Photo Safari Report: Vermeesch & Dousi | Flatdogs Camp & Zikomo Safari | 5 - 17 August 2016

19th August 2016

I had been looking forward to this safari from the moment I took the booking last year: 12 nights in two different camps at a great time of the year in Luangwa. I could already feel the excitement that I knew would grow every time we set out from camp on safari.

We chose to use Flatdogs Camp, a very comfortable lodge on the Luangwa river, just 2 minutes from the main entrance to the National Park, and Zikomo Safaris, a rustic and simple bush camp on the edge of the Nsefu Sector of South Luangwa, with its own private crossing to the park. Both camps serve our needs brilliantly, giving us great food, comfortable beds and - most importantly - quick and easy access to the National Park!

Instead of giving a chronological account of this safari, I thought I would adjust the style a little and talk about it by topic; for example, we spent a lot of time looking for interesting lighting, so I'll include a section on back-lighting. Elephants were a major feature of this safari, so they will get their own section too.

BACKLIGHTING - With the onset of the dry season, the air begins to fill with dust. In fact, it's the dust which gives the light its characteristic golden nature that photographers love. When the sun is low in the sky we spent time making best use of this opportunity. The more time I spend in the bush, the more I seek new ways of using the light to give interesting effects - it's great fun to share this with my guests, even when sometimes we have to give up and admit, "that idea really didn't work"!

We were able to get this great low-angle view by stopping the vehicle in a natural drainage gully. Several of my guests were skeptical about photographing into direct light, but after some discussions about how to ensure correct focus, they were pleasantly surprised with the results!

These buffalo were approaching a waterhole at sunrise so we waited for them to approach. Their shuffling feet kicked up lots of dust which helped our cause! Whereas it was important to keep the details of the pukus in the image above, here we needed only the characteristic shape of the massive buffaloes, so I suggested under-exposing to accentuate the dust and rich colours.

In this instance, we wanted to maintain the separation of the antelope from the tree trunks behind, so I didn't seek a very low angle. A male puku's territorial call from nearby just caused them to raise their heads for a moment.

Sometimes it's interesting to show a lot more of the environment too - here the antelope are not the subjects, but more an additional feature of the scene. Telephoto lenses make it easy to take 'portraits' but drawing back and showing the whole picture is often rewarding too. In this scene, the very bright sky is dominant and would have reduced the brightness of the whole image so I suggested that an over-exposure of +2/3 would help.

ELEPHANTS - the elephants of Nsefu are extraordinary. There is something magic about seeing large numbers of any creature, but when they are also the largest creature on earth, this adds an extra element of wonder to the scene. We were fortunate to have several encounters with large groups of these massive beings, two at lagoons and one at the main river.

One afternoon, I decided to sit by the water's edge and wait to see what came. There were elephants on the other side and I knew they would cross at some stage. We had also driven a lot in the morning, exploring the areas further north so it was nice just to sit and relax, watching the birds along the water's edge and listening to the hippos honking nearby.

Eventually the herd began to cross, steadily at first and then splashing through with a rushing urgency, before the lead cow came to an abrupt halt. She had spotted something in the water in front - perhaps a crocodile - and wanted to navigate around it. This decision turned the herd towards us with the soft light hitting the sides of their heads. It seems the longer we are prepared to wait in the bush, the luckier we get.

On this occasion, we were taking a break for morning coffee when I saw a couple of elephants appearing at the edge of the lagoon. I pointed them out but we continued with coffee. When I looked back, another 15 had joined them, so we packed up quickly and headed over. Eventually, there were nearly 30! We talked through how to make a panorama, locking the focus and the exposure simultaneously to get images that can be stitched together later. This is a pano stitch of 11 images.

The elephant herds often cross out of the park in the night to feed, under the cover of darkness, in areas where they don't feel so safe. On this occasion, we caught nearly 100 of them returning to the park, quenching their thirsts at Sebastian lagoon. This is also a panorama stitch of 5 images.

One afternoon we spent a couple of hours with a group of bull elephants. They are always a joy to watch since they don't have many fears and tend to ignore inconsequential beings such as us. One of the bulls was much larger than the rest, and was the one who would shake the trees to cause tasty pods to drop. We had parked way back under a Winterthorn tree, but over the hour the whole group approached us. Finally the large bull shook the tree not more than 3m from us, causing pods to rain down all around us! This image shows him and his side-kicks approaching the tree where we had stopped.

Our final encounter with elephants was the most memorable of all. We spotted a huge number of them massing along the river bank so we drove around to have a look. As we arrived, they all started to turn back - the light was quite poor so I decided to video instead and I'm glad I did as it was quite a show!

THE GIRAFFE CARCASS - there had been a giraffe with a broken leg living in the central game viewing area for some weeks. It finally succumbed to its injuries and a feeding frenzy occurred for several days. We arrived back in the central area on the 2nd day of the process and headed there early to see what was happening.

As we approached, I saw a lot of unemployed hyaenas hanging around on the river bank. I knew that the carcass could not be finished, so I guessed that a large carnivore was blocking the feast. This turned out to be true as we quickly found a young male lion feeding by himself. His brother was nearby but moved off when we approached.

After the lion moved off, the hyaenas and vultures rushed in to claim their shares! Occasionally one of the lions, and later another clan of hyaenas, would rush in and try to reclaim the prize. This always sparked a panic among the scavengers who would scatter before reclaiming the carcass once more.

But no image can capture the noise and dust adequately, so I put together this short clip which better highlights the action!

GREAT SIGHTINGS - amongst all the drama of rushing elephants and scavenging hyaenas, we enjoyed buckets of other wonderful sightings. There was the time a lionness appeared near a waterhole where we were watching a leopard drinking, and the smaller cat bolted, scattering guinea-fowl everywhere....

The first I knew of the lion's presence was a puku whistling far in the distance. I lifted my binoculars and quickly found the large female moving along the base of the steep bank. As she approached the guinea-fowl began to panic, giving out their rattling-churring call.

The leopard cut short her drink and bolted up the steep bank and disappeared into the bushes. While no match in size and strength for a lionness, a leopard needs only a 2m headstart to escape the larger cat.

After scouting the area, calling repeatedly, the lioness settled down on the grassy bank. The shady light was poor, so we talked about taking shots that would later become monochromes.

We also tracked down a leopard one afternoon who was resting - hidden by her immaculate camouflage - on the side of a lagoon. As we approached, she moved off, but only to a nearby tree. Try as we might, we couldn't get a clear view of her - which was frustrating to begin with - but the branches across her actually didn't detract from the image. We enjoyed her yawns as she woke up ready for the evening's activities.

Backlit and with poor light. This is a classic chance for a black & white photo (although the colour image is also surprisingly alright!). But take care with focusing as the camera's focusing system has little work with. Placing the focus point over the cat's mouth - where there is contrast with the lips and teeth - is probably the best option.

My safaris are, of course, a learning experience too so we often spend a long time on a sighting, practising different skills. In this case, the warthog was repeatedly digging up roots, so we took some time to work on choosing the correct focus point, setting the drive speed to continuous to make sure we got a burst of shots, allocating the correct aperture and then adjusting ISO to ensure that the shutter speed was fast/slow enough to give a sharp/motion blur shot.

This vulture interaction was another good learning opportunity; it's necessary to keep the vultures as the focus of the image, but leave enough room around them so that their wings do not get cropped when they squabble! Again, focus point selection and correct aperture assessment are important.

We also spent considerable time with these two beautiful girls early one morning. We discussed compositional techniques (coming up in a blog-post soon!) and why it would be very difficult to get both of them in sharp focus with telephoto lenses.

One of the benefits of visiting an area like Nsefu is that the game is just a little more wild. When you draw up to a group of puku, they will raise their heads temporarily to check out the disturbance. This gives a chance at images where the subject is a little more engaged with the viewer than in areas where the plains game simply continue feeding!

This beautiful group of puku gave us all their eyes and ears only for a second, but it was long enough to make a very engaging image.

NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY - not many National Parks allow night time safaris, and it's not always an easy subject for photography, but with some practice, all my guests got some wonderful shots at night. We enjoyed lions, leopard, a pair of porcupines (which had been especially requested by one of my guests!) and a Pel's Fishing Owl, one of the most highly sought-after birds in Africa. Night time photography is always a bit hit-and-miss, with serious challenges posed for the camera's AF, metering and high-ISO capabilities. Inevitably, a number of images end up in the bin, but here are a selection of the best:

Using the cross-lights of two other vehicles nearby, we were able to get this very unusual shot of Garlic, a large male lion who dominates the main game viewing area along with his brother Ginger.

Ginger was mating nearby, and with a fortunately-placed spotlight, we were able to capture images of him mating, but in an unusual and interesting way. The light catching the teeth of the two cats makes this image for me.

Despite going on safari every year for 14 years, Wil & Marlies had not yet seen porcupines. I took a drive through a popular porcupine area, and quickly turned up these two. Unusually, they stood frozen in the light and allowed us a chance to take lots of photos of them in different locations.

On our second-to-last evening, when I'd almost given up hope of seeing one, we came upon this Pel's owl fishing from a spot on the bank near to Zikomo camp. He allowed us to approach quite close before lifting off on silent wings to find a quieter hunting spot elsewhere!

HYAENAS CATCH A PUKU - every safari has a defining moment, a sighting that will always come to mind first when I think back to that trip. This trip's defining moment was certainly the morning when we found hyaenas who has just caught a young puku and were beginning to feed.

We were watching a large female hyaena who was chewing on an old giraffe skull when I heard the unmistakable sound of an antelope in distress. The hyeana heard it too and rushed towards the sound. We had to drive around a tree-line and into the next floodplain, but we were on the scene within a minute.

We were greeted with the sight of a large hyaena (the one we had seen previously) and a youngster starting to open up the carcass of a young puku. Immediately, I checked around to see if a leopard had made the kill (and then lost it to the scavengers) but there was no sign. There was, however, another hyaena nearby and I think he must have killed it, but then lost out to the large female who is more senior and dominant in their clan. What followed was fascinating but gruesome.

As we arrived, the hyaenas started to open the body cavity, the larger one removing the liver.....

Throughout, they were pestered by the 3rd hyaena (who had probably made the kill) so they kept picking up the carcass and carrying it off.

It must be frustrating for the adult who made the kill to watch a youngster feeding on his prize, but as the offspring of the dominant female, the cub gets access to the carcass too.

Only 25 minutes after the first sound of the antelope's distress, everything was gone. The hyaenas finally came up for air and showed us their bloody faces.

BEAUTIFUL LIGHT - of course, on safari we seek to take photos in wonderful light. In fact, I would rather sit and photograph tiny Jameson's Firefinches in lovely light, than pursue a leopard for a chance of a sub-optimal photograph. Here are a few photos where, for me, the lighting and colours make the image.

OUR FINAL MORNING - having seen so much, I wondered what the final morning would bring, and Luangwa had one last treat. We headed to the site of a dead elephant, hoping that there might be some predator activity. Indeed, the lions were there feeding on the carcass, and there were hyaenas nearby, but it was the sight of two leopards in a tree right above the carcass that kept our attention! Not only was it a leopard and her cub, but the light on them was far better than on the lions or the hyaenas.

We positioned carefully and waited for a few minutes for the sun to come up above the treeline behind us. As the soft, pink light hit the female leopard resting in the tree, I knew we had made the right decision to ignore the lions at that stage!

It was a strange sight because the relaxed mood of the leopard was in stark contrast to the sound of lions crunching through elephant skin and bone behind us...with the accompanying smell of rotting flesh!

Very soon the cub joined her mother and they played briefly in the tree (behind a branch from where I was sitting!) but I managed one nice shot of them together. More importantly, my guests in the back had a better view!

Briefly, the cub left her mother's side and went to watch the lions eating the elephant!

As the leopards prepared to come down from the tree, the mother had a long look around to check that the lions were busy with the carcass so that she and her cub would have a safe escape! This image required -1 stop of underexposure - more on that in a separate blog, coming soon.

THE GROUP - I had guided Wil & Marlies in 2014, but Henk & Kitty had not visited Luangwa before. They were great fun to guide and it's testament to their easy-going natures that they were all still in great spirits at the end of the trip, after 13 long days of dust and bumps........but also incredible sightings! Here are a few 'behind the scenes' photos from the last 2 weeks!

Looking back at this safari, we had some outstanding sightings, and of unusual events too; porcupines, hyaenas feeding, lion feeding on a giraffe with hyaenas waiting in the wings, a leopard and her cub, elephants in extraordinary numbers.... But there are also so many other sightings that haven't made it into this trip report: giraffes on a daily basis, raptors of all sizes, vast buffalo herds and majestic kudu. Luangwa has so much to offer, but it really has to be experienced to be believed.


Photo comment By Peter Basten: Great article with even greater pictures! Love it!!!
Photo comment By Edward Selfe: Hi Peter - thanks so much for your kind comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the write up. Ed
Photo comment By Marlies: This blog gives a real good impression from our photo safari. Ed, you learned us more again (depending from wildlife, environment and light) to use new camera settings. Thank you for making this trip unforgettable for us!!!
Photo comment By Edward Selfe: Marlies - thanks for taking the time to read through this! I'm glad it seems accurate to you - looking at all the photos, I could hardly believe all the sightings we enjoyed. It was a pleasure to take you all on safari, and I hope perhaps we will cross paths on safari again. Ed
Photo comment By Andrew Muswala: I enjoyed reading your postings of the 13 days safari you just undertook. It is so educative.
Photo comment By Edward Selfe: Thanks Andrew - I look forward to taking you on safari early next month! Ed
Photo comment By Phillip Allaway: You had some great sightings there Edward and some amazing shots taken. Thanks for taking time to post the article. My wife and i have been to south Luangwa twice and are planning another trip there in October/Nov 2017, if things go well. We stay with our friends at Puku Ridge and Chichele but wouldn't mind catching up if you are planning to be there around then.
Photo comment By Christopher Nyirenda: Great article and thanks for sharing your experience because every moment there is a complete different experience
Photo comment By Edward Selfe: Hi Phillip - Great to hear you are planning another trip next year. Please get in touch closer the time and I'll make a plan to come and meet you at Puku or Chichele. Ed
Photo comment By Edward Selfe: Hi Christopher - thank you for your comments; I am glad you enjoyed the article. Ed

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