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AFRICA 2005 TRIP REPORT (1/3) - KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, AUGUST 2005
By Vandit Kalia
September 2005

After spending 4 months in Africa in 2002, I’ve always wanted to go back. South Africa was one of the top destinations on my list and as chance would have it, a block of time opened up at the last minute and things were a go. It being school holidays and with the trip only 3 days away, it seemed at first as though we wouldn't be able to get any sort of accommodation in the Park - however, a heroic effort by Michelle of the SANParks office in Capetown meant that we got 2 weeks accommodation squared away. The itinerary was less than perfect, as it involved a lot of traveling up and down, but we weren't too bothered by that.

And so, almost before we realized it, we were in a Toyota Condor, exiting JNB airport and heading towards Kruger.

I brought with me a 1D Mark2 and a 20D with battery grip, the 500/4IS, the 100-400, a 70-200/4L for close-ups and night shooting, the 17-40/4, some extension tubes, a 1.4X and a 2X TC and the G6. I also had a monopod, a Gitzo 1228 tripod, a couple of beanbags, 4 1GB CF cards, a 30GB Flashtrax portable HD and my laptop. All except the laptop was stuffed into a Lowepro Photo Trekker bag, and I had no problems with the airlines in bringing it all on board.

   
                 


En route, we had to complete a smaller quest before we could continue on to Kruger - this was to find a copy of Nigel Dennis’s “Where to watch game in Kruger NP”. Armed with some bookstore addresses, courtesy the ever-helpful folks at the SANParks Forums, we started hitting the malls. No luck, initially. Store after store turned up blank. Finally, three malls and seven bookstores later, we found a single remaining copy at the CNA in Edenvale – the last bookstore on our list. Sighing in relief, we were off. One night in Sabie to recover from the long flight, a quick drive through Blyde River Canyon, a power shopping trip in Phalaborwa and we were in Kruger!

Immediate disaster – my Canon 20D was not working. Testing the batteries on the G6 revealed that they had not charged, despite being plugged in for several hours each the previous days. I was at my wit's end, as I did not fancy the idea of forever swapping lenses back and forth, and was considering driving out of the park, back to Phalaborwa, looking for a replacement charger (although I had my doubts as to whether I'd get one there). Luckily, on a lark, I decided to plug the batteries into the power socket through a power strip, and voila - that seemed to do the trick: they started charging. I have no idea why using a power strip, as opposed to plugging directly into the socket, seemed to solve the problem as I can categorically rule out a loose connection (the charger light came on in both cases). Still, the batteries were charging and that was the main thing. Close call, though.

   
                 


Frankly, this leg of the trip – 2 weeks in Kruger – was not super-productive, in terms of photo ops, especially the first week. We spent the first seven days in the northern part of the camp: Shipandani Hide, Sirheni, Mopani, Olifants, Bateleur and Punda Maria. Yep, that’s 6 camps in 7 nights. Not only was this a lot of traveling, but game concentrations in this area were quite low, due to this being a sourveld area. Also, the thick bush cover of this part of the park restricted views, making photography difficult.

We did get lucky with 2 leopard sightings during this week, both around Shingwedzi – although both were too far for quality photos, the second sighting gave us quite a clear and prolonged view of this reclusive cat sunning itself on a riverbed in the midafternoon. There was also a leopard sighting from the deck at Olifants, but as I didn’t have my binos on me, I missed it.

Still, it was enjoyable enough to be back in the African wild again, after a relatively prolonged absence.

The second week, we were in the southern part of the Park. We exited via the Punda gate, hauled butt down via the public roads and re-entered via Orpen. Almost immediately, we were rewarded with 2 lionesses right next to an unmarked dirt road leading to a waterhole. Too quick and too close to photograph, but after a week of seeing impalas and elephants, it was a very welcome change. Soon after, as we were driving along the Ngirivane Loop, my wife jokingly asked me to conjure up some more lions– and lo and behold! Immediately, we came across a male lion, walking towards us along the side of the road. 5 minutes later, another male followed, leading, behind him, a procession of cars. Luckily for us, we were in the right position to get some good shots of him. How's that for an auspicious beginning?

   
                 


We spent this second week in Skukuza, Satara, Talamati and Lower Sabie. While photography was still a little hard due to the crowds, game viewing was a lot better. My favorite place during this time was Siloweni Dam and the adjoining areas, where we got to see a lioness sunning herself on the embankment (although we missed the rest of the pride, including cubs). This place also had a regular flow of game coming in to drink water, including elephants, zebra, impala and warthogs. It was here that I got to see two elephants mating in the water (the second time I have seen this happen, the first being in Matusadonha). A large group of resident hippos and a nesting tawny eagle at Leeupan, not too far away, made this a very productive area for general game viewing.

The highlight of this week was the traffic police pride. Twice, while driving the Lower Sabie-Skukuza H4-1 tar road, we came across a pride of 9 lionesses, subadults and cubs, as they crossed the road to get to the water. Being a busy road, this meant traffic jam time. The cubs were a little wary of the large number of vehicles jockeying for position and matching their movements, and would hesitate to cross the road. So mum would march onto the road and sit down in the middle, stopping all cars in their tracks. Under her encouraging – and fiercely protective eye – the cubs would scamper across the road. Once they were clear, she would slowly get up, give both sides of traffic a steely glance to make sure they behaved themselves, and then saunter across. She did this both times we saw them; later, on my return trip to the park (see Part 3), I saw this pride a third time, and she did the same thing then too!

Another highlight was spending a decent amount of time with a leopard on a night drive out of Satara. The cat was absolutely unfazed by our presence, and walked along the roadside, patrolling and scent-marking his territory, while a busload of humans gaped and oohed and aahed at him.

   
                 


I have to admit, I can see why some people don’t like Kruger. There are times when it feels more like a zoo and less like a national park (tar roads, lots of vehicles, traffic jams that make those of Masai Mara pale in comparison). Also, the bigger camps don’t exactly exude a feeling of wilderness. The Kgalagadi, Mana Pools and Hwange, to name three, definitely provide a more authentic “in the wild” experience.

However, the sheer variety of topography, vegetation, animal and bird life at Kruger truly makes it a special place. And quiet places can be found, and detailed time spent in observation. The dirt roads are noticeably quieter than the tar roads. Also, staying at the bushveld camps makes for a much quieter time, as there is a network of roads accessible to camp residents only. So in some ways, Kruger is what you make of it.

Our only real gripe was with the food in the park. I am a bigger carnivore than most people I know, but after 2 weeks of eating nothing but meat, I have to ask – would it kill them to have some veggies? Or to serve something other than burgers, hot dogs and pies? It is a bad dining day when my cooking is the best alternative there is.

That minor thing aside, we had a truly enjoyable time in Kruger. The bungalows were nice and mostly air-conditioned (very nice to have heat in the middle of winter - makes getting out of bed so much easier). Our favorites were the safari tents at Lower Sabie - great game area, nice camp with a great view of the river and really funky accommodations.

   
                 


From a photography perspective, I had my 20D attached to the 100-400, and the 1D Mk2 was attached to the 500/4, with either a 1.4x TC or a 2x TC on it permanently. I had envisioned using the zoom for larger mammals and sightings close to the road, and the big tele for birds, as I normally do while shooting in India. However, I ended up using the 500 with a teleconverter far more often for mammals than I had expected - as you can see, the vast majority of the shots featured in these galleries were shot with the big lens. Overall, this two-lens combo proved to be quite useful and versatile, covering, virtually every shooting situation we encountered.

Once again, the versatility of digital also was a boon - especially a high-quality ISO 800 and the ability to capture higher ranges of tonal contrast than would have been possible with slide film. The battery life of these new generation Canons is nothing short of amazing - I only needed to charge my batteries once every 3-4 days. In fact, in the Kalahari (the next part of the trip), I forgot to charge my batteries and it was only on the 7th day that they ran out.

My initial reservation about choosing a self-drive had to do with how I would handle the dual chores of driving and shooting at the same time. That did turn out be a little hard, especially in high-traffic zones where I had to balance my desire to get a shot with courtesy towards others -- and being hurried is not a recipe for good photography. As it turned out, a bigger inconveniance was the absence of a roof hatch. Most of the action often occured directly in front of the car, and the windshield came in my way far more often than I had expected. The other thing I missed was a flash - which I had forgotten to pack (in my defense, it was a last-minute trip and we only got our visas and tickets a couple of hours before our flight).

The two weeks passed very quickly. Returning back to Pretoria, we abandoned our plans to go dive the salmon run off Durban, and decided to book a week in the Kgalagadi instead. The tale continues in Part 2.

 
     

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