Fantastic beasts and where to find them

As Noël Coward never said, "Very flat, Tanzania."

You've heard of LBJ, right? Well, this is an LBR...

You've heard of LBJ, right? Well, this is an LBR...

When God painted Tanzania, he did so with a very limited palette of green and brown. There's not much variety in the landscape either, and some of the grassy plains are so flat you could lie on your back and see for a hundred miles! The only relief is the occasional kopje, or rock formation, but that's more like the artist's signature on a blank canvas. However, when He carved the Serengeti heat alive with wildlife, His imagination knew no limit. I saw a total of 38 animals and 85 birds during my Classic Tanzania Safari with Exodus Travels, including lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, cheetah, zebra, giraffe and impala. We even saw the very rare caracal, which is a medium-sized cat similar to a lynx. There wasn't as much game as there is in the peak season from July to September, but we still saw thousands of wildebeest and zebra taking part in the Great Migration, and I took over a thousand pictures a day! In the end, I came back with 669 shots I thought were good enough to sell through stock agencies, and I even chose three prints to include in my next exhibition.

The spectacular and exciting variety of animals in places like Tanzania is the reason I keep going back to Africa, and, for me, the highlights of any trip are usually connected with the pictures I manage to take. After all, I count myself a professional photographer these days, so I never just go on 'holiday' any more! We didn't see a kill - which is the crowning glory of any safari - but we did see a cheetah just after it had killed a hartebeest. It spent around half an hour gorging itself right in front of us - only five or ten yards away - while a marabou stork and over a dozen vultures waited patiently for their share of the spoils. On the horizon, the hartebeest's mother kept up a solo vigil the whole time. Very sad...

Cheetah

Cheetah

The same cheetah

The same cheetah

Another highlight was seeing so many lions. One day, we were driving through a meadow with very tall grass, and I told our driver Julius that we were in 'lion country' now. Within a couple of hours, we'd seen around 14 lions in two separate prides, one lounging on a termite mound and another sleeping beside a tree! I love the excitement of predators, so it was great to be able to get such good sightings.

Feline graffiti

Feline graffiti

Lion

Lion

Lion

Lion

The other highlight was the birds we saw. Tanzania has a huge bird population, with more than 1,100 species, and we saw some spectacular specimens, including a red-cheeked cordon-bleu and a red-and-yellow barbet that I never even knew existed! When it comes to individual shots, my favourite was the one of the lilac-breasted roller at the top of the page. It's a beautiful bird anyway, but I was particularly lucky when it fluttered its wings unexpectedly without taking off. That gave me the chance to get a rare 'action shot'. I prefer action shots to portraits, but there wasn't much action to see on this trip, apart from a couple of buffalo fighting in the distance and two elephants 'fighting' like punched-out heavyweights in the 12th round of a fight, so we had to make the most of what we were given.

There were nine guests on the Exodus trip, which ran from 12-21 January 2018, plus an excellent guide called Jackson and a couple of drivers - Alex and Julius - for the four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers we were using. One of the guests put a message on the Exodus community website before the trip, so I ended up meeting her at Heathrow and travelling with her all the way to Kilimanjaro, where we joined with the rest of the group. The actual 'travelling' is the only bit of travelling I don't like, so it was nice to have some company on such a long journey (and in the jeep later). Getting to Africa is never straightforward, and it took me over 38 hours to go from my flat in Putney to the front seat of the Land Cruiser on our first game drive!

I love close-up shots, so I followed my usual habit of renting a Nikon 800mm lens from Lenses For Hire for our trip. I have two Nikon camera bodies, a D810 and a D850, and I usually fit my Nikon 80-400mm lens to one and the 800mm lens to the other. I end up taking roughly half my shots with each camera. The only other things I take with me are my SpiderPro belt (just to help me carry everything to the jeep!), a lens cloth and a spare battery. You generally spend most of the day in the safari truck, so you don't need to worry about bringing hiking boots. I just put on trainers, cargo pants (with plenty of pockets!), a long-sleeved shirt (or merino base layer if it's cold) and a proper sun hat with a chin strap (not a baseball cap, as the brim gets in the way, and it might blow off!). The sun is usually very hot, and I always use a Nivea stick on my nose, but I avoid having to put on too much sun cream by covering up my arms and legs. If you're a photographer, you don't go on safari to get a sun tan!

Game drives are the whole point of going on safari, and you soon get into a routine. Whether you're staying at lodges or permanent tented camps or even in tents you have to put up yourselves, you always end up doing pretty much the same thing - and this trip was no exception. You generally wake up to an early breakfast - either at dawn or even earlier - and go out in your safari trucks for a few hours before returning for lunch or eating a packed lunch somewhere along the way. After another game drive in the afternoon, you head back to camp for a shower, drinks, dinner and a relatively early night. When I get back to camp, I like to edit all the pictures I've taken during the day, so that usually means hunching over my laptop for a few hours here and there. I wake up early at the best of times, so that means I can do a few hours' work before breakfast or, if I can't sleep, in the middle of the night! 

Most safaris take place in a few different places, so the routine will also often include a journey to the next stop. Apart from a quick visit to the Oldupai Gorge to hear about the Leakeys' paleontological discoveries, we visited four main locations on our trip: Lake Manyara, Serengeti National Park, the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park, and they were all very different.

Lake Manyara

Lake Manyara National Park is not the most famous safari destination, but it does have a reputation for its 'tree-climbing lions'. In fact, all lions can climb trees, but the lions that climb trees at Lake Manyara (which we actually saw) get the extra benefit of cool breezes on the slopes of the surrounding hills. Inside the park, you'll find Lake Manyara itself and a flat, marshy plain around it, but also the heavily wooded hills that form the walls of the Great Rift Valley. This was formed by plate tectonics and is a vast corridor that runs the length of Africa, all the way from Jordan to Mozambique. It splits into eastern and western spurs, but they're both so wide that you can never see the hills on both sides. Instead, you find the enormous flat plains known as the African savanna(h), which are the home to all the 'traditional' game animals, including the Big Five (rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo). When you enter Lake Manyara National Park, the first things you notice are the trees and the hills that form the walls of the Rift Valley. The lack of open ground means that game is tricky to spot initially - apart from a few vervet and blue monkeys in the trees - but it gets easier once you drive out to the lake. Sadly, there was an unusually large amount of overnight rain during the course of our trip, so the lake and other water holes we passed were not the 'game magnets' that they normally are during the dry season. However, if the quantity of sightings was low, the quality was high, so that kept us happy.

Serengeti

The Serengeti plains are the stereotypical African safari destination. There is a good quantity of game all year round, and the landscape is ideal for spotting them as there are so few trees. Apparently, all the volcanic activity in the area has left a layer of tough igneous deposits a few feet below the surface that prevent trees from getting the nourishment they need to grow. Whatever the reason, it means that you are able to see those iconic, unbroken vistas that remind you of the etymology of 'Serengeti', which means 'endless plain'.

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

Male impala

Male impala

Black-headed heron in black and white

Black-headed heron in black and white

Ngorongoro Crater

The Ngorongoro is named after the sound a Masai cowbell makes. It is surprisingly small, and you can see the walls of both sides of the caldera from wherever you are on the central plain. There is also a strange optical illusion at work. The crater is 600 metres deep, and it looks like a very long way from the viewpoint up on the rim at 2,400 metres above sea level, but, when you look back up from the crater floor, the hills don't look that high at all. Strange... Anyway, the Ngorongoro has a justly deserved reputation as a safari destination and contains all the animals you'd expect to see - with the exception of the giraffe, which can't get down the steep slope from the crater rim because its legs are too long! On our trip, we had a couple of good sightings of lions here, particularly on the kopjes, where they choose to lie high up on the rocks to get a better view, and we came across a family group of elephants on either side of the road that gave us a great chance to get up close and personal.

African elephant

African elephant

Tarangire

In terms of the landscape, Tarangire National Park is a kind of cross between Lake Manyara and the Serengeti. It boasts the hills and water of the first, but with the open savannah of the second. It also has quite a few of the distinctive baobab trees.


Did you know?

Baobab trees can be up to 2,000 years old, but there are few young ones as they get eaten by elephants, which eat the bark of the tree in the dry season as it contains large amounts of water.


Unfortunately, we didn't see much game there when we went. Normally, it's an important source of water for the animals, but the unseasonal rains meant that there was enough water for them to range far and wide without being tied to the Tarangire River. That meant they could 'save' that water source for when they really needed it in the dry season. We spent most of our time in Tarangire driving around looking for game, and the only good shot I got was the one of the lilac-breasted roller. On the other hand, the views were spectacular, and we spent our last night at a wonderful place called the Tarangire Safari Lodge, which gets a star rating in Lonely Planet. It had a long row of tents for all the guests, each with solar-powered lights and showers and a veranda with chairs and a table out front. There was a lookout point on the cliffs a few yards away that offered a spectacular panorama of the hills and river below, and the main building incorporated an enormous circular banda, with a vast roof above the dining area.

The food was a cut above the usual fare, and our dinner there consisted of pumpkin and ginger soup, mango and green pepper salad, bean and vegetable salad and then beef stew with rice or potatoes, followed by passion fruit mousse and plum tart with custard. The only problem was all the bugs flying around - even indoors. They managed to bite me even through my shirt, leaving four angry red spots on my back. It was horrendous, and it was the first time on the entire trip that I threatened to lose my sense of humour. Trying to edit my pictures on my laptop at the bar after dinner was almost impossible. The staff didn't do anything about all the creepy-crawlies and flying insects - apart from clearing away the dead bugs with a broom! - and it got even worse when I got back to my tent. It was crawling with insects, but there was no bug spray, and the bed didn't even have a mosquito net. When I couldn’t find the light switch as it wasn’t in the bathroom...well, I lost it and started sweating my head off! I hope my neighbours didn’t hear me! In the end, I had to squash all the bugs with a laminated menu card from the welcome pack. What a way to ruin - and I mean absolutely ruin! - what should’ve been a great experience to end the trip. 

This Is Africa

That brings me on to a final point about going on safari. You have to take the rough with the smooth. 'This Is Africa', as they say, so you should expect a few minor problems and even one or two dramas, but you have to take it in good part. "Hakuna matata," as they say, or "No worries." If you were to write a list of pros and cons for going on safari, it would look something like this:

Cons

  • Very expensive
  • Long journey to get there
  • Long hours in the jeep
  • No electricity during the night (if at all!)
  • No hot water during the night (if at all!)
  • Patchy mobile coverage
  • Patchy or non-existent wi-fi
  • Broken equipment, eg in-car radio transceivers
  • Mosquitoes carrying a risk of malaria (and therefore having to take Malarone pills every day)
  • Tsetse flies (with a very sharp bite!) carrying a risk of sleeping sickness
  • All kinds of other insects and bugs, dropping on you wherever you are and making a home in the bathroom
  • Not being able to drink the water
  • Poor quality food and lack of alternative options
  • Constant worry about losing something or having it stolen (particularly bad in my case when staying in a tent without a lock on it with £30,000-worth of camera equipment in my bag!)
  • Daily risk of food poisoning (particularly from ice in drinks and/or washed vegetables such as green peppers - which directly caused me to make five unscheduled trips to the bathroom in Tarangire!)
  • Having to share a room/tent with someone who is not necessarily your favourite person in the world (unless you pay hundreds of pounds to sleep on your own!)
  • Vehicles often breaking down or getting stuck
  • Animals trying to get into your tent at night
  • Having to be escorted around the camp after dark in case of animal attack
  • Etc, etc, etc...

Pros

  • Wildlife
  • Er, that's it...

Yes, I know it's a very long list of cons and a very short list of pros. In fact, it was worse than that on our trip as a bridge was washed away by the flooding, and we had to find a way to ford the river in our Land Cruiser. So many jeeps got stuck in the mud trying to do the same thing that it looked a bit like the elephants' graveyard, but we eventually found a way across. Our problems didn't end there, though, as some enterprising locals had decided to pile rocks on the way up from the makeshift river crossing and were demanding money to let us through! We eventually had to have a whip-round and gave them a few Tanzanian shillings. Even then, we got stuck in the mud on the way back to the main road, and it was only when all the passengers climbed out of the jeep that Julius was able to make it to safety. We all thought he'd done a great job - until we found out that Alex had managed drive the other jeep across without any problems at all!

And yet, and yet...we did see fantastic wildlife. It may not sound like much compared to having to get up at five in the morning and go without hot water, electricity and wi-fi most of the time, but the fact I keep going back speaks for itself. When you sit down with your grandchildren on your knee, and they ask what you did during your lifetime, are you going to tell them you had eight hours' sleep every night and a hot shower every morning and never let a day go by without checking social media, or are you going to tell them you saw the best of God's creation in Africa...?

 

 

 

Butcher's bill

1 x tube of sun cream (confiscated at Heathrow)
1 x tube of shower gel (confiscated at Heathrow)
£60 fine for exceeding hand luggage weight limit (confiscated at Heathrow)

Species list:

Animals

Agama lizard
Banded mongoose
Bat-eared fox
Black rhinoceros
Blue monkey
Bohor reedbuck
Bushbuck
Cape (or African) buffalo
Caracal
Cheetah
Common (or plains) zebra
Dwarf mongoose
Eland
Elephant
Goff’s mongoose
Golden jackal
Grant’s gazelle
Hartebeest
Hippo
Impala
Kirk’s dikdik
Leopard
Lion
Masai giraffe
Mongoose
Monitor lizard
Mouse
Nile crocodile
Olive baboon
Rock hyrax
Silver-backed jackal
Spotted hyena
Thomson’s gazelle
Topi
Vervet monkey
Warthog
Waterbuck
White-tailed mongoose

Birds

Abdim’s storkAfrican fish eagle
African hoopoe
African jacana
African spoonbill
Ashy starling
Augur buzzard
Bateleur
Black kite
Black-bellied bustard
Black-headed heron
Black-headed weaver
Black-necked sand goose
Black-shouldered kite
Blacksmith plover
Blue starling
Brown snake eagle
Common house martin
Crested guineafowl
Crow
Crowned plover
D'Arnaud's barbet
Eagle owl
Eastern chanting goshawk
Egyptian goose
Eurasian roller
Fiscal shrike
Flamingo
Francolin
Giant heron
Greater kestrel
Green pigeon
Grey crowned crane
Grey flycatcher
Grey heron
Grey hornbill
Grey-headed heron
Hadada ibis
Hammerkop
Knob-billed duck
Kori bustard
Lappet-faced vulture
Lilac-breasted roller
Little bee-eater
Little egret
Long-crested eagle
Madagascan bee-eater
Magpie shrike
Marabou stork
Martial eagle
Mosque swallow
Ostrich
Pelican
Pin-tailed whydah
Red-and-yellow barbet
Red-billed hornbill
Red-billed oxpecker
Red-billed weaver
Red-cheeked cordon-bleu
Sacred ibis
Secretary bird
Silver bird
Silver-cheeked hornbill
Somali bee-eater
Southern ground hornbill
Speckled mousebird
Striated heron
Superb starling
Tailed rufous weaver
Tawny eagle
Violet wood-hoopoe
Von der Decken’s hornbill
Ward’s starling
Watt starling
White stork
White-backed vulture
White-browed coucal
White-browed cuckoo
White-capped shrike
White-faced whistling duck
White-headed buffalo weaver
White-ringed dove
Yellow-collared lovebird
Yellow-necked superfowl