Tag Archives: South Africa

This time last year….

I’ve enjoyed August this year for a different reason to last.  This year it has been a month of r and r after a pretty much non-stop spell since 2012 began – and well appreciated it has been on my part too. Last year it was almost all spent travelling in southern Africa and as seems to be increasingly the case these days unless the images have a very specific purpose that they are heading off for, I still have a considerable amount of Gb still to look at let alone process from the 4 weeks on the road then.

Given that the same is on the cards for this time next year too I have started to catch up with some of the images before they simply get superseded and in particular some of the floral highlights.

As a country South Africa is globally important for it’s flowers and plant life – the southern cape fynbos habitat representing the smallest of only six floral kingdoms in the world and found only here.  I certainly found them colourful and also good perches for the birdlife I might find myself more naturally drawn towards such as this Southern Double Collared Sunbird.

Head further north on the way to Namibia though and you pass through the Namaqualand region in Northern Cape province – famous for it’s fantastic show of flowers in the Spring months.  The timing was just about right for this so we planned a couple of nights stop over both heading north as well as south again a couple of weeks later as the precise timing of the displays depends very much on when precisely the first winter rains fell and we couldn’t be sure when this would be when we were making plans several months earlier.  Last year proved though to be one of the best for many in terms of both quantity and also just how early the fantastic sweeps of colour, in particular the bright orange Namaqua Daisies, were to be found all around the region.

Simply driving on the main N7 trunk road you couldn’t fail to be awestruck by the sweeping vistas of colour – at it’s peak in the middle hours of the day when all the flowers would be fully open and pointing towards the sun – and marvel at how they provided such a dramatic contrast to the otherwise bare rock of the surrounding habitat. The fact that the ubiquitous water pumps were able to provide additional man-made element to some compositions is a reminder of just how dry an environment this is and how sparse it looks for the remaining 11 or so months of the year.

Photographing here is certainly about the big vista – judicious use of a polariser and dropping down to ground level added some different angles to work with too.

Having said that I particularly enjoyed the close-up, narrow depth of field and solid blocks of colour approach in some of the Spring woodland flower photography I did at home earlier in the year so this array of species and shades gave me the opportunity to try to adapt some of that here too – it was just a bit more uncomfortable on the elbows on rocky scree like this compared to the mud and leaves of an oak woodland!

Seeing and photographing amazing scenes like this is a good reminder that nature photography is about so much more than birds and mammals, and although they will always remain favourites of mine then continuing to broaden my approach will be as much of an equal priority for sure, and we’re certainly coming into a good season to be doing so here in the UK now too: bring on autumn!

False dawn

I read with dismay last week of a Great White Shark attack in False Bay, South Africa.  Dismay as the headlines were once again focussed on the aggression of the shark missing the fact that the beach had been closed and very clear advice given not to swim off what is a very popular surfing beach at Fish Hoek – and these were consciously ignored.  Why is it that we are surprised as a species when we go into the realms of others that they just don’t conform to our rules all the time?

False Bay is a beautiful but harsh environment, and I was fortunate to spend some time there this summer.  Nestling to the east of the Cape of Good Hope it offers some dramatic coastline and when the wind blows some awesome waves too.

Along it’s shoreline are the only mainland breeding colonies of the fast diminishing African Penguin, and the threatened African Black Oystercatchers can be found on the sandy beaches too, their lot improving thanks to the ban of 4 wheel drive vehicles there now.

Head out into the bay itself early in the morning and not only are there some beautiful sunrises to be seen but the real drama of the place unfolds.

It’s a time when the Cape Fur Seals are returning from night-time feeding sorties, heading back to the sanctuary of the huge colony to be found on a wave beaten rock almost central to the bay and appropriately named Seal Island.

At this time of year in particular there is a greater percentage of young seals in the sorties and as the groups return from their feeding they often struggle to keep up and can become isolated.

Their vulnerability is to the predator at the top of this particular food chain and who has been drawn here for just these few key months of the year based on knowledge and experience that these hunting opportunities are at their most fruitful now; the Great White Shark.

I spent a number of mornings in the waters off Seal Island in the company of undoubted expert (and a pretty decent photographer too) Chris Fallows, and his understanding of just how the predation here works is based on years of simply being there each and every day that the weather allows.  The first hour of the day is when most of the action is likely to take place and unlike any other form of photography that I’ve undertaken before there was simply no predictability as to what was going to happen where in a fairly large expanse of water too.

The clue is often in the surrounding Gulls – they seem to know when an attack is imminent or happening and sudden movements of them in a particular direction would see our boat turn and head at great speed to the site: a real adrenalin rush and one where a good sense of balance is very necessary too.

Attacks when they happen are challenging to photograph but the drama is unquestionable, and watching a small seal dodging the thrusts of a shark countless times his size is uncomfortably absorbing drama.  Statistically seals do have the upper hand and if they survive the first rush from the depths below by the shark then their manouverability is that much the greater and they tend to make it away, often though bearing some dramatic scars.

As I spent more mornings out there and whilst my natural instincts were very much on the side of the seal, I became increasingly in awe of the Great Whites – not only their extraordinary hunting capabilities, but their grace and unbelievable power. This last appreciation though was only fully realised on my final morning when the daily tow of a decoy seal behind the boat (only undertaken after the main hunting period and for a short amount of time) resulted in two breach attacks.

It’s hard to describe the adrenalin rush that this brings or the speed and power that you are witnessing, especially after a longish spell of concentration through your camera lens on the bobbing decoy and absolutely no warning or indication as to when (or if) anything is going to happen.  I consider my reactions to be pretty decent but from first frame to last with a Canon 1D Mk4 that shoots at 10 frames a second there were only 6 frames in each burst – less than a second for a 3 or 4 metre long animal to lift itself clear of the water having pinpointed a target in the process and then landed back: truly awesome.

As well as being an amazing experience (and fantastic if challenging photographically…and yes there will be a Natures Images trip there soon) it’s a salutory reminder that this is the part of the world where given a level set of circumstances the Great White Shark is dominant.  The fact that we fail to recognise that at times or more callously look to use the powers that we have to exploit this magnificent creature and its relations so relentlessly in the name of a food delicacy is more of a reflection on us as a species I’m afraid.