Every adventure photographer living in South Africa dreams of going to remote locations where few people have ever been, in the search for something special, something to tick off the personal bucket list that you will forever remember. In November 2017 I was asked to join a group of veteran landscape photographers on a trip of a lifetime, a trip that might just be one of those legendary trips I dreamed of. We set out to plan a week long hiking and camping expedition to arguably the most impressive mountain range in Africa, the Drakensberg. The plan was to hike up to the famous Amphitheatre where we would camp on the banks of the Tugela river and hopefully see the river in strong flow which would make for an impressive waterfall. And I’m not talking just any waterfall, the Tugela Falls are said to be the world’s second highest waterfall, and its location right in the middle of the Amphitheatre makes it one of the most recognisable natural sights in the world.
Weeks of planning went by and I soon realised that I was going to run into one major issue on the hike, weight. Since we were going to be camping on the mountain for almost a week, it meant that we had to carry everything up with us, and this climb is definitely not one to be underestimated. On a normal day the hike takes anywhere between 3-4 hours, but we soon learned that we would not be so lucky. A few weeks before our trip, the weather reports started predicting unusual storms in the region in the exact time that we would be on the mountain. The storm reports soon turned into snow reports; snow in the middle of summer on the Drakensberg! This threw all our plans out the window, as this now meant that we would have to gear ourselves for camping in sub zero conditions, which means that the overall weight of our packs was just going to increase even more. This is when I realised that I was going to have issues with my gear’s weight, mainly with the weight of my current bulky tripod and ballhead.
I decided to call my friend Willem from Sunshine Co., the distributors of SIRUI, to see if he could help me out with a better suited tripod and head combination for the trip. My main requirements were that it must be carbon fibre (lightweight), tall enough when fully extended so I don’t have to bend down much to look through the viewfinder (I am 183cm in length), strong enough to hold my full frame Canon 6D camera with 70-200mm lens, rugged enough to withstand the conditions we were going to face, and sturdy enough so that I could do very long exposures without worrying about the tripod shaking in the wind or moving on the ground while shooting.
After sifting through some options, we finally decided that the best combination for me would be the SIRUI T-2204X Carbon Fibre tripod with K-20X ballhead.
Here are the main attributes of these that made them the best choice for this particular trip:
T-2204X Carbon Fibre Tripod
- Weight – 1260g
- Total Folded Size – 42cm
- Total Height Column Down – 121cm
- Total Height Column Up – 142cm
- Load Capacity – 15kg
- Twist leg locks – Rubber finish for cold conditions
- Screw-out spikes on bottom of legs
- The number of segments (4), which allows for a more compact design
- Reversible legs – protects the ballhead and makes it more compact (great for hikers!)
- Carbon fibre – less vibrations than aluminium and much lighter(1.3kg)
- Centre-column has a counter weight hook at the bottom – Added stability when needed, great when doing long exposures
- 3 different leg angles, goign as low as 140mm from the ground
- Ballhead includes separate pan lock
- Friction knob has a “clutch”, allowing the user to dial in a minimum friction setting which means the camera can be recomposed without unlocking the friction knob
With my gear now at a manageable weight, we set out on our journey to the mountain. After a flight from CPT-JHB and some hours on the road, we eventually arrived at Witsieshoek Lodge, where we would be staying for the first night before heading out on our hike the next morning. We used this time to repack all our bags and arrange our gear so that our cameras would be accessible at any given time. The tripod fit perfectly in the side pocket and straps of my bag, which made it easy to access while hiking, just in case I needed to use it for a long exposure shots on the way up. I felt that the tripod was a really manageable length when folded up and it never got hooked on any of my other gear like my old tripod usually did.
After a few gruelling hours of hiking in thick mist and rain, we reached our campsite at the top of the Amphitheatre, next to the Tugela river. We set up camp for the night, unpacked all our gear and got ready for the snow storm that was predicted to hit that same evening. The sound of rain on my tent gradually became softer until it was replaced by the soft patter of snowflakes throughout the night. The next morning we woke up to a landscape that none of us are really used to seeing in South Africa – a white blanket of soft snow covering the entire escarpment. We quickly rushed to a good vantage point to hopefully catch the sunrise, and for me this would be the first time testing the new tripod too. The terrain was very different to what I was used to, it was icy and wet and slippery, with strong winds on the edge of the cliff where I had to set up my shot. This was the perfect time to test out the retractable spiked feet which keep the tripod firmly anchored in snow/ice, as well as the centre column counter weight hook that I attached my camera bag to, adding extra stability to the tripod. I was thoroughly impressed by the results. The tripod was sturdy as a rock and never slipped on the icy rocks. Despite the strong winds I didn’t notice any camera shake, even when shooting with my longest and heaviest lens. The ballhead also made things very easy and I really loved using the “clutch” setting on the friction knob to make it easier to recompose my shots without moving the ballhead too much.
For the next few days the conditions slowly went from snowy and chilling to hot and wet as the snow started to melt and the mountain turned back into the usual rocky and grassy slopes that we were expecting. This is where the twist leg locks and 3 position leg angle for uneven terrain really came in handy. I was able to quickly get my tripod levelled on the most uneven terrain, making it easier to shoot multiple image panoramas that require my ballhead to be 100% level in order to avoid horizon distortion. I also found that even while working in snow and dirt for a few days, none of it seemed to ever get into the inside of the tripod legs or ballhead, which is something that few tripods can claim. Adjusting the friction knob to recompose the shot
A big thanks to Janik for taking the time to put together this story and to Sunshine Co. for giving him access to a demo model. I was along for this hike and we really were incredibly lucky with the conditions – many people close to the Drakensberg sit and wait for the potential of thick snow and never get conditions like we got. We had planned the dates for our trip more than a year in advance and struck the snow with bulls-eye accuracy – Hougaard
Janik Alheit is a professional landscape, travel and lifestyle photographer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Explore more of his work on his Instagram profile.