I scanned my torch methodically back and forth through the night. The solitary beam of light temporarily illuminated the bush: gnarling trees loomed out of the dark; the plain fell away to the just visible watering hole; shadows lurked behind every bush. My heart thudded. The torchlight had flicked past a pair of reflective pupils pointed in my direction. I retraced the trajectory. The light fell upon a tip of a tail. I kept my hand moving and brought into view a pair of strong, feline back legs followed by a svelte and muscular body. Poised shoulders rippled up to a powerful neck and the owner of the eyes stood before me: a lone lioness.
I had spent the evening in the lodge bar comparing cameras and kit with my fellow volunteers. The only female guide on the reserve, Mariana, delivered the introductory talk. Thanda game reserve is a 5* lodge and prize-winning honeymoon destination, but we were there to work. Her eyes were aflame as she took us through life at Thanda: the history, the animals and the few but important rules. First rule of the bush: never run.
Our tutor, prize winning landscape photographer Emil von Maultitz, hurtled us through a three-day intensive course. He talked us through our tool and how to use it to capture a technically good image. We were set assignments exploring shutter speed, depth-of-field and how to see an everyday object in a new light. I spent an hour examining the raindrops gathered on an obsolete sun-lounger. Our best photographs were going to be used for marketing and a database of the wildlife.
On the morning of our first game drive, we rose at 5am for some juicy pineapple and the sweetest mango. We piled into the vehicle complete with all the kit we could carry. The sky transformed from red, to orange to a bright and vibrant blue as we darted across the dry, cracked ground. “We have had drought.” explained our guide, Willard. “But this year is the most rain we have had in 12 years; we see the animals meeting at the watering hole again. Look how green the trees are.” he said with a wide grin.
Willard and Behki were our guides for the month. Willard’s army days were still present in his rigid stance and professional manner and Behki, the strong and silent companion, was renowned for his knowledge of the animals. “Behki can recognise a bird by its call from a mile away” whispered Willard, as Behki held his hand up to indicate us to slow down. He had seen tracks. We rounded a corner and in front of us three lions lazed in the sun. They nonchalantly stood, stretched and strutted off as we furiously snapped our shutters focusing on the shapes their bodies made and zooming in on the powerful jaws as they yawned. “Look how thin they are.” scolded Willard. “They need to eat soon.”
Aside from photography, we researched alien plants on the reserve and brainstormed ways to involve the villagers. Natascha, our African Impact representative and project coordinator, warned us of the frustrations the project would face. “Things take longer here. Trust needs to build up and relationships need to develop.” She explained. “The villagers will see many volunteers come and go. They want to save Africa, but it doesn’t happen the way they want and they get frustrated and leave.”
One man has built up the trust of the KwaZulu-Natal residents. Digs Pascoe of Space for Elephants Foundation is a white South African who speaks five African languages, as well as three European. Space for Elephants foundation aims to involve the local communities to protect the passage of elephants’ migration across the continent. Despite battling with Malaria for 30 years, Digs is a majestic character whose sparkling eyes are both calm and inclusive.
In the face of advice not to by certain members of the staff (something about cultural order), we had cooked for the lodge staff and guides to the delight of Digs. Seemingly having gained his trust, he told us Behki’s story. He used to be a prolific poacher. After being caught he was given a choice: prosecution or work as a guide. “It wasn’t much of a choice, he has many children, but his knowledge of the animals and birds is beneficial to Thanda.”
Emil had told us about some of the other dangers the animals faced at the hands of humans. “For $500,000, you can hunt and shoot a male lion. It’s an ego boost, but a guide will often shoot at the same time – they tend to be better shots.” Although shocking, he explained the other side of the coin: “This means a huge amount of money for a local community, money that would take forever to earn.” I couldn’t help feeling sickened at the price a human could pay to hunt and kill an animal for fun.
But abstract sympathy takes a different course alone at night with only a hungry lioness for company. I stood glued to the spot; the first rule of the bush was certainly convenient. The crickets shrieked and far-off wildebeests snorted and scuffed their hooves in warning. Neither of us moved while countless eyes watched from relative safety. The tension snapped and the fight or flight instinct kicked in. “Oi” I eloquently bellowed. “What are you doing here?” The question was rhetorical. My vocalisation trumped the sensory advantage of the lioness and she flicked her head and slunk away, arrogantly turning her back on me.
The photograph aims to capture a moment in time that tells a story; using light and the content to compose an image that direct the viewers’ gaze and perspective. The African Impact and Thanda staff candidly directed my gaze towards the issues affecting the bush from an African perspective. The rich cultural detail of Zululand provided ample opportunity to capture images that are beautiful and powerful, but barely scratch the surface of the complex region.