Archive for the ‘elephant’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Video & Wildlife   8 comments

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.

Shy Shy

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.

STRATEGIES

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.

STRATEGIES

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.

Chatty Critters

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.

STRATEGIES

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.

 

Botswana   Leave a comment

A young male Nile crocodile basks on the banks of the Chobe River in northeast Botswana.

When travelers finally reach Maun, jumping-off point for safaris in Botswana, they are understandably eager to visit the Okavango Delta and its bordering reserves to the north.  But a great option if you have the time are the Kalahari and other areas to the south and east.  A visit to “the Pans” (Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans) is easy to combine with the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and this will expose you to ecosystems that could not be more different from the Okavango’s wetlands.  Of course, there are plenty of guided options here.  Any internet search will turn up places like Jack’s Camp, a fly-in camp deep in the Kalahari that includes guided walks with the San people (less correctly called Bushmen).  But Jack’s is pretty expensive.

An African hornbill perches over my campsite at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana.

Cheaper and easier is simply traveling by bus to Gansi (pronounced Hansi), a center for San culture southwest of Maun.  Use one of the more moderately priced lodges here (such as the excellent Grasslands) as a base to tour the Kalahari in the company of San who will show you their unique ways tracking and survival.  There are, as far as I know, no San remaining in the Kalahari who live as their ancestors did.  But many groups now residing in or near Gansi are only a decade or less removed from a hunter-gatherer existence.  Even if you don’t walk with the San, traveling through any area south of Maun means you will overhear the characteristic “click” language of Botswana’s Kalahari natives.  I listened for a long time to a group gathered by a campfire; after a while it began to seem normal.

It is arguably easier to visit the Kalahari (as well as the Pans) by simply driving yourself.  If you can share with two or three other travelers, this might be the cheapest option as well.  Arrange to rent a 4×4 ahead of time, or by visiting the rental car company offices across the road from the Maun Airport once you’ve arrived.  You can either rent a vehicle with camping equipment, or rent what you need from Kalahari Kanvas, located a couple hundred meters down the road that runs along the airstrip.  Be sure to rent or buy at least two 5-gallon containers, one for water and one for petrol or diesel.  Both fresh water and fuel are in very short supply away from major towns in Botswana (not kidding, you will run out of gas on a lonely road if you do not bring at least one 5-gallon can).  I rented a 4×4 Toyota Hilux pickup.  It ran about $125/day, but was probably the toughest 4×4 I’ve ever driven.

Driving east from Maun on an empty and excellent paved road, you first come  to Nxai Pan, with its gorgeous open landscapes and prides of lion.  There are campsites and driving loops, and it’s famous for its gorgeous groves of baobab trees.  Travel a bit further east, then drive south of the highway on 4×4 tracks across the Makgadikgadi Pans to camp amidst herds of migrating zebra (end of dry season in November) elephant, antelope and other animals.  You are truly getting off the beaten track in Africa if you do this.  A planned safari in a high-end lodge will not come anywhere near this kind of experience, and will cost you much more besides.

Not far south of the Pans lies the enormous Central Kalahari Game Reserve.  I entered from the east.  Friendly staff at the entrance station are happy to help you plan a camping loop in the reserve.  It is very different visiting this reserve at the end of the dry season, as I did in November, then it is if you go at the end of the wet season in March or April.  I was there at the hottest time of the year, when temperatures regularly top 100oF.  But…it’s a dry heat.  The grass is lower at this time of year, and wildlife is drawn to the few artificial waterholes.  So the wildlife is easier to spot.  But the green season has much to recommend it, including more beautiful landscape photo compositions along with the cooler temperatures.

Roads in the Kalahari are sandy but negotiable in a 4×4.  Remember to deflate your tires BEFORE you get fully buried in sand, and you should have little problem.  It’s worth renting a small compressor at Kalahari Kanvas to re-inflate your tires once you’re back on hard surfaces.  Also, in brushy areas approaching the Reserve, stop and pick up some firewood.  You’ll need it to cook with and to keep the animals away from your camp during the nights.  Don’t stop inside the reserve and collect firewood.  This is not because of regulations.  Simply put, you do not want to be walking around, stooping and picking up firewood, in the domain of Kalahari lions.  Speaking of brush, if you head here in the green season, expect to have to stop frequently to brush off the seeds and plant debris from your front grill.  If you don’t, you are asking to overheat.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the direct sun during the hottest time of year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

 

Soon after entering the Kalahari Reserve, I saw a large lion and two lionesses (image below) in Deception Valley, a beautiful expanse of grassland.  They were lying about as lions do during daytime.  I also saw gemsbok, giraffe and springbok, along with many interesting birds.  For example, the Kori bustard is a large bird that tends to freak you out with its strange sidelong gaze as it strides purposefully through the tall grass.   I camped near Leopard Pan, alone except for hyena calling nearby.  These camps are very simple, which is to my liking.  They are quite different from camps in South Africa or Namibia, which even have restaurants and swimming  pools.  Here in the Kalahari, you get a bucket shower (if you’ve brought an extra 5-gallon jug) and a fire ring.  Sometimes there’s a picnic table (but rent a folding table and chairs just the same).  You will come to look forward to the bucket shower.  You simply fill the bucket, then hoist it on ropes to its position above your head.  Then you simply open the shower head and let gravity do the work.  So refreshing after a long hot day, believe me.

A lioness nudges her lion with not much success in rousing him. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana.

 

A gemsbok, or oryx, gets a drink at a water hole in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana.

Traveling through the Reserve, seeing only a few other vehicles in 3 days, feeling very free and self-reliant, camping out amongst the brilliant Kalahari stars, I felt fully immersed in the great emptiness of untamed Africa.  I saw enough animals to keep me in neck-swivel mode while driving the rough roads.  There is a definite skill to be developed by anyone considering a self-drive safari in Africa, to keep your attention on the narrow track yet be able to spot wildlife.  I was mostly alone, wandering the dry landscape, spotting mirages and the long horns of gemsbok, always alert for the large, dark-maned Kalahari lion.

A more relaxing way to go about wildlife watching in the Kalahari is to park at a waterhole (which is filled by a nearby well & pump).  I sat for over an hour at a waterhole near Leopard Pan, watching a pair of jackals foraging.  I was rewarded when a herd of gemsbok showed up.  This antelope species, with its enormous horns, is supremely adapted to desert life.  The big ears, for example, aren’t only for hearing.  As with elephant ears, the animal rids itself of heat using the thin, floppy ears, which have abundant blood vessels near the cooler surface.

On my last day in the Kalahari, I passed several giraffes that were passing the heat of the day under some acacias next to the road.  When I rolled down the window and craned my neck upwards to get a better look and photograph them, one curious male slowly bent his long neck downwards to me.

 

 

A giraffe’s tongue is a wonder of nature.

He used his long tongue to reach up to his nose and gave several long licks.  Then, peering down at me with those huge eyes, he gave me a little smile.  I did not know before this that giraffe mouths commonly take on this expression, and it solidified the giraffe’s position as my favorite African animal.  I often think back on that moment, and it speaks to me of this heart of southern Africa.

If you have even more time, you can drive northeast from Maun, to the Savute.   It lies within the Chobe National Park, and has a reputation for abundant wildlife.  I saw a great variety of animals, but no cats, sadly.  The elephant were super-abundant  however.  The Savute Channel flows now nearly year-round because the pancake-flat land of this region has been slowly tilting, resulting in water from the Caprivi area in nearby Namibia flowing down to Savute.  This has also brought much more water to the Okavango Delta itself.

The dry season being at its peak when I visited, elephant had been showing up in numbers at Savute  from drier areas in the region.  Some had walked hundreds of kilometers to get to lifegiving water.  And yet, I soon began to notice many elephant carcasses, and at the campsite I asked a guide why elephants were dying with all this water and grass around.  He told me his theory, which I agree with.  The dead were made up almost entirely of young elephants.  Not babies – teenagers.  They had died, the guide said, when they drank too much water.

 

 

This reminded me of the problems we humans often have when we drink too much water.  If you drink too much without taking in electrolytes (i.e., eating), you risk a condition called  hyponatremia.   This causes your cells literally to burst, with death not far behind.  Maybe this had happened to the young elephants.  The adults are too smart to do this, and they keep their babies from overindulging.  But teenagers without adult supervision could easily get carried away when they first arrive, parched from their long trek to water.  It was quite sad, and reminded me of the trials and hardships inherent in surviving the African bush.

But despite the heat, the harshness of the terrain, the eat or be eaten nature of genuine safari experience, northern Botswana, with its diverse population and surrounding wonders, welcomes all those who make the long trek there with big curious eyes and a shy smile.

A giraffe in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana, appears to smile at me (but is merely curious).

Okavango Delta   Leave a comment

Botswana’s Okavango Delta is a beautiful and rich water-world.

During my recent trip to Africa, I had been going back and forth about visiting Botswana’s famous Okavango Delta.  It has a reputation for being expensive, so I was hesitant, worrying that I might blow my budget.  But I listened to my inner self, which had direct access to those many dreams of Africa, where I floated in a dugout canoe past prides of lion and herds of elephant and giraffe.  Finally giving in to this voice, I headed there from Livingstone (Victoria Falls) in Zambia.  It is a short bus trip from here over to Kasane, in the northeast corner of Botswana.  The river here is superb for watching wildlife.  Elephant and crocs (image above) grow to enormous sizes on the rich watered grasslands.  So after doing a boat cruise on the Chobe, I flew to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta.

I learned when I visited that one does not have to empty her wallet when she visits Botswana.  There are few budget options compared with other places, but a few turned out to be more than enough.  I did end up spending more than I wanted, primarily because I decided to rent a 4×4 and head off on my own for a week.  But that still cost me much less than a guided trip through the same areas would have cost me.  I will focus on the Delta in this post, than branch out into nearby sights next time.

A bull African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta begins a short charge, just to make sure we are paying attention.

In the above image, I was in a boat on one of the many channels through the Delta.  The elephant suddenly became annoyed at our close presence, so he false-charged.  We actually got splashed by him, as the guide quickly gunned the motor to add some distance.  All of these images are available to download (for license or printing yourself), or you can purchase directly from my website (just click an image).  You can buy a beautiful, large print, either framed or unframed, made with high-quality archival papers and inks.  These are all high quality images as you can see, made by a pro.  If on any of my blog posts you click on an image and it doesn’t take you to my website, that means you are welcome to use those images, but for personal use only please.  Thanks a bunch, and enjoy the rest of the article below!

Maun & The Okavango

“It’s the Maun magic” said the young bush pilot simply, and drained the rest of his beer in one gulp. I peered more closely at his profile as he tilted the glass. I doubted that he was old enough to drink, let alone fly a bush plane. He had offered the catchy phrase when I brought up the fact that my planned departure from Maun kept being delayed by one thing after another.   Now here I was in the same bar I had landed on my first night here, having spent the past week and a half exploring the Okavango Delta by boat and the Central Kalahari & Savute by rented 4×4.  Shaking my  head, I wondered how yet another day had passed while doing absolutely nothing about leaving.   The pilot’s words began to make sense.  There did seem to be a magnetic quality to this town in northern Botswana.

A common bird along Africa’s waterways, the darter is also known as the “snake bird” because of its sinuous neck.

Of course, there are real, non-magical reasons to linger a bit longer in Maun.  Simply put, this town and its surroundings are too dynamic and fun, its inhabitants too fascinating, to pass through in a rush. From boating and camping in the Okavango Delta, to flightseeing over herds of elephant and zebra, to hiking amongst world-renowned rock art in the Tsodilo Hills, Maun offers itself up as Southern Africa’s base camp par excellence.  And because of its location on the doorstep of some of Africa’s most pristine and beautiful safari country, Maun attracts more than its share of intriguing and entertaining characters from all over the world. I thought it might be this last fact as much as the natural wonders that was keeping me here much longer than I had planned.

The bush pilot sitting next to me in the bar was a perfect example of Maun’s dynamic population.  For such a young guy he had some great stories to tell. Maun has one of the world’s busiest bush plane airfields, and its pilots are some of the world’s youngest.  Most of them are from South Africa, which in part explains their hard-drinking, wise-cracking swagger.  This delay in Maun, I decided, was not at all a waste of time. In fact, it was a treat, not in small part because I love being an observer of human behavior.

I listened as the pilot told of landing his plane and as he tried to taxi having a large bull elephant emerge from the bush to express its displeasure at the intrusion.  Throughout his story the young man’s eyes drifted over to make sure a certain blonde tourist from Germany was listening.  I was reminded of my days in Alaska, when I too was barely 20 and eager to test myself in a similarly wild and often dangerous land.

There are numerous tour companies in Maun which are happy to arrange well-priced, escorted safaris to the road-accessible destinations such as Moremi Game Reserve and Nxai Pan (the x in words here signifies the characteristic click in the language of local San people).  The lodges, which are strung out along the river west of the airport, can either offer trips of their own or arrange one with a local operator.  As always, it pays to shop around, not only for price, but also to find the best group size, length of trip and departure day, among other things.

In the Okavango, roads are nearly nonexistent, except where the Moremi Reserve touches the Delta in the southeast.  Thus choices are limited to the expensive but excellent all-inclusive camps accessible by air, or the few budget-oriented camping safaris which use boats to transport tourists into the Delta.  I chose the latter, I don’t mind saying for reasons of budget.  But during the trip I saw some of the tour boats belonging to the big, expensive lodges.  These were bigger craft, in some cases relatively crowded, tourists with drinks in hand – that is definitely not my style.

Arguably the most beautiful of the many kingfishers found in the Okavango Delta is the tiny malachite kingfisher.

I preferred our small group of 4, including the guide/boatman.  Our boat, being smaller, was able to drift into places the bigger boats couldn’t maneuver into.  In one case we glided right up on a tiny brilliant-blue malachite kingfisher (image left).  One thing to consider when deciding on a trip is what you give up at lodges in return for the obvious comforts. One night I woke sometime after 2 a.m., and poked my head out of the tent to see a glorious moon-set.  I felt relatively safe from animals, with our closely-spaced tents circling a still-glowing campfire.  So I set up my tripod just outside the tent, capturing a magical interplay of moonlight and clouds, all the while listening to the mysterious sounds of the African bush at night.  The picture is below.

Something like this may be possible in a lodge environment, but when you’re camping these sorts of experiences are a given.   In the end, you will have a great experience whichever type of trip you decide upon.  It’s worth remembering there is a choice, and your own style and preferences (not just budget) should always dictate which way you go.  Think carefully whether you actually need the luxury of an expensive lodge.  Often people assume that they will get a better safari experience if they spend the money on a high-end lodge or camp.  They are convinced they will see more animals, get closer to them, etc.  Nearly always, it is not this you are paying extra for, but that fluffy towel, the comfy chairs and onsite restaurant.

Here in Botswana, like elsewhere in the world, budget-friendly trips (which often involve camping) are usually an option.  But they are not generally advertised in travel magazines, or even on the internet.  And so you must be willing to do some digging, or simply wait until you arrive to arrange things.  Talking to other travelers is the best way to get info. of course, and this can be done beforehand on the internet.  But it is much more reliable to speak to people who have just been to the place you are interested in.  They can give you first-hand information and unvarnished opinions.

The middle of the night in Botswana’s Okavango Delta is mysteriously beautiful in the light of a setting moon.

The Okavango Delta is an immensely beautiful landscape, a waterworld where you can boat and camp, take a mokoro (dugout canoe) ride, visit villages and even party in Maun.  It has an energy all its own, and you will most certainly experience the “magic” of Maun and the Okavango if you choose to come this way.  I am certainly happy that I did.  The picture below is of another beautiful red sunset, taken from a boat in the Okavango heading back to camp.

Birds return to their roosts as the sun goes down over the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

%d bloggers like this: