A visit to Kruger National Park

In September my wife and I spent two weeks in southern Africa visiting South Africa and Namibia. It was our first visit to the region and we followed a well-trodden tourist itinerary, spending most of our time in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. It was a wonderful trip! Now that the dust has settled here are a few photos and impressions of our experience.

Kruger National Park covers about 7,500 square miles in the north-east of South Africa. It’s a large region – more than twice the size of Yellowstone in the US – that stretches more than 200 miles north to south. The basic setup for visiting is pretty simple. Paved roads connect the various entrance gates to a network of “rest camps”, which offer various levels of accommodation, camping, supplies and services. There are also unpaved roads, which you can avoid if you just want to travel between the entrance gates and most of the rest camps, but which access locations (along rivers for example) that might be good locations for wildlife viewing. You can drive both paved and unpaved roads in your own vehicle, but only between the hours of dawn and dusk. At night you have to be either inside a rest camp (which are gated and fenced) or outside the park. The larger rest camps also offer various activities, primarily game drives in the morning, afternoon or early evening, and walks with rangers in the morning and afternoon. There are a limited number of more specialized activities offered by the National Park, such as longer walking trips with overnight stays in the bush. Some private camps are situated within the park proper, though the main area for private game lodges is the adjacent Sabi Sands. These are much more expensive than the National park accommodation.

What we did. We flew to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP), which has scheduled commuter service from elsewhere in South Africa, rented a car, and drove into the park via the Kruger Gate. We stayed for the first two nights at Skukuza rest camp, which is sprawling but beautifully situated. One evening we ate dinner outside at the camp restaurant watching hippo and buffalo grazing in the river below. At Skukuza we booked night and sunset game drives, the highlights of which were sightings of lion and leopard.

Lioness at night, Skukuza rest camp

Twilight on a sunset drive along unpaved roads near Skukuza

A very relaxed leopard seen on a sunset drive from Skukuza

The lights on Kruger game vehicles are not very powerful – you’ll need very high ISO to get anything in the way of photos after dark.

We also went on a morning walk from Skukuza. The game walks in the Kruger bush are organized as small groups – in our case there were just four of us – accompanied by two armed rangers who lead the group at a moderate pace along game trails for three or so hours, stopping for wildlife and signs of wildlife. It’s much harder to find wildlife on foot than from a vehicle, but we got to see a pair of rhino at close range.

Even without the rhinos, the experience of walking in the bush and hearing from rangers who know what to look for was incredible… a highlight of the trip.

During the day between the organized activities we had good luck driving the S1 toward the Phabeni gate.

Along the S1, Kruger National Park

From Skukuza we spent the better part of a day driving the 150km slowly north to Olifants rest camp. The scenery changes from the dense bush around Skukuza to something closer to my vision of the savanna, before entering hillier terrain around the Olifants river.

North of Lower Sabie rest camp

On the road north to Olifants rest camp

Olifants is a smaller camp than Skukuza, with a wonderful situation atop a hill overlooking the river. You’re too far up to get a close view of the wildlife but it’s a great view.

Olifants rest camp, Kruger National Park

View from Olifants rest camp, Kruger National Park

Visiting at the end of the dry season the weather turned against us at Olifants. A morning walk was cancelled and we spent a cold evening on a sunset drive with the rain lashing through our open-sided safari vehicle. We had moderate success seeing wildlife on a loop along paved and unpaved roads north of the camp. Traffic north of Olifants is pretty sparse.

North of Olifants rest camp

After two nights in Olifants we drove south, stopping only for lions, in time to catch an afternoon flight out of Kruger airport.

Advice for visiting Kruger. Four nights in Kruger does not an expert make, even on the internet, but I did learn a few things that weren’t obvious (to me) in advance.

Choosing Kruger rest camps. At busy times you need to book accommodation at Kruger rest camps in advance, and if you leave it too late – as we did – the choice is limited. Reading advice on the web we worried that we’d screwed up because the “best” camps (often suggested to be Satara and Lower Sabie) weren’t available. We worried too much. At least for a first visit Skukuza and Olifants made great places to stay.

Distances. The speed limit in Kruger is 50 km/h. If you’re driving to get somewhere and stop only for lions it’s OK to plan on averaging 40-50 km/h. If you’re driving while actively trying to spot wildlife, 20-30 km/h is more like it. We didn’t have noticeably better luck on unpaved versus paved roads, perhaps because on an unpaved road the driver has to devote most of their attention to the road.

Seeing wildlife. In Kruger the wildlife is pretty spread out, and at least in the south of the park the bush is dense and visibility is limited. The name of the game is covering miles while keeping a close watch for anything within sight of the road. You win on an organized tour because the vehicles are higher off the ground, the driver can spot wildlife you’d miss, and you can be out later in the day and into the night, but it’s perfectly possible to see most of the wildlife on your own.

Seeing predators. The big cats are easiest to find at night. During the day you might still see a lion, but it will likely be asleep and hard to photograph if it’s in the bush. We saw a hyena near the road, but only because its kill was nearby.

Hyena by the road north of Skukuza

Other wildlife. We saw one snake – basking on the road after sundown – and countless birds both beautiful and big and ugly.

Lilac-breasted roller

Kruger wifi. As of September 2016 very limited wi-fi was available at the Skukuza coffee shop, but not anywhere else. Cell phone service was available in most but not all places along the roads we drove.

Kruger accommodation. The cottages in the rest camps are rustic rather than luxurious… expect to share rooms with a healthy contingent of spiders and the odd lizard. By European or north American standards, however, they’re very reasonably priced.

Organizing an independent trip to Kruger. We booked everything ourselves, using the normal travel websites for cars and flights and the official SANParks for activities and accommodation within Kruger. It was pretty easy. The setup is a bit different from the US National Parks, but it’s a straightforward and professional operation.

Would I recommend Kruger? Absolutely. We took better photographs in Etosha, but for a first experience of wildlife in southern Africa Kruger did not disappoint in any way.

Planet Earth 2

I finished watching the BBC’s Planet Earth 2. From a photographer’s perspective it was, of course, an incredible achievement. I enjoyed watching it immensely. You could grab dozens of 4k frames from the best sequences – of snow leopards in the Himalaya, of lions hunting a giraffe, of Komodo dragons fighting – and have a career’s worth of classic images. At such time as mere mortals can capture raw video at 4k or higher resolution it’s clearly the way to go for fast moving wildlife spectacles. (As long as you can nail focus, which even the BBC crews failed to manage on occasion!)

I thought the single best sequence was that of snakes pursuing iguanas on the Galapagos. Apart from being a genuinely new (and somewhat horrifying) thing to see, the coverage and editing here really did create the “cinematic” feeling that was apparently one of the goals of the show.



The use of new technology was a mixed bag. The very extensive deployment of remote cameras fleshed out the snow leopard sequence and was essential for telling a story, but the human-shot footage of leopards fighting was the highlight. And the use of drones was more sparing that I expected. If you’re the BBC, you have the resources (and ability to gain permission) to seek new unobstructed angles from the air for days on end, but that ability wasn’t really showcased here.

Where Planet Earth 2 disappointed was as a set of films. Whether deliberately or not, the individual sequences worked best as You Tube clips, and could have been edited together in random order to almost interchangeable result. If there was any guiding creative vision behind the series it was certainly not evident in the banal narration, which while avoiding the worst of the anthropomorphism seen in some previous series did little beyond furnishing a random collection of interesting facts. In southern Africa, we saw tourist T-shirts everywhere with the cliched nugget of wisdom:

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

…and that pretty much sums up the level of scientific understanding Planet Earth 2 seemed to be striving for. Which is a tremendous shame. Apart from the fact that lots of people don’t understand the first thing about Darwin, there’s been a revolution in the years since David Attenborough’s original “Life on Earth” in understanding evolution (not least from a genetic perspective) that could have been told here. There’s been an even more profound change in our view of environmental issues, but apart from various disconnected mentions of global warming any environmental message was also missing in action. Particularly jarring was the “Cities” episode, which by focusing on a handful of examples (pigeons, monkeys in an Indian temple) managed to obscure what is surely the tremendous damage done to the natural world through urbanization. Moreover the stand-out sequence in “Cities” – of leopards hunting in Mumbai – was photographically stunning but borderline culturally insensitive… I doubt the BBC would be celebrating the co-existence of humans and large predators if the latter were injuring hundreds of people in London.

The producers of the original Planet Earth are making “Our Planet” for Netflix in 2019, no doubt with an even bigger budget. Surely they will capture some even more amazing footage, I hope in the service of a compelling scientific, environmental, or orther story they want to tell.

Hiking Iceland: Skaftafell to Kristínartindar

Back in early September my brother and I spent a week hiking in south-east Iceland. Our favorite hike was the loop from the visitors’ center at Skaftafell to Kristínartindar, in Vatnajökull National Park. We didn’t quite make it to Kristínartindar – stopping on the saddle just below the peak – but nonetheless the variety of scenery and views of glaciers from this trail are out of this world! For sure it’s one of the best day hikes in Iceland, or indeed anywhere.



In search of lions

I’m not yet over the thrill of seeing lions in the wild. A leopard or a cheetah may be harder to see, and equally beautiful, but nothing stops traffic in one of Africa’s parks as surely as a lion. Visiting Kruger national park in South Africa, and Etosha national park in Namibia, we saw lions on about half a dozen separate occasions. Rather than just post the best images I obtained, what follows is a chronological list of our sightings in an attempt to give an idea of the sorts of different pictures that are possible. In that spirit, there’s deliberately no great consistency in the processing I’ve applied!

Lions are nocturnal, and if one’s sole goal is to see a lion a game drive at night is a good option. You’re not allowed to blunder around after dark yourself in either Kruger or Etosha, but some of the Kruger camps offer guided night drives in open sided vehicles. These leave shortly after dark, and give you typically a couple of hours during which both guide and visitors scan the roadside with spotlights for wildlife.

Leaving Skukuza rest camp in Kruger on our first day in the park, a pair of lions stood on the verge no more than a mile or so outside the gates.

lion1

In addition to spotting the game, the guides on one of these excursions give a commentary on what you’ve seen (normally after the vehicle has stopped, photographs have been taken, and the animal has moved off into the bush). I’ve done guided drives before in Denali and in Yellowstone during winter, and it’s a similar experience. In Kruger, one of our guides suggested that lions hang out near the paved roads because prey, fleeing in panic, will often slip trying to cross the tarmac. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but it’s certainly the case that our lions showed very little inclination to head into the bush. Despite the presence of a large vehicle, filled with tourists doing a terrible job of keeping quiet, they walked along as the vehicle kept pace without paying us very much attention.

lion2

Later that night, we found a second small group resting at a waterhole.

lion3

This kind of sighting is a tough gig photographically. For some reason I’d supposed that the spotlights on a safari vehicle would be extremely bright, but they’re not. The above images are at ISO 6,400 and 12,800, at shutter speeds as low as a tenth of a second. High ISO and image stabilization are essential, and even then you’ll likely be looking at black and white conversion and / or a slightly arty look.

During the day lions will often be resting up. In Kruger, even during the dry season, there’s quite a bit of undergrowth, and a resting lion is hard to spot even at quite close range. A lion jam of cars on the road is more conspicuous, and we caught fleeting views of lions on a couple of occasions that way. Mostly you end up not with artistic glimpses of a lion, but simply obscured and unsatisfactory images. We waited for the lions to get up, move out of the undergrowth, or in fact to do anything, but a fed and watered lion is not in a hurry during the day.

lion4

Moving on to Etosha national park in Namibia the quest changed completely. Etosha in the dry season (we visited in mid-September) is very dry, and predators and prey alike are guaranteed to be found in the vicinity of the park’s waterholes. Driving up to Nebrownii on our first day in the park a pair of lions sat on one side of the water, while springboks, giraffes and onyx milled around uncertainly on the other side. Some of the park’s lions are fitted with tracking collars (typically males, and one of the females in a group), but apart from that the environment is much more open and easier photographically than in Kruger.

lion5

The scene at Nebrownii changed as the morning wore on, slowly. A jackal came to drink, and eventually departed. A giraffe, either paralyzed by fear or desperately thirsty, approached the water at an agonizingly slow pace before eventually deciding not to risk drinking. A third lion came to the water on the other side, prompting the springboks to retreat to some invisible line demarcating safety.

lion6

This is probably my favorite image from the morning.

lion7

Around noon, a trio of elephants appeared on the horizon and made their way to the water. The lions gave them plenty of space, but there were plenty of opportunities for pictures that – if not actually showing interactions between elephants, lions and giraffes – at least had them in the same frame.

lion8

lion9

After a break for lunch, we returned to the waterhole. Variants of the same scene were still playing out. This lion looked a bit thin.

lion10

Photographically, our best images came on our last day in Etosha. Entering the park from the south as the sun rose, lionesses were grooming each other next to the water while a male lion – unfortunately tagged – sat nearby near a fresh kill. The image below was shot at long range… 400mm on a Canon 7D cropped sensor body.

lion11

After maybe ten minutes, the lionesses got up and followed a trail that crossed the road just in front of our vehicle.

lion12

I kept shooting, but took care to also just enjoy the experience of seeing these magnificent cats at a range of no more than ten yards.

lion13

Hiking Fimmvörðuháls Pass

Video shot on a hike from Skógafoss to the Fimmvörðuháls Pass in the south of Iceland. Done as an out and back trip from Skógar this makes for an 18-20 mile day, with about 3,500 feet of net elevation gain, that takes you past spectacular waterfalls up into a barren landscape between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. The volcanic eruption in 2010 that closed much of northern Europe’s airspace started up here, and the aftermath is still very evident.



South Africa and Namibia

I’m back from two weeks in southern Africa, the photographic portion of which included stops in Kruger National Park, Etosha National Park, and the Namib desert. The trip was actually a honeymoon, so we planned it more to get a taste for a new (to us) part of the world than to get photos… but still we made plenty of pre-dawn starts and came back with a hefty haul of images!

I’ll likely post more detailed reflections on the trip once the dust has settled and my evaluation of the images can be separated from the emotions of seeing leopards, cheetahs and lions in the wild for the first time. For now here’s a taster of some of the sights.

Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Giraffes, Kruger National Park

Giraffes, Kruger National Park

The Namib desert

The Namib desert

At the waterhole, Etosha National Park

At the waterhole, Etosha National Park

All of these photos were taken with a Canon 5D Mk3 and the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II lens, both of which performed superbly throughout the trip.

Iceberg beach, Iceland

Staying this week in a hotel mid-way between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón it’s very easy to visit the beach where small chunks of ice from the lagoon wash up on the black sand. Every day the scene is different, depending on the vagaries of the weather, tide and ocean, and my brother and I have been experimenting with different images. Last night I tried moderately long exposures with an ultra-wide 18mm lens. You need to setup your tripod close to where the waves run-up on the beach to make an interesting image of the water swirling past the ice. It requires… bravery…

Brave

Brave

Iceberg beach Iceland

Braver

Foolish

Foolish

In an attempt to keep my feet dry I let go of the camera, and just a couple of inches of water very nearly toppled the tripod! I’m fond of the adage that there’s no value in buying gear that you can’t afford to use and potentially lose, but after this near miss I moved back a pace or two. No harm done… just a few drops of water on the lens that cleaned up fine.

Quite happy with the final “pre-inundation” image, which is a bit different from my favorite from last year shot on black and white film.

A weekend in County Mayo

A spur of the moment weekend in Westport, on the west coast of Ireland. The weather was typically “Irish”, i.e. pretty terrible, but this is still a wonderful part of the country to explore. The road along the coast here is dubbed the “Wild Atlantic Way”, and for once the tourist designation is spot on.

Doolough valley, County Mayo

Doolough valley, County Mayo

Coast, County Mayo

Coast, County Mayo

Where the wild ones are

The wildest hiking in North America is surely to be found in Alaska and northern Canada. There are plenty of challenging hikes in the mountains and canyons of the lower 48 states too, of course, but in most cases the difficulties owe a lot to either the length of the trail or the need for technical climbing or canyoneering skills. In the icy north, by contrast, the sheer remoteness is such that only a handful of hikers tackle even the easiest non-technical hikes in some of the region’s National Parks.

My own experience in Alaska and northern Canada is limited to day hikes and short backpacks in Alaska and the Yukon. In the course of planning those trips, however, I’ve read of plenty of other hikes that piqued my interest. Here are five that – although I may never get around to them – look like incredible adventures that could be tackled by mere mortals with appropriate planning…

Kluane’s Donjek Route

Kluane National Park, in Canada’s Yukon, is a park I’ve actually been to. With my brother we hiked the park’s most popular trail, the Slims West route to Observation mountain. The scenery was outstanding, the level of adventure (mostly arising from the unbridged crossings of glacial creeks) significant but manageable, and it remains the best hike I’ve done to date. The video below (refresh the page if the embed isn’t visible) gives a taste of the terrain.



The Slims West trail, however, is not even close to being the most adventurous thing to do in Kluane. There’s exceptional rafting on the Alsek river, while staying on foot the Donjek route to view the Donjek glacier may well be one of the best backpacking trips in North America. The route is only about 60 miles, but it’s recommended to plan for 8-10 days in the wilderness. There are no major technical difficulties, the main challenge is the remoteness and the need for careful route finding in the trail-less portions of the hike.

The Goat Trail, Wrangell-St Elias National Park

The day hikes out of McCarthy in Alaska’s Wrangell-St Elias national park have been on my to-do list for many years. Going beyond those, there’s what looks to be an excellent short backpack that crosses the Root glacier and returns to town via the Kennicott glacier. That looks doable, but I’d want to have more experience on the ice than I have right now to feel comfortable planning it. Easier in some respects (though not in others!) is the The Goat Trail, probably the best-known longer hike in the park. It’s a fly-in / fly-out route between two bush airstrips that looks to access spectacular scenery, and which for the most part is relatively easy. There are, however, some potentially tough creek crossings, along with the route’s signature difficulty of a scree slope traverse that requires finding the right trail to accomplish safely. I’m confident we could do this hike, though it would be a step up in challenge compared to anything we’ve done up to now.

McGonagall Pass hike, Denali National Park

The closest you can get to Denali along the park road is near the Eielson visitor center. If the weather is favorable – often it’s not – a short hike to the top of the ridge above the visitor center affords an amazing vista of North America’s premier mountain.

Denali from the Eielson Ridge

Denali from the Eielson Ridge

It’s hard to see that view and not want to get closer! It doesn’t even seem that hard. From the visitors’ center, it looks like you could simply hike down to the valley bottom and climb up the other side to get a better view. There’s no trail, however, and experience elsewhere in Alaska and the Yukon makes me think that such a plan is likely foolhardy… it’s almost certainly much harder than it looks! Instead, the accepted route to better Denali views is the hike to McGonagall Pass, which starts from the end of the park road near Wonder Lake. The McGonagall pass hike is featured in one of the those arbitrary-but-amusing lists of best hikes in the world, and I might well have tried it already but for one obstacle – it requires fording the McKinley river. The McKinley is no mere creek but rather a major glacial river, and one can find entertaining but sobering web accounts of the difficulties it presents. At the very least this is a trip that would have to be planned around the times of year when the crossing is most feasible.

Llewellyn Glacier overlook, Atlin

The Llewellyn glacier is the source of the Yukon river, and to really stand tall on Facebook it’s possible to traverse the Juneau icefield from the Alaskan capital all the way to Atlin. That, however, counts as an expedition rather than a hike. Visiting the toe of the glacier is altogether easier – it’s a couple of hours boat ride on Atlin lake plus less than a mile on a trail to the vicinity of the glacier’s terminus. Apparently water taxis can be hired in Atlin to facilitate this trip, though more detailed information is somewhat sparse. What I’d like to do, however, is not merely to see the glacier but rather to hike to the prominent overlook on the ridge above the trail. I’ve seen photos from this spot, which is amazing, but have never been able to find out whether the climb is easy or hard. If it’s doable, combining a couple of nights camping in the area with a day hike to the overlook looks like a great trip.

Akshayuk Pass, Auyuittuq National Park

Heading even further north, there’s Baffin Island. Polar bears mean there’s not a lot of hiking you can even consider doing independently on Baffin Island, with the possible exception of the Akshayuk Pass hike (at least the out-and-back inland section). As these things go this trip is fairly easy to organize – requiring only planes to Iqualuit and Pangnirtung followed by a boat ride along the fjord to the start of the hike. Numerous trip reports are available, and the main difficulties appear to be the changeable weather and (as usual) glacial creeks that need fording. The Baffin Island scenery is stunning.