A wildlife photography trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park must rank highly on every wildlife photographer's top places to visit.
There are many strategies for maximising your opportunities for photographic success while in the Park. In this blog I will outline my top 10 tips to assist first time wildlife photographers to the Park. I will assume that you are familiar with your camera/lens combinations and setup.
The Kgalagadi is one of the top destinations to experience pristine, wild African wilderness. It is famous for it's wildlife interactions and predations being easily viewable by park visitors. In short it is a wildlife photographers dream destination.
The park has three main camps, Tweerivieren, Mata Mata and Nossob. There are also several wilderness camps and 4x4 trails. I will base my tips in this blog on the three main rest camps.
The main tourist roads go up the Auob and the Nossob rivers respectively. There are two bisecting roads over the dunes between the two riverbeds. There are roughly 86 waterholes distributed along the main tourists roads.
Heading out for your first drive in the Kgalagadi is very exciting, taking a little time to prepare and understand some of the intricacies will undoubtable make your trip a memorable one.
1. Read up on all the waterholes and viewpoints before your trip.
Having a basic understanding of the Park before you get there will prove indespensable for first time visitors. Peter Derichs, book (Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) detailing the waterholes is a very usefull resource. The animals utilise the brak and freshwater waterholes differently! The small foldable brochure that you can purchase at the camp shops is indespensable.
Marie se Gat waterhole on the Nossob River close (south) to the main Nossob Camp.
Aoub River valley looking north-east up the riverbed from Perdebos view point.
A herd of Giraffe drink at Dertiende (13th) waterhole south of Mata Mata.
2. Make use of the daily sightings boards.
Outside each camp office/shop is a daily sightings board. Be sure to check these each evening and even update the board with any sightings you may have had. Speak to the rangers, camp staff and other park visitors. There is a huge amount of 'intel' to be garnered from everyone's daily outings.
Tweeriverien Campsite. Being sociable in and around the camps will often lead to hot "intel"
A female leopard rests outside her den. A small cub approaches just outside of view. Another photographer alerted us the previous evening to this den site along the Nossob river.
3. Prepare your cameras, lenses, memory cards, batteries the night before.
Being prepared is key for successfull wildlife photography. Make sure you have your camera support system figured out before you enter the game viewing area. A good quality beanbag, window mounted tripod or homemade equivalent is vital for getting sharp images from your vehicle window. My camera is at the ready, on my lap, as I drive out the camp. Excitement is around every bend, even the first one outside the camp!
An African Pale Chanting Goshawk with prey just outside Tweerivieren Camp.
A white-backed vulture takes off from its roost outside Mata Mata camp just as I switched off the vehicle.
A white-backed vulture in flight. Always be ready!
4. Understand the directions you will be traveling and the side of the vehicle the sun will be favouring.
Plan your outings accordingly. Be prepared to shoot into the light as its often unavoidable and sometimes is completely desirable. If you have a driver you can sit in the passenger seat or on the rear seat and have access to both sides of the vehicle.
Kgalagadi Lion sillouetted in the setting sun
Make use of the Photographers Ephemeris to assist your planning. It gives you accurate sunrise/sunset times and directions at all times of the day.
5. Plan your days strategy. Early out and late in.
This is a topic for much debate. For first time visitors or those unfamiliar with animal behaviour and habits etc. I would suggest driving slowly (15-20km's/hr) between each waterhole. Large trees close to the road are worth carefull inspection.
Be patient, switch off your engine and listen, watch for signs of activity and/or animal disturbance. Pay attention to the birds. Always scan your surroundings before driving off. Very often we have spotted animals along the cliffs or in the grass further afield when stopped to inspect trees etc.
Early morning just before sunrise at Tweerivieren Camp. Getting out the gate early is important.
Stop at each waterhole and switch off your engine. Watch and listen. How long you wait is entirely up to you. Animals can move in and out of the waterholes very quickly. Sometimes you may be advised to go to a specific waterhole and wait, this is a risky tactic for first time visitors, but often does pay dividends for photographers after elusive animals such as brown and spotted hyenas known to visit specific waterholes etc.
A Bataleur Eagle at Urikaruus waterhole. The bird was only there for a few minutes to drink and bath.
I usually plan trips for the morning and afternoons, unless I am travelling between camps. Lunchtimes can be spent in the camps or at designated picnic spots relaxing. Depending on the weather (overcast/rainy) you can sometimes stay out all day and get great images.
A rainstorm over the Kgalagadi. Rainy, overcast weather allows you to spend the whole day out photographing.
There are great sunset spots close to all the main camps. Check these out in the morning or at lunchtime and plan your outing in the afternoon so that you are in position to shoot the sunset and be back in the camp before the gate closing times.
Three kilometres from Mata Mata main gate at sunset.
1.5 kms kilometres from Mata Mata main gate at sunset (a few minutes later).
6. Stay calm and shoot.
The Kgalagadi is an exciting place where intense action is potentially around every bend. Birds are fleeting in their appearances and often only provide a few seconds to indulge a photographer. Animal predations are fast, dusty and intense. A lot will depend on being in the right place at the right time. A little experience helps, but its mostly luck.
Springbuck hunt? Panic errupts in the distance. A sure sign that a predator is on the hunt.
The aftermath. A Cheetah with a kill.
My strategy is to get a few shots quickly before tweaking settings, adjusting compositions and moving the vehicle around to get a better angle (if there is time). Always respect other visitors, look behind you before reversing and dont block the road. Keep three point turns inside the road and dont go over the road verges.
A Cheetah takes a break while carrying its kill away from the riverbed and into cover.
I see many people fumbling around when the action is on. If you realise that you are simply not going to get that winning shot or are completely in the wrong spot with no time to move, stop what you are doing and enjoy the spectacle for what it is. Remember to experience the Kgalagadi and not only photograph it!
7. Use a GPS if you have one.
A GPS will assist you greatly in marking spots along your route. Even trees next to the road. It is amazing how each bend looks the same when you are searching for a den site that you spotted earlier in the day. I mark all interesting sightings, den sites, predations etc. If you visit regulalry this also becomes a valuable source of information over time. If you dont have a gps, use a notepad and your camera to mark important spot for future reference.
A young Cape Fox at its den entrance. GPS's are very usefull to mark these locations for future visits.
8. Stop often. Listen intently. Pay attention.
The Kgalagadi is famous for its animal interactions. Many animals make use of other animals predatory behaviour to catch their own prey. Birds give off distress/warning calls when danger is near. Animals like springbuck, red hartebeest and gemsbuck will alert you to the prescence of lion, cheetah and leopards, by their behaviour. Goshawks will follow honey badgers (often by running along the ground), black-backed jackal will follow lions, large groups of sandgrouse and pigeons will attract hunting raptors to waterholes, circling vultures could indicate a recent kill. The list is long.
Gemsbuck and Red Hartebeest are alerted by the presence of a male lion.
A lioness is tracked closely by a Black-backed jackal.
A Pale Chanting Goshawk follows closely behind a honey badger. Errant small mammals are easy prey for the goshawk.
A Honey Badger digs for prey under a bush. Fleeing rodents are easy prey for raptors and jackals alike.
An agitated pair of Martial Eagles protect their nest from a leopard.
The offending leopard that most people did not even see. The eagles nest was on top of the tree.
9. Photograph the small things too.
Don't focus all your photographic energy on the big and nasties. There is so much to experience in the detailed world around you. Plants, insects, small mammals, reptiles and small birds abound in the Kgalagadi.
The flowering Devils Thorn plant.
A Four-striped mouse feeds on seeds outside its nest.
A Ground agama takes evasive action from the hot sand. Look out for them in the roadside bushes.
A juvenile Marico Flycatcher takes flight
10. Make use of the camps to photograph interesting subjects.
The main camps abound with small mammals, birds, insects and reptiles. You can walk around at night with a torch and spot owls, gekho's, scorpions and many other interesting critters. The camps are an easy place to photograph ground squirrels and yellow mongoose. Many of the resident camp birds will allow you to get quite close. Remember to always wear closed shoes at night.
The camp dwelling ground squirrel. The Kgalgadi's most photographed subject.
A Pearl-spotted owl in Nossob camp.
A Bibrons Gecko in Mata Mata camp.