Life In The Wild – A Photo Safari

November 27, 2015 ·

Eileen Benjamin
A Lion’s Roar
A Lion’s Roar

My first time journey to photograph in Africa was to Botswana, where I visited Chobe National Park, the Savute Marsh Area and the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

The goal and hope of a photographer is to capture at least one compelling story. I found many. Sometimes the story is in a single image, capturing a “decisive moment”, and sometimes it is in an event.  But would I find that “one”?

Since this was my first trip to Africa, visual preparation was of the utmost importance. I researched the places I planned to visit and looked at the work of many wildlife photographers. As a result I left on this journey with some expectations and yet I had no idea what I would see. My experience would be unique to my time and place.

I began traveling overseas seven years ago with the primary focus on photographing the landscape and the people who inhabited the lands I visited. I had never photographed wildlife of the magnitude I would see in Africa. The experience was beyond my wildest dreams. I had no idea what I was missing until I took this trip. As I write this article and revisit my images I find myself reliving all the emotions I felt while in the bush and the delta. I recount the feelings of exhilaration and then the calm when I saw a lion or a leopard. I can still hear the chirping sounds of the vast variety of birds, the elephants blowing dirt and the snorting hippos.

I saw first hand how wildlife co-exists, how there is a very specific hierarchy of predators and prey. I witnessed a dead elephant after a lion kill. Admittedly, it was difficult. While I realized the significance of it, I wasn’t prepared for the actuality of it. When we arrived at the location of the kill three lionesses and their cubs were laying in the shade. They looked very satisfied. One lioness was still feeding on the dead elephant and then one of the cubs left it’s mother and joined her. Vultures began arriving and lurking near the lions. They would have to wait their turn. The order of life became apparent very quickly.

Lioness at an elephant kill
Lioness at an elephant kill
Lioness and cub at the elephant kill
Lioness and cub at the elephant kill

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Lion Cub
Lion Cub

Planning for the trip required some thought because of weight restrictions on the small commuter planes in Botswana. This trip would require a long lens, which would be big and heavy. I used a Think Tank Airport Airstream rolling camera bag, a great bag for flying on small aircraft, for my Canon 5D Mark III, a Tamron 150-600mm and a Canon 24-105mm, a Sony RX100 II, flash, chargers, portable drives and other miscellaneous small items.

I packed a Monfrotto NeoTec Monopod and a Tomahawk gimbal in my duffel bag. I also packed a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with a Really Right Stuff ball head, which I never used.  I purchased the Tamron lens, the monopod and the gimbal based on the article/video Michael Reichmann presented on Luminous-Landscape website. I was extremely happy with the ease of performance of all these purchases. I found that the monopod was easy to use in most vehicles. I could raise and lower it with very little effort. I could easily put it in between the seat and the door. The gimbal gave me all the flexibility I needed. The only time it was an issue was in vehicles that had support bars and when other people in the vehicle blocked the view. In that case I handheld my camera, often times supported by the inside of the vehicle or the seat. I can still see myself in the most awkward positions hand holding that long lens trying to get a shot without camera shake.

Silhouette of white fronted bee eaters at sunrise
Silhouette of Marabou storks at sunrise

My first destination in Botswana was Chobe National Park, Chobe is located in northern Botswana and has one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa. It is the third largest park in the country, after the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Gemsbok National Park, and it is the most biologically diverse. It is also Botswana’s first national park. It is known for it’s dense woodland of mahogany, teak and other hardwoods now largely reduced by heavy elephant pressure. The largest herd of elephants in all of Africa reside in Chobe National Park. Not only are there thriving populations of the “big five”; lions, water buffalo, elephants, leopard and rhinoceros, plus hippos and crocodile, but large populations of the prey animals like zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, many variety of antelope, and a countless variety of birds, not to mention the scavengers like hyenas wild dogs and vultures.

The quality of light is the most important element to a successful photograph. It was during the spectacular sunrise that I captured the white fronted bee eaters silhouetted against the richness of the sunrise colors. These scavengers are not particularly attractive birds but they were sure beautiful in this setting.

Elephants throwing dirt
Elephants throwing dirt

I used shutter speeds of 1/1000 – 1/2000 and set my camera on Al Servo for continuous shooting with a floating ISO from 100 to 4000. Most of my exposures were between 5.6 and 7.0 with the 100-600mm lens. I used this lens 90% of the time for the wildlife and my 25-100mm mainly for landscapes. One of the greatest challenges was shooting birds because at times several things were happening simultaneously. One minute I was photographing an animal on the ground and then I’d see a bird taking flight. I had much more success with the animals than with the birds. I came home with a greater appreciation for bird photographers.

Elephant walking along the Chobe River
Elephant walking along the Chobe River

Continuous shooting at a fast shutter speed gave me the ability to capture this crane with the eyes just above the water line. I shot quite a few frames to get one that I thought was unique. This makes for a hugely successful portrait. I try to anticipate the placement of the subject, capture a sense of motion or an action.

Wattled crane eating bugs
Wattled crane eating bugs
Giraffe and red-billed oxpeckers eating the tics and other bugs
Giraffe and red-billed oxpeckers eating the tics and other bugs
Roan antelope
Roan antelope

My second stop in Botswana was to the Savute Marsh area, which is located in the western stretch of the park. The Savuti Marsh is the relic of a large inland lake whose water supply was cut off a long time ago by tectonic movement. Today the marsh is fed by the erratic Savute Channel, which dries up for long periods but then, curiously, flows again, which is a consequence of tectonic activity in the area. Currently, it is flowing. In January 2010 it reached the Savute Marsh for the first time since 1982. As a result of this variable flow, there are hundreds of dead trees along the channel’s bank. The region is also covered with extensive savannahs and rolling grasslands, which makes wildlife particularly dynamic in this section of the park.  During dry seasons, tourists on safari often view warthogs, kudus, impalas, zebras, wildebeests, roan antelopes but above all, the magnificent elephants. During the rainy season, the rich birdlife of the park (450 species) is well represented. Packs of lions, hyenas, zebras and more rarely cheetahs are visible as well. This region is indeed reputed for its annual migration of zebras and predators.

Even though I had the opportunity to photograph birds, zebras, and elephants in Savute, I was emotionally drawn to the rare and endangered roan antelope. It was their distinctive black and white facial pattern that caught my eye. This particular antelope is the second largest in Africa.

The third and final destination in Botswana was the Okavango Delta. It is a very large inland delta formed where the Okavango River reaches a tectonic trough in the central part of the of the Kalahari. All the water reaching the Delta is ultimately evaporated and transpired, and does not flow into any sea or ocean.

Each year approximately 11 cubic kilometers of water spreads over the 6,000-15,000 km area. Some flood waters drain into Lake Ngami. The Moremi Game Reserve, a National Park, is on the eastern side of the Delta. This statistical significance helped the Okavango Delta secure a position as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, which were officially declared on February 11, 2013 in Arusha, Tanzania. On the June 22, 2014, the Okavango Delta became the 1000th site to be officially inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Okavango delta is both a permanent and seasonal home to a wide variety of wildlife. Species include African bush elephant, African buffalo, hippopotamus , giraffe, Nile crocodile, lion, cheetah, leopard, brown hyena, spotted hyena, springbok, greater kudu, sable antelope, black rhinoceros, white rhinoceros, plains zebra, common warthog and baboon. The endangered African wild dog still survives within the Okavango Delta exhibiting one of the richest pack densities in Africa. The delta also includes over 400 species of birds, including African fish eagle, Pel’s fishing owl, crested crane,  ostrich, and sacred ibis.

Flight over Okavango Delta
Flight over Okavango Delta

I stayed in the beautiful Pom Pom Camp, located in the heart of the Delta. It lies on the western boundary of the Moremi Game Reserve. It is a private concession with accommodations for small groups, which added to the richness of the experience.

The Pom Pom camp is home of the marked territory of three lioness; a grandmother, a mother and a daughter and two lions who were brothers. I hoped I would have the opportunity to see all five of this lion family during my stay at Pom Pom . I watched as our long time guide, LT, nicknamed Lion Tracker, observed the activities of the birds, antelope, other wildlife along with the animal tracks in order to take us efficiently to where the animals were. His skills led us to the three lionesses. They were lying in the warmth of the evening sun.  They were on their backs near the brush and then one eventually sat up for her portrait.

Tagged Lioness
Tagged Lioness

Finding the lioness was exactly what we hoped for.

We continued driving until LT spotted two leopards lingering in a tree. Due to the late evening light I shot the following image at an ISO of 3200 at 1/640 of a second. I shot it wide open at f5.6 with a focal length of 500mm. The 5.6 aperture produced a nice soft background. The high ISO created some grain but I was able to reduce it significantly in post processing.

My second evening in the Delta was equally as exciting since we found the leopard daughter, but in a different location. According to LT the mother may have been out hunting. I was able to get a close view of the leopard posed in the tree with the 100-600mm telephoto without breaching her space. After watching her for 10-15 minutes she got up and walked down the tree, curious about something below. It was from this viewpoint that I could see her sleek beautiful body. She only stayed in this location for a few minutes and then retreated back up the tree where she would be safe from predators. Then something else caught her attention. 

Mother and daughter leopards
Mother and daughter leopards

A Young Cautious Leopard
A Young Cautious Leopard
Kite hawk with a kill
Kite hawk with a kill

This image is of another kind of kill. It was interesting to see this hawk fly to the ground, catch it’s prey, then take it up to this bare tree to hold onto it for a few minutes, and finally devoured it. It was lucky to be able to capture this image while it momentarily held its prize in full view.

Lion in search of family
Lion in search of family

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There were so many interesting stories of life in the wild, but the finale, “the story” I had hoped for, occurred on the very last morning I was in Africa. With only 3 hours before our group had to catch our plane to fly home, there was one last opportunity to go out into the Delta to look for the two brother lions. All but one in my group chose to stay behind to prepare for their flight home, but I wouldn’t miss it.  Within fifteen minutes out of camp, LT spotted the younger of the two lions. He was in search of the lionesses. We tracked him for close to an hour. The search, the discovery and then the roars of excitement, as depicted in the following images, were overwhelming. It was so exciting and frightening all at the same time while we tracked these magnificent animals. I felt an adrenalin rush. My heart was racing and I tried to contain my emotions so that I would calmly and successfully photograph these top predators while remaining safe.

A family reunion
A family reunion
A family reunion
A family reunion

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After a few minutes we decided to look for the other brother. LT explained they were both looking for their family, their pride, but time was running out. We had to catch a plane! It didn’t take us long, though, before we spotted the second lion, meandering through the bush. He was so powerful looking and beautiful with his dark mane. He was focused and determined to find his family and he was very vocal about  it, roaring with such intensity as he followed the scent of his younger sibling.

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We were able to witness yet another dimension to the entire experience of tracking, thanks to the expertise of our guide.  The lion would lie down, roll, and mark his territory, and then roar some more. This lion had character. We continued to follow him with the hope of capturing their reunion, but we ran out of time. Just fifteen more minutes would have made a difference. It  was so frustrating as we were so close to capturing the full story and the end of a wonderful tale. This was the most compelling story of my entire trip, the story I had hoped, a story I could share. It was those last two hours in the Delta I re-live as the highlight of what was already an amazingly wonderful trip.

Parting shots of “Life in the Wild”
Parting shots of “Life in the Wild”

The images of the lions are all full frame with the exception of two. With those I preferred a square format. The focal length ranged from 300-600mm.  I was in the front seat of an open vehicle and had unobstructed views of the lions. The beautiful soft light and the incredible subjects that filled the frames were magnificent. Every element that I would hope for worked beautifully especially my timing.

Photography is a way of keeping those memories alive. Weather, lighting, timing, persistence, patience and a lot of luck all play a roll in capturing and ultimately sharing the experience with others. My hope is that the viewer can imagine themselves there, feeling the same experience that I felt; the “touch” of a lion’s mane or the feeling of the warmth of a sunrise. I want to evoke the viewer’s senses and bring a story to life.

I feel my trip to Botswana was a success on many levels. I reinforced my photographic strengths, and I realized some of my weaknesses. For example, the difficulty in successfully photographing birds.  The entire experience was one I will never forget, especially that last morning. I learned by watching and capturing the behavior and movement of animals to photograph wildlife for the first time.  In an exotic new environment, I learned a great deal about “Life in the Wild”


Eileen is one of the instructors on our November 2016 South Georgia and Antarctica Photography Workshop

 

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Eileen Benjamin

Benjamin is recognized as one of the most accomplished black and white photographers in the state of Colorado. Benjamin’s early work was with a 4x5 film camera. She has since migrated to digital format and color. Beside the work of Edward Curtis, Charles Russell, Frederic Remington and Thomas Moran, Benjamin’s photography was part of a collection of Art of the American West, exhibited at the U.S. Embassy in Spain. Her photographs are included in personal and corporate collections throughout the United States and abroad. Benjamin’s first book, If You Listen: Poems & Photographs of the San Juan Mountains, was done in collaboration with poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. Other publications by Benjamin include a self-published book, Telluride, Landscapes and Dreams, foreword by Jay Dusard, and A Spiritual Connection, Living on the Edge of the American Rockies, foreword by Richard Moe, President of National Trust for Historic Preservation. She has just completed a mixed media project entitled “The Fabric of a Woman, A Celebration, a book she has worked on for the past decade and is in the process of getting it published. While working on the mixed media project, Benjamin has traveled abroad capturing moments in time of people and places. Her travels have taken her to Scotland, Ireland, Turkey, Jordan, Bali, Viet Nam, Peru, the Galapagos, Guatemala, Nepal, Myanmar and South Africa. Benjamin is currently working on a project of women in remote regions of the world and will be an instructor on the 2016 South Georgia and Antarctica trip sponsored by Luminous-Landscape/Rockhopper Workshops. Her passion for photography has no boundaries and she is open to all possibilities. www.eileenbenjamin.com

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