Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Zimanga Private Game Reserve – by Jeremy Williamson


The Zimanga Private Game Reserve is offering an incredible product to anyone who would like a ‘way better opportunity’, to secure excellent photographs - of our bird life in particular, and general wildlife as well.
With guidance from an International specialist, Charl Senekal has brought the concept and technology of sophisticated dedicated low level birdbath, large lagoon and mammal hides, to South Africa.
The Zimanga Private Game Reserve hide expansion program is underway. Two, four person hides were the start. One dedicated to suit morning light and the second to enhance bird images in afternoon light.  Critical attention to the background makes for an evenly blurred bokeh.

Entrance to one of the 4 person hides
Then the ambitious Lagoon Hide was conceptualised and finally opened on the 1st June 2015. Lana and I were fortunate to be guests after the opening of this unique development.
Air-conditioned hides with executive wheeled chairs, wheeled  Manfrotto tripods with sophisticated Gimbals, special  one-way glass and expert advice from our guide Brendan Jennings, an accomplished photographer, we were set for our avian arrivals.

With a drive time of just over 3 hours from Durban we arrived in time for lunch at The Ghost Mountain Inn.  A delightful, Far and Wild Safaris preferred venue in the area. Craig Rutherford and his team, have one of Zululand’s  finest, friendliest hotels – highly recommended - and they do try and accommodate guests visiting Zimanga by extending the breakfast  availability time a tad – breakfast normally ends at 09h30, about when guests return from a morning hide session at the nearby Zimamga Game Reserve. Should Zimanga visitors be of the ilk that would probably extend their early morning visit, I suggest arranging a packed breakfast take-away. Zimanga have a selfcatering Lodge equitably close which may be booked instead.

Lunch on the terrace of the Ghost Mountain Inn,

an excellent cappuccino rather than wine (there was serious work ahead), checked into our room, a final look over our photographic equipment and off to meet Brendan Jennings, our guide for the next couple of days.
Brendan met us at the Zimanga Game Reserve main entrance gate on the N2 just outside of Mkuze Village.

  “Would you like to see a Cheetah on a kill”, he led us to the nearby engorged Cheetah, digesting his meal in the shade of an Acacia tree, the remains of an Impala discarded in the sun. We exited our vehicle and with cautious approach, to not spook or chase off this magnificent feline, we were able to get reasonably close on foot for some clearer photo opportunity.

We drove through to the main farm house and its most magnificent Aloe garden - many in bloom, such a variety of species that the various racemes  in flower would offer an extended colourful period for some considerable time, well worth a visit on its own, nectar feeders aplenty - where we parked our car. Loaded the game drive vehicle for the ride through to the hide.

The Seneka's vast Aloe garden
A herd of impala, still in rut, some kudu and nyala, quite relaxed as we rode by. We were to commence our bird photography experience by visiting the new Lagoon hide first.  We entered a screened passage-way to the hide foyer / entrance.

In the foyer we removed our shoes and left any items not needed in the hide, and followed Brendan into the tunnel leading down to the partially submerged hide.

Through the door into the hide itself,

I was somehow not quite expecting this advantaged viewpoint, it initially felt a bit weird to have the water of the dam lapping up virtually against the viewing windows. I got used to it, quickly. What an aspect!  We clipped our lenses into the Gimbals and the photography began.

The Lagoon Hide

Note the air-cond and block-out curtaining for each sides viewing window
Every now and again Brendan would suggest a possible change in camera setting. For an amateur photographer such as myself, the photographic opportunities offered by being in such close proximity to our subjects,

Portrait - Grey Heron
and with them being total unaware that we were present in the hide, certainly gave me plenty to experiment with.

Great Egret - formerly Great White Egret
Sliding effortlessly on the smooth laminated flooring, I could easily move between two cameras I had set up, giving me different focal lengths, this made for some creative work. Lana secured some advantage by hand-holding a camera, this allowing her to take pictures of some of the more secretive birds on the edges of the normal workable area.

As the sun raced across the sky, so we could take advantage from either side of the hide, taking care to keep the screen curtains closed so as not to reveal our presence.

Grey Heron

African Jacana

Later in the afternoon the light waned, ISO's were up but photo opportunity was down

Eventually the sun tucked itself to bed and we headed back to our hotel, forsaking the sundowner drinks and snacks offer, as we were to meet folk at the hotel before dinner, we were also quite keen to see what our images looked like. Batteries needed charging, mine too.
It’s an early start at the morning hides, in order to take advantage of the dawn changing light conditions and too, the ‘early bird. We followed Brendan through to the parking,  loaded our gear, added a few layers of clothing and climbed aboard the open game viewing vehicle – off to Bhejane Hide this morning.

Bhejane hide entrance with the "bird-bath" beyond.

This is a far smaller, intimate hide. Down some stairs and into the 4 seater hide with its low aspect over a water hole, having a narrow rim parallel to the hide’s glass. This consequently has the subjects all pretty much within the same equidistant focal plane.

Yellow-fronted Canary

Acacia Pied Barbet

Crested Barbet

Green-winged Pytila

Southern Grey-headed Sparrow
Speckled Mousebirds
Apparently the disadvantage of this rim, is only that when mammals visit, they have their lower limbs out of view, rendering the amputated image less than perfect. This ‘problem’ is, I am sure, why Charl has decided to create a dedicated mammal hide with overnight facilities, where the ground will slope down to the water’s edge, negating any unwanted shortening of the animals’ limbs.  Charl has Kelvin adjustable lighting planned for this one – interesting.
Here we have totally different conditions from the large Lagoon hide. No large birds wading to and fro, smaller birds arrive at the rim and drink. It’s how one captures these images, that renders it a good photograph. In order to make it more interesting, capturing these ever moving little birds in flight, would certainly add to the dynamics of the picture, juggling the aperture, shutter,  ISO for that perfect capture.

A Dark-capped Bulbul

An African Jacana making its getaway

Giant Kingfisher
 We shall have to return to improve on our inflight imagery.
In the afternoon we visited the mKhombe hide. Similar concept hide to Bhejane  except that as there is a lot more schrubbery in the immediate vicinity of the hide, a slightly different species list is evident. A bonus is that we had Pink-throated twinspots, Red-billed and Jameson’s Firefinches parading, flitting, before our lenses.

Pink-throated Twinspot male

Red-billed Firefinch

Blue Waxbill

Blue Waxbill

Green-winged Pytila - formerly Melba Finch

Spectacled Weaver

Glossy Starling

Village Weaver
At this hide the shrubbery on the sides offered a perch and haven for the twinspots and blue waxbills.

A pair of Pink-throated Twinspots
This evening we gladly accepted Brendan’s offer of a sundowner, off to the main dam and the sun sank below the horizon, a Whisky in hand and a final call from Africa’s iconic Fish Eagle – what a day.

Rested and replenished by the hospitality of the Ghost Mountain Inn we were at the gates to Zimanga for our early morning Lagoon Hide session.
In the dim dawn light a silhouetted hamerkop was there,

Hamerkop and Egret. The electric wires will be used to keep the birds from dirtying the glass.

looking for some fish or morsel, as too a grey heron and a great egret. Lots of varying light options here, so accessible and so unique.

Great Egret - got one !

Great Egret

Egyptian Goose

Lana's magnificent back lit Great Egret

Blacksmith Lapwing

Lana and Brendan at the ready
What a privilege to have been able to take advantage of what has to be one of the finest hide experiences in our country – and there is more to come, well done the Senekals.

I would suggest that you try for more than one hide session. The birds are wild and nature influences their attendance at these water-holes, particularly in summer when there is ample surface water about, other than at these facilities. Bring plenty of memory space and if you are after securing these little birds in flight, a super fast card at that.

All photographs by Jeremy and Lana Williamson

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