“Africa is so, well, African…!”
If I told you I had to ask a guy with a spear to walk me home every night for the last month, you’d probably ask where on Earth I was staying. The answer is Klein’s Camp in the Serengeti in Tanzania. There’s no fence around the property, so guests and staff need protection after dark. I’m here for a couple of months teaching photography for &Beyond and taking pictures for use on social media. I’ll then be spending a month at the Serengeti Grumeti Tented Camp and another month at Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp in the Masai Mara in Kenya.
It’s a great opportunity for me, and it all started in August 2018 when I came across an online article about a photographer who had managed to get himself 365 nights of accommodation in Africa in exchange for the pictures he took. I thought I could have a go at that myself, so I simply Googled ‘safari lodges in Kenya and Tanzania’, sent out around 50 emails and waited for the replies. In just a couple of weeks, I had 17 offers, including one from &Beyond! That was a good start, but then, a couple of weeks later, it got even better when Claire Evans got in touch from &Beyond, asking if I’d be interested in being the ‘resident photographer’ from March to May, teaching guests as well as taking wildlife shots for the company. Karen Darnborough from Cottar’s also asked me to do the same in June,
The last few safaris I’ve been on in Africa have cost me £5-6,000 for a week, so they’ve been a very expensive way for me to take pictures. As a result, I thought that my plan to teach over there would save me a lot of money. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way! First of all, &Beyond didn’t get the park fee waiver they applied for, and then Lenses For Hire told me I couldn’t rent an 800mm lens for more than three months without flying back to London half way through. The only way round it was to buy a brand new lens - for £15,545. Including my flights, park fees and the new lens, the combined cost of the trip had now soared to more than £25,000! For a few days, I thought about all the different options, but I’m a bit ‘penny wise and pound foolish’, so I eventually decided the opportunity was too good to miss. After a couple of 20-minute conversations with my bank, the money was in my account, and I was all set to go…
And so, after six months of non-stop emails about work permits, park fee waivers and other logistical questions (plus nearly 40 hours of travel!), I travelled to Africa to spend four months teaching photography. I flew from London Heathrow via Doha to Kilimanjaro, treating myself to a business class seat on the second leg. From there, &Beyond picked me up and took me to their offices in Arusha, where I met a few of the staff. They also provided me with a hotel room and the following morning arranged a free flight to Lobo Airstrip and a truck to Klein’s Camp.
There, I met the lodge manager Tawanda. He gave me a brief orientation and put me up in one of the guest cottages, which was very luxurious. (You can see for yourself here.) The views from there and from the bar were spectacular, looking down the valley towards the Kenyan border. The only problem came when they started burning the long grass to encourage new growth. The smoke clouded the view, and the burnt areas looked more like the plains of Mordor!
My usual routine was to go out on morning and evening game drives from 0600-1200 and from 1600-1900 (or later for a night drive). If guests wanted my company, I’d ride with them. Otherwise, I went on my own with just a driver/guide. Meals were pretty flexible. Breakfast was usually prepared for us on the game drive, and I generally took lunch and dinner in my room unless the guests invited me to eat with them. The only choice I had to make was whether to go into the Serengeti National Park. Staying in the Klein’s ‘concession’ was free, but the Serengeti entrance fee was around $71, so I didn’t want to go there every single day if I could help it. Having said that, the Serengeti was a lot bigger, and my chances of seeing game increased dramatically, so I didn’t mind too much. The birds and animals in the concession were also a lot shyer and more skittish than anywhere else I’ve been in Africa. Getting to know the minimum safe distance took some time, and I couldn’t get nearer than 40 yards to the Thomson’s gazelle!
The first few guests were two lovely American couples, Bob and Sue and Monica and Kurt. We spent most of our days together, going on game drives and having dinner in the bar/restaurant. I didn’t do much teaching, but it was nice to have such good company. If you’re looking for wealthy, successful, intelligent, well-educated and interesting people, a safari is a good place to start!
After a few days, the camp had no more guests, so from 11-15 March they sent me down to Serengeti Under Canvas, which is a mobile camp they set up for a few weeks at various different locations in order to follow the Great Migration of zebra and wildebeest. At the time, it was at Lake Ndutu in the Southern Serengeti, so I was driven down there with my cameras and a bag full of clothes and toiletries. It was a long drive of around six hours with a stop at Naabi Hill, but at least I had a chance to take some pictures on the way.
Once I got there, the assistant manager Ben gave me another orientation, and I was immediately asked to go on a game drive with two American couples, Scott and Amie and Chris and Amy. The following day, I went with another couple called Xavier and Genevieve, and, in each case, we all got on very well together. And more to the point, there was lots of game to see. It was low season at Klein’s, and it was quite difficult to find any animals at times, although we were quite lucky with the local Kuka pride of lions. They were almost constantly mating, so I got a few good shots of that.
Klein’s was good for lion, elephant and buffalo, but Under Canvas had 700,000 zebra and 2,000,000 wildebeest - plus all the usual predators! Unsurprisingly, I took as many pictures in five days at Under Canvas as I had in 10 days at Klein’s, and I was lucky in being able to see eight lion cubs putting on an almost daily show!
When I went back to Klein’s, I went on one game drive with an international couple called Boris and Watanan with their 17-year-old son Nico followed by a few on my own with a local driver called Patita. After that, there was another lull in bookings, so I went back to Under Canvas again for a couple of nights. I went on one game drive on my own with a chap called Moses and then a long one with three more Americans called Margy, Kath and Michael. Finally, I returned to Klein’s, where a party of 12 Americans arrived on 25 March. They didn’t need my services, though, so we simply had a few drinks at the bar together, and I did my game drives on my own again with a driver called Alpha. He’s the camp’s star soccer player, so he was a bit disappointed when Klein’s got beaten on goal difference by the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in the &Beyond championships! I’ve since been on game drives with Desray and Trevor and Jim.
Overall, it’s been a very good experience so far, and I’m very grateful to Claire and &Beyond for giving me the chance to do what I love. I had a lot of logistical problems to deal with before I flew out, so it was a relief to arrive safely. Both the guests and the staff have been great. I’ve met some lovely people, and nothing is too much trouble for the local staff - does the word ‘no’ even exist in Masai or Swahili?! I’ve been a bit disappointed not to be able to take more action shots, including slow pans, and, of course, not to see more kills, but I have witnessed a huge range of animal life, including 54 different animals and 111 different birds (see full list below). There haven’t been any truly great moments or any truly appalling disasters, but, if you asked me what my ‘highs and lows’ have been, this would be my list:
Taking any 5* shot (see pictures in this article)
Two lion kills (although I didn’t see the actual hunt)
Three lionesses hunting a warthog (unsuccessfully)
A newborn impala only 20 minutes old try to get to its feet
A brown snake-eagle - for its amazing yellow eyes!
Wildebeest and zebra crossing a lake in the ‘Hidden Valley’
Tawanda’s leaving do, in which hundreds of his friends and colleagues danced and sang and presented him with gifts, including a whole bed!
Telling myself, “I’m in Africa”, which always makes me smile…!
Dropping both cameras - it happened both times on a downhill slope, so I must be more careful…
Four punctures! As Oscar Wilde once said, “To lose one tire may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four looks like carelessness.”
Getting stuck in the black cotton soil and having to be towed out. Not a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours…
Almost getting eaten alive by tsetse flies - there aren’t any at Klein’s, but the Serengeti was so dreadful on a couple of days that I had to tuck my trousers into two pairs of socks and wear a long-sleeved shirt and jacket, a snood and a hat just to try and stop the flies biting me…
Getting electrocuted by the lamp switch in the shower - no wonder they have rules about that in England!
And finally, here are a few more of my favourite images. (You can see the complete collection on Facebook.) Let’s hope I get a lot more over the next few months…!
1 x dental retainer (I flushed the cleaning solution down the toilet, not realising the retainer was still in the glass!)
African wild cat
Mwanza flat-headed rock agama/Spider-Man agama
Wild dog/painted wolf
African crowned eagle
African fish eagle
African grey hornbill
African wattled lapwing
African white-backed vulture
Bare-faced go-away bird
Great spotted cuckoo
Greater blue-eared starling
Greater striped swallow
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
White-headed buffalo weaver