Thursday, July 16, 2009

safari with Roger Dugmore

As I've mentioned, we just came off a vacation time, coinciding with my brother Josh visiting us here in Botswana at the beginning of July. Part of Josh's focus was on getting great shots of large animals. So, we decided to go with Roger Dugmore of Eco-Africa Botswana. Smartest thing we ever could have done.

The accommodation was more than comfortable: it was ideal. The “campingness” of camping (we slept in tents) but with the added pleasure of all the things you usually wish you had with you once you find yourself actually too far from civilization to go back and get something. Hot water bottles in a comfy, many-quilted bed on a cold winter's night? Brilliant idea. Hot water bucket showers, private water closets, laundry service, little folding sinks with a ready supply of hot water. The food was delicious and cooked on the spot. Dorcas whips up a mean lunch, let me tell you. A cooler with drinks available during every drive, with breaks next to the hippo pools for tea in the morning. And everything was taken care of for us; all we had to do was show up to meals and get in the safari 4X4 whenever Roger said it was time to go for a drive.

Notice that I haven't talked about the animals yet? I'm still not sure what to say about what we saw. Yes, we had nearly a hundred people praying for a specific list of animals for us to see (oh, He cares about the little things). This was compounded by the fact that Roger has a gift for getting into what the animals are doing. One of the moments that highlighted this was when I saw an elephant in the far distance, made a little noise but then stopped because it was so far away. Roger asked what I saw, I told him. He said, “No, let's wait. It'll come to us.” He positioned the car back a bit, out of his predicted path. Sure enough, within about 20 minutes, the elephant crossed our path, right where Roger said it would. Brilliant. We saw many, many animals, despite the fact that the flooding had created plenty of small drinking spot, removing the necessity for the animals to come all the way to the river, where we were camping (on the Khwai River). Here are some of my favorite shots:

Which brings me to the photographic aspect of the safari - the shot was the thing. Roger, being an avid photographer himself, has a keen eye for the framing and lighting, something you don't get on every tour. He regularly would not only find the animal but would say, “Just a moment while I get a better shot,” as he drove to a better position for our cameras.

Knowing that we were there to practice photography (none of us are pros, we just like it), he would also watch what we did with our cameras and suggest alternate ways of holding it to get more unusual shots. He would remind us to turn the camera on its side from time to time, for a different perspective.

After the safari, while taking photos in Kasane and at Vic Falls, I found myself going for “the Roger shot” and being pleased with the result. For comparison, we did a river-boat cruise in Kasane where we also saw some spectacular wildlife. However, the boat driver was primarily concerned with proximity to the animals, not so much with the lighting. As a result, he'd often stop at a place where the animals were backlit by the sun, making shots problematic. Many of my pictures were taken after the boat got moving again, while floating away. Roger, by contrast, would stay and adjust until we were happy with the shots we got. As he said at one point, “Sure, that's fine if you want to end up with a picture of something that just shows that you saw it. But if you want to get The Shot…” Roger, knowing that we were about The Shot, was about The Shot.

And safety? I can be a bit jumpy on occasion. It's had to reconcile my fight-and-flight instincts with the desire to see the big game up close. Roger and Reuben made it so we didn't have to choose. The lion “hunt” was a prime example of that. Once the tracks were found outside the camp, the track and search began in earnest. Now, on our last night, we began to hear the growling next to the campsite. It was dark, after dinner. Reuben suggested that we go sit by the fire, the roaring seeming closer all the time. When the roaring moved to the other side of the camp, over by my tent, Roger said, “Everyone, get in the truck.” I got up, heart in mouth, headed for the truck, thinking we were going there for safety. One of the boys asked where we were going. Roger said, “Well, you want to see a lion, don't you?” I was in the truck before I fully realized what he had said. Too late now. Reuben got in the back seat next me. I sat a little closer to him than he was probably comfortable with but when he saw how jittery I was, he laughed a little. That reminded me that we were in capable, experienced hands. That gave me enough presence of mind to clap my hand over my mouth: I was afraid that I would not be able to control a scream if it came. We drove; we saw nothing. The roaring continued. We went to bed. Next morning, I was awakened by the roaring, happening on different sides of the tent. I lay awake, listening, for about an hour until the roaring got far away. Someone came to wake us for breakfast. During breakfast, the roaring picked up again. Roger and Reuben again urged us to head for the truck and off we went. This time? Lion, smack on the side of the trail.

The point being that, had I been camping alone or with guides that I didn't instinctively trust, I wouldn't have been able to enjoy these close-up animal experiences. No lion. No elephant so close that I could have touched it. No puff adder. No hippo pool. If I came upon an elephant on the road, what should I do?

Roger knew. I would have backed up, driven away. Roger waited, got us some good shots, he and Reuben keeping an eye on the elephant for any aggressive behavior.

Instead of having a jittery game experience, when the first elephant snorted at us, Roger assured me that I wasn't in danger. I believed him. I felt better, took great photos. And isn't that the whole point of being on safari with a guide? I don't know what bush-safe is. As a lot of people don't: check out these self-drive tourists that we saw on one of our game drives:

Yup, these are folks that should probably have a guide required by law, eh?

So, yes, the experience of a lifetime. Thanks, Roger, Reuben, Maleko, Dorcas, et al. You made our vacation.

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