Photographing from bird hides can be very rewarding but many people tend to visit the hides at the wrong time of day and then wonder why their photographs look horrible. The concept of a hide is basically a structure where humans can sit and observe birds and mammals without the animals knowing they are there, providing you with the opportunity to photograph them at closer distances without frightening them away.
The Kruger Park, Pilanesberg and Kalahari (Kgalagadi) game reserves in South Africa all have hides – these are wooden structures, like a small house, normally built on stilts that have openings where you can view and photograph wildlife. Keep in mind that when you go on a safari game drive the motor vehicle is simply a hide on wheels!
We have found, however, that most of these hides are NOT well designed in terms of nature photography. They are either located too far away from the water and/or they face into the sun.
You can get some great photographs from hides if you visit them at the right time of day, in the right season (winter months are best) and have patience.
Here we share with you which hides are our favorites and when to visit them for best photographic light.
Kruger National Park:
There are eleven hides located throughout the park, excluding the hides within camps, of which these four are our favorites…
• Lake Panic hide, faces east so afternoons are the best time to visit. Lake Panic has given us some very nice pictures so we rate it the number-1 hide in the Kruger Park. It has never disappointed us as it always has some sort of activity be it hippos, crocodiles, fish eagles, kingfishers, or elephants. Lake Panic can get busy as it is very near Skukuza camp and sometimes we have not been able to get a seat, so try and get there after an early lunch!
• Sweni hide, near the N’wanetsi Picnic site, faces east so afternoon is the time to sit here. There are normally crocodiles sitting on the rocks and sand-banks, hippos and water birds. We have also seen zebras, impala, kudu and lions drinking here. Sweni is not as busy as Lake Panic so if you want peace and quiet this is the place to visit.
• Ratel Pan hide, near the Timbavati Picnic site, faces west so morning is the best time to sit here. There are normally many crocodiles and water birds sitting on the islands of sand.
• Shipandani hide, near Mopani camp, faces east so afternoons tend to best for good light. The large Pioneer dam is used by most animals in the area but leopard tend to favor drinking near the hide.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve:
There are seven hides in this park of which three are superb…
• Rathlogo hide faces west so mornings are best but afternoons can produce nice back-lit pictures. We have seen many birds and mammals here including lions and wild dogs.
• Mankwe hide faces east but both mornings and afternoons are good as the hide has been constructed in a ‘L’ shape and you can shoot both east and west. Mornings can also provide great silhouettes and sun reflections. We have taken our best bird photographs from this hide but have also seen rhino, cheetah and lions here.
• Kwa Maritane hide is accessed by walking about 500 meters underground. The waterhole is very close to the hide so you don’t need a long lens! The hide faces north but large trees filter the sunlight.
To us the Pilanesberg is all about sitting at these bird hides instead of driving around the park for hours.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park:
There are just two hides in this park…
• Nossob hide is located in Nossob camp and it faces east so afternoons are best. The waterhole is floodlit so night-time action is also a possibility. Lions often drink here!
• Mata Mata hide is located in Mata Mata camp and also faces east so again afternoons are best and it is also floodlit. The waterhole has been moved about fifty meters to the south so it now lies in front of the eight new river-facing chalets but can still be seen from the hide.
Some final advice: if you arrive at one of these hides and you see ‘nothing’ please do not leave – give the hide a chance. Sit and scan the area with binoculars, take a flask of coffee in the mornings or sundowners in the late afternoon and see what happens. We are amazed at how many people walk into the hide look out for a few seconds and then leave. A few minutes later a rhino or lion steps out the grass and drinks – don’t let this be you!