In August, we headed back to Africa to lead a Lindblad/Bushtracks Southern Wing Safari traveling to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and on to three safari areas in Bostwana. As we settled into our airplane seats, Jack asked me if there was something special I was really hoping to see this safari. I hardly paused before saying, “Leopard cubs. I’ve never really seen more than a glimpse of leopard cubs.”
Before our safari began, we did a reconnaissance trip to a couple camps in Zimbabwe to learn more about these areas, and what the Zim safari experience has to offer our guests. We spent four nights at two camps in Hwange National Park: Davison’s Camp and Little Makalolo. [Everything went smoothly, the wildlife was good, but as we plan for 2013, we’re going to continue putting the emphasis on the private reserves and concessions in Botswana and S. Africa where we have a bit more flexibility, and we know the photo opportunities are fantastic.]
The absolute highlight in Zimbabwe was a woodpile hide (a blind) on the edge of a large waterhole at Little Makalolo. It was obvious this waterhole attracts lots of elephants as evidenced by the tons of scat on the ground. As we headed out on a game drive that first afternoon, with the sun’s rays growing golden in the sky, we could see long lines of elephants coming in to drink at the waterhole. We instantly knew that was where we wanted to be. We spent the next afternoon in the hide, and it was marvelous! The cozy 4-seat hide is made up of a strong metal frame with large tree trunks piled around the sides to prevent the ele’s from getting too close. Of course it’s relatively wide open, offering easy access if a lion came along, but our guide brought a rifle, so we felt comfy.
We watched with delight as hundreds of elephants came and went from the waterhole over a couple hour’s time. There were big males, protective mamas, and little youngsters, plus every size in between. Every so often, an elephant would come over to the hide to inspect, glare down and show us who was boss with head shaking and ears flapping. Of course the most fun was watching the littlest ele’s as they romped through the water, splashing about, trying to figure out how to use their trunks. One ele was having so much fun flopping down in the water, goofing around, and was always underfoot of these massive adults (though no one gets stepped on). Just as we thought it couldn’t get any better, our guide offered us sundowner cocktails and snacks as we watched the waterhole show. The light was gorgeous and it was an absolutely magical experience.
We flew back to Victoria Falls to meet our safari group, a really super gang of travelers, and spent the next two days at, and around, the Falls. We had a wonderful afternoon cruise aboard a pontoon boat on the Zambezi River exploring the islands and shorelines above the Falls. Everyone had great views of the safari’s first elephants and hippos along with a stunning sunset. From Vic Falls we headed west to Botswana and Chobe National Park.
Chobe is renown for its massive population of elephants. The highlight of every visit there is spending time by boat on the Chobe River in the late afternoon watching big family groups of elephants coming down to the river to drink, bathe, and sometime swim over to graze on the lush islands that dot the river. The biggest ele’s can easily cross the deep water, but the little ones definitely have to swim, using their trunks as snorkels as they make their way across.
All this was tremendous to see and photograph, and there were also hippos, crocodiles, and awesome birds including the dazzling malachite kingfishers adding to the variety. This time on the water is what we think is best about Chobe, and are look forward to returning next year on our special Botswana & S. Africa Photo Safari.
To read more and find out whether Rikki got to see her leopard cubs, see a gallery of images from this safari, and photo tips for shooting wildlife in low light…
Our safari ended at the Mashatu Game Reserve in the easternmost point of Botswana. This region is very arid, a more desert-like environment, with meandering trails of green in the riverbeds. We had never been to this area, and it is here that we come back to my dream of seeing leopard cubs. Our first afternoon outing began with many enjoyable sightings — a remarkably calm warthog with her babies, hyenas at their den, giraffes meandering through the acacia thorn trees, ostrich fluffing their feathers looking a lot like Marilyn Monroe standing over that air vent.
We were driving along a sandy, dry river bed when the driver spotted a leopard sleeping, draped luxuriously over the side of a termite mound on the embankment about 40 ft. above us. The light was glowing gloriously and it was an amazing scene. Suddenly, a leopard cub popped out from behind the mound, walking over to its mom, paw extended out to her nose as if to wake her up. What a scene! And then, from the other side another cub appeared, climbing on top of mom, with the same intention. (Come on kids, she’s up all night hunting to feed you, let her get some rest.)
When the kids didn’t succeed in waking mom up, they went off to play with each other, and it was then that the third cub was spotted. One cub really stood out. It was much smaller than the other two, a female, and she was the spunky one. She seemed to be curious about everything, always daring to engage her brothers in playful stalking and pouncing. For young leopards, and other big cats, play is all about learning and honing techniques to capture their future prey, and it’s always fun to watch.
When the cubs disappeared from view, we drove to the top of the embankment to see if we could get a better, closer view. Here the cubs were in the shade so we’d lost our light, but we still had great views. The little female walked up and sat down about 10 ft. from my side of the vehicle, then lay down looking at us.
I was in the front passenger seat which had no door, scrunched down into the foot-well trying to get as low an angle as possible. I spent the next five minutes in heaven, watching her so close. Finally, she walked over to where her brother was laying, and proceeded to surprise him with a nip to his tail.
I was positively giddy watching and taking photos of this adorable little cub. It was a wish come true, and those incredible moments are saved in my heart (and on my memory card). My good luck with leopards continues.
Wow, another great safari in Africa. We love traveling there. There is always something new, something different to see, incredible memories to take home, and always many exceptional images. It’s a privilege to travel in Africa, and one we do not take for granted. We are extremely happy to be returning with two Southern Africa Photo Safaris in 2012 (with itineraries for a stunning Namibia Photo Safari with an excellent wildlife extension in S. Africa to a location known for great leopards, and the wildlife rich Botswana & S. Africa Photo Safari with a pre-tour extension to Victoria Falls).
A single click on any of the Gallery images below will take you to larger view and slide show of these photos. Keep scrolling to find our Photo Tips below.
Shooting Wildlife in Low Light — Shutter Speed, ISO, and Digital Noise
Shooting these leopards in low light presented challenges, especially with a long telephoto lens. The most important element for getting sharp images with a moving subject is shutter speed. In order to use a higher shutter speed in low light, I had to make a trade-off somewhere else, by moving to my lowest aperture and by increasing the ISO. For the leopards, dialing to a higher ISO allowed me to use the faster shutter speed I needed. The trade-off with using a higher ISO is the added digital “noise” in the image.
Digital noise in an image appears as speckled, errant bits of color. (Noise tends to be more pronounced in darker areas.) In-camera noise reduction settings can help to minimize noise in your image. Plus, there are tools available in image optimization software to minimize the appearance of noise.
Please Note: Any shooting/settings advice needs to be considered in relation to the model and performance of your own camera. On the subject of ISO, newer camera models keep improving image quality at higher ISO’s. In general, compact cameras show much more noise at higher ISO’s (400, 800+) than SLR cameras due to the small size of their sensors. The consumer and pro-sumer SLRs with cropped (mid-size) sensors will show less noise at higher ISO’s (800+) than compact cameras, a definite advantage. Full-frame SLR sensors have the ability to shoot at higher ISO’s and maintain good image quality.
To accommodate using a higher shutter speed in the rapidly diminishing light, I turned my camera to Auto ISO. [A hush falls over the room as the tried and true rule of shoot at the lowest ISO possible is shamelessly ignored…] Most wildlife encounters like this one with the leopard cubs are somewhat fleeting, so Auto ISO can be a terrific help when you need to be shooting fast in changing light, hand-held. With Auto ISO, the camera will automatically make the ISO as low as possible to allow for your shutter and/or aperture setting, or move it higher to accommodate a higher shutter speed or aperture. (Note: Not all SLRs have Auto ISO.)