Sabi Sands Big 5 Photo Tour with Penny Robartes
And the whirlwind of a year of travel continues! Having returned back from Tswalu in the Kalahari where I led a private photo tour, a week before this tour commenced, it’s been an epic year of guiding my guests to incredible wildlife destinations such as Tanzania for culture & wildlife photo tours, both private and scheduled tours. That pretty much dominated January to March, including a beautiful private tour to the then lush Sabi Sands, with April seeing me lead my Women Only Photo Tour to India, May I was in Ethiopia exploring and photographing some of the tribes and their different traditions and customs. June was Tswalu, and the beginning of July found me here; my Sabi Sands – The Big 5 Photo Tour
It was been a truly exciting and wonderful journey leading guests on these tours, and now I hope to give you a taste of the exciting safari my guests and I had.
This tour is a small group photo tour, limited to 4 guests only and myself as my guests’ private Senior ORYX Photo Tour Leader. On the morning of the tour’s commencement, I met my guests at the FederalAir lounge where we had some time to get comfortable in their lounger and to start learning about one another over coffee. This is an important moment as the guests get to understand where one another are coming from in terms of their photography and learnings, what they are looking to learn, their objectives and of course, getting to start knowing one another! As I touched base with each guest prior to the tour to find out the above questions, this was also my opportunity to brief the guests together on who I am as a photo tour leader and what they can expect from me in the upcoming days together.
It is always safe to say that when our flight was called, we all were extremely excited to get going and begin the Sabi Sands – The Big 5 Photo Tour! This was a first-time safari in South Africa for 2 of my guests, which always gets me more excited, especially as for these guests, the lowveld is vasty different from the destinations and wildlife experiences that they have had in both Kenya and Tanzania. The newness of a destination and it’s experiences always hits hard and marks you. I couldn’t wait to see what our chosen destination had in store for my guests.
Our chosen camp is based in the western sector of South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve, and has a variety of savanna and woodland habitats that provide a home to its impressive collection of mammal species. Enter the famed Big 5! Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Cape buffalo and another beautiful species are found here and draw in travellers from around the world to photograph, watch and learn about these big players. While they were definitely target species for us to train our cameras on, they were by no means the only wildlife species we photographed and captured video of.
Light is one of the most important aspects of photography, and no more so than in wildlife photography, as as photographers, we are at the mercy of the natural surroundings and how we can use and manipulate the light in order to capture the scenes that call to us. We had dreamy wildlife scenes in difficult light, we had easy wildlife scenes in gorgeous light. We had dreamy wildlife scenes in gorgeous light, and scenes where my guests understood are just not worth capturing as they had learnt over our days together multiple factors that contributed to a not-very-strong image. I found this particular tour was brim-filled with learnings and observations that I could see had an impact on my guests as the days continued on.
Each game drive excursion was filled with at least one memorable moment, with most drives being filled by more! On our first afternoon game drive, our guide Diff took us to a Leopard den site on their property, where a well-known female named Basile had 2 young cubs, roughly 8 weeks of age. Upon arrival, we noticed that she had a pretty well-covered den site! She was there, which was good news as the cubs otherwise would not be seen, but we didn’t have a good sighting of her, just her eyes as she looked upon us! No matter! It was exciting and we knew we had days under our sleeves to come back and see if we get a better sighting of her and her cubs.
The winter sun sets quite early with the last light around 17:30. Just as the golden ball hit the crest of a nearby mountain, we came upon two handsome male Lions. Asleep. Go figure! But, the one male on higher ground with us kept opening his one eye, so I guided my guests on how best to compose an image of him that will be sticking and direct. As the light started to fade, the other male who had been asleep in a dip below, walked in a straight line towards us, stopped to listen out on the sounds around, and afforded us again, the opportunity to compose strong images and learn further about the importance of light, its colour, distractions of backgrounds, all in a matter of seconds before her too, lay down. Literally as the sun disappeared, the males sat up, started yawning, and began to walk with steady purpose. Bring on the spotlight opportunities! This prospect was even more exciting as none of my guests had really played with or learnt spotlight photography before, so with settings given, we played and my guests achieved some beautiful results!
With a productive and fun first afternoon drive under our belt, we returned to camp for some celebratory drinks, delicious food and wonderful conversations.
Next morning we were all layered up in warm clothing (a huge necessity!) and our first subjects of interest were a troop of Baboon in orange morning light! Looking at the raw files from this sighting, we all comment how unreal the light looked, to the point of being fake! It was that beautiful! So when the opportunity comes, you use the light and the beauty it creates.
From here, guess who we bumped into? The beautiful Basile, up in a tree! The foliage around was pretty thick so we kind of were limited to where we were able to position the vehicle. And then she jumped out of the tree and when she got in the open, we had ample opportunity to photograph her as she walked down the roads, in the river beds and so on. Once the light became very harsh, we left this lady to do what she needed to do.
After brunch in camp, we had review sessions of guests images whether solo or as a group and discussed composition as well as technical settings. Similar to what I would discuss in the vehicle during our excursions, but now I got to see what each guest saw and captured. We also did some Lightroom sessions where time allowed, but the days did fly by so fast!
We had numerous experiences with Leopard on this tour, especially with a male called Euphorbia, who twice walked so close by our vehicle, guests sat stock-still with cameras down as he padded past, his breathing filling our ears and each step reflecting the pounding in our hearts. This happened more than once with him gazing at a different guest, and these moments are truly lifetime memories created within a second. Safe and ethical wildlife interactions are always fulfilling and deeply memorable as you connect with a wild animal in safe and respectful manner.
The second encounter with Euphorbia was across the river from camp. We saw him while having high tea, so we quickly drank our beverages and off we went to see this Leopard! What a treat to be at camp and have this sighting!
We had multiple sightings of different lion prides, mainly males which was great as they weren’t always asleep! We came across a coalition of two males who are still growing into their looks, specifically, their manes are still growing. They had quite bald heads which did create making arresting images of them slightly difficult! We had another sighting of them which proved their power and might as these two males were on an adult Buffalo kill that they must have hunted and killed in the very early hours of the day! No longer were we jesting about their bald heads, that is for sure. These boys have had a tough life. The one male apparently used to have more main but had gotten badly injured at some point and wasn’t able to get enough nutrients. This stress and lack if nutrients resulted in his mane falling out. After a good meal like this and the good size of these males, I have no doubt that mane will flourish again soon as he grows stronger.
Another morning we spent with great excitement and action with two different males and two females. Our guide said that this was an interesting dynamic as these males are from different prides from each other, and the pregnant females were not part of either male’s pride. They were all lying in close proximity to one another and you would not have thought that they were not pride members. The females got up and started walking in a pretty direct direction, with the males tagging not to far behind. We parked in front of the females so that we could capture images of them walking towards us, when our guide excitedly said that there was another male in the direction behind us, making its way quickly to where these males were! The females were going straight to him. The behaviour we saw next was mesmerising and such a privilege to see; the male Lion with the torn skin over his eye stopped dead in his tracks, looked in the direction of where the 3rd male was approaching from, and positively dashed off to the side and away. The second male hadn’t caught on yet, but stopped walking, stiffened up, looked to where the male had run off, looked around in sharp movements before his eyes connected with his opponent. He froze, his whole body slunk down to the ground, and he shot off in the direction his comrade had gone.
With long lengthened strides, the 3rd male came fast trotting into view. Trotting doesn’t seem intimidating, but it was extremely fast and with his head held high and confidence in his powerful strides, this boy was not happy with the males he had seen! We drove along behind him as he gave chase to the two intruders. At one point he was on the road roaring fiercely while still moving at that dedicated pace. When he felt the males were long gone, he slowed down, kept roaring, and then turned around to make his way back to the females. Here he was now walking, but you could see he was still in a foul mood. It was exhilarating to be witness to this encounter!
We spent time testing our cameras and skills with hunting Pied Kingfisher, watched and photographed an African Harrier Hawk looking for meals on a dead Leadwood tree which was fascinating behaviour to see as it climbed branches and hopped up them too.
We saw Basile and her cubs at her den site twice. The first viewing was tricky as she was still tucked in the den area which was amongst boulders and between the circle of boulders was a raised grass area where they were all playing together. A wonderful safe place with a shield of rock.
The second time… well… best watch the video below which will convey more than words ever could. It was one of the most intimate moments I’ve had in my career with Leopard and cubs. She looked straight at us, but there was no annoyance or intrusion from her. She was just gazing as we were allowed to be a part of this scene filled with so much love.
This tour has always offered spectacular scenes with wildlife to my guests, and this year certainly didn’t disappoint. From birds of all shapes and sizes to mammals and reptiles, different animal behaviours and one-of-a-kind moments. It was beautifully intense, filled with so many photographic learnings, laughter, new friendships, and of course, being able to connect again with ourselves and nature on our own personal levels.
Come join me in 2024 for my Sabi Sands – The Big 5 Photo Tour 2024
I hope to welcome you to one of Africa’s ultimate wildlife destinations.
Join me as we anchor the light,
Penny Robartes, ORYX Senior Photo Tour Leader
Penny Robartes is a Senior Photo Tour Leader for ORYX private and scheduled departures. To view Penny’s small group photo tours, click here ().
To have Penny join you on your tailor-made tour as your private Photo Tour Leader, please email
ORYX Guest’s Portfolio Images:
Ralf Peppekus (instagram: @koolpep)
Sahiti Gaddam (instagram: @berrybun)
Theo Van Delft