Giants Castle - Bearded vultures and endless landscapes

Adult bearded vulture

The view from the famous rock... (Image stitched from 4 separate frames)
Wildlife- and nature photography is all about exploring new frontiers and literally broadening one's horizons. I  recently had the privilege to do just that, when I visited the Giants Castle Nature Reserve...

Where and what is Giants Castle?

Giants Castle Nature Reserve is nestled in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. The greater uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Giants Castle Nature Reserve occupies the central section thereof. The reserve was named after the surrounding peaks of the Drakensberg mountains, whose silhouette resembles that of a sleeping giant - The highest peaks rise to 10,869 feet (3,313 metres) above sea level.

The park is famous for its natural splendour and a big attraction for hikers, mountain climbers, trout fishermen and photographers. The Main Caves Museum offers a cultural and historical experience and an interesting look into the ancient world of the San people (or bushmen) and their rock art which was created many moons ago.


Accommodation

The camp with its comfortable chalets is located in the grassy terrain at the feet of the so-called sleeping giant.


The self-catering chalets have fully equipped kitchens with a fridge/freezer, microwave, stove, oven and the likes. A great bonus for me was the cozy duvets on the beds and of course the build-in fireplace and warm shower. For those ladies out there... Yes, there is a bath as well!

The chalets are cleaned on a daily basis by people you can obviously trust - On our last day, after having packed and cleaned out the chalets, we realized that we left a cellphone behind. On returning to reception we were handed back the cellphone, which one of the workers found in the chalet!

We stayed in the "Garden View" chalets, the "cheaper" option, but for just ZAR90,00 more you can enjoy the magnificent views of the "Mountain View" chalets. You also have a choice of 2, 4 and 6 bed chalets and of course, the honeymoon suite, whilst the rates include breakfast at the park's restaurant.

The reception area hosts a curios shop where you can also purchase necessities like toiletries, snacks, cold drinks and (expensive) local beer, wine and spirits. You will also find some food for the self-catering kitchens, but I suggest that you make sure to take all you need yourself, as the choices are very limited in the shop.

Unfortunately there are no camping sites nearby (being a big camper myself), so you are obliged to stay in the chalets, especially as you have to get up before dawn to travel the 20 minutes or so to the vulture hide.

The Lammergeier hide

Now this is what it was all about! The very famous Lammergeier hide (which some people these days refer to as the "Bearded Vulture hide").

This hide has been made famous by many photographers whose images of the famous and endangered bearded vulture (and also the cape vultures) have been seen all over the world and won many photographic competitions over the past couple of years.

The hide is situated on top of one of the peaks of the majestic Drakensberg and faces in a western direction with sunrise at your back. This basically entails the hide is primarily a "morning" hide, as you will be photographing into the sun during the afternoons. It is about a 20 minute drive from the camp up the steep slopes of the Drakensberg and I will suggest that you make sure you have at least a proper 4x2 vehicle with enough ground clearance, as the road is rather rocky at times.

Epic light during sunrise
In front of the hide is a grassy patch with some 40 to 50 metres to the famous rock where the vultures come in to land.

Sunrise behind the hide - Image taken from the famous rock
Endless horizons

Majestic views

High altitude bliss

The valley down below
The hide itself was specifically designed for bird watchers and photographers. It has a floor area of about 3 by 4 metres and can host a maximum of 3 photographers at any given time.

The hide must be booked in advance and with "in advance" I mean at least a year, because of its popularity. Once you have booked the hide it is yours and nobody else is allowed to visit. You are handed the keys at reception and then you are at liberty to visit it whenever you want. We took up all our provisions and equipment on the first day and as we left in the afternoons everything was merely securely locked up.

The entrance to the hide
All weapons locked and loaded
The bearded vulture is not particularly fond of meat at all and without the natural resources to feed on, it is doomed to extinction. Giant's Castle is part of a vulture feeding project or so-called "vulture restaurant".

The feeding of the vultures has sparked some controversy over the past couple of years, but my opinion is a simple one - If mankind is responsible for the loss of its natural food sources and habitat, it is also mankind's responsibility to do whatever is necessary to keep the population in tact or even growing, even if it means feeding them!

NO, it is not just about putting out bones to entice the vultures to come and land! There is a broader agenda and the visiting photographers help to promote the plight of the vultures and the financial injection from the bookings of the hide play a big roll in its conservation.

So yes, a lot has to do about "them bones". Gerrie van Vuuren, who has been to Giants a couple of times already, took it on him to learn me the ropes of photographing the vultures of Giants. He would sing this song in the mornings before sunrise, when we had to put out the bones:  "...them bones them bones them...". Mmm, maybe just to play on my nerves, as it was my task as rookie to open the bags of rotten wildebeest bones and to place it on strategic spots behind the rocks...

Eyeing "them bones"
You receive a bag of frozen bones a day as part of your booking - these bones are provided by the local farmers. We collected our bag every afternoon and allowed it to thaw overnight for the following day. These bones are not "them bones", as it is fairly fresh and do not have much meat (keeping in mind that the bearded vultures eat bones and bone marrow), so it do not smell at all. It is not much, so I arranged with my local butcher in Pretoria to have some wildebeest bones ready for me when we left for Giants.

Now these additional bones were "them bones" - It had plenty of meat for the cape vultures and other meat eating birds of prey. It were in four bags and already thawed when we arrived at Giants and we simply left it outside at the back of the hide in the mornings when we were shooting and securely locked in the hide in the afternoons and evenings (no cooler or fridge). Needless to say, I was the last person to enter the hide in the mornings (always had something to do first). By the third and fourth day "them bones" smelt lovely and I am one of those guys with "those" stomachs!

Just getting some fresh air
Every now and then park officials will drop off a whole carcass of some live stock that died in the area and provided by the farmers. We were lucky in that it did not happen when we were there - It sounds like a mission to move the carcass to a spot where it will not be in the frame when shooting and from what I understand, overfed vultures are not to keen to come in and land.

A replica of the hide can now be found at reception, where two high definition LCD screens broadcast life footage of the view in front of the hide at all times - It includes sound, so be careful in your polite conversations with the crows and jackal that steal your bones, as loud conversations inside the hide can be heard!

There are no bathrooms at the hide, so make sure that you do the necessary at camp, as a leisurely stroll from the back of the hide is the only other option.

And yes, it can get very cold, so make sure to pack in that thermal underwear!

Snow on the berg - image taken at 800mm from inside the hide

The camera support system

A lot have recently been said and speculated about in the social media about the new support system for photographers in the hide, as it was revamped a couple of months ago.

The steel bar
From what I understand a sturdy clamp with a ball head attached thereto, was used to merely attach the camera to the wooden ledge at the top of the shooting window in the past. A 50mm round steel bar has now been attached at the top of the window. This results in a few problems - you have limited up and down movement of the lens, as the lens hangs fairly low and close to the bottom. This also limits horizontal movement, as the camera tends to bump against the deck.

Gerrie used a different clamp than those that Milanie Roos and I used and it seemed to work slightly better, as the camera was slightly more "inside" the hide, which gave him more vertical movement. He was however again limited in his horizontal movement.

Gerrie's setup
Shooting some action
The bottom ledge
Another issue that might be addressed by the park, is the new and fairly high chairs, which makes for a rather  uncomfortable sitting position if you are busy shooting. However, you can make your own plan like Gerrie did, even if it means to bring in the stinky bucket that held "them bones" from outside!

The chairs
Always a plan to be made!
Am I complaining? No, we still had a ball and got some awesome images! Gerrie did speak to the park manager on our last day (when he politely offered us some coffee and showed us the replica of the hide at reception) and it sounds like some of the problems might be addressed in the near future.

Vulture magic

But at the end it is all about the vultures!

We had an awesome couple of days with the Tuesday being the highlight. The day started as usual with a couple of flybys and the occasional cape vulture coming in to land. But all of a sudden it was chaos, as bearded and cape vultures came in to land, with so many in the air and on the ground that I did not know where to concentrate my efforts! Mmm, a rookie adrenalin rush you might say... I filled about five 16GB CF cards in slightly more than an hour! That feeling that you get when your camera's shutter does not react and it takes about five precious seconds to realize that it is a full CF card...

Cape Vultures
Cape vulture landing
Juvenile bearded vulture flying by
Adult bearded vulture landing
Juvenile bearded vulture landing
Another image spoiled by the crows!
Trust me, by the end of your trip you will have renamed the crows and black-backed jackals! Yes, it is great to see some interaction between the species, but not only do they steal your bones, they can spoil many images as well!

Them beloved crows
One of my favourite images is the one below - I heard about the aerial antics of the bearded vultures and wanted to capture this in mid-air with the majestic Drakensberg in the background. Not precisely the image I had in mind, but will take it any day!

Bearded Antics
I used my Canon 7D with a 500mm F4 L lens. Unfortunately it gave me an effective focal length of 800mm, as the 7D has a 1.6x "crop factor", and I clipped many wings with the landings. Needless to say, the extra glass was great for the flybys!

I will recommend an effective focal length of about 600mm, so do your planning in advance...

More than just vultures

The hide is basically a morning hide as mentioned earlier, but that gives you the opportunity to explore the valley and river down below in the afternoon.

Moving Giants
The river down below
Fall in Giants

At the giant's feet
The majestic slopes of the Drakensberg and the river at its feet will stir something in any person. It certainly did in me. I took some time-out and just sat next to the river for a while - my senses worked overtime and I realized that this is something bigger than myself... A not so silent prayer was taken downstream by the river,  to the Creator of this majestic place...

Time-out
Yes, I will return to Giants!!!

You can read more about Giants Castle at http://www.giantscastle.info/


10 comments :

  1. So enjoyed your blog...its great to read about other people's experiences at the hide...your images are fabulous!!

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  2. Nice work Rudi - great to see the behind the scenes looks too.

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    1. Thanks Morkel! You better get there soon!

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  3. Thanks Rudi, great read and even better photo's. can't wait to go!

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  4. Awesome blog this Rudi, i have passed it on to many enquirers.....Many thanks
    Dryzie

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    1. Appreciate the feedback Mark! Hope you have a ball on your visit!

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