Trip report: Mokala National Park – June 2013 (the dark side)

It has been a month since my last trip report – this blog is surely due for another trip report. And it so happens that I accompanied my sister on her first visit to a national park armed with her first ever DSLR camera (my first ever DSLR camera – Nikon D7000 with a 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 lens). But that is definitely not why I am calling this trip report “The dark side”. Only because we had lots of sightings in and around the golden hour of daylight and sometimes even after that. Judge for yourself as you read trough this trip report.

We left Bloemfontein again on the Friday afternoon, traveled towards Jagersfontein, Fauresmith, Koffiefontein, Jacobsdal, Ritchie and we entered the park at the Mokala gate. We had enough time for a quick stop at the bird hide at Stofdam. On our way to Stofdam – our first “photographic acceptable” sighting – red hartebeest close to the road trying to play hide and seek with us:

Playing hide and seek hartebeestPlaying hide and seek hartebeest

Nikon D3S camera with 600mmf4 lens, ISO200, 1/2000 sec, f4, exposure comp = -0.3, Aperture priority, WB = sun. As you can see, the sun was still too high and hard.

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Then we came across the first of three groups of meerkats/surrogates – this one sat very still with sunlight directly from behind him. Providing us with some back-light shots. Important to get your exposure compensation as low as possible to emphasize the back-light effect.

Meerkat watchdogMeerkat watchdog

Nikon D3S camera with 600mmf4 lens, ISO200, 1/2500 sec, f4, exposure comp = -2.0, Aperture priority, WB = sun. I think the -2.0 exposure compensation was the lowest I could get . This is the start of the dark side of Mokala.

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Arriving at Stofdam we realised that the water level was just to high for great photography opportunities. However, the level is slightly down since our last visit in March 2013. So we decided to go and spend the last few moments of the Friday afternoon at “Johan se gat”. Unfortunately the waterholes in the park do not have names (I did make a recommendation on my SANPARK feedback session re: giving a name to each water hole) – so this waterhole is the one just at the Kameeldoring loop and the road to Lilydale. These were the sightings in the last light  of the day before rushing back to Mosu lodge.

First the kudu standing in the waterhole to drink some water:

Kudu late afternoonKudu late afternoon

Nikon D3S camera with 600mmf4 lens, ISO800, 1/3200 sec, f4, exposure comp = -1.0, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

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Then a small herd of about 7 buffaloes approaching the waterhole with, once again, the sun directly from behind them. All one can do is wait for some dust and try for some back-light shots. The cow with her calf coming out from behind the bushes:

Mokala Baffulo 2Mokala buffalo 2

Nikon D700 camera with 200mm-400mmf4 lens @200mm, ISO800, 1/1600 sec, f4, exposure comp = -1.0, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

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Then a buffalo cow walking on her own towards us:

Mokala buffalo 3Mokala buffalo 3

Nikon D700 camera with 200mm-400mmf4 lens @200mm, ISO800, 1/1600 sec, f4, exposure comp = -1.0, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

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When they reached the waterhole, the bull enjoyed himself:

Old buffalo drinking water 1Old buffalo drinking water

Nikon D3S camera with 600mmf4 lens, ISO800, 1/1600 sec, f4, exposure comp = -0.7, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

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Saturday morning it was the usual early morning drive to “Willem se gat” (my waterhole on the Matopi loop) and we practiced our skills trying to capture some Cape turtle doves taking off after drinking water. Like these two turtle doves:

Don't leave me behindDon’t leave me behind

Nikon D3S camera with 600mmf4 lens, ISO800, 1/6400 sec, f4, exposure comp = -0.3, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

Note my very fast shutter speed – you need such a high shutter speed to get the wings sharp and in focus. Anything slower than 1/4000, the tips of the wings will be “soft”. And for some bird in flight gurus, it is a total no-no! But I am sure you’ve seen enough of these kind of photos on my earlier blogs on Mokala National Park.

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And the Marico fly catcher:

Marico fly catcherMarico fly catcher

Nikon D3S camera with 600mmf4 lens, ISO800, 1/5000 sec, f4, exposure comp = -0.3, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

This is another very fast bird during take off and it does not give you any indication that it is going to take off. Note the tip of the wings with a shutter speed of 1/5000 sec.Judge for yourself or go and try shooting such a fast bird with a slower shutter speed! On this trip, I’ve decided not to put my 1.4 convertor on my 600mm lens and just use the crop factor in Photoshop. Not a good idea but nevertheless….

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Since our previous visit, I frequently saw this female grey duiker hanging around the waterhole. But this was the first time she came to drink some water.  In perfect light and standing still for a photo or two. Not the usual behaviour for a duiker in Mokala.

Duiker drinking waterDuiker drinking water

Nikon D3S camera with 600mmf4 lens, ISO400, 1/3200 sec, f4, exposure comp = -0.3, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

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During our afternoon drive, we came across this aardvark (ant bear) asleep in front of his burrow just pass the Kameeldoring loop picnic spot just next to the road. A very interesting phenomenon as this mammal is a nocturnal animal and usually stays in its burrow until after sunset.  Too bad it did not want to lift its head.

Aardvark in holeAardvark in burrow

Nikon D800 camera with 200mm-400mmf4 lens @320mm, ISO400, 1/400 sec, f4, exposure comp = -0.7, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

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Sunday morning it was the usual drive to “my gat” (Matopi loop water hole) and we stayed there for a while. The highlight of our weekend as we had some love actions provided by the wildebeests coming to drink water. Some of the wildebeests did not like the idea of sharing the water hole with the Cape Turtle Doves:

Blue wildebeest and Cape turtle doveBlue wildebeest and Cape turtle dove

Nikon D800 camera with 200mm-400mmf4 lens @320mm, ISO400, 1/1250 sec, f5.6, exposure comp = -0.3, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

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Then all of a sudden the dominant bull started chasing another bull around. And later on everybody around the water hole was chased around. The background was very busy and the bull was running most of the time parallel to us – so I’ve tried – for the first time – some panning techniques with a slow shutter speed. Here are the two best images (I think) of the about 200 shots taken:

Wildebeest panning 1Blue wildebeest panning 1

Nikon D3S with 600mmf4 lens, ISO200, 1/30 sec, f22, exposure comp = -0.3, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

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Wildebeest panning 2Blue wildebeest panning 2

Nikon D3S with 600mmf4 lens, ISO200, 1/30 sec, f22, exposure comp = -0.3, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

Not too bad for a first time, I think.

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And on our way to leave the park – another group of meerkats just past Haak-en-steek camping area saying good bye.

Meerkat wacht for familyMeerkat watch for family

Nikon D3S with 600mmf4 lens, ISO200, 1/2000 sec, f4, exposure comp = -0.3, Aperture priority, WB = sun.

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And that was yet another weekend spent in Mokala National Park with lots of surprises .

Message to take home:

I received a personal message (pm) from a fellow member of the SANPARK forum asking me some advice on Mokala. I thought it might be useful to some of you as well. Here are some of his comments/questions as well as my answers:

Comment 1: I see that you are a regular visitor to Mokala NP.

My answer: Yes, I am. If I do have a weekend off – I usually visit Mokala. A little germ with lots of animal & birds sightings around. But one needs to work hard for your photos and you need to be innovate. But I like the challenge. Sometimes I do come home with only 2 great shots, sometime I do get 20 great shots over a weekend.

Comment 2: We are planning to do a “road trip” in December this year and would like to travel via Mokala NP (stay over for two nights).

My answer: I think two nights are enough to see most of what Mokala can offer.

Comment 3: Would you recommend staying at Mosu Lodge or Lilydale Lodge?

My answer: This is a difficult one. I like Mosu lodge just because it is closer to all the “major” roads and waterholes. However, Lilydale lodges have the same accommodation facilities as Mosu but it is cheaper. However, you need to drive for about 15-20min through flat grassland area before you get to the major game viewing areas. However, there are also lots of small birds in the grassland and there is a new road opened recently towards two waterholes (but I am not sure the waterholes are operational). I did use Lilydale lodge in the past and I was not disappointed. It just took me 1.5h to arrive at my favourite morning waterhole (Matopi loop) – just too late to catch the golden hour in the morning for photography purposes. The only negative thing I can think of Lilydale. See the map: http://www.sanparks.org/images/parks/mo … rk_map.JPG I like to sit at that waterhole for about the first 2 hours of the day – great waterhole for morning shots – especially if you do have a 600mm lens (with a 1.4 convertor) and you want to capture Cape turtle doves taking off.

Yes, you cannot park next to your lodge at Mosu lodge (you park in the common parking area and walk to your lodge (50-300m), so it will an issue for you to consider – which is not the case with Lilydale. But I think your car will be safe. I’ve saw several cars with their stuff packed on their roofs in the past.

Comment 4: We are keen birders and amateur photographers.

My answer: You will enjoy the opportunities provided by Mokala – for sure.

Until my next trip report – enjoy the ride and keep on shooting!!!

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  1. #1 by bessie on July 8, 2013 - 8:27 pm

    well done willem!!

  2. #2 by de Wets Wild on July 9, 2013 - 2:28 am

    Thank you for this very informative post on Mokala, Willem! We haven’t visited this park yet, though we have been to it’s predecessor Vaalbos (that’s since been deproclaimed).

    We’re very jealous of your aardvark sighting – are they regularly seen at Mokala?

    Keep well

  3. #3 by whk139 on July 10, 2013 - 11:11 am

    Thanks Bessie & de Wets. I think we were extremely lucky with the aardvark. One can see the evidence of lots of activities in the field of aardvark, but this is my first ever sighting of one (and I do visit Mokala regularly. I am not sure they are sighted frequently as they are nocturnal animals.

  4. #4 by 5 Hour Energy Crash on July 26, 2013 - 9:53 am

    It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d definitely donate to this brilliant blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle
    for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.
    I look forward to brand new updates and will talk about this site with my Facebook group.
    Talk soon!

  5. #5 by whk139 on August 8, 2013 - 5:53 am

    Thanks 5 hour – hopefully more to come in the near future!!!

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