Nevada County residents on the hunt (for great photos) in Africa
Special to The Union
My husband and I just returned from a mobile-tented safari in Botswana. The trip was led by Stu Porter for wildlife photographers (http://www.wild4photographicsafaris.com). We traveled to four different locations in the Okavango Delta and Chobe areas.
Besides campfires and fresh air, you are closer to the animals. Sometimes, very close. After we were zipped into our (spacious) tents, lions would roar, hippos would make their bassoon “hummf” sounds, and hyenas would scrounge as they all walked around and through our camp.
Mornings began in the dark as we grabbed a hasty breakfast and loaded ourselves and gear into vehicles outfitted for photographers. We were bundled in coats and blankets against the biting cold.
The red dawn brings a splendid chorus of bird song and we saw fish eagles, which look a lot like our bald eagles; a crimson breasted shrike, a lilac breasted roller, brilliant green bee eaters, and by the lagoon, egrets and yellow billed storks and sacred ibis.
With Botswana being a former British colony, we stopped for tea and biscuits mid-morning.
One advantage of Botswana over the vast plains of say, the Serengeti, is that you see smaller groups of animals. We saw the stately elephant matriarch lead her herd across the Chobe River, followed by her young baby. Females surrounded the baby, lifting him up and forward across the river as he used his trunk as a periscope.
We saw a pack of wild dogs with two new pups. We saw dwarf mongooses dig for food, stand to look for predators, much like meerkats, and leap into their holes if they saw one.
Back at noon for a hot lunch of chicken curry with salad and vegetables.
Then photographers downloaded their morning shots and recharged their batteries in an elaborate set up run by the vehicle batteries. Sometimes we napped to recharge our own. Then we enjoy hot (bucket) showers.
Tea with sweets revives us at 3 p.m. and we are off on another game drive, taking advantage of the afternoon light. We pause by a small herd of zebra at rest.
One foal nibbled his mother’s ears until she stood and he could nurse. We saw brave impalas face off a visible leopard by bunching up, grunting their alarm sounds, and stamping toward her. This effectively neutralizes the leopard (for a short time) because cats hunt by stealth.
We return by 6 p.m. for excellent dinners of a first course, such as a cheese soufflé; followed by steak, stir fries, or honey mustard chicken with rice and two vegetables, and dessert. The very talented chef cooks in improvised ovens and fire pits. He uses a 12-volt refrigerator to store cold food for 13 people for 10 days.
Sometimes after dinner, Stu Porter illustrated different shooting techniques and conditions on his computer. He showed how to get a good lion shot (two ears forward, two eyes, and a tail).
At night, we gazed at the Southern Cross and the Milky Way, smelled Mopani-wood smoke from the campfire, and then early to bed.
We changed locations every three days so we had different terrain, different vegetation, and, to some degree, different animals.
We shoot (cameras, not guns) in the early morning and late afternoon, both because that is when animals are active and because the light is best.
Photographers spend a lot of their time waiting for action. Pictures of pups emerging from their den, birds taking off in flight, young elephants playing in the river, leopards stalking monkeys in a tree, baby baboons tumbling down a hill in play — are much more interesting than static profiles.
Our guide, Nkosi, was a genius at finding animals, relying first on knowledge of the habitat and animal behavior. When he tracked prints, he looked for direction and freshness of the print. He also followed sounds of alarms from birds and monkeys in the treetops because that usually indicates a predator. Finally, he talked to other guides via radio, called the Bush Telegraph. All of our guides have been doing this all their lives. Extensive education is also required for a license in Botswana.
Males animals spend a lot of time either defending their herd dominance or trying to capture it. Groups of bachelor impalas, lions, and elephants rather routinely challenge herd bosses. One day we saw a young giraffe confront the dominant male by crashing his long neck against the others.
Another day we saw a three course buffet. A pride of lions had killed a buffalo during the night and were ending their meal in the morning. A pack of jackals circled at a safe distance. When the lions were through and had walked a safe distance away, the jackals moved in.
One by one, three hyenas appeared on the horizon. After a while, one dashed to the food and grabbed a leg bone. Another hyena grabbed more meat. Interestingly, the lions weren’t bothered by the jackals because jackals pose no threat.
The jackals didn’t yield to the much larger hyena because they knew it would grab and go. But one lioness did return expressly to chase off the hyenas. Lions and hyenas are known as eternal enemies.
We were lucky to see many specie including an African wild cat, a honey badger, a puku antelope, and an aardvark. Three of our favorites:
We saw one leopard finishing his breakfast in a tree. Stu knew he would soon descend the log so he set up the photographers with recommended f-stop, ISO, and shutter speed. We saw another leopard drag her dead reedbuck up a tree, and then bring her cubs to share. A hyena circled hopefully below (in vain). When we returned to camp one night a leopard was high in a tree chasing monkeys, who protested loudly. We watched her with a filtered red light so as not to ruin her night vision. Finally, we found a leopard stalking impala. So did 10 other safari vehicles. When one vehicle got too close she just went under it.
Wild dogs are highly social. They live in packs of yearling pups and about 10 adults.
The dominant male and female typically monopolize breeding yet all members feed the pups by regurgitation after a kill. Wild dogs hunt antelopes and can run over 40 miles an hour. They have a very efficient temperature regulation, which allows them long pursuits. It is very endangered specie.
We were extremely lucky to see a pangolin, courtesy the Bush Telegraph. Pangolins are like anteaters and covered with protective keratin scales. They hunt their ants, termites, and other insects at night. Their defense when threatened is to curl up into a ball, protected by the armor of their scales. They are critically endangered.
Jenny Warden, who lives on the San Juan Ridge, is a member of The Union Editorial Board.
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