Sometimes, a leopard is just a leopard…
Cold, grey and wet. The weather at Cottar’s when I arrived on 28 May wasn’t great, and it didn’t get much better until a few days before I left on 30 June. There were regular downpours every couple of days, and I didn’t see a single sunrise while I was there! To add to the gloom, the Big Five were a lot more difficult to spot than in Tanzania. The big draw, of course, was the rhino. I hadn’t seen one in years, and I was looking forward to getting a few good shots while I was at Cottar’s. Unfortunately, there are only around 25 black rhino in the Masai Mara, and they’re also very shy. After three weeks of not seeing one, I was getting a bit desperate! When I did eventually see one on 19 June, it ran away as soon as it saw us, and I didn’t get a single decent shot. I also had a couple of run-ins with guests who weren’t happy with me for one reason or another, so that was a bit humiliating - particularly when people I’d got on very well with turned out not to want me to join them on the next game drive! To be fair, one of the people in question complained about just about everything - including the fact that Calvin Cottar hadn’t stood up to say goodnight to her after dinner! - but I accept that it’s my responsibility to keep the guests happy, and, even with the best will in the world, I did fail to do that a couple of times.
Having said all that, even a bad day on safari is better than a good day at work, right?! I enjoyed my stay at Cottar’s, and I was quite touched when a couple of the staff said they’d miss me when I was gone. I didn’t see a kill, but I had a couple of great leopard sightings (see above), and I managed to take a few shots of animals silhouetted at sunset, which is one of my specialities. I also got on well with most of the staff, who were generally very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. I went on quite a few game drives with Ken, the head guide, and Mako always had a smile on his face. The food was also outstanding. Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp did a nice line in chilled soups, but the Cottar’s starters were good, the meat was done to perfection (unlike the shoe leather that is a Tanzanian speciality!) and the desserts were a heavenly mix of chocolate, fresh fruit and home-made ice-cream.
Cottar’s is a family business jointly owned by Calvin Cottar and his wife Louise, and the ‘1920s’ part of the name comes from the fact that Calvin’s great grandfather Charles (or ‘Chas’) travelled from Cedar County Oklahoma to set up Cottar’s Safari Service (now Cottar’s Safaris) in 1919. It celebrated its hundredth anniversary this year and is now the oldest established safari company in Africa. Here are a few of the significant milestones:
1922: Chas mauled by a leopard
1924: Chas’s son Bud guides Duke and Duchess of York
1930s: Keep lion, leopard and wild dogs as pets
1938: Negly Farson calls Chas ‘the finest hunter in Africa’
1940: Chas killed by a rhino
1941: Bud’s brother Charles (or ‘Mike') killed by blackwater fever
1959: Mike’s son Glen changes the name of the company to Glen Cottar Safaris Ltd
1965: Glen sets up Cottar’s Camp in Tsavo East, the first of its kind in Africa
1975: Glen starts community conservation scheme with concession system in the Masai Mara
1977: Hunting banned in Kenya
1977: Glen starts Cottar’s camp in the Mara
1985: Calvin starts hunting in Tanzania
1989: Calvin leaves Tanzania to start a wildlife management company
1995: Calvin returns to Cottar’s and comes up with the 1920s safari concept
1996: Glen passes away
2012: Cottar’s Bush Villa is opened (voted Africa’s Leading Luxury Private Villa at the 2016 World Travel Awards)
2016: Olderkesi Conservancy officially opens
The original safaris were intended for big game hunters and based at temporary camps, but when Kenya banned hunting in 1977 the focus shifted to the modern safari experience, with guests swapping rifles for cameras. The current camp is located in Kenya on the border with Tanzania, and game drives take place either in the Olderkesi Conservancy or in the Masai Mara National Reserve. Both are owned by the Masai, and this is crucial to Calvin’s vision of the future of conservation. Wild animals such as lions, leopards and elephants have always been the traditional enemy of the Masai as they threaten their livestock and crops, so he believes (with some justification) that the only way to preserve wildlife is to give the Masai ‘skin in the game’ by leasing the land from them to create wildlife conservancies in which they are actually allowed to own the animals. When the law states that the Government owns all the wildlife, then the Masai have no incentive to look after it. As soon as they have property rights, the game changes completely, and that’s one of the reasons why the approach taken by South Africa has been so successful in increasing animal populations. One of the other things South Africa does is to allow hunting, and that is a very valuable source of revenue. A lot of people might instinctively think that hunting is wrong, but an animal is worth a lot more to a hunter than a photographer, so it’s an important source of potential revenue to plough back into conservation.
Calvin’s approach is summed up by the ‘4Cs’ - Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce - and they’re posted prominently on the wall of the Business Centre. It’s obviously still a struggle to change attitudes that have persisted for hundreds if not thousands of years, but he’s working with a variety of landowners and other organisations to promote this model of land ownership, which is able to preserve the Masai’s traditional ability to graze their livestock on common land while preserving part of it for safari camps like Cottar’s.
Calvin visited Cottar’s a couple of times while I was there, so I got a chance to thank him personally for giving me such a great opportunity. At first, it was a little bit intimidating to meet the owner of the place, but he always seemed pleased to see me, and it was interesting to learn his perspective on wildlife conservation. He’s obviously very passionate and knowledgeable on the subject, and once he gets going he’s quite capable of talking the hind leg off a wildebeest…!
I was a bit surprised when I arrived at Cottar’s. There was an old Rolls-Royce parked on the lawn and a pith helmet and an antique gramophone in the main tent, but I was expecting more of a nostalgic feel to the place.
In fact, one or two of the regular guests mentioned that it had changed over time - for example, the wait staff all used to wear fez hats! - but Calvin told me that they’d ‘dialled it down a bit’ over time. As a result, the camp now looks very similar to the &Beyond camp where I stayed in Grumeti.
There are permanent tents with built-in bathroom facilities divided into ‘family’ tents on one side and ‘luxury’ tents on the other - including a ‘honeymoon suite’. I had a family tent (funnily enough!), and about the only thing that was 1920s about it was the bathroom. The plumbing and electrical system were decidedly archaic, and my steward seemed to delight in playing a kind of Kim’s game with me, in which every morning something would go missing. One day, it would be the bath mat, the next it would be the hand towel! Who knows what was going on, but I imagine that the paying guests in the luxury tents didn’t have quite so many surprises! Anyway, it was amusing rather than annoying, and I wasn’t staying a month in the Masai Mara in order to pamper myself. Besides, I hardly spent any time in my tent. I was usually either in the Business Centre tent or the main area, which had a bar and two long communal dining tables that made it very easy to meet people. As usual, it was a real pleasure chatting with the guests. With only one exception, they were all friendly, cheerful and approachable, and it’s great to talk to people who are so successful, well educated, cultured, adventurous, well travelled and passionate about wildlife. It’s just a shame they generally had to leave after three nights or so. Even in that short time, you create a bit of a bond, and most of the guests ended up hugging the staff (and sometimes even me!) when they left for the airport…
There are various activities available to amuse the guests, such as swimming, croquet, canvas baths, massages, electric bikes, hiking and ‘Masai skills’ such as archery, and there’s even a spa tent. However, the normal routine is to go on a long game drive in the morning from 0600-1300 (including a ‘bush breakfast’ of sausages, bacon, eggs, pancakes, fruit, yoghurt and various hot and cold drinks) and then another shorter one from around 1700-1900. Lunch is available after the morning drive at around 1300, and dinner starts at around 2000. You can also ask for coffee or tea and a biscuit with your wake-up call, there are tea and cakes available in the main area from around 1630 and there are nuts and crisps on board the safari trucks, so you’ll never go hungry!
I’m always an early riser, so I got into the habit of waking up at 0430 every morning and getting an ‘ascari’ (or security guard) to walk me over to the Business Centre. The wifi in my tent wasn’t working, so that was the best place to plug in my laptop and read the paper online. I’d also go back there after each game drive to edit my pictures and maybe watch a TV show if I had the time. An average day in the Serengeti consisted of nine hours of game drives plus another nine hours of editing, so I didn’t have much time to myself, but I didn’t go on as many game drives at Cottar’s, and I didn’t take as many pictures, so there were some days when I’d simply park myself in the Business Centre with my laptop and amuse myself for the whole day apart from mealtimes.
I worked at Cottar’s on the same basis as I’d worked at &Beyond, so I was there to take pictures for myself and for the company, but also to help guests with their photography if they needed it. As it turned out, the camp was very busy as a lot of the wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and eland that form the Great Migration had arrived early. That meant there were quite a few days when I couldn’t go out on game drives as all the vehicles were being used. Even when I did go out, I didn’t take as many pictures as in Tanzania. I just didn’t seem to get the right opportunities. Of course, there were always ‘prey’ animals such as the zebra and impala, but that’s not the same as a big cat or a rhino. My priority is always to see a kill, which is the most exciting thing you can possibly witness on safari, but seeing any of those four is a good start. If I had to rank them in order, my wildlife wish list would look like this:
I choose the rhino for rarity, the leopard for beauty, the cheetah for the best chance of seeing a kill and the lion because it looks great in the golden hour - and lion cubs playing together are a delight!
When it comes to getting the most out of a game drive, there are two very different approaches. The first is the traditional one, which involves driving around until you see an animal, then taking a few pictures before driving around again to see another one. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t give you the best chance of seeing what (almost) everyone wants to see, which is a kill. The second way is the one I discovered last year when I went to Kicheche Bush Camp in the Kenyan Masai Mara (not too far away from Cottar’s, in fact). The trip was run by Exodus, and Paul Goldstein was our tour leader. His approach was to find a cat and stick with it. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? However, it took a lot of preparation and experience. First of all, he paid out of his own pocket for spotters to drive around looking for leopards, lions and cheetahs for us to see, which gave us the opportunity we needed. If the spotters didn’t see anything, Paul would use his knowledge of the conservancy to go to the best places to spot the cats. That meant going down to the river to see the Kaboso leopard, which put on quite a show for us one morning, and heading for the open plains to see the cheetah. We saw two female cheetah, one with two cubs and the other with four, and the great thing about the cheetah is that it hunts during the day when the lions and leopards are asleep. That means once we’d found one we just had to wait until it started hunting. That took a while sometimes, and Paul would entertain us by telling off-colour jokes and playing guessing games based on 1980s pop songs, but the payoff came when we saw five kills in a week! That was the approach I wanted to take in Tanzania and at Cottar’s, but the problem was that a) there weren’t enough cheetah sightings and b) I was generally with guests who almost certainly didn’t have the patience to sit with a cheetah for hours on end!
As a result, I took only around a fifth as many pictures at Cottar’s as I had done in Tanzania (15,000 v 73,500) even though I was there for a third of the time, and I ended up with around the same fraction of ‘keepers’ (770 vs 4,180). When it came to my absolute favourite shots, the shots that made me smile with pride, I only took five at Cottar’s, compared to 63 in the Serengeti. That was a shame, but I accept that it was a different time of year, a different climate and a different region. Sometimes in wildlife photography, you get what you’re given, so I’m never too bothered about having a ‘quiet’ day. Anyway, here are my favourite images from the trip. I hope you like them!
1 x left big toenail
Various items of clothing (until they found them for me!)
This is a cumulative list of species I’ve seen at Klein’s Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas, Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp and Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp.
African bush elephant
African wild cat
Lesser bush baby
Mwanza flat-headed rock agama/Spider-Man agama
Wild dog/painted wolf
African crowned eagle
African fish eagle
African golden weaver
African grey flycatcher
African grey hornbill
African moustached warbler
African open-billed stork
African paradise flycatcher
African pied wagtail
African wattled lapwing
African white-backed vulture
Black-winged red bishop
Cinnamon-breasted rock bunting
Common sandpiper oooobrm
Eastern grey plantain-eater
Eastern paradise whydah
Great spotted cuckoo
Greater blue-eared starling
Greater striped swallow
Grey-capped social weaver
Grey crowned crane
Lesser masked weaver
Lesser striped swallow
Little green bee-eater
Northern anteater chat
Northern white-crowned shrike
Pale spotted owlet
Ruppell’s griffon vulture
Ruppell’s long-tailed starling
Southern red bishop
Verreaux’s (or black) eagle
Von Der Decken’s hornbill
Western banded snake-eagle