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

The ones that got away

I get nervous before I go on photography trips. Part of that is just worrying about travel arrangements, visas and packing everything I need, but another part of it is worrying that I won't get the shots I want. Here are a few examples of 'the ones that got away'.

Taj Mahal

Before I went to the Taj Mahal, I was determined to get the classic 'Lady Diana' shot of the building from the end of the reflecting pools. That was the whole point of the trip, and I was really worried about it. I couldn't face the idea of screwing up what would probably be my only opportunity to visit the world's most famous building.

When I arrived in India on a G Adventures trip in November 2013, we went to the Taj Mahal early one morning, around 0530. We had to queue for a while and then go through security. At that point, I was about to rush off and take the shot I'd been dreaming about, but our tour leader then introduced us all to a local guide who was about to give us a 15-minute lecture about the building. What a nightmare! I knew that the whole place would be crawling with tourists if I didn't go and take the shot immediately, but it seemed a bit rude just to rush off without hearing the talk. In the end, I was too British about the whole thing and missed the shot of a lifetime. Too bad. On the plus side, I ended up with this image of the Taj Mahal.

'There once lived an exotic princess in a fairy tale castle...'

It's the very opposite of the 'Lady Diana' shot. One is all symmetry and clarity, the other is misty and mysterious. The higgledy-piggledy minarets and the blue haze make the building seem more like a fairy tale castle. I do like this shot, but I still regret being too polite to get the one I wanted...!

Jumping impala

Not quite sharp enough...

This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...

Caracal

This is what it looks like on Wikipedia.

A few years ago, I went to a talk given by Paul Goldstein somewhere in London, and one of the slides he showed was a picture of a caracal. I'd never seen one at the time, but Paul was very proud of his shot, which showed a caracal from the side running through long grass. The image stayed in my mind, and I was very excited when I went to Tanzania in January 2018 and actually saw one for myself! It was quite a way away, but I had my 800mm lens with me, and I was just about to take a shot when the driver told me to wait. He was going to drive around and get closer. Well, funnily enough, the caracal disappeared, and I never got the shot I wanted...

Polar bear

The best of a bad bunch

In June 2014, I went on an Exodus trip with Paul Goldstein to Spitsbergen to see the polar bear. It was a last-minute booking, so I got a good deal on the price, and I was lucky enough to share a cabin with a nice French chap called Eric, but the real prize was getting some good shots of a polar bear. We had 13 or so sightings, but, sadly, they were all too far away for my 500mm lens. That was in the days before I got into the habit of renting the Nikon 800mm monster, and I really wish I'd had it then. Amongst other sightings, a mother and her two cubs put on a great show for us on the ice, but, when I got back to my cabin to review my shots, I found they were all too soft and too distant. Ah, well, at least I have an excuse to go again now...

The kill

I've been to Africa several times now, visiting Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia and Botswana, but I've never seen a kill. I've seen the chase, and I've seen the predator eating its prey, but I've never seen the crucial moment of the kill. Now, I know some people would be a little squeamish about seeing one animal kill another, but I don't think I'd feel that way. To me, it's the ultimate expression of 'the survival of the fittest', and I'd love to see a lion, leopard or cheetah kill something on the great plains of Africa.

I have many stories of 'the one that got away'. There was the time when I climbed Mount Kenya and arrived back at the camp, only to find that everyone that morning had spent an hour watching a pride of lions kill a wildebeest 50 yards away from the gate of the national park! Or there was the time on the same trip when I booked the wrong flight home and had the chance to spend an extra day on my very own personal game drive. We saw a cheetah 'timing' (or hunting) an impala, and it was the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me in Africa - but no kill. In Antarctica, I watched from a Zodiac as a leopard seal ripped apart a penguin, but I didn't quite see the initial attack. In the Brazilian Pantanal, I was watching a jaguar on the river bank from a small boat when the call came over the radio that lunch was ready. No sooner had we met up with the other boat than we had another call, this time to say that the very same jaguar had just killed a caiman! We rushed back and watched as the young jaguar made a mess of the whole thing. To begin with, he had hold of his prey by the throat rather than the back of the neck. This is fine if you're a lion, but jaguars prefer to kill caiman (or small crocodiles) by nipping them on the back of the neck. This jaguar was in a bit of a bind: he didn't want to kill the caiman the 'wrong' way, but he couldn't change his grip in case it got away. He spent 10 minutes humming and hawing before finally killing the caiman, but that was only the start of his problems. His next job was to find a safe place to store his prey, but the banks of the river were 8-10ft high and very steep, so he spent another 25 minutes trying to find a way up into the undergrowth, desperately trying to drag the 10ft crocodile with him. By this stage, around 20 boats had gathered to see the jaguar, and, when he eventually managed to scramble up the bank with his kill, everybody gave him a big round of applause!

I'd rather have seen the kill than stopped for lunch!

 

Conclusion

All this goes to show exactly how close I've come to the elusive kill, but no luck so far. However, I'm off to the Masai Mara in a couple of weeks, so maybe, just maybe I'll be able to bring back the shot I've been dying to get...