Life-long love affair that came out of Africa
PUBLISHED: 08:45 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013
International photographers and writers, Ann and Steve Toon, strayed away from the North East for this special anniversary issue report and pictures of the wildlife of Africa The alarm goes off but we're already awake....
International photographers and writers, Ann and Steve Toon, strayed away from the North East for this special anniversary issue report and pictures of the wildlife of Africa The alarm goes off but we're already awake. The whistling of a pocket-sized pearl spotted owl, rising to a high-pitched crescendo (it sounds just like a kettle on a hob), just a few minutes earlier, made it undisputedly clear dawn was about to break. We pull on our shorts and grab camera gear, binoculars, flask and an 'Eet-sum-mor' biscuit (that's exactly what they're called on the packet out here). Then it's a quick teeth-clean before getting our vehicle set up and heading purposefully to the camp gate in the half-light, rubbing the sleep from our eyes as we go. Somewhere in the distance, the low, rumbling roar of a male lion calling his pride makes the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end.We're off to work. It's a remote part of the Kalahari in South Africa's Northern Cape Province, somewhere on the border with Namibia and Botswana. The time is 5am, temperatures are already in the high-20s and climbing and we don't want to miss a second of the beautiful, toffee light or the morning's animal action. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, one of South Africa's premier national parks, is a long, long way from Tarset, near Kielder, where we live.We'd be the first to agree that Northumberland is a stunningly beautiful county with its own fascinating, unique and spectacular wildlife, yet we're always happy to leave our creature comforts behind, swapping our fivea- day for southern Africa's Big Five, for weeks, often months at a time, battling extremes of heat and cold, mosquitoes, scorpions, snakes and the odd angry bull elephant. We check our camera settings and smear our faces and arms with factor 30 sunscreen. That routine dispensed with, we begin crawling along in low gear scouring the dusty earth for fresh animal tracks. We spot a small group of springbok sparring and kicking up a photogenic halo of sun-kissed dust.We reach for our cameras and start framing our first shots into the warm, golden light. It's probably snowing back home right now. The Kalahari is where our love-affair with the wildlife and wild places of southern Africa first started. A visit to the reserve a dozen or so years ago, just after we'd packed in our nine to five jobs in journalism in London and embarked on a round-the-world sabbatical, resulted in a complete turnabout in our lifestyle and careers.We spent a wonderful six-month period in South Africa and Namibia at the start of that trip - most of it in the region's world-class game parks. It was during our stay at the Kgalagadi reserve that the opportunity to track the paw-prints of a lioness and her two tiny cubs in the sand each morning inspired and excited us so much we decided to become wildlife photographers almost on the spot. When we came across her one morning, gently carrying one of the five-week-old lion cubs in her powerful jaws, just metres from our vehicle, there was no going back. Despite the fact the only real photographic experience either of us had was a night-class in black and white printing, we weren't going to be put off.We had zero equipment to speak of and barely a clue about field-craft, but what we lacked in ability we more than made up for in our passion for the place and our fascination with our subjects. And having worked in the media for many years at least we'd a reasonable idea about what made a good picture and the markets that existed out there for our work. Since those days, the time we've put in attempting to hone our craft and improve our skills has led to many memorable encounters and adventures.We have been lucky enough to photograph up close the darting and capture of a rare black rhino with an elite game capture unit in Kwa-Zulu Natal. We've visited and photographed the real life stars of the TV programme 'Meerkat Manor', who are part of an important long-running research study on the species. And we've photographed the heavily armour-plated Indian one-horned rhino from elephant back in Assam for our first book on rhinos published a few years ago. We've accompanied researchers tracking a hunting pack of wild dogs in Limpopo, photographed the aerial display of majestic bearded vultures from a precarious, clifftop hide in the Drakensberg Mountains and, we're currently planning to track desert rhino and desert lions in the remote Damaraland region of Namibia on our forthcoming African trip later this month - animals we've long wanted to see and photograph. As the springbok settle back down to grazing the sparse vegetation of the Kgalagadi's harsh and arid landscape, we decide to pay another visit to the Cape fox den we discovered a few days back, before the sun gets too high and its inhabitants go to ground. These charming and elusive creatures, southern Africa's only true fox, are rarely photographed, because they're usually nocturnal and lead quite solitary lives. Although little is really known about them, they are a delight to photograph, having fine, graceful, fox-like features and the most amazing bushy tails.We deliberately timed this trip to coincide with their peak breeding period, considered one of the best times to see them, in the slim hope of finally getting some good shots. After several days of scouring the terrain we'd managed to find a few occupied dens but, until a couple of days ago, these had always been tantalisingly beyond the reach of our lenses. Yesterday, however, we'd had one of our most rewarding photographic sessions of the trip, having found an active den close to the edge of the track with not one, but three, incredibly active and playful young cubs.We watched and photographed for a good hour as they chased around, played hide and seek on a dead tree and were continually rounded up by the adults for a session of grooming.We could hardly believe our good fortune. Days like this make up for the all-too-frequent times where patience wears thin and, other than the odd 'domestic' when we're both hot and bothered, nothing much happens to speak of, let alone point a camera at. We're not far from the fox den now. Distracted by the prospect of another good session with the young fox cubs we fail to notice what's going on around us and don't spot the male leopard until he's virtually on top of us. Shy and elusive, true masters of stealth, leopards are still special sightings for us and good photographs of them always a huge bonus. 'There's a leopard,' I exclaim nudging Steve's arm. The sound of my voice is drifting away out of the open window in the direction I'm pointing. 'It's a leopard, there...a leopard. It's a huge male. A leopard is walking towards us. It's a leopard,' I'm trying to raise my voice without making too much noise. I don't want this guy disturbed and heading for cover before we've had a chance to look through our viewfinders. Eventually the news sinks in and within seconds we're both on automatic pilot, carefully framing shots and manoeuvring the vehicle quietly and smoothly for the best vantage point in relation to the light while tracking our sleek and prowling subject. The leopard seems oblivious to our presence, disdainful even. He's a beautiful specimen, stocky and muscular, with a bell-rope tail that curls seductively towards the tip, and we follow and photograph him for a good half hour.We swap glances as he finally disappears over the top of the dune. Sometimes you just don't need to talk. Moments like this are what keep us coming back for more.We drive back; in silence, for the most part. The sun is getting higher, it's already burning hot. A tawny eagle is soaring way above our heads on the first thermals and a blue headed lizard climbs lazily to the top of a nearby rock to bask in the heat. 'Right then,' says Steve,' looking across from the driving seat, 'what shall we have for breakfast today?'