The iconic images of African wildlife are typically of large, leopard-studded trees in rolling savannahs, sweeping vistas with wildebeest and zebra stretching to the horizon, silhouettes of baobabs and dramatic heart-wrenching depictions of animals battling it out against the elements in the continent’s harshest environments. Photographs of these scenes abound in the pages of magazines and coffee table books, and are spread thick and wide across the Internet. But there’s another part of Africa, a wild eden, which offers a different safari experience where fresh images can be found, even for experienced photographers and safari goers. That place is the Eastern Cape, in South Africa.
In the heart of this wild province lies the exclusive Kwandwe Private Game Reserve where I am lucky enough to lead photographic safaris and workshops. Being on a specialised photographic safari means receiving hands-on instruction on how to get the best shots at every sighting. As a specialist photographic guide, it’s my job to provide on-the-spot tuition and creative advice, and ensure that the vehicle is always positioned in the best possible way to maximise the chances of capturing the decisive moment at each opportunity. Top-of-the-range camera gear and long zoom lenses are not always essential. At many safari destinations, the animals are relaxed around the game drive vehicles and easily approached thanks to years of responsible driving by sensible and sensitive guides.
To me, it is the unique environment that sets the Eastern Cape apart. The diversity within one scene encompasses dense thickets of thorn trees and succulents, wide open spaces, rolling hills and vast dramatic skies. If you visit in winter, you’ll be lucky enough to witness the spectacular bloom of deep coral-coloured aloe flowers that line cliff tops and blanket the sides of hill.
There can truly be four seasons in one day in the Eastern Cape. The diversity of these conditions means that you experience many different views of the wildlife, views that differ greatly from the conventional scenes of wild Africa. This majestic oryx (above) nonchalantly gazed in our direction as we drove slowly in the typical pre-dawn mists of autumn. The mist sometimes obscures some members of a herd of, say, zebra or buffalo, creating a sense of vulnerable solitude not often associated with herd animals.
In the image above, a herd of elephants browse on the coarse thickets typical of the Eastern Cape. I was privileged to spend over an hour with this family of nearly 30 individuals that ranged in age from newly born calves to elderly matriarchs. For a wildlife photographer, the wide open vistas and unimpeded views are two of the great advantages to shooting in the Eastern Cape. It’s a pleasure to be able to take shots with a wide angle lens that include the environment - the context - of your subject.
An Eastern Cape safari provides opportunities for unique photographs of commonly photographed subjects, like lions (above). This is due to the distinct characteristics of the environment - so different to that in which we are used to seeing images of Africa’s wildlife. The dense shrub-like vegetation creates a habitat that is fundamentally different in appearance to most of Africa, which means that images taken here are generally quite distinct. This lion, called North Pride Male by Kwandwe guides, is well known and regularly photographed. He is relaxed around vehicles, which makes for plenty of great photo opportunities.
In most areas of Southern Africa bat-eared foxes (above) are rare, shy and difficult to photograph. In the Eastern Cape, however, this is most certainly not the case. After asking my tracker if they see them at all, it was no more than an hour before we were sitting at a den, home to five of these adorable little creatures. Once again, it is responsible and respectful guiding that has led to the bat-eared foxes of Kwandwe becoming habituated to vehicles, making them relatively easy to view and photograph.
In the image above, a young male cheetah catches the last light of the day. Cheetahs typically roam over extremely large ranges so it is not surprising that, at 22 000 hectares, Kwandwe is large enough to support a healthy population. Cheetah sightings are not uncommon and the freedom to drive off road allows you to stay with them as they hunt for prey and patrol their territories. This individual is one of a coalition of two males. It is common for male cheetahs to stick together because it makes them less vulnerable to predation by other, more powerful, predators like lions. In total, there are eight cheetahs at Kwandwe: two coalitions of two males, a single adult female and a female with two cubs born in 2013.
‘Kwandwe’ means ‘Place of the blue crane’, South Africa’s national bird (above). It is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN and is not seen on the majority of safaris throughout Southern Africa. At Kwandwe, however, you’d be unlucky not to see one. They are monogamous birds and mate for life. Typically two eggs will be laid and it is not rare for both chicks to be raised to adulthood, although mortality in the first year is high. Their regal appearance and soft blue hue make them striking subjects for photographers.
Leopards (above) are the most elusive and striking of Africa’s big cats. In most areas, you can consider yourself lucky if you glimpse a flash of spots disappearing into thick bush. At Kwandwe, many years of responsible game drive practices, a limited number of vehicles in the area, and an abundance of protected habitat, have led to a relaxed resident leopards. Kwandwe’s leopard population is estimated at between 10 and 13 individuals but due to their mysterious nature it is difficult to be sure. The guides at Kwandwe refer to the leopards by the names of their territories, for example, the male that spends his time around Kudu Koppie is referred to as the Kudu Koppie Male.
Leopards (above) are predominantly nocturnal creatures so you are most likely to see them active in the early morning or at dusk. They are masters of stealth and camouflage - easy to miss in dense foliage, but with experienced and passionate guides and trackers with an intimate understanding of the land and its creatures, the chance of guests encountering leopards is excellent.
Exploring a reserve like Kwandwe means gaining an insight into the secret world of wild creatures and the tales that rise up around certain 'characters', like the North Pride Male (above), who lost the use of his left eye in a territorial dispute with a rival male. For a photography enthusiast, hearing the stories behind magnificent individuals (like the males below), enriches the experience of observing them immeasurably.
There are a number of techniques in photography which allow you to take creative control of your images to really capture the essence of the scene or subject. The challenge is that these techniques - such as capturing the blur of motion (above) - have a very poor success-to-failure ratio. This is counteracted by having reliable, regular sightings of charismatic animals like lions, allowing you to take the risk trusting that there will be a 'next time’.
Cheetah cubs must be amongst the most photogenic of wild subjects, even when they are doing nothing more than relaxing in the warm morning sun. The cub featured here (above) is one of two males who have both learnt from their mother that vehicles are nothing to be afraid of - providing ample opportunities to capture great images, and that abundance of photographic opportunity is a key attraction to destinations like the Eastern Cape.
It is a wild land where the Big 5 roam and many of Africa’s rarer species occur in higher densities than anywhere else. Practically bursting with photographic opportunities, Kwandwe promises photography enthusiasts that holy grail: the time and chance to capture an iconic African subject in a completely fresh composition.
Read more about an Africa Photographic Safari.