When is a rhino just a rhino?

Sometimes a rhino is just a rhino.

This big fellow, bringing up the rear of a group of white rhinos as they lumbered up a rutted track to the top of a ridge before disappearing down the other side, maintained a watchful eye as we jolted along in his wake, in the open LandCruiser, last week in the Madikwe Game Reserve. Every now and then he would turn, sending stones flying, and we would stop abruptly, the ranger assessing the risk of a charge. Then he would carry on browsing, and we would advance, until at last he was silhouetted against the sky, the photograph I had wanted.

He was all rhino, that fellow, and for perhaps twenty minutes, that was all we were conscious of – the morning wind in our faces, the smells of the bush, the early light casting its shadows, the armoured behemoth ranged against the sky above us, going ploddingly about his daily business.

Looking at these photographs now, my first thoughts are simply of that moment – how extraordinary it was, how lucky we felt to be in this presence, to experience this, to be there, in the bush, under a vast sky, waiting, listening, watching. It is a wonderful thing, to be freed from that human sense of urgency, of purpose, of things needing to be done, and simply to be there, to exist and to participate, knowing that the pace, the roll-out of events, what happens next, is out of your hands and dependent on the unpredictable whims of the large irritable animal blocking the path on the hill up ahead of you.

Back in my home office, though, this Sunday morning – how many of us have got used to working from home over the past interminable months of the Covid pandemic? – that rhino takes on other meanings, is suggestive of other possibilities and perspectives. Not least of which is the relief of seeing the rear-end of 2020. Including the rear-end of Trump, for that matter, a blight every bit as debilitating as the pandemic and with effects – social, political, environmental – every bit as malignant and possibly more long-lasting.

So what of the New Year? What of 2021?

One thing that we can be pretty sure of, it seems, is that 2021 will be much like the last year, the almost miraculous speed with which a Covid-19 vaccine has been developed notwithstanding.

It’s one thing to develop the vaccine, but it is another thing entirely, as we know, and will continue to learn in more painstakingly practical detail, to manufacture, store and distribute it. And still another thing to get people to take it, and to get those needles into the arms of those who do want to take it, and need to take it.

Like Rob and me, for instance.

Government here in South Africa, to put the matter delicately, says it has a plan, though how much of this plan is magical or wishful thinking is a matter of some public controversy. Rob and I can expect, or hope, to receive the vaccine in Phase Two of the rollout, apparently. This is the good news. When Phase Two is expected to begin, and how rapidly and smoothly the rollout will occur, is rather less certain.

In any event, we hope to be vaccinated before September, in other words, before we pack up our things here and return to Canada. Meanwhile, Covid-19 will continue to block the path to any easy or rapid return to what we, rather wistfully, think of as ‘normality.’

The thing is to survive, I guess, to stay calm and positive, and steadily plod forward. Live in the moment. Appreciate what we have. Develop a thicker skin towards life’s slings and arrows. Practice patience and resilience.

A bit like a rhino.

African Fish Eagle

This was not one of those
Swooping soaring
Photo opportunities, you know,
Where the bird glides in from
Stage left and
Exits beautifully
To the right
With a pristine
Pink and silver
Salmon or something
A missile ready to launch
From its claw
Flakes of morning light
Falling from its not yet barbecued

This was murder, a brawl in the shallows
Which ended badly
For the thrashing creature in the water
Which had not started it
But for a moment there I thought
Could have drowned the fish eagle
Dragged it under.

I must have shot
Twenty pictures
Intent on the action, thinking of
Flickr, of the prints
I would make. Only after
Did I see what had happened.
There was drama, certainly,
Struggle, death.
The bird had to eat, and the fish
Grubbing about in the mud or slime
Had no idea
How its world would instantaneously
Flip upside down.
They make a good series,
Those images, nonetheless.
I am happy to show them.

The morning light fell in flakes on the deck
That overlooked the bend in the river.
We are leaving here, I thought.
We won’t see this again.

Hornbill, elephant and grey loerie – an ethical problem?

Usually when I post about wildlife photography it is simply to share my images, to comment perhaps on the choice of colour or of black-and-white, to say something about where the photographs were taken, and the circumstances – but this time I want to say a few words about something different, about the ethics of the shot.

You see, there has been an interesting reaction, to this series of images of yellow hornbills, with the elephant looming in soft-focus in the background, and the papaya – a reaction which I assume extends also to the photo with the grey loerie.

So here’s the story. Before posting these pictures here, in my blog, I posted them also on the Birdlife South Africa Facebook page, and on my personal Facebook page, and quickly received over 240 ‘likes’ – which is not why I take photographs, but nonetheless nice feedback for a photographer.

However, there were two or three people who raised an eyebrow, scolding me for ‘feeding the animals’ and, in one case, suggesting the photos were ‘staged’ and going so far as to question whether they were ‘ethical.’

Now, I did not want to get drawn into an online shouting match, but I did feel it was important to address the issue. I did so on Facebook, and let me do so here.

Here are the facts, and my take on the situation.

First up, there is absolutely no question that we must treat wild birds and animals with respect, and not intrude unnecessarily into their environment or their ‘space.’ It is imperative that we behave ethically and responsibly, if we – and those who come after us – are to have the joy and the wonder of observing them, not just in a zoo or on camera, but in the flesh, in the wild. And it’s not just about us, as humans – it’s about recognising their own right to existence, recognising the complex interdependencies of nature, and the fact that we are – at best – the custodians of a vulnerable and fragile planet.

Second, my understanding from the bird photography books I have read is that expert, ethical professionals, shooting in the wild, will sometimes lay out food to attract the birds they wish to photograph, for example near a hide, and that this is regarded as acceptable practice.

Third, I will think more carefully in future about the ethics of bird and wildlife photography, and the rewards of behaving ethically and responsibly.

And for my last comment, let me just say that the fruit was there, and the birds were there, when I came upon them at our lodge: I was lucky to see them, lucky to have my camera with me, and lucky to get the shots.

Does this mean that, in the end, it’s the photograph that matters?

Unequivocally, no. In the end, and at all times, it’s the wildlife that comes first.

Madikwe Game Reserve – Giraffe against the Skyline

These images of Madikwe giraffe are a digression, I know, from our travels through France – and after France, there is still Istanbul to process and show – but when you are travelling light, digressions are allowed, if not in fact the real pleasure of the trip.

So we will return to France, I promise, and after France we will take a peek too at Istanbul – but coming so freshly from our four wonderful nights away in another world altogether, the world of the giraffe, the elephant, the rhino, the leopard and lion and yes, the cheetah, I simply have to make this detour and share some of my Madikwe images.

We came upon these giraffe, tall and quizzical against the skyline, late one afternoon, as the light was beginning to soften, and their shapes, their movement, their elegant ungainliness, made for some memorable images – starting with this one.

Remember to click on the images to enlarge.

While this image simply demanded an interpretation in black-and-white, it is colour that captures the warmth of the light in the images that follow.

Although, of course, there is always something to be said, again, for the old B&W!

Bird photographer at dawn

I will be in Brussels when this post appears, traveling for a few days on business.

To keep the customers satisfied, I have scheduled this post in my absence: a photograph of a solitary photographer, reflected through the reeds, in the mirror-like waters of the vlei at Marievale – a mirror of myself, in a way, catching a glimpse of him as he scans the waterways and reed banks for birds.

I kind of like it – as an image, and as a play on images and image-making. And I like it because it echoes the title of my blog, ‘Travelling Light.’

I hope you like it too.

Easter in Toronto

My scheduled post last weekend would have landed on your devices whilst Rob and I were in Cape Town with Jono, Hayley, Gabriel and Kathy and Thomas. This post lands as Rob and I are spending Easter back home in Toronto, Canada, with my youngest daughter Eve, her husband Shaun and our grandson Joshua.

Let it not be said that we don’t get around, Rob and me….

To keep you entertained, meanwhile, here is a foursome of photos of a moulting long-tailed widow-bird, taken in the Marievale Bird Sanctuary outside Johannesburg in November.

As I said in my last post, gotta keep the masses happy!