Sunset Over Azhagappapuram

Evening clouds turn to fire over the mountains north of Azhagappapuram, Tamil Nadu, India.

I took this photo on the final day of a fantastic trip to India last year. I was in the state of Tamil Nadu, at the southern tip of India staying with my friend Frans. The village in which he grew up is just on the far side of this small lake, so I only had to travel a few minutes from where I was staying to get this shot.

I had been eyeing the sky for a few days, hoping for some clouds at sunset that would catch the last rays of the day. Luck was with me for my last evening in town, as the clouds started to build in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, I did not get the still water that I was hoping for, in order to create a reflection of the southern most expanse of the Western Ghats. In typical southern Tamil Nadu style, wind was whipping across the water at great speed, creating small white caps (definitely NOT what I was hoping for!) In fact, this area is known for its expanse of wind farms, which should have given me a clue that waiting for a calm day was likely an exercise in futility.

Evening clouds turn to fire over the mountains north of Azhagappapuram, Tamil Nadu, India.
Evening clouds turn to fire over the mountains north of Azhagappapuram, Tamil Nadu, India.

However, I had previously scouted a small area of lotus plants close to the shore, which helped the photo in two ways. First, the lotuses broke up the waves that the wind was creating. And second, they added some level of interest to the foreground. This was the next best option given there was no chance for a reflection.

As a side note, these plants would have been much more beautiful had any blossoms been on the plants. But alas, they were picked clean. As I was wondering about why this was, I saw a man in a canoe further along the shore, slowly making his way through the lotuses and plucking any fresh blossoms. Oh well, maybe time for a little photoshop? Just kidding of course….

Apparently, this area doesn’t see many photographers or foreigners. As I was standing by the shoreline with my tripod, many people stopped on the nearby road to watch what I was doing. That was okay – the resulting photo was well worth the extra attention.

Every day I was there, I discovered more of the natural beauty of the area’s land and animals. I will certainly return to cover this amazing landscape more in depth.

The Etosha Pan

A camel-thorn acacia grows next to the Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The Etosha Pan is a large dry lake bed in Namibia, which due to heavy mineral deposits forms a dry salt pan. The name “Etosha” comes from an Ndonga word meaning “great white place”. While the pan rarely sees water, it is surrounded by savanna and sparse forest, teeming with wildlife. The pan is 75 miles long and just shy of 3,000 square miles. Here you can see the white expanse of the pan stretching into infinity.

A blue wildebeest wanders out alone onto the Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

Occasionally the wildlife that lives at the edges of the lake bed wander out onto it to gather surface minerals, making up a portion of their diet. A blue wildebeest is dwarfed by the vastness of the pan.

The lake was fed by a large river about 16,000 years ago when glacial melt caused the formation of many such rivers. At some point tectonic plate movement changed the course of the river, and the pan dried up to its current state. The only time it sees a few centimeters of water is due to heavy rains, but this is a seldom occurrence.

Herds of plains zebra and springbok visit a waterhole for a morning drink, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The area surrounding the pan is dotted with waterholes which support a wide variety of wildlife. This area is protected within the boundaries of Etosha National Park, which completely surrounds the pan. Although I only spent one full day here, that glimpse of wildlife photographic possibilities will surely draw me back.

Okaukuejo Waterhole: Wildlife Diversity

My last blog post detailed my experience with five endangered black rhino at the Okaukuejo Waterhole in Ethosa National Park, Namibia. But that’s certainly not all I saw during those long quiet hours in the dead of night.

The sun sets over the Okaukuejo Waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia

I arrived at the waterhole just as the sun was setting behind the horizon. Night is the best time to see wildlife here, and to facilitate wildlife viewing, this camp has set up a flood light by which to see the nocturnal visitors. Quite a few people gathered at the waterhole to watch the sunset, but soon they were off to dinner and bed. Over the next hour, the crowds thinned out and only the die-hards remained for a long night’s wait.

Zebra come at night to drink from the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Night is a good time for prey animals to visit waterholes as they have a better chance of escaping predators.
Zebra come at night to drink from the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Night is a good time for prey animals to visit waterholes as they have a better chance of escaping predators.

One of the more common visitors were the zebra. One night a small herd came at dusk, but it was those few that crept up to the waterhole in the middle of the night that were more fun to watch. The absolute silence was only disrupted by the soft crunching of rocks under their feet, as they lined the edge of the water to drink. The stillness of the water cast a perfect reflection. However there was no chance to relax, as any little sound had the zebra darting their gaze to the darkness, trying to see beyond the wall of black.

A giraffe stands next to a tree at the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Its body is reflected in the still waters, Etosha National Park, Namibia.
A giraffe stands next to the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Its body is reflected in the still waters, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

Zebra gave way to giraffe, which traveling in ones and twos. In order to capture photos of these animals at night, I had my 400mm lens locked down on the tripod, my mirror locked up, and my shutter speed just slow enough to gather the required light. Keep the shutter too slow, and the animal was more likely to move during the exposure. It was a careful balance of predicting animal behavior, and making sure all my camera functions were set correctly.

Giraffe visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole at night, drinking from its still water, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

One of my favorite sights was the comical way in which giraffe drank water. They had to contort their bodies and spread their front legs in order to bring their heads low enough to the ground to drink.

A springbok visits the Okaukuejo Waterhole at night, its form reflected in the still water, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

In addition to the larger mammals, I saw a couple of antelope species. The ever present springbok made an appearance.

A species endemic to Namibia, several black-faced impala visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole at night, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

As did the endemic black-faced impala.

I did see an elephant in the early hours of morning. However luck was not on my side, and none of my photos turned out. There was too much movement from this giant beast to capture under low lights.

I would certainly recommend this type of experience to wildlife lovers. It was incredibly intimate to watch these animals interacting under the cover of darkness, with nobody else around. It was a wildlife cathedral I was lucky enough to attend!

Two Nights At Okaukuejo Waterhole

Under the cover of darkness, two endangered black rhinos socialize next to the Okaukuejo Waterhole, their bodies reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight and are usually solitary creatures. Only at night can they be seen interacting with one another socially.

The endangered black rhino was long thought to be solitary and territorial, usually alone and resting most of the day in deep brush. On a recent trip to Namibia, I was hoping to see one of these rare creatures in the wild. With a worldwide wild population of only 5000, I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to see one. Not only did I get my wish, but what I saw was counter to every description I’ve read about these animals.

I was traveling with a group through Namibia, photographing both wildlife and the incredible landscapes of that country. We spent a couple of nights in Etosha National Park, a stop on every wildlife tourist’s “todo” list. Okaukuejo camp features a natural waterhole that is kept floodlit all night. This allows visitors to view the amazing variety of wildlife that frequents the waterhole only at night. Knowing that the black rhino makes itself scarce during the day, I was hoping for a nocturnal sighting.

An endangered black rhino drinks from the Okaukuejo Waterhole, its body reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight.

I waited and waited long into the night, with nothing to show for my weariness. I had a tripod mounted Canon 100-400mm lens with a new 50 megapixel Canon 5DSr attached to the back. At about 3:00 in the morning, just as I was about to pack up my gear, the silent darkness was disturbed by an incredibly loud crunching sound. Suddenly, an impossibly large form emerged from the brush a mere 50 yards from my position. My heart leapt into my throat – it was a black rhino!

A black rhino and her baby visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole, thier bodies reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight.

Even more surprising was the baby rhino that followed closely behind. I couldn’t believe my luck in seeing not one but two of these rare creatures. After drinking by the water’s edge, the mother walked into the water to bathe. Soon her timid baby followed, and they ventured into water up to their stomachs, drinking as they went.

A black rhino and her baby visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole. A dip in the cool water washes away the dust. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight.

As they emerged from the water, they looked like some kind of strange half-white, half-black creature, as the water and washed away all the dust from the surrounding landscape. After a few more minutes, they wandered back into the brush, content. I was certainly happy to have lucked out on my first night, but was hopeful to see them again the next night, now that I knew they were in the area.

The next night I didn’t have to wait long. Soon after sunset, two rhinos emerged from the brush. These were two full grown adults, and based on the lack of a baby, I figured that neither of these was the mother from the night before. After a quick drink, the two faced each other. Expecting some kind of fierce territorial battle, I was shocked to see them rub their faces against each other (see lead photo). Exchanging soft grunts (or at least as softly as a huge beast like this can grunt), they stood like this for several moments, touching horns and nuzzling each other. This certainly didn’t look like the solitary hermits I had read about before my trip!

A black rhino drinks from the Okaukuejo Waterhole, its body reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight.

As I was watching these two, the mother and baby from the night before came to the edge of the water. Finally, a fifth black rhino joined the party by the waterhole. At this point, I was expecting a confrontation of some sort, having seen protective wild animal mothers with their babies before. Surely one of these large adults would get too close to the baby and then the action would start!

Three endangered black rhinos socialize and drink from the Okaukuejo Waterhole, their bodies reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight and are usually solitary creatures. Only at night can they be seen interacting with one another socially.

Not only did none of that happen, but the five rhinos seemed almost sweet with each other. For the next half an hour, these nocturnal socialites drank and mingled, exchanging pleasantries (read: more grunting at each other). The baby was free to wander among the other rhinos. Before they left, I caught a quick video of them all together.

With my only experience consisting of two nights, I have no idea how rare or common it was to see this type of behavior. But rare or not, I was in awe of these amazing creatures and felt blessed to be given an opportunity to photograph them.