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A photo safari in the heart of Zululand was more than a vacation - it was an educational experience

By: Kathy Robbins Special to The Gazette
September 3, 2017 Updated: September 3, 2017 at 4:05 am

It started at our favorite bar with a casual conversation about maybe seeing Tom Petty at Red Rocks. "I'm going to South Africa that day," said friend Jennifer Beyer. "Maybe you guys could go? I think there's still room."

While it could be Tom's last tour, it was no contest. With that decision, a few friends become Team Colorado.

My husband, Mark Robbins, and I would join Beyer and photographer Barbara Fleming, owner of Fleming Safari Co., for an eight-day South African photo safari.

We had ample time to prepare before our May 30 flight to Johannesburg.

With Fleming as mentor, we three - all in our 60s and from Colorado Springs - visited Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to become familiar with our digital SLR cameras and wildlife photography.

We were vaccinated for typhoid and hepatitis A, filled prescriptions for malaria pills and exchanged our U.S. dollars for South African rands at a Colorado Springs bank.

We chose lightweight, neutral-colored clothing, checking one bag per two of us.

The flight and second-day connection were grueling, but we soon were filled with wonder as we witnessed wildlife in natural settings at the 15,000-acre Zimanga Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Zimanga is dedicated to conservation, with electric fencing protecting its hilly slopes and rolling acacia savannah in the heart of Zululand bushveld. Owner Charl Senekal also has two dozen rangers watching around the clock for poachers who threaten the white rhinos, elephants and other large mammals on the property. Conservation also depends on visitors, whose presence discourages poachers.

Zimanga driver and game ranger Dean Wraith picked us up at the homestead each dawn for a three-hour drive through the park, with blankets and hot water bottles keeping us warm in what is now South Africa's winter.

Some mornings, he dropped us at one of several hides designed for photographers. Afternoon game drives began at 2:30 p.m. and continued to just after sunset.

During some drives, we chanced upon a pack of African wild dogs and photographed them resting after chasing an impala or playing at sunset.

Wraith also drove us close to several elephants grazing on a vista as the sun was setting, the majestic beasts silhouetted against a clear but darkening sky.

And on every drive, Wraith and Fleming educated us on animal behavior and how to anticipate and then capture something extraordinary with our cameras.

In the hides, photographers are invisible to the wildlife behind one-way glass in environments that provided the best lighting and uncluttered background.

Each hideis designed for a specific type of wildlife, such as the one built on a lagoon for photographing water fowl, eagles and the occasional crocodile.

The hide for viewing large mammals accommodates overnight stays, with bunks, a kitchen, bathroom, air-conditioning and lighting that animals have become accustomed to over time. Cape buffalo often approach from seemingly nowhere for a nocturnal drink.

Over our eight days in Africa, we also photographed a cheetah, lions, elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, a white rhino, hippopotamus, crocodiles, lots of warthogs, antelope and more amazing birds than we could have imagined.

Between those opportunities, we relaxed and were treated to delicious meals by a gracious staff at the Zimanga lodge - a farmhouse converted into luxury accommodations for up to eight guests.

As novice photographers we are pleased with many of our images. They capture far better than words the indescribable magic of South Africa.

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