A walk on the wild side, with wildlife photographer Ross Couper
If you haven’t heard of Singita, now is the time to give them a follow on Instagram – their Instagram lives transport you straight onto safari in the African bush. And if you ask us, watching a small family of elephants while away their morning under the baking African sun, is exactly the kind of escapism we all need right now…
But the Singita lodges are far more than that, so we spoke to Ross Couper, the brand’s resident wildlife photographer and the man behind the Instagram lens, to find out more about Singita’s commitment to conservation, and life amidst the leadwood trees.
Tell us about Singita. What makes their lodges so special?
Singita is a conservation and ecotourism brand that has been preserving African wilderness for the past 27 years. With 15 luxury, award-winning lodges and camps across six regions, they offer exceptional safari experiences. They also work in partnership with non-profit funds and trusts to further conservation projects in each region, such as the Grumeti Fund in Tanzania and Malilangwe Trust in Zimbabwe. Singita’s 100-year purpose is to protect and preserve large areas of African wilderness for future generations.
How did you get started in photography?
After completing high school in South Africa, I pursued my love of wildlife and studied to become a field guide. As I have a strong background in wildlife sketching, I was paying for my field guide studies by selling my art at a local flea market, but I was becoming frustrated with the slow pace of it. It was an impromptu Christmas gift of a camera that converted me to a quicker artistic process, and I’m extremely fortunate to have both my passions combined as a career. I’m a self-taught photographer, with a lot of You Tube tutorials in my browser’s history!
I rely on my artistic background to compose my imagery and understanding my wildlife subjects means I can pre-empt their behaviour. I’ve learnt a lot from other photographers too.
Tell us about your role at Singita.
I was a field guide at Singita Sabi Sand for eight years and contributed images to our marketing over the years. There was demand for constant imagery and my role merged into a dual role of both field guide and content creator. That led me to focus exclusively on showcasing our lodges and camps, the wildlife in our reserves and the people at the heart of our properties. I expanded into videography and sound recording, along with getting my drone licence. Capturing the essence of Singita led me into a full- time position within our marketing team. I no longer guide guests but I still sit in the guiding seat where I lead virtual safaris on our social media platform to showcase our wildlife, and conservation stories, to the world.
How often do you do your amazing Instagram lives (we’re obsessed, by the way, they’re fantastic).
Thank you! I try and go live when I have the opportunity to do so. I spend all day out in the bush and where there is signal and we have sightings, I try to log on. I record our guides on virtual drives that are then posted in Vimeo for viewers who may have missed the live drives.
Do you have a favourite Singita property? How do they differ from each other?
I’ve been lucky enough to have visited 14 properties in the Singita portfolio and each is unique, but one thing is the same – they all have the magic Singita touch. There is still one lodge to visit, which I’m really excited about, and that is Singita Kwitonda Lodge in Rwanda, where you can trek to see the endangered mountain gorillas.
What’s been your most memorable wildlife encounter so far?
I could write volumes about this, but I’ll mention one in particular. It was a late afternoon drive and for the most part, a rather quiet drive as it was a hot day, so as we journeyed south in the reserve I heard over the radio that one of the other vehicles had found two sub-adult cheetahs. This was a special sighting as we don’t often encounter cheetahs in that habitat. I had an inclination that they would definitely be moving soon so this was worth following up to see. We arrived at the sighting and were delighted to view the two cheetahs lying in an open area of grass, which is typical habitat for a cheetah.
As another vehicle approached, the guide saw something in the grass approximately 100 yards from where the two cheetahs were lying. Normally, there are animals nearby, but its always good to have a look as it could be a potential prey and it’s good to know ahead of time if the cheetah might show interest in moving in that direction… The confirmation on the radio came through that there were indeed three servals (a slender medium-sized cat) – a mother and two sub adults. This was highly unusual to see on safari, particularly in this area with high densities of large predators. The three servals seemed relaxed and unperturbed by the vehicle. After viewing the serval, we turned back to the cheetah.
Suddenly, the serval caught a rodent in the grass and the noise attracted the cheetah’s attention and with a bolt of lightning, the two cheetahs swept across the plains. We stood stock still, thinking that the poor serval had met its end. Then all of a sudden they broke cover from the bush, where they disappeared and then stopped directly in front of our vehicle. The two cheetah circled the serval in a sudden death dance – they watched each other carefully hissing and spitting and every now and then, emitting a low-pitched growl. The serval raised its hair on its back and arched its spine making itself larger than what she was, in defence, and managed to keep the cheetah at bay.
Wow, that sounds incredible. A true, close-up, wildlife documentary moment! Speaking of which, have you had any close shaves when out on safari?
I can’t say I have had a close shave moment, but definitely a moment of surprise, which is inevitable out in the bush! There have been a couple of times when I’ve been tracking a lion, only to realise we’ve suddenly walked into a buffalo bull sleeping in the riverbed…
On another occasion, whilst viewing a herd of elephants in the river during a guided walk, a male leopard had been watching us from a rocky outcrop behind us. I only noticed him after a few birds started to alarm call, giving him away. That was definitely surprising!
After we had all turned to look at him on the rock he realised that he had been seen and awkwardly snuck off behind some thick bush. That was an incredible experience for my guests, who had never seen a leopard! That time I have to admit I had a nervous twitch in my leg and it was definitely from the surprise sighting… But I managed to keep a brave face and not let on to the group that it had had me even a little worried!
If we’ve never been on safari before, where would you recommend we go and why?
Singita’s lodges and camps in the Sabi Sand and Kruger National Park, in South Africa, give guests the exciting opportunity to experience the wilderness like never before. With private access to these vast, iconic areas, you can experience the magnificence of the African bush and have the chance to witness and support the work of the Singita Lowveld Trust – our non-profit conservation partner in South Africa. For example, the Singita Community Culinary School at Singita Lebombo or the canine anti-poaching unit in the Sabi Sand.
Any insider tips for how to get the most from your safari? Or maybe the best time to see, say, baby elephants?!
There’s never a ‘season’ for game viewing. Any month offers incredible sightings but it is worthwhile to visit off peak season (September, October and November) and even the green season in Tanzania when the rates are lower (allowing for longer stays) and game viewing is still incredible. My recent stay at Singita Grumeti in Tanzania was shortly after the migration and I had incredible leopard sightings along with some very unique lion prides hanging out in the trees – a particular pride in the area is known to climb the trees to rid themselves of pesky flies. It’s really comical to see.
Which are your favourite animals and why?
I have a great affection for leopards – their beauty is mesmerising and it’s one animal in the wild that you can never take a bad picture of, even when they are just lounging in a tree. In all the time I’ve worked for Singita, I’ve been fortunate enough to be based in an area with the highest density of leopards per square kilometre in the world, thanks to years of conservation work. I’ve spent countless hours with leopards and the time has been always humbling. You become a part of their lives as you watch them grow in the wild, fight for survival and triumph with litters of cubs. My backyard may be larger than most peoples, but of all the wildlife in the area, leopards stand out as being my artistic muse.
Where in the world are you happiest?
Anywhere as long as I am in a Land Rover! By far, I truly feel at home being in the wild spaces in Africa. Having spent so much time in the bush at an early age, it has always been a part of my life. I’ve been fortunate to travel abroad to visit many National Parks and reserves, but Africa remains my favourite, particularly the Lowveld in South Africa.
What’s been your favourite holiday?
I recently had an opportunity to visit Yosemite National Park and it was one of my favourite places. I camped with my wife for four days and it was the best holiday I’ve ever experienced. It was another world of open spaces and I enjoyed using my African bush instincts for tracking bears and different animals!
What’s your favourite photograph that you’ve taken whilst travelling?
Wow that is really hard to answer – you really know how to really dig deep with these questions! Whilst traveling to New York, I captured an image of a famous clock in the city streets close to the Flatiron Building. It was during a rainy day and I photographed the reflection in a rain puddle. It was not the best image, but it’s a really good memory, as it’s not often that we actually capture time, we capture moments in time. Time is a reminder that we all need to slow down and take in what we have in our lives.
When we’re all free to travel again, where is the first place you’ll head to?
I actually plan to stay here in the bush (insert laugh…before my wife reads this!) and then most likely I’ll visit family and friends. I’ve realised how fortunate we are to live where we do, but I’ve also realised the importance of staying connected to loved ones. Ironically when the world is affected this way, we need each other and realise more than ever, the importance of protecting the natural world.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever packed in your hand luggage?
A 2kg packet of Twizzlers – it was intended as a light snack for the plane trip back to Africa from the US, but not one of those twizzlers made it off the plane in the packet. It was the best snack ever!
I did also once pack a torch in my luggage that was really valuable. I explained it to the check-in attendant, but she seemed confused when I said that I have a torch in my carry-on… I realised I needed to call it a flashlight, as a torch in the US would suggest that I was carrying some type of tiki torch that would be ignited with a flame! It was funny at the time, but did nearly cause us to miss the plane. That’s the last time I carried an expensive flashlight in my carry-on bag, that’s for sure!
Quick fire questions
Podcast or paperback?
Paperback – as an artist…. there is nothing better than paper and feeling.
Train or plane?
Both. A sense of travel in any form is a sense of adventure and either one gives you the time to anticipate what you would like to achieve on arrival.
Cut it fine or leave plenty of time?
Another true artist’s answer – cut it fine! I always wait until the last minute to bring out the good stuff. Creativity is not slow cooked, it’s inspiration that arrives and you need to use it as soon as it does.
Sightseeing or sun lounger?
Sightseeing; another source of creativity.
Early start or slowly but surely?
Early start as I’m always chasing light!
Plan every detail or wing it on arrival?
Wing it on arrival and leave expectations at the door.