Wow, so almost a month since my last blog. That's a long time!
It isn't because I am short of content. Not at all. What I am short of right now is time!
Case in point for the current blog, a trip report. In mid-October, I returned to South Africa. It was an unexpected trip and came about after short notice, but I was so excited to be returning to, without doubt, my favourite country for wildlife photography. Since returning I have been completely snowed under with various activities! But I've made time to edit the first gallery of images and load them on to my website, and now it's time for me to accompany those with a trip report.
This is the second time I have stayed at Jaci's Lodges. Jaci's is a family owned and run lodge, and you immediately get that feel on arrival. There is a very personal approach with all the staff and the hospitality is second to none. Jaci's comprises of two lodges, the main lodge and the tree lodge. On my first stay and this subsequent trip I stayed in the tree lodge. I've stayed in a few different lodges in South Africa and I have to say Jaci's tree lodge is probably my favourite. The rooms are incredible. The lodge is built on stilts and there are walkway passages amongst the trees between the rooms and the main lodge area. This gives you a real feeling of being in the African bush, and there are some interesting animals to be seen within the lodge itself and when you walk to the rooms. Most notably, bushbuck, banded mongoose and vervet monkeys.
But that's about where it starts and ends in terms of wildlife within the lodge. Jaci's is fenced. This makes it ideal for a whole range of clients, but especially families. No surprises then that as a family owned and run lodge, families are well catered for and with the lodge being fenced this makes the difference for the family experience. You, and the kids are free to roam. Whether that be to the star bed look out, or to one of the numerous swimming pools to relax. In fact this was the exact reason I chose Jaci's last year as I wanted to take my whole family on Safari including at that time, my 9 year old daughter (who loved it by the way!). Add to that that Madikwe Game Reserve is Malaria free, it is without doubt a serious contender if you are considering a family safari experience.
Being fenced means that you can roam around without any issues. And here's the thing...you can roam around the lodge at night too...
I'll come back to that point in a minute!
The lodge rooms are without doubt my favourite of any lodge I've stayed in. They are luxurious, beautifully dressed, and with a bathroom and outdoor shower to die for. I first discovered outdoor showers at Jaci's sister property, Cheetah Plains in Sabi Sands. Coming from northern Europe where we just don't get the heat to have outdoor showers, it was a revelation. But the setting at Jaci's is incredible. I love going on the morning game drives and I'm often sad when they end as I just love being out in the bush and amongst the wildlife, but a hot outdoor shower and an amazing breakfast/brunch helps you relax and ease your way in to the rest of the day.
The principle reason for my trip was to photograph from the new Terrapin Hide. Jaci's Tree Lodge has a waterhole just to the left of it's main gate. Historically there has been a star bed which is elevated on a platform. The idea of the star bed was that you could book it, and sleep out under the stars and hear the animals during the night coming down to the waterhole. That in itself is an incredible, truly African experience.
The original star bed and the original hide window underneath the Jaci's logo.
What Jaci and Jan (the founders of the lodge) have now done is build a hide. But this is no ordinary hide. The star bed had a small hide underneath, and I remember on my first trip sitting in that hide and having elephants walk past on the way to access various parts of the waterhole. The vision Jaci and Jan had was to extend this hide to the waterhole itself. Access is via the original wooden hide under the star bed, where you now walk through a tunnel which is submersed in the waterhole. The hide is situated in the middle of the waterhole itself. You have numerous windows which are at the same level of the water. This gives you a unique vantage point for when animals come down to the waterhole to drink, or in the case of elephants, sometimes swim.
The location of the Terrapin hide in relation to the Star Bed. Access to the Terrapin hide is from underneath the star bed via a tunnel.
The hide has been aptly named the Terrapin Hide, as if you had a Terrapin's eye view.
Let's just pause and put the Terrapin Hide at Jaci's in perspective.
If you go on safari in South Africa, whether that be in Sabi Sands, KNP, Madikwe, or any other Private Game Reserve, that Safari will most likely comprise of the following daily itinerary (more or less):
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this routine. I absolutely LOVE it!
But here's the thing as a photographer. There's about 4 hours or so in the afternoon of free time. When going on Safari, and let's be honest, a Safari is a top end holiday product...you want to make the most of that experience. I would say even more so as a photographer. On my last trip to South Africa last year I chose two lodges in Sabi Sands next to rivers. The reason I did this was in an attempt to give me further photographic opportunities during that free time. During my stay at those lodges I saw one elephant at the first lodge by the river, and at the second lodge a buffalo and a crocodile. That was it. Don't get me wrong - I had an amazing experience. But despite trying to stack the odds in my favour by choosing lodges next to water sources, I didn't get the extended photography I was hoping for.
So, what makes Jaci's and the Terrapin Hide different? As I previously mentioned Jaci's is fenced. This means free access to the hide at any time of the day or night. No need for escorts to and from the hide. If you want to go 1-2 hours before morning game drive you can. If you can't sleep at 2am you can go and take a wander to the hide and look out. If you wanted to do an all-nighter in the hide, you can. Access is 24 hours, unrestricted. But most importantly for people like myself, who are photographers and looking for extended shooting opportunities, the hide is a fantastic compliment to the game drives. In the itinerary I described above, I would basically fit 2 hours in the hide from 1pm through to 3pm - where the hide became a hive of activity as the heat of the day started to take affect and large numbers of elephants, zebras, giraffes and antelope would descend on the waterhole. Then after dinner, from 9pm onwards I would spend another 1 hour and 30 minutes at night. This allowed me to follow another passion of mine, astro photography and if I got lucky (which I did) included some animals in those images (I was visited by elephants)!
A flurry of activity once the animals come down to drink. The biggest headache you are likely to have is where to focus and shoot! This is a nice headache to have!!!
Now of course, my perspective is very much that of a wildlife photographer. I have no doubt if a facility like Jaci's had existed when I started my own wildlife photographic journey, I would have progressed a lot quicker up that learning curve having the Terrapin Hide and Game Drives throughout my stay. But to think of the Terrapin Hide as just a photographic facility is doing it a disservice. The Terrapin Hide is first and foremost a hide. Meaning the animals do not see you. Which means you experience their surroundings, their environment on their terms. Even without a camera, if you just sit and watch, and listen, the calm and serenity and the awe of nature just meters away from you is truly, truly special. During my 5 days there, I witnessed children of a variety of ages simply be amazed at what they were witnessing in front of them. Theirs is a generation of instant imaging, iPhones, iPods and iPads. To watch them be able to take amazing images at eye level of the animals at the waterhole with their mobile devices put a smile on my face. They would be sharing these images with friends and family almost the instant they connected to the wifi at the lodge. The Terrapin Hide gets them closer than ever before to animals in their environment. It's a bold statement to make, but having spent time in the Terrapin Hide I would said it is perfectly placed to "democratise" wildlife photography. No longer do you need specialised equipment to take advantage of the eye/water level placement to get incredible wildlife images. And that is what, in my opinion makes it a very special place indeed...
Me heading down the tunnel to get to the hide - I make sure I have my bag of kit with me on hand for a hide session.
And coming back to the photographer's perspective, the proof of the pudding is...of course...in the eating! So did the Terrapin Hide deliver photographically? Well, I have added a gallery of colour images on my website here. I will let you be the judge! When I put together a gallery for my website, I chose photographs based on both the quality of sightings, the diversity of sightings, and the combination of those images to show the viewer the overall experience. With the twelve photographs in the gallery that I have chosen, I hope to give you a sense of the experience of the Terrapin Hide. I'm going to share one image that I didn't put in the gallery on this blog. It is an image I'd always had in my mind, but never had an opportunity to take before. I have seen stunning images of the moment a giraffe stops drinking and raises it's head causing a S shape of water droplets. Prior to shooting from the Terrapin Hide, I had only seen one giraffe drinking on 5 separate trips to Africa. And on that one occasion, I didn't get the shot simply because the giraffe had strayed onto private land we couldn't traverse on to. At Jaci's, I watched giraffe's drinking every day. This meant that I had plenty of opportunities to get the shot I was looking for. After a few attempts at different compositions, here's the shot that I like the most:
The moment the giraffe raises it's head and creates an S shaped fountain of water.
For me I think this image epitomises the whole Terrapin Hide experience. The sighting itself is incredible. There's a second giraffe in the image. And there are stunning reflections. In my experience, these types of images are pretty hard to come by. You have to put time in the field, find a water source on drive, and get lucky a giraffe will come and drink. It's not impossible, but on an average safari of 3 to 5 days, it's probably a big ask to be able to witness a giraffe drinking and be positioned to get a great photograph of it. At Jaci's, you sit in the Terrapin Hide and the giraffe's come to you. That's an amazing luxury to have as a photographer.
Once you've had a few sessions in the hide, your memory cards are full. Jaci's have developed a photographic studio facility in their main lodge. You can head over there and hook your laptop up to a flat screen HD monitor and you can start to view your images. This is a great facility if you want to share your images with friends or family, or even other photographers at the lodge and start to share your experiences, and discuss photographic craft. It's a facility that will also allow in the future the opportunity for various photographic workshops at the lodge and I'm looking forward to seeing how that aspect develops in the future.
I was able to connect my Mac Book Pro to a big screen and start to look at my images in Lightroom on the big screen. Having critique sessions like this in the field is a great way to tweaking your camera craft whilst in the field, and start creating different images as a result.
Overall, the trip to Jaci's Safari Lodge and the Terrapin Hide experience was truly amazing. From a photographic perspective it was literally non-stop, which is exactly what I'm looking for; maximum time in the field. But beyond that, the Terrapin Hide adds a completely new dimension to the Safari experience. With access 24 hours a day, the only thing that limits you is your own creative photographic vision. I entitled this blog as "Part 1". In Part 2 I will review more of the technical specifics in terms of hide shooting and what type of images are possible at different times of the day.
Before I sign off, let me leave you with one last image. As we left the lodge on an afternoon drive just before 4pm, I took the image below. I took this image to show the dilemma that guests will have. The waterhole and Terrapin hide was buzzing with activity with elephants and giraffes. It makes going on drive a tough decision when you have so much activity on your doorstep...what a great safari dilemma to have!
Heading out on drive, we look back towards the waterhole and Terrapin hide to see elephants and giraffe's coming down to drink.
Stay tuned for part 2 in the coming weeks.
Until next time...
Special thanks to Justin Glanvill, Jaci and Jan van Heteren, Mark Dumbleton, and our field guide JR.