A Collection of some of my favorite Safari Story Posts
A safari is an adventure and like all adventures it is full of stories and special moments.
With or without a camera, it is those stories and having been there in that moment that make the vivid memories. The great photographs enhance and help tell the story.
Over the years of leading safaris, my guests and I have been present for many moments which culminate great stories. I have told many of these stories here in my blog. Here is a collection of my best African safari stories.
Stories from our 2017 September Safaris – One safari is One hundred stories
Learning to be a Leopard: A young cub must quickly learn to drag a kill up a tree and eat it up there.
A newborn elephant: We were present to celebrate a birth with the family herd. Just an hour old it was a very special encounter
Lions Hunting Buffalo: From the planning to the (failed) execution of the plan: we were there to see and photograph the exciting event
When a predator makes a kill and settles down for a meal, it is an invitation for many different players to come to the party: the hyenas who hope to steal it, vultures who want their share, jackals who just want to sneak a small meal without being noticed, and others.
Many vultures will show up to a kill sight. Of the many species, each has a specialized function and morphology at the carcass. Some vulture species can not eat without another species to first do their part.
To Go on Safari is to Return with Hundreds of Stories: Predator vs Prey, Survival, and Cooperation among Wildlife
Learning to be a Leopard
The Sabi Sands Reserve is famous for its resident leopars. Our guests were treated to a 4 leopard afternoon game drive.
An older female leopard called – Ingrid Dam – was watching her cub (unnamed) eating an Impala kill up in a tree, it was having a difficult time eating in the tree because of the position of the kill. The Impala kill and the young cub fell out of the tree. We knew and the leopards knew there were hyenas nearby wanting to steal this meal should the opportunity arise. Was the mother going to come down and take the kill back up the tree for her cub? We watched and waited. Though the cub seemed to be asking for help, mother decided on tough love and stayed in the tree watching as the cub learned to drag the impala kill back up the tree. It was a hard and physically challenging lesson to learn, but the cub had succeeded for the first time to save his meal from those who would steal it away. The effort involved with dragging a kill up a tree is the leopard’s way of out maneuvering scavengers.
As New as it Gets – A Newborn Elephant
We were on a game drive on a private reserve near Kruger enjoying some great lions, a buffalo herd, and a leopard up a tree when we had a radio call from another safari vehicle about a great sighting. We hurried over to find it was a newborn elephant calf. At first we could not see the little one since the calf was hidden among the large legs of the mother, her sisters, and the herds older children. They were all vocalizing and moving in small, strange movements as if dancing or chanting. The mother was throwing dust on herself and the calf. Soon the crowd parted and we could see the newborn. Cute, wrinkly, and very unsteady on the feet, it was obvious the calf had only been standing for mere minutes. We were very close and felt very privileged that the herd let us be this close and share their joy at the new arrival. The calf tottered and fell a few times and we worried until the little one struggled to stand again.
The next week, we had wonderful continuity when we spotted the herd again. It was wonderful to see the infant prospering, healthy, and nursing.
The Unicorn of Safari Experiences: Lions Hunting Buffalo
It was our last game drive on the last day of safari and getting to be the time to turn around and head back to the lodge. It was a great drive, but about to get even better. We spotted several female lions concentrating on a medium sized herd of buffalo.
It appeared the plan was to slowly move into positions around the herd to separate certain buffalo. The lions separately made their way around the buffalo herd. Suddenly something goes wrong – one of the lions must have blundered – and the buffalo started to run. Wait a minute; they are not running away, they are charging the lions! One of them was running for their life straight toward us.
It is hard for lions to give up when things do not go to plan. Some of the pride continued to run with the stampeding buffalo to see if there could still be a chance to salvage the hunt. It was not to be.
Still, it took a long time before the lionesses could let this one go – they continued to watch the buffalo herd move out of reach.
As I look through my images, my memory goes back to watching the events unfold in front of me. They are much more than the best image: it is the dozen images before and after that one great image that make up the safari stories that I will tell my friends and family. While images help to make the story real; nothing compares to having been there and witnessing it live.
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During our small group photo safaris we travel an hour and half south of our Tree House Lodge to the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. This is a very old reserve (one of the first to be decided as a nature reserve) and we stay in the section which is bordering the Kruger National Park. There is no fence so wildlife is free to range into both areas.
We come to Sabi because they have the rivers and tree conditions that leopard prefer and thrive in. They also have a long history of tracking and knowing their leopards very intimately so the rangers quickly find the leopards and can tell us each animal’s story.
We had many wonderful leopard moments over the course of our 3 September 2016 safari groups. This evening game drive was especially nice: we tracked a male leopard named Tingana while he went on his early evening rounds
We catch back up to our leopard after the sun has set. There are lions moving through near by. A leopard can be harassed or killed by lions so he is becomes very alert and circles back to his tree where he had a kill stashed away.
After a snack in the safety of a tree he goes back to resting.
The next morning we catch up with Tingana and he is on the ground under the tree still guarding it from lions and others who would steal it.
On a previous visit to Sabi Sands we saw Tingana with a zebra kill up a tree. It is amazing to think of the strength this animal must command in order to drag a small zebra high up a tree.
See our photo safaris which include a visit to Sabi Sands in 2017 & 2018 on our website Africa Wild Safaris
I hosted 2 wonderful photo safari groups in May 2016 . We had fun and adventure among some really great wildlife sightings. My guests returned with many great action, predator, and close up shots. One guest told me he had over 3,000 photos to sort through.
After each series of safaris, I reflect back on the moments that made the most vivid memories while I sort through my photos. Each moment spent out in the wild spaces of South Africa is special, but I have selected a few to share that stood out for me.
The majority of these images were shot with my Canon 70 – 200 lens on a 5D MK3 – this is my workhorse setup for safaris in South Africa
Burchell’s Coucal in Kruger National Park
I had had a great and active morning in Kruger, but things were slower in the early afternoon. This coucal brightened things up by landing on a branch near my vehicle and stayed in a perfect pose. I was even able to move the truck to get shot from different angles and sun exposure. This species of cuckoo does not deposit eggs in another species’ nests.
Leopard Cubs at Play
We were lucky enough to find these cubs and their mother on a morning game drive with perfect weather and again on other drives. They played with each other and often their mother would join in the fun.
Every so often they would sit to rest and survey their surroundings as young predators in training.
Then the fun would erupt again for another round of pouncing and wrestling
Rhino Establishing Rank
White rhino are usually pretty stoic when we encounter them: they keep at eating or close ranks to stand in an alert defensive position. This group of 3 males and one young (probably) male were agitated and active when we found them. The 3 older rhinos were engaged in some intense battling with their horns with one male defending his dominance in the herd. The youngster was quite stressed by the whole affair and ran around in panic.
Very Young Hyena Puppies
This is a very large and active den site for spotted hyena. On this visit there were several adult females around and some adolescent and older pups. Out of the den came 2 very young pups. These are the youngest I have ever seen. The female in charge (not sure if it was the mother) kept them close to the den by picking them up in her powerful jaws using a gentle touch.
Lions with their Kill
This was one of several very good sightings we had through the two May safaris. This time the females were resting nearby and the male was there too. The buffalo meal was mostly consumed, the previous night, but this male lion was still hungry and working with the carcass to get all the meat he could. It is hard work for the lions to pull the meat apart and they frequently take a rest in the shade.
Mother Leopard Having Fun
It must be stressful to try to feed, train, and defend two active cubs. This is why it was so delightful to be there to see the mother leopard play with her cubs. No of them took any notice of our vehicle and cameras and just stalked and mock attacked each other in the open and right in front of us.
Antics in the Mud Bath
As the rainy season water drys up and becomes mud, these spots become a favorite place to visit and photograph. When elephants come by it is a funny mud flinging spectacle with bodies rolling and splashing. One elephant pushed his younger sister in the mud. Rubbing follows the mud bath. At this water hole the favorite rubbing tree had become very short and elephants had to contort to funny positions to use it – such as this youngster doing a face plant in order to get a rub.
Moving Herds in Kruger
Parts of Kruger National Park open up into wide vistas where you can see far into the distance. This herd of wildebeest was on the move and created a nice sight line and vanishing point for my photo.
Game Drives in the Dark
I enjoy the end of our afternoon game drives when we return to the lodge after dark using spot lights. This time we found a bush baby. I am still hoping to see a pangolin or aardvark by night. We also find chameleons , small cats, and hear the night calls of birds and herd animals.
Lions Seeking Shade
This kill was in a great spot for feeding at night, but as the morning wore on it was getting hot out in the open defending the remains of the meal. The female lion – who was covered head to toe in blood and guts – tried to drag the carcass to a shady spot. It was a bit too heavy for her and the other lions just watched from the shade.
Drama in Kruger – all in the first 10 Minutes
This was the start of one of our all time best days in Kruger. A hyena chased after a leopard cub while the mother fought to defend it and this black-backed jackal stood at the ready to take advantage no matter who won. The jackal was probably following either the hyena or leopard to wait for chances of stealing a meal. We also saw elephant, lion, and rhino all before the welcome center.
We also had beautiful and interesting skies that day. Sometimes you forget to take some wide shots to illustrate the vastness of the park.
Safari Story: An Afternoon at the Elephant Mud Bath
We are on a game drive in the Balule Game Reserve in the mid afternoon. We had just left a very nice leopard sighting and we were now in search of our next wildlife encounter. Our driver took us to a favorite spot for rhino, elephants, and buffalo to have a mudbath. Today a family of elephants was enjoying the baths.
The season has become dry early this year so a good water hole and mud have been a rare find for the animals in the area. Here there is a small area where the water is still at the surface, but elephants can find water by digging.
As we arrive, two juvenile elephants are digging in the small pit to enlarge it. Their sides are caked with fresh mud and dried mud covers their faces and trunks. You can see the enjoyment as the two use their front feet to dig deeper and bring up more water which they stir into mud.
Nearby, a mother elephant and her infant calf eat leaves and rest together in the shade.
Now the juveniles have had enough mud and turn their attention to a tree stump which functions as a favorite scratching post. Each has a go at it displaying crazy poses as they maneuver their bulk to reach the short stump. Each has a try at pulling the stump out in hopes of making it taller and a more excellent tool.
Meanwhile, the baby and mother have a go in the mud followed up by their turn at the scratching post. The little elephant is completely covered in mud and very pleased with her adventure in the mud.
The juveniles have gone back to eating and two older males, still juveniles practice some mock sparring. These playful fights and twisting of trunks is also a bonding and an exercise is establishing and acknowledging rank in the group.
The elephants had some good fun, but they never stop eating for long, so soon they return to eating.
We continue on to watch the sunset and prepare for the wildlife action after dark. We had several encountering on our way back in the dark including a bushbaby (a type of subprimate) and a chameleon.
If you would like to join us on a photo safari visit our safari webpage or check out other posts and links on this blog site.
Adding contrast to an image is a great way to boost the impact of the image, especially African images shot in full sun and those where the animal is camouflaged.
Between the Development tools in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, there are many ways to achieve increased contrast. Here I will employ the Shadows/Highlights Adjustment in Photoshop and compare it to results using the Curves Tool and to using a combination of Development Tools in Lightroom.
My starting point is this image of a male lion who has just fought for his pride females: he is clearly injured, but still has a regal air. I start with a small white balance adjustment in Lightroom (I used the eyedropper on the white fur of his chin to set the balance). Using the right-click to get the menu, I select Edit In Photoshop to open the image and Photoshop. If promoted, choose to edit the image with the Lightroom adjustments. When I am all finished and saved the results, Lightroom will display the two images together – like a before and after. I can then stack them or otherwise keep the two files related.
Use Photoshop for more sophisticated tools and the ability to limit adjustments to certain areas of your image using layers and masks.
For comparison, This image is processed for contrast and sharpness entirely in Lightroom. I started with a Medium Contrast Curve which I tweaked slightly. I added Clarity of +22 and Vibrance of +18 then sharpened with an amount of 56, radius 1.1, Detail of 17, and a high masking value of 85 to limit sharpening to the subject and foreground. This is a great quick result that is good for social media, but if I want to print this or display on a large monitor, I want more specific control.
While the Lightroom tools are very good, Photoshops layers and masks gives you so much more ability to control where the adjustments happen.
I also liked the control and results I achieved with the Shadows/Highlights command better than those I got from Lightroom and the Curves command in PS.
The Shadows / Highlights Adjustment – Found under the Image – Adjustments Menu
This tool has multiple uses including improving images with too much contrast, those with subjects shot against bright backgrounds, and images in need of more contrast (such as this one)
Inside the dialogue box are separate controls for working with the Shadows and in the Highlights.
Each Tonal area has 3 options:
Amount: The amount of adjustment you wish to make
Tone: This asks “how much of the image comprises Shadows (or Highlights)
Here you are setting the definition of Shadows and Highlights based on this specific image and its needs
Radius: Sharpening is achieved by adding a “halo” of light around areas where dark and light meet enhancing the transition. The Radius is how large or how distributed the halo is. If you set the value high, the halo is large and spread and the effect is not has noticeable on smaller areas of change.
Overall you can control the following factors:
Color: This is equivalent to controlling saturation and boosting color saturation along with the exposure contrast changes. Setting this to zero would limit the effect to contrast only: no boost to color contrast.
.Black clip / White Clip Here you are setting what will clip at each end of the light to dark gamut. Clipping is when a value that is not pure white (or black) is now increased to become all white. This is a loss of detail unless the clipping occurs in unimportant areas such as sky or shadow where there was no detail anyway.
When I use the Shadow / Highlight adjustment, I like the distribution of the contrast and the boost to color in just the places I needed it.
Of course you can also boost color when using Curves or any of the other tools to add contrast, but this would involve other tools and adjustment layers. For this image, I can achieve my desired results with just the one command.
Add a final Punch of Sharpness
With the contrast increased to a level I am happy with, I can add a final touch of sharpness. Photoshop has the tools that allow me to add the sharpness to just the areas I want it and to provide it in lesser or not at all to other areas by way of Layers and Layer Masks Lightroom has an adjustment brush that adds Sharpness and Clarity to where you apply it, but this tool is no where near as refined or precise as what you can do in Photoshop.
There are many tools for adding Sharpness in Photoshop – including all the tools under the Filter – Sharpen menu. I will use a High Pass Filter Layer and a Blend Mode to bring out details on the lion’s face and some of the foreground .
High Pass (under the Filter Menu: Other – High pass) makes a monochrome version of your image. The higher the setting the more the edges of items in your images will be highlighted. When combined with a blend mode from the contrasting group (Overlay, Soft Light, etc) it will sharpen and pop details.
Create a copy of your background layer and place it above the layer with your Shadows and Highlights adjustments. Go to Filter – Other – High Pass and adjust the amount until. A setting of 5.0 makes some good edge detail. I can set this tool high because later I can temper the results with layer opacity and the blend mode. I like the effect of Soft Light as the blend mode – Overlay is a stronger effect that also works.
Now to limit the sharpness to just the subject. Add a layer mask and use a soft edged brush at 100% to paint black in the mask at the top of the image then taper the brush opacity down below 100% as you move down the image then work in detail around the lion and select specific grass on which to mask out the sharpness. You can even choose to mute down the sharpening on specific features of the lion and leave other areas at 100% (pure white on the mask). Using a mask, and layer opacity gives you very specific control.
A final touch on the image would be a further color balance adjustment. You can even mask out some of the contrast effect in the Shadows / Highlights layer; for example in the background.
Now save the image as a PSD , layered Tiff, flat Tiff, or jpg and the adjusted file will appear next to the raw (original ) image in Lightroom.
Lightroom tools are very good, but you can gain more artistic control with a few of the very smart tools in Photoshop. Combined with layers and masks, you can achieve precise and professional results in a very short time.
Though I have been leading safaris for many years, almost daily I see things that fascinate and thrill me: I still get as excited to get out there as my first time guests.
After each safari I look back at my favorite moments: an unusual encounter, a very long or intimate view of an animal, or just something fun that happened. I enjoy sharing these and their stories more than just the 4 and 5 star images.
My Favorite Photography Moments from the September 15th Safari 2016
Hippos, Elephants and Rhinos: The big herbavores
This was about the most dramatic hippo I have ever seen. For two nights in a row we got to photograph his thrashing and display of dominance. He was quite a frightening spectacle. Now I think myself and the guests all have the definitive hippo image.
I love rhinos for all of their physical character: almost cute while being so large and imposing. We found this white rhino on a foggy morning. The setting is so different from my usual shots of rhinos on an open grassy plain. I love the silhouette and the full horn (a more rare sight these days since reserves cut them to deter poaching)
This shot sums up the many encounters with elephants we had: very close. It is such an amazing experience to see, hear, and smell such a large and intelligent animal right next to our vehicles
This is a great time of year to watch and photograph elephant (an other animals) having a great time in the mud baths and watering holes. This mother and calf have just loaded up with a layer of mud and are slipping and sliding their way out of the pit.
Big Cat Portraits.
If the last group had a theme is was cheetahs. We had many sightings in many different reserves. This trip it was the whole range of big cats with some very close encounters where it was possible to get some intimate portraits showing character and the essence of life as a big cat.
A leopard relaxing in a favorite tree
An old and dominant male lion leading an evening hunt.
Leopards were a bit more shy on this trip because a pride of lions under a new leader had moved into their territory. Still we managed some close shots of a male relaxing in some brush cover.
A female lion stretches after a short nap.
This is the new leader of the pride. His face shows the struggle it took to get to the top. He is smug now because he is busy mating with his new pride females.
Encounters with rare animals, pretty scenes, and humorous moments
A hooded vulture is a more rare sight. This one is hoping to grab a scrap left by the wild dogs
Wild dogs make quick meals of their kills so I was lucky to get a few shots of this dog enjoying his take.
I love the shape and character of giraffes. This was a fun way to use an image shot in low light.
Ostrich are fast and you have to be ready with fast capture settings for your camera.
Elephants show so much personality that I have to include them in my favorite images. It is entertaining to watch them gather food using skill and selectivity or enjoying a bath. They seems to almost dance at times and look to be enjoying moving in unusual ways. This young elephant is being silly with his trunk and tusk.
Soon I will be announcing my 2017 safari dates. 2016 is nearly full.
Hope you can join me on a safari – you dont have to be a photographer to have an unforgettable wildlife adventure.
Our guests have just returned home and I have spent some time sorting through all of the wonderful photos taken over the past 10 days. As I sort through I am reminded of all the great moment so now is the best time to do this blog post of my favorite memories and photos
Yawns and other behavior
Since big cats spend loads of time resting and stationary, it gives us a chance to observe them and watch familiar behaviors. Our rangers are knowledgeable and I often learn something new. On observing how a lion sits with its paws in front and upturned, the ranger commented that they will lick their paw pads then hold them in this position as a way to cool off. Yawning and dosing off to sleep needs no explanation to those familiar with any type of cat.
If there was an over all theme to this safari, it would have to be cheetahs. We observed and photographed cheetahs on most of our game drives. Often they were pairs of males who live as a coalition cooperating in hunting and keeping themselves safe from rivals, lions, hyenas, and leopards. We were fortunate to see two cheetah on a fresh kill and we could see how one will eat quickly while the other watches for danger. Other sightings were cheetahs roaming and marking their territory.
The light on this photo was so nice that I made two images from the one photo. The cropped in version shows the intense eyes and stare of the cheetah surveying his surroundings for food or danger. The full image has the cheetah in context with the texture of the grass, the camouflage of his fur, and the wide open spaces where cheetahs hunt.
Herds & Mud baths
Photographing individual animals creates a different image compared to a whole herd or mixed herd. A herd creates a negative space that shapes the image as a whole, but within the herd are details and motions of individuals that give interest. In Kruger we see larger herds of Zebra and elephant than on private reserves.
This time of year where water is more scare, the mud baths are coveted by all species. Many of these holes are started by elephants digging for water, which then grow larger and catch rain. The rhinos love to coat themselves in mud then rub parasites such as ticks off their skin. A good coat of mud also keeps off the flies.
Two of my favorite baby African animals are the giraffe and rhino.
The baby giraffe, too short to reach any leaves follows its mother tries to imitate her. They are shy but soon will develop the curiosity of the adult giraffes.
This safari with photographed baby white rhinos of several different ages. This older baby and his mom approached a mother and baby pair where the baby was much younger. The two young rhinos greeted each other with a nose rub, but one of the mothers became protective and drove the other pair away.
Beauty all around
While drama is all around you in Africa in the rugged landscapes and predators, there are some small, quiet, and subtle beautiful things. The sunsets are the best in the world here fueled by the dust in the air causing the sun to flame up into a huge orange fireball. Some of the birds are very colorful such as this Lilac Breasted Roller. The harmonious colors of a waterbuck in his environment framed by his symmetrical face are another example of subtle beauty found all around us here.
Sometimes great moments happen on safari without leaving the lodge. During breakfast, these hungry giraffes came to nibble the leaf buds.
We had so many nice photographic encounters with this group. Everyone was pleased with their photo collections and each returns with some great memories and new friendships.
Other safari reports from past years:
First Day of Safari : http://www.gregorysweeney.photography/?p=3499
Best Time of Year for a South Africa Safari: http://www.gregorysweeney.photography/?p=4056
Safari Report May 2015 : http://www.gregorysweeney.photography/?p=4171
Favorite Moments from September 2014 : http://www.gregorysweeney.photography/?p=3869
We were on a morning game drive when we came upon vultures who had nearly finished a predator’s abandoned impala meal. One vulture stood apart from the rest and did not nudge into the crowd. He was a bit smaller than the others, but this is not why he eats last. He can wait because he knows there will be flesh left for him after the others leave.
Vultures have a specific job to do but to do it right takes specialization. Species of vulture have evolved to specialize in the many jobs needed to process down a carcass. Each vulture species has a different set of tools for different jobs.
The Hooded Vulture is the smallest vulture we see on safari. Its is the only one that can pick the meat out between the ribs and other small crevices. Other vultures with bigger beaks can not reach this meat so the Hooded Vulture eats last.
The Cape Vulture is the most common vulture in South Africa. They have a big strong beak and can feed on any carcass that has been chewed on by a predator. If they are lucky enough to find a freshly dead carcass they might be out of luck. Many hides are too tough for the birds to tear. They have no choice but to wait for one of two things: the carcass splits open from natural process or someone else opens it for them be it predator, scavenger, or another species of vulture
The Lappet Faced Vulture is very large and has the strongest beak that can rip open the tough hides of hippos and similar. Vultures standing around not eating are waiting for the Lappet so they can all enjoy the meal.
South Africa has two species of rhino: the White Rhino which is the largest population and most commonly seen and the Black Rhino which is not as numerous and harder to spot.
The two species are distinct and here are a few of the differences most important to photographers.
White Rhino / Square-lipped Rhino
Black Rhino / Hooked-lipped Rhino
weight up to 2 tons
weight up to 1.2 tons
Grazer: Eats grass
Browser: Eats trees, shrubs and herbs
has a wide mouth suitable for grazing
Has pointed upper lip that can grasp
poor eyesight, good hearing & smell
poor eyesight, good hearing & smell
can live 40 – 45 years
can live 40 – 45 years
White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum)
Has a wide mouth suited to grazing.
Lives in social groups. Tends to be found in groups of 10 – 15 or smaller groups such as mother and small and juvenile calfs, or young males.
2nd largest land mammal next to African Elephant
Has long necks and wide mouths for eating grass. Can not lift head very high – this can cause drowning when in deeper water.
When threatened or nervous they stand in a circle with their rears together forming a barricade with calves near the centre.
The calf walks in front of the mother, with the mother using her horn to direct the calf by tapping it on the rear
Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis)
Browsers. Use their pointed upper lips like a miniature elephant trunk to twist off low growing branches of trees and shrubs. A short neck makes reaching possible.
Have a reputation to be bad tempered, but are actually just shy and inquisitive. They will run towards anything unusual in their surroundings, but usually run away if they smell humans if unfamiliar to them. Some individual rhinos are very nervous and a female with a calf will charge anything she considers a potential threat
It is the fastest rhino with top speed of 55 km/ hr
More likely to be found in solitary keeping to the bushy areas
Has long necks and wide mouths for eating grass. Can not lift head very high – this can cause drowning when in deeper water.
Must drink at least every two to three days unless succulent plants are part of their diet
The female will often walk in front of the calf possibly because she is clearing a pathway of danger and hazard for the baby.
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