Friday, November 16, 2012

Photo Hides Workshop Report

Words and images by Mike Dexter.

November on Mashatu is traditionally a green time of year. The first rains of the season would have fallen, blanketing the land with short grass and yellow flowers. Images of elephants in a green meadow-like landscape are iconic of this time of year. The scent of rain on dusty roads drifts on the breeze which brings with it the call of a distant Diderick Cuckoo.

November 2012 however, is anything but traditional as the clients on the recent photohides workshop were to find out. The rains are late, the ground is bare, and cracked baked earth lines the thirsty waterholes. Mashatu was revealing the colours of a raw, uncensored and unforgiving Africa. The animals have had a hard year and wait, in parched anticipation, for the clouds to burst and give them some respite.

The first thoughts after crossing the great sandy Limpopo (nothing green or greasy about it) at the Pont Drift border post are of what this harsh environment is going to offer to photograph. The question is slowly answered, piece by piece, as the open landcruiser makes its way along the dirt road to the Mashatu tented camp. At first it’s the contrast of the fresh green leaves on the mopane trees against the dark soil that catches the eye. Then you notice the clouds of dust kicked up by impala herds and the unobstructed views, from hoof to ear, of numerous giraffe as they feed on the Sheppard trees. An eland bull slowly climbs a distant hillside, his dark grey coat evident against the red rock.

On our first afternoon drive we were blessed with the sighting of what must be one of the most obliging leopards I have ever encountered. It was a young male, sleeping blissfully in the fork of an enormous Mashatu tree. We were the only vehicle at the sighting and, as the shadows were growing long, decided we’d stick around. As is so often the case in wildlife photography our patience paid off and he gave us an amazing show of yawning, stretching and a graceful elegant pose in perfect light. After half an hour of constant shutter firing he descended the tree and walked by a mere meter from the vehicle (I’m sure he knew something about minimum focus distance and was out to taunt us). We followed him as he stalked through through the riverine vegetation. The dry conditions working in our favour as the lack of undergrowth meant many opportunities for unobstructed shots. What a welcome!

That night we had an impressive thunderstorm and I couldn’t help thinking, as I lay in bed, about the young male out in the dark and rain and what he was doing now.

Another sighting which stands out amongst the rest was of 2 lionesses and 5 cubs. 2 of the cubs are 2 months old, the other 3 are slightly older. We came across them in what was clearly play time. The cubs were chasing, biting, pouncing and stalking; all skills which will need to be honed for success in later life but at this age they appear as no more than clumsy, hilarious antics. After a while the lionesses decided it was time to head for cover and they moved off down the river bed, the cubs reluctantly followed.

Other memorable encounters are of 6 cheetahs on the move and a special moment at a hyena den where a fearless and curious pup sniffed my hand.

This workshop was more than a photographic safari, it was an exploration of an arid land and the discovery of the inhabitants that call it home and have adapted to survive where many others would perish. It was also a journey and a lesson; that Africa has many faces, some prettier than others, but all of which are rich in drama and beauty and deserve to be photographed.

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