Grumpy old men

15 10 2014

Imagine a seriously grumpy old man that weighs in at a ton-and-a-half, runs at forty kilometers per hour (twenty five miles an hour) (keep in mind that Usain Bolt’s top speed – between meters sixty and eighty – is forty-four kilometers per hour) and has an incredible ability to destroy anything in front of it, and you have the wonderful black rhino.

These massive beasts are quite peaceful when they are left alone, but when confronted, they have a tendency to shoot first, shoot some more, shoot again, and then only think about asking some questions… This behavioral trait of theirs, can make it quite difficult to get decent photographs of them, as it is often difficult to get close enough, safely. The other major factor limiting their time in front of our cameras, is poaching. They (together with the white rhinos) have unfortunately been poached into the ‘critically endangered’ IUCN category, which makes them a little rarer than rare.

On a recent photographic safari however, we were lucky enough to spend some quality time in the company of these quality characters. We spent a good deal of time with each of the rhinos we saw, giving us great photographic opportunities – something I have seldom had with black rhinos, and something I can not wait to do again! One rhino in particular put on a great show, as he had found a scent (either of a female, or a rival male), and he was on a mission to find the scent’s owner. He moved back and forth, often right in front of us, and took some time to leave his scent behind, letting all the other rhinos know who was in charge. This kept our cameras clicking away, and put some solid smiles on our faces!

To join me on safari, click here!

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Searching for snow leopards: Part 2

24 02 2014

Attempting to follow the tracks of a wild snow leopard is a fool’s game, but we were fools on a mission, and when we woke on the fifth morning of our safari to find two sets of tracks that went straight through the camp (literally within fifty meters [±150 ft] of my tent), we were off like a shot.  The camera bag with all the attachments got slung on my back in no time, and the trek up the valley began.  This is one of those moments where you need the utmost speed, but that speed is a gentle walk at best (the altitude still winning all the fights).  We made good time, but not snow leopard time.  By lunch, the tracks were starting to melt in the warm minus three-degree (26°F) sun, and I actually think we were further away form the leopards than we were when we started in the morning.  The walk back down the valley was a little disappointing, but we were one step closer than we had been on the previous few days.

The sixth morning started out the same way – two sets of tracks walking right alongside the camp, but this time in the other direction.  Realising the optimism involved with attempting to track a snow leopard high in the Himalayas, we were gearing up a little slower than the previous morning, understanding better that we were perhaps ill-equipped physically to track down these two cats.  A cup of tea later, and a very excited guide came running up the valley towards our camp (yes, the guides can actually run up there, they don’t seem affected by the altitude at all; read jealousy) waving his arms, and telling us they have found the leopards!

Packs on, tea drunk and doing the fastest slow walk I could muster, I was racing down the valley, heading in the direction of the tracks.  We found the guide who had spotted the cats sitting up on a ridge, so made the climb to join him.  Trying to look through the spotting scope while dry heaving is not the easiest, but the leopards were indeed sitting in the middle of the spotting scope.  They were easily three kilometres away!  We made our way as close as possible, (still between one and a half and two kilometres away) and spent the rest of the day watching the cats.  The cameras were quite ineffectual until late in the afternoon when they started to move around.  Even then, the best I managed was a record shot.

The last day, and our last chance to try get a good photograph of wild snow leopard.  There were tracks in the snow, high above our camp heading up a different valley.  We gave it a shot, as it was all we had.  We made it quite far up the valley, but all the signs of the leopard had disappeared.  Now knowing the capabilities of the snow leopard, it came as no surprise that the cat had long gone, leaving us guessing, again.  We did get a quick glimpse of a Himalayan wolf, a very difficult species to see, so that felt like the reward for the long trek.  We decided to head back to camp slowly, having one last look through the valley in a desperate attempt to get the photographs we had dreamed of.  One of our guides had gone on ahead, and we spread ourselves throughout the valley, searching every crevasse, every rock ledge, and every possible snow leopard looking bump.

The call came in, and just from the tone of the voice on the other side of the radio, I knew we were in business.  The guide that went ahead had spotted a snow leopard sitting on a rocky ledge, not too far from the trail.  With full gear on and in the snow and ice, I ‘ran’ (walked quickly) as fast as I could down the trail to where the guide was waiting.  It took a while to see it, mostly because I couldn’t breath.  Before I had even confirmed its position, I had the camera setup, and was ready to shoot.  There she was, sitting behind a rock, just the tail sticking out (well done to the guide on that spot).  It took a freezing couple of hours for her to move about, but when she did, I was in heaven!  All the hard work, all the planning, all the pain of walking up those mountains and valleys, all worth it for a ten-minute show that to me is priceless.  I got images I never dreamed I would get and I got to experience a moment with a snow leopard I never thought possible.  The moment was ended soon after she went over the ridge by fingers that felt like they were about to fall off, and my body was shaking uncontrollably from the cold, but the walk back to camp was the easiest walk I have done in years.





Searching for snow leopards: Part 1

21 02 2014

Heading into the Himalayas to search for the elusive snow leopard, two things immediately struck me – the incredible beauty of these mountains, and the enormity of the task at hand.  The realisation that followed shortly after (when disembarking the aeroplane), was that this was not going to be a warm safari – a cool minus five degrees Celsius (23°F) welcomed us (what turned out to be a rather warm minus five, things would only get colder).  After spending two days acclimatising to the new (and for most people, extreme) altitude we headed into the snow leopard reserve to begin our search, and take on this seemingly futile challenge.

I only had one real hope for this safari, and that was to see a wild snow leopard, photographing one would be a bonus. My dream was realised on the very first morning!  After a rather chilly minus fifteen degree (5°F) sleep in a tent that offered little to no protection from the elements, it was a great surprise to wake up to two snow leopards (a mother and a sub-adult cub) taking a rest on the ridge above the camp.  The ridge was quite a distance away, and even the big lenses struggled to find the cats, but alas, there they were.  Not only had I seen wild snow leopards, I had a cup of tea in my hand at the same time.  Very civilised. This was a great bit of luck, but it was also the last bit of luck we would have for a few days, as things got really tough from there on.

Temperatures dropped, as did reports of snow leopards along with any other signs of the big cats.  The next two days were spent trekking high up into the mountains to no avail.  The satisfaction of already having seen the leopards was pretty much the only thing to hold on to (the ridges we were climbing were very steep with no vegetation, so there was literally nothing else to hold on to).  The assault predicted on the legs and lungs was in full swing, and even the most remedial task (like putting on your shoes) took all your breath away – a ten-meter walk felt like a ten kilometre hike.  Things were tough…

A nightlong snowfall changed our luck a little.  We were now able to spot the tracks of the snow leopards, and this we did. There was great excitement around camp, when we found a set of tracks high on the mountain, and began to follow.  Unfortunately, the great distances that these magnificent cats travel, and the speed at which they travel left us chasing a ghost, but at least there were now signs that the cats were back in the area.





The rare and elusive

29 06 2011

Just when I thought I had photographed most of the species in the area, I was pleasantly surprised by the arrival of three immature Sable Antelope!
Now, like any red-blooded wildlife enthusiast, you are probably wondering, why all the fuss over some antelope?
To let you know just how rare these antelope are, in this area over the last seven years, I have seen pangolin on three occasions, (see: https://kurtjaybertels.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/the-good-luck-continues/), and sable only twice! The last time I did cross paths with these insanely beautiful animals (2006), I was a little unlucky not to get any photographs – I chalked that one up to bad planning.
This time was different however!
After patiently waiting for a good half an hour, the rather shy antelope finally emerged from the thicket where they had been spotted, and moved into a grassy clearing. The sun was sitting comfortably, right behind me, which meant only the best morning light for the rare and elusive sable! I set the cameras, and started clicking away at a steady pace, (given the subject), when the front runner, true to his position, pulled a runner, and made a dash across the clearing to the relative safety of the thicket on the far side.
The clicking of the camera was no longer at a steady pace, but rather a frantic blur of shutter, sable, shutter, sable, shutter, sable! The other two antelopes joined in the race to the thicket, giving me a shot at trying something a little different. This I did with great success. (The blur shot of the sable running is a shot I have wanted for quite some time!)
Not long after it all started, the sables reached the thicket and the fun was over – leaving me smiling with some great images!