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A pretty wild idea suddenly came up somewhere in July. I usually try and  go away with my brother one weekend a year, just to have some fun, catch up on each other’s lives and so on. Always good and precious days. This time, however my wife suggested to do something completely different. Why don’t you take a whole week, fly to Johannesburg and drive to the Kruger Park? Although the idea seemed a little far-fetched for just a week, we began to warm to the idea more and more. Why not? Okay, a long flight, but no time difference, so no jet lag. We booked ourselves a flight from Amsterdam and decided to go for it. Now, looking back I can safely say that it was the best idea ever.

My brother is not a birder, like I am trying to be, but its definitely interested in both the wildlife and birdlife of Africa. He brought his wife’s Sony A77 for which he had bought a second-hand 120-400mm telelens. I came armed with the Canon 7DII and the 100-400II, a fabulous combination. I started my digital bird photography ‘career’ with a Sony, too, but since left that brand in favour of Canon. I still feel that was a very good choice and I’ll explain later on why.

We arrived in Johannesburg late in the evening. Somehow it is not a place where I feel at ease at that time of the day (probably due to warnings we had in the previous years), but we got to the Garden Court Hotel without any problems. Thank you @Peter Connan for your tip about this place. Sorry to have missed you at the airport, though. Next time?

 

The next day we started on our drive to the Kruger NP. We had booked accommodation at two rest camps for the week, both for three nights. The first was Crocodile Bridge Restcamp, right on the southern border of the park. After doing some shopping in Nelspruit and having lunch at Millys on the N4, we decided to enter the park at Malelane Gate and take a leisurely game drive along the S25, following the course of the Crocodile River. Aptly named as we saw when we crossed the river on our way to the gate.

 

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The southern parts of the Kruger are undoubtedly busier than the far north, but we didn’t see many other cars at all on this drive and, in fact, this was never an issue for the whole duration of our stay. Of course there were always a number of cars at special sightings, but nothing extreme and when stopping for birds we were on our own most of the times. We did start to see animals right from the gate, like Giraffe, Kudu, Zebra and even a White Rhino. Unfortunately it disappeared so quickly into the dense bushes that we only managed a shot through the windscreen. Still, a rhino only an hour after entering the park, we felt lucky

 

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Well, this was when we had managed to grab our lenses and put the car in position......

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How wonderful it was to reconnect with beauties like the Lilac-breasted Roller and the Southern Wite-crowned Shrike 

 

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And of course the Red-billed Hornbill and the White-fronted Bee-eater

 

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and there was a lot more to come.....

Edited by PeterHG
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That's what I call brotherly bonding time in style! Looking forward to your report, Peter.

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Our DW usually have best ideas ... problem with us is we do not listen to them carefully enough :D.

 

BTW, as it is a self-drive forum, what kind of car did you rent, and from whom?

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7 minutes ago, xelas said:

Our DW usually have best ideas ... problem with us is we do not listen to them carefully enough :D.

 

BTW, as it is a self-drive forum, what kind of car did you rent, and from whom?

 You're absolutely right, both about the DW and the car ;). We rented a Toyota Rav from Hertz at Johannesburg Airport. With complete coverage this amounted to EUR 273 for the week. It did a perfect job.

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2.

Later that first afternoon, still on the S25, a car had stopped at the side of the road and the passengers were pointing their lenses upward in the direction of a large tree. A magnificent Verreaux’s Eagle Owl was perched there staring at us through its peculiar pink eyelids.

 

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A baby Elephant was the first of many elephants we saw in the course of the week. I don’t think I ever saw so many on previous trips.

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Kudu with company. Not as mutually beneficial as was previously thought, I read somewhere. The oxpeckers tend to keep open the wounds and the parasites they do remove from the host have already gorged themselves with blood before, 

 

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A little further down the road we spotted yet another owl, albeit much smaller: a Pearl-spotted Owlet, which was a lifer for me.

 

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Other birds on the drive included Crested Francolin and Crowned Lapwing

 

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Late afternoon we arrived at Crocodile Bridge Restcamp. Very close to the gate, which involved quite a few cars leaving before closing time, but the camp it self is small, quiet and pleasant. No restaurant, but we were self-catering anyway. There is a little shop, though for snacks, bread etc. They might even sell some meat for the braai, but we didn't ask  The bungalows are basic, but they do have AC, and the beds were not bad at all. They do not have mosquito nets and the high ceiling of the rondavel-shaped bungalow makes it hard to use your own. I do wonder why they do not have nets (Satara does not have them either), but perhaps they would need to be replaced too often. It would definitely be useful though. In Satara we did not see (or hear ;)) any mosquitoes at all, but in Crocodile Bridge we had to use insect repellent to be able to sleep undisturbed. Even so, a very nice camp!

 

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Edited by PeterHG
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Towlersonsafari

Hurrah! looking forward to your impromptu - trip report @PeterHG

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What an excellent idea (or excuse? ;) ) to go with your brother to Kruger. Two years ago I entered the park at the same gate. Also saw a lot of wildlife immediately after entering, with elephants at the bridge. Looking forward to rest of your TR and if you visited other camps as well.

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3. 

The next morning we decided to follow the S28 dirt road. To get there you first take the H4-2 for a few kilometres, passing the Gesanftombi Dam and then turning right onto the S28. The Dam offered little of interest, with the exception of two Fish eagles in the distance , a lone Bushbuck and a singing African Pied Wagtail on the bridge. 

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The open terrain of the dirt road held quite a few birds. A beautiful White-fronted Bee-eater was close enough for a shot. The ruffled feathers show it was quite windy that morning.

 

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It was definitely raptor country. The most common one was the Black-winged Kite. Again and again we saw them either sitting in the top of a tree  or hovering and diving to catch something on the ground. They don’t look much like the other Kites, but they’re quite striking with their light grey feathers and deep red eyes.

 

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Suddenly we spotted a juvenile Bateleur on the sand infant of us, which was joined by a Tawny Eagle seconds later. The Bateleur look intimidated by the Tawny, abandoning its prey, nothing more than a snack anyway.

 

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The both took off, allowing some nice flight shots.

 

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The Tawny Eagle landed in a tree and, moments later was joined by a second one. How exciting is is to see interaction between those magnificent raptors. The eagles I (rarely) see in Europe always keep such a distance that my 400mm lens does not allow any more than a record shot at best.

 

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A Brown Snake Eagle was included in the count

 

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A few kilometres before the S28 rejoins the H4-2 tar road there is a hide on the right: the Nthandanyati Bird and game Hide. When we parked in the parking spot near the hide, we got out to have look. Then we saw three enormous bull elephants heading towards us. The only other car present had left and we were a little unsure what to do. We decided to wait behind the gate, leading to the hide, rather than return to the car. The three giants crossed the parking lot just a few metres behind our car and we watched in awe. Our rental car ( a Toyota Rav) was not small but it looked quite insignificant compared to the elephants. And we felt the same way…They did not pay any attention to us but circled around the hide and crossed the stream to drink at the other side. From the hide we had excellent views.

 

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Edited by PeterHG
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@PeterHG, your EIF are majestic photos! Would you be so kind and share the camera settings?!

Edited by xelas
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30 minutes ago, xelas said:

@PeterHG, your EIF are majestic photos! Would you be so kind and share the camera settings?!

Thanks @xelas! The single eagles were at 1/1250, f5.6 iso 250. The landing Tawny was at 1/1600 f5.6 iso 320. Though pretty close they were far away enough for this aperture and slow enough in their movements not to need a faster shutter speed.I probably could have gotten away with even a slower shutter speed for the gliding shots I did go to 1/1600 with the landing eagle as this involved more movement than just gliding.  The diving Black-winged Kite was at 1/2000.

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4.

After our visit to the hide, we continued our drive along the S28. Another can, parked at the side of the road was a indication something had been spotted. An intensive scan with the binoculars revealed a lioness, lying in the log grass at quite a distance. Not the best of views, but we were thrilled anyway. 

A lappet-faced Vulture glided by and allowed for some shots.

 

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Also a Secretary bird. Quite impressive to see it in flight. It soars and gains height like a vulture and can compete with the best in that respect..

 

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And the familiar Zebras were there of course.

 

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We joined the H4-2 and drove on to Lower Sabie Restcamp. A few kilometres before we made a little detour to the bridge over the Sabie River. A nice spot for a view of the river and there are bound to be birds when there is water. Sure enough we found the ubiquitous Blacksmitch lapwing, but also Glossy Ibis, Pied Kingfisher and a Black Crake. Too far for a decent shot, though .

Lunch at Lower Sabie was quite pleasant, the terrace overlooks the river and it is a good spot te rest and spend some time. Don’t leave your lunch table unattended, though as we saw some other guests do. Immediately the table was raided by a noisy gang of CapeGlossy Starlings, who made short work of the dishes that had not been eaten yet. Their beauty is such that one tends to forgive them for their behaviour, but they are certainly looked upon as a pest by the staff ;). Strangely enough at Olifants, which we visited later the pirates mostly consist of Red-winged Starlings. Just as bold.

 

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With our lunch safely consumed I spent some time at the the edge of the terrace, scanning the river for anything of interest. Considering the distance to the water one really could do with a scope here, which I didn’t bring. Every now and then some birds passed by a little closer and I loved the challenge of trying to catch a Palm Swift in flight.

 

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An adult bateleur

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And a Yellow-billed Kite

 

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Perhaps this is the moment to dwell a little on the equipment we brought. As I mentioned, my brother limits his photography to holidays abroad, but still likes it so much that he acquired a used 120-400mm lens for the Sony A77, in fact his wife’s camera. Though it was not a bad lens at all, it fell short in trying to make flight shots. Its focussing is too slow for that. And the Sony did not help in that respect. When I started my digital bird photography in 2007 I started out with Sony, too. Its in-camera stabilization meant that you could buy non-stabilized lenses and price-wise it was a good deal. Some time later I owned a Sony Alpha 7 with a Sony 70-400 lens, an excellent combo. When the camera broke, I had to look for a replacement. Sony had then switched to a translucent mirror system, with the A77. This meant that the viewfinder could no longer be optical, but instead became an electronic one. The advantage of that is that every change in aperture, exposure compensation etc. is reflected immediately in the picture of the viewfinder, so you can see the effect even before you take a shot. The downside, however, is that the viewfinder picture always take a little time to ‘wake up’. For flight shots this means that, apart from bigger, slower birds, you are always too late. Well at least, I was. For me that was so frustrating that I switched to Canon and I have never regretted it. The A77 is a splendid camera, the colour rendering second to none, but not for this type of shooting. Of course this is my personal experience and others may think differently, but when I saw my brother struggling with the same problem (and his lens was pretty slow on top of that) I suggested he might want to switch, too. He absolutely loves taking flight shots (as do I) and the equipment should not get in the way. We discussed his options and, upon returning to Holland, he bought a used Canon 70D and a Sigma 150-660 Contemporary. The weather has prevented any serious testing so far, but I’m confident this combo will be a considerable improvement.

 
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15 hours ago, PeterHG said:

Perhaps this is the moment to dwell a little on the equipment we brought. As I mentioned, my brother limits his photography to holidays abroad, but still likes it so much that he acquired a used 120-400mm lens for the Sony A77, in fact his wife’s camera. Though it was not a bad lens at all, it fell short in trying to make flight shots. Its focussing is too slow for that. And the Sony did not help in that respect. When I started my digital bird photography in 2007 I started out with Sony, too. Its in-camera stabilization meant that you could buy non-stabilized lenses and price-wise it was a good deal. Some time later I owned a Sony Alpha 7 with a Sony 70-400 lens, an excellent combo. When the camera broke, I had to look for a replacement. Sony had then switched to a translucent mirror system, with the A77. This meant that the viewfinder could no longer be optical, but instead became an electronic one. The advantage of that is that every change in aperture, exposure compensation etc. is reflected immediately in the picture of the viewfinder, so you can see the effect even before you take a shot. The downside, however, is that the viewfinder picture always take a little time to ‘wake up’. For flight shots this means that, apart from bigger, slower birds, you are always too late. Well at least, I was. For me that was so frustrating that I switched to Canon and I have never regretted it. The A77 is a splendid camera, the colour rendering second to none, but not for this type of shooting. Of course this is my personal experience and others may think differently, but when I saw my brother struggling with the same problem (and his lens was pretty slow on top of that) I suggested he might want to switch, too. He absolutely loves taking flight shots (as do I) and the equipment should not get in the way. We discussed his options and, upon returning to Holland, he bought a used Canon 70D and a Sigma 150-660 Contemporary. The weather has prevented any serious testing so far, but I’m confident this combo will be a considerable improvement.

 

 

So many people have said that good photos are due to a good photographer, not good equipment. But I believe this type of comment is heavily dependent on the genre you photograph.

 

For landscapes, holiday snaps and street photography, it may be possible to get results with inexpensive equipment that may come close to results achieved by a lesser photographer with top-of-the-line tools, especially if the photographer using the lesser equipment is also more skilled at post-processing.

 

However, I firmly believe that there are some genres that heavily test the equipment, and birds in flight is perhaps one of the most arduous. Yes, a lesser camera may get the odd good shot, but the better the camera and lens (at least in terms of frame rate and AF speed and accuracy) the higher the percentage ofgood shots will be acheived.

 

Of course, it is also irritating when somebody looks at your photos and says "you must have a very good camera", as if the camera takes the photos by itself...

 

I continue to enjoy your excellent photography, and feel myself qualified to state that you and your camera make a good combination.

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5 hours ago, Peter Connan said:

 

However, I firmly believe that there are some genres that heavily test the equipment, and birds in flight is perhaps one of the most arduous. Yes, a lesser camera may get the odd good shot, but the better the camera and lens (at least in terms of frame rate and AF speed and accuracy) the higher the percentage ofgood shots will be acheived.

 

Of course, it is also irritating when somebody looks at your photos and says "you must have a very good camera", as if the camera takes the photos by itself...

 

I continue to enjoy your excellent photography, and feel myself qualified to state that you and your camera make a good combination.

Thank you, @Peter Connan. I fully agree with your analysis.

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5. 

After lunch we drove a few kilometres along the Sabie river and headed back towards Crocodile Bridge on the H4-2. Not too many new sightings on the drive, but I always enjoy seeing Giraffes. It is amazing how they are able to eat from the thorny branches which would deter most other animals. 

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We spotted a Hamerkop not too far form the road.

 

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And quite a few Magpie Shrikes could be seen. To illustrate my previous point about the cameras: this one was taken with the Sony and the 120-400, so for these kind of shots, nothing wrong with the combo.

 

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The next day we ventured west along the S25, another dirt road, which we had taken before on our first day in the Kruger. We made a quick stop for a beautiful Lilac-breasted Roller in the morning light

 

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A back-lit Waterbuck also allowed a photo opportunity

 

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And an impressive Martial Eagle glided by

 

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With the right light the Fork-tailed Drongo is a really handsome bird. It may be black, but what a wonderful colour black can be…

 

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Then, following the S108, H5 and H4-2 it was coffee time at Lower Sabie. Same shady terrace, same view and more or less the same birds. This time I tried for the White-rumped Swift.

 

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After our coffee break we again visited the Sunset Dam. Two finesses were resting in the shade underneath some bushes. Hard to see and even harder to take any decent photos, but lions are always special. We are not alone obviously as some 7 or eight other cars were trying to get into a position where they could at least get a glimpse of the two. So after a few minutes we gave up our spot to some others and continued along the H4-1, crossed the Sabie river and drove a big loop along the S30 and S128 back to the Sabie river. A nice drive, but it did not produce much in the way of wildlife. Well, it was already past midday by then, so not the best time for game viewing anyway. But definitely time for lunch again at Lower Sabie. I know, life is hard when you are doing game drives…;)

 

In the afternoon we again took the H4-2 back to Crocodile Bridge. A large herd of elephants was having fun on the banks of Sabie river.

 

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We stopped for some Buffaloes, grazing near the road.

 

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And for a Giraffe that was taking its time, munching away on leaves and branches before finally allowing the traffic to continue

 

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Bird-wise we were not disappointed. Well we never were, the whole week.

A Rattling Cisticola. Fortunately it was singing every now and then. I find it very hard to tell one Cisticola from the other and, as a result of that, I probably don’t give them enough attention..

 

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A Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill

 

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Black is beautiful indeed - very nice Drongo. Always admire your Swift and Swallow shots, Peter, what settings are you using there? As a fellow 7d user I am also interested what you have your AF set on for these kind of photos.

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20 minutes ago, michael-ibk said:

Black is beautiful indeed - very nice Drongo. Always admire your Swift and Swallow shots, Peter, what settings are you using there? As a fellow 7d user I am also interested what you have your AF set on for these kind of photos.

Thanks @michael-ibk ! I mostly use shutter speeds from 1/2000 up to 1/3200, depending on the available light. As swallows are mostly photographed against the sky, so an uncluttered background, I would use zone af or even all 65 points AF, for by limiting the focus points it becomes so much harder to find the bird in the viewfinder. Then, for fast moving and turning birds like swallows and swifts I often use Case 5.

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Add me to the list of fans of your photos. Great stuff.  I especially like your shots of the Black-winged Kite. 

 

 

Edited by Alexander33
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If you can identify the swift before picking up the camera to try track it, I bow down in awe. I take the picture, and then spend hours with the books...

 

Great series of bird portraits there. The Drongo portrait is among the best I have seen. In the right light, they even have a bit of starlingesque green/blue. But that is very seldom captured!

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6. 

Time to move on. We had booked three more nights at Satara, far enough from Crocodile Bridge to offer a different setting and other opportunities, but still easily reachable . He headed out on the H4-2 and, after crossing the Sabie river, turned off on to the S29, another dirt road. The bridge offered the same species as before, but we did stop for a Lesser Striped Swallow.

 

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The terrain north of the river was flat and savanna-like and we did not see much in the way of wildlife. Birding was a little better:

Sabota Lark. I’m pretty confident about this, although larks, like cisticolas definitely qualify for the LBJ category.

 

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Now the Yellow-throated Longclaw is another matter as far as ID is concerned.

 

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The Cape Starling is so common that you tend to forget how beautiful it still is.

 

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We made a stop at the Mlondozi Dam. Beautiful view, with a herd of buffalo grazing near the dam. It is always a good thing to reaffirm your position in  the herd.

 

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A Mocking Cliff Chat was also present, and showed well on top of the restrooms.

 

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I don’t know the name of this guy/girl, so I’d grateful for any ID. Quite large and pretty confiding.

 

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After driving for another 10 kilometres or so on the H10, we spotted two cars at the side of the road. I asked if they had seen anything of interest there and they replied that there had been a run-in between a leopard and a group of baboons and that the leopard was still hiding in a ditch near the road, invisible to us now. We decided to put the car in a good position and wait. The baboons were scattered across the savanna. After some 20 minutes the leopard suddenly appeared to check on the group. As they were still close by, the leopard went into hiding again, but not before I’d managed a few quick shots.

 

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More cars joined us, among which 2 safari vehicles. The driver of one of those manoeuvred the car between us and the car that had been in the scene first, effectively blocking our view, had the cat decided to appear again . A little annoyed we waved it back, where it waited for another 10 minutes. We heard the ranger mention to the passengers that the leopard was never going to show as long as the baboons were there ( he was right, of course) and both safari jeeps drove off. They just cannot wait too long for something to happen. We could and we did. At first one big male baboon ventured closer and closer to the hiding place of the leopard, clearly challenging it. No reaction.

 

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After some time it joined the rest of the troop and slowly they made their way further and further away from us, until they could hardly be seen anymore. We reckoned the leopard would probably show itself again, now the baboons were gone and, after another 20 minutes it did. It came up from the ditch, took a moment to scan the terrain and then crossed the road in front of our car and began walking in the direction we had come from. As about 7 or 8 cars frantically turned to follow the cat,  we decided we’d seen enough and continued our drive towards Satara. But what a great moment it had been and how generously our patience had been rewarded.

 

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Ok, another little photography dilemma, if you don’t mind. If you do, just skip to the next photo  ;) Of course photography is something I thoroughly enjoy doing during these trips, I mostly put some results online afterwards and nearly every time I also have an album printed. I find myself browsing through the photos of the trip and looking at the album quite a few times, even years later. I may even identify some additional bird species by studying the photos. Still it is often hard to find the right balance between taking photos and just watching the birds and wildlife. Take the leopard, for instance. When it appeared for the first time I had a few seconds to take some shots. And I am happy to have done so, when I look at the results. The second time I took 3 or 4 shots, too and then put the camera away. No point in trying to take photos through the windscreen anyway. I saw the beautiful cat walk just one or two metres from the car and when I could have taken a few more shots when it was visible through the open window on the other side I decided not to do that, but just continue watching it. And that is a truly special feeling, completely different from seeing it through the viewfinder. It made me aware again of the fact that I should do this more often and sometimes just forget about the camera. It’s not like I don’t have enough photos after the trip :). My wife and I had talked about this after our trip last year and we decided to invest in new binoculars. Instead of the lightweight 8x23, we now bought 8x42 and that is a world of difference, especially when watching birds. Heavier, of course, but totally worth it. I brought both of them on this trip, too.

I have rambled on enough, sorry about that, back to the trip and the photos

 

When we approached Satara, we came upon this beautiful Purple Roller, perhaps not as spectacular in colours as its more common Lilac-Breasted cousin, but it’s definitely one of my favourites!

 

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What a beautiful roller photo!

 

That is indeed a conundrum. I believe that I somehow see more through the viewfinder than when just looking, but sometimes, somehow, indeed experience less... And yes, I know I am mad.

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