I was reminded of the idiom that says you never know what you have until its gone is one the other day, walking on the Copacabana promenade early one morning with the sun fighting the wispy clouds in trying to come out. I was grateful that the famous black and white stones on the walkway had been worn smooth by millions of Havaianas walking up and down as they didn’t hurt my bare feet as much. My shoes had been soaked early when I got caught by a wave I didn’t see coming and I decided to walk back to the hotel some 4km away with them in my hand. I hadn’t walked anywhere barefoot in ages. But we used to do it all the time in Durban. And the main strip in Rio, Copacabana Beach reminded me a lot of the golden mile in Durban. Only Copacabana is scaled up a little bit and possibly a little more famous. Durban is however not a 10 and 1/2 flight away.
So. Have you read enough about the Sony Alpha cameras already? Actually if you are not a camera geek like me you probably haven’t heard much of the Sony camera’s currently taking the world by storm. Unless you are friends with me on any form of social media – then you probably heard too much in the last couple weeks and you are probably hoping that I would stop. And I promise that this blog post is the culmination of what has been an exciting few weeks. I therefore ask that you bear with me and maybe this is the last you’ll hear of it…for now!
One of my quotes of all time is from Albert Einstein that goes “I have no particular talent, I am merely extremely inquisitive”. Now I make no claim to be anywhere close to the genius that was Einstein but I would say that I too have no particular talent except perhaps for being curious. And that can get you a long way sometimes but perhaps curiosity is not all you need (cos we all know that love is all you need). I’ve, in the last couple months, been having a recurring conversation with a few different people on the topic of natural talent versus hard work towards a goal versus having the better tools on hand to finish the job and buying some luck with that. The conversations seem pretty pointless because they inevitably lead nowhere because this debate is as old as time. I mean I’m sure even the early cavemen had hunters who made more kills because of a better spear or fishermen who caught fish easier because they were fishing 7 days a week. But let me give you my take because you’ve already read so far in, you might as well read on…
It is amazing that most of us can look back and pin-point the turning points in our lives that may have lead us to where we are now, yet at the time we didn’t realise that we were on the cusp of something amazing. I was reminded the other day on exactly one such moment by facebook and it got me thinking about all that it has lead to since. In August 2015 I decided on a whim to make a drive to the Pilanesberg National Park. I can’t remember the exact reasoning but it was around the public holiday long weekend and for whatever reason I had not gone down to Durban so it must have been pure whim that made me drive the 180km to get there.
It was my first visit to the park and I had no idea what to expect or what to do and to be honest I cannot for the life of me remember how much of the day went. What I do remember is stopping in the late afternoon at Mankwe dam to walk out to the bird hide to see what all the fuss was about. And after sitting around for a few minutes there was a little bit of commotion as a pied kingfisher came up to a dead tree right in front of the hide and proudly sat down with his catch. Not being big into birds at the time I did not know what happens next, but the seasoned photographers and birders did and quickly turned their attention to the kingfisher. The bird then started beating the fish about quite rapidly and violently to descale and tenderise the fresh catch before tossing the little meal around to position it and swallow it whole.
I was shooting with my 550D and 70-300mm Ultrasonic lens, which to that point had served me extremely well. But on that afternoon I found myself struggling. The 550D’s frame rate is about 5 frames per second which was decent enough to catch some of the action but missed half of it. The afternoon sunlight was rather harsh and I think even today I would struggle to deal with it. But the combination conditions and equipment limitations (at least in my head anyway) left me wanting to get better. And I think this is where my transformative journey in nature and in particular birding began.
I went back to the park in December 2015 with a new 7D mkii camera body and a second hand 300mmF4LIS lens that I purchased in September and October respectively. And that was my first introduction to some of the beautiful bird species to be seen in the park, including the white fronted bee-eaters and lesser striped swallows. The photography improved and I also got one of my favourite pictures in the park shot from the Rathlogo hide of 4 zebras having a drink. I also went with Tannie Wilma and Oom Hans which in itself was a great experience and possibly the inspiration to do the big year of birding I attempted in the course of 2016.
Through 2016 I did not make many a turn past the Pilanesberg. The park, which played a big role in inspiring the big year of birding as well as the Sanparks challenge I am currently completing, unfortunately took a back seat as I went trekking through the rest of our beautiful country. However I did manage one visit if I recall correctly and spent a nice afternoon at Mankwe dam again shooting a very young baby elephant and it’s protective family.
This year I have been to the park 4 times and each one was special in it’s own rights. The first trip in march for my birthday yielded a pair of cheetah walking through the long grass after the good summer rains. I was actually shooting a ruffous-naped lark when a couple saw me and directed me to follow them as they had been following the cheetahs for a while and they would come of the grass soon. And sure enough, no sooner than I had turned around, the cheetahs emerged casually walking through the long late summer’s grass. I don’t think I made the most of the opportunity but I chalked that down to excitement more than anything else.
I then decided in early June to join Heinrich Neumeyer, the leopard whisperer of the Pilanesberg to try to track at least one leopard down. In the end we did see a leopard on the safari, late in the afternoon when the light was too bad for decent photographs. But we also saw the big five in one day, elephants, rhinos, lions and buffalos to-ing and fro-ing in the early morning light and the late leopard.
I hired a lens to shoot with on the day and fortunately, as it turns out, left my 1.4x extender on the back of it. Heinrich and Gerrie tracked extender down for me so just to make sure I got it back safely I went back to the park a month later, the first weekend of July and went for my second tour with Heinrich. This time around we got got to see not one leopard but 5 and they were all in full daylight, offering some superb opportunities to photograph the notoriously elusive cats. Before the trip in early July I had seen a total of 3 leopards. Two in the dark and one briefly on safari in 2013 when I visited Kapama with Maja. So to see 5 in a day was extraordinary to say the least! I still managed to mess it up though and cut of the tail of one of the leopards crossing the road. Heinrich has promised to find me more leopards the next trip though because he owes me one…
The latest in the string of Pilanesberg adventures was on Women’s day last week. I decided to make a day trip because the holiday being a Wednesday was ideal for a one day sojourn. And I decided to invite a few friends along so we had a full car of photographers. I lead the expedition, given my love for the park, so this was the inaugural Pluckan Pilanesberg Tour (PPT). And while we didn’t get to see any of the big cats and the elephants somehow managed to elude us, it was all in all a great day. Well I think anyway. I did manage to seen two new bird species and photograph one (secretary bird below) and got some half decent rhino shots. Oh and we also saw a brown hyena which is the only hyena species in the park but were cut off just at the most inopportune time. As I said, Heinrich owes me one! I think the last trip made me realise that sharing the experience can bring its own rewards. So the park keeps inspiring me in different ways, mostly to get better with each return trip. And I shall be back sooner than I know it (possibly even by the end of this month) so the next edition of PPT is coming soon!
Winter came early in South Africa this year. Or maybe the warmer winter last time around made us forget that it does actually get cold here in the southern tip of the continent. For 9 months of the year perhaps, we are a very out door oriented nation. Actually no its 12 months of the year. But for 9 months of the year the weather allows it and for 3 months of the year its questionable to say the least. So when we decided to go camping in Clarens, in the foot hills of the Maloti mountains at the end of May we didn’t actually give a second thought to the weather and what being outside exposed to the elements would actually entail. A boys weekend camping in the Golden Gate National Park and rafting down the Ash River sounded boss when we thought of it in January. In the middle of summer. When it was still warm and we could feel our fingers.
For me the decision was doubly easy. The Golden Gate National Park is on the list of Sanparks operated national parks that I am busy ticking off in my 3 year challenge to visit all of them. So it would be park number 10 of 21 and I would be half way through the challenge, half way through the time I have allowed myself. A no brainer really. I had been to the park previously so knew that more than anything it was about the landscapes that I would see as the animals are pretty scarce. And not doing it alone would be a bonus for a change. And the landscapes didn’t disappoint!
The foothills of the northern Maloti mountains, the same mountain range that extends into Lesotho, are quite stunning, with different shades of yellow and red and pink standing out. The BrandWag (I think this translates to fireman) Buttress is probably the most striking and stands as a sentinel at the entrance to the Glen Reenen Rest Camp that we camped at. The clear winter air gave my photos a beautiful crisp look in the late afternoon sun. But it also meant the temperature remained crisp most of the day as well and once the sun set that crispness turned into coldness very quickly.
Ok maybe I exaggerate a little bit. It was cold in the last week of May when we visited the national park. But two weeks earlier the first major cold front of winter swept through the interior of South Africa and actually dropped snow in the mountains of the park. Snow in the first week in May was probably early but luckily when we got there it was dry. So it was cold yes, but it could have been much worse I think. The first night (Friday night) was a bit of a shock to the system though. We got there after dark and the weather seemed pleasant enough as we pitched the tent and set about making camp. However as the night went on it became increasingly colder and colder. The time passed though with great conversation around the campfire until it was time to tuck into the sleeping bag with an extra blanket.
The second night was better though, even though the temperature got low enough for frost to settle on the outside of the tent. A large part of it was because the day was filled with adrenaline, white water rafting on the Ash River. It is ironic that sometimes questioning your own mortality makes you feel the most alive. This is most probably the reason so many people jump off bridges and out of planes. Only jumping off bridges and out of planes is drier and probably warmer. The rafting started off dry enough, with a paddle on the out on the still water of the dam at the outlet of the Ash River. But once we were over the dam wall it began to get interesting. We were soaked by the first rapid. Then we had a little time to dry off just enough to feel warm again before being soaked by the next set of rapids. By the time we got to half way we had all questioned our mortality as well as our sanity a few times I’m sure.
But eventually we got to a section of calmer river where the guide said people would normally swim in the summer. When the water was warmer. And it wasn’t two days before the winter closed season began. We were soaked already though. So how much colder could it be right? I found out that it could have been near death colder. I back flipped (or flopped actually) into the dark water of the Ash River and almost immediately regretted it. My body almost immediately tensed up and I sank below the water in slow motion. Like in the movies when anyone falls into the water, the world went semi-mute and the dappled light filtered through. I felt I should not have been sinking so much, especially with a life jacket on. I should have been floating. But I kept falling backwards, shouting inside my own head. Then suddenly I was up at the surface again, half shocked at what I had done and more than half frozen. But fully alive and kicking! Like I said, somehow questioning your mortality makes you feel more alive sometimes!
Overall a great adventure, camping in freezing cold, rafting down through 7 rapids with a great bunch of guys, braaing, campfires and great conversation. And a few terrific shots to boot! Number 10 of my Sanparks Challenge done, 11 more to go!
Our guide stopped to allow me to take a picture of the Waterberg Mountains. While I got my camera settings correct in the dim light of the cloudy morning he explained to the other two guests on the drive that the mountains that surround the Marakele National Park were very rich in iron ore. The name of the closest town, Thabazimbi, even translates directly to mountains of iron. And it was because of the high iron ore content in the mountains that the area was know to experience some of the most dramatic electric storms in the country. Which explained a whole lot because, the evening before, driving through to the town of Thabazimbi I got to experience one of those legendary storms first hand. Continue reading “Journey to the iron mountains…”
I woke up apprehensive on Monday morning. We were moving to a new office which meant additional traffic and therefore waking up earlier to learn the routes needed to get in to work. But, like most Monday’s I also woke up with a yearning to escape the routine of going to work and then coming back home, even though it would be a little different. It is Steve Jobs who said something to the effect that if your answer to “Is this something I want to be doing if this were my last day?” becomes “No” for too many days in a row then something’s got to change. And so I decided that perhaps I needed a little escape and with that made up my mind to make a mid-week dash to the Kruger National Park. Continue reading “Gentleman of the road”
I recently made a trip down to Durban and had some time on a Saturday morning to get out to the Botanic Gardens, one of my favourite places to visit when I am in Durban (see the previous post on the other places to see when in Durban: I’m coming home…part 2 of 2). It was a clear, sunny morning, creating light that lend itself perfectly to shooting, unlike most of my previous visits that were mostly cloudy and on one occasion raining. The large patches of shade on the small pond created by the trees that surround it and shooting indoors in the orchid nursery allowed me to try my hand at some low key shots of the birds on the pond and some of the orchids, resulting in some of the pictures in this post. I got a number of questions on how I achieved these dramatic shots and so I will try to explain some of the technique behind the photos. Continue reading “My guide to capturing low key nature photographs”
The second part of my post on my home town was going to be on the things one should do when visiting Durban. After all, while I may still call Durban home, very soon its not going to be my home town anymore. I’m going to be one of the Vaalies (if indeed I haven’t already become one) who only visits during school holidays to make the roads busier, fill up the malls and make visiting the beach impossible. As soon as I was done writing part 1 of 2, I edited the feature image and wanted to dive right in and have this post done immediately. Then I got to planning and thinking about it and I came to a rather disheartening conclusion. Continue reading “I’m coming home…part 2 of 2”
34 Bishopfield Close. What’s in an address? Type it in to Google maps on your phone and it will probably take you 500m down the road to a dead end(I find google maps on the phone terribly unreliable…). Google street view on the other hand gives an image from 2009 of 3Ps Tuckshop, complete with it’s green wheely bin outside the front gate. I think that wheely bin eventually got stolen. It was replaced and the replacement was also stolen. For a long time that’s what 34 Bishopfield Close was, 3Ps Tuckshop. But not many people actually called it that. It was more affectionately known as Aunty Lallie’s Tuckshop, after my mother who started up the business years before that carrying a basket to the primary school on the opposite hill. When we were young we would be able to look out from the school playground and see 34 Bishopfield Close calling us back when the buzzer went. Time before that almost seems unfathomable but trust me, there was a time before that. For years it was a partially completed construction site, complete with a putt putt course that only had one hole but different tees. And golf putters fashioned from metal pipes and tree branches that bent just so. Farther back still, and before any construction started there was a set of very uneven stairs that seemingly went up a grassy bank in every angel except flat. A grassy bank that was extremely fun to slide down using a cardboard box but one that would occasionally wash away if the rains were too heavy. Continue reading “I’m coming home…part 1 of 2”