Trip report: Giants Castle, October 2012

A week of two ago my wife and I went for a long weekend to Giants Castle in the Drakensberg for a weekend with the vultures at the famous vulture restaurant. We were joined by a friend of ours (Margaret) who is an excellent photographer. Last year she introduced us to the hide. We’ve booked the vulture hide one year in advanced as it is very popular with wildlife photographers. This was our second trip to the hide and the previous trip (exactly one year ago in 2011) was a huge success. I’ve used a few of the photos taken during that trip in salon competitions with great success. So, our expectations were high as we left Bloemfontein on the Thursday afternoon just to arrive at Giants Castle in the early evening (and can you believe our luck) in rain. Well, that was the settings for the rest of the weekend. Misty, rainy conditions with a bit of sunshine of Saturday. Needless to say, there were not that many photo opportunities and we had to make the best of the rest.

Just something about the accommodation – there are well-equipped self-catering lodges even equipped with a microwave oven. The rooms are spacious with a view up into the mountains – not that we saw the spectacular views on a regular basis. The weather did not permit such luxury. However, it is still worth taking a trip into the mountains – just to relax en enjoy the quietness of the mountains. O, by the way – there is also a restaurant for those who do not believe in the self-catering “thing”.

Our routine was to go up the mountain around 06H00 – just to arrive at the hide around 06H40. It is not that far but it takes time to drive up the “twee spoor pad” to the hide. Please note – do not try to reach the hide with an ordinary car. Rather use a “bakkie” of a SUV. However, a 4×4 is not really necessary. We stayed up in the hide every day until around 14H30 and afterwards went down to the lodge for a nice afternoon nap before tackling the photos of the day.

Here are just a few of the photos taken during the two and a half days. As you can see – not the ideal circumstances for taking wildlife photos.

We had limited photo opportunities from the Bearded Vultures but the Cape Vultures kept us busy for a while – with interaction like these:


Get away

(Nikon D3S, 600mmf4 fixed lens, ISO800, f5.6, 1/2500, exposure = -0.33, WB = sun, Aperture mode)


Vulture bite

 (Nikon D3S, 600mmf4 fixed lens, ISO800, f5.6, 1/2000, exposure = -0.33, WB = sun, Aperture mode)


We had a few fly-by opportunities provided by the Bearded Vultures and one landing session from a sub-adult. Unfortunately it was just too misty and I could not get a clear shot.

Juvenile bearded vulture

(Nikon D3S, 600mmf4 fixed lens, ISO800, f5.6, 1/3200, exposure = -0.33, WB = sun, Aperture mode)


The Jackal buzzard kept us busy on Saturday with three or four visits/landings. For this raptor, one can use the 1.4 converter shooting from the hide – such as the photo below and I still had to crop it a bit.


The bone collector

(Nikon D3S, 600mmf4 fixed lens with 1.4 convertor = 850mm, ISO500, f5.6, 1/3200, exposure = -1.00, WB = sun, Aperture mode)


This time around we had a lot of rock doves/speckled pigeons around and they provided us with some opportunities to practise our bird in flight (BIF) shots. Not that easy because they are very quick.

Rock pigeon taking off

(Nikon D3S, 600mmf4 fixed lens, ISO1600, f5.6, 1/3200, exposure = 0, WB = sun, Aperture mode)

I had to push my ISO up to 1600 to get the required shutter speed. I did not want to use my exposure compensation to increase my shutter speed as the pigeon is already of a darkish colour. Noise becomes an issue if one decreases the exposure compensation too much. With the Nikon D3S, it is better to increase the ISO to get a high shutter speed because the camera tends to handle noise at high ISO levels.


And then there were the ever-present Red-winged Starlings – these two decided to have a quiet moments together and the male wanted to steal a kiss from his wife. My personal opinion – I think this was my shot of the weekend.


How about a kiss?

(Nikon D3S, 600mmf4 fixed lens, ISO500, f5.6, 1/4000, exposure = -0.67, WB = sun, Aperture mode)


On Sunday morning, we paid the hide another quick visit but nothing really exciting happened. So we left Giants Castle to drive straight to Johannesburg to catch the midnight flight to Nairobi for our trip to the Maasai Mara. And what an exciting trip it was but more about it in my next trip report.

Message to take home:

Do not just focus on the big game waiting for that wonderful shot of a life time. Look around you while you are waiting the big guys to arrive and make sure you see and capture the smaller things in life. Sometimes it makes more of an interesting photo than the big guns. Just look at the very common red-winged starling photo of mine. I just love the interaction between the two birds and it only lasted a second or two. Because I was not frustrated with the absence of the bigger birds and their actions, I was enjoying what nature was offering us in the meanwhile and I was able to capture this moment.

Until my next trip (Maasai Mara, Kenya), keep on shooting!!!


  1. #1 by bessie on October 30, 2012 - 7:44 pm

    ek hou sommer baie van die starlings!!

    • #2 by whk139 on October 31, 2012 - 1:18 pm

      Thanks Bessie – ek het daardie spesifieke sessie tussen die spreeus omtrent geniet. Was net lekker om sommer vir hulle te sit en kyk.

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