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Sabi Sand, May 2013

Photos from going on safari in Sabi Sand, near Kruger National Park in South Africa. The trip was a photo safari, which was a different and great experience (i.e., no one minds if you ask to stop the truck to get a few more shots!). We spent four nights at the Elephant Plains lodge inside Sabi Sand. I learned a ton from our guides and the fellow photographers. Full story below.

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Sabi Sand is is a large game reserve just outside of Kruger National Park. As you can see from the map, Kruger is huge (it's all the green stuff behind the word 'Sand') -- comparable to the size of Swaziland or Lesotho.

I drove from Pretoria -- about seven hours. Much of it is passable but quite bumpy in a tiny 2WD drive like I had.

One guidebook warns "Can only be accessed via the northerly Gowrie route, a very awkward destination, reached via miles of harrowing dirt road, so you should definitely consider flying in." It wasn't quite that bad, but certainly more intense than driving the N4.

The trip was a photo safari -- that is, regular guided safari at a lodge, but oriented towards photographers. Here's our leader Andrew Schoeman. He lives in Nelspruit (the gateway town to Kruger) and runs photo safaris for ODP = OutdoorPhoto.co.za. His photos are amazing and I learned a ton from him. Because our Land Cruiser had only photographers, it let everyone do a lot more of the "Hey, can you hold on while I take a picture? OK, now can we shoot the vultures backlit?" kind of thing, which can be pretty annoying otherwise.
Here's the overview of our trip. Like a lot of South African safaris, you stay at the lodge, and then go out on game drives when you're not eating. We did an early morning (6-9 AM) and evening (4-7 PM) drive every day... eight drives in four days. GPS tracks for most of them are marked here

Our lodge ('Elephant Plains') is one of many in the Sabi Sand area. Sabi Sand (55,000 hectares = 200+ square miles) is a collective of many privately owned reserves, and there is a mess of rules and agreements as to who can drive on who else's property, etc. Our lodge had only about 900 hectares of its own land, but we could drive on about 5000 hectares. The map here is a couple of miles across.

If you have $1000/night to spend, there are plenty of places in Sabi which will take your money. The big famous one is Londolozi, just south of this map. They have 7000 hectares which they keep all to themselves (and thus they don't drive on anyone else's either). But most of the properties don't have fences, so the animals come and go where they want to, including with the Kruger park, which is right next door. You see the same animals, whether you spend $100/night or 10x that.

Derrick the tracker! He's from one of the local downs (Dixie) and has been tracking in Sabi for 21 years. The guide (Morne, not shown) drives the truck, but the tracker is really the one who really finds out where the animals are. He's always looking at broken branches, dung ('spore'), footprints ('spoor', confusingly), and whatnot.
Hippo! We ran into this one a few times during the week. This was early in the morning, and it was on the bank of the (dry) river. Usually they head underwater just after sunrise to avoid sunburn. At night they can really cruise, walking up to 20 miles or so.
Time for the rain ponchos! A bit wet our first afternoon out. And animals don't like the rain either: despite recent sightings in the area, we drove in circles for two hours and saw nothing except a few impala on the first drive.
Kudu! Just a kudu in a bush.
A couple of hyenas! I'd seen a few hyenas before -- but always at night, and always running away. Here there were just lazing around. They are definitely meat-eaters, though rather than kill creatures themselves, they prefer to steal it from a lion or a cheetah

Hyenas are some sort of weird mix which is kind of like a dog, a cat, and mongoose all put together

"Exceptional ability to eat and digest bone, horns, and even teeth gives hyenas advantages over competitiors, like sustaining milk production for a year or more. Also the only carnivores that eat hides, later disgorging indigestible hair."

To the hyenas' credit, I have subsequently read that their reputation as thieves is somewhat unjustified. However, the only thing we saw them chasing was a stolen impala carcass (more on that later).

These here were just lazing around. Early morning. They do spend most of their waking hours walking and hunting.
But not this one!
Cute baby elephant!

See the whole movie below.

We followed a herd of 30 elephants up to a watering hole, where they made a mess and then moved on.
Elephant running!
Impala! We were in rutting season, and it was definitely chasing after lady impala (thus the tail, and the funny lips, and the weird galloping, etc).
Buffalo!! Very close to us.
Vervet monkey. They're all over camps and rest areas... equivalent of raccoons or squirrels in the US.
OK, cool. This is a nyala, which is by itself one of the most awesome of all animals. It looks like a total amalgam of a weird set of horns, some spots, some stripes, strange legs, and whatnot.

And here, we ran into two of them, and they were definitely not very happy with each other. They both had their hairs raised up like this, which I'd never seen before, and were slowly circling each other and acting very serious. Don't get near those horns.

If there's no animals around, safari-goers can always take pictures of each other...
Jan, with one of several big lenses. I shared a room with him, with whom there is never a dull moment. He retired from the South African Railways many years ago, and now runs a filling station outside Johannesburg. He takes some amazing pics -- this was his second trip with ODP, and I was completely blown away by some of his shots from previous trips around South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana.
Half of our group! Andries, Jayne, and Andries' parents Marieta and Danie on the airfield. Only the high-rollers fly in -- about 10% -- which did not include any of us.
We were driving a long way away to find some lions (the furthest we ever drove -- maybe 30 minutes). Halfway out, we see a few land cruisers pulling off to track a pair of leopards in the grass. We searched around a little bit, and then... yes!
But the leopard wasn't a big fan, so she took off quickly. We looked, but couldn't find her again. That's Derrick, our game tracker, perched on the front with the bright spotlight.
Andrew aims for the sunset.

By the way, despite the logos, he says that he does not get free gear. When Nikon was trying to break into the South Africa market though, they apparently did have a geat deal for pros: give them all of your existing Canon cameras, and they'll give you the equivalent in new Nikon gear. Pretty cool.

While Derrick is off searching for the leopard, Andries and Jayne are looking at some pics in the back row. Lit up by LCD -- and yes, those are few stars you can see in the background.
We keep driving and find the lions!! There's a group of about nine of them, just hanging out in the dark in a big grassy field. We drive up and they keep doing their thing (sitting, walking, playing). They were the most active lions I'd ever seen -- usually, lions are content to just sleep. These cubs were very active, despite it being completely dark except for our spotlights.
Cubs fighting!
One lion does not want to play...
But persistence pays off.
Very awesome to see these.
All the lighting is from spotlights, which the lions don't seem to mind. But wow, is it hard to meter, focus, and shoot fast-moving animals, in complete darkness, except for one shaky spotlight beam trying to track some animals 50 feet away. I'm amazed that these came out -- only due to the high ISO's and great low-light focusing of DSLR's these days.
A bit of resting time...
Spotlight portrait. Hey - looks pretty similar to this prize-winning shot by our guide Andrew, taken elsewhere in South Africa a little bit earlier. Though I like his B&W of it.
Wow! OK, so, we watched the cubs play for 15 minutes or so, and then one of them wandered off away from the trucks, outside the range of our beams. A minute later, a terrified mongoose races past us, three cubs chasing it. Mongoose jumps into ditch and the cubs jump on it. Everything is a confusing mess, and then the three cubs come bounding out, swinging their dead mongoose around by its neck.
Andrew says that in 12 years of guiding, he's only seen lions attack a mongoose one other time. This creature was sacrificed more for play than meat -- it's a tasty (*) snack but not much more.

(*) Mongooses are relatives of the skunk, and the area was definitely very well permeated.

It's still pitch black out... all illuminated by spot lights, as all of us are trying to figure out what's going on too!
The cubs carry their snack into the grass... only to have the big male lion take it from them.
... and eat it. Oh well, cubs.
Yawn.
Early morning... sun is coming up, just enough to give the sky a bit of color. Safari truck leaves in 20 minutes...
Derrick (our spotter) sees a bunch of vultures circling and landing in a tree. A good sign for a nearby kill! So we look for the leopard or lion that must be at the center of it.
Morne looks for the leopard. We drive in circles around the vulture trees for the better part of an hour.
Beautiful vulture!
We see a lot of vultures!
And they see us and take off.
They look like hang-gliders, but with a menacing set of landing gear.
Must be a dozen or more vultures around, but no kill site (or leopards) that we can find.
Eventually we give up... only to hear on the radio that another group has found leopards elsewhere down the road. We head down there. I forget who this group was, but they all have their nice matching caps!
And here she is! Mother leopard plus two cubs
Most leopards elsewhere are quite skittish -- they are the most shy of all the big cats. But the leopards here are very used to people and trucks, and that's one of the big attractions to the Sabi area.

Allegedly, one of the reasons why they are more tame here is that many decades ago, one of the lodges regularly left out carcasses near empty Land Rovers, and that conditioning stays on now. Certainly none of that is done now -- they are definitely wild (they are not fed, or radio tracked, or given medical care, etc) -- but the adults raise their cubs in the presense of frequent visitors, so they get accustomed to it.

Once Andrew had one jump on his truck hood and walk away with his hat -- but definitely at that point you want to scare it off.

Leopard cub!
The other cub! These are a bit less than a year old.
We followed them through the bush for maybe half an hour.
At one point the mother took off by herself, perhaps to scout out a meal, but she came back before long.
Eventually they went their own way into the dense brush and we headed back.
Rhino!
Rhino birds! These are oxpeckers, on the back of a rhino. You can see all of the bugs that they are eating -- both flying, and on the rhino's back.
Jan.
Andries is a doctor in Knysna.
Jayne.
Jan showed up with three huge lenses on full-size bodies. And he handheld them all for most of the week!
Here he is... in the air with 1Dx + 400/2.8, and 5DMkIII + 500/4. At South African prices, that's something like $30,000 in camera equipment.

"I work out at the gym every day to carry those. If I'm not working, I'm bored, and I hate being bored."

And after the sunset, a sundowner with Derrick and Morne.
When not on safari, Jayne makes and sells highly fashionable clothing at Two on Toast.
Jan and Andries figure out how to use that camera.
Group shot! Derrick, Morne, Jan, Danie, Marieta, Andries. In front: Henry, Jayne, Andrew. Yes, I'm a bit out of focus... I had to paste in myself from a different shot.
Dawie leads the other truck!
Derrick and ___, the other tracker.
Derrick and ___ give the universal sign for elephant. They are from the rural town nearby, Dixie; Derrick has been tracking here for over 20 years.
We stopped for a nice sunset.
As we're driving back to the lodge, I notice Saturn is nice and bright overhead. Andries and I are chatting about it, and he decides to try and shoot it. I've taken pictures of Saturn before, although admittedly not handheld from the back of a bouncing Land Cruiser.
And sure enough he does it! Saturn's bright enough that you can get it at ISO 1600 at 1/250th, and since he's got a 300 mm / 2.8, that's plenty sufficient. He took a bunch of shots and the rings popped right out... nice work! This here is a one-second exposure (with flash) as we're bouncing back along the very rutted dirt road.

This picture here is a composite of my picture of him bouncing around in the Land Cruiser in a long exposure, and his short-exposure picture of Saturn (definitely magnified).

Back at the lodge, Walter sets me up with a Milk Tart (= condensed milk, rum, and cinnamon?)... very similar to the ubiquitous South African pie of the same name.
Patience is our waiter (actually, 'waitron' in the local vernacular).
Aw...
Outdoors at the boma. We had most of our dinners here under the stars... very pleasant. The lodge is surrounded by an electric fence to keep out the large animals.
Andrew stirs the coals...
Jan was an inspiring guy... he saw a few of my night-time photos and was itching to pull me out of bed a 5 AM to shoot some more the next morning. The light across the field is at one of the watering holes.

Sabi does not do very much active game management -- the animals just do what they're going to do. But they do a fair amount of terrain management. This open grassy area had tractor marks showing where it had been regularly cleared of low bushes.

Before sunrise, heading out to find some wild dogs. They'd been seen the night before in this area...
And here they are! Of all the predators in Africa (lions, cheetahs, etc.) apparently wild dogs are the most endangered. I'd certainly never heard of them before moving to SA. Crazy beautiful though.
Note the open wounds... are they as oblivious of pain as they appear to be?
It's cold! Down close to freezing. Derrick does it all without a hat!
This is part of the pack of 14 that we watched. The alpha male is across the road... we never got a good look at him.
Love this shot! Wild dogs are right behind us, and there's this beautiful landscape of impalas a few hundred meters down.
We came back later in the day to see the dogs again. Not much action... they are often on the hunt, walking many miles, but this was not one of those days.
Water at the dam starting to heat up...
A few footprints in the sand. I'm sure Piper could identify them all.
Baby flowers.
OK, wow. Our last afternoon on safari. We heard there were some lions a good distance away, so we started to drive that direction. But first we passed a nice group of impalas just outside the lodge. We watched them for a few minutes, and start driving away. Derrick looks around the corner... and check out what's coming up the road at us!
We followed her for a few minutes as she walked up the road. She had to rub against the truck to pass -- and in fact she hung out behind the truck for a little bit -- perhaps to watch the impalas?
The impalas in the field bolt...
And now we see why: there's a second leopard -- a cub -- parked right in the middle of the impala field!
Leopard running! The cub stays parked. Mom hikes up the road.
Mom keeps on walking...
And walking...
Here's the movie of our whole leopard chase... three hours boiled down to seven minutes.

We follow her up...
We track her through the woods, lose her, find her again, and follow her back to the main road. Here she lays down, and stares at a kudu (at center, just above the road). But it turns out that a leopard is not a cheetah, and there's no way it could take that kudu out... it just wouldn't have the speed. Not to mention that a kudu is huge. Leopards succeed by sneaking up close and making a leap to take their prey down... cheetahs (which we didn't see any of at Sabi) can spy an animal from across a field, and then outrun it to catch up and take it down.
She walks off into the woods. We follow, but the bush is dense and she knows it better than we do.

We lose her for about two minutes, then find her... already strangling an impala!

She was sitting on top of it at first, holding its neck, with the impala still kicking. It took a good ten minutes of strangulation before the impala really went dead.

Now she's starting to eat it. Rump first, then belly.
Tasty tasty!
iPhone picture. It's starting to get dark, and it looks like the other truck has their spotlight on. Sabi is pretty low density with trucks... they have a rule to not allow more than three trucks at one site at a time. We eventually had to take off to make way for another group, but we watched for probably close to an hour.
Ripping open the belly!
She's eaten enough. She's taking a break, with the plan to fill herself up, then grab her cub (who is still stashed down in the clearing with the other impalas two hours ago!), and feed the cub. Usually, she'll stash the carcass in a tree to save it from hyenas.
We take a break and see the remainder of the impala's herd. They're now down one member, but this doesn't stop their tussling. Apparently it is rutting season and the impalas are very easy prey, as they have one focus and are not watching out very carefully.
Impala running!
Mongoose! This time, not being carried dead by the neck.
We head back down and search for the leopard. She's taken off from the kill site.
This isn't her, but her cub! He's given up waiting for mom, and is wandering up the road by himself.
Two leopards aren't the only predators out! A pack of hyenas has also joined in. Maybe they smell the recent kill?
Two hyenas looking around, jumping through the bushes to try to find it...
So here we are in the bush, complete darkness, surrounded by two leopards and a pack of hyenas, and we get... a flat tire! This is awesome! We have enough air to drive out to the road, and get about a kilometer away before we get out and Derrick and Morne change the tire. They are fast -- no more than four minutes total.

And that gives me time to jump off and set up some tripod shots. I'd planned perfectly here: from doing some test sky shots in the morning I knew exactly what exposure and focus I needed, so I just framed and shot. I took about a dozen shots, some exposed for the foreground and some for the sky (but all pointed and focused the same). I merged three of them to make this pic... e.g., a short exposure in the foreground (so the people are frozen), with a longer one in the background (to get the stars). One of my favorite pics from the week.

As I took the shots, I saw that blob-shaped thing in the upper-right corner. "Wow -- it's the Sombrero Galaxy," I told everyone afterwards. Well, so much for my southern sky knowledge... it's really just a lens reflection, from the spotlight.

In the morning, this was all that was left of the impala kill. The skull and horns were maybe half a kilometer from where we saw the carcass the night before, dragged there by hyenas.
Early morning shot.
Driving up out of the river bed. While Jan had been to Kruger just before coming here and reported tons of rain, it was dry for us -- nothing in the river.
Misty trees!
Hornbill and starling. African starlings are nothing like the American birds of the same name...
Hornbill party!
Rusks and coffee break on our last morning. This was a large rocky vista with three large stone chairs -- one destroyed by an elephant and one by a rhino (?).
Driving home through the state of Limpopo, many fruit stands around...
The guy at this stand set me up with two bags of grapefruits, a box of avos, a box of paw-paws, a flat of mandarins, and the carved wooden hippo he's holding (he made it), all for around $11 USD.

What he said he really wanted though was a pair of shoes. I had only my own, alas...


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Henry Throop

Last modified Thu Feb 20 23:50:20 2014