Let’s rewind back time to 2015. I was at Varty Camp at Londolozi and I had shown now Head Ranger, Don Heyneke, a picture I took in Sri Lanka of a leap of leopards (six to be precise). It piqued his curiosity. As a result, in 2016, Don initiated and participated in a guide exchange with our tented camp Leopard Trails in Sri Lanka. It was there, in our dry zone jungles that we had formed a friendship eating pork curry, drinking coconut arrack, and talking about successful South African (wildlife!) models.
Fast forward to the 26th of March 2017.
We’re back at Londolozi and out on game drive with Don. Almost immediately the prowess with which he conducts a game drive as a photographic guide became apparent. Pretty much as we left camp we came across a breeding herd of elephants by the Sand River. We attempted a crossing to reposition for optimal light on the subject, but before long we had spinning tires on both axles.
In low range four wheel drive with foot off all pedals and differential locked, he stood on the foot board observing the spinning tires. The smile on his face did not reveal whether he felt the fate of the pink pouch may befall him. His very own trainee guides looked on from the banks of the river with their cameras clicking away! The first mobile tented Leopard Trails campsite required crossing a river in a four wheel drive for both guests and supply vehicles. We had learnt a thing or two from this and eagerly watched on.
With great skill Don finally maneuvered the vehicle out and we proceeded several minutes down the road before I realised that my phone was missing. We backtracked towards the river with Tracker Life scanning the ground for the lost Samsung S7 edge phone. When we reached the river we decided to walk in the wheel ruts and just before reaching the opposite bank, Don recovered the lost phone from under the water. “Got it!” he yelled, holding the phone up in the air. “Don you legend,” I exclaimed in my excitement. I had everything backed up on cloud servers except my footage of this trip to the Sabi Sands. Standing ankle deep in the river I nervously attempted a thumbprint unlock after wiping off the water droplets on my shorts. I soon discovered the phone operated perfectly. It had even received some notifications via my roaming service! The cracked cover indicated it had also been driven over. We snapped a quick celebratory picture before heading off in search of lions.
A visit to Londolozi is hugely inspiring. The private concession model, and the new age wildlife economy have resulted in unparalleled photographic opportunities brought about through the intersection of four factors: self regulated private concessions, habituated big cats, tracking and the ability to go off road on open grassland. On this my third visit to Londolozi, and one of many to the Sabi Sands, Don and my colleagues discussed how to deal with dappled light falling on a leopards face and which position in the Marula tree would be best to capture a silhouette shot of a leopard about to leap back towards its impala carcass. However on this trip, I decided to sit back and just observe the animals. Instead I listened to the guided experience, asked questions and occasionally used my smartphone to take video. Today’s safari industry is dominated by big lenses and high F stops, but the moral of this story is that as a casual tourist on safari you don’t need a complex camera and lenses to have an amazing experience. Smartphone videography can be a powerful way to tell your story even if you impose a short amphibious existence upon it. The video captured below of our experience has been taken using a smartphone with up to 4K resolution. However this video was shot in 1080p and edited on the phone using a free app known as Adobe Premiere Clip.
Don also decided to write a blog on his exchange to Leopard Trails Camp in Sri Lanka. Despite his clear misfortune of having to use an iPhone, he produced an incredible video that showcased the similarities that our wilderness areas share, as well as captured his memories of our food, culture and heritage. It was in fact this that inspired me to start short one to two minute videos of our sightings in Sri Lanka that we now share across the Leopard Trails social media platforms. Across our 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, tourists travelling with other companies are most often driven, not guided, and our videos demonstrate to our industry stakeholders, the value of guiding that I had experienced across Africa. Something we’re passionate about at Leopard Trails.
This year we are launching a blog similar to Londolozi’s. Instead of written content we will focus exclusively on short videos showcasing sightings and our guides’ interpretation of these sightings. Leopard Trails also has a vision for a guide training school in Sri Lanka. That short video that Don shared with me in a tent in Sri Lanka is an example of how a guide exchange can result in opening a door that otherwise may never have opened for us. On this year’s trip to Londolozi we have discussed the potential of having a guiding forum in Sri Lanka with guides from across Africa, India, and Sri Lanka. A meeting of minds to conceptualize new ideas and share stories around the campfire.
Our final night in the boma ended with a discussion with Dave Varty, the founder of Londolozi, on Sri Lanka and the future of its wildlife. In a low tone of voice ensuring not to disturb the choir singing in the background, Dave says “Come with me, I want to show you a presentation. I’ll do it on the bonnet of my vehicle”. Dinner was delayed that night. The same energy and passion that moulded Londolozi into what it is today was being channeled to spread this message across our planet. We have been reflecting on these thoughts throughout our flight back home.
Some of our team will have the good fortune of regrouping around the campfire at Varty Camp later this year to continue the discussion. For me, the latter part of 2017 will be about exploring a new personal frontier, Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, with some of the staff I have made friends with at Londolozi. Lions chasing buffalo and buffalo chasing lions within our makeshift camp, with only a canvas wall separating us and the African night. I’ll be sure to capture it on video.
Written and filmed by Radheesh Sellamuttu, Managing Director of Leopard Trails Sri Lanka