Matebole Hide, Botswana
Words & Images by Diana Andersen
A bucket list activity for many wildlife photographers is the opportunity to photograph animals from a hide in Africa. Matebole Hide in the Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana, is among the continent’s best. In mid-November 2023, I got the opportunity to experience the hide, and my anticipation grew as the vehicle approached the waterhole location with a spectacular scene unfolding.
Over a dozen elephants filled the waterhole, drinking, bathing, and simply having the time of their life. Muddy water sprayed into the air, and massive bodies slipped and slid in the mud around the edges. Due to the proximity of the elephants, I was ushered quickly from the vehicle into the safety of the hide by my guide and the resident PhotoMashatu instructor.
As I rushed to get my camera gear out, two more photographers arrived, and, like most obsessive wildlife photographers, we went straight to work capturing this remarkable scene. In reality, we needn’t have been concerned about missing out on photos, as more elephants arrived as each group left. The day was sweltering, resulting in this remarkable parade of elephant herds quenching their thirst, cooling down and coating themselves with mud. More than 300 elephants visited the waterhole during the afternoon.
Elephants at the waterhole at the Matebole Hide.
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An Afternoon at the Matebole Hide
It was almost a relief when the constant arrival of elephants became sporadic. Other animals were visible in the area during the afternoon but were too nervous to approach the calamity in the waterhole. A family of warthogs led by a large boar came, but he left dejectedly like a father telling his kids that the local swimming pool was too crowded. In addition, groups of impala and small numbers of zebra, kudu, wildebeest, and eland also approached to drink. Of course, birds are always present at waterholes, particularly on hot days, but the frequency of the elephants made drinking hazardous.
The ability to safely get close to these animals is only one of the benefits of the hide experience. In my photography workshops, I always encourage attendees to get low when photographing their subjects. Shooting from a lower perspective places the animals in their environment, with the surroundings creating a backdrop that tells a better story. It also has the added benefit of compressing the foreground and background elements, which helps isolate your subject from visual clutter in the frame.
For safety, photography in Africa generally means shooting from a vehicle on most occasions, which means you are shooting from a higher perspective. While long telephoto lenses help reduce your perspective’s angle, it is often not as low as you would like, mainly when shooting large animals with a short or wide-angle lens. Buried hides, or bunkers as some places refer to them, put the photographer at ground level. By doing so, you can effectively shoot over undesirable foreground elements and capture the environment behind the animal. In addition, eye contact is also easier to achieve when you are at eye level with your subject.
Lens choices at the Matebole Hide
A common question is what lens to use for different shooting situations. So, what was my lens of choice during this epic opportunity? At this point, I was relieved that I had lugged three heavy lenses around in my camera bag! I used all three during the afternoon, depending on what I hoped to achieve with each scenario. Of course, everyone uses different brands and lenses for different reasons, so the following is based purely on what I have in my kit as a Canon shooter.
My EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS iii was my most versatile lens during the afternoon. The focal length allowed for single animals up close and small groups a little further away. However, the resulting images were not my favourites of the day. For documenting the experience, the focal length was ideal, but the other lenses I used allowed for a more creative rendering of the afternoon.
EF 70 – 200mm f/2.8l iii Gallery
The Benefits of a Wide-angle Lens
Using a wide-angle lens is an excellent choice at the hide due to the proximity of large groups of elephants, allowing you to capture bigger groups. Additionally, Botswana’s dramatic skies will add to your images if you are lucky enough to have some cloud cover during your hide session. Given that November is the start of Botswana’s rainy season, the conditions on the day varied from overcast with soft light to partially sunny with clouds above. I had my Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8l ii, which is more of a wide-to-telephoto zoom, but I would prefer to bring a wider lens in future.
EF 24-70mm f/2.8l ii Gallery
Although my Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS iii proved frustrating in some situations due to the long focal length, it was perfect for capturing distant animals approaching the hide. It was also great for close-up details and smaller visitors to the waterhole on the far side. The area is an excellent location for birds and small animals as well. The calamitous behaviour of the elephants meant that bird visits were sporadic and probably less frequent than usual, but they did arrive. The downside of a waterhole that experiences a lot of activity is unattractive edges. However, the long focal length of 600mm was beneficial in softening the muddy foreground and background.
EF 600mm f/4l iii Gallery
Morning or Afternoon at the Matebole Hide
As a wildlife photographer, you take your best images at home rather than on tours. At home, you know the light and the location and can choose the time of day you shoot. At home, I rarely shoot at any location in the late morning or early afternoon. In Africa, you go for the experience, not just the photography, so you often shoot in less appealing light. The photography hide experience is no different.
During each session, you will likely get some good light and some that is harsh and unappealing. Whether or not you have animals at the waterhole at the same time as you have good light is purely a matter of luck. I was fortunate to have experienced some cloud cover in the early afternoon, softening the harsh side shadows that were present when the sun came out. Later in the day, we had some lovely sunset tones as well. The location and hard light also lend themselves to monochrome imagery, so even if your subjects arrive in harsh light, you can consider what the image will look like in mono and choose your settings accordingly.
A morning and an afternoon session are a must for photography groups I will bring in the future. Of course, many visitors won’t experience the density of elephants we did that afternoon. However, the hide offers more than large numbers of animals to see. Wildlife is unpredictable at any time, but even seeing small numbers up close makes a visit worthwhile. You can always explore wildlife portraits with single animals visiting the hide and push your creativity when choosing your settings.
Booking the Matebole Hide, Mashatu
The hide accommodates a maximum of eight photographers in addition to the PhotoMashatu photographer, who will provide photography guidance if you need it, and photographic groups can book exclusive use of the hide. You can book your session through Mashatu management at the camp you are staying in or pre-book directly through PhotoMashatu.
Regardless of your photographic skill and whether you see many animals or just a few, a visit to the Matebole Hide as part of your visit to Mashatu Game Reserve is something you will remember fondly.