Monday, June 13, 2011

Mashatu – A Place of Opportunities

The tyres of the car drumming on the tarred road surface beat out a rhythmic song that entrances the traveller and keeps his eyes glued to the horizon and the anticipation of something new. The fever builds and new experiences wait ahead to fuel the desire to keep hurtling forward in the search for unique moments.
The photographer is fortunate in that these moments can be captured not only in memory boxes but in a physical format that can be shared. Photography greats such as Cartier-Bresson and David Goldblatt were supremos in the art of the moment and it is indeed from their great example that a photographer can learn that the most mundane can become the bewitchingly captivating.
On the great plains of Africa the opportunities abound. Promises of encounters with the huge, the magnificent, the fast and the dangerous overpower the real magic of what lies in every corner just waiting to be seen. It is true that it takes time to peel back the layers, to search ever deeper, to learn more in order to appreciate what it is that reveals itself every day and it is this search that keeps the tyres on the road and the campfires burning on these great Plains.
The secret to unlocking this magic wonderland lies in the eye of the beholder and how much that eye can really see. On a trip to Mashatu over Easter of 2011 the leopards, who are normally so very visible, were playing hide-and-seek and they were winning. The elephants appeared to have taken off on a migration away from the Reserve and the usually abundantly teeming bush was hauntingly empty. Until, that is, when you looked a little closer, concentrated a little bit more and grabbed at every opportunity that came along.

We spent longer times at sightings and there was very little incentive to be off to another, perhaps better sighting. We were able to observe animal behaviour that previously would have been ignored. A very frustrating fact for a serious photographer is that twenty minutes spent at a sighting is, quite honestly, ridiculously short and the commercial aspect of the guaranteed sightings that bring the droves of tourists through the Reserves is hopelessly inadequate to capture meaningful images.
We could bask in the moment waiting patiently for a bird to fly from its perch, a cheetah to yawn or a squirrel to dart off to play because there was no dramatic sighting in the offing. The unfortunate demise of a giraffe brought in a huge flock of vultures and being the only vehicle remotely interested in this rather odiferous event we were privileged to sit for a few hours and photograph the birds coming in to land, the mean spirited pecking and hissing presented a whole host of action shots rarely captured. The posturing that various individuals in these groups display in an effort to demonstrate their supremacy provides opportunities that the lens simply devours.
The desire to capture something special always remains a challenge and even though the shutter keeps up its steady rhythm there remains a constant yearning to capture that elusively tantalising moment.
The unassailable fact that the Safari can be prolonged for many weeks afterwards lies in the arduous task of editing. Each day that I spend with the images afterwards brings me back to each moment as it happened and the more images there are on the flashcard the longer I can prolong the moment. My Safari’s last for weeks and weeks and even though I spend little time travelling and being there I am, really there, almost every day.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


The question  begs! Does anyone go on Safari to see the little guys. I have yet to hear someone alighting a Safari vehicle asking to see a shrew mouse, a dung beetle or a striped mongoose. Standard answers expected by Game Rangers are either of the large feline variety or perhaps those lumbering giants of the African Plains. Yet any guide to the animals of the world reveals an overwhelming number of little mammals that inhabit the earth.
How many Safari goers will have seen a honeybadger, a bat-eared fox, an African wildcat or even a hedgehog?  Is there any tangible excitement when the opportunity to spend some time with a colony of ants presents itself?
On a recent photographic workshop with C4 Images at Mashatu Reserve in the Tuli Block in Botswana it is hide-and-seek time with the big boys and the challenges are laid down at every turn. Amazing results are testament to the sheer magic of the African bush.
The first opportunity presents itself with a family of banded mongoose (mungos mungo) whose focused intent to find food overwhelms the urge to run and hide in the presence of a vehicle. However, the challenge remains with the right position close enough to produce images free of foliage in front of eyes and ears. Essential to the exercise is a Game Ranger with the patience of Job and a starter that will put up with being turned on and off at short intervals. Both of these are present with Jake (aka Job) patiently checking that the distance and position are correct and a trusty old African stalwart the Toyota Landcruiser playing along.
After repeated starts and stops the images of curious eyes and frantic agitation in the vegetation are banked on the flash card as the sleek silvery troop disappears into the wooded area where we can’t follow.
A short drive a little further down through the woodland on the riverbank takes us to a once mighty tree that has fallen victim to the power of Mashatu’s largest inhabitants. As we approach a small family of ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) momentarily stop their activities to inspect the intruders. The vehicle rolls silently towards the prone stump now hollowed out to provide shelter and a home to one of the smallest inhabitants of the African Savannah.
We settle into quiet observation and the squirrels relax. As they become accustomed to our presence they continue with their antics that include eating, playing and grooming and the opportunities that present themselves to a photographer are quite breathtaking in their diversity. With the light remaining a soft glow in the normally harsh African skies the camera records a whole host of images that gently reveal the beauty and complexity of nature.
Another of Africa's more shy inhabitants becomes very visible. The blackback jackal (Canis mesomelas) appears from behind every possible bush. Their gritty determination to survive is apparent at a sighting where a dead giraffe is slowly being consumed by just about every scavenger in the reserve. They bravely stand up to their big brothers the spotted hyena, ignore the hissing of a hundred or more vultures to ensure that their allocation of the spoils is not wasted. Each day we see one or more of these brave little prairie dogs their gorgeous black flecked coats dotting the plains as they scuttle from one opportunity to the next. Even on our last drive where we head into the bush to see some more indolent, sleeping lions we find yet another couple of blackback jackals patiently waiting for the lions to leave so that they can move in for the scraps of the kill. We get so close that the lens of the camera almost seems too long.
In the absence of the adrenalin pumping action that a visit to the African bush can reveal the little critter has saved the day.  In a world where time has become the master it is only when we set aside these modern persuasions and take the time to slow down and patiently become the observer that we are rewarded with wonderful memories and images that are imprinted forever and life is enriched by the experience.