Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Thinker


Chimps are our closest living relatives sharing surprisingly 98.8% of our DNA. On a recent photographic shoot to photograph the largest population of wild chimps left on the planet, my specific intention was to try and capture photographs that epitomize the close genetic relationship that exists between humans and chimps…
It had been a tough trek and keeping up with the chimps who were moving through the African jungle on a hunt, was indeed difficult. The chimp you see depicted above stopped moving with the group, and sat down to seemingly contemplate life? I knew that this was the shot that I was after and that the success of my entire trip would hinge on this moment. I took a few photographs but hoped that my human-like subject would stare into my lens. He obliged but just for a second and that was all that I needed, to capture a frame that shows the close genetic relationship that exists between humans and chimps. Looking at this photo I have to wonder how much of this genetic likeness that exists between chimps and humans translates into thought processes and personalities?



The end.

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Out of the Fire


On a recent photographic safari to the Serengeti, I discovered that migrating wildebeest have more to worry about than just lions and river crossings...


A fire swept across the grass plains of the Serengeti and I noticed one wildebeest not running away? On closer inspection we discovered that it had a broken front left leg.We watched in horror as the flames almost engulfed the animal before it finally ran away using its three good legs. The wildebeest escaped the flames but I feared that the resident lion pride would soon catch it. Many wildebeest break legs on their annual migratory route and taking this photo I was reminded of just how tough an existence these animals have. They contend with crocodiles, lions, broken legs and yes, even fires!

Nikon D3s camera and Nikon 80-400mm lens ISO 1250 F5,6 and1/1000th. Photographed using a beanbag and from a vehicle.



The end.

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Dawn King


Is there anything better than lying in your bed deep in the African bush and hearing the resonating roar of a lion? If you have had the privilege of going on safari and hearing the king of the jungle bellow forth, which incidentally sounds absolutely nothing like the pathetic roar you see in the logo of an infamous production company, then you will no doubt share my sentiments...


A lion’s roar seems to start at the tail of the beast with a few gentle, meager and almost sheepish groans. These mutterings slowly but surely build into an impressively coarse crescendo of almighty roars, almost loud enough to cause the earth beneath you to rattle. If you are close to the beast at the time that he roars, you can almost feel the vibrations in your ribcage but if you are a couple of miles away, the resonating roar drifts over the crests and through the valleys, in a soothing and lazy sort of baritone way. This is my favourite type of roar to experience, a subtle reminder that the great beasts are out there, somewhere, roaming through the bush in the dark night. There is just something so primal about this sound, something that instantly transports me back in time.

For a wildlife photographer, a lion’s roar, besides just being there to be relished, also has a very practical function, especially when heard in the wee hours of the morning. These large tawny cats are known to sleep most of the day and once a lion goes down in the yellow winter grass, they become very difficult to find. For a wildlife photographer, a roar can be a definite clue as to the general direction in which you must drive, when you do finally get out of bed that is. When I first started working in the bush, as a trainee wilderness trail guide, I learnt to use lion roars in the night, not to be able to find them on foot the next day, but rather to know where NOT to walk. During this time, my mentor, Mr Eldred Hapelt, taught me that in order to be able to glean accurately the direction of a lion from its roar, you have to sit upright in bed. Lying down, your ears are thoroughly unable to triangulate and the perceived direction is as good as only a guess.

On a recent visit to South Africa’s Londolozi Game Reserve, I again had the pleasure of lying in bed and listening to the lazy yet persistent groans of one of the dominant coalitions of lion in the area. Blissfully aware of the enchanting sounds I was too snug, on a cold winter’s night, to sit upright in bed. The night must have been especially cold in fact, because when I arrived at the safari vehicle in the morning, both my guide and tracker must have slept as snug as I did and none of us knew what direction to drive in. Thankfully, after some skillful tracking, not on my part as I was still half asleep, but by my guide Jess and her tracker, we managed to successfully locate the A cappella culprits.

It turns out that there were three males that had been roaring during night, in an attempt to track down their pride of lionesses. We followed the three boys just as the sun broke the horizon, and as they got ever closer to their females, they frequently lifted their heads and curled their lips back. This is known as the flehmen grimace and by opening their mouths and allowing air to pass over their vomeronasal organ, lions are able to sample pheromones. Just as the sun rose, one of the males showed signs that he was about to grimace and when he did, a lingering condensation of breath, caused me to hit my shutter button with an amateurish rush of panic. Even after ten years of photographing, my wild subjects still arouse in me an utter excitement that makes me feel like the picture I am about to take is my very first.

Technical Details: Nikon D3s body, 400mm focal length, ISO 200, F4 and 1/200th, beanbag



The end.

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Last Breath


The power of a still photograph lies in its ability to arrest a single moment in time. The photograph below depicts the last moment of this impala antelope's life. The leopard has grabbed it on the back of its neck and will soon slide around to the throat region and suffocate it. I could not help but notice the peaceful look in the prey's eyes as it seems to accept its fate and does not kick or make a sound. A still photo is able to freeze a moment in time and record it forever, herein lies the captivating power of my craft. Predators don't kill out of hatred and this female leopard has cubs she desperately needs to feed.

Unlike lions, which seem to view hunting as a major chore, leopards appear to view hunting as a perpetual game that they are rather partial to. They also differ from lions, in that their diet is far more catholic, comfortably including items as small as a mouse and as large as an impala antelope. The bush offers them a plethora of hunting opportunities and, like overgrown pussycats, they revel in a  game of the proverbial cat and mouse. Of all the big African cats, leopards are by far the most patient hunters. They will stare at a rustle in the grass or stalk a herd of antelope for hours, waiting for just the right time to launch an attack.

The end.
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Gelada

Africa is such an incredibly diverse continent! Not only do we have a very unique set of large mammalian species like Giraffe, Zebra and Elephant but the continent is also blessed with an incredible array of primates. Mountain Gorillas and Chimpanzees definitely seem to steal the show but high up in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, one finds a very unique and bizarre species of primate.
As it currently stands, this creature is called the Gelada Baboon. I say currently, because recent and ongoing research is suggesting that it is more closely related to a monkey and it might well be reclassified in the near future. On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I went in search of the Geladas for the very first time, and spending time with them was undoubtedly the best primate experience that I have had to date!

The Geladas are unique for many reasons: firstly they live at an incredibly high altitude above 4000 metres (13 123 ft). That is almost a kilometer higher than the top of the Drakensburg Mountain range in South Africa! Secondly, although Geladas have incredibly long canines, like other baboons in Africa, they are almost exclusively grazers. Yes, you read correct, they eat grass! This brings me onto the 3rd highly unique attribute: Geladas have the highest degree of flexibility between their index fingers and their thumbs of any primate. Not only do these little ‘monkeys’ have opposable thumbs but they are so dexterous that they can pluck short grass from the mountaintop at an incredible speed, stopping only occasionally to pass gastric wind from the fermenting grass.

Spending time with Geladas is nothing short of an incredible life experience. They mutter and groan constantly as they shuffle their bottoms over the mountainous terrain and they let you sit quietly in the middle of their troop which numbering up 400 members, is really more of a community. Sleeping on the very vertical cliffs of the Simien Mountains, they crawl up to the plateau early in the morning and feed for the day, before descending at dusk to their steep roosting sites.

A wildlife photographer always wants to try to do his beautiful subjects justice through the lens, and since I was so blown away by these little primates, I was feeling the pressure to try and capture not just a special portrait of a Gelada but one that also showed the wonderful environment in which they live. One late afternoon, I saddled up to a big male baboon and I followed him patiently as he went about his foraging. He slowly let me get close enough to use my wide-angle lens.


Nikon D3S, 20mm lens, hand held, ISO 640 F22 1/250th



The end.
 
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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Bat Blizzard

It was ten years ago that I first laid eyes upon the great wildebeest migration on the grassy plains of Kenya’s Masai Mara. This is one of the last great mammal migrations left on our planet and I have photographed it every year since. Unbeknownst to me however, is that the largest mammal migration in the world and one that is four times the size of the wildebeest migration, also occurs on the African continent. This year, for the very first time, I went to check it out...

Using two charter planes, one for our camera gear and one for ourselves, we flew deep into central Zambia where inside a national park called Kasanka, we used a mobile-tented camp as our base. This park, unlike other tourist parks is not uuummm, how can I put it – touristy? Yes, definitely not touristy! Remote, isolated and ‘far off the beaten track’ would be more suitable adjectives. Not sure where to go or where to find a single bat, let alone the rumored 8 million, the first afternoon was spent avoiding the issue and getting our cameras ready. How do you even attempt to photograph 8 million bats, was the only question ringing in my head as I attached the widest wide-angle lens I own.





The first 'bat evening' was spent sitting in small hides that were especially built prior to our arrival, and with cameras that cost thousands of dollars, sheepishly perched on top of not-so-cheap carbon-fibre tripods, and pointing into a blank sky, I began to wonder if this entire migration was not the biggest hoax of the natural world. I had been told that the bats fly to Zambia from the Congo at this specific time of year, to feed on the fruiting forests around Kasanka. These however, are not your ordinary little bats that you see flying around street lamps in suburbia; these are Straw-coloured Fruit Bats, each with a wingspan of over one meter in length. Sitting in my hide, pretending like I knew exactly what to do if 8 million bats suddenly burst onto the scene, I tried to imagine what exactly millions of erupting bats would indeed look like? Feeling overwhelmed, I affirmed that I should definitely have bought that fisheye lens that I had seen on eBay, instead of paying this month’s house-rent.

It was getting dark and the park scout told me that at any moment now, the bats would erupt. I had done my research before the trip and I had learnt that the entire bat migration roosts in a tiny forest only two hectares in size. Pondering this dubiously goggled fact, I was having a really hard time believing that 8 million fruit bats were roosting a mere hundred yards in front of me, and in a forest the size of only four football fields. According to my research however, the forest before me was no ordinary forest, but one with a large stream flowing through the middle of it. This stream keeps the bats cool and is also ultimately the reason why the bats roost inside this particular forest - to keep cool.


A couple hundred bats materialized that evening but it was hardly what you would call a ‘migration spectacle’ and as is so often the case in wildlife photography, we moved to plan B. The next morning, waking up at 03h30 we located the precariously perched and infamously titled  ‘BBC Platform’. This rickety platform sits about ten meters high and looks down onto the forest. It is from this perch that the BBC filmed part of their ‘Life’ series and judging by the haphazard and meager construction, they must have been on a tight budget! Despite being vulnerably balanced, I definitely felt that we had found the right location from which to photograph the bat spectacle and just as dawn broke, it seemed as if I was correct in my thinking. Millions of bats flew over the horizon, as I recalled yet another interesting bat fact: did you know that these bats double their own body each night whilst gorging on fruit? The now somewhat plumper bat blizzard were returning to roost in the forest for the day, and grabbing my camera, still with the wide-angle lens attached, I eagerly peered through my viewfinder. The bats looked like dust spots on my reflex mirror, that is how tiny they were! Not to worry, I thought to myself, a good photographer is always prepared, and pulling my longest lens out the bag as well as a converter, I attempted to photograph the bat blizzard yet again. This time round, the bats never looked at all like small dust spots but rather like large dust spots! It dawned on me then exactly where the BBC’s budget had gone - into large cameras with super telephoto lenses!


















Avoiding the distinct urge to hurl myself off the platform and into the tiny two-hectare forest below, I chose to forget the ‘death by bat’ suicide and rather to focus my attention on the bat’s movements. Looking at the forest that had been severely beaten down by the sheer weight of the bats, to a point where only a few tall trees still survived amongst the otherwise stunted growth, I remembered another fact that my research had revealed. This being that the single greatest threat to the bat migration are in fact the bats themselves! Their combined weight literally breaks the forest’s branches, the same forest that provides them with life giving air-conditioning.

Spending the next few days painfully studying the bats movements and watching blizzard after blizzard pass me by, frustratingly out of reach, the dreaded thought dawned on me that I only had one last morning to attempt to capture some of the spectacle on camera. And so, as is so often the case in wildlife photography, I moved to plan C (knowing full well that plan D did not exist).

Sneaking off on my own to a fringe of the forest in the pitch dark of my last morning in Kasanka, I set my camera up on a tripod and waited. Fearing that the safari would end without me having captured a single image except for copious amounts of migrating dust spots, I waited rather anxiously in the dark with only my headlamp for comfort. The sun seemed to take forever to rise and when it finally did, I looked to the opposite horizon and low and behold, I saw an almighty bat blizzard on its way back to the forest. Waiting for the blizzard to engulf the sun, I hit the shutter button with the finesse of a machine-gun operator in World War 2. This was not the time to pick one’s frames, this WAS the time to shoot like a man possessed. After skillfully capturing the same frame thousands of times over, I finally stopped and the bat blizzard continued for the next hour.

The sight I had witnessed was one of the most amazing spectacles I have yet to see in Africa and packing up my gear, I was relieved at having saved the photographic integrity of the trip, by the skin of my teeth and on the last morning nogal (sorry but some words just have to be written in Afrikaans). But, more than just feeling relieved, I felt outright grateful, humbled and overwhelmed at having had the privilege of witnessing such a great spectacle. Knowing that the memory of this special morning will long outlive the photograph, I finished packing up and made my way to the airstrip.



The end.

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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Do you mind I am Shedding!

As a wildlife photographer I am often asked 3 of the same questions over and over. The first being whether I shoot Canon or Nikon? This is a moot question, we all know, or should know, that it is not about the camera! The 2nd question I am frequently asked, is which is my favourite animal? This is like asking me whether I would prefer to die in a crocodile or shark attack? I just don’t know! As seemingly ridiculous a question as this is, it has generated MANY hours of thought on my part, usually when sitting in the bush somewhere waiting patiently for one of my potentially ‘favourite’ animals to do something! Different animals display different character traits and behaviours, which link to my own individual personality quirks, all making this a much tougher question to answer than one would imagine. The third and final question I get asked frequently, is which time of year I like being in the African bush the most? This is an equally difficult question and it is made even more difficult buy the fact that I have been very privileged to get to know the African bush on a very intimate level. After many years of pondering this conundrum I have narrowed my answer down to three different times of year and this is much better than I am doing on the ‘favourite animal’ question - I currently have four favourite animals!



The first window of time that I relish in the bush is an obvious one - springtime! This is not rocket science; the bush is so incredible during late Sep and October. The electric green grass and leaves sprout in defiance of the brown! The migrant birds start trickling back and the sweet aroma of the Wild Pear, Gardenia and Boer-bean flowers, waft gently on the cool breeze. Babies are birthed on the plains and Africa seems to celebrate its new lease on life in a most spectacular fashion. Distant thunder can be heard, the first frog croaks and the gentle subtle ‘Cu–koo’ call of the African Cuckoo is heard again for the first time. The scent of the flowering wild jasmine and the familiar ‘Meitjie’ call of another infamous cuckoo transport me instantly back to youthful days of summer. The sky however still clings to the rich blue hue of winter, which is only momentarily interrupted by the rocking flight, and dazzling colours of the now breeding rollers. The daytime temperatures are perfect and while life bursts forth, the pesky flies still slumber!

 Another time of year that I am particularly partial to, is late April and early May. This is the time of year when the green starts to fade and the Combretum leaves (belonging to the various species of bushwillow trees) start to turn orange. The climate is again blissful and the orange hues make for incredibly soft and pleasing photographic backdrops. As a photographer, this subtle time of change is also one of my favourite times of the year in the bush.

 Then you have February, another favourite time of mine in the bush and indeed, quite possibly my VERY favourite time of all. This is the time of year when the bush is the most alive! The brown shades of winter are now a very distant memory and Africa has become the tropical green jungle that you read about in children’s storybooks. There are thousands of different shades of green alone! The insect life is audibly abuzz and dung beetles busily roll balls amidst a cacophony of bird calls, most noticeably the shrill crescendo of the Woodland Kingfishers. Wild flowers bloom everywhere and the bright blue Commelina flowers juxtapose against the bright emerald-green grass in ways that short circuit your brain. Young foals, fawns and lambs have all found their legs and gambol about both the bush and plains. The rain pelts the African soil in the audible form of gigantic raindrops and lying in bed, the sheet lightning this time of year, is almost enough to allow one to read in the dark. This is Africa energized!


The only trouble with this time of year, especially for a photographer in remote regions, is that the rains often make it impossible to drive any kind of a 4x4 without getting stuck and this brings me to the image you see at the top of this post. One particularly very wet February in Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, I could not drive anywhere without getting stuck and when I mean anywhere, I mean I was marooned in our camp! With not many options available to me, instead of using wheels as my modus operandi, I took to walking around the camp with my close-focusing macro lens in hand. I peered under every leaf and bush and what I discovered left me in awe! An entire micro ecosystem existed right beneath my nose! This ecosystem functioned much like the one above and came complete with predators and prey. The predators took the form of spiders (that disguised themselves as flower petals) and tiny bright red hairy predatory mites! The prey took the form of butterflies and bees amongst thousands of other organisms, many of which were so bizarre that if it was not for the images I was capturing, I would not have believed that such creatures could exist! The most bizarre micro dweller of all was the nymph of creature called a Froghopper. Where does that name even come from?



Indeed the creatures living beneath my feet were more bizarre, strange, fascinating and wonderful than those living in the ‘real’ world above. Avoiding the occasional puffadder, I spent two months crawling around on my knees, hunched over like an antbear. Besides needing a chiropractor and a blood transfusion from all the tsetsi fly bites, I had never been happier. The delightful denizens of my underworld had cast a spell on me so powerful that hours would pass by, before I lifted my head above the bushes much like a korhaan or bustard and when I did, I had no idea where I was!

One particular day, while I was crawling through a stand of tall rank grass, I found a tiny chameleon, no bigger than your pinkie finger. Moving in more closely to inspect my subject, I was amazed to see that the little guy was shedding his skin! Oblivious to my presence, he was gently rubbing his head up and down a grass stalk, an action that was assisting his shedding process. I had never before seen a shedding chameleon let alone photographed one and inching my lens closer, I finally lined up a shot. When my flash triggered, my little subject halted his to-and-fro movements and glanced straight at me. I took another shot but staring down my lens and directly into the chameleon’s eye, I quickly and rather strangely felt very embarrassed. The little chap was undergoing a very personal moment and there I was, sticking my gigantic lens into his tiny world, capturing him in a most uncompromising position – like some sort of weird bush paparazzi pervert! With our eyes still locked, I thought I heard the chameleon say, “Do you mind, I am shedding here?” and so, gently withdrawing my lens from his world, I tiptoed back to a far more boring one at higher altitude.

Technical Details: Nikon D200 entry-level body, 105mm focal length, ISO 200, F8 and 1/350th, SB800 flash.

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The end.

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