Drakensberg Adventure

After having been bitten by the ‘travel bug’ I decided to start with exploring my own country. One of my favourite memories growing up is visiting the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal with my family. It is a place of endless beauty and tranquility, marked by cave paintings, endemic flora & fauna, and extreme weather conditions. This adventure took place at the wonderful Champagne Castle Hotel.

My boyfriend and I have recently been exploring the world of photography together and I have managed to spark his interest in birding – this makes for a winning combination. It was initially his idea to keep our traveling local and to explore South Africa before being too ambitious and heading off to unrealistic places such as the Galapagos Islands – I will make this dream a reality some day! Our next stop will hopefully be the Okavango Delta.

Our photography goals included astrophotography, a few great bird shots and a breathtaking landscape that gives the Berg justice. This is what we got – see it on Behance.

Camera equipment:

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Nikon D7200
Nikkor 35mm prime f / 1.8 + a polarizer
Sigma 150-600mm f / 5-6.3
Monopod – SLK 350
Joby GorillaPod

DAY 1 – BIRDS AND ADVANCED SELFIES

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After driving slowly from Durban we arrived just in time for lunch – they catered for vegetarians which is always exciting! The accommodation suits the mountain setting perfectly and the heated towel racks were greatly appreciated in the cold mornings and evenings. We went for a late afternoon adventure and photographed the sunset until our hands turned to ice. A bath seemed more fitting than astrophotography on our first night.

We saw many birds and several lifers however the highlight of the trip was seeing an endangered Bearded Vulture. I was so excited to see it that I could not focus on capturing a good image. This is only the second time that I have seen one which says a lot seeing as I have worked with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife on their Bearded Vulture Project. I used my Roberts Bird Guide App to record all of the species we spotted. It was incredible to see how well the different birds responded to the calls from the app.

DAY 2 – HIKING AND ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY

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We woke up to a delicious breakfast and started our hike to Crystal Pools and the Sphinx, an 8km hike starting at Champagne Castle Hotel which took us about 4 hours 30 mins. During the hike we were incredibly lucky to be taken to see 4000 year old cave paintings made by the bushman or more correctly, indigenous San people.

This is the view of our hotel (Champagne Castle) from the hike:

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When we got to the top of the Sphinx we used inspiration from Sorelle Amore and created our very own “advanced selfies” using the Wi-Fi capabilities on my camera and the Nikon WMU app for iPhone which can be used as a remote shutter release. This is the result:

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We came back for lunch and chocolate mousse, downloaded our photos from the hike and had a long nap – the altitude exhausted us! After dinner, some World Cup football and a few glasses of wine, we put on warm (very warm) clothes and continued to go outside and ‘paint with light’. Astrophotography was new to both of us so it took some time to perfect the settings.

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[10,0 sec at f / 1.8, ISO 800]
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[5,0 sec at f / 1.8, ISO 800]
The most difficult thing about capturing the above image was the trial and error involved in getting the mountain range in focus. My 35mm f/ 1.8 Nikkor doesn’t have an infinity ring so I had to make small increments on the manual focus. If you are interested in trying this out, I suggest watching some YouTube videos and having lots of patience. The next goal is to capture a star trail.

DAY 3 – BLUEBERRY HILL CAFE AND A CHANCE ENCOUNTER

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On our last day we woke up at 6am to catch the sunrise, tried to capture long exposures of the dam and created panoramas of the mountain tops (using Adobe Lightroom in post production, Merge –> Panorama). The drive back from the Berg was almost as exciting as the hike, we not only saw Cape Vultures but also a skittish Secretary Bird.

Our last stop was for lunch at Blueberry Hill in the Midlands. Both things we tried on the menu were unparalleled – the best cheesecake and falafel I have ever eaten!

I guess you could say we had a successful weekend.

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