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!