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.
Serengeti Under Canvas
Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp
Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp
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…)
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
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
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
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’
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%
“Can we have gluten-free pizza but no cheese, just sauce?”
“Do you want two shots of gin or three?”
“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!”
“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.”
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!
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!
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.
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
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
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!)
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…
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…)
Number of unforgettably beautiful women: 2 (you know who you are!)
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.
African bush elephant
African wild cat
Lesser bush baby
Mwanza flat-headed rock agama/Spider-Man agama
Wild dog/painted wolf
African crowned eagle
African fish eagle
African golden weaver
African grey flycatcher
African grey hornbill
African moustached warbler
African open-billed stork
African paradise flycatcher
African pied wagtail
African wattled lapwing
African white-backed vulture
Black-winged red bishop
Cinnamon-breasted rock bunting
Common sandpiper oooobrm
Eastern grey plantain-eater
Eastern paradise whydah
Great spotted cuckoo
Greater blue-eared starling
Greater striped swallow
Grey-capped social weaver
Grey crowned crane
Lesser masked weaver
Lesser striped swallow
Little green bee-eater
Northern anteater chat
Northern white-crowned shrike
Pale spotted owlet
Ruppell’s griffon vulture
Ruppell’s long-tailed starling
Southern red bishop
Verreaux’s (or black) eagle
Von Der Decken’s hornbill
Western banded snake-eagle