Story and pictures of the second part of my stay at &Beyond Klein’s Camp and Serengeti Under Canvas from 1 April to 8 May 2019Read More
Story and pictures of my stay at &Beyond Klein’s Camp and Serengeti Under CanvasRead 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…!
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...
As Noël Coward never said, "Very flat, Tanzania."
When God painted Tanzania, he did so with a very limited palette of green and brown. There's not much variety in the landscape either, and some of the grassy plains are so flat you could lie on your back and see for a hundred miles! The only relief is the occasional kopje, or rock formation, but that's more like the artist's signature on a blank canvas. However, when He carved the Serengeti heat alive with wildlife, His imagination knew no limit. I saw a total of 38 animals and 85 birds during my Classic Tanzania Safari with Exodus Travels, including lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, cheetah, zebra, giraffe and impala. We even saw the very rare caracal, which is a medium-sized cat similar to a lynx. There wasn't as much game as there is in the peak season from July to September, but we still saw thousands of wildebeest and zebra taking part in the Great Migration, and I took over a thousand pictures a day! In the end, I came back with 669 shots I thought were good enough to sell through stock agencies, and I even chose three prints to include in my next exhibition.
The spectacular and exciting variety of animals in places like Tanzania is the reason I keep going back to Africa, and, for me, the highlights of any trip are usually connected with the pictures I manage to take. After all, I count myself a professional photographer these days, so I never just go on 'holiday' any more! We didn't see a kill - which is the crowning glory of any safari - but we did see a cheetah just after it had killed a hartebeest. It spent around half an hour gorging itself right in front of us - only five or ten yards away - while a marabou stork and over a dozen vultures waited patiently for their share of the spoils. On the horizon, the hartebeest's mother kept up a solo vigil the whole time. Very sad...
Another highlight was seeing so many lions. One day, we were driving through a meadow with very tall grass, and I told our driver Julius that we were in 'lion country' now. Within a couple of hours, we'd seen around 14 lions in two separate prides, one lounging on a termite mound and another sleeping beside a tree! I love the excitement of predators, so it was great to be able to get such good sightings.
The other highlight was the birds we saw. Tanzania has a huge bird population, with more than 1,100 species, and we saw some spectacular specimens, including a red-cheeked cordon-bleu and a red-and-yellow barbet that I never even knew existed! When it comes to individual shots, my favourite was the one of the lilac-breasted roller at the top of the page. It's a beautiful bird anyway, but I was particularly lucky when it fluttered its wings unexpectedly without taking off. That gave me the chance to get a rare 'action shot'. I prefer action shots to portraits, but there wasn't much action to see on this trip, apart from a couple of buffalo fighting in the distance and two elephants 'fighting' like punched-out heavyweights in the 12th round of a fight, so we had to make the most of what we were given.
There were nine guests on the Exodus trip, which ran from 12-21 January 2018, plus an excellent guide called Jackson and a couple of drivers - Alex and Julius - for the four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers we were using. One of the guests put a message on the Exodus community website before the trip, so I ended up meeting her at Heathrow and travelling with her all the way to Kilimanjaro, where we joined with the rest of the group. The actual 'travelling' is the only bit of travelling I don't like, so it was nice to have some company on such a long journey (and in the jeep later). Getting to Africa is never straightforward, and it took me over 38 hours to go from my flat in Putney to the front seat of the Land Cruiser on our first game drive!
I love close-up shots, so I followed my usual habit of renting a Nikon 800mm lens from Lenses For Hire for our trip. I have two Nikon camera bodies, a D810 and a D850, and I usually fit my Nikon 80-400mm lens to one and the 800mm lens to the other. I end up taking roughly half my shots with each camera. The only other things I take with me are my SpiderPro belt (just to help me carry everything to the jeep!), a lens cloth and a spare battery. You generally spend most of the day in the safari truck, so you don't need to worry about bringing hiking boots. I just put on trainers, cargo pants (with plenty of pockets!), a long-sleeved shirt (or merino base layer if it's cold) and a proper sun hat with a chin strap (not a baseball cap, as the brim gets in the way, and it might blow off!). The sun is usually very hot, and I always use a Nivea stick on my nose, but I avoid having to put on too much sun cream by covering up my arms and legs. If you're a photographer, you don't go on safari to get a sun tan!
Game drives are the whole point of going on safari, and you soon get into a routine. Whether you're staying at lodges or permanent tented camps or even in tents you have to put up yourselves, you always end up doing pretty much the same thing - and this trip was no exception. You generally wake up to an early breakfast - either at dawn or even earlier - and go out in your safari trucks for a few hours before returning for lunch or eating a packed lunch somewhere along the way. After another game drive in the afternoon, you head back to camp for a shower, drinks, dinner and a relatively early night. When I get back to camp, I like to edit all the pictures I've taken during the day, so that usually means hunching over my laptop for a few hours here and there. I wake up early at the best of times, so that means I can do a few hours' work before breakfast or, if I can't sleep, in the middle of the night!
Most safaris take place in a few different places, so the routine will also often include a journey to the next stop. Apart from a quick visit to the Oldupai Gorge to hear about the Leakeys' paleontological discoveries, we visited four main locations on our trip: Lake Manyara, Serengeti National Park, the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park, and they were all very different.
Lake Manyara National Park is not the most famous safari destination, but it does have a reputation for its 'tree-climbing lions'. In fact, all lions can climb trees, but the lions that climb trees at Lake Manyara (which we actually saw) get the extra benefit of cool breezes on the slopes of the surrounding hills. Inside the park, you'll find Lake Manyara itself and a flat, marshy plain around it, but also the heavily wooded hills that form the walls of the Great Rift Valley. This was formed by plate tectonics and is a vast corridor that runs the length of Africa, all the way from Jordan to Mozambique. It splits into eastern and western spurs, but they're both so wide that you can never see the hills on both sides. Instead, you find the enormous flat plains known as the African savanna(h), which are the home to all the 'traditional' game animals, including the Big Five (rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo). When you enter Lake Manyara National Park, the first things you notice are the trees and the hills that form the walls of the Rift Valley. The lack of open ground means that game is tricky to spot initially - apart from a few vervet and blue monkeys in the trees - but it gets easier once you drive out to the lake. Sadly, there was an unusually large amount of overnight rain during the course of our trip, so the lake and other water holes we passed were not the 'game magnets' that they normally are during the dry season. However, if the quantity of sightings was low, the quality was high, so that kept us happy.
The Serengeti plains are the stereotypical African safari destination. There is a good quantity of game all year round, and the landscape is ideal for spotting them as there are so few trees. Apparently, all the volcanic activity in the area has left a layer of tough igneous deposits a few feet below the surface that prevent trees from getting the nourishment they need to grow. Whatever the reason, it means that you are able to see those iconic, unbroken vistas that remind you of the etymology of 'Serengeti', which means 'endless plain'.
The Ngorongoro is named after the sound a Masai cowbell makes. It is surprisingly small, and you can see the walls of both sides of the caldera from wherever you are on the central plain. There is also a strange optical illusion at work. The crater is 600 metres deep, and it looks like a very long way from the viewpoint up on the rim at 2,400 metres above sea level, but, when you look back up from the crater floor, the hills don't look that high at all. Strange... Anyway, the Ngorongoro has a justly deserved reputation as a safari destination and contains all the animals you'd expect to see - with the exception of the giraffe, which can't get down the steep slope from the crater rim because its legs are too long! On our trip, we had a couple of good sightings of lions here, particularly on the kopjes, where they choose to lie high up on the rocks to get a better view, and we came across a family group of elephants on either side of the road that gave us a great chance to get up close and personal.
In terms of the landscape, Tarangire National Park is a kind of cross between Lake Manyara and the Serengeti. It boasts the hills and water of the first, but with the open savannah of the second. It also has quite a few of the distinctive baobab trees.
Did you know?
Baobab trees can be up to 2,000 years old, but there are few young ones as they get eaten by elephants, which eat the bark of the tree in the dry season as it contains large amounts of water.
Unfortunately, we didn't see much game there when we went. Normally, it's an important source of water for the animals, but the unseasonal rains meant that there was enough water for them to range far and wide without being tied to the Tarangire River. That meant they could 'save' that water source for when they really needed it in the dry season. We spent most of our time in Tarangire driving around looking for game, and the only good shot I got was the one of the lilac-breasted roller. On the other hand, the views were spectacular, and we spent our last night at a wonderful place called the Tarangire Safari Lodge, which gets a star rating in Lonely Planet. It had a long row of tents for all the guests, each with solar-powered lights and showers and a veranda with chairs and a table out front. There was a lookout point on the cliffs a few yards away that offered a spectacular panorama of the hills and river below, and the main building incorporated an enormous circular banda, with a vast roof above the dining area.
The food was a cut above the usual fare, and our dinner there consisted of pumpkin and ginger soup, mango and green pepper salad, bean and vegetable salad and then beef stew with rice or potatoes, followed by passion fruit mousse and plum tart with custard. The only problem was all the bugs flying around - even indoors. They managed to bite me even through my shirt, leaving four angry red spots on my back. It was horrendous, and it was the first time on the entire trip that I threatened to lose my sense of humour. Trying to edit my pictures on my laptop at the bar after dinner was almost impossible. The staff didn't do anything about all the creepy-crawlies and flying insects - apart from clearing away the dead bugs with a broom! - and it got even worse when I got back to my tent. It was crawling with insects, but there was no bug spray, and the bed didn't even have a mosquito net. When I couldn’t find the light switch as it wasn’t in the bathroom...well, I lost it and started sweating my head off! I hope my neighbours didn’t hear me! In the end, I had to squash all the bugs with a laminated menu card from the welcome pack. What a way to ruin - and I mean absolutely ruin! - what should’ve been a great experience to end the trip.
This Is Africa
That brings me on to a final point about going on safari. You have to take the rough with the smooth. 'This Is Africa', as they say, so you should expect a few minor problems and even one or two dramas, but you have to take it in good part. "Hakuna matata," as they say, or "No worries." If you were to write a list of pros and cons for going on safari, it would look something like this:
- Very expensive
- Long journey to get there
- Long hours in the jeep
- No electricity during the night (if at all!)
- No hot water during the night (if at all!)
- Patchy mobile coverage
- Patchy or non-existent wi-fi
- Broken equipment, eg in-car radio transceivers
- Mosquitoes carrying a risk of malaria (and therefore having to take Malarone pills every day)
- Tsetse flies (with a very sharp bite!) carrying a risk of sleeping sickness
- All kinds of other insects and bugs, dropping on you wherever you are and making a home in the bathroom
- Not being able to drink the water
- Poor quality food and lack of alternative options
- Constant worry about losing something or having it stolen (particularly bad in my case when staying in a tent without a lock on it with £30,000-worth of camera equipment in my bag!)
- Daily risk of food poisoning (particularly from ice in drinks and/or washed vegetables such as green peppers - which directly caused me to make five unscheduled trips to the bathroom in Tarangire!)
- Having to share a room/tent with someone who is not necessarily your favourite person in the world (unless you pay hundreds of pounds to sleep on your own!)
- Vehicles often breaking down or getting stuck
- Animals trying to get into your tent at night
- Having to be escorted around the camp after dark in case of animal attack
- Etc, etc, etc...
- Er, that's it...
Yes, I know it's a very long list of cons and a very short list of pros. In fact, it was worse than that on our trip as a bridge was washed away by the flooding, and we had to find a way to ford the river in our Land Cruiser. So many jeeps got stuck in the mud trying to do the same thing that it looked a bit like the elephants' graveyard, but we eventually found a way across. Our problems didn't end there, though, as some enterprising locals had decided to pile rocks on the way up from the makeshift river crossing and were demanding money to let us through! We eventually had to have a whip-round and gave them a few Tanzanian shillings. Even then, we got stuck in the mud on the way back to the main road, and it was only when all the passengers climbed out of the jeep that Julius was able to make it to safety. We all thought he'd done a great job - until we found out that Alex had managed drive the other jeep across without any problems at all!
And yet, and yet...we did see fantastic wildlife. It may not sound like much compared to having to get up at five in the morning and go without hot water, electricity and wi-fi most of the time, but the fact I keep going back speaks for itself. When you sit down with your grandchildren on your knee, and they ask what you did during your lifetime, are you going to tell them you had eight hours' sleep every night and a hot shower every morning and never let a day go by without checking social media, or are you going to tell them you saw the best of God's creation in Africa...?
1 x tube of sun cream (confiscated at Heathrow)
1 x tube of shower gel (confiscated at Heathrow)
£60 fine for exceeding hand luggage weight limit (confiscated at Heathrow)
Cape (or African) buffalo
Common (or plains) zebra
Abdim’s storkAfrican fish eagle
Black-necked sand goose
Brown snake eagle
Common house martin
Eastern chanting goshawk
Grey crowned crane
Southern ground hornbill
Tailed rufous weaver
Von der Decken’s hornbill
White-faced whistling duck
White-headed buffalo weaver