Sehlabathebe Workshop Debrief
The 2017 Winter Photography Workshop took place from the 9th to 13th August in the Sehlabathebe National Park, Lesotho. The workshop participants – Mart-Mari, Karen, Garth, Giel, Rob and Tony – travelled from across South Africa to take part in the event. What follows is an anecdotal look at what went down.
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I have written about Sehlabathebe National Park before and waxed lyrical over just how much photographic potential is on offer in what is most definitely a far-flung corner of Lesotho. Sehlabathebe is, without question, one of the finest photography destinations in the entire country and, one could even argue, in the whole of the Drakensberg too. What makes the park particularly unique is the ability for visitors to drive almost all the way to the foot of 3000 m peaks, offering them spectacular close-up views of some of the Drakensberg’s highest mountains; something that, to the best of my knowledge, is not possible anywhere else in the Berg.
The trouble with that sort of description, however, is that it gives the impression that visiting Sehlabathebe is little more than a Sunday afternoon drive, and this cannot be further from the truth. Lesotho is an unforgiving country that blends high altitudes, poor infrastructure and climatic volatility in such a way as to cast fear into the heart of any would-be photographic workshop leader. Admittedly, somewhere along the path from idea to execution, my concerns about running a workshop in Lesotho shifted from those concerns related to whether or not we would get good photographs to more fundamental ones like whether or not the lodge at Sehlabathebe was even capable of sustaining human life.
Why I ever doubted the photography portion of the equation is beyond me, for even the most modest photographer would be hard-pressed to come away from Sehlabathebe without a good image. As for the life-support systems, however, they turned out to be a valid anxiety. In a strangely ironic twist, when the touring party arrived at the lodge, the country that supplies South Africa with 1,259 million cubic metres of water per annum was unable to supply us with even a single drop.
Fortunately, all my scaremongering in the run-up to the workshop meant that we were all well prepared for the absence of basic amenities and, in fairness to the staff of the Sehlabathebe National Park, once they worked out how their reservoir system operated, the flow of life-giving fluids was restored.
With our physiological needs met, our attention turned to the far more serious matter of securing Pulitzer Prize-winning images. By comparison to previous years, the winter of 2017 has been warm and dry, something that made our search for images more taxing than it might otherwise have been. I had hoped that we would find the icy remains of tarns that would serve as foreground to anchor scenes of the Devil’s Knuckles but, alas, this was not to be. All the pools were decidedly more liquid than I had wanted; yet, though this was not ideal, they still managed to provide us with some spectacular scenes. The water in the tarns adopted a deep blue colour that popped off the surrounding golden grasslands, affording us all the foreground we needed.
Composition was not the only photographic challenge, however, with the park being subject to a little tripod-testing wind. The wind proved too much for Tony’s unit, which was more flagpole than scaffolding as it wobbled in the breeze, and Giel managed to strip the head off his tripod altogether. I must point out that Giel is in the habit of using plumbing tools to loosen and tighten the various knobs on his tripod and I suspect that the actual cause of the failure came from years of loosening and fastening the head using a bobbejaan spanner.
There were, of course, other small matters that needed overcoming, such as individuals arriving on location having forgotten their memory cards at the lodge, as well as the constant struggles with Nikon’s menu system and lens flare. It is, nevertheless, in the face of hardship that the true character of individuals surfaces and I am happy to say that the whole touring party did a fine job of keeping spirits high and demonstrating boundless enthusiasm. Reflecting on the whole episode today, I am proud of what we had all achieved. We uncovered a few stellar images and had a blast doing so. I’d like to say a big thank you to all the participants – Mart-Mari, Karen, Garth, Giel, Rob and Tony – for making the workshop such a success.
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