Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category
My blog series on video for still photographers continues. It’s not been too popular, something I figured would happen because of the the nature of blogging. The blogosphere is quite biased toward still photography. Videos are very popular overall, but tend to be concentrated in other places on the web. It’s sad to say but most serious photographers still don’t think video is worth doing, I believe because they think the learning curve is too steep. But when you’re out shooting photos you’re also carrying a very good video camera around with you. So why not add movement and sound, even if the results aren’t likely to measure up to those of a pro videographer?
Last time we looked at landscape videos. Today let’s talk about critters, or animals. Specifically wildlife. Domestic animals have their own challenges. Video of wildlife is not easy. But it’s one of the few subjects that even non-video people think of shooting. The reason is that wildlife often do interesting things that are very hard to capture with still pictures. They also make fascinating sounds.
To view the videos don’t click the play button right away. First click the title at top left, then the play button.
Wild animals are generally shy and not easy to find. In modern times there is a two-edged sword. Plenty of roads and easy access make it a snap to go looking for wildlife. But the same development and population growth that gave us those roads also causes most species to decline in numbers. And the survivors normally become very shy and elusive.
A general truism is that the easiest critters to find also tend to have the fastest and most unpredictable movements. On the flip side, leaving aside rarity, if they’re very difficult to find they tend to be slow and easy to follow. Sloths come to mind. But it’s not always true that the slow ones are hard to find. It could be the animal is simply not afraid and instead looks on you as lunch, like the Komodo dragons below.
Location, Location. There are just a few main strategies that will make it easier to find wildlife. One is heading to protected areas. Parks and preserves concentrate the wildlife that we have chased out of most parts of the world. Some African parks even fence them in, which is actually to prevent them leaving the park where they can be poached. Of course the poachers just go into the park to kill, so the fences are relatively ineffective in that way. The fences do cut down on human-wildlife conflict, as well as reduce road-kill.
The Right Time. Another strategy is to go out looking when animals are most active. And I’m not just talking about dawn and dusk, when most (not all) animals are likely to be moving about. I’m also talking season. Fall is when many animals become active, and spring (or the start of wet season in Africa) is also good because many have their young and are thus forced to go out hunting, foraging or browsing to feed them. Also, the babies are irresistible.
‘Tis the Season. Seasonality also affects the ease with which you’ll be able to spot critters because of vegetation. For example going on safari in Africa during the dry season is popular because the general lack of green leafy growth on shrubs and trees of the savannah makes it easier to spot wildlife.
Some wildlife during a specific season will ignore their natural instinct to avoid humans and come right down into our towns. In late fall, the elk of several western U.S. National Parks (Rocky Mountain and Grand Tetons for e.g.) descend from higher country and congregate in gateway towns like Estes Park, Colorado.
Showing their Moves
Animals move (I know, duh). And they move apparently without warning and in unpredictable ways. But really not so unpredictable once you observe and learn about them.
Ready & Steady. Be ever ready to move the camera instantly. It’s a mindset that is applicable to still photos of critters as well. Your positioning and stance needs to be such that you can swivel or pivot easily. I liken it to when I was a kid being coached on how to take a lead in baseball. You also need a way to smooth out your motions, covered in a previous post: Video on the Move.
Observe. The most important thing in this regard is careful observation. The more you learn about a species, the better you’ll be able to predict its movements. But avoid the trap even experienced people fall into. You can know the species but not the individual. Like us, each one is different and unique, in ways that seem quite subtle to us (but presumably not them). So even if you know the species well, a little pre-shooting observation goes a long way.
If you record the voices of animals (and why wouldn’t you have sound recording turned on?), you can be sure that even the chattiest of them will choose the time after you press the record button to give you the silent treatment.
Observe some More. Same goes for sound as for video: if you have the opportunity, observe the animal for awhile before you press record. You’ll gain a sense of the periodicity or patterns inherent in the animal’s vocalizations. The keys, as it is in general nature observation and photography, is patience and timing.
Examples. At Yellowstone Park I went out in the very early morning to film the buffalo above. On a previous morning I’d seen them crossing the Lamar River and figured they were sleeping on one side and eating breakfast on the other, with a bath in between. Also the early hour meant only one other tourist, and he stayed up by the road. A shotgun mic helped to capture their voices. Below, on the Kafue River in Africa, I couldn’t get close enough to these hippos but their voices carry so well across the water that I didn’t need the shotgun mic.
That’s it for this Friday, thanks for looking. Have an excellent weekend and don’t forget to press that record button!
Addendum: Dry Run
Try is a dry run from time to time. For example you could walk out into a forest in the wee hours to hear the dawn chorus of birdsong. Try leaving your camera in the bag, at least at first. The goal is to find the best locations and to simply listen. Note when certain bird species begin and end (it’s strictly regimented), along with how long the singing lasts. If you go out several times you’ll begin to learn how the weather affects timing along with other features of bird vocalization and behaviour.
Believe it or not I did this for a job one summer. I surveyed forests in the Pacific NW proposed for logging, looking for evidence of use by endangered bird species. Since most of the areas lacked trails, I would go out during the day with some white surveyor’s tape. I’d find a good spot to observe from and then, on the way back to the road, flag a route by every so often tying a piece of surveyor’s tape around a branch.
Then in the morning, at “zero dark thirty” I returned with my flashlights (I recommend two, a headlamp and a strong hand-held) and followed the trail in. White shows up in the dark a lot better than orange. On the hike out after sunrise I’d remove the surveyor’s tape. This is, by the way, also a good way to find and shoot out-of-the-way places at dawn, your “secret” spots that are away from roads and trails.
Rising pre-dawn to climb Tajamulco, highest peak in Central America, a half-asleep state gave way to flow as the sun rose.
Flow, or “being in the zone” is all the rage these days. It’s considered to be how creative people create. While that’s true, flow is not that uncommon. We’ve all experienced it. I heard a radio interview the other day and the guest referred to flow as something experienced by people at the highest level. I think that’s too narrow a way to think about it. Any time you get 100% engaged in an activity and lose track of time, you’re in flow. Flow will help you progress toward expertise, but being very good at something isn’t a prerequisite for flow.
This series, which started with the idea and concept of flow, has moved on to how to foster the state in different types of photography. Today let’s look at travel photography, which consists of shooting a wide variety of subjects in unfamiliar places. I call the entire western U.S. my home area and by definition travel takes me to countries outside the U.S. My travel photos lean heavily toward cultural subjects, including people, but includes landscape and wildlife. While traveling I photograph far more people (and fewer landscapes) than I normally do.
A bit of a cliche, but prayer flags and the Himalaya are just too big a part of the scene in Nepal to pass up.
When you’re traveling and shooting there is no shortage of distractions. So flow is not that easy. Here are a few tips:
- Observe & Engage. Just as it is with other kinds of photography, keen observation and then intense engagement with your subjects is a sure route toward experiencing flow.
- Filter & Focus. Traveling can overwhelm the senses. It’s one of the great things about it. But in order to do your best photography focusing on the subjects that you want to shoot is necessary. The kind of concentration required to capture images with strong subjects can help you experience flow while doing it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get a few overview shots that establish context and show the place you’re in (you could also do this with video). But it’s easier to get into flow and capture good images if you zero in on one subject at a time, filtering out the rest.
With huge views of the Nepali Himalayas outside this teahouse, I shifted focus to smaller things.
- Quality vs. Quantity. Let’s be honest. Travel can be hectic at times. That’s probably inevitable. But your whole trip doesn’t have to be this way. If you plan an overly busy itinerary, you shouldn’t expect to experience flow while shooting. And you should expect more snapshots than quality images. You simply can’t have both quality and quantity, and this goes especially for traveling. As you plan your itinerary, choose one or the other and be happy with the consequences of that decision.
- Slow Down. I prefer to plan a light itinerary and cover less area in more time. This way I get to relax and spend some time with subjects. When I take the camera out in some new place, randomly exploring with no real destination in mind, flow comes much easier than when I’m rushing to move on to the next place. Leaving real time for deep exploration is a key to successful travel photography (and travel in general). Of course during the trip there will always be those times when you have to hurry to catch a train or to check out. Just don’t let that pace infect your entire journey.
Angkor Wat’s West Gate is an easy subject to like, but it took patience and time to shoot it with pedaling commuters and the sun in the right position.
- Make it About the Journey. While it’s important to get to your destination in order to spend time exploring and shooting, the journey is at least as important. Sometimes it’s more so. You’ll encounter some of your best photographic subjects while you’re traveling from one place to another. So a second key to travel photography is being ready at all times to capture images. You may prefer your phone for this, or a small point and shoot camera. It doesn’t matter, just keep observing and shooting things that are interesting along the way.
I was rushing to a waterhole where the game was supposed to be when I stumbled upon this cheetah stalking the grasslands: Etosha, Namibia.
- Be Flexible. This is good advice anytime you travel, whether shooting seriously or not. But consider this: you can take yourself right out of your game if you get uptight about the inevitable changes and screw-ups that occur during any trip. Being upset about things that are outside your control means you’re not about to enter flow anytime soon. I won’t claim to be perfect in this regard. But isn’t it better to look upon an unforeseen left turn in your trip as an opportunity to photograph something unexpected? Go with the flow so you can experience flow!
I didn’t plan on attending this rough ‘n ready rodeo on Omotepe, Nicaragua. But I let my hosts drag me there and didn’t let their fun with my flag get in the way of a good time.
- Be Outgoing. Some of the best travel images are of people, often showing something of their unique culture. But unless you play at being a paparazzi, you’ll need to break out of your shell and approach strangers in order to get good people shots. Luckily, most people around the world (not all) are happy to be approached by tourists. You may be rejected occasionally. Don’t let that stop you. All it takes is one great interaction to make your travel day. Once you’re with an interesting local talking and laughing, all the time shooting great candids, photo flow can’t be far behind!
This Himba boy in northern Namibia was cute in how serious he was about standing tall and noble.
By the way, a future post will go into more depth about photographing people in strange (to you) surroundings. Thanks so much for reading and have a wonderful weekend!
At Tikal, the ancient Mayan city in Guatemala, rainy weather and the late hour made it feel empty and helped me to experience photo flow.
Lake Malawi, Africa
This is an occasional series on my blog where two pictures tell one story. The images are from a trip to southern Africa a few years ago. Malawi is an amazing country. You can’t drive to this small village above Lake Malawi, and it’s a long steep walk to Livingstonia. Everyone was very friendly.
Halfway up, passing through a small village, I met a woman who offered to guide me to a local waterfall: so beautiful and refreshing! After that, we passed another woman pounding casava into flour in a giant wooden mortar and pestle. I tried and boy was it strenuous!
She was embarrassed at first to be the subject of my pictures. She was actually afraid I would take them back home where she would be ridiculed for her poor way of life and for being similar to a monkey! I couldn’t believe what my guide was translating to me.
My guide and I assured her none of the people I showed the pictures to would ever dream of making fun of her. I said both she and her village were beautiful and very impressive to me and everyone else back home. I asked to use the mortar and had her take pictures of me goofing off, trying to be funny. It didn’t take long for her to warm up to me (she’s the one seated).
With travel, not only are your own preconceptions about other cultures shattered, you get to correct what others think about your own culture as well!
Two local women crack up while preparing casava in a small village above Lake Malawi.
This Friday I’d like to continue with depth of field. But before I do I want to thank all those who contributed to my campaign to replace my camera gear (which tumbled over a waterfall several months back) and get back to showing you all some fresh material on this blog. I will be sending out a reminder email to those folks, to pick the images they want.
I didn’t make it all the way to my goal, but I got partway there. And that means something. I’m busy right now working 7 days/week doing the only thing I know how to do that makes me money quickly. And it’s actually legal, go figure! So it won’t be long before I make up the difference myself.
Make sure and check out the first two parts of this series: Part I and Part II. They go over the basics behind depth of field. The example here will show how to apply those basic principles in the field, so it’s important to know them.
Cape Ground Squirrel
I was traveling through Namibia when I took a break from the road. Namibia is one country in Africa where you can very easily rent a car and take off on an impromptu road trip, like you would in the western U.S. If the roads in the west were still largely unpaved that is.
I strolled up a small ridge with my camera and one lens (a 400 mm.). Suddenly directly ahead this cute little fellow popped his head up and looked at me with big dark eyes. I had never encountered this rather tall slender rodent before. Later I found out it was a cape ground squirrel, native to southern Africa.
Of course I wanted a shot of him, and quickly before he decided I wasn’t all that interesting. But as usual my position wasn’t ideal. A portion of the scrubby hillside formed the background not far behind him. My lens only opened up to a maximum aperture of f/5.6.
Since I wanted a portrait that showed him plus a bit of the bare ground at his feet but little else, the hillside was a problem. It was too close and would have been too much in focus, too distracting. I wanted as shallow a depth of field as I could get. But I was limited in what I could do. I couldn’t open the aperture larger than f/5.6, couldn’t go longer than 400 mm., and couldn’t change lenses.
I was down to one option, changing relative distance between camera to subject and subject to background. And since I couldn’t move closer without scaring him off, increasing the subject to background distance was all I had.
I grabbed a quick shot or two, in case he ran away. Then I slid down low, lying on my belly so that the hillside behind him was out of view. Now a much more distant ridge formed the background. Problem was, the lower point of view put my little friend out of view.
So I waited, hoping that his curiosity would get the best of him. Sure enough he popped his head up again. Luckily his long tail (which is what fascinated me about him in the first place) trailed to the side. I had been framing a vertical photo, but I quickly switched to get his tail in and fired off a few frames before he zipped off to continue his daily desert rounds.
The Cape ground squirrel lives in rocky areas of Namibia and South Africa.
I ended up with a pretty good shot of him, a key part of it being the smooth gray out of focus background. The shallow depth of field was afforded by a relatively long focal length of 400 mm. combined with the squirrel’s proximity to me relative to the distance between him and the ridge behind. The low point of view resulted in the picture’s main weakness, an out of focus rock low in the foreground.
I tend to combine all the factors controlling depth of field (aperture, focal length and positioning). But since focal length is pretty much dictated by the composition I’m after, aperture and positioning are the main variables. I’ll move closer or farther from my subject, change point of view to move background forward or back, or ask my subject to move if that’s possible (I haven’t figured out how to speak to animals yet). All the while I will adjust aperture to the degree that I can.
Of course I run into shutter speed limitations when adjusting aperture. But it’s easy to mitigate that by adjusting ISO. Better to have a little noise from a higher ISO than to have a blurry subject because of a shutter speed that is too slow. I have ruined many a shot because I thought animals or people were perfectly still when they weren’t. I’ve been a very slow learner in this regard. Always shoot live subjects at somewhat faster shutter speeds than you think are necessary.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe-Zambia border.
I was uploading today to Fine-Art America (a website for displaying and selling all sorts of artwork) and came on some images from an African journey a few years ago. As you know I like to post an image on Sunday that relates somehow to Friday’s Foto Talk post. How does this one relate to clouds? Well, with this much mist and spray it is very like shooting in fog and low cloud. In fact, the local name for Victoria Falls is Mosi O Tunya, which translates in the Tongan language to ‘smoke that thunders’. There is another (special) reason why this place is on my mind, but I’ll keep more personal details on the down-low for now!
I usually shoot waterfalls so that the water is smooth, but I’m always aware of falling into the rut of always doing it that way. I’m not sure that there is a “best” way in fact. It’s all in how you see the water. Often freezing the action looks too unnatural to me, but in this case it best captures the power of Victoria Falls.
This is actually low flow for this waterfall, believe it or not. There is no way to get to this point to photograph it when it is in high flow, when it becomes the largest sheet of falling water in the world. I scrambled over to the edge during a hike/wade out to Devil’s Pool (making my guide nervous). You can see a few people in Devil’s Pool at upper right. You jump in super-refreshing water right at the edge of the falls! It’s a bit scary, but really safe if you exercise a little caution.
Please click on the image to check it out on Fine Art America. There are all sorts of options for purchase, including metallic, canvas, unframed or framed, with numerous types of frames to check out. To view my whole collection over there, click My FineArt America Collection. It is some of my best! Thanks & have a great week ahead!
It’s been too long since I’ve participated in Ailsa’s travel theme posts. This week the topic is Dry. Enjoy these images from southern Africa. I was there for three months a couple years ago, at a time that straddled the end of the dry and beginning of the wet seasons. My better desert landscapes are from the American Southwest, but these show the real impact of dry.
It was amazing the sense of anticipation among the animals (and also people) as they awaited the rains. It is for many of them a time of life and death, a time of anxiety. This is especially true with respect to their young. Most animals there have babies not long before the wet season. Then they have to wait out the worst days, the end of the dry season while watching their young suffer. Maybe it’s a way for them to make sure the young are strong, I don’t know.
If you are interested in any of these images (copyrighted and not available for free download), please click on them. If you have any questions or specific requests, please contact me. Enjoy and thanks for looking!
A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season’s first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana. No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust. A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.
A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert.
A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during one of the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
Standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia. Mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.
Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.
During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail to brush insects away from her foal.
A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.
Plants adapted to dry conditions grow very slowly, but it’s hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia. Some are well over 2000 years old.
The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope superbly adapted to the arid regions of Africa.
This lioness in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt (the above animal) in the relative cool of the evening. Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!
Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I’ve been, an extremely arid shore with plenty of shipwrecks.
Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoying, dry thing that happens inside your nose. This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!
Then he seemed to smile mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!
A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.
Driving in Botswana has its particular hazards.
This is a rare type of post for me. I think that, sometimes, predictions of a species’ demise are exaggerated. Why is extinction always (reflexively?) ascribed to humans when natural forces often play the most important role? But what is happening to the elephant is personal for me. A little over a year ago I spent 3 months in southern Africa. I saw plenty of elephants, and observed their behavior sometimes for hours at a time. Elephants once roamed across Africa, but now they are largely limited to a few sanctuaries: the national parks.
A bull African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta bluff-charges, just to make sure we’re paying attention.
But even in the parks elephants are under constant attack. They have always been poached of course, but recently the slaughter has increased in intensity. There are several factors at work here. The most important is the increasing price for ivory in SE Asia. For example, the Philippines is a big consumer of ivory where it is shaped into religious icons. Talk about a sad irony! The unusually hard ivory of the forest elephant of western Africa is particularly prized.
Ivory where it belongs, attached to an African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
A large African elephant, fresh from a mudbath, shows off his prehensile trunk at a waterhole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.
Now since these parks are poorly patrolled, and because they aren’t very far from hotbeds of Islamic extremism such as Mali, the slaughter is on a massive scale. Parties of men, equipped with high-powered weapons and often flown in by helicopter, have been recently wiping out whole herds: mothers with their babies included. I can’t bring myself to post pictures of the dead elephants; it’s just too upsetting. You can easily find them on the web.
An apparent assignation between two African elephants beneath a tree on the banks of the Chobe River, Botswana.
It’s all done for money of course. The sight of these butchered elephants hits most people like a punch in the gut. At this pace, we will lose the forest elephant very soon. The larger African elephants of eastern and southern Africa are also being poached in record numbers. Complicating all this is that countries like Kenya are hoarding their ivory, collected from legal culling operations. That just drives up the price of course. Even parks like Kruger in South Africa are losing elephants (and rhinos). I visited this park and was very impressed by the high, electrified fence encircling the huge park. But this doesn’t stop poachers.
A partial screen of grasses allows a close approach to a grazing African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
Given the amount of corruption in Africa, I believe that ivory smuggling is very difficult to stop. I also believe that convincing people to stop buying ivory, while very worthwhile, will never make a difference in time to save the species. I believe strongly that a two-pronged approach is necessary. First, attempt to lower the price by forcing Kenya and other countries with abundant localized populations in their parks to continue culling the herds and releasing that ivory on the market. The second step, which is most important, is to use high tech weaponry to kill every single poacher in these teams.
A large bull African elephant challenges any intruder to his piece of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
We should use armed drones (which are being brought home as the U.S. gets out of their ill-thought-out conflicts) to go after these criminals. After a time, and in conjunction with satellite surveillance, we should be able to get them before they do their dirty business. We should get them coming out if we fail to get them going in. I think, despite the potential of a big payout, that knowing they have a better than even chance of dying during the attempt will keep potential poachers from signing up.
An African elephant blocks the main channel in the Okavango River in Botswana.
It’s important to kill every single person involved in a poaching attempt. If we approach this like we approached the war in Iraq, we should be able to make these better than even odds a reality. I strongly believe that funding for this should come from the U.S. and Britain, along with a few other countries, big donors and even NGOs. Money from western governments should come directly out of the aid budget for Africa (so it does not add to the deficit).
An African elephant reaches into the trees for succulent fruit, on the Chobe River bank in Botswana.
I have seen firsthand how intelligent, how caring, and how incredibly awesome these creatures are. I really want to help save elephants, as well as rhinos. If I can make that happen, you will see me blogging from Africa in the future. I do not want to see these magnificent beings disappear forever. I really don’t.
A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
Ever since my first year college I’ve had an on-again, off-again love affair with birds. My geology professor was also a biologist and really really knew his birds. So he taught a nights/weekends class that met one evening per week, with a field trip every Saturday. Boy I learned a lot about birds: how to identify them, where you could find the various types, and their conservation issues.
A nearly mature American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fluffs his wings at the top of a tree in Oregon.
We went to the Oregon coast and saw pelicans, puffins, oystercatchers and more. We went to local wetlands for song birds & water birds. We went to nearby forests for thrushes and woodpeckers, and to the (semi-arid) east side of the mountains for raptors & open-country birds like larks. Since I had recently arrived in Oregon from the east coast, it was also a great opportunity to see some gorgeous places. If I count the geologic field trips I took with that guy, he was my main tour guide to Oregon that first year. We even drove to Death Valley over Spring Break for a combined geology/ecology trip, and that was my first time in a true desert.
At that time I had a Peterson Field Guide (to Western U.S. birds), and that well-used book is still knocking around here somewhere. I learned to call the activity of going out looking for birds, identifying them along the way, as “birding”. I immediately started using the new term, and of course it made it sound much less geeky, or nerdy, than calling it “bird watching”. Since then, I’ve met ornithologists who have enormous disdain for the term “birding”, and they insist on calling it “bird watching”. They have other terms for various work activities, such as banding, habitat survey, etc., but they want no part in a virtual admission of their nerdiness by using a more cool term for what they do.
The thing I grew to love about birding was the way it forced me to slow down. I was young, strong and constantly amped up in those days. I wanted to climb every mountain, as they say, and at a fast pace. But success seeing birds can only be gained while doing a super-slow stroll, stopping often to peer into the trees for a flash of color. When you do get a beautifully illuminated view of a colorful oriole or bright warbler, so perfect you can count feathers, you feel a real elation. You wouldn’t think it’s true, but it is.
After some years of never picking up a bird guide, and rarely looking at one through binoculars, I got a seasonal job as a biological field worker. My job was to go out into the forest in the wee hours of morning and set up at a predetermined station exactly one hour before sunrise. Then I would spend two hours looking up and listening for endangered marbled murrelets. These are plump seabirds that look like flying cigars when they pass overhead and make a high-pitched kee kee sound. You (rarely) see them starting in springtime when they are flying between the sea and their inland nest to feed their young. They nest on the broad, mossy branches of large old-growth firs, spruces, and (in northern California) redwoods.
A common bird along Africa’s waterways, the darter (Anhinga rufa ) is also known as the “snake bird” because of its sinuous neck.
A common but beautiful bird in Southern Africa, the Cape glossy starling (Lamprotornis nitens) displays irridescent feathers.
I would be back at the house we rented by 9 a.m. at the latest, and immediately crash for a few more hours, sleeping until just past noon. Then I’d get up and sit outside at a picnic table and write up my notes. I had a small tape recorder where I would dictate notes during the survey. This was so I could keep my eyes on the sky. We also went out on day-long habitat surveys, and this was an incredibly fun thing to be paid for. Exploring the forest, looking for big trees near to a convenient opening in the forest canopy. One unofficial criterion for a good survey site was a soft forest floor, for lying back during the survey. My partner did not lie down, for fear of falling asleep. But the way my neck felt after only one survey made me try it. To my surprise, I never got sleepy. Must have been the full thermos of coffee I had with me.
There were a few great wildlife sightings. Of course we saw many owls, and deer. I got to the point of being able to predict when each species of bird would start singing. Good old robins, believe it or not, are usually first to sing in the darkness. I became good at identifying birds by their calls. We did some surveys in the North Cascades of Washington, and it is there that I saw my first cougar. The sun had not risen yet, and I had to look twice to make sure. But there he was, standing next to a large stump looking off at something. I went for my camera and he heard that (of course). He turned, saw me and simply disappeared, all in one motion. He vanished just like the proverbial ghost.
A reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) stands at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.
So years have passed and I am now a serious photographer. I went to Central America a couple years ago, and while in Honduras I went out one morning with a naturalist on a bird watching hike. We saw a total of 75 different species in one morning! This was by far the most species I had ever seen in one day. On that trip, where I visited every single Central American country, I got a few good pictures of birds. Probably my best was the great currasow, a large and spectacular ground-dwelling bird. He just stepped out into a clearing in the jungle at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, in Guatemala, posing for his picture.
Despite the fact my photography naturally tended toward nature, I didn’t think about birds. I did not buy a huge lens, and concentrated instead on landscapes, culture and travel. I traveled to places where tourists are taken to see animals, and I even hired guides sometimes. Invariably, I would soon realize that the showcase animals were thin on the ground while the birds were plentiful. An example: in visiting a reserve in India, I saw a huge paw print but no tiger. But the birds? Stunning diversity. In Borneo I worked hard to see my one single wild orangutan (semi-wild ones are easy at feeding stations). The birds? Amazing. So I used binoculars to capture memories, and did not attempt any serious wildlife photography. This was because of my relatively short lenses. Despite this, I managed to get a few good bird shots.
At McBride’s Camp along the Kafue River in the eponymous national park, a black-backed barbet (Lybius minor) calls for some more to eat.
An African hornbill perches over my campsite at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana.
But then last year I went to Africa, and bought a 400mm lens for wildlife. Combined with my crop-sensor camera and 1.4 extender, that gave me from 600 to 900mm of focal length. The extender lowered quality somewhat, so I did not use that very much. I came back with some nice shots of mammals: giraffe, lion, zebra, antelope, elephant, rhino, you name it. I was never after bird pictures, always 4-legged critters, and in particular I was hot for big cats. But now I’ve had time to fully evaluate those shots. You know which one National Geographic accepted for their stock collection? Yep, a bird. I have a good number of stunning shots of Africa’s birds.
So the moral of the story is, no matter how much I might ignore it, I have an affinity for birds. They are certainly the most accessible wildlife out there it’s true. But there is more to this. I have virtually ignored birds for years at a stretch. But they always keep “bringin’ me back in” (as the mobster said). I have my favorite geology prof. to thank. Because that Spring term in college, all those years ago, imprinted on me a true love of bird watching. And yes, I said bird watching, not birding. I don’t have thick glasses with masking tape over the bridge. But if I did, I wouldn’t mind, I’m secure in myself, haha. So just buy a bird guide, sling those binoculars around your neck and get out there! You have new (feathered) friends waiting.
Maribou storks perch in a dead tree above a carcass as the sun goes down at Savute Marsh, in Chobe National Park, Botswana.
Etosha is a very large park in northern Namibia that is dominated by one of the biggest dry lake beds (called pans in this part of the world) you will ever come across. With only a few days before my flight home, this was literally squeezed in at the end of my recent 3-month trip to southern Africa. The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly my cheetah sighting. I had not seen this cat in my travels, and along with wild dog was the only major African animal species I had not seen yet.
Two cheetah cubs in Etosha National Park, Namibia, appear to be taking turns keeping watch.
Most people enter Etosha from the south (Anderson Gate) or east (von Lindenquist Gate). The far western (Galton) gate is nearly forgotten, largely because this region of the park was closed to the public for years. A couple of years ago it was opened, and only recently has the only lodge in western Etosha been accepting guests. Since I always try to do things with a twist of difference, I made a detour after visiting the Himba people (previous post), driving up through gorgeous, unpopulated hill country to the Galton Gate.
A curious young springbok with stubs for horns and huge eyelashes in Etosha National Park, Namibia.
I arrived too late to enter the park, but the friendly (and lonely) ranger set me up in a campsite. I was very comfortable, and I heard lions calling in the night, but from outside the park. His wife showed up next morning, wearing bright African dress, and she was delighted to allow me to photograph her. I later sent her some photos. This should go without saying, but if you are traveling, make sure to never promise to send photos to someone unless you are certain you will do it.
Entering the park, I immediately headed to Dolomite Camp, which is only an hour or so from the entrance. Dolomite is perched on a long ridge of (what else?) dolomite. This craggy outcrop rises dramatically from the surrounding wildlife-rich plain. Beautiful chalets are perched along the ridge, with decks that have stunning views of classic African savanna. What a place! A bit spendy, $100/nt with no activities or meals included, but well worth it. It was near the end of my trip & I was treating myself.
Checking into my airy chalet, I took a cool shower and parked myself on the deck, cold drink in hand. I spotted some zebra, antelope and even giraffe through my binoculars. Later I enjoyed the ultra-refreshing pool and chatted up the young Namibians tending bar. I chilled out for the whole afternoon in fact, a hot one that “forced” me to take numerous dips in the pool. Then toward evening, I got into my little rental car and did a game drive through western Etosha, which was empty of other tourists. I drove the dirt roads (passable in 2WD as long as you drive carefully) and saw the rare black-faced impala, the strangely intense kori bustard, and also the red hartebeest (a funny-looking critter). No predators though.
When I returned to camp, the moon was rising over the savanna, and the evening breeze had kicked up – very beautiful. By the way, Africa newbies might be confused when they hear the word “camp” applied to what are actually lodges. Camp is often used when the lodge does not even have an attached campsite, and is pretty luxurious. This is the case with Dolomite.
Next morning, I woke early and went out on the deck. Soon I saw a herd of antelope below, and while slowly sweeping my binoculars over the area around the herd (this can net you a stalking predator), I was rewarded with lion! The first one I saw was a big female, who was staring intently at the herd from thick cover. I found the rest of the pride nearby, including the male (who was still sleeping, go figure!). After watching for awhile with no attack, I walked to the breakfast cafe for coffee. I told the staff about the lion, and one of the young girls working there wanted to see. Since the lion could not be seen from the main camp, I took her to my chalet and pointed them out. She was amazed. Turns out these were the first lion she had seen in Etosha (she had just started working there).
Termite mounds dot the savanna of Etosha National Park, Namibia.
I finally dragged myself away from Dolomite and drove into the heart of Etosha. After about 5 hours, I caught sight of the enormous Etosha Pan. This is a tan expanse of pancake-flat dried lake bed that is 130 km (80 mi.) long and up to 50 km (31 mi.) wide. You cannot even see to the other side it is so huge. It is surrounded by typical African bush/savanna, peppered by large termite mounds (image above) and waterholes where animals gather. The campsites along the southern margin of the Pan are situated near these waterholes, but they are not really that great. They are much like Kruger’s, in that they have restaurants, pools, and simple cabins, but those that I saw were somewhat ratty in appearance as compared with Kruger. But they do work for campers like me, and I had no problem pitching my tent at them.
A rare blue crane feeds near Etosha Pan in Namibia.
A gorgeous cheetah rests after a hot day in Etosha N.P., Namibia
Now on to more animals! After photographing a pair of rare blue cranes (above) next to a viewpoint over the Pan, I drove toward Halali Camp and saw a vehicle stopped on the road. I scanned the bush for what he was looking at, but realized I was looking out too far. As I drew closer I saw them: a family of cheetah! Woohoo! I had finally seen cheetah! Mom and two cubs lay at the edge of the road just chilling out in preparation for the night’s hunt. I started snapping away, with my Canon 100-400mm f/5.6, and a crop-frame Canon 50D. I had close to 600mm of focal length, but still could not fill the frame with the cubs. This is because I was not parked as close as I could actually have gotten without scaring them away.
I’m conservative in this regard, and feel you must strike a balance between getting close enough for good shots, and yet keep enough distance to avoid drastically changing the animals’ behavior. Since light was getting lower as dusk approached, it was hard to keep my shutter speeds high enough (a common challenge on safari). I noticed the other guy there had a mount for the door of his 4×4, with his big lens attached. That is the ticket, I thought, for my next African safari. You will undoubtedly use such a mount more than you use a tripod on safari.
I did catch some adorable shots of the babies, who were fighting sleep. Mom was so sleek and graceful! The other photographer and I had them to ourselves for awhile, until an overland truck arrived. If you don’t know, overland trucks are basically big 4×4 transports, like a mini-bus on steroids, which carries (mostly young) tourists inside. They are popular with travelers on a budget, since they typically camp out on their long routes through Africa. Many overland trips travel from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa. This means being on the road for a month or more, all with other people you don’t know, and on somebody else’s itinerary.
It is likely obvious that I do not have a high opinion of the overland option. I saw many overland trucks pull into a campsite late in the day, where the tourists proceed to hang out as a group, catching up on the internet. They then pull out next day, usually before daybreak. This is not my idea of a memorable travel experience. They tend to pass through Africa without really interacting much with locals, yes doing many of the activities and seeing most of the sights, but all in a rush, and on a superficial level. I won’t even go into the cliques and politics that inevitably take place along the way. Ugh! But if you are one to sacrifice quality for quantity, by all means do it.
Back to the cheetahs: the overland truck stopped in the middle of the road, startling the mother who rose and grew nervous. Then the truck squeezed through, further disturbing the family. The tourists, who cannot open their tinted windows, had maybe a 3-minute sighting before being ushered away to keep on their schedule. But the family was still there in the bush by the road, and the light was getting very nice as the sun set.
A mother cheetah leads her cubs through the savanna near Etosha Pan in Namibia.
Mom led her family off in a row, stopping to scan the meadows (above). I had brilliant photo opportunities as the setting sun hit their sleek bodies. I did get some pretty good photos, but I am a perfectionist and next time will be certain to have the door mount for my big lens. A gorgeous sunset led me to camp, and I had a glow about me for hours from the cheetah sighting.
A big elephant in Etosha N.P., Namibia shows how dexterous a trunk can be.
But there was more. On my last full day in Etosha, I stopped at a waterhole on the way to the southern entrance. While photographing very interesting-looking ducks there, I was about to leave when a herd of elephants showed up, including babies. They proceeded to splash and spray muddy water all over themselves, making all sorts of racket. Since I was parked on the grass very close to the waterhole’s edge. I got good (not great – it was high noon) pictures and video. They were leaving now, and the head cheese, a huge specimen, was trailing the group. He (or she?) was looking at me now, and pulling her trunk into all sorts of contortions (showing off?).
Then the big elephant came over and stood immediately next to my open driver’s side window, blocking my retreat. I realized he could have simply hooked his tusks under my little car’s body and flipped it into the waterhole with no effort whatsoever. I dared not start my engine, since that can startle an elephant and cause violence. So I just froze there, managing to grab a couple shots & a brief video. They are super close-up! She stared down at me, watching me. I could not even close the window for fear of her reaction. Finally, the big bruiser slowly meandered away, destroying small trees in the process of using them as scratching posts. My adrenaline was really pumping.
After that, the herd of wildebeest, the close-up of the jackal, the black-faced antelope buck, they were all anticlimactic. I reluctantly left the park, and drove back to Windhoek on a good paved highway with little traffic. Next morning I was on an airplane heading to Jo’burg, and then to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I unexpectedly was bumped and had to spend the night (not a bad thing!). Then it was back to the good old U.S.A., and a serious case of reverse culture shock.
Africa had changed me for certain. I had finally completed my dream trip. I would say I had knocked off a big item on my “bucket list”, but I detest that term. I’m really not a list person anyway. Don’t like to list accomplishments, don’t like to keep track. It’s too much like competing with other people, or even worse, with yourself. Each stage of life brings new priorities in life, and my goal is to live in each moment, not fret about a bucket list. But if Africa is in your sights, strongly consider an independently-oriented trip. However you do it, do not let any fear of danger or crime dissuade you from taking control of your own trip. Africans are friendly and honest people, and will welcome you with open arms.
The bush in Etosha National Park, Namibia, has abundant open spaces and few large trees. Thus they are in heavy demand for weaver bird nests.
A Cape fur seal pup checks me out, thinking I might be mom.
Northern Namibia is a different world. On my recent trip to Africa, it was the last region I visited. I also went to Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and those articles are accessible below. I’ll cover the Skeleton Coast, Damaraland & the Himba tribe. Etosha National Park I will cover in the next post. My jumping off point for the north was the town of Swakopmund (Swakop for short).
One of the many shipwrecks along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
Swakop is touristy – it’s the go-to beach holiday for Windhoek residents – but I found it pleasant and not at all overdone. Strangely enough for Africa, white people seem to outnumber blacks. It’s best feature is that it is right on the beach. There are the usual tourist attractions here, which I am not generally interested in. But there are plenty of outdoor diversions too, including great boat tours, excellent bird watching, and the desert is just outside town. A prime driving route for nature lovers is Welwitschia Drive.
This route, which takes about 4 hours with stops and does not require a 4×4, takes you east out of town into the northern Namib Desert. A permit is required, which you can obtain at the Ministry of Environment & Tourism office on Bismark St. in Swakop. They will set you up with directions and a guide to the natural attractions. Simple campsites allow you to take your time, and I started late in the afternoon, camping one night and returning to Swakop in the morning.
The dirt road traverses the gravel plains of the northern Namib Desert, which are uniquely covered with low-growing lichen. Here you will find the fascinating, namesake Welwitschia plant. This plant is, strangely enough, related to pines & firs. Individuals can live over 2000 years! In the picture below you can see what looks like many large leaves, but it is actually only two leaves that split and wander. It does not absorb water through roots, but through its leaves.
Next morning there was a dense, moist fog lying over the dry landscape; this is characteristic of the Namib. And so this strategy makes perfect sense. There are separate male and female plants, and when I visited, the blooms were on display, meaning that these aged plants still had some youthful exuberance left in them.
Welwitschia plants, well over 1000 years old, grow on Namibia’s gravel plains.
I was eager to head north to the emptiness of Namibia’s famous Skeleton Coast, but before I could leave, a reckless driver, a local woman, slammed into my rental car as I was parking. She did not even brake, so the damage was severe. Luckily, Hertz had an office in town, and they were quite helpful in replacing the car. The unfortunate thing was the woman was claiming it was my fault. Police here will visit the accident scene, but they refuse to investigate or make a report. So it is always a he-said she-said situation when you are in an accident.
I completed a police report, but in scanning her report, it was quite obvious who the untruthful one was. A couple months later, after I had returned home, a Hertz office in Africa gave me a nasty surprise when they tried to charge me $3500 for the damages. Since the local office had assured me I would not be charged, I was not about to go along with it. I had to dispute the charge with my credit card company, and thankfully Hertz finally gave up.
Venus flies over the southern Atlantic on the lonely Skeleton Coast of Namibia.
The Skeleton Coast is a lonely piece of coastline, no trees, gravel plains looking inland, and endless beaches seaward. Numerous shipwrecks dot the coast (its name refers to skeletons of ships), and there colonies of Cape fur seals. Cape Cross is the easiest colony to access. I drew up to this site near dusk so it was closed. Since it was almost dark, I had two choices. One was to stay at the nearby hotel, newly built and quite nice. If I were not in the third month of a trip, I might have gotten a room. But money was running out so I camped. I found a nice patch of beach to the north of the hotel, where it was just me, the sea and the sky.
The African jackal is a resourceful and intelligent predator that is very similar to the North American coyote.
The wind blew that night and my tent was rocking a bit. But upon waking in the middle of the night (something I did in Africa more than at home for some reason), I noticed my tent was really moving, and the wind had not increased in strength. I was about to get out and look for the reason, but before I could I felt a pair of jaws clamp down hard on my big toe! I yelled ow as the sharp teeth sunk into my tender toe, and yanked my foot away. I was fully awake and alert by now, believe me.
When I popped my head out, I saw a jackal standing there, staring at me hungrily. I had to wave my arms and yell before he took the hint and ran off. I checked my toe and lucky for me there was no blood. If he had broken the skin I would probably have had to go to a doctor immediately for the long, painful process of rabies shots. So that was it. I actually was bitten by an African animal. All I know is he must have been awfully hungry to go after me.
Next morning I sleepily rose and walked the beach. There were many dead seal pups lying washed up on the shore, and I wondered why. Were they hunted? Did they die of natural causes? Later, at breakfast in the hotel, I found out that the males killed many babies, and their bodies wound up spread along the coast. Sad. I visited the seal colony and, aside from the incredible stench of thousands of close-packed seals, was truly amazed. The babies were especially precious. They waddled right up to me (thinking I was mom I guessed), so I was able to get some great frame-filling shots (top picture). I also witnessed numerous fights among the males for the title of “beach master”!
After the seal colony, I drove north into the increasingly barren, strangely beautiful landscape. I spotted numerous mirages (image below); these were the most obvious I had ever seen. I reluctantly turned away from the coast, and began climbing on the M126. I entered southern Damaraland, and started to see a very familiar landscape. With the mesas of reddish volcanic rock, the broad semi-arid valleys and big skies, this area is very similar to eastern Oregon. Near sunset, I pulled up at a campsite near the World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein. This is an amazing collection of rock art, and is well worth visiting. There are numerous campsites in the area, and scattered lodges of various price-scales as well.
A mirage of a lake appears along the extremely dry desert coast of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
Next morning I enjoyed a guided hike into the rocky terrain (you must do a guided hike, and there are many available at the entrance station/museum. It was amazing to see all those African animals etched thousands of years ago in stone. Most are petroglyphs (carved into the rock) as opposed to pictographs (painted). They even depicted seals. It was obvious that in the past the area possessed many more animals – lion, elephant, etc. Now the animals of this area are difficult to spot. They travel the long dry river beds between the highlands and coast, and include the famous desert elephants, rhinos and more. I did not see much, a few antelope and giraffe. There are opportunities to hike with rangers who go out on anti-poaching patrols, looking for rhino-killers. Check this site for more info. on this outstanding opportunity (one I sadly did not have time for).
Petroglyphs, including a seal, adorn the rocks near Twylfelfontein, Namibia.
A young Himba woman from northern Namibia has a direct gaze.
I continued north towards Etosha, and near the town of Kamanjab asked at one of the lodges for some local knowledge regarding the Himba. This tribe, famous for the red clay the women and children spread all over their near-naked bodies, features in many travel photographer’s portfolios (search for images of Himba and you’ll see). I wanted to meet them and get a feeling for how they lived, to what degree they had been influenced by modern life, etc. You really have two choices when it comes to the Himba. You can go to an organized “village”, which are normally run by a lodge which pays Himba from other villages (often quite distant) to demonstrate their way of life. A mock-up of a village is constructed and tours run. The other option is to take off on your own and visit villages, asking the chief or elder if you may visit and take pictures.
The second option was my preference, but it is almost impossible to do this without two things: a 4×4 and plenty of time. Since I had neither (my flight home was 5 days away and I still had Etosha Park to do), I opted for the former. I expected to be somewhat disappointed, but was surprised to find I had a wonderful time. Out of a lodge run by a German woman (go figure), I met a nice young guy who took me and an English couple into the “village”. When we arrived, the Englishman started taking pictures. Although the Himba are in part there for photography, and they know that, I resisted the temptation to start firing away. This isn’t really my style.
I instead started to talk to them, of course focusing initially on the precocious butt-naked kids, and then picking on the most beautiful girl there (I’m incorrigible). I am using “talk” very loosely here, as they did not speak English and I didn’t speak Himba. But these women (no men, just women and children) were so delightful that I did not have to try very hard to loosen them up. As I began to take pictures of the pretty girl, who was sitting against a mud hut wall in beautiful open shade, I tickled her feet to get her to smile. This had the desired effect, and she started cracking up. Her friend came over and joined in the fun. She even playfully took her friend’s bare breast in her mouth and…well, I turned red, let me tell you.
The red ochre they mix with animal fats, applying it to their hair and skin. It helps with their stunning hairstyles, and protects them from the sun and insect bites. They have began to substitute store-bought vegetable oils because of the intense odor caused by the traditional mixture. I was told tourists were shying away because of it, and this I found very sad. I would not have minded the smell. Their simple beauty attracted me and no matter their (natural) smell. The Himba are very real, very personable, completely unself-conscious. I loved them.
After getting numerous great photographs, I finally allowed the guide to drag me away. I will certainly spend more time with these people if I am lucky enough to return to Namibia. It is also possible to visit San (bushmen) communities in northeast Namibia. So the combination of Himba, Herrera (whose women wear Victorian dresses) and the San makes northern Namibia one of Africa’s finest destinations for those interested in indigenous culture. Of course things are rapidly changing; these traditional nomads are transitioning to a settled existence in towns and cities. So I recommend going soon.
Springbok in Damaraland, Namibia, flee using their signature springing leaps.
A Himba child has an amazing hairstyle, in northern Namibia.
Next up: Etosha National Park (my last wildlife safari in Africa)!