Dare to be different! How you can make your wildlife shots stand out from the crowd - or herd!Read More
Happy New Year!
Rather than annoy everyone on my mailing list by sending them an American-style Christmas newsletter telling them all the wonderful things I’d been up to, I thought I’d write this post instead!
It’s been an up-and-down year for me professionally. I won a few competitions (here, here, here and here), of which one led to a sale of my jumping penguin at auction and another led to an interview on London Live. I also went on three big trips to Tanzania, Kenya and south-east Asia (including Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand). Finally, I gave a talk at Beckenham Photographic Society and taught a couple of half-day photography classes in Richmond Park. On the other hand, my image downloads through stock agencies stopped growing, and I didn’t manage to sell any prints at either of my exhibitions at 508 King’s Road and Lumi Arts or through online galleries - apart from one that turned out to be paid for by a stolen credit card!
It was my first trip to Tanzania, and it was great to be able to visit iconic places such as the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater as well as Tarangire, Lake Manyara and Oldupai Gorge. I’d booked the week-long Classic Tanzania Safari with Exodus as it covered all the areas I wanted to go to, and, although it wasn’t high season, we certainly saw our fair share of wildlife. I came home with a dozen five-star shots that I considered to be among my all-time favourites, but the best one happened by accident.
The lilac-breasted roller is one of my favourite birds. It’s a beautiful little thing and quite commonly seen in East Africa, although it’s call is so harsh that it reminds me of the worst kind of Essex girl - beautiful to look at but awful when she opens her mouth! Anyway, I was on a game drive taking a straightforward portrait of one of these birds when, suddenly, it took off - or rather it didn’t. It just fluttered its wings and settled back on the branch. Fortunately, I happened to press the shutter at just the right moment to capture the bird with its wings outstretched (above), and this shot was later chosen for the Opening Shot double-page spread in Outdoor Photography magazine.
I went to Kenya with Exodus again, this time on a Photographic Safari with Paul Goldstein, my favourite wildlife photography guide. Paul always gives you the best opportunities to take pictures of the animals, and this was the best safari I’ve ever been on. On most safari trips, you drive around in a truck until you see an animal, you take a few pictures and then you drive around until you see another one. This was different. Paul paid for a ‘spotter’ out of his own pocket to search for lions, leopards and cheetahs in the conservancy, and he’d radio in the location of whatever he saw. As a result, we spent almost all our time with the big cats, and - inevitably - that meant we saw a number of kills. I’d seen a chase before in Africa, and I’d seen various cats and vultures feeding from a carcase, but I’d never seen an actual kill. This time, I saw five! We spent time with two cheetahs, one with one cub and one with four, and we saw them kill three Thomson’s gazelles and two scrub hares - which was doubly amazing as the mother just caught the hare without killing it and then allowed her cubs to learn how to do it themselves!
The other thing I enjoyed while in Kenya was being able to practise Paul’s favourite technique, which is the slow pan. He taught me how to do it in Spitsbergen a few years ago, but it’s not easy: I took 1,504 slow pan pictures of seabirds one day and only kept four! However, when it works, it produces a picture that captures a sense of movement and energy better than anything taken at 1/1000 of a second. The basic idea is to choose a slow shutter speed and then follow an animal as it moves from side to side. The shutter speed has to be slow enough to blur the legs (or wings) of the animal and the background but fast enough to keep the head sharp. You have to be pretty brave to use those settings as you risk losing a whole bunch of great picture-taking opportunities, but it’s worth it when it works.
My trip to Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand wasn’t really a photography trip at all. It was organised by the wife of an Australian friend of mine I’d met watching sport at my local pub, and he wanted to celebrate his 50th birthday by getting a group of friends together to visit a few South-east Asian countries - and fire a bazooka!
The firing range was the first place we went to in Cambodia. Sadly, Kevin missed the target with the bazooka, so he tried again with an RPG - and missed again! Not a good start, but at least the local beer was only 50 cents a can! After the trip to the range, we took a tour of a Khmer Rouge political prison called S21 and a mass grave in the ‘killing fields’. It was all very sobering stuff. We then flew on to Siem Reap to see the palaces of Angkor Wat.
The boys and I took a rickshaw tour one day, and then one of the women and I took a balloon ride to get an aerial perspective. It wasn’t my usual subject matter, but I’m glad to have been able to tick it off my bucket list, and I can quite understand why it inspired the Lara Croft Tomb Raider franchise.
Our next stop was Vietnam, where we visited various battlefield sites, including the Cu Chi tunnels, Long Tan and Can Gio. It was rather disturbing to hear our Vietnamese guide gleefully telling us about all the inventive ways in which they killed American soldiers in the war - almost as if he was a German guide at Auschwitz telling us how proud he was of the gas chambers! Anyway, at least at Can Gio there were dozens of long-tailed macaques to photograph.
Our final destination was Bangkok, where we visited a couple of palaces and temples and also spent a very entertaining day at the floating markets. The women were keen to buy lots of knick-knacks, so they spent most of their time haggling with the stallholders. Gerlinde was the Negotiator-in-Chief, and she did a great job of getting the best price for everyone.
It was great to see my friends again (and make a few new ones), but I’ll stick to wildlife trips in future…
So that’s a quick review of 2018, and now I just have to let you all know of my plans for 2019. The big news is that I’ve been hired by andBeyond and Cottar’s to be the resident photographer at various safari lodges in Tanzania and Kenya. We’re still sorting out the paperwork and waiting for a park fee waiver that may never be issued, but I’m hoping to be teaching photography for three months in two lodges in the Serengeti and a month at Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp just over the border in the Masai Mara. It’s a great opportunity, and it came about quite by accident. I happened to read about a photographer who had managed to get 365 nights of accommodation in Africa in exchange for the rights to his images. I thought it was a rather good idea, so I simply Googled ‘safari lodges in Kenya’ and ‘safari lodges in Tanzania’ and sent around 50 emails asking for the same kind of barter arrangement. Pretty soon, I had 18 replies inviting me to stay for free, and two companies asked me to teach photography: andBeyond and Cottar’s. We’ll see if it all works out, but I’m really looking forward to it, and I hope it’s something I can repeat in the years to come. I’m also due to lead a trip to Botswana and Victoria Falls to see the lunar rainbow in August 2019, but that depends on finding enough guests to make it financially worthwhile. Fingers crossed, and all the best for 2019…!
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...!Read More
I get nervous before I go on photography trips. Part of that is just worrying about travel arrangements, visas and packing everything I need, but another part of it is worrying that I won't get the shots I want. Here are a few examples of 'the ones that got away'.
Before I went to the Taj Mahal, I was determined to get the classic 'Lady Diana' shot of the building from the end of the reflecting pools. That was the whole point of the trip, and I was really worried about it. I couldn't face the idea of screwing up what would probably be my only opportunity to visit the world's most famous building.
When I arrived in India on a G Adventures trip in November 2013, we went to the Taj Mahal early one morning, around 0530. We had to queue for a while and then go through security. At that point, I was about to rush off and take the shot I'd been dreaming about, but our tour leader then introduced us all to a local guide who was about to give us a 15-minute lecture about the building. What a nightmare! I knew that the whole place would be crawling with tourists if I didn't go and take the shot immediately, but it seemed a bit rude just to rush off without hearing the talk. In the end, I was too British about the whole thing and missed the shot of a lifetime. Too bad. On the plus side, I ended up with this image of the Taj Mahal.
It's the very opposite of the 'Lady Diana' shot. One is all symmetry and clarity, the other is misty and mysterious. The higgledy-piggledy minarets and the blue haze make the building seem more like a fairy tale castle. I do like this shot, but I still regret being too polite to get the one I wanted...!
This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...
A few years ago, I went to a talk given by Paul Goldstein somewhere in London, and one of the slides he showed was a picture of a caracal. I'd never seen one at the time, but Paul was very proud of his shot, which showed a caracal from the side running through long grass. The image stayed in my mind, and I was very excited when I went to Tanzania in January 2018 and actually saw one for myself! It was quite a way away, but I had my 800mm lens with me, and I was just about to take a shot when the driver told me to wait. He was going to drive around and get closer. Well, funnily enough, the caracal disappeared, and I never got the shot I wanted...
In June 2014, I went on an Exodus trip with Paul Goldstein to Spitsbergen to see the polar bear. It was a last-minute booking, so I got a good deal on the price, and I was lucky enough to share a cabin with a nice French chap called Eric, but the real prize was getting some good shots of a polar bear. We had 13 or so sightings, but, sadly, they were all too far away for my 500mm lens. That was in the days before I got into the habit of renting the Nikon 800mm monster, and I really wish I'd had it then. Amongst other sightings, a mother and her two cubs put on a great show for us on the ice, but, when I got back to my cabin to review my shots, I found they were all too soft and too distant. Ah, well, at least I have an excuse to go again now...
I've been to Africa several times now, visiting Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia and Botswana, but I've never seen a kill. I've seen the chase, and I've seen the predator eating its prey, but I've never seen the crucial moment of the kill. Now, I know some people would be a little squeamish about seeing one animal kill another, but I don't think I'd feel that way. To me, it's the ultimate expression of 'the survival of the fittest', and I'd love to see a lion, leopard or cheetah kill something on the great plains of Africa.
I have many stories of 'the one that got away'. There was the time when I climbed Mount Kenya and arrived back at the camp, only to find that everyone that morning had spent an hour watching a pride of lions kill a wildebeest 50 yards away from the gate of the national park! Or there was the time on the same trip when I booked the wrong flight home and had the chance to spend an extra day on my very own personal game drive. We saw a cheetah 'timing' (or hunting) an impala, and it was the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me in Africa - but no kill. In Antarctica, I watched from a Zodiac as a leopard seal ripped apart a penguin, but I didn't quite see the initial attack. In the Brazilian Pantanal, I was watching a jaguar on the river bank from a small boat when the call came over the radio that lunch was ready. No sooner had we met up with the other boat than we had another call, this time to say that the very same jaguar had just killed a caiman! We rushed back and watched as the young jaguar made a mess of the whole thing. To begin with, he had hold of his prey by the throat rather than the back of the neck. This is fine if you're a lion, but jaguars prefer to kill caiman (or small crocodiles) by nipping them on the back of the neck. This jaguar was in a bit of a bind: he didn't want to kill the caiman the 'wrong' way, but he couldn't change his grip in case it got away. He spent 10 minutes humming and hawing before finally killing the caiman, but that was only the start of his problems. His next job was to find a safe place to store his prey, but the banks of the river were 8-10ft high and very steep, so he spent another 25 minutes trying to find a way up into the undergrowth, desperately trying to drag the 10ft crocodile with him. By this stage, around 20 boats had gathered to see the jaguar, and, when he eventually managed to scramble up the bank with his kill, everybody gave him a big round of applause!
All this goes to show exactly how close I've come to the elusive kill, but no luck so far. However, I'm off to the Masai Mara in a couple of weeks, so maybe, just maybe I'll be able to bring back the shot I've been dying to get...
When I was young, it was a dream of mine to go on safari in Africa, but I thought it would be such a special trip that I saved it for my honeymoon - which never arrived! In the end, I received an email from a friend inviting me to climb Mount Kenya and go on safari. I jumped at the chance, and that was how my career as a wildlife photographer got started.
If you've never been on safari but are thinking about booking something, here's the bluffer's guide. You'll obviously need to do a bit of research online yourself, just to find out where the best places are and how much you're likely to have to spend, but this is my advice.
The website Safari Bookings thinks the top four safari destinations are Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia and Kenya, so here's my quick summary:
Tanzania offers the classic destinations of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, plus others such as Lake Manyara and Tarangire (all of which I visited). It's unusual in that you can go pretty much all year round as long as you avoid the short and long rains. The Serengeti and Ngorongoro have endless plains where you can easily see the game, and the amount of wildlife is generally good, particularly during the Great Migration, which takes thousands of wildebeest and zebra in an enormous clockwise circle through Tanzania and Kenya and continues throughout the year. Lake Manyara and Tarangire are more picturesque, but the added trees and hills make the game less easy to spot. There's just one small caveat, which is that you won't see any giraffe in the Ngorongoro Crater - their legs are too long to climb down into it!
Botswana is expensive, but I had a great trip there in 2016. It's good for the amount of wildlife and the almost constant presence of water, which makes a great backdrop, offers the chance of boat trips and means the animals are always interacting with it, either drinking or taking mud baths or play-fighting or just crossing the Chobe River. However, you need to go to the right parts, and that means the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park (which includes Savuti).
Zambia is apparently a good place to visit for the South Luangwa, which is where I'm planning to lead a trip in summer 2018, but I haven't been yet...
Kenya was the first African country I ever visited, so I'm very fond of it. The Masai Mara is the place to go, and that's where you get the shots of the wildebeest crossing the Mara or Grumeti river, hesitant at first and then all tumbling over themselves to jump down the cliffs and into the water. I'm going there in summer 2018, so fingers crossed!
The cost of your trip will depend mostly on the time of year, type of accommodation, number of people and duration. To give you an idea of the range of prices, I spent two weeks in Botswana on a private mobile safari that cost me over £6,000, but I also stayed in Tanzania for 10 days on an Exodus group safari for £3,499.
Time of year
Peak season is generally July to October, although it gets very hot in September and October (over 40°C), so you can get a cheaper option in the 'shoulder season', but the downside is that you see less wildlife, as water is more plentiful, which means they don't gather in numbers around the water sources.
Type of accommodation
If you want to travel in style, you can stay at lodges, usually outside the gates of the national parks. However, if you're happy to put up with tents, that will save you a lot of money. There are two kinds of tent: the first is the one you'll find in what they call 'permanent tented camps', and it's more like a cabin, with a tent at the front, but with a proper bed and a bathroom with toilet and shower built at the back. (That's what I had in Tanzania recently.) The other kind is just a two-man tent that the staff will usually put up for you, although you may have to do it yourself. If you pay a 'single supplement', you don't have to share with anyone, but it'll normally cost you an extra £300-400.
Number of people
I went on a private mobile safari to Botswana in 2016. It was great for my purposes as a photographer, but most people would probably enjoy a group trip more, and it would be a lot cheaper! My Tanzania trip with Exodus was around £3,500, but I was lucky in that I booked it late, so I didn't have to share with anyone even though I hadn't paid the single supplement! You obviously take a risk by going with people you don't know, and there are usually one or two that you end up trying to avoid (!), but you shouldn't go too far wrong with operators like Exodus, and all the guests will obviously share an interest in Nature, wildlife and usually photography.
There are safaris available from just a long weekend to a couple of months, but I'd suggest around a week or 10 days to begin with. That gives you the chance to go to different destinations within a country and maximise your chances of good wildlife sightings. Obviously, the longer the trip, the more expensive it is, but there are still a few bargains to be had if you're not fussy about the accommodation.
Once you've decided exactly what type of safari you're looking for, you're ready to go ahead and book, A useful place to start is Safari Bookings, which is a website where you can filter all the available tours by country, region, price and duration, so it's incredibly useful. On the other hand, some of the tours turn out to be unavailable once you contact the operator, so it's not perfect!
I've been on photographic trips with Exodus, Audley Travel, Naturetrek, WorldwideXplorer and G Adventures, and I hear that Explore is another good option. They're all pretty similar, although G Adventures has a younger age profile than Exodus, and Audley Travel offers (much!) more expensive bespoke trips.
I should mention here that I also teach photography and lead tour parties to Africa myself. From March to June 2019, I’ll be teaching photography at three different safari lodges in Tanzania and Kenya, and I'm also leading a trip to Botswana and Victoria Falls in August 2019 to see the lunar rainbow. You can find full details on the Events page. My trips are geared towards wildlife photographers, but that doesn't mean you need to be a budding professional to enjoy the trip!
If you'd like to have a chat about my photographic trips or just safaris in general, please feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on +44 7942 800921.
Tired of always having to ask your safari guide what you're looking at on a game drive? Here's your cut-out-and-keep guide to the most common animals. Shout 'Bingo!' when you've crossed them all off...but not too loudly!
Confused by all the species of birds you're seeing on safari in Africa? Here's your cut-out-and-keep guide to the most common ones. Shout 'Bingo!' when you've crossed them all off...but not too loudly!
24 April 2016, Moremi
My iPhone just about died yesterday, so I switched it off overnight. Miraculously, it's now back to 24%!
We saw leopard tracks but no leopard and then a lone impala to start the day. We were out for 90 minutes before collecting the other staff and the trailer. We then drove north towards Chobe NP. At one point, the road ahead was flooded. Contrary to what you may have been told, there's no bridge on the River Khwai, so we had to take a different route...
"Nkwe!" Makabu suddenly shouted, which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen one crossing the road, and he immediately followed it. After a few yards, he stopped, got out and jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then he unhooked the trailer and drove after it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact Africans think rules are there to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but that means Makabu now leads 2-1 in big cat sightings...
'Nkwe' means leopard and 'tau' means lion in Setswana.
Having said that, our handyman chipped in with a great spot of a spotted eagle owl perched in a tree as we were driving past. It was just hidden by a branch, so I asked if I could get out and walk a bit closer. Makabu said I could, and I took a very rare picture. I've never seen a spotted eagle owl before...
We stopped for lunch (and to collect firewood), and I managed to get attacked by very prickly and sticky fertility grass. Not even thick socks are good enough protection against it. Then again, you can always boil it up and drink the liquid if you're having problems with your womb!
At around 1400, we dropped off our team to make camp, then we went back out for another game drive. The radio chatter suggested there were lions out there and maybe even a leopard, but it all seemed like a wild goose chase until we saw a pair of young lions asleep under a large fever berry tree. They like it as it has the best shade, and - lo and behold! - you can also boil its leaves in water to cure a fever. Is there any plant out here that doesn't have medicinal properties?! We even had chance to come back later for some great close-ups.
Shockingly, I had to change my WB setting to cloudy a few times today. Very poor...
You can tell which termite mounds are active by the presence of wet sand deposits on the surface.
We saw impala, black-backed jackal, tsessebe, low veld giraffe, hippo, warthog, Burchell's zebra, blue wildebeest, red lechwe, tree squirrel, chacma baboon, vervet monkey, elephant, waterbuck, lion, wild dog.
We ask saw birds including Burchell's starling, African darter, blacksmith plover, Swainson's francolin, helmeted guineafowl, red-billed hornbill, saddle-billed stork, grey hornbill, African fish eagle, spotted eagle owl, long-tailed pied shrike, African jacana, wattled crane, Cape turtle dove, little egret, Egyptian geese, Gabor goshawk.
If you fancy watching a herd of 30 elephants crossing a river, photographing a malachite kingfisher perched three feet away or seeing an elephant chase off a pride of lions, try Botswana!
Water. You don't realise how important it is until you've been on safari in Botswana. I'd been to Kenya three times, but I'd never been to the Okavango Delta or the Chobe River, and it made all the difference. You don't have the iconic silhouette of Mount Kenya or the wildebeest migration across the Mara, but the landscape is utterly transformed. If Nigella were writing the recipe for Botswana, it would be something like this:
The water makes the landscape itself beautiful - especially when your guide cuts the engine, and you're watching the sun set over the Delta! - and it acts as a great backdrop for wildlife photography. Which is why I was there in the first place...
The reason I wanted to go to Botswana was to take pictures in a different environment; the reason I was able to was that I had a wad of cash burning a hole in my pocket when a property deal fell through! Whatever the reason, it worked out well enough, as an Indian couple wanted me to teach their two young children in Nairobi from 11-17 April. I did the same thing last year, and it's been a pleasure both times. It also gave me a head start in getting to Botswana. I found a useful site called Safari Bookings that allowed me to enter the location, duration and cost of the trip, and I searched through all the possible options. A friend of mine Jason was thinking about coming, too, but he eventually couldn't get the time off, so I decided to go for broke. I was a once-in-a-lifetime trip - although I seem to do one of those every few weeks nowadays! - so I didn't want to compromise on the itinerary. A group tour would've been cheaper, but that would've meant spending more time in a big truck on the road, going to places I didn't really want to go to and having to put up with other people (eeeuuugghhh!). In the end, I found an American company called WorldwideXplorer that was willing to tailor their 14-day safari for me and me alone. Marisa looked after my booking, and she was always very helpful. It wasn't cheap, but I was guaranteed to see the highlights I wanted, starting off on Chief's Island in the Okavango Delta and then moving north through the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park before finishing with a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. It was going to be a 'mobile safari', which meant I'd be travelling in a customised Toyota Land Cruiser with a local guide and two other staff, camping every night and making the most of all the travel time by spending every day on game drives from sunrise to sunset.
The only downside to tacking the safari on to the end of my trip to Nairobi was that I had to go during the 'shoulder season'. That meant it was harder to see the animals due to a combination of denser undergrowth and altered migration patterns following heavy late rains caused by El Niño. It didn't look too promising during the first few days, and I had to have a couple of 'chats' with my guide Makabu about the itinerary, particularly when we didn't see a single thing on a two-hour boat ride! When a group of Germans arrived, we almost ended up starting our game drive at 0800 rather than 0600 until I let him know in no uncertain terms that wasting two hours was 'unacceptable'! Anyway, I persuaded him to get permission to junk the boat rides in favour of game drives, and we soon settled into a routine of waking up at 0530, leaving at 0600 on a game drive, eating a packed lunch, getting back at 1800 for a quick 'bush shower' and then dinner and bed. Once we'd left Chief's Island, we changed campsites every couple of days, which meant picking up our cook and handyman, hitching the trailer and then driving north. Our overall itinerary was as follows:
Night of 18 April: Flight from Nairobi to Maun via Johannesburg
19 April: Sedia Hotel, Maun
20-22 April: Chief's Island, Okavango Delta
23 April: Third Bridge, Okavango Delta
24-25 April: Moremi Game Reserve
26-27 April: Savuti, Chobe National Park
28-29 April: Ihaha, Chobe National Park
30 April-1 May: Waterfront Lodge, Livingstone, Zambia (near the Victoria Falls)
2 May: Flight from Livingstone to London via Johannesburg
The density of wildlife might not have been as high as in peak season, but we more than made up for it by the sheer number of hours we spent driving through the bush. I can only remember one day when we had more than a few minutes for lunch, and we must've spent over 100 hours on game drives and/or boat rides during our 10 days on safari. Apart from the rhinoceros, we saw all of the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant and Cape buffalo - and we saw a total of 29 mammals and reptiles and 81 different types of birds, including my two favourites: the African fish eagle and the lilac-breasted roller (see list below).
My only disappointment was hearing the roller's call for the first time. For such a beautiful bird, why does it have to sound like an angry crow with a sore throat! Makabu's species knowledge was excellent, and there were only a couple he didn't know or got slightly wrong. Having said that, there was always a bit of a language barrier between us. We usually had to ask each other to repeat what had been said, and bird names are not the easiest words to pick up - you can imagine how many times Makabu had to repeat 'Swainson's francolin' to me!
As I say, I was in Botswana to take pictures, so the highlights for me were inevitably coloured by the ones that turned out well.
I'm very fond of the lilac-breasted roller and the African fish eagle, but my favourite bird encounter came when I was on a boat ride on the Chobe River. I spotted a malachite kingfisher in the distance and asked my driver to get a bit closer. He did as I asked and then cut the engine, letting the boat drift closer and closer. I immediately started taking pictures, and the bird got bigger and bigger in my viewfinder until it almost didn't fit in the frame. I was using a 400mm lens, but the malachite kingfisher is only a tiny bird, so I had no idea how close I had come until it eventually flew off. I put my camera down and realised I had only been three feet away from it! I'd seen one before in Kenya last year - again on a boat ride - but this shot was the mother of all close-ups!
We saw a lot of lions during the trip, but we were particularly lucky in Moremi, when we saw the same two lions at sunset and then early the following morning. We were able to get incredibly close - no more than five yards away - and the light during the 'golden hour' was fantastic.
Chobe is famous for its herds of elephants, and I certainly enjoyed my boat ride on the Chobe River when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a herd of 30 elephants crossing from one side to the other! However, the most exciting moment I had came when we spotted a couple of young male elephants in the Delta and drove to within ten yards of them. They were happily eating the fruit that was being dropped by vervet monkeys in a tree when one of them decided to step forward and challenge us by trumpeting in full-on Tarzan fashion! I have to admit, that sent my heart racing! Makabu later told me elephants attack silently - so I needn't have worried - but I defy anyone to be calm when an elephant is trumpeting at you from five yards away - even Makabu started the engine at one point!
Lions & elephants
As if lions and elephants separately were not enough, they actually joined forces at Ihaha. We were driving along a track on the shore of the Chobe River at dusk when we saw a pride of eight lions lying in the shade of a tree. I could see an elephant heading their way, but I had no idea what was going to happen next. Out of nowhere, the elephant suddenly started trumpeting at the lions and then chased them all away! I've never seen lions move so fast...
The first time 'we' saw a leopard was in Moremi, although I didn't actually see anything at all. I was busy watching an impala when Makabu suddenly shouted, "Nkwe," which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen a leopard cross the track right in front of us, and he immediately drove after it. After a few yards, he jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then unhooked the trailer and followed it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact that Africans believe rules are meant to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but we did see one three days later in Savuti. We had started our game drive at 0630, and almost immediately we saw a leopard sitting in the middle of the dirt track. It trotted towards us in the golden light, and I got some great shots - although I was worried my favourite was a bit blurred. You be the judge...
The other highlight, of course, was seeing the Victoria Falls for the very first time. The walking tour was useless - there was so much spray we couldn't see a thing! - but the helicopter ride was sensational, much better than the one I did over Iguazu a few weeks earlier. I'd managed to book a private tour, so I sat in the front seat and took pictures while the pilot flew over the falls and then went down into the gorges downriver.
It's a very dramatic landscape, so cresting a ridge and dropping down to a Grade 6 rapid is really quite exciting - especially as we were no more than 20 feet above the waves! I did have a few problems with reflections in the glass when shooting into the sun, but there was no window to open, so I just had to put up with it. It was only when we landed and I told the pilot I was a professional photographer that he told me that, if he'd known beforehand, he would've taken the rear door off and let me shoot from there! Grrrr...
I'm very glad I decided to visit Botswana for the first time. I still have a sentimental attachment to Kenya, as it was the first country I ever visited in Africa and provided me with lots of happy memories of climbing Mount Kenya as well as seeing the Big Five on various game drives, but Botswana has the big advantage of water. It makes such a difference and turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. I just hope my pictures have somehow managed to capture that.
List of species
- Banded mongoose
- Black mamba
- Black-backed jackal
- Blue wildebeest
- Burchell's zebra
- Cape buffalo
- Chacma baboon
- Common warthog
- Ground squirrel
- Leopard tortoise
- Nile crocodile
- Red lechwe
- Sable antelope
- South African giraffe
- Vervet monkey
- Water monitor
- Wild dog
- Yellow mongoose
- African darter
- African fish eagle
- African green pigeon
- African harrier-hawk/harrier hawk/gymnogene
- African hoopoe
- African jacana
- African marsh harrier
- African skimmer
- Black crake
- Black egret
- Black-collared barbet
- Black-winged stilt
- Blacksmith plover
- Brown-headed snake eagle
- Burchell's sand grouse
- Burchell's starling
- Cape turtle dove
- Cape wagtail
- Cattle egret
- Coppery-tailed coucal
- Crowned eagle
- Double-banded sand grouse
- Egyptian goose
- Fork-tailed drongo
- Gabor goshawk
- Glossy ibis
- Great white egret
- Great white pelican
- Green-backed heron
- Grey heron
- Grey hornbill
- Ground plover
- Hadeda ibis
- Helmeted guineafowl
- Hooded vulture
- Kori bustard
- Lappet-faced vulture
- Lilac-breasted roller
- Little bee-eater
- Little egret
- Long-tailed pied shrike
- Malachite kingfisher
- Marabou stork
- Martial eagle
- Meyer's parrot
- Monotonous lark
- Pied kingfisher
- Pygmy goose
- Red cormorant
- Red-billed francolin
- Red-billed hornbill
- Red-billed oxpecker
- Red-billed teal
- Red-breasted korhaan
- Red-eyed dove
- Sacred ibis
- Saddle-billed stork
- Secretary bird/snake eagle
- Slatey egret
- Southern ground hornbill
- Southern pied babbler
- Southern red bishop
- Spoon-billed stork
- Spotted eagle owl
- Spur-winged goose
- Swainson's francolin
- Swallow-tailed bee-eater
- Three-banded plover
- Water dikkop
- Wattled crane
- White-backed vulture
- White-browed robin chat
- White-crowned plover
- White-faced whistling duck
- Yellow oxpecker
- Yellow-billed egret
- Yellow-billed hornbill
- Yellow-billed stork
During the Second World War, an Italian named Felice Benuzzi decided to escape from a British POW camp in Nanyuki, Kenya. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, but Benuzzi was no ordinary prisoner. He was a keen climber, and he planned to break out of the camp in January 1943, climb Mount Kenya and break back in again two weeks later - he even left a note for the guards! He spent months planning his escape, recruiting a couple of companions to help in the preparations and join him on the climb. He successfully reached Point Lenana and after the war wrote an account of it called No Picnic on Mount Kenya. The trip I booked with Hooley Time in January 2013 marked the 70th anniversary of Benuzzi's escape, and I bought his book to read on the plane to Nairobi. I also had to invest in one or two other items. This is the kit list we were sent:
- A decent sleeping bag rated at least ‘three seasons’. four seasons is better or a -5 Celsius rating.
- Sleeping bag inner sheet made of silk or cotton.
- Thermal underwear for sleeping.
- To give you more flexibility, it is better to take several lighter layers than a couple of thick, heavy ones.
- Good quality rain jacket and pants. Make sure it is breathable.
- Fleece or down jacket.
- Comfortable trekking pants and shorts preferably made from a modern fabric that ‘wicks’ away the moisture and is breathable.
- Warm head wear.
- Good quality shock absorbing socks.
- Sun hat.
- Good walking shoes or boots – mountaineering boots are not required, cross hiking shoes and boots are perfectly adequate. If purchasing new footwear for the trip please ‘break in’ your new purchase by wearing them in for a month before setting. Badly fitting or unused boots can ruin your trip.
- Spare pair of light shoes/trainers for night time.
- Water bottle at least 1.5 litre capacity.
- 15+ sunscreen."
Fully equipped with a rucksack and a borrowed day pack to hold all my gear, I flew to Nairobi on 5 January 2013 with three other Hooley Time members: Caspar, Lucy and Jo. The plan was for us to spend a few days canyoning, climbing, mountain biking and going on 'game drives' at Ol Pejeta, then spend a week climbing Mount Kenya and finally check in for a couple of nights at a luxurious 'eco lodge' called El Karama. It was an not an auspicious start. First of all, we had to take a Rail Replacement Bus service to the airport, and then I discovered that Terminal 5 didn't have a champagne and seafood bar for me to visit as I usually do before any flight. I also found out from the others that I'd booked my flight home a day late! No matter. I was soon keenly watching out for the coast of Africa. I'd never been there before, so I couldn't stop smiling when we finally went 'feet dry'. Sadly, the first time it happened, it was actually Crete and the second time it was just a large cloud! Third time lucky, we finally emerged over the beautiful deserts of Egypt in the glorious orange light of dawn...
There were no problems on the flight, although we were a little confused about who would be meeting us at the airport. Caspar thought it would be Jomo Kenyatta, but I told him that was unlikely. When we finally arrived, we were whisked away to the Aero Club for the night, where we sank a couple of Tuskers, and then driven to the camp where we would be staying near Mount Kenya. The camp was run by Nick Miller of Rift Valley Adventures, an ex-pat Australian we met for lunch at Barney's Café next to Nanyuki Airfield.
After a brief orientation, we continued on our journey to the camp at Ol Pejeta, pausing only for the zebra crossings and sleeping policemen the Kenyans like to put on their motorways. Once there, we spent the next few days being waited on hand and foot by most of the Kenyan national mountain biking team. Ochen (pronounced 'Ocean'), Maina (pronounced 'Miner') and Joyce (pronounced 'Joyce') were our friendly and helpful companions who taught us how to rock climb and abseil, led us around an outdoor mountain bike obstacle course and gave us a seminar on 'bush skills', including how to take down an impala with an assegai and a bow and arrow. Lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks together next to a pile of dried elephant dung was a bit trickier, so we had to leave that to Ochen. We also had time to visit a sign marking the equator, and I stood for the first time with one foot in both hemispheres.
By the end of the first day, we still hadn't seen the mountain because of a bank of low cloud, so I was determined to get up early to see the sunrise and perhaps shoot an elephant. I had always wanted to be a photographer, so I was keen to take as many photographs as possible with my new 'bridge' camera, a Sony HX200V. The 30x optical zoom came in very handy at 0545 the next morning, when the sun rose behind the mountain and turned the whole sky salmon pink. The silhouette of Mount Kenya looks rather like the cross-section of one of the Alpine stages of the Tour de France, and it triggered plenty of nervous conversations about our chances on the climb.
I was also able to take a few shots of the local wildlife as a herd of impala grazed in the paddock just outside the compound, which was protected by an electrified fence. That was quite reassuring until I saw a baboon hop over it as nonchalantly as you like!
The 'Big Five' are the most valuable heads the old big game hunters could put up on the wall - the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo - but you have to be on your toes if you want to spot them. Later that day, Caspar saw a black rhino on his way to the shower and spent the next ten minutes eagerly taking pictures of it wearing only flip-flops and a towel! The best time to see the animals is in the early morning or late afternoon, when it's not so hot, so we went on 'game drives' for three or four hours at 0630 and 1630 each day. Our driver Ndiritu (pronounced 'William') took us to the Ol Pejeta conservancy, and the first time we went we saw 16 different mammals including a few chimpanzees at the local sanctuary. We only saw prey animals, such as the impala, the Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, the eland and the hartebeest, and, although we learned a lot about antelope recognition, we were slightly disappointed we didn't see any predators. We did get charged by an elephant at one point, which was a little unnerving, but Nick told us it was only a 'fake' charge! The closest we came to a kill was seeing a hyaena chase a herd of impala and a warthog, but, once the warthog turned his tusks on him, the hyaena lost his nerve and wandered off. The warthog is a comic creation. It holds its tail upright like the aerial on a remote-controlled car, eats with its 'elbows' on the table and has the memory of a goldfish. When startled, it will trot away 20 yards and then forget what it was worried about and carry on eating!
After one drive, a Kenyan member of staff asked me whether we had lions in England. No. Leopard? No. Rhinoceros? No. Elephants? No. Buffalo? No...Donkeys? Yes.
Rift Valley Adventures is not really a safari company but an adventure training outfit, so the next day we drove to the Ngare Ndare forest to go canyoning. We had to stop twice on the way to the river, once for a cow standing in the middle of the road and again for six geese. Hours later on the way home, we had to stop for the same six geese!
Canyoning is a modern 'sport' that involves dressing up in a wetsuit and helmet and descending a river by 'tombstoning' off cliffs and abseiling down waterfalls. We started off in the equivalent of the paddling pool by jumping from three and then four metres under Nick's guidance. Once we had managed that, we moved on to jumps from nine and then 11 and eight metres. The 11-metre jump was too much for Lucy, who sported a great big bruise on her leg after falling too far forward, so she walked the rest of the way, but we were all determined to do the abseiling. Abseiling down a waterfall is like taking a shower under Niagara Falls. I tried to look up once but just got blinded by what seemed like a fire hose gushing water in my face. Fortunately, someone had taken a few pictures down at the bottom to record my moment of glory.
After the game drives, we set off to climb Mount Kenya. Having been briefed the night before by our chief guide Bernard, who told us amongst other things about the ABCs of packing a rucksack (Access, Balance and Compactability), we drove to the gates of the park to meet our porters and begin the walk. In total, there were 18 in the party, including 10 porters, three guides, our chef Paul and the four of us. The idea was that we would carry a day pack for essential items such as water, snacks, rain gear and extra layers while the porters would take our rucksacks up with whatever we needed in the evening, including sleeping bags, roll mats and toiletries. They were also responsible for carrying up all our tents, cooking utensils and provisions, and I spotted one porter with a frying pan in his hand and another with a cardboard slab of 64 fresh eggs! Their fitness was astonishing. We would leave them to strike camp in the morning, but they would pass us on the mountain and still have time to put up our tents before we arrived in the evening. At one point on the descent, they ran down the steep scree slope from Simba Tarn (4600m) to Shipton's Camp (4200m) in 20 minutes - each carrying a 25kg pack on his back!
We took the 'tourist route' up via Timau in order to acclimatise gradually. Bernard constantly reminded us to breathe deeply, drink plenty of water and take it easy. "Pole, pole," as he would always say, or "Slowly, slowly" in Swahili. There wasn't much wildlife to see on the slopes, and I was slightly disappointed we didn't spot a rhino dozing in the giant heather as Benuzzi thought he might. Having said that, the vegetation was extraordinary, with an almost Jurassic selection of giant groundsel, cabbage groundsel, giant lobelia and water-filled lobelia to keep Lucy - our resident plant expert - constantly on her toes. Everything seemed to be a variation on a British theme - usually a 'giant' one.
This is what the guidebook said about the mountain:
"The commanding topographic feature of the Kenya highlands east of the Rift Valley is Mount Kenya; a large central type volcano whose summit stands at 5199 metres above sea level. It was built by intermittent volcanic eruptions, mainly in the period 3.1 to 2.6 million years ago. The base of Mount Kenya is a little over 100 kilometres in diameter and originally the summit must have reached over 7000 metres. Since then, about 35% of the volume has been removed, mainly by glacial erosion on the upper part of the mountain. The highest trekking point, Point Lenana (4985m) involves passing through a dense forest belt, followed by a narrow bamboo belt, before passing into heath and moor lands and finally the alpine zone. The summits of Batian and Nelion are surrounded by glaciers and often covered in snow where the night-time temperature can drop to below -10 degrees Celsius. At any time of the year harsh, cold, wet and windy weather can come from anywhere."
Batian is the highest peak, but it can only be scaled by experienced climbers, so the plan was to climb the neighbouring Point Lenana, 4985 metres above sea level but 'only' 1985 metres above our starting point, which was itself on a plateau. It's an odd tension between altitude and latitude that produces lush, tropical vegetation where I'd usually be just getting off the cable car to go skiing!
My biggest fear was bad weather, but we were lucky enough to have sunshine every day. None of us suffered from altitude sickness, but we all had problems with diarrhoea at one stage or another, and the combination of frequent toilet breaks - "You drink, you pee," as Bernard would say - and my snoring made for some uncomfortably sleepless nights, particularly for my tent-mate Caspar! The first night on the mountain, I thought I heard the sound of impala getting frisky with each other, but it was only the girls snoring in the next-door tent...
The other piece of luck we had came when Bernard changing the itinerary. The Sirimon route is the usual way to climb Mount Kenya. It's shorter, but it involves a significant climb from Shipton's Camp (4200m) up a long, slippery, scree slope to the summit and back down again. Given our general good health and fitness, he decided to lead us up to Simba Tarn (4600m), which considerably shortened the ascent we'd have to make on the final morning. Two days of climbing up and down a 40-45º scree slope was not easy by any means, and I was lucky to be able to borrow a walking pole to help prevent me slipping and falling, but the payoff was spectacular.
As we left camp at 0400 by the light of our head torches, I saw a shooting star, and it must have been a good omen, as we reached Point Lenana at 0615, a few minutes before sunrise. We didn't see anyone else on the mountain until just before the summit, where we met a Swiss climber called Andreas, and it was a good job we did. First of all, he was able to take a picture of all of us, but, more importantly, we were able to tell him he didn't need ropes and climbing gear to go up to the summit. Bizarrely, that was what his local guide had told him - obviously fresh off the boat from Nairobi...!
The descent was a lot easier, especially now the sun was up, although I did manage to slip and fall once, taking our guide with me! We managed to reach Shipton's by 1000 with the whole day ahead of us. As it turned out, my stomach was tying itself in knots, and my legs had become a bit wobbly on the final approach to camp, so I took the opportunity in between meals to sleep for about 17 hours! I guess I needed it. Everyone took care of me, giving me Imodium for my diarrhoea, Paracetamol for my headache and even an extra sleeping bag to keep me warm. There were a lot of other groups there, and I pitied one guy who was planning to climb the peak from Shipton's Camp the following morning and another girl who had done it in the afternoon, thereby missing out on the sunrise. Once she'd seen my photos, she quickly realised her mistake!
The following day, we were due to walk down to Old Moses (3300m) and stay there overnight, but, as the park gate was only a couple of hours further on, we managed to get permission from Nick to 'walk out' a day early. That left us with another rest day, which was no bad thing. A proper bed in my own tent was better than a sleeping bag on the ground! Caspar was also in a pretty bad way with heat rash, but a visit to the local doctor at Nanyuki Cottage Hospital and a bottle of calamine lotion sorted him out eventually. There was a conference at the camp, so we kept ourselves to ourselves. It was only later I found out that one of the groups had gone on a game drive and spotted four lions ripping apart an impala 20 metres away while we were having scones for tea!
Guy Grant bought El Karama ranch in 1963 when Kenya gained independence, and Guy's son Murray still runs it with his wife Sophie, who gave us a brief orientation and later invited us up to the family home so that we could use her internet connection to check in. El Karama literally means 'the prayer' in Arabic, but a better translation would be 'the dream'! We had just spent a week walking up and down a mountain without being able to 'shit, shower and shave', and we felt 'like Dorothy when everything just turned to colour'. The girls shared one 'banda', or hut, and Caspar and I the other. He even let me have the double bed - luxury! It was the first decent night's sleep any of us had had in Kenya.
After we'd unpacked, we had an excellent lunch of meatballs, home-baked rosemary bread and fresh salads from the vegetable garden. Our waiter Lovii was training to be a guide, so he also managed to identify a few unusual birds we had seen, including the blue-eared starling, lilac-breasted roller and spotted thick-knee! We were also hoping we might see some hippos at the watering hole nearby, but the Head Man Joseph didn't find any there, so, armed with his .548 Remington bolt-action rifle, he took us on a day/night game drive. Joseph and Ndiritu both certainly knew their wildlife and made excellent spotters, and the highlight was seeing a herd of eight elephants go down to drink at the water hole. By now, we had seen most of the animals we expected to see, but the big cats remained elusive.
When we came home, we polished off a bottle of Prosecco that Nick had given us to celebrate our successful ascent of Mount Kenya and enjoyed another gorgeous dinner of vegetable soup, chicken and fruit crumble. We rounded off the evening with a game of Chase the Lady, accompanied by a few gin and tonics and a bottle of white wine.
The next day, Lucy was the first to drop out of one of the drives as the enthusiasm of the others began to wane, but I was still keen to make the most of the opportunity. On the final drive, I had the truck to myself and took my 3,000th photo of the holiday!
On our final morning, we packed up our gear and went up to the main house to use the wi-fi connection, which I noticed was still password-protected even though the ranch was surrounded by 15,000 acres! Sophie also gave me a tour of her husband's studio. He's a sculptor, and she gave me the background to his bronze studies of elephants, buffalo, warthogs and other animals. Each is a recognisable individual that takes six or 12 months to create, and he goes to great lengths to make sure all the historical and physiological details are right. Local tribesmen even came to him when they found the carcass of a lion to see whether he wanted to make a sculpture out of it!
Finally, we drove back to Nanyuki, and only then were we granted the sight we'd all been waiting for: simba! He was lying under a tree beside a water hole, and we were able to spend a good 15 minutes taking photos and filming him.
Elated with our success, we met Nick for a nice coffee at Dormans and had a lazy lunch again at Barney's Café. The plan was for me to do some rafting with my 'extra' day, but that fell through at the last moment. Instead, we all said our goodbyes, and I drove back to Ol Pejeta for dinner with Ochen. We shared a bottle of wine and had a relaxed meal that Paul had again rustled up for us. The food at Ol Pejeta reminded me rather too much of school dinners, but it were perfectly adequate and plentiful. We started each day with muesli, fruit, toast and an English breakfast, followed by a typical packed lunch consisting of two enormous ham and cheese rolls, a bag of Krackles Tingly Cheese & Onion Potato Crisps, a packet of dry biscuits and - if we were lucky - a bar of milk chocolate. We had 'chai' around 1600, and dinner consisted of soup, meat and two veg and fresh fruit for dessert. The fruit was deliciously exotic, including oranges, papaya, mango, pineapple and tree tomato. To top it all off, all our meals were served on a nice red check picnic cloth - very Glyndebourne...
Missing out on the rafting trip turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I went out for an early game drive with Ndiritu that ended up lasting seven hours with only a short break for breakfast, which we had back at camp after parking the truck and hopping over the 60,000-volt electric fence! We arrived at the gates of the conservancy just as they opened at 0600, which was early enough to see the most magnificent sunrise over Mount Kenya. After that, we saw a constant stream of animals in glorious sunshine and two fights: one between a pair of Thomson's gazelle and another between a warthog and a rhinoceros! You can guess who won that one. The highlight of the morning, though, came when Ndiritu spotted a cheetah 'timing' - or stalking - an impala. "Oh, my God!" That's the only thing you could say...
The journey home was a mirror image of the one to Nairobi - even down to the Rail Replacement Bus service! All I can say is that I don't know of a better way of losing nine pounds, giving yourself Bradley Wiggins's thighs and coming home with thousands of images that will last a lifetime.
Asante sana, Kenya...
Here is a list of all the major species of animals (35) and birds (52) that we saw.
- African buffalo
- African bush elephant
- Agama lizard
- Beisa oryx
- Black rhinoceros
- Burchell's (plains) zebra
- Cape (rock) hyrax
- Common eland
- Common warthog
- Grant's gazelle
- Grevy's zebra
- Ground squirrel
- Jackson's hartebeest
- Leopard tortoise
- Maasai giraffe
- Olive baboon
- Reticulated giraffe
- Salt's dikdik
- Silver-backed jackal
- Spitting cobra
- Spotted hyaena
- Thomson's gazelle
- Vervet monkey
- White rhinoceros
- White-tailed mongoose
- African crowned eagle
- African spoonbill
- Alpine chat
- Banded kestrel
- Black cuckoo
- Black-bellied bustard
- Black-shouldered kite
- Brown parrot
- Common ostrich
- Corey bustard
- Crowned crane
- Crowned plover
- Egyptian goose
- Fish eagle
- Franklin fowl
- Greater blue-eared starling
- Grey heron
- Hadada ibis
- Hawk eagle
- Helmeted bush shrike
- Helmeted guinea fowl
- Laughing dove
- Lilac-breasted roller
- Malachite sunbird
- Pied wagtail
- Red saddlebill
- Red-billed hornbill
- Red-eyed eagle
- Ring-necked doves
- Sacred ibis
- Secretary bird
- Slender-billed starling
- Speckled pigeon
- Speke's weaver
- Spotted thick-knee
- Superb starling
- Tawny eagle
- Von der Decken's hornbill
- Vulturine guinea fowl
- White pelican
- White stork
- White-bellied bustard
- White-necked raven
- Yellow wagtail
- Yellow-necked sparrowhawk