What were we doing in Africa? More particularly, what was I doing, bringing my 75-year-old mother to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana?
Only a year of unpredicted and unpredictable events could have led me to consider such a trip: my father had died, and my mom and I needed a place to be on the one-year anniversary of his death. I had been to a conference in South Africa in 2015, had gone on safari for the first time, and had fallen completely and utterly in love with the country and the wildlife. But perhaps most importantly, my mom and I needed to find a new way to be together, and there might not be a better way to do it than to spend two weeks in the wild, increasingly disconnected from the outside world (there would be no cell phone service or wifi in Botswana), and with only the animals and other animal-obsessed humans to keep us company.
Coming back to Dulini Lodge in South Africa – where I had gone for my first safari in 2015 – was a lot like coming back to family. I had requested the same ranger/tracker duo I had had the year before, as Fred and Martin are just magical together. For instance, we were able to find and then spend quite a bit of time with these two leopard cubs – and just as the cubs started playing around, too! They were quite mischievous, and their mom went back and forth between indulging them in a wrestle and clearly feeling that they had crossed a line. Here, they’re having a debate with each other.
Dulini Lodge is positioned near the Sand River, which makes for spectacular sightings as different animals come down to the river for a drink. Giraffes make a particular “s” wave of droplets in the air when they drink, and one of my photographic goals was to try to capture this in the light. I didn’t completely nail it (see this SafariTalk post by contributor Xelas for a much better example of what I was going for) but that’s just another reason to go back, right?
My mom and I loved seeing the elephants coming down to drink. Climbing up the banks on the other side of the river was quite a challenge; in fact, it’s not something I ever imagined elephants could do. Rather surprisingly, their trunk seems to help them out a lot with balance while climbing.
These young bulls had a bit of a friendly tussle once climbing out; we were so close to them that my lens (a Nikon VR 80-400 f4.5 that I had rented from LensRentals.com for the trip) had a hard time capturing the action without getting the antenna of the vehicle or other people’s hats in the way. Here’s what I ended up being able to capture.
I am usually delighted to be really close to animals; in this case, however, I did get a little nervous having these enormous elephants fighting each other at close quarters. Fred assured us that they were just playing and that when we passed, they might even run after us a little in a mock charge but that it was all part of their play – and he was right, of course, they did and it was all in fun, for them at least.
It was particularly nice to see elephants enjoying the water since the whole of the Kruger National Park area was undergoing a terrible drought. (Dulini is in the Sabi Sand private reserve, which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park area and is unfenced to the park.) Here we saw some very disappointed buffalo who had clearly walked for a long time to get to this water hole, only to find almost all the water gone. A number of them waded into the mud to see if they could find water in the center of the watering hole – a very dangerous thing to do, as, if they got stuck, they would make easy prey. Let’s hope they eventually found their way to the river.
Many birds also make the river their home; here is a particularly attractive white-fronted bee eater sunning himself. They say that, even if you had no interest in birds before coming to Africa, the sheer variety and color of African birdlife will make a convert of you, and I have found that to be true. The birds also make excellent (though sometimes challenging) photographic subjects.
Fred, our ranger, was very kind to indulge me in my ambition to try some night photography; in fact, he even went online and watched some videos on how to capture the stars in order to prepare for our adventure. I had done some research as well, but I hadn’t had a chance to practice before coming out. However, I had determined that the moon was going to be waxing during our trip, so if I was going to make an attempt, it had to be in the first few days, while we were in South Africa. Fred drove us to an empty field and framed the shot beautifully with a bare tree in the foreground. I tried a long exposure first, and then a series of timed exposures. Unfortunately, I have an entry-level Nikon (a D3300), and so couldn’t get the long, timed exposure I was hoping for and that might have produced star trails. However, by using the long exposure (about 30 seconds), and after much trial and error and discussions with Fred, we were able to capture this image, with a little bit of the milky way showing in the background. It was truly a combined effort – thanks, Fred!
Far too quickly, it seems, it was time to leave Dulini and move on to the famed Victoria Falls. These falls form the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and I hadn’t properly accounted for the amount of time those border crossings would take. While we did enjoy seeing the Falls, and we were able to take a very pleasant sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, having only one night there felt very rushed. Here is probably the best picture I got of the Falls, a panorama taken from my iPhone as the sun was rising on the day we left.
While we were at Dulini, my Mom had fallen in love with the lodge, just as I had done a few months before. She was already talking about bringing back her grandson, my nephew. So, while I felt pretty sure I would someday return to Dulini, I was not at all sure I might ever return to Botswana. Getting there is, as my South African friends would say, “a mission.” We were going to the heart of the Okavango Delta, a unique ecosystem in which floods from the rainy season in Angola come pouring into Botswana months after the rains, filling a hand-like shape in the earth, only to be eventually soaked up by the sands of the Kalahari Desert. (Which is actually not a desert, but that’s a story for another day.) This sets up the odd situation in which the “dry season” in Botswana – the season in which there is no rain, which lasts from around April through around October – matches up with the annual flooding from Angola, making the delta a draw for animals for hundreds of miles. We would be there just as the flood waters were really starting to come in. (Note for relative bargain hunters: this is called the “shoulder season” and is significantly cheaper than going from June to September, when the flood is at its height.)
I have been watching documentaries on the Okavango since I was a child; it was with a mixture of awe and disbelief, therefore, that I got to see the water pouring into the delta with a force that was visible – every hour, it seemed, you could watch the water rise. With the water came wildlife. Here we were able to spend some lovely time with some elephants as they ate dirt – the area just around here provides some essential mineral to their diet, so as you can see, they’ve dug out quite a hole.
We were also able to take an amazingly calming ride in a traditional boat called a mokoro and see some of the microfauna of the area, including this Angolan Reed Frog. I didn’t have a micro lens attachment for my rented lens, so had to take about a zillion versions of this picture to get one that was crisp, but fortunately our “poler,” or guide, was very patient.
I was also able to take this picture of nicely positioned little bee eaters.
Our last lodge was Chitabe. Here, we would only be taking game drives, but the game was said to be outstanding. We absolutely found this to be true, and the game was enhanced by our ranger, Phindley, who was a photographer himself, and so was very attentive about positioning the vehicle to maximize our chances of getting a good shot with good lighting. I had wanted to try my hand at silhouettes, and Phindley was able to set me up to capture this image of a saddle-billed stork at sunset.
Phindley was particularly attuned to reflection, and we luckily happened across this really pretty amazing chance to capture a reflection – a rising moon by a watering hole with two lions in the bottom left corner.
We ended up seeing these two lion sisters every day of our four days’ time at Chitabe; in the end, it began to seem like we were filming BBC’s Big Cat Diary, and I became shamelessly involved in the lives and fates of the sisters. One sister, who was slightly older and pregnant, was very serious about hunting, while the other sister was a terrible hunter – all she wanted to do was play with her sister. She was always finding the least opportune times to wander off – usually right when Older Sister had spotted some prey – but at the same time, she was incredibly charming.
The first day we saw the two of them, they had made a kill – a large warthog. They ate everything they could and tried to hide the rest in the bushes for later, but to no avail – a male lion later came and took the kill.
For the next two days, we watched them go on one near-miss hunt after another, and then usually have a play-fight afterwards, presumably about who mucked up the kill.
Finally, on the forth day, we had to leave them, the one still hunting, the other still playing. I plan on continuing to look for updates concerning the two on Chitabe’s monthly newsletter – here’s hoping they found an old, yet still juicy, warthog after we left.
Leaving the lion sisters, and leaving Africa, was hard, but we had done what we came to do: we had left the world behind for two weeks; we had remembered and talked about my father constantly, wondering if he would like this or that aspect of the trip, almost as if he were still with us; and we had also learned a little more about how to be with each other in a new way. Most of all, perhaps, we took enormous pleasure in sharing the beauty of the natural environment with each other. It was time to come home and share our stories and images with others outside our new family of two.
Dispatches is our occasional look outside of DC at the places local photographers have traveled. Have a set of photos you’d like to feature here? Contact us at email@example.com.
All images © Hannah Fischer. She enjoys wildlife photography, hanging out at zoos, and imagining her next safari. You can find more of her pictures in her posts as hannahcat on SafariTalk, and you can find out more about her at AboutHannahFischer.