Top 20 Safari Photos

With just over four weeks left in sunny South Africa, we are beginning to face facts. Our days on safari are (likely) over. At least for a while.

But, we still have the memories … and the photos. Hundreds of them.

I narrowed down my favorite safari shots to the 20 photos below. Now, we need to pick the best one(s).

Which one is your favorite? Which one says safari to you? VOTE NOW!

Check out the slideshow, then choose your favorite in the poll below. Larger images are available by clicking the thumbnails at the bottom. Thanks!

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A Sense of Safari

It was late afternoon when the elephant took its last step. The young male, a sub-adult, likely broke away from the herd early in the day, trudged along a dirt path and lumbered into a thicket of suikerbos, where it fell, landing on its left side with a thud. In this position, prone, helpless, struggling to breathe, the young elephant died.

Natural causes, the ranger said, though it’s hard to say exactly what.

To the hyenas (brown and spotted), wild dogs, lions and other carnivores of the African bush, the reason for the elephant’s death does not matter. What matters is that dinner is served.

By the time we arrived on the scene – “we” being Jenny and I, Jenny’s parents, our ranger, Nick, our tracker, Max, and a young South African couple on their first safari – the carcass of the young elephant had become a sad, mangled, putrid smorgasbord. Just thinking about it now makes my stomach turn. The stench

But, on this Monday morning, there was no better place to be.

As we sat, quietly, in the open Land Cruiser, just feet from the rotting remains, we heard footsteps from behind. Two very wary, but very hungry, brown hyenas approached. They made a wide arc around our truck, stopping often to sniff the air and listen for possible competitors, before trotting over to the smelly elly. One quickly tore a hunk from the pachyderm’s posterior, but the other was spooked. We had all heard, just moments earlier, a lion roar from just beyond our position; the hyenas knew the cats were close.

Suddenly, the silence was broken by the crack of a snapped twig somewhere to the hyenas’ right, our left. Was it an elephant, coming to protect the sanctity of its fallen comrade? Ranger Nick reflexively reached for the ignition. A fellow elephant would be extremely upset to find that opportunistic scavengers had already eaten the juvenile’s neck and part of its back, ripped open its belly and removed its intestines. Ranger Nick was ready to reverse. (Good…the dead elephant stinks!)

Alas, it was not an elephant, but the hyenas bolted, nonetheless. The two mongrels figured themselves no match for what did emerge: four self-confident lions, looking to feed. A young male, two females and a cub sauntered over to the gray buffet. We watched, in awe, with shirt collars over our noses, as the lions dove in.

Young male lion and cub feasting on a dead elephant

But this moment, too, was short-lived. Again, the first lion roared from the bushes beyond. A rival pride was near. The absolutely rancid odor of death, of the disemboweled, dined-on elephant served as a breakfast beacon.

Time for us to leave.

The scene we witnessed, awesome and gruesome as it was, reminded me that as elusive as the Big Five animals can often be, each and every safari experience comes with a guarantee of another Big Five: the sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of the African bush.

Of course, the sights are incredible, and the easiest to convey here. We can show you photos of the lions and the landscapes. You can see a red-billed oxpecker clinging to a giraffe’s neck. You can see a zebra foal nuzzling its mother. You can see a herd of playful elephants drinking and bathing in a watering hole. You can see Jenny’s mom serving as our tracker:

Jenny's mom, Sharon, in the tracker's seat on safari. Not sure what she sees...

When we share video, you can hear the birds chirping or the small trees snapping under the powerful game drive vehicle as it crashes through the bush. More often, you can hear Jenny asking me whether I’m “getting this on video.”

But, what’s more difficult to convey, despite video evidence, is the feeling of the bouncy, jostling, sometimes bone-jarring game drives. Or the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the wind. Or the prick of a thorn tree catching you on the shoulder as you walk through the bush searching for a safe place to pee.

And, regrettably, there is no word count, pixel width or megabyte capacity large enough to do justice to the tastes and smells of safari. After a few hours driving in the open vehicle, you’re bound to find yourself with a bit of gritty, red dust in your mouth, leaving you parched in a way that only a sundowner – perhaps a fruity Sauvignon blanc or a tangy gin and dry lemon – can remedy. All the while, your nose is working overtime, discerning scents as varied as the freshness of wild herbs and eucalyptus to the pungency of dung and death.

I only hope that we can hold on to the memories of these sensations long after we’ve left Africa. I hope that we can, while looking at the photos, watching the videos and telling the stories, remember what it felt like, what it tasted like, and what it smelled like to be out in the wild. I hope that we will always have this sense of safari.

At least we’ll have the photos.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and … Hey! Look at that Lion!

Well, here we are. 2012. The beginning of the end, so they say.

But, if the curtain really does come down this year, assuming the Mayans didn’t just switch from stone tablet calendars to e-tablet calendars, the opening act was better than Broadway.

Our new year popped open at midnight with a bottle of Cap Classique and a dazzling display of fireworks, flares and flashes of lightning over the Pretoria skyline. Standing on the upper veranda at the home of our friends Yvonne and Danie, we watched as the city celebrated with gushing Roman candles, floating Asian lanterns and soaring distress flares. From the CBD to Sunnyside, back towards the Union Buildings, across to Loftus Versfeld Stadium and beyond the university campus, the night sky was alive with explosive revelry.

Exciting as it was to welcome a new year in a new city with new friends, we could not afford to linger too long into 2012; we had a big day ahead. We were beginning the end at Nkomazi.

Early on New Year’s Day, with our bikes loaded on the back of the Rio, we drove east through the mountains of Mpumalanga for about three-and-a-half hours, pushing ever closer to the border with Swaziland, until we reached the beautiful Nkomazi Game Reserve. Inside the main gate, we met Heinrich, an affable Afrikaner and ranger at the reserve who helped us transfer our gear and bikes to the safari vehicle for the 30-minute drive to camp. Leaving our car at the gate was the first of many unique and rewarding aspects of our Nkomazi experience.

On the drive to camp, we saw most of the usual suspects: wildebeest, impala, warthogs (Jenny’s favorite) and zebra. But there were several more locals who came out to greet us, including blesbok, nyala, giraffe and white rhino. Sightings before settling in. Nice.

Several other staff members were awaiting our arrival as we approached the inner gate at the Komati Tented Lodge. Hopping out of the tall vehicle onto the sandy ground below, we were welcomed by name, offered chilled, scented towels and served a flute of cold ginger beer.

“Thanks, we’re just happy to be here.”

A view of the Komati River from Komati Tented Lodge at Nkomazi

Ulrich, a co-manager of Komati, along with his wife, Arline, gave us the lay of the land at the luxurious lodge. It was amazing. Don’t let the words tented or camp fool you – the place was five-star. But an incredible value.

Like most of the other tents in camp, ours (#9) opened into a richly furnished bedroom, which led into a generous bathroom area, complete with rain shower and separate dressing room. Outside, on the ample private deck overlooking a roaring stretch of Komati River rapids, two wooden chaise lounges sat under an umbrella at the edge of a triangular plunge pool. On the opposite end, hugging the tent to the right of the entry flap, stood a massive, claw-footed outdoor bathtub. We were spoiled.

We got used to it.

In fact, it was this kind of impeccable attention to detail – from knowing our names, planned activities and dietary preferences, to the bottles of water by the bed each night and other little things – that made Nkomazi special.

Over the next two nights and three days, we enjoyed delicious food, struck up stimulating conversations with friends old and new (our buddies Hannah and Bob, and their friend, Ann, were also at Nkomazi), had relaxing massages at the river’s edge, and explored the landscape and wildlife of the reserve – both in open game vehicles and on our mountain bikes (though, I did take a nasty spill).

One of the highlights of the game drives was our time spent watching two lionesses taunt a tower/kaleidoscope/journey (the official names for “herd”) of giraffe. Driving along a grassy path between two outcroppings, we saw four giraffe loping towards us before they stopped and turned their long necks back in the opposite direction. They were running from something.

Sure enough, from behind a lollipop-shaped thorny acacia tree came the self-satisfied saunter of a healthy lioness.

We stopped. She stopped. We stared. She stared.

Lioness watching giraffe at Nkomazi

As we sat in the stillness of the warm, African evening, a thunderstorm was brewing to the west. Lightning bolts pierced the sky above distant mountains.

The giraffe took baby steps away from the lioness, but another big cat appeared. Soon, both were lying in the grass, struggling to choose between chasing or napping. In an instant, it seemed that the feline closest to our vehicle would choose the chase. She sprang to her feet and darted directly towards us. Had she recognized us as human steak kabobs? Would she leap into the middle row, where Jenny and I had just broken one of the cardinal rules of safari by trading seats?

No, she was using the truck as a shield to surprise the giraffe from their left flank. They spotted her as she rounded the rear bumper and ran through a clump of small trees. They trotted safely away, for it was all just a game, anyway. While the lion(s) surely could catch the giraffe, they would need much more help to actually bring one down. These two girls couldn’t do it alone.

Still…it was an exhilarating moment.

From here, it’s probably best to let the pictures tell the story, but let me just say this: Our Fulbright Friend, Cynthia, allowed me to borrow her 300mm lens for this trip, so almost all of my photos show signs of my experimentation with how to keep such a lens in focus and the shots properly exposed, etc. In other words, they are not my best work. Fortunately, I think the magnificence of Nkomazi’s flora and fauna make up for my mediocre photos.

Safari, So Good

As if out of nowhere, two massive waterbuck charge from the thicket on our left, rumble down the grassy slope and splash violently into the previously tranquil watering hole straight ahead. Are they being chased? By what? Where is it now?

Wait! One of the waterbuck is turning around, swimming for shore. The lead buck is now safely across, water dripping from its dark, brown fur as it stands on the bank and looks back for its mate. We sit, watching as the second buck climbs up onto dry land. A small herd of zebra stroll in from our right to survey the scene.

Everyone, and everything, is quiet.

Is there a predator nearby? A lion? A leopard? Why won’t the other waterbuck cross?

Finally, the animal finds a more narrow, shallow spot, crosses the water, joins its buddy and bounds off into the brush.

I look across at the zebra, the water again still enough to reflect their stripes. I start the car. We drive on.

And that is how our 4-day safari in Pilanesberg National Park began: with an afternoon “self-drive” game drive in the sunset beach Kia Rio.

Waterbuck swims across watering hole

Due to a bit of a scheduling error, my mom, my Mike and I were not booked on the official lodge game drive on our first night at Kwa Maritane, so we opted to drive ourselves. While I am no ranger, we actually managed to have some decent sightings, including a white rhino munching along a riverbed and a black-backed jackal hunting for ground birds.

Later that night, we joined fellow lodge guests at a “bush braai” out in an enclosed (read: safe from lions) a short drive away from the main buildings. It was a nice introduction to safari-dom for my mom, who was the only one of the three of us who had not experienced such an adventure.

Mom & Mike at bush braai

This particular adventure featured:

Giraffe sauntering home at sunset (the star above is actually the planet Jupiter)

And the list goes on…

Though we didn’t get to see all of the Big Five – the buffalo were hanging out in a remote section of the park and the leopard remained elusive – we did, I think, have ourselves a nice little safari. But don’t take my word for it. Judge for yourself, check out the rest of the photos.

Oh, and just ask mom & Mike!

Entabeni Photo Safari: Lions and Lenses in Limpopo

A pride of lions begins the day at Entabeni

If you had asked me last week to give one good reason to wake before dawn on a Saturday and a Sunday, I would have told you to go away and let me sleep. Ask me to give you one good reason today and I’ll give you five: one lion, three lionesses and a lion cub. That’s because this weekend I went on a couple of early morning game drives as part of a photo safari in the Entabeni Game Reserve.

Two professional photographers from Africa Photographic Travel and Nikon South Africa led a group of twelve students into the field and shared some tips and tricks for shooting wildlife as part of a hands-on photography seminar. It was fantastic.

I am, by all accounts, a hobbyist photographer. I have a nice camera, by normal standards, but I knew going into the weekend that it is not the kind of camera (or lens, particularly) that works well for capturing wildlife, and certainly not for über-closeup or action shots. I was at peace with that until I saw some of the equipment a few of the other students brought: high-end digital SLRs, lenses the size of tractor axles, multiple tripods, hard-sided rolling camera cases, the whole works. Lens envy.

Our accommodation and classroom was at the Wildside Safari Camp, one of Entabeni’s five lodges within its 22,000 hectares (about 85 square miles) of territory, which is primarily reclaimed farmland. Entabeni is nestled in the Waterberg Mountains about 3 hours drive north of Pretoria in Limpopo Province. In fact, the word Entabeni actually means “the place of the mountain” in the local language. Even in the “dead of winter” when the trees are bare and the colors muted, the mountainous backdrop bestowed breathtaking beauty.

Once we got out into the bush in those open vehicles, my lens envy subsided. It was just great to be outside in the relative middle of nowhere looking for animals and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.

While Entabeni is in Big Five country, and the reserve does have lions, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard, we only found the lions and rhino. Still, there were plenty of other mammals and birds to see, as well as some amazing landscapes.

One of the highlights of our time out in the reserve was following a partial pride of lions as they woke early one morning to hunt for breakfast. They stalked along the road at one point, and eventually found themselves looking directly at a lone wildebeest off in the distance. The wildebeest was oblivious to the lions and they knew it. Without a sound, one of the females darted off along the right flank to make a wide circle around the unsuspecting wildebeest, while the other females and the male crouched in the tall grass. Following the adults’ lead, the cub crouched low, instinctively waiting to pounce.

As the wildebeest slowly clomped around a bend in the road it spotted the tiny cub, who, while crouching like a big boy, was lying in the middle of the road. The wildebeest froze. Realizing the situation, it broke to its left, directly towards the lioness on the flank. We watched from the truck, hearts racing as it seemed certain that the wildebeest was doomed. We wanted to see the kill. We didn’t want to see the kill. We…

…did not see the kill. There was no kill. The lone female had apparently not yet made it into position, so the wildebeest galloped off safely. The lions seemed dejected, but soon swaggered off in search of the next unwary creature. We drove on.

That may have been the most dramatic moment, but there were so many other encounters worth noting, like the two male cheetahs frolicking in the grass, the mother rhino and her calf, a lion cub yawning while hiding in a shrub, and meeting up with the same pride of lions after dark. But, with their thousands of words, I will let the pictures tell the stories.

For those of you who don’t want to spend time with the 36 shots posted on Flickr, below are the (very subjective) “Top 10.”