Following on from our previous trip to South Africa, for our client Virgin Limited Edition, we were commissioned to make a return trip for them in 2016. This time we were to return to their game reserve in Sabi Sands next to Kruger National Park, near Johannesburg and then fly onto their brand new Manor House property at their luxury vineyard near Cape Town. Tom and I would be working together on this project along with Josephine from Virgin Limited Edition as our fixer and boss!
Part One. Ulusaba, Sabi Sands
After the eleven hour night flight down to Johannesburg we were scheduled to take a small six seater plane on the relatively short connecting flight into the bush and the airstrip at Ulusaba, the lodge we would be staying at and photographing for the next few days. This is when the ‘fun’ began as it soon became obvious that none of our checked luggage, which contained all of our camera and lighting equipment, had made the flight and as far as we could tell was all still back in London! The implications of this were significant as there were only a few hours until our connecting flight, which meant we were about to depart for the bush without any equipment. Thankfully, after a few heated discussions at the BA customer service desk we established that all six of our bags had actually been put on another flight which was due to arrive in Johannesburg a couple of hours later. Hoping that they would arrive as promised we then spent a very anxious couple of hours, eating Haribo’s to pass the time, in the baggage hall waiting for the later flight to arrive. Sure enough, all the bags arrived on the next flight, which meant we now had just enough time to get the bus across to the smaller terminal for our connecting flight. Phewww!
A short while later as we arrived at the terminal to check in for our next flight, we were soon having further luggage issues. Despite making numerous detailed prior arrangements, getting all of our heavy equipment onboard the tiny plane was going to be an issue. The potential of flying without all of our gear was a real concern as the alternative was to take it by road which is an eight hour trip using a 4x4 and we needed the equipment to get the photography started that afternoon. Luckily, after much bag weighing, head scratching and a little bit of negotiating with the pilot we managed to get everything onboard, just! It was a hell of squeeze and more weight than we should have really have been allowed to fly with. Once up in the air it was time to relax and enjoy the views from the plane as we crossed the Blyde River Canyon, which were simply breathtaking!
Two hours later and after some interesting flying we landed safely on the airstrip without falling out of the sky, which was a relief. Once all of the gear was unloaded and put onto a 4x4, ready to be driven to the lodge, we were greeted by Franci, the interior designer and also by the lodge manager, Karl. He seemed very pleased to welcome us back and was looking forward to getting some updated photography underway.
So much so that within an hour of landing we were starting our first shot, one of the Elephant bedrooms down at Safari Lodge. We had about two hours of daylight available to get three shots finished in order for the following few days schedule to be manageable. It was a bit of mad rush but we managed the bedroom shot, a sunset shot of a private dinning set up and also a shot of the wine cellar.
Finally, after over 24 hours of travelling and working we retreated to our bedrooms in Cliff Lodge. This luxurious accommodation is reached via the wooden walk ways right up on the top of Rock Lodge and is well worth the extra five minute walk to reach its’ remote location.
The following three days were the usual hectic mix of flat out work punctuated with lovely food and as much rest as we could manage between the numerous shots that usually started off at dawn and went through to dusk most days. Although most of the shots required on this visit were interiors, there was also a need to update some exterior imagery of Safari Lodge from across the water. We set off on a recce one afternoon to try and establish the best vantage point and soon realised that this was far more dangerous than we had thought. Luckily we had our ranger and guide, Zianca, with us to keep us out of danger, which turned out to be more useful than we expected. Due to the recent low rain fall and dry weather the level of the watering hole was unseasonally low which meant the hippo’s that live there were a little more protective than usual, hippo’s have been known to charge towards people if they feel threatened. In fact when I suggested moving to a small rocky peninsula in order to find the best position for the following days shot it was decided that it was too dangerous and the shot had to be canned, perhaps something to return to for another time.
The remainder of the shoot was pretty much smooth running and trouble free until the final evening when we had planned to do a night shot of the telescope and star gazing facility out in the bush. After dinner we set off, again with Zianca to guide us and keep us safe, to set up the cameras and lighting for what we already knew was going to be a tricky shot as we’d recceed it earlier that day. After a short drive from the lodge we arrived at the telescope star gazing facility and started to arrange our equipment to the sounds of various roars and growls that didn’t sound too far away. The bush is a very different place at night and I know we were all, apart form Zianca, a little anxious about the close proximity of the sounds we were hearing around us. Zianca reassured us that there was nothing to fear as the lions would unlikely come too close, as they would be nervous of the lights inside the telescope facility. This was fine right up until the point when after one flash discharge of our Elinchrom lights the solar powered mains failed and threw us all into complete darkness. This presented two significant problems. One, we now had no power so we couldn’t use our mains powered lights. Two, the light that was previously protecting us from the lions and their hungry bush mates was now non-existent… It’s funny how those roars in the distance suddenly sounded much closer once the ‘safety’ of our lights were no longer available to protect us. I could sense Jo was beginning to panic a little and Zianca was keen to get finished as soon as possible. We decided to do the best we could without the mains power and resorted to using a single Metz CL45 to light the whole scene, which we had previously planned to do with four Elinchrom mains powered lights. I’ve always thrived on working under pressure, especially when doing multiple exposure night shots, but this time the pressure intensified to a whole new level; would we get the shot or would we receive a visit from those lions before we were done? Well, we lived to tell the tale and as things turned out created quite a pleasing image.
I’ve always been careful about critising other peoples photography as you never fully know the brief behind their work or the circumstances that were available to the photographer on the day of the shoot. This is a great example of what looks like a straightforward image but the circumstances behind it were as challenging as I can remember.
The following day was a busy one with a couple of final shots to do in the morning before packing up our equipment, saying our good byes and getting down to the airstrip for our 11am departure back to Johannesburg and onto Cape Town for the second part of our trip.
Part Two. Mont Rochelle, Franschhoek
We were greeted off the flight at Cape Town by the cheery Wilfred, who was to be our driver to the new Manor House at Mont Rochelle in Franschhoek. The drive from the airport to the vineyard was enlightening as we drove through various housing settlements and observed a fairly high disregard for driving etiquette by other road users.
By the time we arrived at the recently refurbished Manor House it was getting late but it was immediately obvious that this would be a very different working environment to the wilderness of the bush that we had left behind. We were greeted by the Mont Rochelle property manager, Eve and also the manager of the Manor House, Sam, who we would be working with in the coming days. Some Elinchrom rental equipment had also arrived for us as we’d broken a few lights during the previous days’ work. After some much needed grub and an early night we were all set to get going again the following morning.
After a relatively leisurely breakfast it was time to get stuck into the photography. The first few shots were of the dining area and the outside space at the rear of the property. All went pretty much to plan as we worked around the changeable weather conditions. Sam was kept busy setting the dining tables and keeping on top the general mess we were making whilst shifting furniture around to get the best shots. This was essentially photography of a new house, all be it a rather large one, which meant the logistics were far more straight forward than they had been during the previous days work out in the bush, what a contrast! With no guests to work around and no lions to concern ourselves with, spirits were up, the music was on and silly hats were being worn. After a couple of night shots as the sun began to set, it was time for a game of pool, I think Tom won - just, whilst planning the following days schedule.
Day two was all about the exteriors and trying to show the house off in its' setting amongst the vineyards. The weather was not ideal, so we were gambling with the best time to do certain shots knowing that we might not get another clear spell of weather before our departure. This is always a time consuming dilemma as much time can be lost waiting for the weather to break for a few vital seconds, which if it were clear the photography would take significantly less time. When faced with this scenario we have to be patient as there is a real chance of coming away from the job without suitable exterior images, which would be a disaster. In the end, our patience paid off and we managed to capture a cracking set of exteriors with clear skies and a good sense of the stunning location. However, no sooner had we finished the exteriors the heavens opened and a group of visiting holiday agents took emergency shelter in the Manor House as their planned luncheon out on by the lake was now a wash out. No real problem but seeing a good dozen agents lounging around in ‘our’ Manor House on the perfectly arranged sofas, eating lunch, sipping wine and having a cheeky afternoon nap was amusing but a bit of set back to the schedule. An hour or two later we were back up to speed and finishing off the day with a few bedroom shots which involved our task master Jo putting us to work making sure the bed linen was perfect. Our bed making skills are legendary (a slight exaggeration, but we are very good at it and it’s a key part of making the perfect bedroom image), with a good steam iron being our tool of choice. We gave Jo a go at the ironing, she did pretty well but it was clear that this was mans work so we politely took over to make sure it was all ship shape.
Day three was free of drama but pretty hectic as we had to make sure all the final shots were in the can before packing up for our return to the UK. Once the final images were finished, it was time to back up all the camera data and begin packing the equipment. With eight non-stop days now complete we breathed a sign of relief knowing that we had produced a great set of images and made the very best of our time and the weather conditions. With everything packed away we headed in to the town of Franschhoek for a change of scene and some dinner, followed by a few drinks in one of the towns bars. We were having a fun time until it was cut short by one of the vineyards drivers arriving at the bar insisting that it was time for him to take us back to the Manor House. Now you may think it was getting late or we’d had enough to drink but neither of these were the case, it was simply that Abbie had decided to come and get us as his work shift was soon to finish and he wanted to make sure we were back at the Manor House before he went home. It’s fair to say we had a chuckle and felt like naughty school kids but avoiding a late night was a good plan as we were off early the following morning for a sight seeing day around Cape Town before catching our flight home.
After being dropped off at the Waterfront in Cape Town, the following morning, we headed straight to the Cape Grace Hotel for a very leisurely breakfast where we were able to recharge our batteries, breath a sigh of relieve knowing that we had achieved everything in the brief and hopefully would soon be delivering some stunning images to the client once we were back in the UK. Breakfast finished, we hoped on a sight seeing bus and took in the sites of Cape Town before catching our flight home.
Behind the scenes images