It's strange how different a place can be when you return to it with a photographer's eye. I grew up very near the Kruger National Park in South Africa, an outstanding wildlife reserve created by Paul Kruger in the 1880s. When I was a child, my parents used to visit the park often but because I was never much into photography (or wildlife) as a kid, I wasn't too fussed about the place.
Ten years ago, as a young adult, I returned for a week, and was so bored at the prospect of driving around all day and seeing nothing particularly spectacular, that I left early - an unforgivable sin in retrospect. Now that I'm grown up and have become addicted to photography in much the same way, I suspect, as a drug addict becomes addicted to their drug of choice, I see things in an all-new light.
Before I talk about the Kruger proper, let me explain what photography has done for me. I'm preaching to the converted here, because if you're reading this, you already know all about how this hobby can infest every conscious nodule of your brain and cause you to see the world in a way you never imagined possible. Still, I think this needs clarification. Those who aren't obsessed with photography are not really missing out on anything because they don't believe they're missing out on anything - an important distinction. Yet, we who are obsessed know what photography has done for our perception of the world.
The mere fact that I now actually appreciate every place I visit is one reason I'm so grateful to photography. I didn't just visit the Kruger National Park last month, I lived it. Everything became a photographic opportunity, from the trees to the birds and animals - even the cloudscapes, insects and the camp architecture caught my attention. Those who haven't been afflicted with this disease (many of our loved ones, for instance)say that we photographers are missing out on life because we spend it hiding behind a lens but I can testify to the fact that living life through a lens is what has given me a renewed appreciation of life.
Moving on... So, how did I find Kruger as a photographic experience? Unbelievable! I took 5,300 photos in 12 days. Most of them will be deleted as I continue to download them; others will be commercially useless but will have sentimental value, so I'll keep them. A very slim minority will be potentially commercially viable, and a chunk of those will justifiably fall prey to the inspector's axe. But the fact is that, as a photographic experience, the holiday was priceless.
This was my first foray into wildlife photography; previously I'd done only travel and landscape stuff, and I classify myself very much an amateur. This holiday proved just how much of an amateur. Those incredible shots you see of lions, elephants and leopards in the wild - close up, intimate and with aesthetically pleasing backgrounds - can't be achieved by simply pitching up at a safari park with a 40D and a 100-400mm telephoto. No sir! Those pro, National Geographic-type images (many of which can be seen on Dreamstime) now give me much more respect for pro and sem-pro wildlife photographers. Their equipment, experience and skill may be superior but it is above all their patience that gives them the edge.
Patience. It sounds easy but it is not. With respect to photography, it's my biggest weakness. And you cannot be a successful wildlife photographer without it. If the animal wasn't on the road or right next to it, I wasn't interested in stopping for a photo op. Then, halfway through my holiday, a middle-aged couple who have been visiting Kruger since they were youngsters, gave me a worthy tip. Switch your car off, they said, and listen for animal alarm calls, particularly those of baboons and monkeys. If you hear them, you can be almost certain there is a big cat in the vicinity.
And so it happened that on one of our last days in the park, we stopped to watch a troop of baboons playing on the road. Their antics are highly amusing, almost human, although they are not ideal photo subjects because of their unwillingness to make eye contact with humans. After a few minutes, the troop suddenly fell silent and turned in unison to face the opposite direction. One of their number starting 'barking' an alarm.
Sure enough, minutes later a pride of lions with their cubs casually appeared as if from nowhere and walked right across the road in front of us. It all happened so quickly that I didn't have time to grab my camera, let alone take a photo. But that brings me to my last point about photography: sometimes seeing the bigger picture doesn't necessarily mean taking it...