Day 15: Etosha – Elephant & Rhino Awe

Out again for another game drive at 10:30am. Nailed some in-flight photos of a Greater Kestrel.

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Back for lunch at 1pm. Elephant herd at the waterhole after lunch, 33 strong!! Now I’m convinced that one box of my malaria tablets must be LSD.

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We all voted in favour of skipping the afternoon game drive to have a drink around the waterhole and watch the elephant herd drink, swim, and socialise. At about 4pm they slowly moved off to leave the waterhole empty.

I started filming as the sun set over the waterhole. As if it were scripted, just as the sun kissed the horizon, a herd of zebra moved in to drink. Speechless.

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Dinner at 7pm. Impala steak, chicken, salad, fruit salad, ice cream, birthday cake for Anne’s birthday … delicious … stuffed!

Approaching the waterhole after dinner I thought some of the elephant herd were back, but as I got closer I had to squint and blink more than a few times. Rhino. Black rhino. Ten of them around, and in, the waterhole!!!

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This was about as good as it gets. I couldn’t have dreamt up a more awe-inspiring scene to be immersed in on our last night in Etosha. And that’s not an exaggeration. Being predominantly solitary animals I didn’t even know black rhino ever came together like this (apart from breeding and mothers with calves); and certainly wouldn’t have expected them to come together in such numbers.

I had been hand-holding the camera for almost all of my photos up to this point, including night shots, but I quickly decided that this scene was too impressive, and the light too low, not to grab my tripod and try to get the best out of it as possible (and our room was less than 50m from the waterhole so I really had no excuse not to get it).

Despite the waterhole being floodlit, the light was overly warm and not very bright (presumably because dull warm light is less damaging to the animals’ night vision). This made exposure and white balance settings a challenge to say the least.

Having the tripod made it easy to get the waterhole, rocks, trees, etc., sharp, but it does nothing to prevent blur from anything moving in the frame (i.e. the rhinos), so I was still having to push to max aperture (f/4 on my 24-105mm lens) and high ISO (6400-12800) to keep the slowly moving animals sharp.

For the most part I ignored white balance and left it on Auto. I was shooting everything on RAW and figured I would correct it in Lightroom later. Plus I was too focused on just getting some photos onto the memory card before the rhinos left the waterhole. That meant most of my photos were very orange (too warm) in-camera. An hour or so later though, when all but two rhinos remained at the waterhole, I played around with setting a custom white balance using the rhino itself as my grey card. Worked reasonably well but still doesn’t look natural.

These are pretty much straight out of the camera, showing how warm the floodlight was (or at least how warm the auto white balance saw it). No noise reduction here either, just for interest. First image is ISO-12800 and second one is ISO-6400…

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Impossible (for me) to capture the feeling of what we saw. At one point two male rhinos on the far bank of the waterhole had a grunting, fake-charging standoff. The photo just looks like they’re standing still and facing each other. The video footage though shows the false-bravado, grunting, and “jumping” of the smaller male, and his eventual conceding and disappearance into the darkness behind.

An unforgettable night.

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