Monday, June 30, 2014

Chobe River Day 3: Unimogging into the park


ODP Blog - Ultimate Chobe: Kamikaze-style attacks on a Kori Bustard

We rolled in Pangolin's modified Mercedes-Benz Unimog into Chobe National Park this morning.


IMG_4425Unimog up close and personal.

Our attempt to see lions was a bit of a bust. But the birders were happy to see a variety of bird activities.

I made note of the wildlife wandering the grounds at Chobe Safari Lodge.

Baboons and Warthogs at Chobe Safari Lodge

Here are my keepers from
Chobe River Day 3

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chobe River Day 2: A swarm of birds


ODP Blog - Ultimate Chobe: Birds in their Thousands

There was a cloud of birds on the horizon when we set out on the Chobe River this day. Our guide directed the driver to that cloud. We subsequently shot a sky full of birds before moving along the river to other subjects. Between the elephants, crocodiles, hippos, cormorants, fish eagles, monitor lizards, and kudu, we came across a troop of baboons that included some energetic, rambunctious youngsters who kept our shutters clicking.


Here's a shot of my room's interior at Chobe Safari Lodge. Very concrete and modern, richly appointed with lighting fixtures and art.


My keepers from
Chobe River Day 2.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pangolin Ultimate Chobe Day 1: A busy day on the river


I headed back to OR Tambo for my South African Airlinks flight from Johannesburg to Kasane. Unlike Air Botswana, SAA flies a jet from JNB to BBK, so even though the distance is greater, the time is shorter. Like the flight to Maun, it was headed north, into the sun.

I nicked a pen from the Kalahari Plains Camp so I'd have an easier time getting through Customs / Passport control this time. Upon emerging from the airport with my luggage, I immediately found my Pangolin/ODP contacts, and we were off to the lodge, about five minutes from the airport.

Kasane is a tourist town up in the northeast corner of Botswana, and Chobe is a very popular national park.

Here's ODP's description of the photo tour.
ODP's Pangolin Ultimate Chobe

Even more detail in the information and guidelines.

Unlike Machaba Camp and Kalahari Plains, this lodge was large, sprawling, and relatively loaded with amenities. There was (underpowered) wifi in the registration area, a television in the room. The room was large, and there were two floors in my building (hotel style).

Pangolin has an extensive collection of camera gear for you to use while on safari. I was given a Nikon D3s with a Nikon 200-400mm lens (over $10k worth of gear) to use. The challenge was that I never used a top-tier Nikon body or this particular lens, so there was some learning curve to climb while trying to catch on-the-spot-right-this-moment wildlife action. The operational / logistical differences between my newer D800E and the D3s were… more than you'd think. 

The river was filled with big pontoon boats that dwarfed our wee photog skiff. It was a Saturday, and it seemed everyone was on the river. Thankfully, it was never that busy again while we were there.

Here's our specially tricked-out photographers' boat. The boat is covered, the chairs swivel all the way, the Wemberly mounts are attached to the chairs via multiple elbows, all of which are adjustable and lockable. Each chair has two beverage holders to secure "image stabilizers". Well-desinged!

On the river, we had plenty of elephants, a kingfisher, monitor lizard, thirsty giraffe, cape buffalo, and hippos. We even saw a confrontation between a buffalo and an elephant!

My keepers from

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Stop at Sandton

I was happy to have a few days back in civilization, with unlimited "free" wifi. Accessing the Radisson Blu Gautrain is quirky, though the process was the same for City Lodge at OR Tambo. You take an elevator from street-level to hotel registration, then a different set of elevators takes you to your room.

The registration/lobby area was heavily perfumed with a masculine cologne fragrance. I have to presume that this was to counter the permeating odor of motor vehicle exhaust. Johannesburg is a big city, Sandon is a bustling region within that city, and South Africa doesn't regulate tailpipe emissions the way we do in California. And it shows smells.

The workout room (again, open 24 hours) was useful.

Radisson Blu 2

And it afforded a nice view of the local, modern architecture. That's the train station at center-right.


A window between the bedroom and bathroom made me think this design esthetic was a Johannesburg mainstay.

IMG_4398The strangest element of the bathroom was its completely open design. Water from the shower is free to splash into the bathtub and onto the floor near the sink and the toilet. (Enjoy the distortion of a close-quarter, vertical iPhone pano.)

I admit I don't get out as much as some do, but I had never seen a design like this.

When getting out of the hotel, it was usually to go to the huge nearby mall, Sandton City.

But I did get my requisite shot of the giant statue of Nelson Mandela at Mandela Square, a tighter, more boutique-y mall connected to the larger megamall that is Sandton City.


While in Sandton, I made my quadrennial sacrifice to soccer by sitting through the USA's defeat at the hands of Germany in the World Cup. Now I'm good until 2018.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kalahari Plains Day 4: The black-maned lion


A male lion had been roaring near the camp throughout the night. I have to say that in the nighttime quiet of the Kalahari, the roar of an adult male lion gathers your attention. You know exactly what that sound is.

We set out to find him on the morning drive. Soon enough, we spotted him. The light was poor this early, but we kept on him and the light grew better.

He was out marking the perimeter of his territory. Later, we found two females with six cubs. All had full bellies, so it appears they made a kill while the male was out. They dashed off into the bush before I could amass a full measure of photos.

A view from out on the plains.

Kalahari Plains  29

After the morning drive and breakfast, I was driven to the Kalahari Plains airstrip for flights to Maun and back to Johannesburg. I was able to catch some video of the Wilderness Caravan coming in to land at the bush airstrip.

Landing at Kalahari Plains Camp

Air Botswana got me back to OR Tambo in Johannesburg.


From there, I jumped on the Gautrain and rode out to Sandton.


In Sandton, I lodged at the Radisson Blu Gautrain, conveniently located across the street from the train station.

My keepers from
Kalahari Day 4.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Kalahari Plains Day 3: A guide of my own


I guess it was Sunday, and the couple I'd been game driving with had to head back to civilization/work. So I had the guide to myself.

Here's what it looked at morning coffee break.

Kalahari Plains  24

Kalahari Plains  26Did I mention it gets cold in the desert overnight in the winter? Here's the only iPhone selfie I took in the Kalahari. The hooded rain jacket / wind breaker it on top of the fleece. In the truck, I had a poncho on top of that, and a blanket over my legs with a bush baby (hot water bottle) on my lap. Fingerless gloves would have been, well, handy. But I did not have such things.

The wildlife was somewhat quite this day, but we did see some nice giraffe activity, a lilac-breasted roller that I couldn't properly capture in flight (despite having my chances). Kudu, jackal, and a young impala.

My keepers from
Kalahari Day 3.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Kalahari Plains Day 2: Deception Valley


The plan for the day was to leave the camp and venture out to Deception Valley for the day. That meant we'd have lunch brought to us out in the valley.

Kalahari Plains  18

We managed to see plenty of oryx and parades of ostriches. We came across a goofy-looking yellow-billed hornbill with a serious demeanor. We tracked a leopard for a while. She annoyed a pair of jackals by walking through their territory. They complained; she ignored them. We watched a cheetah zip by. I snapped 30 shot of her; one of them turned out.

I was getting to enjoy the view from my cabin.


When night fell, I thought I'd give another try at a Milky Way time-lapse. This time I set the rig out in the back of my cabin so as to get a tree in the foreground. You have to relax about setting a $3k camera with a $3k lens on a $1k tripod out in the desert sand for an unattended 4-hour exposure.

Here's what I got.

Kalahari Night 2

My keepers from
Kalahari Day 2.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Okavango Machaba Day 5 and Kalahari Plains Day 1

ODP Blog - Okavango Machaba: Wild Dogs vs Hippo and Elephants vs Lechwe

I departed from Machaba Camp following the morning game drive. The photo highlight of the drive was a bee eater who wasn't shy about being photographed, and whose favorite stick was close to the road.


We had a larger aircraft for the flight to Maun, and a slightly larger plane for the flight from Maun to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), where Wilderness' Kalahari Plains camp was situated.
Wilderness Kalahari Plains Camp Website

Some snaps of my digs at Kalahari Plains Camp.

a. Exterior ground floor
Kalahari Plains  12

b. Interior (bedding and table), the washroom is through the door to the right
Kalahari Plains  13

c. Up top!
Kalahari Plains  19

I was "on my own" at Kalahari; this was not an ODP photo tour. After settling in, we went out for an afternoon game drive. During our sundownder, a jackal came in for close inspection. We followed the guide's instructions to remain silent and still, and the jackal moved on. Curious, but not sociable.

The skies were clear and the star were bright. Kalahari Plains Camp's lodgings have sleep-out roofs. Mind you, it was winter here south of the equator. The cold nights in the Okavango Delta (Machaba) necessitated the use of hot water bottles ("bush babies"). The bush babies were even more critical here in the desert. Since I wear corrective lenses, keeping under the stars (in temperatures that approached freezing) did not appeal to me.

But nighttime time lapses certainly did. So I mounted the wide angle lens and set the tripod up on the sleep-out roof, pointed south. I set the camera for time-lapse mode and let it go until the battery ran out. Two 25-second exposures were made per minute, and the frame-rate compresses about 4 hours to about 15 seconds.

Kalahari Night I [All videos look best full screen and full resolution]

My keepers from
Machaba Camp Day 5

My keepers from
Kalahari Plains Day 1.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Okavango Machaba Day 4: Tracking the leopard


ODP Blog - Okavango Machaba: Hunting With a Leopard in the Dark

The bees were intense as the wind had died down. Having been stung by one the previous day, I allowed a few to drown themselves in my mango juice. But ODP's guide, Andrew, came to their rescue. He scooped them out and rinsed them off with water. He won The Spirit of John Muir award in my mind. Muir might not have done so well in Africa with his practice to giving freely of himself to the mosquitoes. I guess the bees are a seasonal thing, and it was their season. Still, I thought of calling the camp "Machabee".

Large animal skulls are used around Machaba Camp as convenient guideposts ("Head down this path and take a right at the hippo head.")


Today's animal roll call included giraffe, lechwe, yet another African antelope (whose name eludes me), a bird that's headed for extinction, and the beautiful lilac-breasted roller.


After sundown, we got hippopotamus and leopard. My skills on nighttime / spotlight shooting were non-existent: I did my best to guess and check. But I'm sure my colleagues got better results. 

My keepers from 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Okavango Machaba Day 3: An elly in my yard


ODP Blog - Okavango Machaba: A Leopard Spots us First

We embark on game drives in two separate vehicles and chart independent paths. So the description on the blog doesn't always match my personal experience. And ODP's reporting priorities don't necessarily correspond to mine.

In any case, I awoke from my afternoon nap to find an elephant munching the grass across the Khwai out in my front yard. In my dazed excitement, I recorded a vertical video. Please don't judge my parents harshly.

Elly Selfie! (The camera has a wireless cable release attached, controlled by the iPhone.) And yes, that is a Camera Sutra shirt I'm wearing.


There was some pretty serious zebrage in my set from the afternoon drive. But we also spotted a leopard, so to speak.

After dinner, we went out for some night sky photography. Suddenly I was in my element as wide angle lenses and tripods were called for. Our merry band of wildlife photographers were rich with long glass; I'm not sure how many traveled to the bush with a Zeiss Distagon T*2.8/15, a Gitzo GT3541L and a cable release because… why would you? We did a bit of light painting on a random snag, and one wee (5-minute) star trail shot before heading back to camp.


My keepers from
Machaba Camp Day 3.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Okavango Machaba Day 2: Elephant encounters


ODP Blog - Okavango Machaba - Wild Dogs Scrutinise Us – during our Sundowner Break

We have time between morning game drives and evening game drives. Sometimes I nap. Sometimes I watch the Khwai river go by. At night, the river's hippos laugh and the trees' Franklins fight.

Machaba Camp 6

We encountered a herd of elephants on our evening game drive.

Later, we encountered a bull along the river road and had ourselves "a moment".

The photo highlight of the day, for me, was a reflection in the gloaming. My fellow travelers were quite energized by an encounter with wild dogs and were discussing it at the sundowner. ODP guide, Andrew, and I were drawn to this scene and stepped away from the festivities to capture it. My landscape tendencies were showing.

My keepers from
Machaba Day 2.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Okavango Machaba Day 1: A trio of lions and a loud but unseen stampede


I had a day to equilibrate before traveling from Johannesburg's OR Tambo Airport to Maun, Botswana, and on to Machaba Camp.

Air Botswana flew me on the modern equivalent of a DC-8 (large passenger propeller plane) from JNB to MUB. The flight from Maun to Machaba's bush airstrip was a bit less spacious.

Machaba Camp 1

Machaba Camp opened just last year.
Machaba Camp Website

The main lodge is an open, tented dining and lounge area.


Here's the view from the main lodge. Beyond the idled makoro is the gentle Khwai River. The other side of the river is the Moremi Game Reserve.


The rooms are in tents, which are protected by tents! Here's a shot of my lodgings.

Machaba Camp 8

And what it looks like with me on the inside. The window covers come down at night. The tent entrance zips, but there are no locks. Camp protocol is that guest are to be escorted to and from their tents after dark, as we are among the hippos, lions, and wild dogs.

Machaba Camp 7

ODP provides a detailed document for what to expect for their Machaba Camp photo tour.
ODP Machaba 2014 - Information and Guidelines

Their host photographers also blog each day's events.
ODP Blog - Okavango Machaba Camp - Three Lions Cause a Wildlife Stampede after a Swim In the Dark

A pano view from the game drive truck (Land Rover with three tiered benches and a canopy):

Machaba Camp 3

The focus of the afternoon's game drive was a trio of lions: one male and two females. We arrived near the end of their nap and waited them out. They slowly stirred and rose, making their way to the Khwai River. They swam across and out of range of our cameras. But soon afterr the crossing, a stampede of zebras and who knows what else could be heard from across the river (in the Moremi Game Reserve).

Here are my keepers from
Machaba Day 1.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Twenty four hours to Africa

Getting to Africa required only two flights. Sacramento (SMF) to New York (JFK) and New York to Johannesburg (JNB).

The JetBlue SMF to JFK flight was scheduled to depart Sacramento at 11:53pm on Friday the 13th. Don't worry, since the date was 6/13 and 13 - 6 = 7, the bad luck usually associated with Friday the 13th was undone by the 7 (!). Before my friends, the Meyers, came to drive me to the airport, the flight was delayed an hour—into the 14th.

I was proud of myself for figuring out how to turn off the boob tube LCD in front of me for this overnight flight.


The delay out of SMF shrunk my layover at JFK into near nothingness. The logistics of going from domestic flights to international flights at JFK (or perhaps going from any terminal to another) necessitated going through security again.

The South African Airways flight from JFK to JNB was a 15-hour trans-Atlantic, trans-equatorial affair. And a 15-hour flight is a 15-hour flight; there's nothing you can really do about 15 hours. I guess some folks go with an Ambien, but sleeping pills aren't really my style. I'd need to begin my month+ regimen of the antimalarial, Malarone, soon enough.

You chat with your neighbor (I always opt for window seats), eat a few meals, drink a few drinks, employ your iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro (with DVDs), and sleep. Still though, 15 hours is 15 hours.

When I arrived at Johannesburg's OR Tambo, it was Sunday morning. Passport control and luggage collection were no problem. Customs? You's have to seek it out if you were so inclined. I left for Africa on Friday night. Saturday was sacrificed to The Travel Gods.

I was happy to check into City Lodge at OR Tambo. To my surprise and delight, they had a room ready for me. No ground transportation required, and not cripplingly overpriced (like the InterContinental). I walked my luggage to this airport hotel (it's a good, long walk), checked in, and eventually got my nap on.

My room at City Lodge. Not big, but it didn't need to be. Interesting "window" between the bedroom and the bathroom which includes a privacy curtain that can be lowered.

City Lodge 2

A quick pano of the lobby/restaurant at City Lodge.

City Lodge 8

The lightly used City Lodge workout room, open 24 hours! I was happy to drip some sweat after sitting for 24 hours.

City Lodge 11

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Africa 2014 Itinerary

Outdoor Photo Safaris had tours going all the time. Here's their current listing:
ODP Tour Calendar

The tours I choose were
Okavango Machaba Camp (June 16-20) [Botswana's Okavango Delta - Khwai River/Moremi Game Reserve]
Pangolin Ultimate Chobe (June 28-July 2) [Botswana's Chobe River/Chobe National Park]
Elephant Plains (EP) in Greater Kruger (July 5-9) [adjacent to South Africa's Kruger National Park]

ODP had suggestions for the open week (June 21-27). I took them up on one:
Wilderness Kalahari Plains Camp (June 20-23) [Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve]

And decided to cool my heels in Johannesburg June 23-28 in hopes of making a preliminary run through the photographs snapped up to that point.

The time between Chobe and EP allowed me to make a side trip to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. (Natural Wonder of the World, World Heritage Site, etc.)

Cobbling the whole thing together required the organizational capabilities of a spreadsheet. I employed Google's online apps to this end. Here's the sharable version. The tabs along the bottom allow access to its many pages. Yes, this is how I roll.
Africa 2014

In all, I would be spending a month on the continent for about the same amount of money required to fund two weeks through Thomson or Eyes on Africa. Which is not to say those options aren't worth the price, and this path required significant planning and "legwork" on my part. But I was very happy with the prospects afforded by this robust itinerary, while also realizing that I was only dipping a toe into the waters that are Africa.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Gearing up for Africa 2014

Since the trip, itself, was going to require significant monetary resources, I didn't want to buy too many things new for the trip. I've got a nice photo gear kit as it is.

But I did need/want a few things for this trip, all of which should have continued utility in the future.

Long Lens
This was to be a wildlife shoot. To whatever extent I have photo skills, I'm a landscape photographer. The most expensive lens in my kit is a Zeiss 15mm/2.8 wide angle lens. When I switched from Canon to Nikon, there was no equivalent for my Canon EF 100-400L lens in the Nikon line-up. I got the highly praised Nikon AF-S 70-200 VR, but that only got me halfway there. I got a TC-20Eiii teleconverter, but that always comes with compromises. Nikon has since come out with a new 80-400mm lens that people seem to love. If it had been available when I made the switch, I'm sure I would have opted for it rather than the 70-200. But that's water under the bridge.

One thing I know about wildlife photography is that you're always too far from the animals. If I hoped to get some keepers, I was gonna need a bigger lens. The trouble is that once you move past 200mm in the world of Nikon lenses, you move into serious weight, serious bulk, and very serious cash.

But Tamron was introducing a monster 150-600mm lens this spring. Sure, it's not a Nikon. And it only opens to f/6.3 (not f/4) at 600mm. But it's very sharp, isn't 10+pounds, isn't so huge it requires its own luggage, and doesn't carry a 5-figure price tag. The Nikon f/4 prime is $10,000; the Tamron f/5-6.3 zoom is $1100.

The problem was that the lens was new and demand outpaced supply. By a lot. It was getting great reviews, and it was $1100. The lens needed to be in my hands well before my June 13 flight, but it was rolling out slowly. Seemed like everyone wanted one and no one had them. The release date for the Nikon mount was never really clear. The released Canon mount wasn't showing up in stores. Tales of eBay scalpers began to emerge as the accepted release date came and went.

I solved the problem the same way I solved the Nikon D800E initial launch availability problem: Pardee's Camera—the local shop. And once again, they came through. While the preorder queues at photo mega-retailer, B&H, grew longer and longer, I was shooting my Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD long before Memorial Day. [Even after my mid-July return from Africa, the lens is not available from B&H.]

Hard Case Spinner (and packing cubes)
Johannesburg's OR Tambo airport is the busiest on the continent and has a bit of a reputation for baggage handler theft. For R60 ($6), you can have your luggage wrapped in cellophane before checking in for departure. There are a dozen or more wrapping stations in the airport.

YouTube videos show how easy it is to break into zippered luggage despite having the pulls locked together.

I decided to get a large hard case spinner with zipper pulls that could be locked into the case, itself.

Actually, my first attempt was a Zero Halliburton Polycarbonate Spinner that featured clasps rather than zippers. But the clasps seemed eager to pop, and the copy they sent me had some manufacturing defects. For the price they were asking, these were deal breakers. So I returned the case to Zero Halliburton.

I settled on the Briggs & Riley Torq. Blue, of course. It scratches like crazy, but I'm okay with that. It's big, sturdy, and rolls like a champ. The big bonus is that it opens like a normal suitcase, not the awkward 50-50 split that most hard case spinners employ. Gotta love their slick YouTube ad. And I was happy to buy local at Holloway's Travel Outfitters ( 

I picked up a pair of packing cubes at REI and found them to be very handy in keeping the luggage packing reasonably organized.

Seemed like a good thing to have for a wildlife safari. But good ones can set you back an arm and a leg. After considering the Nikon Monarch 5 series, I went with the Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10x42, and saved about $50 by getting the camouflage paint job (RealTree AP) instead of straight black.

I rented a flash unit from Lens Rentals to potentially help in low light situations. But I lacked the off-shoe accessories needed to prevent "green-eye" (the big cat version of red-eye).

I considered renting a backup DSLR body, but settled on bringing my Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ200 as a backup, instead. It's a very capable little camera with an equivalent 25-600mm f/2.8 lens. If called upon to work on safari, it had my confidence.

With that, I was geared up and ready to go. I would use my awesome Pelican roller with detachable courier bag as carry-on: camera gear pre-packed in my Lowepro AW350 backpack inside the main compartment of the Pelican. The laptop, DVDs, iPad, and 3-1-1 bag would ride in the courier bag. The Briggs & Riley Torq would hold an empty duffle and all clothes, some photo gear, the tripod, and DOP kit.

Once in Joburg, I'd reconfigure. The Lowepro pack with gear would also hold the laptop and be my carry on. The duffel would be packed and act as my checked luggage. The Pelican would pack inside the Torq, and they'd be left at the airport hotel's bell hop storage.