Shots in the dark

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Plains zebra (Equus quagga) drinking at night, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016. Picture credit Ann and Steve Toon

Ann & Steve Toon go on the photographer’s dream safari at South Africa’s Zimanga Game Reserve

We’re half-way through a lengthy 18-hour stretch in a hide in the bush in South Africa’s game-rich KwaZulu-Natal province. It’s midnight, pitch-black, and we’re still at our posts. You need to suffer for your art, right?

If this is suffering, bring it on. We’re in comfy, executive-style chairs, cameras secure on sturdy tripods, washing down chicken pies from the reserve’s lodge, reheated in the microwave here, with a couple of cold beers from the fridge, while checking our email and catching up on world news. Yes, this hide even has wi-fi and the connection’s way faster than at home.

Who needs connectivity in the African bush? Isn’t the point to get off-grid? We’d be the first to agree, but in the brief lulls between moments of activity, we need something to keep us awake. Not that it would matter if we fell asleep. Behind us are four bunkbeds, with reading lights, for just that purpose. If something comes, we’ll be woken up by the alarm that’s linked to a motion sensor outside. Is there anything these guys haven’t thought of?

But it’s the creatures, not the creature comforts, that really make this new nocturnal hide so thrilling. We’ve been photographing on safari for nearly 20 years and we’ve never had such an amazing chance to experience and photograph African animals in the dead of night when most safari-goers are asleep.

Overnight we’re treated to a procession of thirsty and photogenic visitors, plus their mirror reflections, drinking just four scant metres from our noses. There’s no need for huge telephoto lenses and no need for flash. Our subjects are lit by well-positioned LED panels we control from inside. Switching off one allows us to sculpt the gnarled faces of muscular buffalo bulls with dramatic side-lighting. How cool is that?

Welcome to the specialist photographic safari, 21st-century-style. Welcome to Zimanga – a 6000-hectare, and growing, Big Five reserve, and Africa’s first private game reserve set up by wildlife photographers exclusively for wildlife photographers. The place revolutionises the concept of photo safaris.

In addition to this hide, there’s a scavenger hide, a stunning lagoon hide, two reflection pools, bird-bath hides, a mobile bee-eater hide and more to come. Each bears the signature of multi-award winning pro-shooter, Bence Máté, known as the ‘the invisible photographer’ for the custom-built, precision photo hides he’s constructed in Hungary, where he lives, and Costa Rica. The Zimanga hides are his first in Africa; allowing intimate low-level and dynamic close-range photography with superb orientation for the light.

Keen photographers are almost guaranteed to get great shots of big-ticket species not to mention the chance for something new and distinctive. Traditional game drives are still on the menu, led by guides with sound photographic knowledge who can anticipate the requirements of ‘shooting’ guests. The reserve also allows unique access to its breeding pack of rare wild dogs, which can be tracked and photographed on foot, when hunting or resting at their breeding den, allowing brilliant low-angle framing. And with just two vehicles operating at a time there’s no traffic jams at sightings so photographers spend as much time as they need with subjects.

Reserve manager, and keen wildlife photographer, Charl Senekal, whose family has developed Zimanga, has big ambitions for a reserve that’s already attracting the attention of top photographers worldwide. He’s busy planning another overnight hide, a new wetland hide and a second scavenger hide for backlit shots. Earlier this year the first, seven-bed, lodge opened on the reserve and a further 12-bed lodge is underway…

Back in the hide, dawn is starting to gild the distant hills and we’re still happily clicking as the morning shift arrives to drink; with a brief pause, of course, for a breakfast of fresh fruit salad, yoghurt and coffee, not forgetting a quick wash and brush up in the cloakroom. Did we forget to mention that?

For information about specialist photo safaris to Zimanga led by regular Travel Africa contributors Ann & Steve Toon, visit toonphotosafaris.com. To book directly, and for more information about the reserve, visit zimanga.com.

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  • Dennis Miller

    Heading to Zimanga in April – can’t wait!