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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Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 2: Cruising the Chobe River with a Boy Named Diane

As if standing on a rock just above Victoria Falls watching the great Zambezi River rush past and disappear over the edge — or jumping backwards off a cliff into a gorge, 177 feet below — wasn’t enough excitement for one weekend, we decided to spend Day 3 in Zambia by going to … Botswana.

Although not part of the original plan, we learned of an opportunity to take a day trip to the famous Chobe National Park, just an hour or so from Victoria Falls. Operating on the We May Never Have This Chance Again principle, we signed up.

Departing at 7:30, our small bus reached the Kazungula border post at 8:30. Along the way, we passed through small settlements with a hodgepodge of buildings: some tin, some stone, some mud and thatch. Pantless children stood behind wooden fences; women washed clothes in colorful plastic buckets; chickens and goats roamed the roadsides.

The Kazungula border crossing is one of the more unique in the world. It’s the only place on the planet where four independent nations meet. Though there is some debate as to where the mid-river borders actually are, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia all come together in one quadripoint in Kazungula where the Zambezi River and Chobe River intersect.

Quadripoint at Kazungula between Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia

A reasonable person would expect to find a bridge spanning the river, allowing vehicular traffic (and cargo) to cross between countries efficiently. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe is not a reasonable person. Zimbabwe still refuses to agree to any such construction, I suppose partially due to the fact that there is a bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia in nearby Victoria Falls. As a result, semis loaded with goods heading to or from the four states (or other places on the continent, like South Africa and the DRC), must wait their turn to be ferried across the river. One by one.

The queue of trucks on the Zambian side stretched for nearly a mile. Our guide said the drivers may be forced to wait for a week or more before their turn comes. Africa time.

We, however, jumped the queue.

With the blue ink of the EXIT stamps from Zambian immigration drying in our passports, we pushed through the crowd of people clustered inside the tall, metal gates and walked with blinders past the hawkers in their Chipolopolo jerseys. “Remember me. Peter! I am Peter! When you return, remember Peter. Copper bracelets. Big Five carvings. Peter!”

Mercifully, the drone of the speedboat we boarded at the river’s edge soon drowned out the hawkers’ cries, and within 60 seconds we were across to Botswana.

Standing on shore was our ranger and guide for the day, a fit, handsome man named Diane. Though pronounced more like de-YAN-ee, seeing the shiny, gold name badge with “Diane” on his greenish-khaki shirt was, at first, rather strange.

We rode in an open safari vehicle from the river to the border post, where we were quickly processed by Botswana immigration before stepping on a conspicuously dirty sponge mat ostensibly designed to clean our shoes of anything that could transmit foot-and-mouth disease. From the spongy block, we could see another queue of trucks waiting to cross the river.

After ten minutes by highway in the open vehicle, we reached Chobe Safari Lodge, our departure point for the first activity: a river safari.

It was truly amazing to see the animals from the water, and to see so many species of animals that live on or near the water. It’s a completely different feel from a traditional game drive.

Wire-tailed swallows enjoy a ride on our boat in Chobe National Park

We were pretty lucky that day. The sightings were nice, especially of hippos, crocs and birds.

Pod of hippos in Chobe National Park

Large crocodile and great white egret in Chobe National Park

African darter (with fish) in Chobe National Park

We also spent some quality time with an older bull elephant who had crossed the deep river channel in order to munch on the soft green grasses of Sedudu Island.

Bull elephant in Chobe National Park

If the day had ended here, we would have been extremely satisfied, but we were only halfway through. We still had a game drive after lunch!

After the buffet, a brief chat with a group of retirees from Iowa, and a bit of a torrential rainstorm, we donned ponchos and set out in the open vehicle to tour the land side of Chobe National Park. Within minutes, we saw a large troop of baboons, several hundred impala, some kudu and a marshland antelope called a puku.

Then, we saw the elephants.

Driving on a sandy dirt road parallel to the river, Diane spotted a small family of elephants ahead on the bank, drinking. He guided the truck onto a rutted path, angling towards the shoreline. He cut the engine and we coasted to a stop some 50 feet away from the herd. As soon as they spotted our vehicle, most of the elephants turned and waded into the water; one, a juvenile male, stayed behind and stared at us.

Elephants in Chobe National Park

Eventually, they all crossed over and focused on other things, but not before another of the big creatures trumpeted at us in warning.

We could have spent hours watching them, but it was getting late – time for us to get started on our return journey.

But, wait! What’s this? Another ranger driving an open vehicle flagged us down and told Diane that a leopard had been spotted nearby. Let’s go!

Diane whipped the truck into the bush, executed a killer three-point turn and gunned it in the opposite direction. Our placid game drive was now a Ferrari Safari.

As we raced down the road, the truck’s tires skidded in the soft dirt. We rounded a corner and started scanning the bush and trees for signs of the big cat. Up a small incline we spotted an unusual set of tire tracks. The other vehicle must have stopped here to watch the leopard.

Diane halted abruptly. “There!” Indeed, there it was. High in a tree, roughly 100 feet from the road, was a male leopard.

Male leopard in tree in Chobe National Park

Surveying the scene from high above, the leopard certainly had been watching the herd of impala grazing between the road and the river. They were gradually making their way inland, ever closer to the leopard’s perch. But, for now, he had his sights set squarely on us.

Male leopard watching us from tree in Chobe National Park

Quite an amazing ending to an incredible day – a day when we set foot in two countries, saw two more, and explored the Chobe River with a man named Diane.

Up next, Pt. 3: That time we crossed into Zimbabwe illegally

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.

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.”

Mystic Monkey

Red-Crested PochardRed-Crested Pochard (1)Red-Crested Pochard (2)MarmosetSpider MonkeyBengal Tiger Paws
Bengal TigerBengal TigersBengal Tiger (1)White LionMeerkatMeerkat (1)
MeerkatsMeerkats (1)Tufted CapuchinTufted Capuchin (1)Ring-tailed LemurGolden-Handed Tamarin
Safety FirstWhite CapuchinWhite Capuchin (1)White Capuchin (2)CheetahCheetah (1)

Mystic Monkey, a set on Flickr.

Today, Jenny and I were treated to a wonderful journey to Mystic Monkeys and Feathers Wildlife Park in Limpopo Province. Our hosts, Yvonne, Danie and Michelle du Plessis, spoiled us with transport and entry to the park, as well as a superb lunch at Tshukudu Lodge.

The highlight of the trip, though, was holding and petting tiny Bengal tiger cubs. Wow. Very cool. Never mind that Bengals are not at all indigenous to this part of the world, it was an amazing experience.

Check out some of the photos from our visit.