The ones that got away

I get nervous before I go on photography trips. Part of that is just worrying about travel arrangements, visas and packing everything I need, but another part of it is worrying that I won't get the shots I want. Here are a few examples of 'the ones that got away'.

Taj Mahal

Before I went to the Taj Mahal, I was determined to get the classic 'Lady Diana' shot of the building from the end of the reflecting pools. That was the whole point of the trip, and I was really worried about it. I couldn't face the idea of screwing up what would probably be my only opportunity to visit the world's most famous building.

When I arrived in India on a G Adventures trip in November 2013, we went to the Taj Mahal early one morning, around 0530. We had to queue for a while and then go through security. At that point, I was about to rush off and take the shot I'd been dreaming about, but our tour leader then introduced us all to a local guide who was about to give us a 15-minute lecture about the building. What a nightmare! I knew that the whole place would be crawling with tourists if I didn't go and take the shot immediately, but it seemed a bit rude just to rush off without hearing the talk. In the end, I was too British about the whole thing and missed the shot of a lifetime. Too bad. On the plus side, I ended up with this image of the Taj Mahal.

'There once lived an exotic princess in a fairy tale castle...'

It's the very opposite of the 'Lady Diana' shot. One is all symmetry and clarity, the other is misty and mysterious. The higgledy-piggledy minarets and the blue haze make the building seem more like a fairy tale castle. I do like this shot, but I still regret being too polite to get the one I wanted...!

Jumping impala

Not quite sharp enough...

This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...

Caracal

This is what it looks like on Wikipedia.

A few years ago, I went to a talk given by Paul Goldstein somewhere in London, and one of the slides he showed was a picture of a caracal. I'd never seen one at the time, but Paul was very proud of his shot, which showed a caracal from the side running through long grass. The image stayed in my mind, and I was very excited when I went to Tanzania in January 2018 and actually saw one for myself! It was quite a way away, but I had my 800mm lens with me, and I was just about to take a shot when the driver told me to wait. He was going to drive around and get closer. Well, funnily enough, the caracal disappeared, and I never got the shot I wanted...

Polar bear

The best of a bad bunch

In June 2014, I went on an Exodus trip with Paul Goldstein to Spitsbergen to see the polar bear. It was a last-minute booking, so I got a good deal on the price, and I was lucky enough to share a cabin with a nice French chap called Eric, but the real prize was getting some good shots of a polar bear. We had 13 or so sightings, but, sadly, they were all too far away for my 500mm lens. That was in the days before I got into the habit of renting the Nikon 800mm monster, and I really wish I'd had it then. Amongst other sightings, a mother and her two cubs put on a great show for us on the ice, but, when I got back to my cabin to review my shots, I found they were all too soft and too distant. Ah, well, at least I have an excuse to go again now...

The kill

I've been to Africa several times now, visiting Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia and Botswana, but I've never seen a kill. I've seen the chase, and I've seen the predator eating its prey, but I've never seen the crucial moment of the kill. Now, I know some people would be a little squeamish about seeing one animal kill another, but I don't think I'd feel that way. To me, it's the ultimate expression of 'the survival of the fittest', and I'd love to see a lion, leopard or cheetah kill something on the great plains of Africa.

I have many stories of 'the one that got away'. There was the time when I climbed Mount Kenya and arrived back at the camp, only to find that everyone that morning had spent an hour watching a pride of lions kill a wildebeest 50 yards away from the gate of the national park! Or there was the time on the same trip when I booked the wrong flight home and had the chance to spend an extra day on my very own personal game drive. We saw a cheetah 'timing' (or hunting) an impala, and it was the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me in Africa - but no kill. In Antarctica, I watched from a Zodiac as a leopard seal ripped apart a penguin, but I didn't quite see the initial attack. In the Brazilian Pantanal, I was watching a jaguar on the river bank from a small boat when the call came over the radio that lunch was ready. No sooner had we met up with the other boat than we had another call, this time to say that the very same jaguar had just killed a caiman! We rushed back and watched as the young jaguar made a mess of the whole thing. To begin with, he had hold of his prey by the throat rather than the back of the neck. This is fine if you're a lion, but jaguars prefer to kill caiman (or small crocodiles) by nipping them on the back of the neck. This jaguar was in a bit of a bind: he didn't want to kill the caiman the 'wrong' way, but he couldn't change his grip in case it got away. He spent 10 minutes humming and hawing before finally killing the caiman, but that was only the start of his problems. His next job was to find a safe place to store his prey, but the banks of the river were 8-10ft high and very steep, so he spent another 25 minutes trying to find a way up into the undergrowth, desperately trying to drag the 10ft crocodile with him. By this stage, around 20 boats had gathered to see the jaguar, and, when he eventually managed to scramble up the bank with his kill, everybody gave him a big round of applause!

I'd rather have seen the kill than stopped for lunch!

 

Conclusion

All this goes to show exactly how close I've come to the elusive kill, but no luck so far. However, I'm off to the Masai Mara in a couple of weeks, so maybe, just maybe I'll be able to bring back the shot I've been dying to get...

Safari bingo: animals

Tired of always having to ask your safari guide what you're looking at on a game drive? Here's your cut-out-and-keep guide to the most common animals. Shout 'Bingo!' when you've crossed them all off...but not too loudly!

Safari bingo: birds

Confused by all the species of birds you're seeing on safari in Africa? Here's your cut-out-and-keep guide to the most common ones. Shout 'Bingo!' when you've crossed them all off...but not too loudly!

A day in the life of a wildlife photographer

24 April 2016, Moremi

A spotted eagle owl looking very wise

My iPhone just about died yesterday, so I switched it off overnight. Miraculously, it's now back to 24%!

We saw leopard tracks but no leopard and then a lone impala to start the day. We were out for 90 minutes before collecting the other staff and the trailer. We then drove north towards Chobe NP. At one point, the road ahead was flooded. Contrary to what you may have been told, there's no bridge on the River Khwai, so we had to take a different route...

"Nkwe!" Makabu suddenly shouted, which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen one crossing the road, and he immediately followed it. After a few yards, he stopped, got out and jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then he unhooked the trailer and drove after it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact Africans think rules are there to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but that means Makabu now leads 2-1 in big cat sightings...

Fun fact: 

'Nkwe' means leopard and 'tau' means lion in Setswana.

Having said that, our handyman chipped in with a great spot of a spotted eagle owl perched in a tree as we were driving past. It was just hidden by a branch, so I asked if I could get out and walk a bit closer. Makabu said I could, and I took a very rare picture. I've never seen a spotted eagle owl before...

We stopped for lunch (and to collect firewood), and I managed to get attacked by very prickly and sticky fertility grass. Not even thick socks are good enough protection against it. Then again,  you can always boil it up and drink the liquid if you're having problems with your womb!

At around 1400, we dropped off our team to make camp, then we went back out for another game drive. The radio chatter suggested there were lions out there and maybe even a leopard, but it all seemed like a wild goose chase until we saw a pair of young lions asleep under a large fever berry tree. They like it as it has the best shade, and - lo and behold! - you can also boil its leaves in water to cure a fever. Is there any plant out here that doesn't have medicinal properties?! We even had chance to come back later for some great close-ups.

Shockingly, I had to change my WB setting to cloudy a few times today. Very poor...

Fun fact:

You can tell which termite mounds are active by the presence of wet sand deposits on the surface.

Species lists:

We saw impala, black-backed jackal, tsessebe, low veld giraffe, hippo, warthog, Burchell's zebra, blue wildebeest, red lechwe, tree squirrel, chacma baboon, vervet monkey, elephant, waterbuck, lion, wild dog.

We ask saw birds including Burchell's starling, African darter, blacksmith plover, Swainson's francolin, helmeted guineafowl, red-billed hornbill, saddle-billed stork, grey hornbill, African fish eagle, spotted eagle owl, long-tailed pied shrike, African jacana, wattled crane, Cape turtle dove, little egret, Egyptian geese, Gabor goshawk. 

 

Botswana and Victoria Falls

If you fancy watching a herd of 30 elephants crossing a river, photographing a malachite kingfisher perched three feet away or seeing an elephant chase off a pride of lions, try Botswana!

Water. You don't realise how important it is until you've been on safari in Botswana. I'd been to Kenya three times, but I'd never been to the Okavango Delta or the Chobe River, and it made all the difference. You don't have the iconic silhouette of Mount Kenya or the wildebeest migration across the Mara, but the landscape is utterly transformed. If Nigella were writing the recipe for Botswana, it would be something like this:

1. Take a country like Kenya or Tanzania
2. Smooth off any surface imperfections (like Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro)
3. Sprinkle with dead trees
4. Add water
5. Serve hot

The water makes the landscape itself beautiful - especially when your guide cuts the engine, and you're watching the sun set over the Delta! - and it acts as a great backdrop for wildlife photography. Which is why I was there in the first place...

Itinerary

The reason I wanted to go to Botswana was to take pictures in a different environment; the reason I was able to was that I had a wad of cash burning a hole in my pocket when a property deal fell through! Whatever the reason, it worked out well enough, as an Indian couple wanted me to teach their two young children in Nairobi from 11-17 April. I did the same thing last year, and it's been a pleasure both times. It also gave me a head start in getting to Botswana. I found a useful site called Safari Bookings that allowed me to enter the location, duration and cost of the trip, and I searched through all the possible options. A friend of mine Jason was thinking about coming, too, but he eventually couldn't get the time off, so I decided to go for broke. I was a once-in-a-lifetime trip - although I seem to do one of those every few weeks nowadays! - so I didn't want to compromise on the itinerary. A group tour would've been cheaper, but that would've meant spending more time in a big truck on the road, going to places I didn't really want to go to and having to put up with other people (eeeuuugghhh!). In the end, I found an American company called WorldwideXplorer that was willing to tailor their 14-day safari for me and me alone. Marisa looked after my booking, and she was always very helpful. It wasn't cheap, but I was guaranteed to see the highlights I wanted, starting off on Chief's Island in the Okavango Delta and then moving north through the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park before finishing with a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. It was going to be a 'mobile safari', which meant I'd be travelling in a customised Toyota Land Cruiser with a local guide and two other staff, camping every night and making the most of all the travel time by spending every day on game drives from sunrise to sunset.

My route from Maun to Victoria Falls

The only downside to tacking the safari on to the end of my trip to Nairobi was that I had to go during the 'shoulder season'. That meant it was harder to see the animals due to a combination of denser undergrowth and altered migration patterns following heavy late rains caused by El Niño. It didn't look too promising during the first few days, and I had to have a couple of 'chats' with my guide Makabu about the itinerary, particularly when we didn't see a single thing on a two-hour boat ride! When a group of Germans arrived, we almost ended up starting our game drive at 0800 rather than 0600 until I let him know in no uncertain terms that wasting two hours was 'unacceptable'! Anyway, I persuaded him to get permission to junk the boat rides in favour of game drives, and we soon settled into a routine of waking up at 0530, leaving at 0600 on a game drive, eating a packed lunch, getting back at 1800 for a quick 'bush shower' and then dinner and bed. Once we'd left Chief's Island, we changed campsites every couple of days, which meant picking up our cook and handyman, hitching the trailer and then driving north. Our overall itinerary was as follows:

Night of 18 April: Flight from Nairobi to Maun via Johannesburg

19 April: Sedia Hotel, Maun

20-22 April: Chief's Island, Okavango Delta

23 April: Third Bridge, Okavango Delta

24-25 April: Moremi Game Reserve

26-27 April: Savuti, Chobe National Park

28-29 April: Ihaha, Chobe National Park

30 April-1 May: Waterfront Lodge, Livingstone, Zambia (near the Victoria Falls)

2 May: Flight from Livingstone to London via Johannesburg

Wildlife

The density of wildlife might not have been as high as in peak season, but we more than made up for it by the sheer number of hours we spent driving through the bush. I can only remember one day when we had more than a few minutes for lunch, and we must've spent over 100 hours on game drives and/or boat rides during our 10 days on safari. Apart from the rhinoceros, we saw all of the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant and Cape buffalo - and we saw a total of 29 mammals and reptiles and 81 different types of birds, including my two favourites: the African fish eagle and the lilac-breasted roller (see list below).

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

My only disappointment was hearing the roller's call for the first time. For such a beautiful bird, why does it have to sound like an angry crow with a sore throat! Makabu's species knowledge was excellent, and there were only a couple he didn't know or got slightly wrong. Having said that, there was always a bit of a language barrier between us. We usually had to ask each other to repeat what had been said, and bird names are not the easiest words to pick up - you can imagine how many times Makabu had to repeat 'Swainson's francolin' to me!

As I say, I was in Botswana to take pictures, so the highlights for me were inevitably coloured by the ones that turned out well.

Birds

I'm very fond of the lilac-breasted roller and the African fish eagle, but my favourite bird encounter came when I was on a boat ride on the Chobe River. I spotted a malachite kingfisher in the distance and asked my driver to get a bit closer. He did as I asked and then cut the engine, letting the boat drift closer and closer. I immediately started taking pictures, and the bird got bigger and bigger in my viewfinder until it almost didn't fit in the frame. I was using a 400mm lens, but the malachite kingfisher is only a tiny bird, so I had no idea how close I had come until it eventually flew off. I put my camera down and realised I had only been three feet away from it! I'd seen one before in Kenya last year - again on a boat ride - but this shot was the mother of all close-ups!

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

Lions

We saw a lot of lions during the trip, but we were particularly lucky in Moremi, when we saw the same two lions at sunset and then early the following morning. We were able to get incredibly close - no more than five yards away - and the light during the 'golden hour' was fantastic.

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

Elephants

Chobe is famous for its herds of elephants, and I certainly enjoyed my boat ride on the Chobe River when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a herd of 30 elephants crossing from one side to the other! However, the most exciting moment I had came when we spotted a couple of young male elephants in the Delta and drove to within ten yards of them. They were happily eating the fruit that was being dropped by vervet monkeys in a tree when one of them decided to step forward and challenge us by trumpeting in full-on Tarzan fashion! I have to admit, that sent my heart racing! Makabu later told me elephants attack silently - so I needn't have worried - but I defy anyone to be calm when an elephant is trumpeting at you from five yards away - even Makabu started the engine at one point!

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

Lions & elephants

As if lions and elephants separately were not enough, they actually joined forces at Ihaha. We were driving along a track on the shore of the Chobe River at dusk when we saw a pride of eight lions lying in the shade of a tree. I could see an elephant heading their way, but I had no idea what was going to happen next. Out of nowhere, the elephant suddenly started trumpeting at the lions and then chased them all away! I've never seen lions move so fast...

Elephant 1 Lions 0

Leopard

The first time 'we' saw a leopard was in Moremi, although I didn't actually see anything at all. I was busy watching an impala when Makabu suddenly shouted, "Nkwe," which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen a leopard cross the track right in front of us, and he immediately drove after it. After a few yards, he jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then unhooked the trailer and followed it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact that Africans believe rules are meant to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but we did see one three days later in Savuti. We had started our game drive at 0630, and almost immediately we saw a leopard sitting in the middle of the dirt track. It trotted towards us in the golden light, and I got some great shots - although I was worried my favourite was a bit blurred. You be the judge...

The cat who walked by himself...

The cat who walked by himself...

Victoria Falls

The other highlight, of course, was seeing the Victoria Falls for the very first time. The walking tour was useless - there was so much spray we couldn't see a thing! - but the helicopter ride was sensational, much better than the one I did over Iguazu a few weeks earlier. I'd managed to book a private tour, so I sat in the front seat and took pictures while the pilot flew over the falls and then went down into the gorges downriver.

It's a very dramatic landscape, so cresting a ridge and dropping down to a Grade 6 rapid is really quite exciting - especially as we were no more than 20 feet above the waves! I did have a few problems with reflections in the glass when shooting into the sun, but there was no window to open, so I just had to put up with it. It was only when we landed and I told the pilot I was a professional photographer that he told me that, if he'd known beforehand, he would've taken the rear door off and let me shoot from there! Grrrr...

Dr Livingstone discovered them, I presume...

Verdict

I'm very glad I decided to visit Botswana for the first time. I still have a sentimental attachment to Kenya, as it was the first country I ever visited in Africa and provided me with lots of happy memories of climbing Mount Kenya as well as seeing the Big Five on various game drives, but Botswana has the big advantage of water. It makes such a difference and turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. I just hope my pictures have somehow managed to capture that.

List of species

Animals

  • Banded mongoose
  • Black mamba
  • Black-backed jackal
  • Blue wildebeest
  • Burchell's zebra
  • Cape buffalo
  • Chacma baboon
  • Cheetah
  • Common warthog
  • Eland
  • Elephant
  • Ground squirrel
  • Hippopotamus
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Leopard
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Lion
  • Nile crocodile
  • Red lechwe
  • Sable antelope
  • South African giraffe
  • Steenbok
  • Tsessebe
  • Vervet monkey
  • Water monitor
  • Waterbuck
  • Wild dog
  • Yellow mongoose

Birds

  • African darter
  • African fish eagle
  • African green pigeon
  • African harrier-hawk/harrier hawk/gymnogene
  • African hoopoe
  • African jacana
  • African marsh harrier
  • African skimmer
  • Bateleur
  • Black crake
  • Black egret
  • Black-collared barbet
  • Black-winged stilt
  • Blacksmith plover
  • Brown-headed snake eagle
  • Burchell's sand grouse
  • Burchell's starling
  • Cape turtle dove
  • Cape wagtail
  • Cattle egret
  • Coppery-tailed coucal
  • Crowned eagle
  • Double-banded sand grouse
  • Egyptian goose
  • Fork-tailed drongo
  • Gabor goshawk
  • Glossy ibis
  • Great white egret
  • Great white pelican
  • Green-backed heron
  • Grey heron
  • Grey hornbill
  • Ground plover
  • Hadeda ibis
  • Hammerkop
  • Helmeted guineafowl
  • Hooded vulture
  • Kori bustard
  • Lappet-faced vulture
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Little bee-eater
  • Little egret
  • Long-tailed pied shrike
  • Malachite kingfisher
  • Marabou stork
  • Martial eagle
  • Meyer's parrot
  • Monotonous lark
  • Ostrich
  • Pied kingfisher
  • Pygmy goose
  • Red cormorant
  • Red-billed francolin
  • Red-billed hornbill
  • Red-billed oxpecker
  • Red-billed teal
  • Red-breasted korhaan
  • Red-eyed dove
  • Sacred ibis
  • Saddle-billed stork
  • Secretary bird/snake eagle
  • Slatey egret
  • Southern ground hornbill
  • Southern pied babbler
  • Southern red bishop
  • Spoon-billed stork
  • Spotted eagle owl
  • Spur-winged goose
  • Swainson's francolin
  • Swallow-tailed bee-eater
  • Three-banded plover
  • Water dikkop
  • Wattled crane
  • White-backed vulture
  • White-browed robin chat
  • White-crowned plover
  • White-faced whistling duck
  • Yellow oxpecker
  • Yellow-billed egret
  • Yellow-billed hornbill
  • Yellow-billed stork