The next morning we were driven to the small plane airport area at Joburg airport. After a pretty long wait we flew to Mala Mala Sable Camp, on the edge of the Sand River near Kruger National Park.
Walking through the camp we saw a rare antelope, the Nyala, close to one of the suites. I took a shot with my phone as we walked to our room. Gerry later told me that the Nyala had probably learnt that it was safer from predators if it stayed within the camp.
We shared a family suite with our daughter, who had a separate sleeping area with a bathroom. I was delighted to find that the lighting was good. Lighting inside the wardrobe as well was such a help before dawn, we could see what we were choosing to wear without a flashlight! The suite was recently renovated and very attractive, with lovely views across the mostly dry riverbed.
My request for two blankets rather than a quilt flummoxed them and I ended up with a throw instead, which was inadequate, it being winter. Not being interested in the niceties of wardrobe lighting and putting out our toiletries (although he expected me to lay out his things where he could find them), my husband went out and took a nice close-up of the nyala, which was habituated to humans. The photo was a bit blurry but I did a pretty good job of fixing that in post-processing.
We went out on our first game drive, with Gerry van der Walt of Wildeye as our private photographic guide. He had managed to get me a substitute 1DX Mk II and 200-400 Canon lens with inbuilt extender. Yay! Hats off to Gerry! I could continue my birthday trip with my birthday camera, albeit a hired one. It worked very well, although the camera had some presets which it jumped into from time to time when I pressed something I oughtn’t, frustrating me with a high key image or something else I wasn’t aiming for!
This photo isn't mine but it's an example of unintended results - it was taken by my man who somehow managed to have the ISO so high that it blew out the photo completely. I also tried to fix this in post, but it was almost impossible. If I look wierd, it's because my face was too blown out to retrieve, and also because I wore a neck brace on the bumpy roads of Africa, having discovered after suffering terrible pain last time that I have two compressed discs in my neck.
Gerry is a top photographer and great teacher, with a personality trait I value most highly - a great sense of humour! Although I still had the flu, I was gradually improving. It was a pleasure to experience Mala Mala with Gerry and Andrew, who also turned out to be good fun. Andrew was a wonderful guide, predicting animal behaviour with great accuracy.
We crossed over the causeway, where a pied kingfisher was hunting.
This leopard is really at the end of a yawn but looks so fierce! I have seen a leopard once in Botswana, but Mala Mala was an outstanding place to see leopards, we learned so much about these apex predators and their behaviour.
I was able to get my first ever spot-lit shots of a leopard after dark fell on our first night. Andrew held the spotlight - it was an amazing experience to see a big cat in its true element, the night. Gerry told us the correct settings to use in Manual. I was really surprised and thrilled with what I saw on the back of the camera – it looked as though I had nailed my first shot! It reminded me of William Blake’s poem ‘Tyger Tyger’. You could definitely say “Leopard, Leopard, ‘Burning Bright,’” of this image.
At Mala Mala they have ethical spotlighting. I take it to mean that they do not spotlight prey animals in case they are blinded and made into easy prey, and only spotlight big cats when they are not hunting, so that their ability to see in the dark is not impaired, thus damaging their chances of capturing prey. Nonetheless, this leopard gave us the evil eye for interrupting his noble pose.
I converted this image to black and white, which I thought gave it more drama. The leopard then stalked off into the darkness, presumably to hunt. My shutter speed wasn’t fast enough for the moving leopard as he headed into the night, so the image was too soft. However, it is effective nevertheless. So often I forget to adjust the settings in the heat of the moment. I’m improving all the time but have far to go.
The next morning we were up before dawn. Luckily dawn is later in winter, so it wasn’t silly o’clock. The blessing of coffee arrived at 6.00 a.m., as we’d requested. Our daughter galloped off to have breakfast with Gerry and Andrew at 6.30 but I couldn’t face walking there and then back to the bungalow for my gear. The suite we were staying in was not close to the main part of the lodge and that was difficult for a lady with a bung knee. The steep descent to the vehicles had me inching along painfully slowly.
After watching me crab my way inch by inch to the vehicle on the first two game drives, Andrew arranged to come around to the back of the lodges from then on, and that was much easier – shorter and flatter. One can’t help wondering what part of my request to be close to the main part of the lodge they didn’t understand. It was made a year ago – but maybe there were no family rooms closer?
We were soon heading off into the darkness. The sun began to rise. A lion sat in the grass as the pre-dawn light turned his mane into a halo – it was a pity the grass got in the way! The next lions we found were in a clear space by the river.
Soon the lions were on the move, and Andrew told us they would be crossing the river. He quickly took the vehicle to the other side and positioned us perfectly to photograph the oncoming lion from across the water. Being an excellent photographer himself, Andrew knew what sort of angle a photographer would want. It makes such a difference if you have a guide who understands photography.
Andrew told us the lionesses didn’t like water and usually tried to jump over it – just like a cat! We waited for the right moment, and I got the shot - but my shutter speed wasn’t quite fast enough. I have to be more aware that my lens at full extension needs roughly twice the shutter speed of the focal length to work well - so, as a rough estimate: 400ml lens = 1/800 sec.
The lion obviously had designs on one of the females – but..... she had a headache!
He was persistent, and she turned on him fiercely – definitely not in the mood!
Once Andrew had found a suitable, predator-free spot, we got out for breakfast and stretched our legs.
After breakfast, Andrew took us to a spot where the ‘Piccadilly female’ was warming up in the early morning sun, yawning and grooming herself before beginning her day.
She had a good stretch when she decided it was time to move. Andrew predicted this beautiful female would go down to the river to hunt. Once again he understood how to position the vehicle to give us the best possible angle.
Andrew wanted us below the road, looking up at the leopardess as she came towards us over the road. He bush-bashed the jeep through tangled undergrowth and trees broken by elephants - and now us! We didn’t do much harm, however, the bushes sprang back after we had passed. We waited breathlessly. Was Andrew right? Would she come this way?
Then she came! Stealthily but purposefully she advanced across the road exactly as he had predicted.
This is one of my favourite images from the trip, her paw stepping onto the road. Those eyes transfixed me!
She stalked closer to the vehicle, deadly purpose in every line of her body. It seemed like we were on the breakfast menu!
We watched in awe as she made her way past us, down to the riverbank to await the impala coming down to drink.
There, she concealed herself in a darker patch of grass. Andrew moved the vehicle to the riverbank further back so that we could watch what happened. I am not fond of watching a predator kill a prey animal, but this life and death story was unfolding as the beautiful, delicate impala nervously gathered on the bank.
They were very wary, suspecting something was wrong, but they had to drink. They inched forward, some moving ahead but then timorously heading back to the herd still on top of the bank. Note that the males were the ones turning back!
We realised that we were probably contributing to their fear, so we moved back, and then further back again. Not so good for photography, but it is important not to interfere with the wildlife. We were very patient and spent over an hour waiting and watching.
There were zebras with the impala. They tend to act as lookouts. When the impala finally made it down to the river, the zebras were amongst the first to drink. Two of them then positioned themselves right in front of the patch of dark grass where we had seen the leopardess conceal herself. They were watching carefully - in the wrong direction – she was right behind them!
All the impala were drinking nervously, then leaping gracefully back through the long grasses in front of the zebras. We had our cameras trained on the dark patch of grass behind the zebras.
Then one doe made the fateful decision to go behind the zebras instead of in front of them. This was what the leopardess was waiting for! A clatter of shutters going off like machine gunfire alerted me as I stared down my long lens at the patch of dark grass.
‘What?! Where?!’ I gasped as I struggled to work out what people had spotted. A long lens is like a telescope and you can’t see the whole picture, it took ages to haul Big Bertha around and refocus in the right place. It turned out that the leopardess had repositioned herself to one side, right behind the zebra on the right. That zebra bolted off in fright as she snagged the doe out of the air in a split second and took it down.
Only Gerry captured what happened - on video - and that video had to be slowed down a huge amount before you could see how neatly, swiftly and economically this consummate stealth hunter snatched the doe mid-leap. This is a screen shot - if you want to see the video, check it out on his Instagram feed @gerryvanderwalt
She then emerged into the open only seconds later with her prey. Leopards have teeth positioned so that they can break the neck of a prey animal in one bite, and this is what had happened. The doe was dead before she hit the ground. She looks as if she was pregnant at the time, which is sad but a part of nature. The leopardess had a sub-adult cub to feed, and their survival depended on her making a kill.
Instant death was a much preferable outcome for the doe than what our daughter saw when lions began feeding on a bellowing buffalo, a truly harrowing sight. I took this image in Botswana but it illustrates the point.
Our experience in Botswana was made all the more horrible when a lady photographer in another vehicle dedicated to professional photographers from America began bellowing ‘Get in there, baby!’ as lions plunged their heads into the belly of a downed buffalo and emerged dripping with gore. The blood lust of it made me ashamed to be a human being.
Back to Mala Mala, where I was relieved to see that this doe was not going to experience any more pain and suffering.
She had died almost instantly. So often our fate is decided by the choices we make, and the decision of that doe to go behind the sentry zebras was her death knell.
All the impalas had fled to the hillside and stood there, huffing out their distress calls. My husband captured this great image.
The leopardess dragged her kill across the dry riverbed to another stand of tall reeds and grasses. Leopards often take their kills up into trees to avoid having it taken from them by lions or packs of hyenas, but she had chosen the more dangerous option of feeding on the ground. We could only hope that the leopardess and her cub would be able to eat safely.
Returning to camp for lunch, we drove around to the back of the camp where I could walk in more easily. There we saw how close this leopard was to our accommodation. We had kept the doors of our family suite closed in order to keep the baboons out, but now we had another reason!
For more, see Part Two of Mala Mala.
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