The most challenging adventure yet: Snow Leopards

6 02 2014

Usually I write about experiences I have already had on safari, but this next adventure is my toughest and one of the most exciting yet, so I wanted to include you all in the build-up.  I am heading up into the Himalayas to see if I can a.) see a wild snow leopard, and b.) try to photograph one!  This is very optimistic I know, given that less than 1000 western people have actually ever seen one in the wild (literally, more people have summited Mount Everest), but I have always said if you don’t try, then you don’t stand a chance, so with that in mind I am giving it a try.

Aside from the low probabilities of actually finding a snow leopard in such a vast area, the physical difficulties involved with accessing the areas they do is a challenge all its own.  The altitude is the first big hurdle to overcome.  Starting in town at 11,500 ft (3500m) and only going higher will definitely put some strain on the lungs and test the fitness levels quite thoroughly.  The base camp is around 13,290 ft (4050m) from where we start each trek, again, only going higher.  I have been hitting the gym pretty hard to try getting my legs and lungs ready for what I am sure will be an awesome assault on both pairs of trekking apparatus, but the low altitudes I have been training at, are, I think, giving me false information about my level of fitness.  This will most likely be confirmed on day 1, in the town, climbing off the plane.  Second to the altitude, but not by much, is the temperature.  Average nightly temperatures are expected to bottom out at minus twenty-five degrees Celsius – good times! (I must note at this point we are staying in tents, so come on super sleeping bag).  A real concern I have is, when you spend a day hard trekking up a mountain you sweat, no matter how cold it is.  When you stop trekking, your sweat freezes, which brings your core temperature down dangerously quickly (I have experienced this a few times, but never too far from help if needed). I think the secret is to walk slow and steady.

The prize at the end is, however, worth all the trouble.  Just having a chance to see a wild snow leopard is already very lucky, never mind the elation that I am sure accompanies actually seeing one (lets hope I don’t cry from happiness if I do manage to see one, and if I do that my eyes don’t freeze shut)!  I will let you all know just how things unfold when I am back in a couple of weeks.  Until then, here is a photograph I took of a captive snow leopard to keep you going.  Let’s hope for more of the same…

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An old friend returns

17 01 2013

For those of you who have been following my blog from the very beginning, you will know that it was started as a day to day recording of the adventures, and often mishaps, of the camera trap, (a device where the animal breaks an invisible beam that then triggers the camera), I had setup in various locations around the African bush.  If you are new to the blog, you now know how it started.  The blog has changed shape a little over the years, but the camera trap kept clicking away in the background, doing what it does best: providing a unique look into the African bush, often from right next to the animal it photographs.

 

I am delighted to let you know, that the BBC Wildlife Magazines website, found my camera trap images, and ran a gallery on their site, showcasing the photographs.  It is always rewarding and exciting to see your images presented on a site that carries such weight in the industry I work in.

 

I have many exciting stories from when I have been to set the trap up, or gone back to check the images, but I will leave you with the one that stands out the most to me.

I had stopped next to the river where the trap was set, grabbed my gear and started the hundred-meter walk to the traps secret location.  When I was about thirty meters away, I saw a female leopard standing on a small sand ridge directly above the trap.  She saw me at the same moment, and slinked off through the trap – success, I thought, and even better, I (sort of) got to see the trap in action! I waited twenty or so minutes to give the leopard time to leave the area (as surprises of that nature are not always fantastic), and made my way down to the trap with the excitement and expectation of a child on Christmas morning.  Slowly looking over the sandy ridge where the leopard was standing only a few minutes earlier, I was heart broken not to see the trap.  There were plenty of elephants footprints however, and tracks showing how they had kicked and dismantled the trap, literally to pieces.  Still upset over missing the leopard image, I went about finding the pieces of the trap.  They had been spread quite a distance down the riverbank, but I did find everything.  I think I muttered and moaned the whole way back to camp, thinking of new ways to outsmart the elephants, but it was all forgotten when I checked the images on the camera.

 

Have a look through the gallery below, and see if you can find the (final) image from that day!

To join me on safari, click here!

 

 





2012 in review

31 12 2012

Thanks to everyone for all the support during 2012!

I have put together a quick collection of highlights from the year for you, and want to wish you an incredible 2013 with plenty of good sightings, all of them in great light!

To join me on one of these amazing safaris, click here





The fun way to do it

30 10 2012

Over the last few months, we have seen various ways of dealing with the hassle of crossing Africa’s rivers.  The male lions started us off by casually starting to cross the river, then hitting an absolute panic and splashing their way nervously through the rest of the crossing.  It wasn’t graceful by any means, and the slip at the end, landing the lions head in the water and his tail in the air, didn’t help.  Next to cross was a large male leopard.  Always poised, and with a certain arrogance, he went for the cool, calm, collected approach.  He moved through the river as if it were not even there.  The judges gave him a solid nine point five.  Following the leopard, we had an example of how not to do it.  The young wildebeest that was trying so desperately to cross the Mara River, got trapped in some underwater rocks, and had a less than pleasant discussion with a monster crocodile.

We now have a new method of dealing with river crossings – the fun way to do it.

We came across a troop of olive baboons early one morning on a photographic safari in Kenya.  They were slowly approaching a small river that was flowing with some real vigour after a night of solid rain.  With almost no warning, the large male leading the troop took a single step run-up, and leaped across the hazardous water, clearing the obstacle in one go.  We quickly got into position, and enjoyed the rest of the troop, nearly fifty individuals, going for gold as they jumped across the water.  A good ninety percent of the troop made it without even touching the water, and that includes mothers with babies of various sizes attached to their fronts and backs.  The remaining ten percent were youngsters that were just too old to be carried by their mothers.  It was fantastic to watch, as the little guys gave it their best shot, but fell a little short drenching themselves in the process.  The sighting lasted for about ten minutes, most of which was filled with the constant clicking of some hard worked cameras.





Putting on a show

8 08 2012

Wildlife photography has a lot to do with patience and luck (which often go hand in hand), but I managed to go one better and find a willing participant.  It was a great bit of luck to start with, because spotting the leopard, resting in the fork of a rather dense tree, was tricky.  Once I had settled into the sighting, it became quickly apparent that it was going to be awkward getting photographs.  I had a limited (although lovely) view, and needed her to change her position in the tree.

As if it were scripted, she descended the tree – always fun getting images of a leopard coming down a tree – and kindly moved through a small open area, allowing for more great photographic opportunities.  I followed her for a while, thinking the best was done, but she had other ideas.

She spotted an overturned tree (the handy work of some elephants), climbed up it and sat patiently, allowing me to get into position and click a few frames.  She then moved over to an even better ‘photographic stage’ and posed beautifully, giving me some wonderful head on portraits.  The weather was not ideal, but with the setting she was in, it was possible to get a really interesting image of a leopard going about her day.





How to do it in style

27 06 2012

If a river runs through the middle of your territory, which it probably will if you are a large male leopard, then crossing that river is at times a necessity. This does not mean it is an activity that they look forward to, but if you have to do it, do it in style!

Before we get started, lets take a second to remember the lion’s method of crossing the same river: Hiss and growl at the water, cautiously put a paw in, then panic and run like a beast possessed, followed by an extremely ungraceful slip at the end! (See: https://kurtjaybertels.wordpress.com/?s=lions+crossing+river)

The leopard was spotted on the opposite bank of the river, which is always tricky, because if he moves away from the rivers edge, it is very difficult to re-find him in the long reeds that pack the riverbanks. Not having much option, we watched him move along the waters edge for a short while, when he stopped, had a quick look at the river, and made a dream come true! I have always wanted to see a leopard cross a major river, (or even a minor river for that matter), and even better, have a chance to photograph it. I got to do both, thanks to the great decision-making by the leopard.
I got to a good position, and started clicking away. He was cautious at first, much like the lions, which is a smart thing to be when there are large crocodiles about. Once he was in though, he switched to his ‘cool cap’, and nonchalantly walked through the river. Seemingly unperturbed by the lurking dangers, he even paused his crossing briefly to catch the classic ‘stare into the distance’ pose. My camera and I were very grateful!





That awkward moment

27 03 2012

Sometimes, being the boss doesn’t always pan out the way you thought it would. Out on safari, a young male leopard was going about his business, marking territory and the like. Before I even got settled in the sighting, a larger, more dominant male came running down the trail, calling as he ran. Turns out, this was his territory that the young intruder was brazenly marking as his own. This was a mistake.
The incensed large male gave chase, looking for a fight.
The younger male knew he was taking a chance, and fled. He didn’t run cowering with his tail between his legs – he legged it so quickly he literally disappeared! I had no idea where he went, and neither did the large male!
This seemed to infuriate the territorial male even more, and he moved quickly around the area where he had last seen him, nose to the ground, calling every thirty seconds or so, providing me with some rather different images. He was in the mood for a fight, and didn’t let up. This was almost his downfall…

He was so engaged with the intruder, that he sacrificed his usual stealth and quiet for a very public showing of his alpha male status. These public announcements were not only heard and felt by the long gone male, but also by a lioness, who was now watching the top of leopard world run around in circles.
The situation the large male leopard found himself in now was quite different – he was the one on the receiving end of the pecking order.

The lioness charged in and the cameras clicked solidly. Her running paws kicked up some leaves that got the leopards attention. He looked confused for a split second – his opponent had just grown remarkably quickly! He put two and two together and made a break for the safety of the nearest tree. The lioness, who had the element of surprise coupled with a serious weight advantage, (lioness ±180kg vs. ±100kg leopard) got a little distracted in her charge and seemed to miss the leopards break away. (You need to have a look at the images here, fourth last image). Perhaps she was looking for the other leopard he was ‘fighting’ with, or maybe a food source – either way, he make a clean getaway. She did return shortly afterwards though to make sure he knew who really was the boss!
This was a unique chance to see the top two cats at the same time.

When the lioness left the skirmish, I followed her with a hunch. She came and went alone, and on the same path. Where had she come from, and why was she going back the same way? When she crossed the river, she showed me exactly what was going on. She had been suckling very small cubs! The lioness’ den site was right next to the show grounds of the large male leopard. She had left the cubs, (a little too well hidden for photographs in a hole in the river bank), and made her way to make sure the leopard left the area as soon as he was brave enough to descend the tree. This, I am sure, he did!