Black Leopard Camp in the Thabo Thalo Reserve. The first of three camps on our 10 day, 9 night photographic safari.
After an 11 hour overnight flight from London to Johannesburg, and a couple of hours by road, we meet our guide Anton and his off-road game vehicle complete with luggage trailer for the final leg of our trip. An hour and a half off-road section in the mountains of the Lydenburg region of South Africa.
The six photographers and myself are travel weary as we climb onto the vehicle. Anton suggests that we should probably have our cameras to hand as, once we go through the gate, our off-road trip is actually through the game reserve. All of us are suddenly very awake, scrambling to be the first to have our cameras ready.
We’re less than 5 minutes into our journey and Anton points to the right. ‘Kudo’. Our first wildlife sighting in the reserve is the largest of the Antelope family and has an impressive set of horns on his head.
As we continue our journey, we see a whole variety of Antelope, more Kudo, Impala and Bushbuck to name a few. We head down into the valley to pick up our second guide, Bianca. As we get to the valley floor, we are greeted by a small group of Giraffe who are browsing in the trees. With our cameras clicking wildly, the Giraffe seem curious as to what we are doing and all turn to look at us for a minute or two, and then go back to munching on the leaves, stripping the branches with their purple tongues, yes, purple!
With Bianca on board, we are heading further into the reserve and back up into the mountains. Anton jokes that we are about to ride the African rollercoaster. He wasn’t joking! Up, up, up, down a bit, sharp right, don’t look down, keep your arms inside the ride at all times, scream if you want to go faster! Arriving at camp, we are now 6000 feet above sea level.
Our accommodation is fantastic. All are large en-suite tents, with solar powered lighting, hot and cold running water and proper flushing toilets. They’re fully kitted out with king size beds and bedroom furniture. Is this glamping in the South African mountains? I think it is!
After a couple of hours rest, we meet in the lounge area of the lodge. The open side of the lodge looks out across the mountains of the reserve, an absolutely stunning view from the honesty bar. A welcome meeting from our safari partners, On Track Safaris, and my wildlife photography training presentation, then it’s time to grab a beer and enjoy a freshly cooked meal of Buffalo and Kudo with rice and vegetables, before heading off for an early night. We have a 5am start tomorrow!
Day 2 starts with a wake-up call at 5am. There’s just time to grab a quick mug of tea and a rusk and we’re all on the game vehicle by 5.30am, and setting off on the mountain trail towards the valley with Bianca as our guide. We stop on the way down as a herd of Impala are making a hasty retreat across the red-soiled track. Something has spooked them, could we be about to see our first big cat or are they just reacting to our huge Toyota Landcrusier with its elevated rows of seats? With no signs of a big cat, we continue to the valley.
The Giraffe have made their way to the valley floor as well. A few are still relaxing, while others are working hard, stripping the trees of leaves for breakfast. More Impala come streaking across the track, something has definitely got these guys and girls worked up this morning. We sit quietly trying to listen for any movement while suddenly getting the feeling that we are in Jurassic Park!
No sighting of any big cat, so we move on. We suddenly find ourselves surrounded by Bee-Eaters, a beautiful mainly green coloured bird, darting through the air catching insects. As we round the corner in the bank of the mountain, we see the colony. Hundreds and hundreds of burrows, along with hundreds of birds. Such an amazing site. Grabbing shots as they briefly land and then trying to catch them in flight, these little birds are fast!
A small heard of Wildebeest next, hiding among the trees casually grazing. They’re very relaxed. Whatever spooked the Impala isn’t in this area.
We stop for a break about halfway through our game drive and are allowed off the game vehicle to have a stretch, a cup of tea and to answer our own call of nature. Apparently in the bush every tree is a lava-tree. Each of us went off in a different direction, hoping to get eaten by lions so we didn’t have to listen to our guide’s bad jokes!
The second half of our morning drive was full of Antelope of all shapes and sizes, mongoose, and a huge variety of bird life. This was a fantastic orientation drive, and a great opportunity to access our photography skills. Animals in the bush don’t hang around, and you need to be ready to get that shot or end up with a memory card full of disappearing bottoms! With most of our group’s photography experience consisting of model shoots and landscapes, we soon realise that true wildlife photography is going to be a challenge. The group’s attitude is everything you could hope for. Bring it on!
Back at camp we head straight for a very welcome full English. There’s a real buzz around the table as it begins to sink in just how many species, we saw in such a small time. Okay, so we haven’t photographed the big five yet, unless you count the Giraffe, they were huge and there were more than five of them!
Between 10am and 3pm it gets hot, really hot. The wildlife prefers to lay in the shade during this time and are fairly inactive, so this is a great time to relax and have a nap to counteract the early morning, or secure the many images from the memory cards to the laptop. Most of us found ourselves gathering around the lodge with laptops reviewing images while others walked around the camp with cameras at the ready.
Wildlife photography has long been a passion of mine so it was great to be able to share some tips and tricks to help the group get their lenses onto the subject quicker and capture some great shots. We spent plenty of time discussing shutter speeds, ISO settings, composition, focal lengths, debating what had more impact – animal portraits or showing animals in their environment. The initial buzz had been replaced by an eagerness to get back into the field to put the new theory into practice.
With sundowners ordered we head back out into the wilderness. It’s around 3pm and still around 28° centigrade, not bad for the middle of October. As we drive out onto the mountain track, we see our family of Giraffes again. This has amused our guide, Anton, as he told us the story of the last guests who desperately wanted to see Giraffes, but despite his best efforts they were nowhere to be found and now they seem to be hanging around on every corner. We were pretty sure they just wanted to see the fabulous group of humans again, and that it had nothing to do with the lush green leaves on this part of the reserve.
As we climb back up the mountain, Anton spots fresh Buffalo tracks, this could be a chance to tick off one of the big five. Excitement grows as we spot more evidence, more evidence in this case was Buffalo poop, and lots of it! Part of a wildlife tracker’s skill is knowing whose poop is whose, and how old it is. Ah, the glamour of being a safari guide just disintegrated.
We follow the tracks for a good 20 minutes and, just like that, they vanish. Heading further up the mountain, hoping to pick the tracks back up, we come across three Rock Hyrax or Klipdassie in Afrikaans, basking in the late afternoon sun. They’re hard to describe, but imagine a large rabbit with mouse like ears.
With no Buffalo tracks in sight, Anton thinks they moved onto the other side of the mountain, so we head to the very top to enjoy a sundowner while watching the sunset. We all disembark the truck and collect our drinks. The mood is still one of excitement and, looking through some of the pictures on the backs of the cameras, we have a group of very fast learners. As we’re chatting through our day, Anton suddenly calls everybody back onto the game vehicle. Why? Well the Buffalo found us, as a large male pushes his head through the bushes about twenty feet away!
As he stands there peacefully watching us scramble for the truck, we spot the dozen or so more behind him. They must have been laying down in the long grass, totally invisible to us. I suddenly remember a warning earlier in the trip from Will Fox, the owner of On Track Safaris, quite simply ‘don’t be complacent in the bush’. No problem, point made! Buffalo are officially the hide-and-seek champions of the South African wilderness.
Back at camp, we’re met by Will and Carol, and Alan and Lyndsay who own Black Leopard Camp. A few beers later, we are telling the tale of our Buffalo encounter… ‘And there were hundreds off them, and they were all Tyrannosaurus Rex!’ I tell you, fisherman have nothing on adrenaline-fuelled photographers.
Day 3 and we’re out on the game drive at 5.30am, last night’s Buffalo experience still fresh in everyone’s mind. We’re not 5 minutes out of camp when we spot a small group of grazing Kudo. We had a huge thunderstorm last night which looked spectacular as the lightening lit up the sky, and the first of the spring rains fell for about an hour. The landscape looks somewhat different this morning, the foliage relishing the moisture, and the grass beginning to stand up. The Impala and Bushbucks seemed to have an extra spring in their step. Overnight rain is a sign that new life and easier food supply is on the way.
We spot Zebra up ahead on the dirt road. Bianca, this morning’s guide seems excited to see them. ‘You see that? You see that?’. Everyone is straining to see what has Bianca on the edge of her seat. ‘It’s a Zebra……Crossing!’. All that for another of Bianca’s jokes!
The afternoon takes on a slightly different tone. We meet up with Will at the lodge, who has a rifle with him. The guide is going to drop us off somewhere in the reserve and Will is going to take us on a bush walk. He assures us that, if we follow his instructions, we’ll be perfectly safe and the rifle is there as the very last resort, as most wildlife would prefer to avoid direct human conflict.
It’s an interesting feeling walking around without the game vehicle nearby. All your senses suddenly sharpen up and you become very aware of your surroundings, including the tracks on the ground. A couple of jokes about stealthy Buffalo and Will has us following some fresh Impala tracks. However, it soon becomes very clear that six photographers humping around a load of camera kit, clattering through the bushes while ‘mooing’ like Buffalo… well, it doesn’t exactly make for a stealthy approach to any animal, even one wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones!
But it’s okay, Will takes the opportunity to point out some really key information about the wildlife and the habitat. And shows us all some bush craft skills to take with us to the next camp. Tomorrow, we depart the mountains and say goodbye to the Black Leopard Camp, making our way to the Wild Rivers Reserve and the Rukiya Safari Camp where we’ll spend the next three days.