Thursday 31 January 2013

Just another Kalahari morning

I've been putting this off for too 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 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 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 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 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...


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 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

Friday 4 January 2013

My 2012 in Review

Can you believe we are sitting in the year 2013 already? Every year feels like it's a flyer, but to me personally, 2012 felt like it went by quicker than any previous year. It's obviously a factor of how busy you are and how much you enjoy every day of your life - if you are discontent in everything you do I am sure the days will seem like they never end.

I've not been an avid photographer for very long, but for the past 2 years I compiled a best of post at the end of the year. For some it's a pretty cliche thing to do, but I don't really care, as for me it helps me look back over my photography of the past year, and recall some of the amazing memories that went along with tripping the shutter at specific times and in specific places. Often these memories link me to the adventure that was had, the people I shared it with and the total awesomeness of God's creation that I have the privilege of seeing and photographing.

So, as you can guess from the title, this year I am at it again. I quite like how I did it LAST YEAR, so I will try and follow a similar format,  showing my Top 5 landscape photos, my Top 5 avian (bird) photos and my Top 10 wildlife photos (since wildlife make up the majority of my photographic focus). Also take note that these are not necessarily the best photos I took this year (who can determine that anyway??), they are not even necessarily my favourites (I have not even had time to work through all the photos I took this year properly), but they do epitomize the experiences behind them for me, and that's what I want to showcase. I am grateful to have shared some of these moments with great friends and fellow-photographers like +Felix Reinders+Marlon du Toit+Andrew Aveley and +Gerry Van der Walt.

Shall we begin??

PS: click on the photos to display at best sharpness/resolution...


1. Ruined Sunset (February)
Mpumalanga Highveld, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8   |   f11   |   ISO-200   |   Blend of 3 exposures for dynamic range
I would be a bad photographer in my own book if I didn't include an image in this piece that was taken close to home. Most of us just cannot be out in the field all the time (present company included), and it's important to find some local spots to explore and practice your art and fieldcraft on...whether this be a local birding hotspot or a spot with nice views for landscape photography. This old farmyard ruin is located on the farm of a family friend, about 20km from my house. I try to get out there whenever I see a great sunset see I live in a place that is quite flat and featureless, but has awesome skies and summer stormy skies. I would be the first to admit that I don't utilise this aspect to its full potential. Perhaps a good resolution for 2013...

2. Kalahari Rainscape (March)
Kalahari desert, South Africa

Nikon D7000  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II  |  f8  |  1/1000 SS  |  ISO-200
You should know by now that I am really passionate about the Kalahari desert, specifically the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This year we made our first visit in the midst of the rainy season, and found the semi-desert surprisingly green. Thundershowers were a daily occurrence, and this one was photographed in a very isolated part of the park as we sat waiting for some wildlife at a waterhole.

3. Zambezi Nights (June)
Mana Pools, Zimbabwe

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8  |  f2.8  |  30sec SS  |  ISO-3200
Camping in Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the mighty Zambezi river in Zimbabwe was one of the highlights of my year. I've never been to a more pristine and more remote place, a last vestige of truly wild Africa. This photo was captured viewing the course of the Zambezi to the west, towards the very far-off Indian Ocean. To join me in Mana Pools on a safari next year, click HERE.

4. Dawn in the Wilderness (June)
Zambezi river, Zimbabwe

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8  |  f11  |  ISO-200  |  Blend of 3 exposures for dynamic range
Staying in Mana Pools, here is the sunrise over a slinking stream in the riverbed of the Zambezi. This was in the middle of the dry season - in the summer you would not see open land in this broad riverbed. Standing here and witnessing this was like watching the sun rise over Africa for the first time, and for a moment I imagined that I was Livingstone...

5. Castle Rock Ablaze (December)
Brenton-on-Sea (Knysna), South Africa

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8  |  f16  |  8sec SS  |  ISO-200
My last selection for the landscape portion of this overview was taken right before Christmas on the beach of Brenton-on-Sea in the midst of torrential rain and lightning overhead (wouldn't you risk it a bit for this kind of light?). Andrew Aveley, a fellow Wild Eye ambassador, shared this glorious sunset with me. I rue the fact that I didn't explore more compositions, but truth be told I was struggling more to keep my camera and lens dry than I was focusing on changing the composition here.

I did not do enough proper landscape photography in 2012, and that's something I hope to remedy in the coming year, as it's something I really enjoy doing. Let's move on to the feathered friends.


1. Bob the Builder (January)
Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  1.4x teleconverter  |  f8.0  |  1/2500 SS  |  ISO-1800
This is a photo I had been wanting for a long time: a Southern Masked Weaver returning to his nest-under-construction with new building material. I captured this photo in the Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa. I had to pre-focus on the nest, dial in enough depth-of-field and keep my non-camera-bound eye open to anticipate his return.

2. Rocket Landing (February)
Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f8.0  |  1/8000 SS  |  ISO-4000
Few South African bird species present as much of a photographic challenge as the lightning fast little Malachite Kingfisher. I was fortunate to capture this frame one morning at the Marievale Bird Sanctuary in South Africa.

3. The Secretary
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  1.4x teleconverter  |  f5.6  |  1/1600 SS  |  ISO-640
I posted a Secretary Bird taking off in my selection last year too. This one was taken in the last light of day in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The bird was flying right above the South African border with Botswana, coincidentally, at this point.

4. Incoming Kite
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f5.6  |  1/2500 SS  |  ISO-800
We witnessed a strange phenomenon during our February/March visit to the Kalahari. Hundreds of Yellow-billed and Black Kites had congregated in the Nossob riverbed to feed on some sort of termite or insect spawn brought on by the summer rains. It was a joy to watch and photograph them from the Nossob rest camp hide. This is a Black Kite coming in for a landing.

5. Wet Look (April)
Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f4.0  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-2500  |  EV +3
The Burchell's Coucal is normally a secretive bird, preferring thickets and dense foliage - very often heard and not seen. On a rainy day in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve I found this one looking wet and miserable out in the open. I made sure to overexpose for the bright sky behind the bird, and came away with some interesting high-key photos.


It was REALLY hard to pick only 10 out of this year's crop of wildlife images. It's been a great year for me in terms of building my portfolio and getting some very interesting images (at least in my own mind - though I hope you'd agree after this post). Again, I am arranging them chronologically as the year progressed, and not in order of personal preference.

1. Speedy Siblings (March)
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  1.4x teleconverter  |  f5.6  |  1/800 SS  |  ISO-1400
I've been treated royally by the Kalahari cheetahs on my recent trips to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. On this particular occasion, Felix Reinders and I followed a cheetah mother and her 3 adolescent cubs as they walked up the Auob riverbed. Suddenly the youngsters got a surge of energy and started frantically chasing each other. I ended up with "too much lens" as they hurtled closer at full speed but came away with some keepers. Those who prefer bird photography to mammal photography often bemoan the static nature of much of the mammal species for much of the day. I must agree that one has to be even more patient and have some luck on your side to get good action photos of mammals.

2. Who's the king now? (March)
Undisclosed Location

Nikon D7000  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II  |  f8.0  |  1/320 SS  |  ISO-450
The light may not have been the best, but as a sighting this just rocked. Imagine a coalition of 4 male lions in their prime, kings of their domain, lounging around and surveying their territory. Enter a crash of white rhinos...who smell the lions and come closer for investigation...causing the lions to get up quickly and saunter away disgruntled at having to give up their comfortable resting spot. Moments later the agitated rhino bull chased one of its kids and one of the lions right past us (missing us by meters). Seeing the interaction between these 2 members of the Big 5 was special.

3. A stroll in the forest (June)
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f5.6  |  1/640 SS  |  ISO-2000
You'll inevitably see a few images from this trip in this selection. It was a defining part in my photographic year and one that moved the iconic location of Mana Pools to the top of my list of favourite safari destinations in Africa. Marlon du Toit and I spent an entire day following these elephant bulls on foot as they went about their business. The light and forest setting makes this magical and has etched this moment in my mind for a long time to come.

4.  A Fine Balance (June)
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f5.6  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-1250
There's a good chance you've seen this one shared on social media this year. It also got some nice publicity through news syndication as a news story. I captured this on the same morning as the previous photo. Some elephant bulls in the Lower Zambezi valley have learned how to reach the juiciest, most succulent leaves in the massive trees. Remember that you can join us on safari in Mana Pools in July 2013. You can find more details HERE.

5. Lazy Dog (June)
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  1.4x teleconverter  |  f5.6  |  1/400 SS  |  ISO-1800
We also spent 2 afternoons in Mana Pools flat on our bellies in a sandy riverbed with a pack of highly endangered African Wild Dogs. Prior to this year I had just about zero usable photos of this species in my portfolio. With fewer than 5,000 individuals estimated to survive in the wild, this species is on the brink of a disaster...and it's a shame as they are fascinating mammals. You can find out more about this species and the conservation efforts in Zimbabwe at

6. The Approach (June)
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  1.4x teleconverter  |  f6.3  |  1/320 SS  |  ISO-5600
Not only did we spend some time observing this pack of canines from a safe distance, taking some nice photos...the Alpha Male decided to take a closer look at us on the 2nd afternoon...and came to within 10 meters from us, before plopping down and lying next to us for a few minutes. A totally exhilarating experience that I shall not soon forget! This image is not cropped - it's shot full frame in portrait mode! You can read more about this experience HERE.

7. King of the Kalahari (November)
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f8.0  |  1/1250 SS  |  ISO-450
The next few posts are all about the lions. Though the Kalahari is traditionally a great place for viewing lions, I've mostly had average photographic opportunities of them during previous trips. Not during our November trip (which was an unplanned one), which was lion-infested! This is the most regal, majestic and beautiful male lion I have ever seen in the wild. We found him on 3 occasions, and on this morning he was patrolling his territory with a confident stride, roaring loudly with a blood-covered face from the previous night's feed. Look at that specimen! I have seen many many lions in my lifetime...and none of them come close to this guy.

8. Eyes on the Prize (November)
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f5.6  |  1/800 SS  |  ISO-3200
During our recent Kalahari safari I was privy to witnessing (and photographing) an entire lion kill from planning to mealtime. I will do a proper blog post about this sighting soon! This frame was pre-visualised and executed at the only moment that it could be achieved. It's not often that I am able to really capture a whole story and so much context into one shot. The tensely poised huntress, the dawn breaking in the background, the open setting, the seemingly blind eland antelope, the anticipation of what's to come. 

 If I had to choose an absolute favourite for the year, I think this photo would be it...

9. Lion in Flight (November)
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f5.6  |  1/800 SS  |  ISO-2500
This frame was taken shortly after the previous one. The chase started in a frenzy and I was able to track the leading lioness for quite a few seconds, getting a number of sharp shots. This was my favourite pose, with her running through the dust kicked up by her prey. It's sad to think that these magnificent and iconic cats face a dire future, with their numbers plummeting to a mere 30,000 odd left in the wild. Please check out and for more info on the lion epidemic and how to get involved.

10. Crashing
Undisclosed location

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f8.0  |  1/640 SS  |  ISO-1800

In the light of the recent Rhino Poaching crisis (well, it's not that recent anymore, is it?) I felt compelled to include an image showing these docile giants. A staggering 633 rhinos were illegally poached in 2012 (as at 19 December - stats HERE), almost 200 rhinos more than 2011 and 300 more than in 2010, bringing the total poaching figure since the end of 2009 to a mind-boggling 1414. At the moment it doesn't seem like there is much that can be done to curb this alarming trend, fueled by a newly wealthy Asian market that falsely believes that the horn has medicinal properties. For more info, check out the SAVE THE RHINO and STOP RHINO POACHING campaigns.

11. Kiss me Please (bonus image)
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f8.0  |  1/1000 SS  |  ISO-360

I'm including this one as a bonus because it's a fun moment and to show you that I don't just focus on the large and iconic African species. If you look at last year's post you'll see bigger specie-variety, this year just panned out to be a great year for me in terms of the larger and more "typically African" mammals.


 There you have it, friends. I would love for you to tell me which was your favourite of this selection - and why! Drop me a comment on this post and let me know. I hope 2013 holds great light and great sightings for you all.

One more thing - this year saw another increase in our household! Since I posted a photo of our daughter last year, I better post a photo of our son this year lest they compare these posts years later. This is little Daniƫl!

Keep well, and keep shooting!

Morkel Erasmus