SHINGWEDZI – For wildlife photographer Peter Betts, his love affair with the Kruger National Park dates back to March 1951. He was three months old.
Since then it has visited every year and when he lived in Johannesburg until 1994, it used to be multiple times a year.
Now it is an annual three to four week trip from Port Elizabeth, usually in August or September, when he and his wife Jane camp at their favourite spots like Punda Maria, Balule, Shingwedzi and Tsendze. Every five years they would venture far south and stay at Maroela.
On his most recent trip, he came across a once-in-a-lifetime sighting. During his daily routine, of being out and about before sunrise he came across these amazing lions on three consecutive mornings at the remote Grootvlei Dam, 37 kilometres south-east of Shingwedzi.
“I am not one who dashes around for the whole day making Big 5 lists and burying my face in a device or WhatsApp group to find crowded sightings. I rather work by observation, listening to sounds at night,” Betts said.
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One morning the couple decided to go to Shingwedzi Camp via the S50 along the Mozambique boundary. “The decision was made that I would come straight to the dam from Tsendze the next morning. That night I charged three batteries on my inverter and packed three 28 gigabyte XQD cards for the Nikon D850 I use, and I packed the bakkie with food and water and my camera gear all ready to leave at 06:00,” he said.
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“Clean windows and final check of camera settings which were altered to suit the heavy mist conditions. I was quietly confident as the dry conditions were going to be my friend today and I have had awesome luck with lions when the mist is there at daybreak. I let myself out as the only car at the gate and drove straight to Shawu 3 windmill on the S50 and turned left to travel north and didn’t stop for anything,” he said.
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He arrived at Grootvlei Dam as planned in thick mist which had just started to slowly rise and clear. “I changed my settings as required and drove into the dam area. I couldn’t really see anything but I heard a lion roar from the direction of the dam wall. I started up and made my way around to the dam wall where a sturdy vehicle can drive onto. I couldn’t get onto the dam wall that morning as there were eventually 17 lions that sat on the ‘on ramp’.
I switched off the car, put my beanbag up and started shooting the group where the nearest lion was window height. They just got to know me really and moved around the vehicle and preened each other and watched for any approaching breakfast opportunities.
“Eventually they all one by one left in single file away from the dam side and were gone,” he said.
The next day he found 13 of the pride settled on the middle section of the
“The mist was not as thick as the day before and the filtered sun was the best photographic light possible. The young sub-adults played like mad on the wall and on the dam floor below me. After 90 minutes, I turned around and left and so did they. The next morning three came through the mist and settled next to my silent stationary car and that was the last time I saw these lions in three weeks,” he said.