Thursday, 31 January 2013

Just another Kalahari morning

I've been putting this off for too long...so here it is. The story of the hunting lions in the Kalahari. Fasten your seatbelts...

Date: 29 November 2012.
LocationKgalagadi Transfrontier Park

It was a morning much like any other morning in the Kalahari. Yet it would turn out to be a morning so unlike any other morning in the Kalahari. Sure, this happens all the time...but rarely does it happen in a setting like this, in light like this and at close range like this...it all came together.

Let me start at the beginning...because there are a few key elements to the story which highlights why it all came together so nicely. We had stayed in Twee Rivieren (the main rest camp at the entrance to the Park) for the first 2 nights of our week-long stay, and had been blessed with very good sightings of Lion, Caracal and African Wild Cat. We then headed up the Auob river to stay in Mata-Mata for what should have been 4 nights before we had to return to Twee Rivieren for another 2 nights...but after 2 days we decided to swop out our nights there to return to Twee Rivieren earlier. Why? The Auob river was bone dry. Actually, drier than bone dry. There was very little activity up that way, and we felt our chances for good sightings would be better in the south...and boy would we be glad we returned when we did!

We arrived in Twee Rivieren on the afternoon of the 28th of November, and after doing a short afternoon drive up the Nossob river towards the Leeuwdril waterhole we came across a pride of 5 lions resting under a tree...3 females and 2 males. They were being generally lazy and besides moving up to the dune for sunset, didn't do much at all before we had to leave to make the camp gate closing time.


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II




























Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II




















My friend Hendri Venter was also at the sighting, though he was camping at Rooiputs, a camp further up the Nossob from this spot. We actually expressed the hope that they would move south towards the Samevloeiing waterhole and make a kill there during the night. Samevloeiing is a waterhole at the confluence of the dry Auob and Nossob riverbeds, and is about 3km from Twee Rivieren. This spot where we saw the pride that afternoon was about 8km from Twee Rivieren along the Nossob riverbed.

Anyhow - it was evening and it was morning...we got up at the crack of dawn and rushed to get everything ready for our short morning drive. I was on holiday in the Kgalagadi with my wife, our nearly-2-year-old daughter and our 4-month old son...so our drives were never too long - just enough for me to get some photos in that glorious Kalahari light, before we usually returned to camp to swim, rest and play with the kids. Just as we were about to leave, I saw legendary Kalahari pro photographer and coffee-table book producer Hannes Lochner driving past us towards the gate. I jokingly told him that he needs to go round up the animals for us...

We were all packed and shot out of the gate - first of all the residents of Twee Rivieren - no mean feat considering we had to bundle 2 young kids and their packages of toys and blankets into the vehicle...

We drove out towards Samevloeiing...and boy were we in for a treat. I noticed Hannes' Land Rover parked right across the waterhole. As we drove up beside him, he showed me the pride lying on the open plains across from the waterhole...


Nikon D800, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8

...one of the males was also lying down a little further away...with a Black-backed Jackal for company...


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II


At first I thought it was strange that Hannes had parked so far from where the pride was lying...and then I saw this lioness right on my 3 o'clock!


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II


What's more, I saw two measly-looking young Eland antelopes a little further to my right...


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II

At this point I just knew we were in for something special - whether they make the kill or not - just SEEING this unfold in front of us was a bucket-list experience for me...if things go well we could possibly watch lions plan a kill, stalk and execute it and feed all in the space of one morning!

It was slightly overcast on the horizon, so we had nice soft light with a hint of dawn colours - I had to push the ISO on my cameras a bit though! Luckily my Nikon D3s and D800 can handle low light photography very well.

Slowly the antelopes started walking towards the road (where we were parked, obviously), not noticing the stalking lioness. Now they had caught the attention of the other lions...


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II

They moved ever closer to us, and to the waiting lions...by this time I was thinking the hunt would not happen. Surely on an open plain like this, with nothing to hide behind, the Lions would be seen by the Eland and they would run away before the Lions could get close enough?

Ever closer they came...I saw the opportunity for some unique photos and braced myself to get the timing just right. Shallow depth-of-field, check!


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II

As the two antelopes walked STILL closer to the lions without even blinking...I saw a chance for a split-second photo...

I turn my camera to portrait mode to try and capture something of the lovely dawn sky in the background...pre-focusing on the lioness I waited for the exact moment...


CLICK-CLICK-CLICK

I fire three shots off.
I just HAD to look at the viewfinder to see if I nailed it.
I did. Look at this...
I firmly believe a good photo needs no description, no explanation, it will tell the viewer the entire story, and if possible leave the viewer with more questions. This photo does that - and I view it as one of the best I have captured in my brief photographic career. I also included this photo in my "best of 2012" collection posted here on the blog.


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II

But doing a quick review of the image at this moment was a rookie mistake. Yes, I make rookie mistakes frequently, especially when I highly anticipate getting a specific shot. Ouch. At the moment I review my shot - the chase starts!! I quickly turn my camera around to landscape orientation and start tracking the running lioness...the D3s locking focus quickly and capturing a lovely sequence of running images...

My rookie mistake had cost me the "takeoff" or "launch" of the lioness...but there's no use in crying over spilt milk.

There's just something about a lion at full speed. I've captured photos of cheetahs sprinting and running with their lithe bodies, but a lion is different. There's a power and presence here that was missing with my running cheetah photos.


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II

The moment they were past us, I saw them jump on the unfortunate Eland behind our position...and then the white dust enveloped them in an impenetrable cloud...

I quickly swung the vehicle around and pulled into a position that would give me a head-on vantage point with a relatively low angle for the ensuing struggle. My eyes could see there was something in the white dust-cloud but I couldn't make it out, much less take a photo. Then the dust started clearing quickly. I eventually discerned something through the viewfinder and locked focus...

This is the scene that emerged...

Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II


As usual the lionesses did all the work...but as soon as the buck was down, the males moved in (one of them was sleeping way at the back up to this point)...


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
Lion dynamics seem so unfair...but it's been this way for a looooong time. The Eland was still alive and kicking at this point, the male moved in before the female had strangled it properly...but then he also didn't finish the job. Instead he proceeded to play with it like a housecat would with a mouse it had caught...it was fascinating to watch...

On a processing note: I found these dust-filled images tough to process so that it shows the correct colour and mood as I remember it. The natural contrast picked up by the camera was quite low so I tried not to boost it too much.


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II


One of the females decided to try her luck and came to "ask permission" to join the game...


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
The answer was "NO"...


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II

The other male (the sleepy one) had strolled up by now and the two of them started finishing off the Eland. I know these images are upsetting to some, but I do like the fact that there's no real gore and guts involved here yet - just the playing out of one of Africa's oldest dramas.


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
The morning sun started to break through the clouds now, providing some welcome light that added a different mood to the scene.


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II

I won't blabber much more. Most of these photos needed no explanation to begin with - but I do love telling the stories of these encounters almost as much as photographing them, so excuse my indulgence. I'll post some more photos and let them speak for themselves. Suffice it to say that the 2 males left very little for the females to eat, and thereafter the jackals took over. This pride made 2 more kills during the next 2 days but none of them were close to the roads and none of them provided such a sighting for those who were lucky to be there.


Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II




Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II

There you have it! I hope you enjoyed reliving this sighting with me. I'm pretty sure I won't see something as great as this as thorough (start-to-finish) as this for a long time.

Morkel Erasmus

55 comments:

  1. Totally impressive, like on docu on TV. But through photos even more realistic. Awesome.

    Found on Google+

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  2. Impressive, pictures as well as the narration! Thank you for sharing!

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  3. Beautiful photography! Great captures:) Wish I was there!

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    1. I appreciate your kind words, Judy! It was something to behold!

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  4. Stunning! Thanks so much for sharing these.

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  5. Great to see your entire series of shots. Your lioness through the elands legs is still the best. Does not need any words to describe what is happening.

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  6. Great story, well told - in words and photographs. Too bad the kids weren't old enough to be able to remember it, but they'll have Dad's photos and his memories.

    Taking the kids on a such a trip sounds like a handful, but very worthwhile.

    Thanks for blogging this.

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, Jim. We love taking the kids - hard work but worth it!

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  7. Awesome blog post Morkel! Been drawn right into the action!

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    1. Well done Morkel, excellent images and story, thanks for sharing

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  8. Cool series of this hunt and kill. Awesome to experience.

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  9. Excellent reading and photography mate.

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  10. Fantastic shots. I can imagine the Eland discussion leading up to this....."Lion" "no, Bush" "Lion" "No, Bush" and the post comment "Yup, lion"

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    1. Thanks Simon. Yes almost like that animated clip of the wildebeest LOL...

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  11. Incredible shots man and the blog is brilliant..........well done!

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  12. all images are stunning and ultimate....awesome...........amazing.............and unbelievable.........Thank you for sharing my dear friend.........

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    1. Thank you so much for stopping by and the generous comment.

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  13. Thanks again for sharing. I read this time all of your story.

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    1. Thanks for your time and comment, Charles...

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  14. Fascinating to watch and well narrated! What a sighting Morkel, surely a once in a life time scene. Thank you for sharing
    Jan van Biljon

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  15. Amazing Morkel - AMAZING. Well done, excellent shooting and writing.

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  16. Brilliant Briliant!!! the story the images all come together in this post. Some amazing images Morkel, for me the focused lioness between the legs.

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  17. Brilliant Brilliant!! the story, the images truly fantastic thanks for sharing Morkel. The focused lioness between the legs for me!

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    1. Hello Derek. Thanks for your kind comment. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  18. Incredible - found myself holding my breath

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    1. You are too kind, thanks for stopping by.

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  19. A great story and thank you for sharing it all!

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    1. Thanks a lot Micha, good to see you over here!

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  20. Dear Morkel!

    We followed your lion story with endless delight and amazement-at times I read the text so fast (faster than Andre, who absorbed every word) because I was dying to get to the images! Indeed, the Kalahari had so much to offer during the last few months of 2012-with the arrival of many herds of eland who left the dunes for greener pastures (this happens from time to time) the lions had a feast! Your photographs capture beautifully the essence of the kill, the lions' majestic prowess, their behaviour. With much thoughtfulness you have made the right decisions regarding your camera settings-to some it may seem like an easy thing to do, but it all comes down to experience and years of practice. That, and your strong desire to capture wildlife at its best. Congratulations, Morkel!!! Awesome sightings and images!!! We hope to see you there again!

    Warmest regards

    Gabriela and Andre
    www.gappimages.com

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  21. WoW!! Great job, you are natgeo photographer?? haha

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    1. LOL, nope Alex, but I'll take it as a compliment. :)

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  22. WOW! Cool! Gr8 KTP sighting. Thank you for sharing. Perhaps we see each other one day in KTP . . . . :)

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  23. Great story and photos. Not very often does one get to "participate" like that.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Jim...it's indeed rare to see!

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  24. Love the tag-team of males over the eland! Great blog and wonderful series of shots!

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  25. Beautiful photos, and beautifully told, so realistic, I felt your excitement with every shot, and it was almost as if I were seeing the scene first hand.

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