Botswana…dream-maker, equipment-breaker (Part Two)…

As I wrote last week, for all of its beauty and allure, northern Botswana can hold some valuable lessons for the photographer. From the dry Kalahari desert to the lush delta of the Okavango, it is a land of contrasts. And so it is from my encounter with this lethally-dry Kalahari dust in my last post that I take you to the cool, refreshing domain of the hippo and crocodile.

In order to tell the story of northern Botswana’s wildlife and wild places you have to think water. As a photographer, there are a few ways to capture the importance of water to the region and its wildlife. One approach is from the air. Picking out hippos and herds of elephants in the vast landscape of channels, swamps and islands makes aerial photography here a real treat. The other approach is from in the water. Now, I’m no David Doubilet and the remit for my commission in northern Botswana was almost exclusively terrestrial. As a result, my already heaving luggage wasn’t going to contain a sturdy, professional underwater camera rig. I did manage to squeeze in a flexible ewa-marine housing for my slr though. The only problem with this particular housing is that it has no way of accommodating a flash unit and despite shooting in the crystal-clear waters of the Okavango Delta, additional lighting was essential to the kind of shot I had in mind – a split-level view of the delta’s water lilies in flower and the tangled network of roots and reeds beneath the surface.

Planning ahead (or so I thought), I packed a dozen clear freezer bags and a LOT of tape. My plan was to waterproof my flash unit in the freezer bags, run the off-camera chord out of the top of the underwater housing (which could remain open seeing as I was shooting split-level) and secure the flash underneath the housing using the tape. I had used a similarly ‘Heath Robinson’ set-up in the past to shoot water-level shots of white-tailed eagles in Scotland and so I had reason to be confident.

The strong pre-flood currents flowing through the delta washed me along until I found the right spot to stop and try my hand. Hippos had opened up a channel through the papyrus reeds where it was shallow enough to stand. The temperature of the water made it a pleasure to stay in and search for the right composition while the afternoon light seemed just right for photography. With the support crew on hippo-watch, I was loving every minute of it. When I started to notice my flash strobing by itself though I couldn’t help think that perhaps the inviting waters had made me too comfortable. I had been in the water for so long that my home-made rig had lost its ‘infallible’ waterproofing and the unit had begun to short-circuit. Back on the boat I rushed to get the batteries out and get the unit drying in the sun. Knowing what was still ahead in my itinerary and my regular use of flash to fill the dark shadows created by the harsh African sun, I couldn’t afford to lose my flashgun at this stage.

Back at Xigera lodge, I was finally able to check the results of the afternoon’s escapades. Luckily, not only did the flashgun make a full recovery but I discovered that the flood-induced short-circuit had happened after I captured the scene I had envisaged in my head. To see the full results of this shoot hosted and supported by Wilderness Safaris and Botswana Tourism, you’re going to have to wait a little longer for them to be published in print, so keep an eye on this blog for more news…

Visit my main website at www.ConservationPhotojournalism.com

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