Fun facts on safari

Here’s what I learned about the bush from my guides over the last four months…

Baboon

Olive baboons can be very naughty. At Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp, the sherry used to disappear out of the bottles in the tents on a regular basis, and the management suspected the room stewards of drinking it on the sly, but one day over lunch four baboons walked up hammered. They passed out in the fireplace and woke up with hangovers! They usually left the bottles intact, but this time they must have had a party as they smashed all the bottles. 

Bee-eater

Bee-eaters catch bees, give them a ‘death shake’ and then squeeze the bee between the head and the body to squeeze out the sting

Cheetah

There are between 35 and 68 cheetah in the Masai Mara (depending on whom you believe!), compared to 825 lions.

Cheetah hunt during the day when the lion, leopard and hyena are sleeping as they can’t protect their kills.

Collective nouns

Troop or flange of baboon

Herd, troop, gang or obstinacy of buffalo

Coalition of cheetah

Bask or float of crocodile

Convocation or aerie of eagle

Stand or flamboyance of flamingo

Leash, skulk, earth, lead or troop of fox

Journey or tower of giraffe (depending on whether the animals are moving or not)

Band or troop of gorilla

Confusion of guinea fowl

Sedge, siege or hedge of heron

Bloat of hippopotamus

Cackle or clan of hyena

Bachelor herd or harem of impala (depending on whether they’re male or female)

Exaltation or ascension of lark

Leap of leopard

Pride, sault or troop of lion

Lounge of lizard

Troop, barrel, carload, cartload or tribe of monkey

Parliament or stare of owl

Prickle of porcupine

Crash or stubbornness of rhinoceros

Den, nest, pit, bed or knot of snake

Cluster or clutter of spiders

Mustering or muster of stork

Colony, nest, swarm or brood of termites

Venue or kettle of vulture (depending on whether they’re perched or circling)

Pack of wild dogs/painted wolves

Confusion of wildebeest

Crossing, cohort, herd, dazzle or zeal of zebra

Dik-dik 

Dik-diks usually come in pairs, so, if you see one, look out for another.

If one is killed by a predator, the other will often commit suicide by standing out in the open where an eagle or a cat could easily kill it. 

Elephants 

Elephant tusks can weigh up to 110kg each.

Elephants live to 60-70 years.

At the age of 14, males are kicked out of the herd.

You can sometimes tell if an elephant is right- or left-handed by the length of its tusks. If it’s right-handed, for instance, the right tusk may be a little shorter from being used more often to dig up minerals or debark trees. 

Elephants eat around 400lbs of grass a day, which means they spend 20-22 hours eating. 

People make paper from elephant and rhino dung. 

Although elephants break down a lot of trees, they also plant a lot through dispersing seeds in their dung. 

The trunk has over 100,000 muscles, and it needs six people to lift one. 

Males have a rounded head, whereas females have a squarer head. 

When male elephants are ‘in must/musth’, it means they are in season or in heat. At that time, they want to mate with a cow. If they can’t, they might take out their frustration on safari trucks!

Elephant herds or parades are led by the oldest female elephant, which is known as the matriarch. When she is about to die, she trains the eldest daughter or sister.

Elephants grow six sets of teeth. Once the last one is worn down, they die. They go to the swamps (which is how the myth of the Elephants’ Graveyard originated), and the others perform rituals. They come back every year to hold the bones.

Calves are sometimes looked after by babysitters or aunties. If the mother is killed while it’s still nursing, the calf won’t survive, but otherwise it’ll be looked after by an ‘auntie’. 

Elephants communicate through low-frequency sounds.

Giraffe

Gazelles and other prey animals often stay with giraffe. They are tall and have good vision, so they provide an early warning of predators. 

Great Migration

The Thomson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, zebra, wildebeest and eland are the only species that take part in the Great Migration in Tanzania and Kenya. 

Hippopotamus

Hippos can weigh up to 2,000-2,500kg, and eat 40-120kg of grass a day

They sit or stand in the water as they can’t really swim. Their bones have no marrow, so they’re quite heavy. 

They can hold their breath and stay underwater for 5-10 minutes.

Their lifespan is 35-50 years.

Hunting

Success rates for selected cats:

Black-footed cat: 60%

Serval: 49%

Leopard: 38%

Cheetah: 33%

Lion: 26%

Impala

One male has a harem of up to 100 females, but constantly looking after it and mating means he doesn’t get to feed very much, so he can only stay with them for 60-80 days. The other males form a bachelor herd and fight one another to find out who the challenger should be. That impala kicks out the dominant male, and the cycle starts again. The former dominant male can either rejoin the bachelor herd at the foot of the hierarchy or live alone. 

The dominant male will allow the bachelors to guard the harem at night but then kicks them out first thing in the morning. 

Leopard

Leopards use humans to find food.  They follow them home and might see the dog greeting them. The next day, the dog is missing!

Leopards’ eyes are green when they are adult, but they start off blue

Leopards can be identified by the number of spots behind the whiskers on each side of their faces

Lilac-breasted roller

Lilac-breasted rollers are very territorial and have even been known to chase away an eagle!

Lion

Lions have a bone inside the end of their tails that is rather like a claw. The Masai warm youngsters that lions can use this to attack them if they’re surrounded.

Masai

Masai men can have more than one wife. One of my guides knew one who had 16 wives and 88 children, some of whom he’d never even met!

The Masai wear red because a long time ago they used to cover cow skins with red ochre to smoothe it.

They put holes in the tops of their ears to identify dead warriors on the battlefield.

Daily routine

The Masai men wake up, check lions haven’t taken any livestock, milk the cows, drink a cup of milk, take livestock to grazing areas, have no lunch (except wild sour plums or acacia honey), come back to the village at around 1830-1900, have dinner and go to bed.

The Masai believe that seeing an augur buzzard in the morning brings good luck. It’s also good luck to see a pangolin, but you have to build a ‘boma’ (or enclosure) out of grass around it to ensure that you have many cows! I actually saw one, and my guide and spotter did exactly that…

Ostrich 

An alpha female builds a nest, lays usually 10-12 eggs and then invites other females to lay their eggs in it. The alpha female and her mate will then look after all the eggs and then the hatchlings. Sometimes, though, there are so many eggs that the alpha female will roll away some of the ones that don’t belong to her. 

Rhino

There are only 25 black rhino in the Masai Mara and no white rhino.

There are 46 black rhino in Serengeti and 24 in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Verreaux’s eagle

Verreaux’s eagles lay two eggs, but only one chick survives. The stronger one simply pecks at the weaker one until it dies. The same happens if hyena have two female puppies. It’s an alpha female not an alpha male in hyena clans, so it’s a fight for dominance. 

Wildlife

Only 30% of Kenyan wildlife lives in national parks and reserves.

Zebra

The male Grévy’s zebras is territorial. He tries to own an area with lots of natural resources that will attract females. He then mates with them, and they move on. 

Plains zebra are different. The males form a boys’ club. 

They have stripes:

  • for temperature control

  • to provide a ‘fingerprint’ for the young calves to imprint on

  • to confuse lions, which choose an individual to hunt - once the herd gets mixed up, they lose track. 

Facts and figures from my Africa trip

I travelled nearly 25,000 miles and took nearly 90,000 pictures, and it only cost me £20,000!

Map of the places where I stayed, including Tarime and Migori airstrips

My trip to Africa came about when I happened to read an online article about a guy who’d managed to wangle himself 365 nights of accommodation in exchange for taking pictures. I thought to myself, “I could do that!”, so I Googled ‘safari lodges in Kenya and Tanzania’, sent off 50 emails and waited to see what happened. After only a couple of weeks, I had 17 invitations! As the old saying goes, if you don’t ask, you don’t get…

Two of those replies came from &Beyond and Cottar’s, so I should thank them first for giving me the opportunity to spend so much time in the bush. This whole trip wouldn’t have been possible without them, particularly my main contacts Claire and Karen, who had to put up with a steady stream of emails from me over the course of three months!

The deal was that I would take pictures of the wildlife and teach photography to any guests who wanted my help, and, in exchange, I’d get free board and lodging and daily game drives. &Beyond and Cottar’s would get access to all my pictures for marketing purposes, but it would be on a non-exclusive basis, so I’d also be able to sell them myself.

I stayed four months in Tanzania and Kenya from 28 February to 30 June, and here are a few facts and figures from the trip.


Locations

Klein’s Camp

Serengeti Under Canvas

Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp

Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp


Itinerary

I have a useful app called Polarsteps that tracks the GPS location of my phone. This map (above) is a screenshot from that app, showing all the places where I stayed and the routes I took on game drives. You can also see Tarime and Migori airstrips, both of which I had to pass through on my way from Tanzania to Kenya.

27-28 February 2019: Flew from London Heathrow via Doha to Kilimanjaro (paying for a business class upgrade on the second leg!)

28 February: Met a few of the &Beyond staff at their office in Arusha and stayed overnight at The Coffee Lodge

1 March: Flew from Arusha to Lobo Airstrip and then was driven to Klein’s Camp

1 March-8 May: Stayed at Klein’s Camp in the Tanzanian Serengeti (with short trips to Serengeti Under Canvas at Ndutu from 11-15 and 22-24 March and at Seronera from 11-16 April)

8 May: Driven to Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp

8-28 May: Stayed at Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp in the western Serengeti, Tanzania

28 May: Flew from Grumeti Airstrip to Tarime, then was driven across the Kenyan border to catch another flight from Migori to Keekorok Airstrip in Kenya, where I was met and driven to Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp

28 May-30 June: Stayed at Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp

30 June: Flew from Keekorok Airstrip to Nairobi Wilson, where I was picked up by Wilson and taken to the Cottar’s guesthouse and then the Tamarind restaurant for dinner

1 July: Flew just after midnight from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi via Doha to London Heathrow (paying for a business class upgrade on the overnight leg…)


Wildlife sightings

Time spent in camps and lodges: 122 days

Number of game drives: 163

Number of kills: 3 (four male lions killing a female Cape buffalo, two male cheetah killing a blue wildebeest and a female leopard killing a baby blue wildebeest)

Commonest animal seen: impala

Rarest animal seen: pangolin (followed by the rhinoceros)

Animals I’ve seen mating: common ostrich, elephant, leopard, lion (28 times!), Masai giraffe, tawny eagle

Animals I’ve seen nursing: plains zebra, blue wildebeest, lion, cheetah

Animals I’ve seen fighting: blue wildebeest, cheetah, lion, Thomson’s gazelle

Predators I’ve seen hunting: cheetah, leopard, lion, secretary bird, serval

Predators I’ve seen feeding: cheetah, leopard, lion, saddle-billed stork, steppe eagle, tawny eagle


Shutter counts

Tanzania: 82,566 shots (of which 4,117 were 3*, 25 4* and 38 5*)

Kenya: 5,954 shots (of which 765 were 3*, none 4* and five 5*)

Total: 88,520 shots (of which I kept 4,950 that I rated 3* or higher, of which 1,584 were portrait, 3,365 landscape (including panoramas) and 1 square)

Nikon D810 with 80-400mm lens: 36,819 shots

Nikon D850 with 800mm lens: 51,701 shots

Minimum shots taken on a game drive: 0

Maximum shots taken on a game drive: 4,032


Swahili phrases

Hello - Jambo

Thank you very much - Asante sana

Goodnight - Lala salama 

How are you? - Habari 

No worries - Hakuna matata

Slowly, slowly - Pole, pole

Okay - Sawa sawa


Glossary

Topi are “blue jeans, yellow socks”

Tommies are ‘cheetah fast food’

Warthogs are ‘Kenyan express’

(Male) vervet monkeys are ‘blue balls’

Impala are ‘MacDonald’s’

‘Kick the tyres’ or ‘mark one’s territory’ means to go to the toilet in the bush

An aeroplane is a ‘gas eagle’

Mythbusting 

Lionesses don’t do all the hunting.

Hyena are not just scavengers - they’re the principal predators of wildebeest in the Serengeti.


Hunting success rates

Black-footed cat: 60%

Serval: 49%

Leopard: 38%

Cheetah: 33%

Lion: 26%


Quotable quotes

“Can we have gluten-free pizza but no cheese, just sauce?”

“Do you want two shots of gin or three?”

“Binoculate”

“Volcanicity”

“Starter marriage”

“Goats: tails up. Sheep: tails down.”

“I was fucking busy and just sad that it wasn’t the other way around.”

“That’s a man for you: I just want a beer and to see something nekkid.”

Baldness is “a solar panel for a sex machine”

“I can’t even get dressed without a man!”

“Giraffic Park”

“So what you’re saying is, if I gave you a quarter of a million, you’d do something with it?”

“Beans will make you fart like a 40-bob racehorse.”


Staff

The staff were almost without exception very friendly and helpful at all the places where I stayed, but their English names were sometimes a little unusual!

  • Innocent, Aron, Enoch, Alpha, Thobias and Josphat sounded like they came from a religious cult.

  • Winter, Justice, Paris and Superstar sounded like they came from the Marvel Cinematic Universe!


Amusing moments

  • Being asked to take a picture of a Saudi prince and his entourage

  • Finding a 50kg elephant tusk that would’ve been worth over $35,000 on the black market!

True stories

I obviously heard quite a few stories from the staff while I was out there. Here’s a selection of my favourites (with apologies if I have any of the facts wrong!):

  • One of the guests at Cottar’s was a New Yorker, and she’d never been in the bush before. At her orientation, the staff warned her that she might hear lions and other animals during the night but that it wasn’t dangerous and she was safe in her tent. Unfortunately, she wasn’t convinced, and that night she panicked at the sound of the lions, called security and had to be airlifted out first thing in the morning!

  • Leopards are most people’s favourite animals on safari, and it’s easy to forget that they can be very dangerous. One of the guides was Masai and used to tend the livestock with his brother when they were both around six years old. One day, it had started to get very hot, so they decided to have a nap under a tree. When they lay down, the guide’s brother suddenly felt something dripping on him. When he looked up, he saw it was a leopard urinating on him! Before he had a chance to react, the leopard jumped down from the tree, slapped him across the face with its paw - taking out his eye! - and ran off. The two boys both started screaming and crying, and they carried on for over an hour until a passer-by found them. He saw what had happened and told them that Calvin Cottar was camping nearby and might be able to do something. He helped them find the camp, and Calvin managed to get the boy to hospital. He lost the eye, but lived to tell the tale!

  • Ken is the head guide at Cottar’s, and he’s been around long enough to have had a few hair-raising experiences! One day, he was on a game drive with two women who particularly wanted to see a rhino. He drove them around for hours without any luck until, finally, they saw a rhino standing just a few yards away. Before Ken had a chance to react, the rhino charged the truck, and he had to dive to the other side to save himself. The rhino ended up punching through the door of the truck with his horn, just missing Ken, who was sprawled across the passenger seat. The danger wasn’t over yet, though, because the rhino had got his horn stuck in the door! It pulled and pushed and eventually tore the entire door off its hinges and galloped off! At this point, Ken desperately looked around to find the women, who were thankfully safe, and radioed Kenya Wildlife Service to report the incident. He told them the whole story and then, at the end, said that they might want to look out for a rhino with a door on its head!

  • There is an old male cat living at Cottar’s called Picky picky, and he ended up scaring quite a few of the guests. It took a while for the staff to work out what was going on after guests kept complaining about animals getting into their tents, but then it became obvious: one man was just getting into bed when Picky Picky jumped down on him. He panicked, screamed and called the security guard. Everyone came running, and he told them that a ‘leopard’ had got into his tent and was still inside somewhere. The staff looked everywhere and eventually found the cat under the bed: it was Picky Picky!

  • Cottar’s put a water bottle in the bed in each tent during the evening, but that sometimes causes problems when guests aren’t expecting it! One man slid into bed, felt something warm and furry inside and thought it must be some kind of animal, so he grabbed a knife, stabbed the hot water bottle - and ended up getting scalded by the boiling water!

  • One of the guides at Cottar’s is called Wilson, and he told the story once of how he got his name and birthday. When he was a child, he needed a passport, and he couldn’t get one without a birth certificate, and he couldn’t get one of those without having an English name and a date of birth. Wilson is Masai, and Masai sometimes have names that are difficult for westerners to pronounce, so they often given themselves English names. In Wilson’s case, he was asked to choose a name at school, so he chose James, but James was already taken by one of his classmates. He chose a different name, but that had been taken, too, He chose three more names, but none of them was available either. The first available name was ‘Wilson’, so that’s what he ended up with! The other problem was his date of birth. The Masai don’t celebrate birthdays, so many of them don’t even know how old they are. In the end, he had to speak to a doctor who knew his family. They worked out from the fact his mother was his father’s first wife that it must’ve been 1990-94, so he chose 1994, it was a rainy month so he chose May and he liked the fact that 18 was divisible by six numbers, so he chose the 18th as his birthday!

Strengths & weaknesses 

There was nothing too much wrong with any of the places I stayed, but it might be useful to know one or two things about them if you’re thinking of booking a trip.

Klein’s Camp

Strengths: good for seeing elephant, lion and Cape buffalo, great view from the bar area, friendly and helpful staff, breakfast cooked in front of you, ability to go off-road, access to Serengeti National Park, most luxurious accommodation, good souvenir shop

Weaknesses: very few sightings in early March, no rhino, overcooked meat

Serengeti Under Canvas

Strengths: access to Great Migration, so more photographic opportunities than anywhere else, excellent food (especially the soups)

Weaknesses: no electricity or hot water in the tents, bush showers, no off-road driving (although the rule was mainly ignored!), no souvenir shop

Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp

Strengths: very good soups (the chilled apple and ginger was the best I’d ever tasted!), excellent roads (apart from a few ‘buffalo ribs’), nicely laid out main area on the riverbank, with swimming pool and dining area within easy reach and everywhere having a view of the hippos in the river, beautiful sunsets visible from the Masira Hill, where we generally went for sundowners (and rainbows!)

Weaknesses: no off-road driving (although the rule was again mainly ignored), very few animal sightings before the migration herds arrived, limited souvenir shop

Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp

Strengths: chance of seeing a rhino, off-road driving allowed in the Olderkesi Conservancy, animals to pet (including a cat called ‘Picky Picky’ and two tame eland), communal dining, best food out of all the places I stayed, old-fashioned Rolls-Royce, good souvenir shop

Weaknesses: no off-road driving in the Masai Mara National Reserve (although the rule was again mainly ignored), very slow and unreliable wifi, long walk to the swimming pool (particularly from the ‘luxury’ tents), having to pay extra for certain spirits

The bill

Flights: £2,000 (including £284 and £343 for online business class upgrades)

Serengeti National Park fees: £2,767 ($3,403)

800mm lens: £15,545

Taxis to/from London Heathrow: £90

Meal at Tamambo Karen Blixen Nairobi: £34

Grand total: £20,436

Forgotten something?

Monopod (I brought the wrong tripod - the one that didn’t turn into a monopod - but I didn’t really need it in the end)

Charging cable for headphones (I brought the wrong one - they all look the same!)

Unnecessary baggage

I could’ve left almost all my clothes and lenses behind. There was a daily laundry service, so most of my shirts just stayed on the shelf, and I only used my 80-400mm and 800mm lenses…

Butcher's bill

1 x left big toenail!

1 x 1.25 teleconverter

1 x laptop screen (damaged in a couple of places when it fell off the nightstand)

1 x pink silk cufflink (the maid must’ve knocked it behind the sink unit in my bathroom…)

Other

Number of unforgettably beautiful women: 2 (you know who you are!) 

Species list

This is a cumulative list of species I saw at Klein’s Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas, Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp and Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp.

Animals (60)

African civet

African hare

African bush elephant

African wild cat

Banded mongoose

Bat-eared fox

Black-backed jackal

Black-backed/silver-backed jackal

Blue wildebeest

Bohor reedbuck

Bushbuck

Cape buffalo

Chameleon

Cheetah

Coke’s hartebeest

Colobus monkey

Common warthog

Common/golden jackal

Defassa waterbuck

Dung beetle

Dwarf mongoose

Eland

Field mouse

Grant’s gazelle

Green turtle

Hippopotamus

Impala

Kirk’s dik-dik

Klipspringer

Leopard

Leopard tortoise

Lesser bush baby

Lion

Little antelope

Masai giraffe

Millipede

Monitor lizard

Mwanza flat-headed rock agama/Spider-Man agama

Nile crocodile

Olive baboon

Oribi

Pangolin

Plains zebra

Rhinoceros

Rock hyrax

Rock python

Scrub hare

Serval

Slender mongoose

Spitting cobra

Spotted hyena

Steenbok

Terrapin

Thomson’s gazelle

Topi

Tree hyrax

Tree lizard

Vervet monkey

White-tailed mongoose

Wild dog/painted wolf

Birds (208)

Abdim’s stork

African crowned eagle

African cuckoo

African fish eagle

African golden weaver

African green-pigeon

African grey flycatcher

African grey hornbill

African harrier-hawk

African hawk-eagle

African hoopoe

African moustached warbler

African open-billed stork

African paradise flycatcher

African pied wagtail

African wattled lapwing

African white-backed vulture

Arrow-marked babbler

Augur buzzard

Bare-faced go-away-bird

Barn swallow

Bateleur eagle

Bearded woodpecker

Black crake

Black stork

Black-and-white cuckoo

Black-bellied bustard

Black-chested snake-eagle

Black-headed gonolek

Black-headed heron

Black-lored babbler

Black-shouldered kite

Black-winged red bishop

Black-winged stilt

Blacksmith plover

Blue-capped cordon-bleu

Blue-naped mousebird

Bronze mannikin

Brown parrot

Brown snake-eagle

Burchell’s starling

Cape wheatear

Cardinal quelea

Cardinal woodpecker

Cattle egret

Chestnut sparrow

Cinnamon-breasted rock bunting

Common buzzard

Common kestrel

Common ostrich

Common sandpiper oooobrm

Coqui francolin

Croaking cisticola

Crowned plover

Dark chanting-goshawk

Diederik cuckoo

Eagle owl

Eastern chanting-goshawk

Eastern grey plantain-eater

Eastern paradise whydah

Egyptian goose

European bee-eater

European roller

European swallow

Fischer’s lovebird

Fischer’s sparrow-lark

Flappet lark

Fork-tailed drongo

Gabor goshawk

Goliath heron

Grassland pipit

Great spotted cuckoo

Greater blue-eared starling

Greater flamingo

Greater painted-snipe

Greater striped swallow

Green wood-hoopoe

Grey-breasted spurfowl

Grey-capped social weaver

Grey crowned crane

Grey heron

Grey hornbill

Grey kestrel

Grey-backed fiscal

Grey-breasted spurfowl

Grey-crested helmetshrike

Hadada ibis

Hammerkop

Harlequin quail

Helmeted guineafowl

Hooded vulture

Isabelline wheatear

Kittlitz’s plover

Klaas’s cuckoo

Knob-billed duck

Kori bustard

Lappet-faced vulture

Lesser flamingo

Lesser kestrel

Lesser masked weaver

Lesser striped swallow

Lilac-breasted roller

Little bee-eater

Little sparrowhawk

Little green bee-eater

Long-crested eagle

Long-tailed cisticola

Magpie shrike

Marigold sunbird

Marsh eagle

Martial eagle

Montagu’s harrier

Mountain buzzard

Northern anteater chat

Northern wheatear

Northern white-crowned shrike

Pale spotted owlet

Pallid harrier

Pied kingfisher

Pin-tailed whydah

Plain-backed pipit

Purple grenadier

Purple-crested turaco

Pygmy falcon

Pygmy kingfisher

Rattling cisticola

Red-backed shrike

Red-billed buffalo-weaver

Red-billed quelea

Red-cheeked cordon-bleu

Red-fronted barbet

Red-headed weaver

Red-necked spurfowl

Red-rumped swallow

Red-winged lark

Red-winged starling

Ring-necked dove

Rosy-breasted longclaw

Ruff

Rufous-naped lark

Rufous-tailed weaver

Ruppell’s griffon vulture

Ruppell’s long-tailed starling

Saddle-billed stork

Sand grouse

Sand martin

Scarlet-chested sunbird

Secretary bird

Senegal lapwing

Silverbird

Sooty falcon

Southern red bishop

Speckle-fronted weaver

Speckled mousebird

Speckled pigeon

Spot-flanked barbet

Spotted thick-knee

Spur-winged goose

Spur-winged lapwing

Steel-blue whydah

Steppe eagle

Straw-tailed whydah

Striated heron

Striped kingfisher

Sunbird

Superb starling

Swamp nightjar

Taita fiscal

Tawny eagle

Tawny-flanked prinia

Temminck’s courser

Three-banded plover

Two-banded courser

Two-banded plover

Usambiro barbet

Variable sunbird

Verreaux’s (or black) eagle

Verreaux’s eagle-owl

Village indigobird

Von Der Decken’s hornbill

Water thick-knee

Wattled starling

Western banded snake-eagle

White stork

White wagtail

White-bellied bustard

White-bellied tit

White-browed coucal

White-browed robin-chat

White-browed scrub-robin

White-faced whistling-duck

White-headed buffalo-weaver

White-headed saw-wing

White-headed vulture

White-winged widowbird

Wire-tailed swallow

Wood dove

Wood sandpiper

Woodland kingfisher

Woolly-necked stork

Yellow-billed oxpecker

Yellow-billed stork

Yellow-fronted canary

Yellow-rumped seedeater

Yellow-throated longclaw

Yellow-throated sandgrouse

Yellow-vented bulbul

Zitting cisticola

Cottar's 1920s Safari Camp

Sometimes, a leopard is just a leopard…

Cold, grey and wet. The weather at Cottar’s when I arrived on 28 May wasn’t great, and it didn’t get much better until a few days before I left on 30 June. There were regular downpours every couple of days, and I didn’t see a single sunrise while I was there! To add to the gloom, the Big Five were a lot more difficult to spot than in Tanzania. The big draw, of course, was the rhino. I hadn’t seen one in years, and I was looking forward to getting a few good shots while I was at Cottar’s. Unfortunately, there are only around 25 black rhino in the Masai Mara, and they’re also very shy. After three weeks of not seeing one, I was getting a bit desperate! When I did eventually see one on 19 June, it ran away as soon as it saw us, and I didn’t get a single decent shot. I also had a couple of run-ins with guests who weren’t happy with me for one reason or another, so that was a bit humiliating - particularly when people I’d got on very well with turned out not to want me to join them on the next game drive! To be fair, one of the people in question complained about just about everything - including the fact that Calvin Cottar hadn’t stood up to say goodnight to her after dinner! - but I accept that it’s my responsibility to keep the guests happy, and, even with the best will in the world, I did fail to do that a couple of times.

Having said all that, even a bad day on safari is better than a good day at work, right?! I enjoyed my stay at Cottar’s, and I was quite touched when a couple of the staff said they’d miss me when I was gone. I didn’t see a kill, but I had a couple of great leopard sightings (see above), and I managed to take a few shots of animals silhouetted at sunset, which is one of my specialities. I also got on well with most of the staff, who were generally very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. I went on quite a few game drives with Ken, the head guide, and Mako always had a smile on his face. The food was also outstanding. Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp did a nice line in chilled soups, but the Cottar’s starters were good, the meat was done to perfection (unlike the shoe leather that is a Tanzanian speciality!) and the desserts were a heavenly mix of chocolate, fresh fruit and home-made ice-cream.

History

Cottar’s is a family business jointly owned by Calvin Cottar and his wife Louise, and the ‘1920s’ part of the name comes from the fact that Calvin’s great grandfather Charles (or ‘Chas’) travelled from Cedar County Oklahoma to set up Cottar’s Safari Service (now Cottar’s Safaris) in 1919. It celebrated its hundredth anniversary this year and is now the oldest established safari company in Africa. Here are a few of the significant milestones:

  • 1922: Chas mauled by a leopard

  • 1924: Chas’s son Bud guides Duke and Duchess of York

  • 1930s: Keep lion, leopard and wild dogs as pets

  • 1938: Negly Farson calls Chas ‘the finest hunter in Africa’

  • 1940: Chas killed by a rhino

  • 1941: Bud’s brother Charles (or ‘Mike') killed by blackwater fever

  • 1959: Mike’s son Glen changes the name of the company to Glen Cottar Safaris Ltd

  • 1965: Glen sets up Cottar’s Camp in Tsavo East, the first of its kind in Africa

  • 1975: Glen starts community conservation scheme with concession system in the Masai Mara

  • 1977: Hunting banned in Kenya

  • 1977: Glen starts Cottar’s camp in the Mara

  • 1985: Calvin starts hunting in Tanzania

  • 1989: Calvin leaves Tanzania to start a wildlife management company

  • 1995: Calvin returns to Cottar’s and comes up with the 1920s safari concept

  • 1996: Glen passes away

  • 2012: Cottar’s Bush Villa is opened (voted Africa’s Leading Luxury Private Villa at the 2016 World Travel Awards)

  • 2016: Olderkesi Conservancy officially opens

Conservation

The original safaris were intended for big game hunters and based at temporary camps, but when Kenya banned hunting in 1977 the focus shifted to the modern safari experience, with guests swapping rifles for cameras. The current camp is located in Kenya on the border with Tanzania, and game drives take place either in the Olderkesi Conservancy or in the Masai Mara National Reserve. Both are owned by the Masai, and this is crucial to Calvin’s vision of the future of conservation. Wild animals such as lions, leopards and elephants have always been the traditional enemy of the Masai as they threaten their livestock and crops, so he believes (with some justification) that the only way to preserve wildlife is to give the Masai ‘skin in the game’ by leasing the land from them to create wildlife conservancies in which they are actually allowed to own the animals. When the law states that the Government owns all the wildlife, then the Masai have no incentive to look after it. As soon as they have property rights, the game changes completely, and that’s one of the reasons why the approach taken by South Africa has been so successful in increasing animal populations. One of the other things South Africa does is to allow hunting, and that is a very valuable source of revenue. A lot of people might instinctively think that hunting is wrong, but an animal is worth a lot more to a hunter than a photographer, so it’s an important source of potential revenue to plough back into conservation.

Calvin’s approach is summed up by the ‘4Cs’ - Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce - and they’re posted prominently on the wall of the Business Centre. It’s obviously still a struggle to change attitudes that have persisted for hundreds if not thousands of years, but he’s working with a variety of landowners and other organisations to promote this model of land ownership, which is able to preserve the Masai’s traditional ability to graze their livestock on common land while preserving part of it for safari camps like Cottar’s.

Calvin visited Cottar’s a couple of times while I was there, so I got a chance to thank him personally for giving me such a great opportunity. At first, it was a little bit intimidating to meet the owner of the place, but he always seemed pleased to see me, and it was interesting to learn his perspective on wildlife conservation. He’s obviously very passionate and knowledgeable on the subject, and once he gets going he’s quite capable of talking the hind leg off a wildebeest…!

Camp life

I was a bit surprised when I arrived at Cottar’s. There was an old Rolls-Royce parked on the lawn and a pith helmet and an antique gramophone in the main tent, but I was expecting more of a nostalgic feel to the place.

Roller. (Not lilac-breasted.)

In fact, one or two of the regular guests mentioned that it had changed over time - for example, the wait staff all used to wear fez hats! - but Calvin told me that they’d ‘dialled it down a bit’ over time. As a result, the camp now looks very similar to the &Beyond camp where I stayed in Grumeti.

One of the tents. (Not mine…!)

There are permanent tents with built-in bathroom facilities divided into ‘family’ tents on one side and ‘luxury’ tents on the other - including a ‘honeymoon suite’. I had a family tent (funnily enough!), and about the only thing that was 1920s about it was the bathroom. The plumbing and electrical system were decidedly archaic, and my steward seemed to delight in playing a kind of Kim’s game with me, in which every morning something would go missing. One day, it would be the bath mat, the next it would be the hand towel! Who knows what was going on, but I imagine that the paying guests in the luxury tents didn’t have quite so many surprises! Anyway, it was amusing rather than annoying, and I wasn’t staying a month in the Masai Mara in order to pamper myself. Besides, I hardly spent any time in my tent. I was usually either in the Business Centre tent or the main area, which had a bar and two long communal dining tables that made it very easy to meet people. As usual, it was a real pleasure chatting with the guests. With only one exception, they were all friendly, cheerful and approachable, and it’s great to talk to people who are so successful, well educated, cultured, adventurous, well travelled and passionate about wildlife. It’s just a shame they generally had to leave after three nights or so. Even in that short time, you create a bit of a bond, and most of the guests ended up hugging the staff (and sometimes even me!) when they left for the airport…

There are various activities available to amuse the guests, such as swimming, croquet, canvas baths, massages, electric bikes, hiking and ‘Masai skills’ such as archery, and there’s even a spa tent. However, the normal routine is to go on a long game drive in the morning from 0600-1300 (including a ‘bush breakfast’ of sausages, bacon, eggs, pancakes, fruit, yoghurt and various hot and cold drinks) and then another shorter one from around 1700-1900. Lunch is available after the morning drive at around 1300, and dinner starts at around 2000. You can also ask for coffee or tea and a biscuit with your wake-up call, there are tea and cakes available in the main area from around 1630 and there are nuts and crisps on board the safari trucks, so you’ll never go hungry!

I’m always an early riser, so I got into the habit of waking up at 0430 every morning and getting an ‘ascari’ (or security guard) to walk me over to the Business Centre. The wifi in my tent wasn’t working, so that was the best place to plug in my laptop and read the paper online. I’d also go back there after each game drive to edit my pictures and maybe watch a TV show if I had the time. An average day in the Serengeti consisted of nine hours of game drives plus another nine hours of editing, so I didn’t have much time to myself, but I didn’t go on as many game drives at Cottar’s, and I didn’t take as many pictures, so there were some days when I’d simply park myself in the Business Centre with my laptop and amuse myself for the whole day apart from mealtimes.

Wildlife

I worked at Cottar’s on the same basis as I’d worked at &Beyond, so I was there to take pictures for myself and for the company, but also to help guests with their photography if they needed it. As it turned out, the camp was very busy as a lot of the wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and eland that form the Great Migration had arrived early. That meant there were quite a few days when I couldn’t go out on game drives as all the vehicles were being used. Even when I did go out, I didn’t take as many pictures as in Tanzania. I just didn’t seem to get the right opportunities. Of course, there were always ‘prey’ animals such as the zebra and impala, but that’s not the same as a big cat or a rhino. My priority is always to see a kill, which is the most exciting thing you can possibly witness on safari, but seeing any of those four is a good start. If I had to rank them in order, my wildlife wish list would look like this:

  1. Rhinoceros

  2. Leopard

  3. Cheetah

  4. Lion

I choose the rhino for rarity, the leopard for beauty, the cheetah for the best chance of seeing a kill and the lion because it looks great in the golden hour - and lion cubs playing together are a delight!

When it comes to getting the most out of a game drive, there are two very different approaches. The first is the traditional one, which involves driving around until you see an animal, then taking a few pictures before driving around again to see another one. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t give you the best chance of seeing what (almost) everyone wants to see, which is a kill. The second way is the one I discovered last year when I went to Kicheche Bush Camp in the Kenyan Masai Mara (not too far away from Cottar’s, in fact). The trip was run by Exodus, and Paul Goldstein was our tour leader. His approach was to find a cat and stick with it. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? However, it took a lot of preparation and experience. First of all, he paid out of his own pocket for spotters to drive around looking for leopards, lions and cheetahs for us to see, which gave us the opportunity we needed. If the spotters didn’t see anything, Paul would use his knowledge of the conservancy to go to the best places to spot the cats. That meant going down to the river to see the Kaboso leopard, which put on quite a show for us one morning, and heading for the open plains to see the cheetah. We saw two female cheetah, one with two cubs and the other with four, and the great thing about the cheetah is that it hunts during the day when the lions and leopards are asleep. That means once we’d found one we just had to wait until it started hunting. That took a while sometimes, and Paul would entertain us by telling off-colour jokes and playing guessing games based on 1980s pop songs, but the payoff came when we saw five kills in a week! That was the approach I wanted to take in Tanzania and at Cottar’s, but the problem was that a) there weren’t enough cheetah sightings and b) I was generally with guests who almost certainly didn’t have the patience to sit with a cheetah for hours on end!

As a result, I took only around a fifth as many pictures at Cottar’s as I had done in Tanzania (15,000 v 73,500) even though I was there for a third of the time, and I ended up with around the same fraction of ‘keepers’ (770 vs 4,180). When it came to my absolute favourite shots, the shots that made me smile with pride, I only took five at Cottar’s, compared to 63 in the Serengeti. That was a shame, but I accept that it was a different time of year, a different climate and a different region. Sometimes in wildlife photography, you get what you’re given, so I’m never too bothered about having a ‘quiet’ day. Anyway, here are my favourite images from the trip. I hope you like them!

“I see you…!”

Miss Saigon 2019

Miss Saigon 2019

Grey kestrel

“I thought this was going to be a lot easier…”

Butcher's bill

1 x left big toenail

Various items of clothing (until they found them for me!)

Species list:

This is a cumulative list of species I’ve seen at Klein’s Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas, Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp and Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp.

Animals (60)

African civet

African hare

African bush elephant

African wild cat

Banded mongoose

Bat-eared fox

Black-backed jackal

Black-backed/silver-backed jackal

Blue wildebeest

Bohor reedbuck

Bushbuck

Cape buffalo

Chameleon

Cheetah

Coke’s hartebeest

Colobus monkey

Common warthog

Common/golden jackal

Defassa waterbuck

Dung beetle

Dwarf mongoose

Eland

Field mouse

Grant’s gazelle

Green turtle

Hippopotamus

Impala

Kirk’s dik-dik

Klipspringer

Leopard

Leopard tortoise

Lesser bush baby

Lion

Little antelope

Masai giraffe

Millipede

Monitor lizard

Mwanza flat-headed rock agama/Spider-Man agama

Nile crocodile

Olive baboon

Oribi

Pangolin

Plains zebra

Rhinoceros

Rock hyrax

Rock python

Scrub hare

Serval

Slender mongoose

Spitting cobra

Spotted hyena

Steenbok

Terrapin

Thomson’s gazelle

Topi

Tree hyrax

Tree lizard

Vervet monkey

White-tailed mongoose

Wild dog/painted wolf


Birds (208)

Abdim’s stork

African crowned eagle

African cuckoo

African fish eagle

African golden weaver

African green-pigeon

African grey flycatcher

African grey hornbill

African harrier-hawk

African hawk-eagle

African hoopoe

African moustached warbler

African open-billed stork

African paradise flycatcher

African pied wagtail

African wattled lapwing

African white-backed vulture

Arrow-marked babbler

Augur buzzard

Bare-faced go-away-bird

Barn swallow

Bateleur eagle

Bearded woodpecker

Black crake

Black stork

Black-and-white cuckoo

Black-bellied bustard

Black-chested snake-eagle

Black-headed gonolek

Black-headed heron

Black-lored babbler

Black-shouldered kite

Black-winged red bishop

Black-winged stilt

Blacksmith plover

Blue-capped cordon-bleu

Blue-naped mousebird

Bronze mannikin

Brown parrot

Brown snake-eagle

Burchell’s starling

Cape wheatear

Cardinal quelea

Cardinal woodpecker

Cattle egret

Chestnut sparrow

Cinnamon-breasted rock bunting

Common buzzard

Common kestrel

Common ostrich

Common sandpiper oooobrm

Coqui francolin

Croaking cisticola

Crowned plover

Dark chanting-goshawk

Diederik cuckoo

Eagle owl

Eastern chanting-goshawk

Eastern grey plantain-eater

Eastern paradise whydah

Egyptian goose

European bee-eater

European roller

European swallow

Fischer’s lovebird

Fischer’s sparrow-lark

Flappet lark

Fork-tailed drongo

Gabor goshawk

Goliath heron

Grassland pipit

Great spotted cuckoo

Greater blue-eared starling

Greater flamingo

Greater painted-snipe

Greater striped swallow

Green wood-hoopoe

Grey-breasted spurfowl

Grey-capped social weaver

Grey crowned crane

Grey heron

Grey hornbill

Grey kestrel

Grey-backed fiscal

Grey-breasted spurfowl

Grey-crested helmetshrike

Hadada ibis

Hammerkop

Harlequin quail

Helmeted guineafowl

Hooded vulture

Isabelline wheatear

Kittlitz’s plover

Klaas’s cuckoo

Knob-billed duck

Kori bustard

Lappet-faced vulture

Lesser flamingo

Lesser kestrel

Lesser masked weaver

Lesser striped swallow

Lilac-breasted roller

Little bee-eater

Little sparrowhawk

Little green bee-eater

Long-crested eagle

Long-tailed cisticola

Magpie shrike

Marigold sunbird

Marsh eagle

Martial eagle

Montagu’s harrier

Mountain buzzard

Northern anteater chat

Northern wheatear

Northern white-crowned shrike

Pale spotted owlet

Pallid harrier

Pied kingfisher

Pin-tailed whydah

Plain-backed pipit

Purple grenadier

Purple-crested turaco

Pygmy falcon

Pygmy kingfisher

Rattling cisticola

Red-backed shrike

Red-billed buffalo-weaver

Red-billed quelea

Red-cheeked cordon-bleu

Red-fronted barbet

Red-headed weaver

Red-necked spurfowl

Red-rumped swallow

Red-winged lark

Red-winged starling

Ring-necked dove

Rosy-breasted longclaw

Ruff

Rufous-naped lark

Rufous-tailed weaver

Ruppell’s griffon vulture

Ruppell’s long-tailed starling

Saddle-billed stork

Sand grouse

Sand martin

Scarlet-chested sunbird

Secretary bird

Senegal lapwing

Silverbird

Sooty falcon

Southern red bishop

Speckle-fronted weaver

Speckled mousebird

Speckled pigeon

Spot-flanked barbet

Spotted thick-knee

Spur-winged goose

Spur-winged lapwing

Steel-blue whydah

Steppe eagle

Straw-tailed whydah

Striated heron

Striped kingfisher

Sunbird

Superb starling

Swamp nightjar

Taita fiscal

Tawny eagle

Tawny-flanked prinia

Temminck’s courser

Three-banded plover

Two-banded courser

Two-banded plover

Usambiro barbet

Variable sunbird

Verreaux’s (or black) eagle

Verreaux’s eagle-owl

Village indigobird

Von Der Decken’s hornbill

Water thick-knee

Wattled starling

Western banded snake-eagle

White stork

White wagtail

White-bellied bustard

White-bellied tit

White-browed coucal

White-browed robin-chat

White-browed scrub-robin

White-faced whistling-duck

White-headed buffalo-weaver

White-headed saw-wing

White-headed vulture

White-winged widowbird

Wire-tailed swallow

Wood dove

Wood sandpiper

Woodland kingfisher

Woolly-necked stork

Yellow-billed oxpecker

Yellow-billed stork

Yellow-fronted canary

Yellow-rumped seedeater

Yellow-throated longclaw

Yellow-throated sandgrouse

Yellow-vented bulbul

Zitting cisticola

Wildlife sightings

“Lies, damned lies and statistics…”

The only question that really matters when you’re on safari is “Will we see X?” Now, ‘X’ may be a lion, a cheetah, a kill or a wildebeest crossing, but the frustrating bit is that you never get a straight answer. Guides will tell you that “You never know what you’re going to see” or “There’s a pretty good chance” or “We might see that”, but they’ll never use statistics to give you a proper idea of the relevant probability. Fortunately, the manager of Klein’s Camp kindly gave me copies of the sighting sheets for seven months in 2018 and early 2019, so I was able to do a frequency analysis.

First, a couple of quick caveats about the data:

  • The records are not complete. Data are only available from July 2018 to January 2019, there were no game drives on some days, and the guides only started counting sightings of caracal, serval, aardwolf, migration herds and kills in October 2018.

  • The figures are for ‘sightings’, which means it doesn’t show the actual number of animals seen. A sighting of a lion just means that one or more lions was spotted.

  • Figures are for a given day rather than an individual game drive. At Klein’s, there are usually two game drives a day, one in the morning from 0600 or 0630 until lunchtime and another from 1600 or 1630 until sunset (1830-1900). Sometimes the evening game drive turns into a ‘night drive’ for an extra couple of hours. A ‘day’ therefore amounts to around nine hours in the bush.

Despite the limitations of the data, it’s possible to draw a few conclusions.

  • There were 1,135 sightings of the Big Five, cheetah, wild dog, serval, caracal, aardwolf, migration herds and kills in seven months (215 days), making an average of 157 a month or five a day.

  • Lions were the most common sighting (312), followed by buffalo (311), elephant (284), leopard (100), cheetah (68), serval (12), wild dog and caracal (both 11), rhino (10) and aardwolf (1).

  • Kills were very rare, with only five spotted during the four months when records are available.

  • If you divide the number of days when each animal was sighted by the total number of days in the period, you can get an approximate probability of seeing each one on a given day (see chart).

  • The chances of seeing a lion on any given day were 81% from July 2018 to January 2019 (from 52% in October 2018 to 93% the following month).

  • The chances of seeing any big cat were 85% (from 55% in October 2018 to 100% the following month).

  • The chances of seeing one of the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo) were 87% (from 58% in October 2018 to 100% the following month).

  • The chances of seeing all of the Big Five on the same day were vanishingly small, only 0.93%! It only happened on two days, 1 and 10 October 2018.

Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp

All’s well that ends well…

My time at Grumeti started off with a few frustrations and disappointments, but it all came right in the end…!

The main problem was that the Great Migration was late, so there were very few animals around. There were some resident zebra and wildebeest, but not enough to provide me with any chance to see a kill. I made things worse for myself by deciding not to go on one of the afternoon game drives. Admittedly, one of the South African guests had told me that there ‘probably’ wouldn’t be one as they needed to be up early in the morning, and I was a bit stressed about getting behind on editing my pictures, but it was laziness, really. By the time I found out they were going out, I’d already changed and was happily working on my laptop. I only realised my mistake when someone showed me his pictures of a pride of lions with a double rainbow in the background! Aaaarrrrgggghhh…!

That wasn’t my only disappointment. I stayed at Grumeti from 8-28 May, and the first few days were very frustrating.

  • I came back from a couple of game drives early as there was so little to see, and I didn’t take a single picture for two game drives in a row!

  • When I did have a good day, I had so many pictures that I wasn’t able to edit them all before my next game drive, which stressed me out no end. I just didn’t have enough hours in the day. I was on game drives from 0600-1200 and again from 1600-1900, and for every hour of picture-taking I needed at least an hour of editing time, so I ended up working 18-hour days! I even had to set my alarm for 0330 a couple of times just so that I had a chance to get up-to-date, but that still left me with almost no time to relax and watch a movie or something. The only time I had to read the paper or catch up on some sleep was on game drives! It wasn’t really ‘work’, of course, and I enjoyed processing the pictures, but everyone needs a little time off every now and again…!

  • I only had one bottle of hand wash, but I needed one for the sink and one for the outdoor shower, and I had to ask for another one three times before it finally arrived…by accident! When I’d told my butler I needed ‘another’ bottle, he’d thought I meant a different bottle rather than a second one. The mind boggles…!

  • I also lost my USB stick, which drove me absolutely crazy! Where could it have got to? I knew I would’ve put it in the outside pocket of my camera bag, but it just wasn’t there. I looked everywhere for it, but I couldn’t find it.

  • I managed to rip my toenail off just standing too close to my bed. It started emitting some nasty pus, so I took some antibiotics, and Doctor Vicky came to dress the wound every night. (That’s all she did for me, by the way…!)

  • We had yet a puncture on one game drive only 100 yards from a lioness, so it was a bit difficult for Shaban to fix!

  • We saw an elephant in must that threatened to charge us. It was a great sighting, but Shaban got spooked and drove off too quickly, so I missed the money shot.

  • On a game drive with Yona, we just missed seeing a couple of lionesses fighting off a male that was trying to steal their kill. The guests who were there for the whole show said it was the greatest thing they’d ever seen in their lives. Aaaarrrrgggghhh…again!

  • I came home from one game drive to find bat droppings on my laptop!

  • I came home early from a game drive, only to find I was supposed to be having a ‘bush dinner’ with the rest of the guests. It was going to be a surprise - but my driver didn’t even know about it! They managed to rustle up something for me to eat, but I felt very disappointed about missing the guests’ final dinner and guilty about putting the staff to extra trouble. ‘Surprises’ are all very well, but they have to be better planned. It reminded me of a ‘surprise’ lunch at Klein’s when our guide told us that there had been a leopard sighting. He kept telling us that it was just up ahead, and I got very excited…only to find out that it was all a ruse when I saw lunch laid out in a clearing. It was very nicely done, with all the food laid out on a wooden swing and rugs and comfy chairs spread out on the grass, but I was massively disappointed. A leopard sighting beats lunch any day of the week.

  • My D850 with the 800mm lens fell on the floor of the truck…twice!

Having said that, the problems were only minor, and they were made up for by a few highlights: 

  • My driver Shaban and I had a good leopard sighting. I thought I’d lost the opportunity when my camera malfunctioned, which was incredibly frustrating (!), but we followed him across the savannah until he eventually sat and posed nicely for us by the side of the road.

  • We got lucky when we went down to the Nyasirori man-made pool to get silhouette shots and immediately saw a lioness on the bank! This was the result:

  • I was given a cake and a tribal dance on my birthday - although I have a very low threshold of embarrassment, so I had to grit my teeth through it all…!

  • The food was very good, and one day I was given chilled apple and ginger soup. It was the best soup I’ve ever had in my life - so good that I actually asked for the recipe! 

  • The guests were also great - as they have been throughout this trip. There was a big group of South Africans working for Spar who were good fun, and I got on particularly well with another couple called Jay and Margarita.

All that was very enjoyable, but during the last 10 days of my stay things really started picking up in a big way, and I had some really great sightings.

On the 18th of May, we saw a cheetah with two cubs in the morning and found her again in the evening. The word ‘cute’ doesn’t even describe the cubs. I took hundreds of pictures, and, just before we finally had to drive home, I even had a chance to watch the sunset reflected in the cheetah’s eyes! As Bill Murray said in Groundhog Day, “Now that was a pretty good day…”

On the 22nd, Waziri and I spent nearly two hours following a lioness and her cub that had been cut off from the rest of the pride. Waziri was about to give up, but I persuaded him to carry on, and we eventually saw the reunion. The other lions were very happy to see them! We had breakfast in the truck surrounded by the whole pride of around 20 lions!

On the 23rd, we saw two lionesses and seven cubs up a tree!

On the 24th, we saw 17 lions all line up to drink at the water hole with Holly and Marieke. All credit to Waziri. He saw the lions walking towards the pool, and he worked out that they’d stop to drink there, so he positioned us in the perfect spot to shoot from. He was the head ranger with years of bush experience, but it was still uncanny how his predictions always seemed to come true!

On the 27th, I decided to do an all-day game drive to try and spend some time with one of the cats, and it paid off when we saw a leopard that posed beautifully in a tree and then the cheetah with the two cubs, which proceeded to take up some fantastic positions on one termite mound after another. I took 3,000 shots that day! 

On my last day, the 28th, I was thinking about going straight to the airport, but I’d learned my lesson from the last time I missed a game drive, so I asked Waziri to take me down to the Nyasirori pool again. Lo and behold, the lions were there again! I managed to take a few silhouette shots of the female, but the male was too skittish and walked away. However, I did get some good shots of the ‘Flehmen’ response, which is when a male lion bares his teeth to expose a gland that’s sensitive to the scent of females on heat. I was on such a high that I even found myself whistling a song at one point!

Oh, and I found my USB stick…just where it was supposed to be!

All’s well that ends well…

Here are a few of my favourite shots from my stay at Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp:

 

Butcher's bill

1 x big toenail

1 x USB memory stick (before I found it later…!)

Species list:

This is a cumulative list of species I’ve seen at Klein’s Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas and Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp.

Animals (58)

African civet

African hare

African bush elephant

African wild cat

Banded mongoose

Bat-eared fox

Black-backed jackal

Black-backed/silver-backed jackal

Blue wildebeest

Bohor reedbuck

Bushbuck

Cape buffalo

Chameleon

Cheetah

Coke’s hartebeest

Colobus monkey 

Common warthog

Common/golden jackal

Defassa waterbuck

Dung beetle

Dwarf mongoose

Eland

Field mouse

Grant’s gazelle

Green turtle

Hippo

Impala

Kirk’s dik-dik

Klipspringer

Leopard

Leopard tortoise

Lesser bush baby

Lion

Little antelope

Masai giraffe

Millipede

Monitor lizard 

Mwanza flat-headed rock agama/Spider-Man agama

Nile crocodile

Olive baboon

Oribi

Plains zebra

Rock hyrax

Rock python

Scrub hare 

Serval

Slender mongoose

Spitting cobra

Spotted hyena

Steenbok

Terrapin

Thomson’s gazelle

Topi

Tree hyrax

Tree lizard

Vervet monkey

White-tailed mongoose

Wild dog/painted wolf

Birds (205)

Abdim’s stork

African crowned eagle

African cuckoo

African fish eagle

African golden weaver

African green-pigeon

African grey flycatcher 

African grey hornbill

African harrier-hawk

African hawk-eagle

African hoopoe

African moustached warbler

African open-billed stork

African paradise flycatcher 

African pied wagtail 

African wattled lapwing

African white-backed vulture

Arrow-marked babbler

Augur buzzard

Bare-faced go-away-bird

Barn swallow 

Bateleur eagle

Bearded woodpecker

Black crake

Black stork

Black-and-white cuckoo

Black-bellied bustard 

Black-chested snake-eagle

Black-headed gonolek 

Black-headed heron

Black-lored babbler

Black-shouldered kite

Black-winged red bishop 

Black-winged stilt

Blacksmith plover

Blue-capped cordon-bleu 

Blue-naped mousebird

Bronze mannikin 

Brown parrot

Brown snake-eagle 

Burchell’s starling

Cape wheatear

Cardinal quelea

Cardinal woodpecker 

Cattle egret

Chestnut sparrow

Cinnamon-breasted rock bunting

Common buzzard

Common kestrel

Common ostrich

Common sandpiper oooobrm

Coqui francolin

Croaking cisticola

Crowned plover

Dark chanting-goshawk

Diederik cuckoo

Eagle owl

Eastern chanting-goshawk

Eastern grey plantain-eater

Eastern paradise whydah

Egyptian goose

European bee-eater

European roller

European swallow

Fischer’s lovebird

Fischer’s sparrow-lark

Flappet lark

Fork-tailed drongo

Gabor goshawk

Goliath heron

Grassland pipit

Great spotted cuckoo

Greater blue-eared starling

Greater flamingo

Greater painted-snipe

Greater striped swallow

Green wood-hoopoe

Grey-breasted spurfowl

Grey-capped social weaver

Grey crowned crane

Grey heron

Grey kestrel

Grey-backed fiscal

Grey-breasted spurfowl

Grey-crested helmetshrike

Hadada ibis

Hammerkop 

Harlequin quail

Helmeted guineafowl

Hooded vulture

Isabelline wheatear

Kittlitz’s plover

Klaas’s cuckoo

Knob-billed duck

Kori bustard

Lappet-faced vulture

Lesser flamingo

Lesser kestrel

Lesser masked weaver

Lesser striped swallow

Lilac-breasted roller

Little bee-eater

Little sparrowhawk

Little green bee-eater

Long-crested eagle

Long-tailed cisticola

Magpie shrike

Marigold sunbird

Marsh eagle

Martial eagle

Montagu’s harrier

Mountain buzzard

Northern anteater chat

Northern wheatear

Northern white-crowned shrike

Pale spotted owlet

Pallid harrier

Pied kingfisher 

Pin-tailed whydah

Plain-backed pipit 

Purple grenadier

Purple-crested turaco

Pygmy falcon

Pygmy kingfisher 

Rattling cisticola 

Red-backed shrike

Red-billed buffalo-weaver

Red-billed quelea

Red-cheeked cordon-bleu 

Red-fronted barbet

Red-headed weaver

Red-necked spurfowl

Red-rumped swallow

Red-winged starling

Ring-necked dove

Rosy-breasted longclaw 

Ruff

Rufous-naped lark

Rufous-tailed weaver

Ruppell’s griffon vulture

Ruppell’s long-tailed starling

Saddle-billed stork

Sand grouse

Sand martin 

Scarlet-chested sunbird

Secretary bird

Senegal lapwing

Silverbird

Sooty falcon

Southern red bishop 

Speckle-fronted weaver

Speckled mousebird

Speckled pigeon

Spot-flanked barbet

Spotted thick-knee

Spur-winged goose

Spur-winged lapwing

Steel-blue whydah

Steppe eagle

Straw-tailed whydah 

Striated heron

Striped kingfisher

Sunbird

Superb starling

Swamp nightjar

Taita fiscal

Tawny eagle

Tawny-flanked prinia 

Temminck’s courser

Three-banded plover

Two-banded courser

Two-banded plover

Usambiro barbet

Variable sunbird

Verreaux’s (or black) eagle

Verreaux’s eagle-owl

Village indigobird

Von Der Decken’s hornbill

Water thick-knee

Wattled starling

Western banded snake-eagle

White stork

White-bellied bustard

White-bellied tit

White-browed coucal

White-browed robin-chat

White-browed scrub-robin

White-crowned shrike

White-faced whistling-duck

White-headed buffalo-weaver

White-headed saw-wing

White-headed vulture

White-winged widowbird

Wire-tailed swallow 

Wood dove

Wood sandpiper 

Woodland kingfisher 

Woolly-necked stork

Yellow-billed oxpecker

Yellow-billed stork

Yellow-fronted canary

Yellow-throated longclaw

Yellow-throated sandgrouse 

Yellow-vented bulbul

Zitting cisticola   

Don't poke the bear!

Twenty years ago, I was staying with my best friend Mark in Golders Green and found myself chatting with his mother. She was in her seventies, but I politely asked if she'd been anywhere nice recently. "Yes," she said, "I've just come back from watching the bears catching salmon in Alaska." That'll teach me...!

Ever since that conversation, I've wanted to visit Alaska, and last week I finally made it. Now, Alaska is not an easy place to get to. It's a long way away, and the best spot to see the salmon is at Brooks Falls, which can only be reached by floatplane! The only places to stay are a campsite and Brooks Lodge, both of which get booked up a year in advance. It's also not cheap. The first time I tried to book a trip was a couple of years ago, but I just couldn't afford it. This time, I was temporarily flush from remortgaging my flat in Notting Hill, so I thought, "It's now or never..."

There are no package deals available to visit Brooks Falls, so I ended up just Googling tour operators and picking one pretty much at random. I set a lady from Audley Travel the task of finding out the best time to go and making all the necessary arrangements, including flights and accommodation. The email history was very long and lasted over two years, but she managed it in the end. When she finally sent me my joining instructions, they came in a binder two inches thick!

Packing for a trip like this is tricky. My first priority was taking pictures, so I had to take my camera bag, but that didn't leave me much room for anything else. I thought about taking a rucksack as well, but I'd been told that there wasn't much room on the floatplanes, and the idea of having to wait around baggage reclaim at four different airports was too much for me! I decided to take my camera bag and put everything else in my waterproof jacket. Now, this is no ordinary waterproof jacket. It's a Callaway golf jacket that has one enormous inside pocket that stretches right the way around the back, so it was more than big enough to carry a couple of changes of clothes, my wash bag and my all-important binder!

I flew out on Friday 24 July from Heathrow, and my full itinerary took me from there to Seattle, then to Anchorage, then to King Salmon and finally to Brooks Camp. Door-to-door, it took me 37 hours! That's the longest journey I've ever made - or at least it was until the flight home, which lasted a monstrous 43 hours after I got bumped to the next flight. At least the airline gave me a voucher for $600 and upgraded me to first class on the flight to Seattle. You meet the nicest people in first class, and I had a very good conversation with the director of Minnesota Zoo, but that's another story...

The first thing I had to do when I arrived at the Brooks Camp was to go to 'bear school', which meant listening to a briefing by one of the park rangers and watching a short video covering pretty much the same ground. The main points were as follows:

  • Stay 50 yards away from any bear.
  • Don't carry food or drink on the trails.
  • Make lots of noise while walking to let the bears know you're there.
  • If you meet a bear, stand still and then back away slowly - don't run!

I generally stuck to the rules, but the bears were everywhere, and I finally came face-to-face with one when I stayed at Brooks Lodge on my final night. I was just about to turn the corner to dump my bag in the gear store when I saw a mother and her cub not ten yards away! I immediately stopped, turned round, went back round the corner and ran for my life. That's the first time I've ever run away from anything, but I'm very glad I did!

After the briefing, I was given a brass 'bear pin', which meant that I had been through 'bear school' and was now officially allowed to see the bears. It was a 20-minute hike to the falls, so I put everything except my camera bag in the gear store and set off...

There were three viewing platforms from which you could watch the bears. The first was too far downriver to see much, and the second was still a bit too far away to get the classic shot of the bear about to grab a salmon as it jumped up the waterfall. However, the platform at the waterfall itself only held 40 people, and it was so popular that you had to put your name on a waiting list before you were allowed to go there. You could only stay for an hour if it was busy, but you could put your name down again when you came off if you wanted to get back on. One day, the ranger forgot to add me to the list, and I ended up having to wait 2.5 hours in the 'tree house' downriver. I explained the mistake to the new ranger and thought she'd given me her permission to go back, but she had misunderstood me, and all I could do was put my name down on the list again. The next time I was called, it was raining so hard I only lasted five minutes, and the time after that it was pouring with rain, too! The following day, I was lucky enough to be allowed to stay on the platform just about all day, and I thought that might have been the rangers' way of making up for their mistake, but it turned out that there had been a three-hour 'bear jam' that prevented anyone from getting to the platform! A bear jam was just a traffic jam caused by a bear. Whenever one came too close to the trail, the rangers stopped people from using it until the bear had moved more than 50 yards away, and they happened fairly regularly.

On the first afternoon, I could only stay for just over an hour, as I was given an early flight back to King Salmon, where I would be staying for the next few days. I wasn't particularly happy about that, but I did at least get to see over a dozen bears fishing on the falls. The platform was right on the river bank, and most of the bears were no more than 20 or 30 yards away, either at the top of the falls - which lay at right angles to the platform - or waiting in the water below. I had a 150-600mm Tamron lens with me, so that was more than enough to get good close-ups of the animals. In fact, I rarely went beyond 300mm for the bears on the waterfall, so I switched to my Nikon 28-300mm lens for the last few days in order to take advantage of the better quality glass.

Brown bear beside mossy rock below waterfall

Brown bear beside mossy rock below waterfall

Brown bear looking down in shallow rapids

Brown bear looking down in shallow rapids

There were two levels on the platform, and it was easy enough to squeeze in at the front. There were no seats (although I'd brought a folding stool just in case), but at least I had my tripod with me, so I didn't have to carry my camera the whole day. Unfortunately, there weren't that many salmon jumping, so I had to make the most of every opportunity. Inevitably, I missed a few chances for various reasons, either because I was chatting to the person next to me or I was in the middle of changing my camera settings or I was trying to shoot something else. There was always something to photograph, particularly on the first day, when everything was fresh and exciting, but the biggest attraction was a mother bear and her four cubs who really put on a show for us every time they were there.

Four brown bear cubs in diagonal line

And that was the problem. I took so many pictures of the cubs and the bears in the river that I was beginning to get distracted. I had written out a shot list beforehand, but the only one that really mattered was the iconic image of a bear with its mouth open about to catch a salmon in mid-air on the waterfall. That was the one I wanted, so I stopped taking pictures of absolutely everything and started focusing on getting that one shot. It was an interesting challenge and one that raised quite a few questions:

  • What shutter speed and aperture should I use?
  • Should I use single point or continuous focus?
  • What part of the bear should I focus on?
  • Should I watch through the viewfinder or use the remote release?

The shutter speed is obviously the priority when you want to capture something that happens in the blink of an eye, so I set that to around 1/1600. I initially set the aperture as wide as I could - which was only f/6.3 at 600mm - but I eventually settled on f/8. I wanted the fish to be sharp as well as the bear's head, and the depth of field was only going to be 20-30cm, so I needed as much as possible! The Tamron isn't a very 'fast' lens, unfortunately, but I've learned that I can push the ISO pretty high on my D800 before I start to see too much noise, so I set it to 'Auto'. That meant it was usually around 800-1000, although it got all the way up to 4500 for some shots!

The focusing was fairly easy, as the bears stood very still when they were at the top of the falls. However, they still turned their heads from side to side every now and then, so I was a bit worried that I wouldn't have the right focus at the crucial moment. In the end, I used continuous focusing (in 3D mode) and focused as near as I could to the bear's eye. Sometimes, I switched to manual, but I generally kept the remote in my hand with button half-pressed. That had the twin benefit of keeping the focus lock and also reducing the 'travel' and therefore the time it took me to release the shutter. Those fish were jumping pretty quickly, and I eventually realised I had to focus on the bottom of the falls rather than the bear if I was going to be able to react in time to take the shot. I set the shooting mode to 'Continuous - High', but I missed having a proper motor drive for the first time - although even that wouldn't have helped my reaction time!

In the end, it was all worthwhile, as I managed to capture a couple of shots of a bear in the act of grabbing a salmon. I rate all my photographs, and I desperately wanted to come away with a few that merited five stars, so it was a great moment when I finally saw the evidence on the screen of my camera. Here are my favourites:

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth

Bear about to catch salmon on waterfall

Bear about to catch salmon on waterfall

Brown bear about to catch a salmon

Brown bear about to catch a salmon

The other highlights of my trip included seeing a red ptarmigan walking only a few feet in front of me on the trail to the falls first thing in the morning and seeing a proper salmon run. It took a few days, but finally the fish started jumping like crazy. Unfortunately, there were no bears fishing on top of the falls at that stage, but it was still worth it to see the extraordinary number of fish involved. The other thing I was grateful for was the hospitality and friendliness of both staff and guests. I stayed at the King Salmon Lodge and had breakfast and dinner there. One day, I went down to breakfast at 0630 and bumped into a very nice elderly American couple. We had a good chat, and I met them again that evening. They invited me to join them for dinner and ended up paying the bill! It was the same with almost everyone I met. It was very easy to start up a conversation, and I always had a good chat with the driver of the bus on the way to and from the lodge.

The only real low came after two or three days when I began to realise I was there during the wrong week. I'd tried to get figures on the number of salmon jumping, but it was very difficult, and all I was told by the travel company was that any time in July would do. It was only when I spoke to the rangers and saw the evidence with my own eyes that I realised I should have been there one or even two weeks earlier. It was the holiday of a lifetime, so to miss the peak of the salmon run was very frustrating. However, I got the shots I wanted, and it turned out that I could only stay at Brooks Lodge during the final week of July, so I didn't feel too bad in the end, and there was nothing I could have done about it anyway.

Was it a great holiday? Not quite, but I still enjoyed it, and I came away with four or five pictures I'm very happy with. Yes, I could probably have spent the money on 66 trips to Ibiza, but it wouldn't have been the same. It just wouldn't have been the same...

 

For more pictures, please go to the Brooks Falls album on Facebook.

Athens

Teaching Greek children is like watching France play rugby: you never know what you're going to get...

Stoa of Attalos: the Athenian version of the local mall

Stoa of Attalos: the Athenian version of the local mall

I just spent two weeks in Greece preparing a Greek boy and his twin sisters for 10+ and 12+ entrance examinations at a school in England. Highlights included spending a long, sunny weekend at a holiday home in Lagonissi, spending another long, sunny weekend skiing near Delphi - I wonder if the oracle saw that one coming! - and seeing the Parthenon every day from my hotel balcony.

Political refugees take many forms, but, personally, I prefer shipping magnates fleeing with their adorable (if strong-willed) families from Communist governments in the Mediterranean...

Red Xmas tree star with bokeh lights

Red star at night, photographer's delight...

The idea

I live in an Art Deco mansion block in Putney, and every year the porters put a Christmas tree in the entrance hall. Last year, I took some pictures of some of the baubles, inspired by an email from one of the photographic magazines about how to capture bokeh lighting. This year, the tree and the baubles were different, so I decided to have another go.

The location

Ormonde Court, Upper Richmond Road, London SW15 6TW, United Kingdom, around 2100 on 12 December 2014.

The equipment

  • Nikon D800 DSLR camera
  • Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED lens
  • Nikon SB-910 Speedlight flash
  • Manfrotto 190XProB tripod with 496RC2 universal joint head
  • Hähnel HRN 280 remote release.

I’ve just managed to remortgage my flat in Notting Hill, so I’ve been investing in a few photographic supplies. Ever since a German called Stefan took a magnificent shot of Old Faithful at night using flash, I’ve wanted a proper flashgun. Well, now I have one. I bought the Nikon SB-910 Speedlight a couple of weeks ago, and it arrived just in time for this shoot. I didn’t know whether I’d need it or not, but I was prepared to experiment.

The settings

  • Manual ISO 100
  • f/5.6
  • 1 second
  • 105mm
  • Tungsten white balance
  • Single-point auto-focus

The technique

In the last of these posts, I mentioned how I’d got used to taking a tripod with me in almost all circumstances, and last night was no exception. Last year, I was generally pleased with my shots of the baubles, but the ISO was far too high. I was using my tripod, funnily enough, but to hold the bauble rather than my camera! This year, I decided I would definitely mount the camera on the tripod, but that left me with nothing to hold the baubles. I thought about using a light stand from my flash kit, but I needed something horizontal rather than vertical so that I could hang the decorations from it. I then had the idea of using my golf clubs. I could stand the bag in the lobby and balance one of the clubs on top, held in place by the other clubs.

As it turned out, I’d forgotten that the bag would be at an angle of 45 degrees, so my original plan didn’t work, but I simply pulled my 4-iron half-way out and hung the first bauble from that. It was a silver reindeer, but the green wire loop wasn’t very long, and I wouldn’t have been able to get the shots I wanted without the golf club getting in the frame. I needed a piece of string. I thought about going back to my flat, but leaving my golf clubs and my camera unattended in the entrance hall didn’t seem like a sensible idea! Fortunately, I was wearing trainers, so I just used one of the laces. It took a few gos to get each bauble to point in the right direction and remain still – particularly as there was a stream of curious residents opening the front door on their way home from work! – but I managed in the end. Phew!

I took lots of pictures of the silver reindeer, a red bauble with a spiral pattern on it and the red star shown above, and I played around with the flash settings to try to make the background a bit darker. Sadly my new flash was so powerful that I couldn’t manage that – even with -3.0EV of exposure compensation! There might’ve been a better way, but it was the first time I’ve ever used a flashgun, so I’m still a newbie.

The main problem I had in taking the shots was actually getting enough depth-of-field. The reindeer was fine, but the round baubles and even the star were proving a nightmare. If I focused on the front of the bauble, the metal cap and wire loop were out of focus, but, if I focused on those, the rest of the bauble was out of focus. I’m an absolute stickler for sharpness in my images, so I wasn’t sure what to do. In the end, I stopped down a little bit and hoped that f/5.6 would be a small enough aperture to keep everything acceptably sharp. I tried ‘chimping’ (or checking the shots on the LCD screen) a few times, but it was tricky to tell. My problem was a kind of Catch-22: the three variables controlling depth-of-field are normally the focal length, the aperture and the relative distances of the camera to the subject and the subject to the background. I couldn’t change to a wide-angle lens, as I needed to limit the background to just the Christmas tree; I couldn’t change to a much smaller aperture without making the bokeh circles of the blurred Christmas lights in the background too small; and I couldn’t change the relative positions of the camera, bauble and tree without changing the composition completely. Hmm… As you can see from the shot above, the two arms on the right of the red star didn’t turn out completely sharp, but it was ‘good enough for Government work’. Shutterstock obviously didn’t accept it – they’re very hot on sharpness! – but I did win an award on Pixoto for the sixth best image uploaded to the Christmas category yesterday!

The post-processing

I made three changes to this shot:

  1. I had the camera on ‘Tungsten’ white balance, as I’d just read somewhere that I should use the amber filter on the flashgun when shooting indoors in order to avoid a clash of different light sources. However, it turned out that the shot looked a lot warmer with the ‘Flash’ white balance, and that was just the look I was after at Christmastime.
  2. A lot of my images end up being quite dark, and I’m not sure whether it’s just because I’m lucky to spend a lot of time in very sunny places or whether there’s a problem with my camera! In this case, I actually had to push the exposure up by +2EV in Aperture to make it look like all the others. I have a feeling that’s because I changed from f/2.8 to f/5.6 to get more depth-of-field but forgot to lengthen the shutter speed to compensate. Silly me…
  3. I was desperately trying to frame the shot perfectly so I wouldn’t have to crop, but the balance of the bauble with the ‘negative space’ on the right wasn’t quite right, so I cropped in slightly to position the star a third of the way into the frame.

Close-up of golden eagle head with catchlight

So sharp, I cut my finger...

So sharp, I cut my finger...

I’m a photographer (among other things), and this is the first of a series of posts about my favourite photographs. I’ll tell you how I took them and break down the shot into the idea, the location, the equipment, the settings, the technique and any post-processing.

The idea

When I took this shot, I was at a Battle of Hastings re-enactment at Battle Abbey in Sussex. I was there to take pictures of the battle scenes between enthusiasts dressed up as Normans and Saxons, and I had no idea there was going to be a falconry display until I bought my ticket and was given a flyer with the plan for the day.

The golden eagle is my favourite bird (isn’t it everyone’s?!), so I was very excited to be able to see one in action. The falconers from Raphael Historical Falconry put on a couple of displays with a variety of birds, including a gyrfalcon and a Harris hawk, but the golden eagle was the highlight. Afterwards, I wandered over to their tent, and I was able to get within just a few feet of all the birds. The falconer was happy to chat with the spectators with a bird on his arm (so to speak!), and later he fed and watered the birds outside. That gave me the chance to set up my tripod and get a few good close-ups, and this was the best of the lot.

The location

Battle Abbey, High Street, Hastings and Battle, East Sussex TN33 0AD, United Kingdom, around 1500 on 11 October 2014.

The equipment

  • Nikon D800 DSLR camera
  • Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens
  • Manfrotto 190XProB tripod with 496RC2 universal joint head
  • Hähnel HRN 280 remote release.

I was a bit worried about using my ‘Bigma’ to take this picture, as I hadn’t been very impressed with it on my trip to Spitsbergen to see the polar bears. Admittedly, the bears were usually a few hundred yards away, and no zoom lens is at its best when it’s at its longest focal length, but I was disappointed that my shots were so soft. As a result, I did a manual focus check and discovered that the calculated auto-focus fine tune setting was a whopping -12! Armed with this new improvement to the sharpest tool in my box, I was ready for anything…

PS They call it the ‘Bigma’ as it’s made by Sigma, and it’s enormous!

The settings

  • Auto ISO 110
  • f/9
  • 1/250
  • 500mm
  • Daylight white balance
  • Single-point auto-focus

I had the camera on Manual with ISO on Auto, which I thought was appropriate for a day when lots of things would be happening, and I’d be taking candid shots without much opportunity to sit down and check my settings. However, I should probably have set the ISO to its optimum value of 100 for this shot, as I had plenty of time.

The technique

I’m generally a travel and wildlife photographer, but I normally don’t use a tripod as it gets in the way and doesn’t work too well in a Land-Rover moving at 40mph! However, I learnt a new perspective from a professional photographer called Mark Carwardine. He happened to be on a cruise to Spitsbergen that I went on a few months ago, and he was always carrying around his tripod with the legs fully extended – even on the Zodiac inflatables that we used to land on the islands. I thought to myself, If he can do it, so can I! After that, I’ve tried to use a tripod wherever possible. I love really sharp wildlife shots, and a 36.3-megapixel DSLR and a tripod make a winning combination.

Another important thing about wildlife shots is to get down to the level of the animal or bird you’re shooting. You can see from this shot that I’m right at eye-level with the eagle, and that gives the sense of power and intimacy I was looking for.

Finally, I’ve learnt from a couple of portrait shoots the value of the ‘catchlight’. This is the reflection of the light source that you see in the eye of your subject. It’s just as important with wildlife as with people, and I was lucky enough to get a break in the clouds that allowed the sun to provide the perfect catchlight. Lucky me!

The post-processing

I changed from a PC to a Mac a few years ago, so I do all my post-processing in Aperture. I suppose I should upgrade to Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop, but iPhoto was the default image-processing software on the Mac, and Aperture was the cheapest upgrade!

I only had two changes to make to this shot:

  1. Even at 500mm, I still wasn’t quite close enough for the bird’s head to fill the frame, so I had to crop in later. I’ve found from experience that 6.3 megapixels is the minimum size that the major online photo libraries accept, so I never go below 6.4 MP (to avoid rounding errors), and that’s the new size of this file.
  2. In the end, the automatic ISO setting was close enough to the optimum of 100, but the shot was slightly overexposed due to the dark colours of the eagle’s feathers and the grassy background, so I had to reduce the exposure by 0.5EV.

And then it all went bear-shaped…

Beautiful girls are like polar bears: they’re hard to find, and you try to get as close as you possibly can before they turn their backs and walk away. We saw 13 bears on my trip to Spitsbergen, but there was only one girl for me. Sadly, she was already taken, so I’d better talk about the bears…

I’ve always had high expectations in life, and it’s cost me a fair amount of contentment. However, there is much pleasure to be gained from the unexpected. I went to Kenya to shoot the Big Five and didn’t get a single decent picture of any of them. I went to India to see the tigers and didn’t get a single decent picture of any of them. I went to Spitsbergen and – well, you know the rest, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a great trip. The highlights for me were seeing my very first polar bear (even though he had an ID number painted on him), watching two young reindeer walk up to within two feet of our tour guide and creeping up on a wild ptarmigan with my shipmate and now good friend Eric.

The only Frenchman I know called Eric

Eric is the first man I’ve ever met in bed – and certainly the first Frenchman. We were given a room to share in our Oslo hotel on the way to Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitsbergen, and the first time I saw him was when I went to bed and he was already half asleep. After a groggy exchange of greetings, we both fell asleep and carried on separately with the rest of our schedule. Once we were on board ship, however, we realised that we’d been asked to share a room again. That was handy for Eric, as I was one of the very few French speakers on board, but it was also a huge stroke of luck for me, as he is one of the funniest, most good humoured, entertaining and well travelled guys I’ve ever met. We got on very well from the off, and I translated whatever PA announcements he needed to hear but couldn’t understand. I also did my best to introduce him to other people, just as my friend Craig had done for me in the French Alps a few years ago. The French are generally very good at introducing themselves to the companions of the people they wish to speak to, and I tried to follow the rule myself. That usually just meant turning Eric loose with his smartphone and giving him the chance to play his joker, which was to show everyone all the pictures of himself stroking tiger sharks, cage diving with great whites and taking selfies on his heli-skiing trips with Luc Alphand. “Who is Luc Alphand?” I hear you ask. Good question. I said the same thing the first time I heard his name, and Eric wasn’t very impressed. Apparently, he’s a double world skiing champion and a winner of the Paris-Dakkar rally, but he’s obviously much better known in France than elsewhere, so it soon became a running joke…

There was a fair bit to learn about the ship when we first arrived, which involved various safety briefings, crew introductions and even a lifeboat drill.

A blonde Norwegian ‘adventure concierge’

A blonde Norwegian ‘adventure concierge’

We also learned an interesting historical tidbit. The ship was apparently named after the Russian physicist Akademik Sergey Vavilov, but we were told that the hydrophones on the vessel meant that it was almost certainly a spy ship used for submarine detection during the Cold War. It was certainly a comfortable ride, and we barely had the feeling we were moving most of the time. Eric and I stuck together through all the briefings. Over the course of the trip, in fact, we were so often seen together that one of the guides called us Knoll and Tott – two brothers in a Swedish cartoon who perform all kinds of mischief and will do anything to escape a spanking! We didn’t do too much wrong, apart from leaving the approved trail a few times to try and get a better shot, but I feel much more comfortable in the company of one close friend than many acquaintances, so he was definitely one of the unexpected bonuses.

The reason we were both there was to see the polar bears. Eric’s decision was completely spontaneous – someone told him there were white bears up north somewhere and he said, “Where do I sign?” – but I was inspired by a talk given by Paul Goldstein last year in London. Paul is a wildlife photographer, and he was such a great speaker that I decided I had to try and find the money to book my place on the cruise. It wasn’t cheap, but, thankfully, a six-week tutoring job in Hong Kong came up at just the right time! What particularly appealed to me was the laser-like focus on the photographic opportunities. As Paul told us, “This is not a cruise ship. We are not bound by the unholy trinity of shuffleboard, bingo and shopping.” Sadly, there were far too many rules and regulations in practice about getting close to the bears, and we were made to feel like naughty schoolboys when we dared to get a bit closer to the wildlife, but we did get a couple of announcements in the early hours after the spotters on the bridge had seen something worthwhile. One day, we were woken up at 0649 by news of a pod of whales up ahead. By 0700, I’d missed them all!

The first three days of our two-week cruise were a little dull, as we had to go round the island of Spitsbergen to reach the sea ice, which was all on the eastern side due to the presence of the jet stream on the west coast. That was our best chance of sighting a polar bear, because they don’t actually hunt in the water – even though they can swim up to 800km using a kind of ursine doggy-paddle. In fact, they use their highly developed sense of smell to track down the breathing holes of seals and then wait for an average of 45 minutes until one pops up for air. Given all this waiting around, you can imagine that they get very frustrated when the prey gets away, and one cameraman famously discovered that for himself when he locked himself inside a cage and teased a rather hungry one. Don’t poke the bear…

However, as we sauntered along at our standard cruising speed of less than five knots, one of the eagle-eyed spotters struck gold. There on the icy shore was a male polar bear, sauntering along in time with the ship. The captain immediately backed us in as close as he dared – which was obviously just outside the range of my 500mm lens! – and we took approximately 100,000 pictures between us. It was a fantastic moment to see my very first polar bear – I’d never even seen one in a zoo – but it was somewhat ruined when we saw that he had the number 55 stencilled on his backside. I understand the need for scientific research, but there’s surely a better way of monitoring the animals than reminding everyone of man’s influence in such an ugly and unnatural fashion.

If that polar bear sighting was the most exciting, it wasn’t the best. For most people, that came when we spotted a mother and two baby cubs, who proceeded to put on a tremendously anthropomorphic show for the audience rammed like sardines in the bows of the ship. At one point, one of the cubs even stood up and waved a paw at us! Sadly, all the action was again just a bit too far away for me to get at with my equipment, and I didn’t even realise the cubs were there until I heard a burst of motor drives that was a dead giveaway that I was looking in the wrong direction! Happily, the polar bears settled into an almost predictable routine of one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so everyone had a chance to hone their camerawork and capture the shots of a lifetime.

“Just make sure you get the outside leg in front…”

My pictures were no better than average, but I’ve learned not to put all my eggs in one basket with these trips, and I was soon richly rewarded by a couple of close encounters. The first came when we made one of our regular excursions by Zodiac. The Zodiac is a kind of inflatable or rib designed specifically by Jacques Cousteau for his own exploration and research. It seats 10 passengers comfortably (plus the driver), and the only problem with them comes with a choppy sea, when the people near the bow have to take all the inevitable gouts of spume and spray in their faces. (When Paul said, “Any photograph is elevated by the Holy Trinity: dust, air and spume,” I’m sure that’s not what he had in mind!)

Every picture tells a story

Every picture tells a story

We did a few seaborne excursions, but this one involved a landing. I quickly gained a reputation for lying down on the beach to get the perfect shot of the anchors in the sand – Eric thought I might be dead! – but there were plenty of things to see once we walked inland. The highlight was the pair of reindeer calves that we spotted on the hillside in the distance. Reindeer don’t really have any predators – apart from a few hungry polar bears that they can easily outrun – so they have ended up being very curious animals. When Paul lay down with his camera and tripod to capture a few shots, I immediately circled around behind him to try and foreshorten the distance between him and his targets. From a spot about ten yards behind him, I watched as the reindeer got closer and closer and closer – so close, in fact, that Paul had to swap to a shorter lens. They ended up only a couple of feet away from him, and the rest of us were busy frantically trying to capture the moment.

“And they were this close!"

We went on a few more Zodiac cruises to see ice cliffs, sea ice, a walrus haul-out and more kittiwakes and guillemots than you could shake a stick at, and I particularly enjoyed capturing the relationship between humans and animals, the watchers and the watched. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Me, that’s who.

She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named

The best moment of these excursions came when Paul spotted a pair of ptarmigan as we walked across the snowy hillside. We saw the male walking along, we saw him flying away and then we finally saw him perched on a boulder, conveniently positioned just on the ridgeline. There were about eight of us in our group, and we slowly edged closer. The bird was facing left, so I moved out that way to try to get a better shot of his face turned towards me, but Eric went the other way – you never know what to expect from the French, as every rugby fan will tell you – and was soon rewarded. Eric sometimes made a virtue of necessity when it came to his stumbling English by saying, “I don’t understand” when it was most convenient. This was such a moment, when he ignored Paul’s warnings and closed to a spot only a couple of feet behind the ptarmigan. This was extraordinary! I was one side, he was the other, and we were taking photographs of each other with the bird in the foreground! Glorious!

Eric the Frenchy with some bird

Eric the Frenchy with some bird

I should perhaps round this story out by talking about what went on when we weren’t out in the boats or stalking a bear. There were lots of these moments, as you might imagine, and they could so easily have led to a huge drop in morale – there are only so many all-you-can-eat buffets you can sit through without any animals to talk about – but we had the advantage of being in the presence of two or three key members of staff. Paul was obviously the dominant figure. He was once described as being like Marmite – “You either love him or you hate him” – but he was endlessly reliable in lifting the mood with a joke or anecdote. He has the most incredible memory for names, faces and stories, and most of his tales involved people on the boat who had been with him on safari in Africa or hunting for jaguar with him in South America. He was the reason I went on the trip in the first place, and I guess about half of the passengers had been on one of his tours before. The other ‘experts’ included JoAnne Simerson (the only Heather Locklear lookalike polar bear researcher and zookeeper I know), Dr Ian Stirling (a world expert on polar bear behaviour) and Mark Carwardine (a zoologist and wildlife photographer best known for going round the world first with Douglas Adams and then Stephen Fry to make the TV series Last Chance to See. They were all very approachable, and Mark was particularly impressive when he gave a hilarious presentation on his experiences with Stephen Fry.

Mark and Paul are old friends, but that didn’t stop them having a go at each other at every opportunity. They have very different styles of picture-taking, and the ‘slow pan’ was a regular bone of contention. Paul introduced this technique to us as a way of broadening our horizons and giving us a way to get great pictures of birds, but it’s a very tricky one to master. You have to select a slow shutter speed of 1/30 or 1/60 of a second and then follow a bird in the viewfinder, taking pictures as it flies past. The benefit of the slow shutter speed is that the wings blur to give a sense of motion, while the background blurs in interesting and attractive ways (allegedly). The problem is the hit rate. I took 1,504 photos one afternoon in a Zodiac using the slow pan, and I only kept two! As Paul admitted, “A slow pan doesn’t demand anything from your camera, but it demands an awful lot from you.”

“No, it’s meant to look like that…”

Mark was the chairman of the judges for the BBC World Wildlife Photographer of the Year for seven years, and he and Paul did a few sessions on photographic technique, lens and sensor-cleaning, using Lightroom and one even praising (or taking the mickey out of) each other’s photographs, but he came into his own when he and Paul judged the photo contest among the passengers. There were two categories: one a straight ‘best photo’ category, limited to five or six shots per person, and one a ‘humorous’ category with no limit on numbers. There were quite a few funny photos, most of which benefited from an even funnier introduction or commentary from Paul, and I was amused (and pleased) to see that one of Eric’s shots made the ‘funny’ shortlist. It was a photo taken of me lying down in the bow trying to get a photo through the hawse-hole while everyone else was standing up. He also had one in the main listing, which happened to be very similar to one discussed in Mark and Paul’s session, showing three birds with red feet and red mouths squabbling on the cliffs. I returned the favour by having my shot of Eric with the ptarmigan selected for the main shortlist. At that point, I largely gave up hope, as there were too many good photographers with high-quality kit on board for me to finish any higher, but I was wrong! In fourth place was my shot of a glaucous gull catching sight of the ears of an Arctic fox peeping over a snow bank.

“I can seeeeeee you…”

Paul praised this shot to the skies, and I had tears in my eyes by the end of his commentary. Nobody’s ever praised anything I’ve done like that before!

It was a nice way to finish. Yes, I was there to see the animals, but my main goal was photography. I wanted to be proud of my images, and it seems I ended up impressing one person at least – even if it wasn’t the right one!

 

Wildlife list

Mammals

Arctic fox
Atlantic walrus
Bearded seal
Blue whale
Fin whale
Harp seal
Humpback whale
Northern minke whale
Polar bear
Ringed seal
Svalbard reindeer
White-beaked dolphin

Birds

Arctic skua
Arctic tern
Atlantic puffin
Barnacle goose
Black guillemot
Black-legged kittiwake
Brünnich’s guillemot
Common ringed plover
Glaucous gull
Great skua
Grey phalarope
Ivory gull
King eider
Little auk (dovekie)
Long-tailed duck
Northern fulmar
Pink-footed goose
Purple sandpiper
Red-throated diver
Rock ptarmigan
Sanderling
Snow bunting

Flowering plants

Drooping saxifrage
Mountain avens
Polar scurvygrass
Polar willow
Purple saxifrage
Sulphur-coloured buttercup
Svalbard poppy
Tufted saxifrage
Whitlow grass

Tigers and temples

When you tour India with a beautiful Dutch blonde named after a Norse fertility goddess, it’s bound to be an adventure…

My adventure took place in November 2013 and lasted for two weeks, during which time I witnessed the best and worst of Delhi, saw two tigers and photographed the world’s most photographed building.

Delhi

A Sikh motorcyclist in turban and battle fatigues carrying his daughter on the handlebars; more speed bumps, cyclists, pedestrians and car horns than in Kenya; the Hyundai, rickshaw and tuk tuk capital of the world; girlfriends riding sidesaddle on the back of motorbikes; a sign saying ‘Surgical emporium'; a 10-rupee note with the words  “I love you. Marry me!”; an eagle perched on a wall; a snake charmer with two cobras; a cow walking on the tracks at a railway station; having my wallet stolen on a packed Metro carriage; and finding out that India has 2.3 million gods – these were a few of my first impressions of Delhi.

Charmed to meet you…

Charmed to meet you…

India’s capital city is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Everyone stares at you, beggars beg from you, street sellers sell to you – it takes a strong will to ignore the constant distractions and focus on the task in hand. For me, that was taking pictures. All life was here, and I wanted to capture that in images I could show to the world. Sadly, the need for model releases meant I couldn’t profit from any candid portraits, but that didn’t stop me taking them. I usually prefer taking pictures of landscapes and animals to people, but, if you’re not inspired by the colours, faces, clothes and habits of the Indian streets, you’re in the wrong place.

Tigers

After 24 hours touring the capital, we left for the tiger sanctuary at Bandhavgarh, and most of us were happy at the prospect of a bit of peace and quiet. We were due to catch the overnight sleeper train, but we almost missed it when our ‘Chief Experience Officer’ arrived an hour late with our bags after his taxi got a flat tyre! His name was Harshvardhan Singh Rathore, but we called him Hersh. When we eventually arrived at the station, he warned us of all the dangers. It was dangerous to eat food from the snack bars, it was dangerous to leave bags unattended, it was dangerous to do pretty much anything! After a fearful wait of half an hour, as we huddled round our luggage like girls at a club dancing round their handbags, we gladly sought refuge on the train. My bunk was three doors down from the main group, so I was stranded for the evening. I couldn’t leave in case my bags were stolen, so I just edited photos on my laptop until Hersh came by and allowed me to take a toilet break. Sleep did not come easily with a baby crying next door and a man in my partition ‘snoring like a grampus’, as Chandler would say. I was reminded of the scene in Some Like It Hot when Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon end up having a midnight drinks party in the sleeping compartment with Marilyn Monroe. Sadly, no gorgeous blonde appeared with a bottle of spirits in her hand on this occasion. Sigh…

When we arrived at Katni, it was a case of ‘Hurry up and wait’ – not for the first time or the last! When the vans eventually arrived, we climbed aboard and set off. The drive to Bandhavgarh was two-and-a-half hours, and the last 25km took nearly an hour as the roads were so bad. The resort was nice enough, and I had my own room with a ready supply of hot water, which allowed me to shower for the first time in three days!

The following day, we went on our first game drive in Jeep-like vehicles called Gypsies. The title of the G Adventures trip was ‘Tigers, Temples & Wildlife’, so this was our chance to tick off the first item on the list. We had to get up at 0445, but it was worth it in the end – at least for half the party. I was sitting next to the Norse goddess when Hersh asked me to swap to the other Gypsy on the instructions of the park wardens – something about having to be in the same groups as our passports or some such nonsense. I was initially disappointed (for obvious reasons), but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise an hour later when the guide in my vehicle suddenly started shouting, “Tiger! Tiger!” The driver jammed the pedal to the metal, and we slewed off down the dirt track towards the sighting. Unfortunately, there was a 90-degree bend in the road coming up, so everyone had to hold on as we tore round the corner as fast as we could, hearts beating wildly. In another 300 yards, we reached a water hole where another couple of Gypsies had already parked up. A young tiger was drinking from the pond, and another one was lying in the grass nearby. Success!

“Tiger! Tiger!”

We spent half an hour or so watching the two tigers, which was very exciting, but we couldn’t get hold of the other group on the mobile, so they missed out. The tigers were quite far away, though, and I struggled to zoom in close enough with my 50-500mm lens. Eventually, I fitted my 2x teleconverter and even set up my tripod to try and get a steady shot of the tigers as they lay in the grass or chased each other up the hillside. Unfortunately, I failed miserably. My camera just couldn’t seem to take well exposed, sharply focused images. Nothing to do with me, of course (!), but the shutter speed must have been too slow – only 1/125 rather than 1/500 or 1/1000 – so my pictures all came out blurred or, at best, far too soft. Too bad. I was only there for one reason – to bring home pictures of tigers – so it was very disappointing to have missed my chance. I thought we were going to get lucky again later when Hersh shouted, ‘Tiger, tiger!’, but it was only a monkey – cue much hilarity…

Hersh asked me to give a slideshow of all my photos after dinner, which went down well, but I still wasn’t happy. For the record, these were all the animals and birds we saw:

  • Tiger
  • Sambhar deer
  • Barking deer
  • Spotted deer
  • Blue bull
  • Rhesus macaque
  • Hanuman langur
  • Wild boar
  • Mongoose
  • Paddle-tailed buzzard
  • Green bee-eater
  • Indian roller
  • Kingfisher
  • Black drongo
  • Indian hawk
  • Woodpecker
  • Peacocks
  • Black-napped monarch
  • Cuckoo
  • Lesser Edgerton stork
  • Crescent serpent eagle
  • Kite
  • Red-wattled lapwing
Indian roller

Indian roller

Female wood spider

Female wood spider

We went for another game drive after lunch, but there was not much to see apart from blue bull, a few deer and a pair of mongeese (Really? Ed.). The people in the other Gypsy saw a leopard to make up for missing out on the tiger, so we all had chai on the street afterwards to celebrate. Hersh had swapped vehicles after lunch, so he was predictably and insufferably smug about being the only one to have seen both the tigers and the leopard!

The following day, we prepared to go to Ranthambore, the second tiger sanctuary on our trip. Sadly, that involved another sleeper train, so we guarded our bags on the platform again and watched cows feeding in the bins and walking on the tracks until our train arrived. Hersh eventually gave me a bed with people from our group, and we made friends with an 18-year-old Indian trainee doctor, who treated us to all his stash of home-made food. (Rhys took particular advantage, I seem to remember!) He’d just been home for Diwali, so he had a feast of dishes to share with us, including roti, various curried dishes, rice and marzipan sweets made from cashew nuts, all prepared by him and his family. He told us he lived with his mother, his father, seven male cousins and 14 female cousins, all packed in seven or eight to a house!

The transfer from the station was only 20 mins, so we were soon at the Ranthambore Safari Lodge. On our first safari, I managed to break the front seat in the big diesel-powered lorry we were using, and the door swung open by itself every now and again just to keep me on my toes! The game drive was a bust, and there was nothing to see in the area we’d been sent to. Whether you’re in London or Ranthambore, the message seems to be the same: don’t go near Zone 6!

The next morning, we had another game drive, and this time it was much better. We saw plenty of wildlife, including two sambar deer fighting, 12-15 langurs playing in the trees only a few feet away, a crocodile on an island in the lake and a sleepy owl nesting in a hole in a tree.

Sambar deer

Sambar deer

Darth Wader

Darth Wader

“I’m not tired…”

“I’m not tired…”

“This bed’s really comfortable”

“This bed’s really comfortable”

The partridge family

The partridge family

Antlers away

Antlers away

Watch the birdie

Watch the birdie

Spotted deer

Spotted deer

As well as the more familiar animals and birds we’d seen before, we also notched up a crocodile, a water snake and a turtle. The closest we came to a tiger was the treepie, nicknamed the ‘tiger bird’ because of the colours of its plumage.

When we got back to the lodge, we had breakfast and went on a trip to the market. I was looking for a cuddly tiger for my best friend’s daughter, but our driver took us to the wrong place, and we only found the right shop by accident when we were driving home. Fortunately, they had what I wanted, but that was the last tiger I saw on the trip.

Temples

If the first week of the trip was about tigers, the second was about temples. After a couple of days taking pictures of the local animals and humans in the village of Tordi Sagar, pursued by all the local kids shouting, ‘One photo! One photo!’ and capped by an impromptu Diwali fireworks display on the roof terrace and a dawn trip up to a local hill fort to see the sunrise, we left for Jaipur.

“Here comes the sun, little darlin’…”

“Here comes the sun, little darlin’…”

“You talkin’ to me?”

“You talkin’ to me?”

I can see you…!

I can see you…!

Nicknamed ‘The Pink City’, Jaipur is actually more of a reddish-brown colour, particularly since it was repainted for a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1876. Grand designs, Mughal-style…

Before we could see our first temple, we were taken to the Raj Mandir cinema to watch an action movie called Krrish – India’s version of Superman meets Iron Manmeets Robocop meets X-Men meets Bollywood. Despite the hootin’ and the hollerin’ whenever the hero used his super powers or got intimate with his co-star, it wasn’t half bad – at least if you don’t mind absurd plots, melodramatic overacting and all the actors speaking in Hindi!

The following day, we took a private coach to the Palace of Winds (Hawa Mahal), Amber Fort and Jal Mahal. We spent most of our time at the Amber Fort, a sprawling hilltop palace overlooking a lake. The detail in some of the mosaics and tiled walls was exceptional, and the Hall of Mirrors must have taken years to decorate.

“You’re just building a wall to surround yourself…”

“You’re just building a wall to surround yourself…”

Coconut shy, Amber Fort

Coconut shy, Amber Fort

That evening, I heard a band playing outside the hotel, and I eventually found a wedding procession outside. The groom was riding a richly decorated horse, and a group of more than 20 people were dancing and playing drums. All part of life’s rich pageant here in India…

We dined at a vegetarian restaurant – which was a bit of a shock! – but at least I had one of my favourite lassis. We were charged 20 rupees (or 20p) for a bottle of water and 130 for the thali (including the lassi). Dinner and drinks for £1.50 – can’t say fairer than that!

The next day, we moved on to the ‘Monkey Temple’ (Galwar Bagh) for some good close-ups of the rhesus macaques and people ritually bathing and lighting candles to set afloat on the water. It was a dirty and decrepit place, but cleanliness is more symbolic than practical in India. As long as the water’s in some sort of temple, it must be ‘clean’!

Our next stop-off was the bird sanctuary at Keoladeo National Park. On the way, we saw a dog eating the carcass of a cow in the middle of the road! When we arrived, Hersh made sure I had a rickshaw to myself, and we saw:

  • Rose-ringed parakeet
  • Jungle burbler
  • Yellow spotted green pigeon
  • Laughing dove
  • Painted stork
  • Spotted owlet
  • Snake bird
  • Medium egret
  • Indian moorhen
  • Collared dove
  • Water hen
  • Black-headed ibis
  • Open-billed stork
  • Spoonbill
  • Hornducks
  • White-throated kingfisher
  • Black-shouldered kite
  • Black drongo
Painted stork

Painted stork

We drove back to the Hotel Surya Bilas Palace. More arches. I’ve seen more arches in the last fortnight than a podiatrist sees in his whole career.

The following morning, I was woken by a buzzing mosquito. I flattened it against the wall and saw a bloodstain. Oops! I hoped it wasn’t my blood, or I might be coming home with malaria!

We drove to the Agra Fort and had a tour guide as we took pictures. It may be a World Heritage Site, but it’s not a beautiful place – very old and dilapidated. The only good thing about it was that we were able to see the Taj Mahal for the first time from the roof terrace.

The most photographed building in the world

The most photographed building in the world

“Play Misty for me…”

“Play Misty for me…”

Later, we drove to the ‘Baby Taj’ (Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah) and took pictures. I got in trouble with the guards three times for trying to take in a tripod and not taking off my shoes (twice). Next stop was the Moonlight Garden, from which we would be able to see the Taj Mahal across the river. We were running late, though, so we found ourselves literally running to get our pictures before the sun went down. In the end, the sun was in the wrong place, and the light wasn’t even that good. There is no ‘golden hour’ for taking pictures in India – only a grey one. All I could do was take the classic symmetrical shots across the river and experiment with framing the Taj in the barbed wire for an ‘Auschwitz shot’. Not a great success.

The following morning, we got up before dawn to queue for the Taj Mahal. This was what we were all here for! On the bus, Hersh told us the story of Shah Jahan, the man who built it. He saw a woman in a market, and it was love at first sight. Her name was Mumtaz Mahal. He asked her to marry him, but she refused. He took another wife, but he couldn’t put her out of his mind, so he went back to her and asked again. Finally, she agreed, but she asked him to make her three solemn promises. First, he should never remarry. Secondly, her son must become the heir to the kingdom. Finally, he would have to build something for her that would be remembered for ever. (And before you start checking on Wikipedia, I admit that this version of events doesn’t bear more than a passing resemblance to the truth, but it appeals to the romantic in me…!)

We took a battery-operated vehicle to the Taj, where the queue was only around 50 people, separated into four lines for men and women, split into tourists and local Indians. One woman passed out – from locking her knees like a soldier on parade, I imagine. Rhys made the mistake of bringing his Swiss Army knife for some reason, so that was confiscated!

I’d starting thinking about this day weeks earlier when reading a photographer’s guide to taking pictures of the Taj, and I was determined to get to the end of the reflecting pool as quickly as possible in order to get the ‘money shot’ that we all recognise from thousands of postcards and guidebooks. Sadly, Hersh insisted that I listen to a briefing from our guide for 25 minutes! Aaaaarrrrggghhh! That wasn’t in the plan at all. Sure enough, when I eventually escaped to take my pictures, the place was crawling with tourists. Not even Photoshop could cope with all those people. Grrrr! We spent a couple of hours walking round, and I did my best to get some unusual and interesting shots, but that’s a tall order when you’re dealing with such a familiar structure. It’s a powerful and imposing structure – much bigger than you imagine – but there is very little detail on the walls, floors or ceilings. This is no Amber Fort. As a result, it’s better seen from a distance than close-up, but it’s none the worse for that.

Seen it all before…

Seen it all before…

Finally, Hersh rounded us all up, and we left the building. In an interesting aside, he said that there never used to be any security barriers. They were only installed very recently. In the old days, anyone could just walk in on a whim. He even told stories of rickshaw drivers sleeping in the actual building itself! That all changed in 1998, sadly, when the Taj Mahal became a World Heritage Site. There’s progress for you…

That evening, we drank wine at the hotel and went out for another incredibly cheap dinner. Hersh arranged a free lift home for me afterwards from one of his taxi driver buddies, but the rest went out to a bar. It must have been a good night, because I later heard Rhys and Joe come in at 0344 in the morning. Joe said, “What a legendary trip!” and Rhys said something unintelligible in Welsh!

After a few goodbyes the following morning, Joe, Jodie, Rhys and I took a taxi to the airport. The driver spat out of the window, drove like a maniac, stopped the car to answer his mobile and actually got out of the cab at a junction! How appropriate. At least the fare was only £1.25 each!

India, India, India. What can we say about you? If you were a woman, you’d definitely be high maintenance, but I’m disappointed that you’ve lost your ability to surprise. Too many films, guidebooks and stories mean you no longer hold the mystery you once did. You’re not the veiled seducer of A Passage to India or the exotic native dancer of the Raj. Predictable, yes, but even predictable can still be dirty, sacred, noisy, colourful, crowded, dangerous, beautiful, remote and wild.