Deep in the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta stands Dead Tree Island. We drove to the island, but for most travelers getting to the island was blocked by a seemingly impassable deep water crossing about 40 yards long and who knows how deep.Read More
Th stars in Namibia never get old to look at, photograph or sleep under. Especially in the cooler months of May, June and July when the rains have cleared the air and left endless clear, cool and still skies the stars really shine. As if by design it is also during these months that the Milky Way rises in the east as the sun sets and travels across the sky to set in the west as the sun rises again. There is really no better place or time of year to get an unobstructed view the stars that Namibia in the winter.
This photo is a composition of 2 photos taken about 30 minutes apart. While it is possible to get the twilight lit foreground and the stars in one shot there would be significant motion in the stars. Blending the 2 shorter exposure photos together for foreground and sky I was able to still give the idea of the Milky Way rising as the sun set.
Sitting near the waterhole at Okakuejo camp in Etosha National Park is a little like holding vigil. The waterhole is located right near several bungalows with bench seating for at least about 100 people around the perimeter of the viewing area. However, as you approach the waterhole you see dozens of people sitting in silence as they take in the amazing sight of the large game visiting the waterhole for a drink. I've been to this waterhole now probably a half dozen times and it still is one of the most remarkable game viewing experiences. If not for the amazing game the waterhole serves a reminder to all its human visitors that you are now in the presence of nature and the unsaid expectation is to sit quietly and forget the modern world for a few moments with your game viewing neighbors.
These giraffe were only at the waterhole for a few minutes when we first arrived at the park but as the sun was setting I grabbed as many shots as I could. At the time I wished I had my tripod to get a nice long exposure, but the walk to the room was too far as the light was fading fast. Animals are also so unpredictable that if the moment arises for a shot you have to take it as you never know when the next opportunity will arise. Despite being a high ISO handheld shot this still turned out to be one of my favorite from our recent three days in Etosha.
Some lessons and best practices for night photography seem pretty easy when you read them in books, ebooks and online. However, planning shots and actually getting out there and trying to implement an idea is a whole different beast. The above shot was a half baked idea I had after spending 2 nights in the Spitzkoppe area in Namibia. I say half baked because I had all the info on sun position, star locations, etc all sorted out, but I had never really been successful with super long exposures over a minute or two. The idea I had for this shot was to get some really faint star trails over the mountain just as the soft twilight from the sun was coming up from the East. I took my time setting up the shot and getting my exposure correct when all of sudden the sunlight was started to pour in and I had lost time to mess around. I quickly fired off a couple 7 minute exposures, but that was all I had time for as the stars began to give way to the morning sky.
Lessons learned were that no matter how much you think you’d prepared you still have to be really prepared when the light is right. I think you almost have to be able to predict what the exposure is going to be during dawn and dusk in the future and that really just takes practice. You can read up on ideal exposure settings, etc but that’s a lot of information to juggle when you’re out in the field and trying to also react to the setting. With almost everything camera related you need to develop a muscle memory for the buttons and settings but also for what the settings are going to produce. This image turned out quite nice, but wasn't quite what I wanted. Either way since I got this image on my last morning in the area I'll have to wait until next time to get the shot I really want (or whatever other idea I come up with at the last minute).
A self driving safari in Africa involves a lot of driving. On our trip to Botswana driving between parks, campsites and actual safaris we racked up something like 3000km over 14 days. Eli and I both had GoPros with suction cup mounts so we filmed as much of the exciting stuff as we could while in Moremi Game Reserve and Nxai Pans. I think we ended up with something like 60-70GB of footage and that was all compressed video footage!
The really fun things to video was the 4x4 technical driving which Eli did the most of since I had little 4x4 experience (by the end of the trip though I think I got the hang of it). Most of our footage was driving through countless water crossings and mud holes but we also got some really nice footage just cruising through some really epic scenery and a few animal sightings. Enjoy!
Around 6am when I climbed down the little ladder from our roof mounted tent I was still waking up when I heard some munching nearby and right across from me was a herd of elephants casually browsing for food amongst the trees and cars of the campsite. We were staying at Third Bridge Campsite in Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana and apparently the elephants are a common site. We had intended to wake up early make some coffee and set off on our morning safari, but with the elephants all around I quickly, and quietly, climbed into the car to just sit and enjoy the huge animals just walking right around us.
After about 45 minutes or so the herd slowly began to leave the campsite into the grasses beyond our site and we climbed out of the car get a better view of the great creatures. This one little elephant had stayed close to the the mom while in the camp but started to move off on it's own once in the grass. As we watched it for some time it moved in and out of nice little windows of trees and branches which obstructed the larger elephants but created a nice natural frame of foliage for an image of this little guy.
It's hard to not overstate how amazing this Leopard sighting was. Given that this was the first leopard sighting for me and how our trip had progress so far it's still hard to not get excited about the time we had with this beautiful animal. Eli and I started our trip to Botswana last November under some really crappy circumstances and ended the trip with an equally worse incident. However, the two weeks in between we had in Botswana was one of the best experiences either of us had enjoyed. I suppose I'll start at the beginning.
Our trip to Botswana was to be 15 days and we had planned to take my newly acquired 2002 Toyota Hilux. Our Hilux seemed to be in good shape for the trip. It had 4x4 a canopy and we had fitted it with a roof rack for mounting a tent on the roof. I had even just purchase new mud tires which mad the truck look pretty mean. All was looking good except for one little thing. On our first day of the trip we went down to Windhoek to pickup camping equipment and the truck would only get up to 70km/hr and if you pushed the gas pedal down black smoke spewed out the back. After running errands in Windhoek we stopped by a Toyota dealership and had the guys take a look. I'll quote what the mechanic said - "Do not drive this truck back home." He called an engine repair guy in Windhoek and told us to stay the night in Windhoek and visit this guy first thing in the morning. The trip was off to a roaring start. We were supposed to head back to Otjiwarongo that night and set off for the North of Namibia the next day.
The following day we took the car to the engine repair guy and right away he said the engine was shot. No compression and apparently the engine needs to be a vacuum to operate normally (I learned a lot about engines on this trip). Our truck is totaled (or as the locals say - finished) until the guys can tear open the engine block and figure out whats what. What do you do when your truck dies? Well, there was no way we were gonna cancel, months and months of planning had gone into this trip. When else are we gonna be able to go for two weeks in Botswana?
We immediately looked into a rental camping truck and although extremely expensive we bit the bullet and hired a fully equipped Toyota Hilux with all camping gear. Within 4 hours of dropping off my Hilux we were off to Otjiwarongo and then off to Botswana.
Fast forward through 6 amazing days of driving safari in Moremi Game Reserve and we get to the day we saw this leopard. This day was our last full day in Moremi and we had been tipped off from some camping neighbors that a leopard had been sighted so we headed off looking for a needle in a haystack. Passing by the guard station by airstrip we stopped at the sightings board and saw that someone else had posted a leopard sighting in the same area we were headed. We bolted in that direction.
Once we got to the general area we both fell silent for probably an hour looking in every dang tree as our Hilux traversed the winding dirt tracks. We passed by many groups of animals, that on the first day of safari would have been interesting, but today were just part of the scenery. Eventually, we approached a herd of Impala who didn’t pay much attention to us. As we got closer to the group we noticed that not one of the animals had even given us a glance. Strange for a group of herbivores to not even look over once at an approaching vehicles with humans in it. Then as we got within about 50m of them we noticed they were all looking directly at a stand of trees and making a sort of snorting/grunting call.
Immediately we stopped the truck and switched off the engine. We pulled out cameras and binoculars and began to silently scan the trees for any sign of our leopard. After a few minutes the Impala began to disperse and we noticed on the ground a faint set of truck tracks driving right towards the trees. It’s not uncommon of the local safari guides to go off road in search of a specific sighting for their guests. We, however, had abided by the rules of not going off road in order to keep the park in good shape…that is - up until this moment.
We quickly switched on the engine and crawled towards the tree as silent as we could be in a diesel 4x4. The tracks ended at the base of a giant tree and we quickly switched off the truck again and began to scan the branches above us. A few minutes passed and then Eli whispered “Oh my God, look right in front of us.” Sure enough hidden in plain sight on a branch abut 10m up right in front of our truck was a gorgeous adult female leopard feasting on a small impala kill she had dragged up the tree.
About an hour passed as we quietly sat in the truck and admired and took photos of the leopard. Actually for about the first 10 minutes I didn’t even pull out the camera and just silently admired her. This was definitely one of those moments where you can hardly believe what you’re seeing and you just need to relax and take it in to appreciate it.
As the hour was up we hear a local safari vehicle approach from in front of us and then wind around to take up a position just behind our vehicle. The leopard herd it too and just as the safari vehicle was approaching behind us she quickly climbed down the tree and then disappeared off into the thick bush. She was gone just like that. The driver stopped and motioned to ask us what we saw. Our only reply was “Well, we were watching a leopard. She just left.” We took some satisfaction that our sighting would only be for us that day.
While this was the animal sighting highlight there were many other amazing experiences on the trip as we finished up camping in Moremi and then camped in Nxai Pans for the last couple nights.
Trouble in Windhoek
Trouble from the beginning of the trip continued when we returned to Windhoek at the end of the trip. We had just been in Windhoek for nearly a couple hours when we were pulling out of a parking garage when it happened. Just as we had stopped at a traffic light in 5 o’clock traffic a crazy guy approached the driver side window and opened my door yelling and saying incomprehensible things at me. Eli and I calmly looked at him and yelled at him to get off or vehicle. It was only maybe 5 seconds but he was gone. We drove off a little shaken thinking we had dodged a situation.
A few minutes later as we drove off I noticed the door ajar light was on. We looked around and that was when we noticed it...Eli's bag was gone from the backseat. The guy grabbing at our driver side door must have just been a diversion for another guy to sneak open the opposite rear door of the truck and swipe his bag. We had not even noticed in the heat of the moment and we had left our doors unlocked as we had just exited a parking garage. Lost in the bag was a computer, some camera lenses and a passport, but the real loss was Eli's pictures on the hard drive from the trip - gone. The whole basis of this trip was to take photos and now one of us had lost a significant amount of these photos.
We trolled around the city for a few hours looking for suspicious people and talking to vendors on the street in the area looking for tips and offering rewards, but no luck, the bag was gone. We turned on Find my Mac to try and find it by GPS but in a semi-3rd world country where internet is scarce as it is it never turned up. We went to the police station and filed a report (which took 2 trips due to the police indifference) and visited the US Embassy to try and get a new passport.
After all that had happened we returned the rental truck and went over to the engine repair guy to pickup my truck. Luckily, he had finished all the engine work although the cost was about $2000 USD. The truck ran like new and as soon as we could we paid the guy and got out of Windhoek to head home.
At the end of the day when we got back home to the farm we were confronted with questions from everyone about how the trip was and how amazing of a time we had. It's still kinda hard to explain all the emotions of that trip to folks. In one moment we were having some of the most life changing experiences in nature and the other we're just completely depressed for humanity. Either way, along the trip we met some of the most wonderful people camping and sharing animal sightings with. If there was anything that we could take away from the trip was just how amazing it is to really be in nature and experience it for what it is. When we were in cities or around lots of people everything seemed very complicated but when we were just in the park around wildlife it was somehow much simpler to understand the needs of everything. It was simpler, that is until we needed to cross some man made bridges in the game reserve which we may or may not have gotten stuck on. A story for next time I suppose.
Solo was the last cat of the day to have her portrait taken. We had already spent the better part of the day traipsing around the Cheetah Conservation Center's farms shooting the other roughly 20-25 cats for the semi-annual photo updates (sponsors can adopt a cat to provide financial support). Solo, however, was one of the older, more experienced cheetahs and was not afraid of us. She was also not afraid of the stick the cheetah keeper used to keep her at a distance.
As we climbed out of the truck to get a better angle she starting walking right at us with this deadly stare. A good wild cheetah runs away at sight of a threat, but not Solo. She confronted us and gave us her best intimidation looks, snarls and hisses. Fortunately, we had some nice late afternoon light behind us broken up by a large tree behind us. I crouched down quickly and snapped away as the other two (my wife Stephanie and Ryan the keeper) tried to simultaneously keep her at a distance while getting her attention at the camera. I snapped of a bunch of shots and only worked for maybe 2-3 monutes before Solo started swatting at the keeper's stick and we quickly called it good and jumped into the truck.
Despite only having a couple minutes some of my favorite shots are of this girl. She brought her game this day even if she only humored our presence.
Three days in a row we had the pleasure of seeing this male lion along with a female at Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. The two lions seemed to be a breeding pair but at each sighting we did not actually see them breeding so perhaps breeding season was soon to come. Each day we saw these two we were watching with at least 2-3 other cars nearby and the lions couldn't have cared less about having a crowd nearby. On one occasion we were the only car watching the cats for good hour or so and the lions came out of the bushes they were hiding in and rested on the sandy road just next to us. We were able to enjoy just sitting in their presence for a while as we snapped shots of them between short naps. Spoiler alert...cats sleep alot!
A storm chased us as we drove up to our camp site in the Nxai Pans in Botswana. The heavens opened up as soon as we arrived. The drive across the pans was muddy to the say the least as we kicked up a combination of mud, algae and salt while traversing the pans. Rain in these parts was not exactly what we had expected. We had spent the previous 8 days in the Okavango Delta right along the water most of the time where the rainy season had begun and rains fell daily. Driving more than 100km south to the plains and pans we expected a much dryer climate as we were getting closer to the Kalahari desert. The storm told a different story as it dumped on us for more than a hour.
The clouds and rain broke for only a moment but my camping partner Eli and I found ourselves immediately scrambling for cameras and running to the pans from our truck. The clouds were breaking just to the west as the sun was setting. Also moving from the west was another epic storm cloud. We only had a few muddy minutes to grab some photos. The beauty of this place was amazing and our photos only tell part of the story. It was one of the most beautiful natural scenes either one of had experienced and we were left speechless as the sun died and rain began to fall.
Until next time Botswana.