Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 winner Greg du Toit tells us about the year he spent sitting in fetid water being eaten alive by bugs and parasites, waiting to capture a rare image of truly wild lions drinking from a watering hole.
Many photographers would have used a camera trap to get lion shots. Why did you decide you had to be there?
It’s not my style to use camera traps. I trained as a safari guide, and I know animal behaviour well. My whole career, I’ve relied on knowing how to get close to animals.
While photo traps can be useful, it’s no substitute for the photographer actually being there with the camera. Also, I had no idea where the lions would stop to drink. I would have had to use 10 camera traps. And what if you want vertical shots? Then you’d need 20! National Geographic ended up using one of my vertical shots for its cover.
You shot this project on film. Why didn’t you use your digital gear?
I like the look that authentic film offers, so I wanted these images to be as ‘authentic’ as possible. These lions are a rare type of semi-nomadic lion, which live outside any formal game reserve or national park, and roam the floor of the Rift wild and free, just like all lions once did. It’s believed they’ll become extinct in the next 10 years, so I wanted everything to be perfect.
How did you find the watering hole?
At the beginning of 2006, I discovered a spring that wound its way down the Nguruman hills, spilling onto the Rift floor, where it formed a picturesque waterhole. It was a tiny patch of water, which covered an area of about 20 square metres, and it seemed pretty quiet at first glance.
Walking around it though, I noticed fresh lion tracks. I recognised that these were rare lions, and I knew that this would be the perfect spot.
How did you decide where to position yourself in relation to the watering hole?
I began the project digging a deep hole right next to the water. This took me about a week until it was deep enough to conceal my entire body. I had a zinc roof that I could pull over the top of it. I knew it wouldn’t be comfortable in there, but I also thought I would get my shot fairly soon. But not much happened for the next couple of months.
Every morning and afternoon, I would sit in my foxhole, which was teeming with Tsetse flies. And I couldn’t swat them, because that would send the zebra and other animals that did visit running away. Another problem I encountered was a resident troop of Olive baboons, who seemed to wait until I departed each day before coming down to drink. After drinking they would inspect my hide and often treat it as a lavatory!
After two months of standing in the pungent smell left by the baboons, combined with the Tsetse flies and searing heat, I’d only captured a zebra. But photographing the zebra just that once helped me realise that I’d need to change my angle and get closer to the water’s edge if I was going to get the lion.
Did you dig another hole?
I had a tiny dome tent, which I pitched on a small island of dirt in the middle of the waterhole. The location got me closer to my subject and gave me a better angle, but my tent was pretty obvious. The baboons couldn’t reach my new location, but the flies would squeeze in through the tiny zip opening, then get stuck inside.
It was around October, which is the hottest month in the Rift, with temperatures above 40°C. I thought the lions would succumb to the heat and come drink in the afternoon or morning. But they didn’t. My wife and I were living in a tent nearby, and I could hear them roar at night.
But lions in this region are so shy, because they’ve had to learn to survive. The reason I saw nothing for the first few months is because lions notice the smallest change – even just a broken branch. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best strategy to dig a hole, and I think that’s why I wasn’t having much luck.
After several months in the tent, it just got too uncomfortable – and it even blew away a few times during some severe dust storms. I was having to carry large boulders inside because the pegs couldn’t stabilise it. One day, the heat got the better of me and I jumped into the waterhole and just wallowed around in the putrid water. I then realised this was the best place for me to shoot.
So you stood in putrid water all day?!
The water was knee-deep, and had a muddy bottom, so I could sit down. I was able to rest my elbows on my knees, which meant I didn’t have to keep my arms elevated all day.
Was the wildlife more trusting once you were in the water?
The lions still never came, but I saw plenty of birds. I got to know a pair of Egyptian geese who came to drink every day. I watched them mate, build a nest, lay eggs, raise chicks and then drive them from the nest. There was a warthog who came to drink.
I saw waterbuck, impala, bushbuck, reedbuck. White-throated bee-eaters who would dip into the water inches from my face! Several times I saw Lanner falcons and African hawk eagles swoop in and snatch drinking doves.
Did you pick up anything nasty?
I was bitten by all sorts of insects – midges, dragonfly nymphs, whirly-gig beetles. I had flies laying eggs in my clothes and larvae hatching. The worst were flukes, which is a parasite you get from the water.
These were in my bladder and I had to get treatment for it this year. Also, the water was getting more putrid each day as the baboons continued to use it as a lavatory. My skin was covered in bites and red rashes, which I finally determined was from baboon urine!
When did the lions finally come?
It was about eight months in, on a day when it was 40°C and I was about at my breaking point. I was about to call it a day when the two Egyptian geese left in a hurry, raising the alarm. I looked, and there were two lionesses walking towards the water.
How close were you to the lions?
I was only five metres away! They had these piercing eyes, and I didn’t know if they had noticed me. I figured they probably had, and my hands started shaking uncontrollably. I’d been waiting for this moment for so long, and suddenly I was unable to shoot.
So what happened next?
I took some breaths, and everything went calm. When my head was clear, I asked myself: “What do these lions think I am? Do they know I’m a human? How will they react to whatever they think I am?”
It was when I tilted the camera to shoot vertically that they finally noticed me. This was a really tense moment: if they perceived me as prey, how would they react?
In all my intense planning, I never prepared for what to do if the lions saw me, drank and didn’t leave. And this is exactly what happened. And then it started to get dark. I decided to make an exit.
Holding my camera in one arm, I used the other to clench the muddy floor and pull myself towards the opposite side of the waterhole. Every time I moved, the lions would prick their ears and fix their gaze on my protruding head.
I pulled myself slowly for about 10 metres until the water got much shallower and half of my body was visible. The two lionesses were now pretty intrigued. I turned onto my belly and started flopping like a catfish until I was out. I then leapt to my feet and ran to my Land Cruiser!
Professional Photographer to the Rescue: animal photography tips for any species
Wildlife photography made easy: simple techniques for pro-quality pictures
Wildlife photography in any environment: free photography cheat sheet
10 common wildlife photography mistakes we’re all guilty of (and how to fix them)
Free bird photography cheat sheet