upon getting stuck, the driver got out and walked around a corner in the road and disappeared, apparently to scout where he was and whether there was anything useful to getting himself unstuck. But this left us in radio communication with a vehicle full of people who didn't know where they were. So when we asked what they could see, the answer "termite mound" was highly unhelpful. There must be a termite mound every 100 feet in Botswana. Knowing that the water crossing they were stuck in wasn't very long wasn't helpful, either. There are tons of short water crossings in the area. At each increasing query and answer, we could all tell that our tour operator was getting a little rattled by not knowing where his wife was stuck as the light went down. Describing where they were wasn't going to help us find them.
So we had them blow their horn, but none of the other vehicles could hear it. Our tour operator kept asking her to describe things and where they'd been, but we couldn't quite narrow it down from the answers. Fortunately, we kept moving towards where we thought they might be, and eventually the horn trick worked and we found them just as their driver came back from his reconnaissance of the area.
Unfortunately, all was not well. Two of our photographers had their camera bags stuffed in the far back of the vehicle, the part that was partially submerged for the half hour or more where we were trying to find them. Note to the world: most camera bags offer a bit of water resistent in a situation like this, but they are not waterproof. One bag had just barely soaked through the outer layers and was wet the inside, so the equipment in it managed to live for another day. The gear in bag two, however, which was lower in the vehicle and more submerged, didn't do as well. A 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and 70-300mm all got water in them. I'll have more to say about "equipment casualties" at the end of the workshop, but suffice it to say if you ever get stuck in the water on safari in Botswana, get your bags up off the floor.
On the other hand, one of the members in that vehicle did get a nice sunset shot when we pulled them out:
Day 9: Big Cats
Sept 12--Another quiet morning, but one that that ended with finding a pride of nine lions with a huge, beautiful male. Not much to say other than we were with the long lenses a lot, as the lions kept well away from us.
And another quiet afternoon.
So perhaps it's a good time to write about the difference between safaris in different areas of Africa. I'm going to describe six different areas that are target rich for wildlife shooters:
The best known of the African parks is the Serengeti. It's also the place I'd tend to suggest last to people as a first safari experience. That's because the parks in Tanzania are tightly regulated, and Serengeti is huge. What that means is that you can't drive off road (your driver will be arrested and fined US$500, so I hope you're a very good tipper if you try to talk them into violating the regulations). And the road system in the Serengeti isn't exactly dense. So you spend long periods of time driving down roads and seeing distant animals. If you go to the Serengeti, bring the longest lens you can, you'll need it. That's not to say that things don't happen near the roads sometimes, but when they do, there will be a dozen or more vehicles on the sighting very quickly. Indeed, things drivers look for are large quantities of vultures circling (kill) or large quantities of Land Cruisers stopped (usually means a cat). On the plus side, the Serengeti is very photogenic, and many of the huge open landscapes you've seen in safari images are probably from that region.
Also within Tanzania is the Ngorongoro crater. This is the caldera of a volcano in which a huge variety of animals have congregated and formed a miniature African ecosystem within an ecosystem. Pretty much everything of interest can be found in the crater, including the uncommon rhino, but again it's "stick to the roads" and "lots of vehicles on every sighting." It's better than Serengeti in the sense that the area isn't huge, and it does have a reasonable density of roads, so things do tend to happen near a road. But it's become much like an overcrowded drive-through zoo. Getting good sight lines without other vehicles in them is tough. And if you sit on a sighting for a long time, a ranger will come shoo you away.
But Tanzania is a stable country, has a decent infrastructure in support of tourism, and has (mostly) a dedication towards trying to keep the wilds wild. Those are all good things. But the experience has degraded over the years due to the quantity of tourists coming through those two most popular areas. I should also mention that most safaris are in closed vehicles in Tanzania, though there are still plenty of open vehicles out and about.
In Kenya the Serengeti leads into the Masai Mara. The river between the two countries is where the water crossings of the big annual migrations take place, and made notorious by all of National Geographic's various over anthropomorphized stories of Wildebeests surviving the crocs patrolling the riverbanks. The terrain on the Kenya side is a little more hilly than the Serengeti, but the good news is that some modest off-roading is tolerated. The bad news is that there are a lot of low cost "safaris" based on four-wheel drive camper vans coming down from Nairobi, and the guides driving them know nothing about what it is they're in the middle of and don't have much respect for the terrain or the animals. More than once I've had one of these guys come flying into a cat sighting and scare the animal off, then chase after it. If you can't get the idea from that description: Kenya doesn't regulate like Tanzania does. The "good" operators try to do the right thing, but there are too many "bad" operators in the Mara now.
South Africa has Kruger, which is a lot like a very bushy Serengeti (tightly regulated, no off-roading, hard to get solid sightings on animals with the vehicle positioned as the photographer wants it to be). Bushy isn't good for a tightly regulated area, as it means if the animal isn't right on the road, you're dealing with sticks and twigs and branches and leaves and everything else conspiring to block your shots.
Which brings me to the reason why I run my wildlife workshops in the private reserves of South Africa and in Botswana. In the South African private reserves you use fully open vehicles, which is nice (as long as you're ready to deal with the support issues). The preserves all are adjacent to Kruger, so the animals are wandering between the preserves and Kruger all the time without knowing where they are. But the preserves allow offroading to position a vehicle, have guides and trackers who are driving through the same areas every day and know the stories of almost all the animals on their preserves. As far as I'm concerned, four to six days at the right lodge in Sabi Sands or Primavarti is by far the best entry level safari experience you can book, especially if you arrange to have a private photography vehicle. By far. You will photograph pretty much all the animals you want to, and you will do so up close and with shorter lenses than you need elsewhere. For more on the private reserves, check out my blog for the South African workshop.
Botswana is like a mix of the best of the Mara and the best of the South African private reserves. Some of the area we traverse is National Park and fairly tightly regulated. Outside of Chobe National Park, there's some tolerance for positioning vehicles, though not the outright offroading you do in South Africa's private reserves. Moreover, except for perhaps two areas (Xakanaxa and Chobe), there isn't a lot of visitation, so you don't see a lot of other vehicles and don't tend to get the congested sightings you do in Tanzania and Kenya. Heck, we were on a pack of wild dogs right next to the road outside the park near Maun and only one other vehicle came by and stopped to join us. Botswana is still a pretty "wild" experience compared to the other great game places in Africa. Botswana also has private concession areas, too. And in those, as you'll soon learn, you can do other things that are interesting and nearly impossible in some of the better known African safari destinations.
Day 10: Kill, Kill, Kill
Sept 13--It was a late start (7:30) today because we're in "move mode" again. Today we break the camp and drive to Kwai, where the camp magically reappears by the time we get there. I've got to hand it to our tour operator, he's got this mobile tent camping thing down to a science. It's absolutely amazing just how seamless the whole thing works. Of course, we've got this mammoth truck that carries everything:
Before we started the main drive, we had time for a mini game drive in the area we've been exploring. Last night we had hyena in camp and we heard lion calls not too distant. So we looked for lion tracks outside camp. And found them pretty quickly. We followed the tracks for almost 5km before we lost them at a wet area, went around the mud and picked them up on the other side. Indeed, we followed the tracks of two male lions about as far as we could, which was Northgate, the top entrance to Moremi. Unfortunately, at that point we needed to head towards Kwai, so we had to abandon the chase.
I should point out that lions can cover enormous distances at night. Male lions will often do full territory checks in a night if they've had a recent meal or suspect another cat is encroaching on their territory. It seems that our males were doing exactly that, heading out to the fringes of the wet delta before tracking across their territory and back.
Fortunately, not long after we left the lion tracks we found our first kill.
You were expecting a lion kill, weren't you? Sorry, but this was snake kill. Snake kill? Say what?
As we were on the main road between Moremi and Kwai both the driver and I spotted something scurry off the right side of the road as we passed. But something was wrong. We both thought perhaps we had run over a snake, as it looked like a snake with a flattened head. To our surprise, the "flattened head" turned out to be a perfectly healthy snake holding a lizard sideways in its mouth.
At first we thought we were looking at a Mole Snake, which is non venomous. Thus, we got out of the vehicle and got to 70-200mm minimum focus distance and started shooting. But it soon became clear this wasn't a Mole, but something else. Oops. Fortunately, with a kill in its mouth we weren't in any danger, and the guide knows all the venomous snakes that are supposed to be in the area and this wasn't one of those. But we had to look it up just to make sure. Phew! Non-venomous.
We stayed long enough to see the process of our snake friend repositioning the kill and getting it down the hatch, after which both the snake and our vehicle slinked back off into the bush.
Lest you think a day traveling from place to place in Botswana is just an easy drive in the park, consider this:
There's a lot of water where there should be roads, and the bridges aren't exactly what you might be used to:
It's no fun (or a lot of fun, depending on your perspective) for the drivers, either:
Just prior to lunch, we came across kill number two. You're still thinking lion, right? Wrong again. This one was even more unlikely to be seen than the first.
The kill in question? The egg of a ground-nesting bird. The killer? A monitor lizard. Over the years I've seen a lot of monitor lizards sniffing around the landscape, but I'd never previously seen one successful in finding an egg. In fact, I've been so unsuccessful at seeing that I once thought about stealing a hard boiled egg from breakfast and putting it in the field with a monitor (no, I'd never do that, but one can daydream).
Note the bird just behind the monitor. It was trying to defend its nest. Unsuccessfully--the monitor lizard is bigger, meaner, and will take a bird if it has to.
Today's kill wasn't exactly a photographic event, as the monitor was a little too far from us and surrounded by low grass, but there was that unmistakeable moment when he raised his head upwards, cleared the grass with an open mouth, and swallowed the egg. So now that I've seen it, I have to figure out how to photograph it ;~).
And for our finale to the day, we found a leopard in a tree with a baboon kill in the bush below it. So we got the full leopard experience: up the tree, sleeping in the tree, walking in the tree, down the tree, eating the kill, laying in front of the kill, and wandering out to find water. We even had a group of elephants tentatively pass by the leopard and its kill. I wrote about the safari experience in other places yesterday, so I need to have full disclosure here: at one point we had nine vehicles on the sighting, four of them ours. This is in an area of Botswana that is rather dense with safari lodges. Nine vehicles. If we had been in the Serengeti with this good a sighting, there would have been thirty.
This evening we worked on some star shots and star trail shots during and after dinner. I showed Tony's at the beginning of this. Here's my setup shot before we did the star trail action. The shadows being cast across the lower left are all our tripods and Tony and I doing some double-checking before joining dinner (the mess tent lighting is casting the shadows).
(Just a reminder: with star trails, the circle centers around the northern point (North Star) or the southern point (where the Southern Cross points), depending upon which hemisphere you're in. Basically, all we had to work with at this camp were trees and stumps, and most of us decided to use that central tree as the rotation point for the trails. This wasn't so much about getting a great shot--though many of the images came out nicely--as it was about training and practicing at how to set up a night shot. One of these days I'm sure I'll have more to say about that ;~).
Day 11: The Ele that Walked to the Leopard
Sept 14--The morning drive was rather uneventful, but highly informative. Last night another group covering the same area as us was lucky enough to see a wild dog pack kill a small kudu right at sunset (would have been tough to photograph with so little light). So we headed out this morning to go see the remains. Holy moly. All that remained was bones.
In less than 24 hours the wild did it's thing, with all the creatures of the night conspiring to consume virtually every bit of skin, muscle, meat, and organ of the kudu. I'm sure the dogs did a lot of the damage, but the kudu was picked clean and we saw plenty of other tracks and evidence that suggested that vultures, hyena, and more, had managed to get their share. As I wrote earlier, every animal, insect, and even plants, plays a part in the great life cycle of the full ecosystem. Yesterday the kudu was a living, breathing, kicking part of the ecosystem. Today bits and pieces of him are spread all over the area.
On the afternoon drive my vehicle encountered a very calm bull elephant as we went left when the other vehicles went right. Of course we stopped to admire and photograph him. His left tusk was long and impressive, his right tusk much worn and shorter. Elephants, like humans, are left- or right-handed. Uh, left or right-tusked, that is.
Another vehicle showed up and our bull friend decided that he wasn't going to pose for them and headed into the woods. We should have followed him.
Instead, we drove in a broad circle in the area, eventually getting to the river. Which is where we found--yes, you guessed it--our big bull friend. He still tolerated us quite well, so we resumed his modeling session, this time with the full drinking ritual. Plus he had friends now. So we spent some time photographing them, too. Since we had started late this afternoon (more on that in a moment), the light was turning into that gentle late warmth that makes the African wildlife scene so magical sometimes.
Another vehicle showed up and our bull friend decided that he wasn't going to pose for them and headed back into the woods. We should have followed him.
Instead, we heard a distant kudu alarm call, so we decided to go pursue that. About the time we figured out that we had gone too far for the call and needed to head back a bit, we got a radio call from another of our vehicles that was behind us: leopard in tree.
So we quickly drove back halfway towards where we had been only to find a leopard in a tree and our friendly bull elephant underneath it, calmly chewing down the bush under the tree. This time eight other vehicles showed up and our bull friend decided that he wasn't going to pose for them and headed back into the woods. I wonder if we should have followed him?
Instead, we stayed with the leopard, got a couple of decent shots right as the sun got at its lowest, and then packed out for our sundowner.
"Sundowner" is a safari tradition: you find someplace nice to watch the final drop of the sun into the horizon while having the drink of your choice. Here, that usually means a view through acacia or other interesting trees, so sunsets can be quite nice. Normally after sundowner you head back to camp, but today we had a special treat in store: night driving. Because we're in a private concession area, we're allowed to use spotlights during the night.
So, armed with a spotlight and standing up through the roof, I searched the area for tapetum lucidum. That's the mirror at the back of most animal's eyes (but not humans, who have blood vessels only). The color of the reflection usually tells you something about what you're seeing. I seem to be great at finding the red eyes of crocs, as I found many. I also managed to acquire a wild cat (small African predator), but as we tried to close on him he bolted.
At night you see lots of animals you don't during the day. Tonight we didn't manage to do too well on that front, getting mostly the things we'd seen during the day (including, amazingly, our elephant friend one more time). But you get nothing if you don't try. We finished with a Fish Eagle Owl on a tree next to the road, then heading back to camp for dinner.
I wonder where that bull elephant is now?
Day 12: Cats All Day
Sept 15--We heard the lions early this morning as we awoke. They were nearby. As we discovered, very near by. After breakfast, we drove across the stream behind camp and there they were, right across the river from us. Two very nice males, three huge females. They were skittish, though, so we approached cautiously and one vehicle at a time.
What usually happens on lion sightings is that you wait. And wait. And wait. Lions don't do much between the times when they do a lot. Normally, safari-goers think of lions as sluggish, as the only time they see them are when they're sleeping. Sometimes you'll see them doing the slow walk that they do when they're on patrol. But nothing about the way you usually see a lion suggests that they are remotely fast at anything.
As I noted, today's lions seemed very skittish. Our suspicion is that one of the females has a cub tucked away somewhere not too far away and is back hunting with the group while lactating (we could see that she was lactating). But that skittishness showed our workshop participants just how fast lions are. Which is wicked fast. They are perhaps the fastest accelerating animal out there.
So how did that happen?
Well, after lunch we came back to the lions and were shooting them doing mostly nothing again. Andrew, one of our driver/guides, was up on the roof of our vehicle, but sitting, a common profile the lions are used to. But a radio call from one of our other vehicles on the sighting asking about where the fifth lion was prompted Andrew to stand up a bit and point. Instant lion chaos as they bolted upon seeing something unusual out of the top of the vehicle. Had anyone pressed their shutter release as soon as they saw any motion--and I don't think anyone did--they probably would have still only gotten half of the bolt. I estimate that the lions hit the bush line 30 yards away in a bit more than a second. We were less than 30 yards from them when they bolted. You do the math.
We've been doing afternoon safari walks with subsets of the group each day here at Kwai. We do it in small groups both so that we don't spook things, but also because with two guides this means a high degree of eyes on ground. Yesterday's walk provoked something that happens rarely: Adam chambered a shell in his gun. Apparently, they smelled carcass in a bush at one point during the walk, gave it wide berth, but when they came round the same bush on the upwind side later in the walk, they heard a loud and insistent "bark" from the bush. Lion giving the "I'm going to fight you if you come closer" call. Fortunately, it turned out to just be one of those pants spoiling moments. Today's walk was much more uneventful, though we did have some nice elephant to commune with.
Our night drive tonight was entitled Thom the Cat Spotter. In the tracker position with the light, I almost immediately found a very cooperative serval cat.
She posed long enough for three of our vehicles to get good sightings on her. My next spotting was our three female lions on the move. I caught them in the brush from the side before they emerged out to the road, after which we followed them slowly until they reached the river crossing. Two of the cats stopped to drink, and all three eventually crossed, which was good, because the rest of our vehicles were on the other side where they could pick them up while we went a bit upstream and made a night water crossing.
These lions are about as people averse as I've seen, so we didn't track them long lest we further irritate them. But it was fun seeing how far they'd managed to move in a short period of time and seeing them start the night's hunt. Perhaps tomorrow we'll see the results. Perhaps not, as we don't have much time tomorrow morning before we have to make the long drive through Savute to Chobe.
Day 13: The Long Haul
Sept 16--Today is another of those long travel days. We left Kwai early and headed up and out of the preserve towards Chobe, our final Botswana destination. It's over 400km of the world's worst roads.
The Kalahari sand that comprises the road is alternatively packed and unpacked, alternately flat and ridged. So the vehicles don't really travel a straight line, though the road does. It was a long, hot day. And it was made longer by multiple flat tires, to the point where we now have one spare left for four vehicles (all our vehicles carry two spares, so do the math). Unfortunately, Andrew, one of our guide/drivers, seems to be bearing the brunt of the tire onslaught, as he's already down three tires.
To show just how desolate the area we're traveling through is, we ate lunch under a tree in the middle of the road. Which is where our crew trucks passed us on the way to set up the next camp:
Not that there aren't some things to see on the way. We stopped at Bushman Hill to look at early rock paintings and found a lion on the other side of the channel taking a siesta.
The road won't always be quite so bad, though, at least in the final section, as Botswana is now on a big infrastructure improvement kick. Besides the new airports everywhere, including the one that'll take 747's at Maun, Botswana is finally getting serious about paving roads between the bigger towns and villages. We had to weave an insane path over and around already paved but not yet open road for many of the final miles of the trip, but next time I'm here, it will be macadam all of the way from the first village to Chobe. That'll still leave a big chunk of sand, but it'll also make the long trip more bearable.
The big payoff for the long bouncy ride through the heat of the day is Chobe. Mass quantities of animals. As we got to Chobe, we got our first taste of that. As in thousands of buffalo and hundreds of elephants in a single sighting. We'll have much more of the masses tomorrow, but it was nice to show the students that there really are large herds in Botswana.
To prove the point, we finished the evening game drive staring at over 250 elephants congregated at the water. I'm pretty sure that no one on the trip thought that the elephant shot they'd get at Chobe was going to be a large pano. (Think about it: 250+ elephants take up a lot of space.)
Tomorrow ought to be an animal show to end all animal shows. Exactly the way I planned it (;~).