Five kills. Five kills! That’s what I saw on my safari to the Masai Mara - not to mention half a dozen other chases and one I missed when I needed to go to the toilet...! It was a little disappointing that we didn't see a river crossing by the wildebeest - the Duracell bunnies of the savannah - but maybe that was too much to ask...
I’d never seen a kill before, so it was great to see so many in just one week, but that’s what you get when you go on an Exodus trip to Kicheche with Paul Goldstein. Most safaris involve driving around until you come across an animal, stopping for a couple of minutes to take pictures and then moving on to the next one. Paul, on the other hand, loves the big cats, so he makes sure you follow them around for as long as possible - he even sent out a guide every day to find out where they were and guide us to them. This intelligence allowed us to spend a huge amount of time with lions, leopards and cheetahs, and what a show they put on for us! We didn't see Fig, the best-known of the leopards, but we had two fantastic mornings when we saw first the Kaboso leopard climb a tree in full view of all our vehicles and then a mother and cub pose for us in the branches and then prowl elegantly towards us over the dusty savannah.
The lions and cheetahs generally came a bit later in the day. We spent time with a pride of lions and a couple of cheetahs, one called Imani with one cub and another called Selenkey with four cubs. The cheetahs were gorgeous, but watching them was a bit like watching a pretty girl in school: you think she’s beautiful and want to get closer, but she completely ignores you! The afternoon game drive was usually quieter than the morning one. Looking for wildlife in the heat of the day is a bit like looking for a golf ball. You don't know where it is, and, even if you do find it, it probably won’t be the one you’re looking for! However, sunset did bring a couple of treats. Firstly, we often had 'sundowners' and 'bitings' (drinks and nibbles) as we watched the sun go down. Secondly, we took advantage of a clear sky to find animals to shoot in silhouette. That's something you can't normally do if you have to leave a national park before the gates shut, so it was a real treat to be able to do it in the conservancy. Steve took a cracking shot of a wildebeest against the setting sun that reminded me of the poster for Miss Saigon, and I tried the same trick.
The trip included seven nights in Kicheche Bush Camp, which is part-owned by Paul and run by a lovely couple called Darren and Emma. We arrived after an overnight flight to Nairobi and then a short hop to a local airfield that was little more than an acacia tree and a windsock. As soon as we arrived in camp, we went for a game drive, and we spent the rest of the week doing one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. On the final day, we just did a morning game drive - to make a total of 14 - and then flew to Nairobi for dinner at a hotel before catching our flight home.
This was our usual routine (timings only approximate):
0530 Biscuits and hot drinks in the main tent
0600-1130 Game drive (with breakfast in our vehicles at around 0900)
1130-1330 Free time
1330-1430 Buffet lunch at a table outside
1430-1600 Free time
1600-1830 Game drive
1830-2000 Free time
2000-2130 Drinks around the campfire followed by dinner in the main tent
There were nine of us (plus Paul) on the trip, including two married couples and four men and a woman travelling alone. The trip was normally for ten people, but there had been a late cancellation, so I was lucky enough to have a tent to myself without having to pay the usual single supplement. The same thing happened to me in the Galápagos and the Antarctic, and it’s always a huge bonus.
Kicheche Bush Camp is in the Olare Oruk area of the Masai Mara in Kenya, a few hundred miles west of Nairobi. It consists of a tented camp situated in a ‘conservancy’, owned by a group of land-owners and next door to the public ‘reserve’. The advantages of being in the conservancy were that there were far fewer vehicles, and we could drive off-road to follow the game, but we also crossed over into the reserve a few times. The usual fee was $80 for a 24-hour pass, but we had a few included in the price of the trip.
The accommodation itself was pretty luxurious, with walk-in tents with a double bed and night stand in the main room plus an en suite bathroom containing a ‘safari’ shower and a plumbed-in toilet and sink. There were little conveniences everywhere, including tissues by the bedside, bug spray, a whistle, a radio and a torch, a covered hot water bottle in the bed at night, hot water for washing in the morning and showering in the evening, water bottles to keep, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand wash and moisturising lotion dispensers. There was even a laundry basket so you could get a freshly laundered and ironed set of clothes every evening! The only problem was that the camp wasn't fenced in, so we had to be escorted back to the main area after dark by a nightwatchman. The system of shining a torch to get his attention didn't always work...! One night, I thought I saw three cheetahs next to the lantern outside, so I had to radio for help. In fact, it was only the branches of a bush blowing in the wind. Oops! Emma later told me that I was only the third person to use the radio. The other two were a man who mistook wildebeest for lions roaming the camp and a Frenchman who 'got lucky' with one of the other guests and called for more red wine at 0130 in the morning!
The main tent consisted of a a large area with sofas and a long dining table plus an annex with sofas and a cabinet with souvenirs and clothing for sale. Both tents had desks with English/Kenyan plug points for laptops or charging.
The staff quarters were a short walk away, but the only time I went in there was to watch England play Croatia in the semi-final of the World Cup. And that's best forgotten...!
All in all, it was a very comfortable place to spend our time and a great base for a safari. The staff were also exceptional - always friendly and ready to help. On one occasion, I brought my cameras and laptop to the main tent but left my USB cable on my bed. Five minutes later, one of the staff had found it and brought it over! Now that’s customer service...
The food and the service were both excellent. Darren used to be a baker, and he and Emma used to run a restaurant in Mombasa, so they definitely knew what they were doing! A lot of the produce was home-grown in their vegetable garden, and the buffet lunches taken in the shade of a tree and dinners eaten in the main tent were very good. Every time I ate lunch, in particular, my palate felt somehow ‘cleansed’. The extra-strong pints of gin and tonic were a bit too much for me (!), but the cheese rolls and sun-dried tomato brioches were to die for...
The reason we were all in Kicheche was to take pictures of the wildlife, and we had four fantastic guides to help us get the best sightings: James, Nelson, Charles and Vincent - who was the lone scout. All of them had their silver guiding badges, and they were sensational spotters. James once managed to find a leopard that was 50 yards behind us and 50ft up a tree through a gap in the foliage that can’t have been more than 6ft wide, and there were countless more examples. They could also recognise every single species we saw, including all the birds. Jean, a bird-watcher, was particularly happy when James (again) spotted a Temminck’s courser just a few minutes before the end of the final game drive, and even I had to admit it was a beautiful creature.
I love travelling - I just hate the actual travelling bit! It took around 14.5 hours to get from Putney to Kicheche. I took an Uber to Heathrow, then an overnight flight to Nairobi, a minibus to Wilson Airport, a light plane to Kicheche airstrip and finally a modified Toyota Land Cruiser to Kicheche Bush Camp. Phew!
We used the Land Cruisers for all the game drives, and our drivers were local guides called James, Charles and Nelson. There was also an extra vehicle with a chap called Vincent spotting cats for us. The vehicles were perfect, with open tops allowing you to stand on the floor or the seats (if you took your shoes off!) and a flat wooden ledge beside the seats to rest your camera on. There were also a couple of thoughtful touches, including a box of tissues, beanbags to stabilise our cameras, lined ponchos to keep us dry and a mini hot water bottle to warm us up in the morning. That was very handy as the weather was pretty cold and windy for the first week. In fact, I had to buy a fleece from the shop to keep me warm, and Paul said one day that it was the coldest morning he'd ever spent in the Mara!
The general pattern was to look for leopards in the early morning light and then follow around a local cheetah to see if we could see a kill. And we did - on the very first day! That was very exciting. It’s a very difficult skill to capture a tack-sharp shot of a cheetah sprinting at up to 70 mph after a Thomson’s gazelle over 100 yards away, but I was lucky enough to get one - even if I had to crop it far too much for Paul’s liking!
The other kills involved the same prey apart from one occasion when a mother cheetah trapped a scrub hare and let it loose to teach its cubs how to hunt! Paul called it 'Hunting Academy'.
On another occasion, the cheetah happened to come across a faun that had been hidden in the bushes by its mother and again let the kids have a play. As long as you’re not squeamish about these things, trying to photograph a big cat chasing down its prey is a fantastic opportunity to take your photography to the next level. It may take hard work and frequent practice, but it’s worth it when you get a great image out of it. And Paul was always generous with his praise when one of us produced an outstanding photo. Chris's shot of a giraffe at sunset, for instance, was 'a bloody good photo'. Yes, he was constantly bullying, cajoling and teasing us into using the slow pan, but that’s exactly what we needed. In fact, that was why I signed up in the first place.
I’d been on two trips with Paul before - one to Spitsbergen to see the polar bears and one to India to see the tigers - so I knew what to expect from him. He’s often described by Exodus as being like Marmite - you either love him or hate him - but I think he’s more Jekyll and Hyde. He’s been on over 1,000 game drives, so he has incredible knowledge of the animals and their behaviour as well as the skills involved in wildlife photography. He’s a master of the witty one-liner and will tease you mercilessly for 'mincing' (faffing about) or needing a 'pit stop' or 'tyre check' (toilet break). He's also a great raconteur and has an incredible memory for his favourite jokes and sketches, and he often had us crying with laughter after his various impressions of Richie Benaud, AA Gill or characters from The Fast Show. However, he can also fly off the handle in an explosion of expletives and be ruthlessly critical, dismissive and lacking in manners. He can put you down like an empty pint glass, and it sometimes felt like you've walking on eggshells. On balance, though, he's a great photographer and teacher who is the best possible company when he’s on song. If I have to put up with getting constant grief about my 800mm lens or being called a ‘pussy’ (or something far worse!) in order to make myself a better photographer, then I’m more than happy to laugh it off.
Here are a few of the tips I picked up from Paul:
- Take slow pan shots of elephants at 1/4s, but cheetahs 'at full chat' at 1/80 or 1/100 of a second
- If you're doing a slow pan, rest the lens hood on a bean bag if you have one or just hold your elbows in tight and turn from the hips
- Underexpose leopards by up to three stops if the face is in the sun and you have a dark background
- Take close-ups of animals feeding, but overexpose them
- When taking shots of animals silhouetted against the sky at sunset, keep the horizon as low as possible
- Take backlit shots of animals during the 'golden hour' at sunset (or go round the other side and catch the golden light on their faces)
- Show ‘animals in their environment' by leaving space around the subject and don’t zoom in too much or it looks ‘zoo-like’ - in other words, “Give the photograph room to breathe!”
- Desaturate and overexpose slow pan shots
- Shoot stationary cats and other animals in long grass at 1/8 to get a smooth and uniform blur around them (and avoid the strip of sharpness you'd get with the conventional wide aperture)
- Get it right in camera, eg exposure compensation of +1/3 EV for shots of cheetah in the grass
- Don’t shoot animals in trees wide open - you want detail in the bark
- “Don’t take the same photograph over and over again”
- “Look for engagement”, ie eye contact with the camera or another animal
Paul's favourite type of shot is something called the ‘slow pan’. This involves using a much lower shutter speed than normal in order to blur the background and the fast-moving parts of the animal - such as he legs of a cheetah. Normally, this would result in an image that was out of focus, but the fact that you ‘pan’ (or turn) the camera while you take the picture in order to keep the subject in the centre of the frame means that it’s possible to keep the key parts sharp - which means the head and the eyes.
It’s not an exact science. One day when I was with Paul in Spitsbergen, I took over 1,500 slow pan shots of the seabirds but kept only four! However, the big advantage is that it creates a sense of movement and drama that can improve even the most mundane scenes. I was very proud of my slow pans of the cheetah, and I look forward to giving it another go next year. There’s only one place to learn wildlife photography on safari, and that’s with Paul Goldstein in Kicheche.
There are no kudu, oryx or rhino in the conservancy, but these are the animals and birds I did see on my trip:
Rock agama lizard
African fish eagle
African russet sparrow
Grey crowned crane
Helmeted guineafowl (kanga)
Northern white-crowned shrike
Ruppell’s long-tailed starling
Senegal wattled plover
Southern ground hornbill
Von der Decken's hornbill
Yellow-mantled widow bird
My iPhone split apart slightly in the heat - I hope it can be repaired!