Every year I try to do something different for my birthday. While most people see the date as a chance to celebrate with friends and family who shower you with attention and gifts, I always see it as an opportunity to get out of the city and do something memorable.
This year (May 2016) I decided that I wanted to try my hand out at some landscape photography. Once I had decided what I wanted to do, the next step was choosing a location. The reality is that I only had two days (1 night) to do this trip and so it needed to be relatively close. I immediately thought of the Drakensberg with it’s massive peaks and beautiful scenery, which was only about 3 hours from where I live, and I knew that it was the perfect choice.
I decided that my goal for the trip was to get a sunrise or sunset shot over the mountains and I began planning how I was going to achieve that. I looked at maps to find trails that would yield good vantage points for me to set up for a landscape shot. Once the accommodation was booked and the plans were in order I set about getting my equipment in order and began reading and watching as many articles and YouTube videos on landscape photography as possible to make sure that I was ready. I quickly realised that I needed to add a Circular Polarizing filter and a cable release to my gear so I forked out some cash and added those to my ever increasing collection of photography accessories. I was fortunate to find a deal on an old Canon 15-85mm lens that included a 10-stop B+W ND filter which I would be using for any long exposure shots. With all my gear in order I felt ready to take on the challenge that I had set myself.
The morning of departure arrived and we set off before sunrise in order to get to the hotel early enough so that we could get a full day of hiking in the mountains. Before we had even reached the hotel we spotted a Jackal Buzzard perched on a telephone pole. I decided that it was worth stopping for a photo.
Upon arrival at the hotel I began to feel the excitement of capturing a beautiful landscape photo and couldn’t resist taking out my camera and trying out some of my new equipment.
The conditions were cloudy and the weather forecast predicted rain but I knew that the tumultuous weather could provide us with some very beautiful afternoon light assuming it did not just pour down on us. We spent the day hiking and the weather stayed pretty consistent so late that afternoon I began heading up to the chosen location for the potential sunset shot. After getting to my chosen location I soon realised that I had somehow left my tripod base plate at home and thus the tripod I was carrying around was useless. Arg! Nevertheless I had made a commitment to this shot and I needed to make a plan. Fortunately I managed to find a large rocky outcrop overlooking the valley and I set my camera up there ready to capture a shot the moment the light came through the clouds.
Patience and planning paid off as I got this beautiful shot of the Ampitheatre with its peak bathed in golden afternoon light contrasting beautifully with the dark stormy clouds behind it.
The next morning I was up long before sunrise but unfortunately access to the hiking area was restricted and by the time we got in the light was already starting to show in the sky. We hiked up into the mountains as fast as we could, literally running at times, but sadly I just could not beat the sun. I decided to make due with what I had and captured a this early morning shot down the valley. The image below was taken using multiple exposures which I manually blended in post.
It also made a good location for a selfie :)
With sunrise gone we continued to head up to our next destination which was the Gudu Falls. On the way we came across this outlook which made a perfect place for me to test out my 10-stop ND filter. The result was rather interesting with the moving clouds creating an ethereal element to the image.
Heading higher and higher up into the mountains, the landscape suddenly changed as we entered a forested ravine. At this point the climb became very steep and I knew that the falls had to be close by. Before reaching the falls we were suddenly greeted by a flock of tiny birds which I quickly realised were Yellow-throated Woodland Warblers! A lifer for all of us. The sighting was so unexpected that I was completely unprepared and had to quickly and quietly remove my bag and change to my zoom lens to hopefully get a record shot. The overcast conditions coupled with heavy vegetation meant the light was very low but I still managed to capture this decent image.
A bonus was this Cape Batis that was hanging out in the same area.
After all the excitement was over we trekked on and finally arrived at our destination. The forest opened up to this beautiful waterfall flowing into a crystal clear pond at the bottom. I decide that a long exposure shot was the way to go and this is the result.
We spent a few minutes at the falls taking in the sound of rushing water and the feeling of cool moist wind blowing through the ravine and then set off. At this stage the rain came down hard and we ended up running most of the way down and got back to the car completely soaked. I could not imagine a better way to end an amazing birthday in the incredible Drakensberg Mountains.