Wildlife photography in Africa is generally done from open vehicles. These vehicles drive around on reserves and in wilderness areas searching for animals to photograph. Once a subject is located, the driver then tries to approach the animal with the best photo opportunity in mind. Of course being in a vehicle you are at the whim of light, the terrain and the animal’s response to your approach. As such, it is relatively seldom that all the factors combine to make intimate photographs. In addition, by driving around searching for subjects, the style of photography becomes an off-the-cuff affair, with you the photographer often happening upon a sighting and taking images of what you can get.
We have long had the idea of having photographic hides in near proximity to the urban centres of South Africa. The intention was to allow inbound international clients a night of relaxation before and after their safari. At the same time they could sit in the hides and get excellent images of the animals and birds that visited them. Finding a location of course was essential and we researched the various types of bushveld to see what would be best suited to the species of wildlife and birds we wanted to attract. This proved harder than expected, as we required an exact type of habitat.
In January 2011 Shem Compion was on safari in Botswana with clients. He noticed how, at the height of the wet season, birds and elephants were still being attracted to fresh water pools in the Okavango. He pondered that if a waterhole was this good in the wet season, how good it would be in more arid environments. He recalled Mashatu Game Reserve, an area with immense photographic potential that he had first been introduced to in 2005. He had promptly focused a lot of his efforts in developing photo workshops and tours into Mashatu and through the years it’s status grew among wildlife photographers as a destination that had a very high photo ‘hit-rate’ as well as being excellent for notably, predators (leopard in particular) and elephant breeding herds. It then occurred to Shem that Mashatu would be an excellent location to set up dedicated wildlife photographic hides.
Upon return to South Africa, meetings with Mashatu were arranged to discuss the prospect of photographic hides on their property. The reserve owners immediately bought into the concept and from that moment on it was all system go...
Building and placing hides in a remote area with large animals was to prove quite a challenge and required a lot of very specific and detailed planning. In the true PhotoMashatu tradition this took place around a large A0 piece of drawing paper, a host of photography guides around the table and some beers to keep the spirits high. Everything was discussed and planned in as much detail as possible. Drawing on the vast nature, photographic and photo hide experience of Greg, Albie, Isak, André and Shem, the logistics of the operation and the design of the hides, with Zendré drawing as fast as possible on the sheet of paper, transformed into the visible and the dream became tangible.
Of course the biggest project was building an underground photographic hide. It was eventually decided upon that a shipping container would suit our needs. A phone call or two later and we found an old container lying outside a friend’s house in Oodi, Botswana. Oodi is a small village just outside Gaborone and what we at first thought would be a problem in terms of skilled labour, turned out to be a blessing. Oodi housed a number of skilled artisans and in true Botswana style the hide was cut up and modified right in among the village with the cows and goats walking right by!
Eventually the container hide was ready, waterproofed and ready to transport to Mashatu - some 554km away. It took the truck 2 days to get there and then the TLB digging the hole broke down upon arrival at site. The plan of sinking the container was abandoned for a further date. Eventually the elements came together and a small trailer managed to get the container to site and a TLB was coaxed into digging the hole. This occurred some 25 days after the initial expected delivery date!
A number of years have passed by since the first hide was erected on Mashatu and over this time the hides have provided photographers from all around the world with unforgettable experiences. 2014 was the year we decided to make some addition to the hide collection on Mashatu, as the first elephant hide had become so popular, with both animals and photographers, we decided it was time for mark II to make an appearance. With the same design fundamentals as the existing elephant hide, plus a few additional upgrades and modifications, the customized shipping container was driven across country to Mashatu. With now an experienced on the ground handling team, the container was very promptly in the ground, a 1.2km pipe line laid, a borehole sunk and “Bob’s your uncle”, we had water. It was only after the whole structure had come together that the challenges arrived. The soil that made up the base of the waterhole was extremely porous, thus taking weeks, and months to eventually reach its full capacity – a delay that was not counted for. Nonetheless, a few elephant baths later, a little applied bush mechanics and the waterhole was now full up and the base of it sealed with clay. The animals of Elephant Valley wasted no time at all getting their snouts into this new pool of deliciously fresh water.
The history of the hides at Mashatu is an ever-changing one. We are always looking for new ways to alter the way wildlife photographs are taken and for this reason we always are looking to innovate and explore new angles of wildlife photography. So unsurprisingly we decided to make a few changes to the existing Matebole hide. With the success of the Matebole hide over the last 7 years, came an increase in demand for hide visits. Only being able to fit 4 photographers comfortably at a time we had to think of an innovative way to keep up with the demand.
The most practical option was to increase the size of the existing Matebole hide.
In the off-season from November 2017 – March 2018 the hide was modified by doubling its size and refitting the entire interior, so 8 photographers can comfortably photograph from the hide with their lenses laid out next to them. With the changes to the size of the actual hide we had to modify the waterhole to ensure that the intimacy of the original experience was maintained. The end result is a larger, better designed hide, which still has that same intimate feeling when you are inside, photographing the classic scenes of what Mashatu has to offer as they enfold in front of you.