Thanks to their mischievous ways, chacma baboons bring a smile to almost every encounter. How many of you have witnessed the antics that ensue when a large troop crosses a famous Kruger river?

It was late August when Wild Card member Rob Smith parked his vehicle on the Kruger National Park’s Letaba Bridge – one of his favourite spots for wildlife viewing. “I know the bridge well and my wife and I are invariably on the bridge before sunrise or in the late afternoon when we stay at the beautiful Letaba Rest Camp. This bridge has the added advantage of allowing photographers to get out of the car and set up a tripod, camera and 400mm lens in anticipation of any animal or bird activity in the river,” says Rob.

Rob’s plan of action? To photograph whatever wildlife was in the river below on the western side of the bridge. This would let him take advantage of the setting sun to backlight his subjects. Luck was on his side when just after 17:00, a resident troop of baboons started to cross the river, making their way back to their night’s roosting on the southern banks.

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Pictures by Rob Smith

Some 40 chacma baboons, mothers and babies, youngsters and adult males, opted to cross the river’s shallow water rather than making use of the bridge – too many parked vehicles seemingly interfered with the preferred route. “An adult male started to cross slowly with determined confidence from the northern bank. I imagine crocodiles are always a threat to baboons, even when river levels are low. This particular male, I suppose, had to recce the area.”

Ballet of the baboons

A sedate river crossing soon erupted into unbridled joy as the troop’s teenagers charged towards the water’s edge. First with hesitation, as if they were testing the water temperature, and then sprinting across a 60 metre stretch of water and small sand banks. “Some youngsters chased after one another, others wrestled and shrieked in the water, raising beautiful backlit sprays of water. With breakneck speed, others impressed with gymnastic manoeuvres as they bounded through the water. Is my story one of anthropomorphic licence? Of course it is!”

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Within 20 minutes, Rob had the opportunity to witness what he calls “baboon water ballet”. “One of the adults performed what can only resemble a ballet dancer’s last airborne leap of this matinee performance. The lasting memory of this sighting was without a doubt the younger baboons’ sheer bliss of playing in the river. Combined with the most sublime backlighting, this was a unique and beautiful photo opportunity.”

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Rob’s photo tips

  • Make the most of all locations, situations and lighting conditions in the park.
  • I prefer to wait near waterholes or rivers for any animal or bird activity.
  • Knowing the park intimately and having a basic knowledge of animal behaviour will help.
  • Lake Panic is my ultimate favourite. I love the solitude and if you are really patient, you can see a wide variety of birds and even resident leopards.

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