THE leopard is napping in the shade of the long grass, restless in the heat and unwilling to perform. The guides have recognised her as “Little Bush” – a small, shy eight-year-old mother of a recent litter. Twenty of us are heaped into three safari vehicles, all with lenses trained on the patch of vegetation obscuring her. The other tourists become impatient and their vehicles lumber off. We wait.
My personal photography teacher, Andrew Schoeman, uses the time to advise me on adjusting my camera’s settings for the fading light. I practise exposure on blades of grass until, eventually, Little Bush gamely sets off for a stroll. She’s graceful, but quick – and our guide correctly anticipates her course.
As she heads into a leafy bush we glimpse a small, unwitting antelope (a “duiker”) approach from the other side. It walks right into her jaws, yelping. Little Bush brazenly stares at me as she bites hard to silence it: it’s distressing, yet phenomenal to witness. My heart pounds as I frame up the camera. It’s a killer shot.
These visceral moments capturing nature’s more elusive animals at work are the rewards of a patient wildlife photographer. I’m in the Sabi Sands at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, experiencing its new Wildlife Photographic Safari course.
With the combined efforts of the photography specialist, Dave, an armed game ranger/driver, and Anton, our Zulu tracker perched on the vehicle bonnet, it’s unsurprising I take 950 snaps over the two drives.
I’m a photography novice and I arrive at Sabi Sabi’s Earth Lodge anticipating a steep learning curve. Andrew, the expert who has been assigned to me, is a frequent finalist of the BBC Photographer of the Year competition.
It’s a November day and the afternoon is too hot in the sun, for both the tourists and the animals that take cover. It’s time to relax in my secluded room: a large luxury pod set within scooped-out earth. It’s part Flintstones, part Hobbit home: the walls are grey concrete textured with straw, the floor is soft, buffed stone; the thatched roof reveals several skylights, and the mute-toned decor features natural accents of wood, shells and skins.
It’s so fused with the landscape that I come face-to-face with a bushbuck sauntering past the plunge pool in my private garden. With no fences, all animals are free to get up close and personal.
After iced coffee and mini cakes for tea, we head out into the bushveld in our vehicle. Andrew hands me my pro-kit on loan: a Nikon D3s camera with a 70-200mm lens, steadied on a monopod and rotating gimbal head.
After 10 minutes travelling through the honey glow of afternoon light, Anton spots a male giraffe feeding on acacia leaves. Andrew talks me through the composition: the subject should be looking into the space with no body parts chopped off, the focus should be on the eye and he should preferably be mid-chew. I snap away.
Post-leopard kill, the light has completely gone as we slope along the sandy path. Dave spots a flap-necked chameleon on a branch. With the spotlight on, we’re able to capture its magnificent detail. We stop to stargaze, bats and fireflies darting about us.
Then it’s back to the elegant bar at Earth Lodge for a glass of South African pinotage and warm, freshly made crisps.
Andrew joins us for a candlelit dinner in the boma where we’re presented with a delectable four-course menu including shellfish ravioli, Japanese blackened cod and dark chocolate tart with Amarula liqueur. Andrew worked as a game ranger for years, which helpfully enables him to pre-empt animal behaviour.
It’s a 5am start for the second drive. We soon find a herd of buffalo enjoying a spa day at a water hole. With no foliage obstruction and their leisurely attitude, it’s a good group to practise on. Andrew prompts me to catch their most animated expressions – flicking ears and tongues, bared teeth and the glint in their eyes.
We then casually encounter a pride of lions lying under the shade of two separate bushes.
One by one, they sashay between the lounging groups – and I have my lens poised on a veritable catwalk.
After breakfast, Andrew and I look through my images on his computer in the lodge library. “The idea is to capture the image as faithfully as possible, so editing and post-processing is minimal.”
Many of my snaps are chopped, blurred or badly exposed – and I’m despondent. I surmise that perhaps one needs at least a rudimentary knowledge of camera technique to take full advantage of this experience.
But then he pulls up Little Bush leopard with her kill. “This is a fantastic image, really brilliant,” Andrew says. And voila: I’m hooked on photography. – Stephanie Plentl, ©The Telegraph