Almost everyone who visits Africa, whether big game hunter, photographer, or just a run of the mill tourist, quickly becomes captivated with the continent’s Big Five; elephants, lion, rhino, leopard, and Cape buffalo, animals that Africa is famous for. These Big Five animals aren’t all that Africa has to offer, but big game hunters have singled them out because of the difficult in bagging them. When cornered or shot at, they can be extremely ferocious; and, it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting at them with a gun or a camera.
I’m no different than any other foreigner visiting Africa. My first time in Africa was in 1993, when I lived in Sierra Leone for three years. Unfortunately, that country was embroiled in a horrible civil war at the time, so I had no opportunity to really explore. In 2009, though, I was back in Africa, in landlocked Zimbabwe, for another three-year stint, and I was determined to make up for what I missed, including seeing the Big Five.
My quest to shoot the Big Five – with a camera rather than a gun – began shortly after I arrived. My wife and I were invited to Matobo National Park in the country’s southwest to visit a rhino conservation project. After getting a briefing on the project’s operation, I was invited to accompany a group of rangers who were tracking three rhinos that had been spotted earlier in the day. After several hours trekking through the bush, we came upon a big male white rhino. My guide said he was part of a trio that included a cow and calf, and he’d probably separated from them to keep an eye on us and give his family time to get away. Rhinos don’t have good eyesight, but an acute sense of smell, and will charge at any movement that appears threatening. So, with my heart pounding so I was sure he’d hear it; we circled around slowly until we were about fifty feet away from him. We positioned ourselves near a big rock, and moving as slowly as I could, I managed to get one fairly clear shot before he lowered his head and started in our direction. Wisely, we slipped back behind the rock and quietly made our way back uphill. When we were a good distance away and uphill over him, I looked back. He was standing there, looking from side to side; probably wondering what had made the bush rustle like it did.
I didn’t get up enough nerve to try to get photos of a rhino for nearly three years. The next one was in a little valley below a road through a game preserve, and was so busy grazing, he never noticed when I slipped out of the car and snapped off several shots.
Getting photos of elephants in the wild is tricky. These huge beasts are intelligent, but extremely unpredictable; especially young bulls. They can go from quietly grazing for food to a rampage in a heartbeat. The best way to get good pictures without exposing yourself to too much danger, I learned, was with a telephoto lens. The nice thing, though, is that places like Mana Pools and Hwange in Zimbabwe have elephants all over the place.
Number three on my list was the lion. My first safari to photograph lions was in 2010 in the southern Kalahari Desert in South Africa. I spent three days at a private lodge in the middle of the largest privately owned game preserve in the country and on a game drive the day before departure was lucky enough to come across a group of young male and female lions resting under some thorn bushes. From the high seat of the vehicle we were using, and keeping well away to avoid spooking or provoking them, I got my lion photos.
I thought that was about the best I could ever do until I visited Zimbabwe’s Antelope Park, where they have a project that conditions lions for life in the wild, and allows visitors to actually ‘walk’ with adolescent lions in the first phase of their orientation. Now, that was an experience; being able to get close-up photos of lions. I drew the line, however, at the offer to pet them. I don’t pet any animal that has teeth bigger than a house cat. My wife, a city girl from Seoul, Korea, who had until that visit never seen a lion outside a zoo, fell for it. More power to her, I thought; I was perfectly happy shooting her picture from a good safe distance.
Cape buffalo and other ruminants are common all over southern Africa, from the Kalahari to the golf course at Victoria Falls, so getting those photos was easy. But, leopards continue to elude me. I spent a few days with an American couple at Hammond Ranch in Zimbabwe’s low veld, and the owner and I spent a couple of nights tracking a female leopard in residence there. We could hear her growling and prowling near the goat carcass we’d strung in a tree in front of our blind, but she never showed herself, so at midnight each night we’d give up and go back to the lodge. Next morning, as you might imagine, we’d find the rope from which we’d hung the carcass empty. That was one savvy cat. I could have gone to the Leopard and Lion Park just outside Harare and got all the pictures I wanted, but, somehow, it just didn’t seem right.
So, I left Africa, having only ticked off only four of the Big Five. Oh well, there’s always the next visit. Of course, as these photos show, the Big Five aren’t the only animals in Africa. There are hundreds of other species to shoot, and I spent a lot of time doing just that.
Featured writer: Charles Ray