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  • Writer's pictureDon Heyneke

Mashatu: The Discovery of a New Passion

Updated: May 21, 2020

On a recent safari to Mashatu Private Game Reserve, I witnessed the discovery of a newly found passion in one of our young guests. The discovery of this passion was brought on by being present in the wilderness. By taking the time to stop, absorb and acclimate to the environment around you, this sense of discovery can be found.

There are always times where a safari allows you to discover something new. It may be a new species, an unseen behaviour or even a passion that you never thought existed within yourself.

There are constant life lessons learned and discovered when exploring the wilderness and observing wildlife. As a guide, when I see this transformation happen in people, I am reminded of the moments that fuel my passion for the wilderness and it is a constant reminder of how fortunate we are to spend time in the bush.

William enjoying a herd of elephants at a waterhole

William, pictured above, started to take a keen interest in photography while he was on a recent family safari. What surprised me most was his natural ability to be able to tell a story through his photography and this was his first time trying his hand at wildlife photography. This safari was particularly special as I saw an amazing change in him from the first time I had guided William, four years ago, to our most recent safari a couple of weeks ago.

Mashatu Private Game Reserve is a stunning location and the 5 nights we spent there was the perfect amount of time. It allowed us the opportunity to focus on photography, techniques and predators in particular. We were able to spend a morning in the ground level hide and the amount of time we had, coupled with great sightings, allowed us to explore some of the more remote corners of the reserve. This gave the whole experience a sense of diversity and discovery.

Portrait of a male lion

To set the scene, it is important to note that William had never used a professional camera before this safari and all of the wildlife photographs in this blog belong to him! These are only a few of the magical moments he captured on the trip, there are many more (we just didn't have enough space in the blog to fit them all in). I, as I am sure many of you will be, was incredibly surprised at the natural talent and photographic eye that William had from the start.

William was patient and took care to sit and listen and learn from me and his dad. People often think that the hardest part of learning how to use a camera is learning to change the settings, but it is actually the easiest part of photography. Having a natural eye and developing a creative photographic "eye" allows a story to be captured in time.

Leopard perched in a Mashatu Tree

William managed to capture some incredible images during the 5 nights. Interestingly, the photograph of the leopard in the Mashatu Tree above was taken within the first 30 minutes of our first game drive. This proves his natural ability to capture a scene effectively. Initially, the leopard wasn't facing in our direction and we spoke about the importance of patience in wildlife photography. Patience is one of the most crucial elements to capturing wildlife imagery. We also spoke about how to frame the image while waiting in anticipation for the leopard to look towards us. Lucky enough the wait wasn't long before the leopard turned and William managed to capture a spectacular image.

Two of the five cheetah feeding on an impala ram

The first morning, at daybreak, we went looking for a family of 5 cheetahs, a female with 4 sub-adult cubs. We had seen them the afternoon before and they looked hungry so we decided to go spend to morning looking for them with the hope they would hunt.

Our guide, Kenosi, and tracker, Edward, were incredibly quick to find them, the sun had just begun to rise. Their body language and the way they were moving suggested they were in search of their next meal. It was not long before they spotted a herd of impala, the rising sun was at their backs which helped give the cheetahs cover as they began to fall into hunting formation. We put the cameras to rest and watched as the potential drama was unfolding right in front of us in the open.

Four of the cheetah fanned out almost creating a net, the fifth cheetah wrapped around to the opposite side. We sat waiting patiently, then suddenly there was an eruption and the herd impala began running into the cheetahs' plan. We tried to take a few pictures of the chase but then we put our cameras down as the mother cheetah locked onto her target. She stretched forward and a plume of dust exploded. Everyone was running on adrenaline and it was a roller coaster of emotions as we watched one animal lose its life so five more could survive. The scene was hit with golden light and William identified the perfect frame to capture an intense moment.

A female leopard surveying her surroundings before descending a tree

It wasn't even an hour after we saw the cheetah kill and we stumbled across a female leopard who had just killed a steenbok, we watched as she dragged it up into a tree for safekeeping. It just shows how exciting, unpredictable and intense the bush can be, similar to life at times.

Once the leopard had taken her meal up the tree, the temperature began to increase everything began to slow down. The leopard gifted us with one last bit of excitement as we watched her descend the tree, this was one of William's favourite images. William was well-positioned and captured her intense stare, moments before she decided to descend the tree. It had been less than 24 hours on safari and how captivating. This set the stage for the days to come. We were fortunate to have many more leopard, lion, cheetah and elephant sightings leading up to the morning at the ground level photographic hide.

The hide was an experience that I had been building up and I was met with uncertainty. Everyone was used to a safari where you drive around and look for animals and now we had to sit and wait for them to come to us. In a vehicle you can, for the most part, talk freely and you can move relatively freely. Sitting in the hide is completely different, you need to be very quiet with the occasional whisper of excitement when we saw an animal come to drink, it created a very different atmosphere.

The atmosphere was intensified by being at eye-level with every species that came to the water. We all got excited when we saw impala come down to drink, there was a completely different sense of appreciation and perspective. We had the hundreds of red-billed queleas flocking to the water, guineafowl surrounded the water's edge, we all saw a steenbok drink for the first time and a highlight was looking up to giants as herds of elephants towered above us as they drank water.

It was a truly remarkable experience for everyone! Once again, William got a wonderful photo of a steenbok drinking. There were literally hundreds of photos to choose from but William chose this photo because of how rare it is to see a steenbok drink as it is not very water-dependent as a species in general.

Over the five days, we had been incredibly fortunate with the sightings we witnessed and the photographs that were taken. This gave us the latitude to go explore a different area of the reserve. We wanted to appreciate the landscape, the mountains, rivers, history and we went exploring far corners of the reserve.

This is where I was truly taken aback by William. Photography is fun, granted, but I know a lot of "photographers" that don't appreciate the wilderness for its beauty beyond the photograph. William reminded me of times when I was young. We went climbing mountains, we identified tracks and we even tried to convince a baboon spider to come out of its burrow. It was simply beautiful to watch how William always appreciated what was happening in front of him, he was present in every moment.

A young elephant smiling

I think the photo of the elephant in the picture above summarizes the entire safari and how everyone felt at the end. William discovered a new passion not only in photography but he also found a new appreciation for the wilderness. I was in awe of the appreciation that he showed his father, Erik. It is a gift to be able to have such experiences and William made the most of it. The bush once again was a conduit to form and solidify friendships.

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