Dec 152014
 

Pat and I are taking a few days off to celebrate her birthday and, as a treat, are staying at a wonderful KwaZulu Natal Drakensberg family hotel that goes by the name of The Cavern Berg Resort. We love it here. Very comfortable, reasonably priced, comfortable rooms and really great “home cooked” food. The ice cream and chocolate sauce alone make it worth booking a stay.

We’ve been taking it pretty easy, doing some short walks around the hotel when the guilt of those lovely lunches became too much. This afternoon we decided on a slightly longer one that took us across a small stream and into the thick indigenous forests that occur on the southern mountain slopes. Interpretative signs mark the way and it’s all very pleasant and soothing, the forest birds overlaying the sound of the river flowing in the valley. (Well, it was pleasant and soothing until that clap of thunder and pouring rain, but that’s another story).

Anyway, the point of all this is that we came upon the most magnificent cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata). It was huge! Below a sign had this to say:

“This is the biggest cabbage tree in the ‘Berg, probably in all of Africa and is at least 150 years old. Branches form only after flowering and this only happens in full sunshine. So when the tree was young, and making its first branches this spot must have been at the very edge of the forest”. It is now right in the middle of the forest and this got me wondering what it had seen while standing there for those 150 years – since the middle of the 1800s…?

And that pretty much occupied my mind on the way back to our room, the pouring rain, wind and thunder blotted away completely. But what a magnificent tree it was!

The iPhone battles a bit with the backlighting but this vertical panorama photograph gives you some idea of the size of this Cussonia spicata or cabbage tree.

The iPhone battles a bit with the backlighting but this vertical panorama photograph gives you some idea of the size of this Cussonia spicata or cabbage tree.

Oct 052014
 

You may ask what a golfing estate and resort have to do with one of Africa’s most prominent features, the Great Rift Valley. Well, it’s in the Rift Valley for a start and, if you think about it, it actually makes sense to stay there, especially if you are a golfer. The Great Rift Valley is one of the icons in our African Icons Book and we stayed there while shooting photographs of the wildlife and scenery of the area, thoroughly enjoying it.

The Great Rift Valley Lodge and Golf Resort near Lake Naivasha in Kenya

The Great Rift Valley Lodge and Golf Resort near Lake Naivasha in Kenya

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Oct 042014
 

So, here we are, sitting in the Wild Frontiers‘ stretch Land Cruiser with our guide John Letara who is doing some serious networking on the shortwave radio so that we are kept up to date with the congregations of wildebeest along the Mara River. Across said river are some 300 or 400 wildebeest that we are hoping are thinking that the grass is greener on our side, and are willing to risk drowning, crocodiles (very large crocodiles) and broken legs.

Wildebeest and Zebra gather on the Northern bank of the Mara River while crocodiles wait below. Serengeti National Park. Tanzania.

Wildebeest and Zebra gather on the northern bank of the Mara River while crocodiles wait below. Serengeti National Park. Tanzania.

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Sep 222014
 

We had a really great time at Jaci’s Lodges while on our latest Wild Dogs of Madikwe Photo Safari. Service and food at the lodge were up to their usual very high standards and the lodge itself is looking lovely after recent upgrades and decor tweaks. Madikwe Game Reserve is capable of producing some really fine sightings and it didn’t disappoint this time – we had wonderful experiences with lion (numerous sightings) elephant, wild dog, giraffe, black and white rhino and many others, and all of us gor some really great images. Have posted a small gallery of some of the mages I got.

Sep 032014
 

We’ve been here a week now and as I sit on the deck of our chalet overlooking Lango Bai in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in Congo Brazzaville, it is all just a little surreal. I think that surreal is the right word.  There are, I feel, 2 things that contribute to this feeling and the first is that this is Africa and I am pretty used to the African bush, the plants, animals and birds so it all should be familiar and normal. But there is nothing familiar or normal about the view over the Bai.

View from our room at Lango Camp. Odzala National Park. Congo

View from our room at Lango Camp. Odzala National Park. Congo

I simply don’t recognise so many of the plant and animal species at all. If you travel in East and southern Africa as we often do you, one gets to know the different species – lions, cheetah, wildebeest, acacias, flamingos, various bee-eaters, weavers and so on – but so little here in the Congo Basin is similar to what we’re used to, and even if you know the species (African grey parrots for example) one is generally used to seeing them in cages instead of flying overhead in large, screaming, whistling, chirping flocks. The green pigeons too were a surprise: we’re used to seeing them in ones and twos, flapping about the figs and other fruiting trees in Zululand, not in their hundreds, whirling and swirling about the evening sky.

And the vegetation is so very different to the savannah and other veld types we are used to. This is more akin to walking around a vast botanical garden where you recognise not one of the trees or ferns or flowers; where everything is huge and lush and green, and where the frog, insect and bird sounds are all new and different. It’s exciting and unsettling all at once – a wonderful place to be.

Lango Bai at Odzala National Park

Lango Bai at Odzala National Park

The other contributing factor to this feeling is the level of comfort, food and service that we’ve experienced at the Wilderness Safaris’ camps of Lango and Ngaga while working on our book African Icons, with friend and author David Bristow. The camps are remote, to put it mildly. The only way to get the meat, cheeses, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, wines, actually, provisions in general, is to fly them in from Brazzaville. In short, the quality of food and creature comforts is nothing short of astounding. It shouldn’t be this good, this far from anywhere. Sure the rooms are made from palm fronds and local timbers but they house a huge, comfortable double bed and an en suite bathroom that would not be out of place in any premium establishment. We were thrilled that we didn’t have to put up with the same conditions that Michael Fay and Michael (Nic) Nichols did when they did the MegaTransect. Well done Wilderness Safaris.

Ngaga camp is situated to the west in the Ndzehi area adjacent to Odzala and is set in a small clearing in the rainforest on the side of a steep valley. This is where visitors to Odzala meet up with western lowland gorillas and what a profound experience it turned out to be. There are 2 species of gorilla in Africa and each comprises of two subspecies: The eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) that is classified  as endangered by the IUCN, and includes the well-known mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda, and the eastern lowland gorilla found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other species is the western gorilla, (Gorilla gorilla) which is listed as Critically Endangered and includes the western lowland gorilla, found pretty much exclusively in Congo (Brazzaville) and Gabon, and the Cross River gorilla of Nigeria and Cameroon.

A western lowland gorilla keeps an eye on us from the thick undergrowth in the View from the deck of our room at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

A western lowland gorilla keeps an eye on us from the thick undergrowth in the View from the deck of our room at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

While doing an in-depth story of gorillas, scientist, Dr Magda Berrnejo and her partner German Illera have successfully habituated the western lowland gorillas in the area to humans, enabling small groups of ecotourists staying at Ngaga Camp access to the animals under the guidance of astoundingly skilled trackers. These remote northern forests of the Congo have the highest known densities of the western lowland gorilla as well as good populations of forest elephant, forest buffalo, bongos and bushbuck.

Forest Elephant in the Rain-forests of Odzala National Park.

Forest elephant in the rain-forests of Odzala National Park.

We had excellent sightings of gorilla on 2 separate days. It seems we were lucky in that the animals were pretty close to camp and we found them on both occasions without much of a walk – it took and hour or so I suppose. The going was pretty easy until we needed to leave the trails and head into the Marantaceae or arrowroot undergrowth, our tracker and guide carefully cutting a path through the thick undergrowth. We did get quite close to the gorillas – about 10m or so at the closest but generally had very good sightings (See below under camera gear for information what photographic equipment to take).

Our time at Ngaga over, we made the 5 hour journey to Lango. It’s not all that far – about 70km I would imagine – but, well, it’s the roads. You’re basically driving along forest tracks so it does go quite slowly which is not bad at all. We stopped for birds ( a few black-headed bee-eaters and a African fin foot being among the more interesting), a huge mass of safari ants, some fascinating plant shots and various other bits and pieces.

The main road between Ngaga and Lango camps at Odzala National Park

The main road between Ngaga and Lango camps at Odzala National Park

Lango is stunning, perched on the side of the Bai. From the deck, wonderful views and a small herd of forest buffalo greeted us. There is good news and bad news about Lango. The good news is that it’s brilliant – boat rides down the Lekoli River (we had superb sightings of forest elephants), walks through the Bai and adjacent forests, and game drives in the savannah areas. The bad news is that you are going to get wet and muddy. Actually, it’s not that bad really – takes one back to ones childhood, you know…. The views across the Bai from Lango’s deck are magical, particularly in the very early morning and evening and just sitting there offers great game viewing – forest buffalo, bushbuck, huge flocks of green pigeons, green squirrels, palm nut vultures and, at night mainly, forest elephant.

Our time in Odzala was too short really but c’est la vie. We loved it. It was a very profound experience for us and can sincerely recommend a visit to Odzala-Kokoua National Park with Wilderness Safaris. Follow us as we put African Icons together: Facebook and our Blog

Advisor.

Camera Gear.

Light and portable is the key here. This is what we took:

  • Nikon D800 camera
  • Nikon D7100 camera
  • Nikon P330 camera
  • Nikkor 10,5mm Fisheye Lens
  • Nikkor 24 – 70mm f2,8 lens
  • Nikkor AF-S 80 – 400mm lens
  • Nikon SB-900 flash
  • Gitzo Traveller GT1542T Carbon Fibre Tripod
  • Gitzo GM2541 Carbon Fibre Monopod
  • Manfrotto Tri Backback L

A lot of thought went into the selection of the above. I love the D800 with it’s superb image quality and, as a result of all those 36 million pixels, it’s possible to shoot it in DX mode and still have about 16Mp to play with. In DX mode the 80 – 400 (light, quick to use, great VR and incredibly sharp) turns into the equivalent to a 120 – 600mm which is incredibly useful. The images produced by the D7100 are also stunning and it is possible to shoot this 24.5Mp DX camera with a 1:3 crop (you still have about 16MP available) and this produces an 2X increase in effective focal length – 160 – 800mm on the above lens. This is brilliant! We used this on a number of occasions very effectively.

Conditions can be wet and humid and there is not much light filtering through the rainforest canopy. ISO 800 and 1600 were the order of the day and often i needed to push things to ISO 3200. The small, light and very stable Gitzo tripod and monopod were fantastic. Both strapped easily onto the front of the Manfrotto backpack and I used the monopod when shooting wildlife with the 80 – 400 lens. It made all the difference in the dark rain forests and combined with the excellent VR made for sharp photographs using impossibly low shutter speeds. The tripod was used for shooting twilight shots of the lodges and when doing forest scenes, allowing long shutter speeds at low ISOs.

The Manfrotto backpack was a bit of an experiment and I loved it. The two compartments are great and it’s design allows access to the lower compartment without taking the pack off – very nice when on the move and it fitted easily (with the tripod and monopod attached) into the overhead lockers on the flights to and from Congo.

(Have a look at the camera gear we use generally here)

Clothing and other goodies.

Odzala is not the easiest destination – but it’s not that bad at all… It’s just that luggage space is limited and you are operating in conditions a little more difficult that the savannahs of east and southern Africa. To complicate matters I’m allergic to Tsetse Fly bites (read more here) and we needed to deal with this as well. So, this is what we did:

Our clothing consisted largely of Columbia Sportswear Omni and Techlite shirts and longs although there are other pieces of quick drying, high tech fabric items as well. When choosing what to bring, you are looking for long sleeves (very long) and long trousers (very long, so that they cover your ankles even when sitting down). In the worst Tsetse areas (on the boat ride and on the Bai walks) we doubled up – 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of trousers and 2 shorts with the outer garments soaked in a Dettol solution. Works like a charm – tsetses hate it!

Pat filming in the Bai at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

Pat filming in the Bai at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

To complete the ensemble we draped head nets over our hats and I wore Dettol soaked cotton cloves from time to time (remember, my allergy). I didn’t get bitten by anything! The others were a lot less precautions – some even wandering around in shorts and sandals. You are going to encounter insects – blighting flies, tsetses, stingless bees – but it really is manageable and not all that bad.

Other items we found useful are: A small LED touch, binoculars, 2 pairs of shoes (one for the wet work and another, dry pair for around the camps etc. We simply took an old pair of running shoes that got wet on a daily basis, which we left behind at the end of our stay. These are then given to needy locals), antihistamine tablets, Dettol (for the tsetses), Insect repellant (mosquitoes etc).

Jul 092014
 

Dave Bristow (author of our African Icons Book), Pat and I headed up to Kruger National Park in the north-eastern part of South Africa for the next leg of our book shoot. One of the “obvious” icons of Africa, Kruger National Park, with an area of just under 2 000 000 Ha or about 4 800 000 acres is vast by any standards. When you look at the so called Greater Kruger, which includes the private game reserves to the west of the National Park and well as the adjacent conservation areas in Mozambique to the east and Zimbabwe to the north, it turns into the world’s greatest animal kingdom.

Riverine scene in the Southern Kruger National Park near Jock Safari Lodge. Mpumalanga. South Africa

Riverine scene in the Southern Kruger National Park near Jock Safari Lodge. Mpumalanga. South Africa

Stories of the Kruger National Park abound and much has been written about it. TV Bulpin’s books are always a great read and cover many aspects of the park and early explorers in the region. Some are funny, others are about heroes and villains. Some though, are “spooky” like the tale about an Englishman who went hunting in the valleys of the northern Lebombo Hills and shot seven elephants for their ivory. It was customary in those times to leave the tusks in the elephant for a few days after the animal had died so that they could be easily removed. After this period had elapsed the hunter went to collect his ivory and never returned. His horse did, riderless, but it died shortly after the incident. The local boers feared entering the forest where the Englishman went missing, thinking that his ghost on a white horse was still there, protecting his ivory.

There are also stories of tragedy and sadness but there is one that Pat and I picked up when we were researching our book called Tuli – Land of Giants. And it’s a tragedy in the same way that it’s a tragedy to discover, when you are very young, that there is no Father Christmas, no fairies in the bottom of the garden, no gnomes, no easter bunny and that it’s your mom and dad that bring the money and not the tooth fairy. Sad but true…

This one involves Jock of the Bushveld, that great hero of the lowveld that had so many adventures with his owner Sir James Percy Fitzpatrick who, was not only a writer but also worked as a store-man, prospector’s assistant, journalist and ox-wagon transport rider. While doing our research for our Tuli Book we cam across a book called Veld Express by Harry Zeederberg, published by Howard Timmins in 1971. The author, a descendant of the famous family of stage coach owners, tells of many stories and adventures experienced by the intrepid transport riders and it’s in a caption to one of the photographs that we came across this rather sad piece of information. I quote the caption in full: “This photograph, taken outside the firm’s offices in Pretoria, is likely to cause a controversy. It shows Percy Fitzpatrick with his dog, and, behind him, Rider Haggard. In the early days, every transport rider had at least two dogs, and none of Fitzpartick’s contemporaries could specifically remember “Jock”, or his unusual qualities. These were certainly never discussed among the transport riders of the period.”

Zeederberg coach with Sir Percy Fitzpatric and Rider Ha

Could it be true? Was Jock perhaps a fictional dog that was created by Fitzpatrick to encompass all the adventures he had with a number of his dogs? What do you think?

This in no way spoilt our visit to Kruger or to the delightful Jock Safari Lodge in the southern part of Kruger National Park. The idea for Jock Safari Lodge was realised by the descendants of the Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and Niven Families. Funds from the trust of Sir Fitzpatrick were used to build the lodge in the area close to where the history of Fitzpatrick & his dog Jock, took place. The southern boundary is the old Voortrekker road, the transport route for supplies from the Delagoa Bay (now Maputo) to the gold fields at Pilgrims Rust. The Jock concession in the park is the same as the side profile of Jock the dog.

We were delighted about spending 5 nights at Jock Safari Lodge and even more so when, soon after Pat and I arrived (Dave was a little late) Ari, the chef and F&B manager approached us to discuss our dinner requirements. He mentioned aubergines. Dave hates aubergines. He hates aubergines in capitals with neon lights and so we briefed Ari. Dinner then became:

  • Starter: Braised aubergine with capers and aubergine pate’, or, aubergine soup
  • Main: Chicken, camembert and bacon stack with aubergine and brandy sauce
  • Sweet: Crispy crystallized aubergines with cinnamon spice.

Dave arrived a little later, full of joie de vivre and looking quite chuffed with himself. Ari presented the dinner menu with a flourish to a now quite green looking David. I must admit that Dave has quite a, er, quaint turn of phrase when he puts his mind to it.

The deck at Jock Safari Lodge. Kruger National Park. Mpumalanga. South Africa

The deck at Jock Safari Lodge. Kruger National Park. Mpumalanga. South Africa

We loved our stay at Jocks. Our guide and ranger, Estiaan Houy was extremely knowledgeable and committed to getting us the finest opportunities for photography, Ari ensured that we gained weight (not good) and the GM, Louis Strauss, made our stay more comfortable than we would have thought possible. Well done to you and your teams and a big thanks.

Follow the progress on Facebook as we put together our African Icons book and read more about it here. Dave also blogs about our adventures here.

May 192014
 

We are in Namibia to shoot the next two icons for our African Icons book project. The first stop is the delightful Little Kulala Lodge, part of the Wilderness Safaris stable, located in the Sossusvlei Valley near Sesriem. The icon here is the stunningly beautiful Namib Desert, know for its rugged mountainous terrain that gives way to a huge, red, dune field that contains some of the highest dunes in the world.

It is definitely a place for panoramic photographs and as a result have been shooting a bunch on the Nikons as well as these shot on my iPhone. Hope you enjoy them. If you would like to receive our newsletter please drop me an email. We are also on Facebook.

Wide open spaces near Sossusvlei.

Wide open spaces near Sossusvlei.

 

sossusvlei,desert,Namibia,Sesriem,little kulala,wilderness safaris,panorama,iphone

Some of the rugged terrain of the Namib Desert near Sossusvlei in Namibia.

image

May 142014
 

Nikon has announced firmware upgrades for both the D800 and D800E models. Nikon D800As always, it makes sense to run the latest firmware and it’s really easy to install – just be sure to follow the instructions to the letter.

Download the Nikon D800 Firmware upgrade here.

Download the Nikon D800E Firmware upgrade here.

May 082014
 

We’ve used Adobe Lightroom since it was launched – in fact, we played with a beta version while still using Capture One. My initial reaction to it was rather cool. It grew on me and today it is our go-to program for image editing and for managing our database of wildlife and travel images. Actually, I have no idea how we’d manage without it. So, here are a few tips, suggestions and shortcuts to working with Lightroom.

Adobe Lightroom is a great way to manage your images.

Lightroom operates very well on shortcuts so it makes really good sense to get to know how to use them. My most used shortcuts are: G – for Grid View, D – for Develop Module, E – for Loupe View, F – for Full Screen, R – for Crop Tool, Q – for spot removal, 1 to 5 – Rating Images, 0 – to Remove the Rating and the keyboard arrows to move around the grid view and film strip.

Lightroom enables you to streamline your workflow (have a look at mine) to levels that would not have been possible just a few years ago and to do this with presets. A wonderful concept. The ones I use extensively are Metadata, Develop and Export which means that so much gets done for me. Lets take Metadata presets for example: I have set up presets for the places I go to and so the location name, copyright information, contact information and some keywords are already added while the images are being imported into Lightroom, while we are still on location. The same goes for development presets – all my images have certain things applied to them – Lens Corrections, noise reduction, some sharpening, clarity, vibrance… All these will be tweaked as I go through processing the images but the basics are there. The same applies to export presets: I have them set up for Low Res Images, High Res, Instagram, Facebook, twitter and a lot more. Makes life soooo much easier.

I’ve developed a hierarchical keyword list in Lightroom that enables me to add keywords to images  quickly and easily. All I have to do is click the keyword and it’s applied. and you can automatically include synonyms. Because our images are all added to the Africa Imagery Photo Library, we need to caption and keyword very carefully and extensively. If you are not processing your images to supply an image bank your key wording can be very simple – family names, holiday, safari, birthday etc may be all you need and would take just a few minutes.

The HUGE advantage of captioning and key wording is that you can keep all your images in one folder and then search on keywords, captions, dates, cameras, ISO, lens, well, just about anything you want to search on. Other than the captions and keywords, it’s all there in the exif data in your image files. If you really want your images in categories, it’s a simple matter to set up Smart Collections. And you can have a collection of pretty much anything you want.

Do you like variations on a theme? No problem. Create a Virtual Copy (the actual file is not duplicated – only the Metadata) and then go mad – B&W, cross process, sepia, whatever. Your original files are not changed in anyway. All your edits are applied only to the Metadata and so the original pic remains the same, whether it’s a RAW file, jpg, TIFF, Png, whatever…

Eiffel Tower - variations on a theme.

So, give Adobe Lightroom a try. And no, I’m not part of an affiliate program, nor do I receive any remuneration from Adobe. (Mmmmm, maybe I should look into that… ;-) ) They also have a wonderful deal with Lightroom and Photoshop as part of creative cloud.