Tswalu Private Game Reserve with Penny Robartes
In May 2023, I led a couple on a private Photo Tour to Tswalu Private Game Reserve. Tswalu is a luxury eco-tourism property that was pioneered by the Oppenheimer family’s vision to restore the astounding biodiversity of the Kalahari and support sustainable conservation. It is the biggest privately protected wildlife reserve in South Africa. I met with my guests, a wonderful couple from Australia, the morning of our departure from Johannesburg, where I got to learn more about their passions, goals for our upcoming time together, and learn more about them as well as they get to know me. It was a delightful surprise to find out that I was a birthday present to my one guest who thoroughly loves wildlife photography, and the safari and my being there was a birthday present from her husband. A beautiful tone was already set in place, and I knew our week together was going to be fun and productive.
The focus for my guests and my time together was on creating images the variety of species found here, understanding the importance of the quality of light, it’s direction, animal behaviour, creative composition, and so much more.
Tswalu is well-known for being home to some key and rare wildlife species, as well as for their black-maned Lion and the lithe Cheetah. African Wild dogs are also found in this reserve, along with Brown Hyena, Southern Oryx and Desert Black Rhino, to name a few species! While Pangolin and Aardvark are some of the high-on-the-list species to see here, the winter grass was unusually thick and long due to good summer rains, leaving the smaller creatures much harder to find, but in term, affording us a landscape of a sea of golden grass on red sand. This striking landscape won me over from the moment I first saw it. It is unlike any other South African wildlife area. The colours of the sky in the morning and evening where saturated with the most exquisite versions of blue, magenta, pinks and greens, yellows, reds and oranges. Just to see the sky alight in these soft pastel colours for a few minutes before it changed made the 1°C (33,8°F) worth braving every morning. Tswalu is not just made up of grasslands and dunes however. Mountains provide spectacular backdrops and this “green desert” has areas of thickets and trees that provide various habitats for its various wildlife inhabitants.
Tswalu is divided into two sections, with their Lion pride in the one side and Cheetah in the other. The Cheetah population are breeding and thriving so well that during our stay at Tswalu, a wildlife vet was there to relocate 20 Cheetah to different destinations in Africa. After re-doing a population survey, they realised that another 20 needed to be relocated too! There are Cheetah on the property that are semi-habituated, but there are so many that aren’t that many people never see them. Which is pretty incredible!
We were fortunate that the one morning the vet allowed us to be a part of the relocation process where we watched them dart a female adult with her two sub-adult cubs (who were old enough that she would have left them soon for them to establish their independence) from a helicopter. Once the animals were sleeping due to the sedation, we watched the vet take fur, blood and skin samples of the first Cheetah darted, learning all the while about these incredible animals. We left the vet and her team when they flew to dart the 2nd and 3rd cat.
Apart from our Cheetah experience with the wildlife vet, we also had 2 sightings and photographic opportunity with a female Cheetah and her 4 very young cubs. The first sighting we had was one golden afternoon where the female had made a kill. Her and her cubs periodically would get up and move to where she had stashed the Springbok carcass further in the bush where she and her cubs lay, and feast as much as they could on it.
The second sighting was the family of four sitting on top of a red sand dune with the saturated bright blue sky as their background. It was tricky to photograph her and the cubs at times due to long grass going in their faces, but the highlight was when the curious cubs came walking up close to our vehicle and proceeded to all line up on a fallen branch before us!
Another draw-card to the Kalahari are their famed Black-maned Lions. And my, are these boys beautiful! The pride at Tswalu have 3 dominant males that are getting quite old now. Even with their senior years showing, you can still see the handsomeness of them. We had some wonderful time and sightings of these boys as well as the pride females and their cubs on multiple occasions and at different scenes. From relaxed to feeding to stalking, we got it all, and in magnificent light.
White and Desert Black Rhino are found at Tswalu, and one morning we decided to focus on an area of the reserve where the Desert Black Rhino are most commonly found. As we came closer to the area, we found fresh tracks of at least 5 individuals that had all come out of the thickets to a waterhole to drink, before heading back in. After a lot of tracking and time spent in the area, we were about to call it quits when our tracker spotted a female and calf in the distance deep in the thickets. He jumped off his seat and went to go track them! While we went on foot, we drove far around the block before cutting into the thickets in order to proceed towards the female and calf from down wind in order not to frighten them. Upon getting closer, we noticed that a large bull was following them! The female would often turn around and chase the bull away, for him to run a few paces and then turn back to keep following them. While the thickets made the sighting difficult to capture clear views of the three Rhino, we were so happy for the experience and photographic opportunities we had, as well as witnessing their behaviour towards one another. Desert black rhino are a sub-species of Rhino and are critically endangered. Very few remain outside of protected national parks and reserves due to habitat loss and persistent poaching.
With this in mind, as well as knowing the massive threat these species live under, I’m sure you understand how extra special these sightings were for my guests and me.
Another morning while en route to where we had seen the Lion the afternoon prior, we had a really wonderful and peaceful sighting of a White Rhino and her calf in the morning’s golden light. We had a few short opportunities with them before they proceeded into areas with denser foliage, but it was such a wonderful start to the day and a privilege to see these endangered species.
The antelope here are well worth mentioning and photographing, as they are utterly beautiful and we saw numbers aplenty! Roan and Sable Antelope greeted us nearly every morning not far from camp as they grazed and browsed on the foliage around. Gemsbok, or Oryx, were also in high numbers but more difficult to photograph as they would turn tail and trot away pretty soon upon coming close to them, and at times, being in their vicinity. They reminded me of warthog; mostly bottoms running away!
Our last morning en route to the airstrip was spent in the company of Meercats. We can upon their burrows early in the morning as they started to wake up and sun themselves to warm up for the day of foraging ahead. They stand on their back-legs facing towards the sun as they use their bellies as solar panels. We got down low on the ground to get a better angle on these little creatures, and stayed in their company until they had moved off far from their homes foraging, and our timing to the airstrip was pushed to its limits.
From the proud-standing Sable antelope, to Tswalu’s Black maned lion, Desert Black rhino and more, our game drives were filled with lots of discussions around a multitude of aspects on wildlife photography, laughs, fun & serious conversations, and content silences that nature encourages.
Tswalu is a gem in all regards, from its fauna to flora, the lodge and the different wildlife experiences one can have. I highly recommend this destination to safari-goers and photographers who aren’t all about Africa’s predators, but those wishing to experience a different safari where the little creatures are as desired as the larger ones.
While the temperatures are cold during South Africa’s winter months, it is generally the best time for wildlife viewing of Tswalu’s wildlife, especially Pangolin and Aardvark. If you are looking for a slightly different type of wildlife photography experience that still gives you some of Southern Africa’s big players, but also the enticement of rare, threatened and endangered species, then allow me take you on an exciting wildlife photo tour in 2024 or 2025! To enquire on a privately guided photo tour to Tswalu with me, email and we will craft a Tswalu experience for you that will sure to romance your soul and leave you with beautiful imagery and memories.