Khartoum — It was my first experience with photographing scenes from Sudan's wildlife.
The challenge ahead was very enormous indeed. But the fact that I would be in the good company of some members of the group of young journalists (commonly known with the acronym "JASH"), together with some lovers of wildlife, gave me enough courage to take the risk.
THE JOURNEY TO DINDIR GAME RESERVE:
We moved towards the Dindir Game Reserve in Sinnar State, South-Eastern Sudan, on Thursday 13/4/2017, crossing the towns of Wad Madani, Sinnar, Sinja and then Dindir where the Wildlife Protection Unit of the Sudan Police Force took care of us with a good dinner. It had never crossed my mind what a difficult and hazardous job the Wildlife Protection Unit was undertaking until I came in close touch with them.
After dinner and midday prayer we left our air conditioned tourist bus and took a convoy of four-wheel drive trucks towards the Golgo camp, some 155 KM from Dindir. The road from Dindir to Golgo Camp was unpaved and is often crossed by a lot creeks. As we drove on lots of villages came into our sight, including the Azaza and Umbagara villages where we stopped to take water and get some rest.
At 10-30 pm and after a five-hour drive we reached the Golgo Camp, carefully prepared to accommodate tourists and other Reserve guests. The camp is made up of a series of cottages built from local substances, but strong enough to protect the visitors from rain. Encouraged by the surrounding beautiful scenery, we took our beds out in the open. The weather was fine, the place was calm and the sky was clear. It was a long time since I had seen the stars. The moon was big, but not complete, shyly hiding behind the transparent clouds of the early rainy season. The sounds of some animals we heard every now and then added some magic to the place.
MY FIRST PHOTOGRAPHS:
In the morning droplets of rain started to come down. We mounted our four-wheel drive vehicles towards the jungle, taking an inner road (the Golgo - Ain-Alshams Road). Ain-Alshams is a swamp frequented by birds and animals twice a day to get a drink. It was a big group of game lovers. Seeing our big crowd, the birds and animals fled away, leaving us no chance to take any shots. But I utilized that experience that day's evening. I chose with the company of one friend and a single armed game warden to walk on foot for 10 KM inside the jungle to the Abdelghani Swamp, one of the biggest in the reserve, and that swarms with animals and birds. The game officials had advised us to avoid the animals getting our smell. To do so, we covered our bodies with mud and hid in the grass for hours until when herds of antelopes came to drink from the swamp. That allowed us a good vantage point to take pictures from a close range. The plan was successful and we could take the best of shots for the animals as they calmly sipped from the water below. But some animals that saw us while trying to hide stood at a distance and kept watching. It was the late comers which did not see us that rushed to the water. Here the hesitant animals felt at ease and moved on to drink. The shots I took at the Abdelghani Swamp were the best of my experiments in the world of photography.
PHOTIGRAPHING LIONS AND BUFFALOS:
Photographing lions and African buffalos was, in fact, more risky. These wild beasts attack both man and animal. To come into their sight is a big adventure and to escape from them is even harder. The African buffalo has found in the Dindir Game Reserve, so rich in nutritious plants, a habitat incomparable. For that reason the Dindir Reserve African buffalos grow into big masses, accumulating weights ranging between 950-1000 kilograms of meat, muscle and bone. The African buffalos attack ferociously. Even the King of the Forest (the lion) avoids them. When they attack, the only way out for the attacked is to climb the nearest tree. African buffalos move in big herds, sometimes thousands of buffalos in one herd. The herd moves in a military formation, with one leader at the front and another in the rear. In the middle the rest of the herd moves within a square formation (a semblance of that in a battle of war). Inside the square the young calves are kept. Another four leaders guard the square, two at the front and two others in the rear. These leaders keep the watch for any danger and signal the warning.
Thus the situation, it is very difficult to film these beasts. It needs a carefully studied plan to do so while the beasts are on the march.
One of the most intriguing adventures of my career as a photographer was to film the banished beasts. The banished beast is usually a former herd leader who is defeated and banished by a stronger male animal. The victorious beast will then become the herd leader, the rule of survival for the fittest. The banished beast is always more fierce than those remaining within the herd due to the severe wounds it sustains in the fight. We found two such beasts rambling near a herd, waiting for chance to steal female animals with which to start a new herd. The experiment was very testing for me when with my brave game warden, I found those banished beasts. It was the brave game warden that encouraged me to move closer to the bleeding and psychologically hurt banished beasts. I learned from the soldier, who carried a Sudanese-made Kalashnikov machine gun on his shoulder, that a bullet cannot penetrate the beast's forehead nor can it intimidate the animal. He also advised me that if anything goes wrong "you have to climb the tree over there!". As for him, he would also climb another nearby tree. Thank God I managed to photograph the beast from a close range and to see the wounds on its abdomen and thighs. For a moment I stood before that immense creature that was exhausted but ready to defend itself. How magnificent was that bronze African buffalo!
I returned to the camp quite downcast because of the condition of the wounded beast. But this is life ... the life of the jungle. Nothing could take me out of that feeling except the smell of fried coffee and a good surprise that waited for us as we approached the camp: The game wardens in the camp had brought a group of local inhabitants, clad in beautiful costumes to entertain us with folk dances and prepare coffee and tea for us, all in purely local ritual. That was a clever move that took me out of the gloom. We took the coffee, flavored with ginger and served in the traditional Sudanese small coffee cups, all to the odor of the jaouli incense that clouded the place. We danced and reveled with the locals to the most.
FACE TO FACE WITH THE QUEEN:
But that joy could not continue for long. A game warden contacted the area's commander and communicated to him the presence of the queen of the forest, the lioness, nearby.
A pregnant lioness well known to the game authorities was now at the Crocodiles Swamp, a water source frequented by animals to drink.
The game warden took me aside and told me that the lioness was now near to the camp and that he would direct the driver of the four-wheel vehicle to take me and my former companion to the Swamp to photograph it. He said he was doing so because he felt we were keen and passionate about our work. He said he was keeping the matter secret from the rest of the visitors for fear that a big crowd may spoil the mission. We took the car and headed towards the Crocodiles Swamp, four KM away. When we reached the place it was almost sunset. We found the game warden who gave the tip about the lioness keeping a close watch of her, lest she should disappear in the dark.
From the first look I could not discern the lioness. Its color was like the color of the dry grass in which it was hiding. But when I saw it, a mixture of awe, happiness and adventure descended upon me. Now I was face to face with the lioness, espouse of the King of the Forest! So, that is the lioness, the hunter ... it is she! It was breathing heavily, her eyes glowing with the last beams of daylight. Here the truck driver directed the vehicle's front towards the beast and lit the lights for adequate visibility. The lioness turned its face to the right side. Seeing its sharp front teeth, I felt a pinch in my thigh, the same feeling I had when I saw the wounds on the body of the banished African buffalo.
I took my Canon camera and adjusted it for night filming. It was a very difficult job because the car engine was on and the vehicle was shaking. It was impossible to stop the car. We had to keep the engine working in order to be able to drive away if the lioness attacks. So, all we could do was to take as many quick snaps as we could. Bothered by the car lights, the lioness retreated into the jungle and finally vanished. Our judgment was that the lioness did not want a fight, with the presence of her offspring in her womb. It left leaving us in wonder.
When we checked the camera we were overjoyed by the pictures we had shot. We returned to the camp in high spirits. We were face to face with a dangerous beast and at a distance no more than 15 meters and without any iron barrier as it is the case in zoos. We were hundreds of miles away from home and in thick darkness that would not allow you to see your neighbor. It was a moment of pride and excitement.
Back to the camp we had supper with the rest of the group and the game wardens. We kept chatting in the jungle until dawn.
A WICKED GUEST CALLS IN:
It was our plan the next morning to see more of the African buffalo herds. In the course of my preparations for the excursion, I entered the hut to get something. All of a sudden I heard some cries. Back to the outside my colleagues told me they saw a monkey meddling with my belongings, grip something and flee. I feared that the animal might have stolen my camera or one of the lenses. It was six o'clock and visibility was still very low. Checking into my things, I could not find my mobile phone. Here I remembered the advice of the game wardens not to leave anything of value outside the cottage because monkeys continue to roam the place, take what they can and run away. It was my fault to leave the phone outside.
The other advice was not to put on perfume because bees may sense the smell and attack us, mistaking the perfume for flower odor.
ANOTHER ADEVENTURE WITH THE BUFFALOS:
We walked Southwards towards the Crocodiles Swamp on the bank of the Masaweek Creek, the main tributary of the Dindir seasonal river. It was there that we expected to see a herd of African buffalos on its way for its morning drink of water. Walking for a short while we could see them: the African buffalos, too many of them, walking calmly in their usual military formation. There was no time for thinking. We were inside a sandy river bed where there are no trees to climb. It was even difficult to walk on that sand, let alone to try to run. We stopped and the herd also stopped at the same moment.
The herd was made up of about two thousand buffalos, all of them looking at us. We took very quick shots from the herd. Then we saw the herd leader rub its head in the sand and kick the sand with its foreleg. The game warden urged us to move quickly out of the place because the beast was now ready to attack. And if the leader of the herd attacks, the rest of the herd will also attack and we have no power to challenge all that number of buffalos in this sandy bed of the waterway that was sure to hinder our movement. We opted for a tactical but quick withdrawal up to the bank of the waterway. We reached the top safely. In the meantime, the herd also fled towards the eastern bank of the river tributary, creating a thick cloud of dust that prevented us from seeing the sight of any of the herd members anymore. Later on we learned that the herd protects its young ones with such clouds of dust when in danger. It was an adventure that lasted for a few minutes. For us it passed like hours. But the real joy was to be able to film that herd as it prepared to attack us without any chance for us to escape.
Those were really nice and entertaining days within the Dindir Game Reserve from which we learned quite a lot about wildlife and could film the beasts as they are in the wild without any iron barriers of any sort as could be seen in the zoos. We also came to know how big is the responsibility of the game protection authorities who protect the beasts from poachers, treat them when they fall sick and show the visitors how life looks like in the jungle. We also saw how the game officials can manage with some animals like the theft monkeys.
SMALL ADVICE FOR MY FRIEND, THE MONKEY:
I left behind my mobile phone charger clipped with the following note for the monkey: "Here is the phone charger for you. However, such a behavior does not fit you, because you have lived with humans and at least you should have learned something from them. Now take the charger to where you belong, to the jungle."