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   

Klein's Camp: Part 2

“Rules are made to be broken…”

The most exciting thing you’ll ever see with a camera in your hand…

The most exciting thing you’ll ever see with a camera in your hand…

“There’s a lion fighting with a buffalo!” cried our driver, holding his binoculars and looking round in my direction.

“Okay, let’s go!”

He tore off into the Serengeti, bouncing around like crazy as we headed towards the action - ignoring the park rules by going off-road! He was driving so fast that my bean bag flew up into the air. Thank goodness I was holding on to my cameras, or they both might’ve lost them both! I couldn’t see what was going on, but our driver kept up a running commentary until we eventually got close. He asked me where he should position the car, but it didn’t matter as we could plainly see a lion grabbing the haunches of a buffalo only 10 yards away! My heart racing, I immediately started taking pictures. I took so many, in fact, that my camera couldn’t cope and started to slow down! I had to stop every now and then to allow it to write the files to the memory card. I was with a couple of guests, Patrick and Yvonne, and I suggested to Yvonne that she take a video.

Thanks, Yvonne…!

For five or 10 minutes, the lion hung on with its claws and teeth as the buffalo desperately tried to escape. Eventually, two more male lions arrived to help out and managed to take down their prey, but the buffalo somehow managed to get to its feet again, and the struggle continued. We drove around a bit to get the best view until, finally, one more lion joined in, and the buffalo sank to the ground for the last time. One of the lions clamped his jaws around the animal’s neck and then its mouth to suffocate it, and all four began to feed on their kill. We were in the prime position, with the sun at our backs and all four lions lined up behind the carcase. What a sight!

Sadly, we couldn’t stay long as our driver was worried we’d be spotted by a park ranger, but that was definitely the highlight of my stay at Klein’s Camp. And it was all down to our driver and his ability to spot the action from all of 300 yards away…and break the rules! You’re not supposed to go off-road in the Serengeti National Park, and you run the risk of being fined or even banned from the park if you do, but rules are made to be broken - especially in Africa! I generally adopted a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: I didn’t ask if we were breaking any rules, and I certainly didn’t tell any of the park rangers about it!

Seeing a kill is what it’s all about when it comes to wildlife photography. I realise some people might be a little squeamish about it, but there really is nothing to match the excitement. The guests and I were on a high after the lion kill, and we kept replaying it over and over in our minds and talking about it for the rest of the day. The only other time I saw a ‘proper’ kill from start to finish was in the Klein’s Camp concession. We were looking for cheetah all morning out towards the old airstrip, and we finally saw a pair of brothers walking across a broad, grassy plain. It was ideal cheetah country, and there were quite a few blue wildebeest for them to choose from. We drove along, trying to keep ahead of the cheetah but level with their prey to give us the best chance of spotting the action. I saw five cheetah kills in as many days at Kicheche Bush Camp last year, so I know just how fast the action can take place and how far they can run! In this case, there were a couple of false starts as one or other of the cheetah lay down in the shade of a tree, but one of the brothers was clearly in the lead and ready to hunt. Finally, he started trotting towards a group of wildebeest with his head down in that very typical way they have that shows they’re about to chase down their prey. He ran at full speed for about 100 yards as I took pictures until finally catching a wildebeest. He didn’t manage to take it down first time, though, and it took the help of his brother to wrestle the animal to the ground. We were a bit far behind by that stage, but I switched to my 800mm lens and managed to get a few shots.

One of the cheetah clamped his jaws around the wildebeest’s neck and suffocated him while the other lay next to him, holding it down with his paws. Once it was dead, they started feeding on the carcase, scanning the horizon every few seconds to check for other predators that might steal their prey. After a few minutes’ feasting on the carcase, one of the cheetah walked over and lay down in the shade of a tree, and the other dragged the kill over to him. They both continued eating greedily as one or two vultures arrived to join the party. This carried on for about half an hour, and I took pictures of the cheetah feeding and the vultures landing one after another. By the time we left, I counted 82 white-backed vultures standing in a neat line - just like they were waiting for the bus!

Apart from those kills, I had a few other good days in the bush. I remember following three cheetah on another day with a guest called Martina, and it was a pretty long wait for any action, but we finally got our reward when they climbed a tree and started posing for us.

Eventually, the cheetah jumped down from the tree, and I managed to capture him in the act…

On another occasion, I managed to find a spot where I could take shots of animals silhouetted against the sunset. Normally, that’s not possible at Klein’s due to the Kuka hills that run north-south between the concession and the Serengeti National Park, blocking the sunset in the west. However, there’s a little gully in one of the broad plains near the old airstrip that allowed me to capture this wildebeest against a gloriously fiery sky.

The other real highlights were leopard sightings. A guest called Martina wanted a few photography lessons while she was at Klein’s, and we went out on every game drive with a guide called Seleu, who managed to spot three leopards in as many days! One of them was even in the concession, which was a very rare event. I’d seen a leopard with Seleu in my first week at Klein’s, but that was the only other time I’d seen one. When our tracker Leboo spotted the animal sitting in a tree, Seleu got very excited - almost as excited as when he’d shouted, “Snake! Snake! Snake! Snake! Snake!” when a spitting cobra slither across the road! - and we were treated to a good half an hour of posing before it eventually climbed down and slunk off into a drainage gully. The second sighting was only a few yards away from the ranger post at the entrance to the park. Seleu saw a kill lying on the bank of the river, and he then managed to spot the leopard nearby. Unfortunately, it was very shy, and it was also very dark, so we only got off a few shots before it disappeared into the undergrowth. The third and final leopard was by far the best. We were on our way back from a long game drive in the Serengeti when Leboo spotted it sitting by the river on an open plain. We reversed to the nearest junction and took a different road that led right to the spot. By this stage, the animal had moved away from the river and sat down in the grass, but we still had an excellent view. The light was also excellent as it was getting towards the ‘golden hour’ just before sunset, and Martina and I were able to take some great portraits.

As you can see from the pictures I’ve chosen, going on safari is really all about the big cats: lion, leopard and cheetah. I didn’t see many leopard or cheetah at Klein’s, but the five male lion were a constant presence. When they arrived in November last year, they killed all the cubs they could find from the previous dominant males, and that forced all the lionesses into oestrus. My time here coincided with a frenzy of intercourse, and I must have seen more than 25 matings in the last two months. I also went down to Serengeti Under Canvas for a few days when there weren’t any guests at Klein’s, and I had some good sightings there, too.

When I finally left Klein’s Camp, I walked out of my door and stood on the porch, looking for one last time at the view up the valley towards Kenya. I had tears in my eyes. It’s been a great two months or so, and I hope to be back at some stage in the future. I’ve had some great sightings, taken some great pictures and met some great people, both among the staff and among the guests. I hope I’ve helped the guests learn more about photography. I’ve had some nice feedback on Tripadvisor, and one guest even started calling me ‘Master’ - i felt like Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid: “Lens cap on, lens cap off.” All in all, I have to thank Claire Evans at &Beyond and everyone else involved for giving me such a great opportunity and making my stay so enjoyable. Let’s hope it’s the start of a beautiful friendship!

 

Butcher's bill

1 x Nikon 1.25 teleconverter - the screws kept falling out, and the lug that located it in the mount eventually froze in place…

Species list:

Animals

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

Common warthog

Common/golden jackal

Defassa waterbuck

Dung beetle

Dwarf mongoose

Eland

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

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

Abdim’s stork

African crowned eagle

African cuckoo

African fish eagle

African golden weaver

African green-pigeon

African grey flycatcher 

African grey hornbill

African hawk-eagle

African hoopoe

African paradise flycatcher 

African pied wagtail 

African wattled lapwing

African white-backed vulture

Arrow-marked babbler

Augur buzzard

Bare-faced go-away-bird

Bateleur eagle

Bearded woodpecker

Black stork

Black-bellied bustard 

Black-chested snake-eagle

Black-headed heron

Black-lored babbler

Black-shouldered kite

Black-winged stilt

Blacksmith plover

Blue-naped mousebird

Bronze mannikin 

Brown parrot

Brown snake-eagle 

Burchell’s starling

Cape wheatear

Cardinal woodpecker 

Cattle egret

Cinnamon-breasted rock bunting

Common buzzard

Common kestrel

Common ostrich

Common sandpiper oooobrm

Coqui francolin

Croaking cisticola

Crowned plover

Dark chanting-goshawk

Eagle owl

Eastern chanting-goshawk

Egyptian goose

European bee-eater

European roller

European swallow

Fischer’s lovebird

Flappet lark

Fork-tailed drongo

Goliath heron

Grassland pipit

Great spotted cuckoo

Greater blue-eared starling

Greater flamingo

Greater striped swallow

Green wood-hoopoe

Grey crowned crane

Grey heron

Grey kestrel

Grey-backed fiscal

Grey-breasted spurfowl

Grey-crested helmetshrike

Hadada ibis

Hammerkop 

Helmeted guineafowl

Hooded vulture

Klaas’s cuckoo

Kori bustard

Lappet-faced vulture

Lesser flamingo

Lesser kestrel

Lesser masked weaver

Lesser striped swallow

Lilac-breasted roller

Little bee-eater

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

Pin-tailed whydah

Plain-backed pipit 

Purple grenadier

Pygmy falcon

Pygmy kingfisher 

Rattling cisticola 

Red-backed shrike

Red-cheeked cordon-bleu 

Red-fronted barbet

Red-headed weaver

Red-necked spurfowl

Red-rumped swallow

Red-winged starling

Ring-necked dove

Ruff

Rufous-naped lark

Rufous-tailed weaver

Ruppell’s griffon vulture

Ruppell’s long-tailed starling

Saddle-billed stork

Sand grouse

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

Steppe eagle

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

Von Der Decken’s hornbill

Wattled starling

White stork

White-bellied bustard

White-bellied tit

White-browed coucal

White-browed robin-chat

White-browed scrub-robin

White-crowned shrike

White-headed buffalo weaver

White-headed saw-wing

White-headed vulture

White-winged widowbird

Wire-tailed swallow 

Woodland kingfisher 

Woolly-necked stork

Yellow-billed oxpecker

Yellow-billed stork

Yellow-fronted canary

Yellow-throated longclaw

Yellow-vented bulbul

Zitting cisticola  

Klein's Camp

“Africa is so, well, African…!”

The calm before the storm…

The calm before the storm…

If I told you I had to ask a guy with a spear to walk me home every night for the last month, you’d probably ask where on Earth I was staying. The answer is Klein’s Camp in the Serengeti in Tanzania. There’s no fence around the property, so guests and staff need protection after dark. I’m here for a couple of months teaching photography for &Beyond and taking pictures for use on social media. I’ll then be spending a month at the Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp and another month at Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp in the Masai Mara in Kenya.

It’s a great opportunity for me, and it all started in August 2018 when I came across an online article about a photographer who had managed to get himself 365 nights of accommodation in Africa in exchange for the pictures he took. I thought I could have a go at that myself, so I simply Googled ‘safari lodges in Kenya and Tanzania’, sent out around 50 emails and waited for the replies. In just a couple of weeks, I had 17 offers, including one from &Beyond! That was a good start, but then, a couple of weeks later, it got even better when Claire Evans got in touch from &Beyond, asking if I’d be interested in being the ‘resident photographer’ from March to May, teaching guests as well as taking wildlife shots for the company. Karen Darnborough from Cottar’s also asked me to do the same in June,

The last few safaris I’ve been on in Africa have cost me £5-6,000 for a week, so they’ve been a very expensive way for me to take pictures. As a result, I thought that my plan to teach over there would save me a lot of money. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way! First of all, &Beyond didn’t get the park fee waiver they applied for, and then Lenses For Hire told me I couldn’t rent an 800mm lens for more than three months without flying back to London half way through. The only way round it was to buy a brand new lens - for £15,545. Including my flights, park fees and the new lens, the combined cost of the trip had now soared to more than £25,000! For a few days, I thought about all the different options, but I’m a bit ‘penny wise and pound foolish’, so I eventually decided the opportunity was too good to miss. After a couple of 20-minute conversations with my bank, the money was in my account, and I was all set to go…

And so, after six months of non-stop emails about work permits, park fee waivers and other logistical questions (plus nearly 40 hours of travel!), I travelled to Africa to spend four months teaching photography. I flew from London Heathrow via Doha to Kilimanjaro, treating myself to a business class seat on the second leg. From there, &Beyond picked me up and took me to their offices in Arusha, where I met a few of the staff. They also provided me with a hotel room and the following morning arranged a free flight to Lobo Airstrip and a truck to Klein’s Camp.

There, I met the lodge manager Tawanda. He gave me a brief orientation and put me up in one of the guest cottages, which was very luxurious. (You can see for yourself here.) The views from there and from the bar were spectacular, looking down the valley towards the Kenyan border. The only problem came when they started burning the long grass to encourage new growth. The smoke clouded the view, and the burnt areas looked more like the plains of Mordor!

My usual routine was to go out on morning and evening game drives from 0600-1200 and from 1600-1900 (or later for a night drive). If guests wanted my company, I’d ride with them. Otherwise, I went on my own with just a driver/guide. Meals were pretty flexible. Breakfast was usually prepared for us on the game drive, and I generally took lunch and dinner in my room unless the guests invited me to eat with them. The only choice I had to make was whether to go into the Serengeti National Park. Staying in the Klein’s ‘concession’ was free, but the Serengeti entrance fee was around $71, so I didn’t want to go there every single day if I could help it. Having said that, the Serengeti was a lot bigger, and my chances of seeing game increased dramatically, so I didn’t mind too much. The birds and animals in the concession were also a lot shyer and more skittish than anywhere else I’ve been in Africa. Getting to know the minimum safe distance took some time, and I couldn’t get nearer than 40 yards to the Thomson’s gazelle!

The first few guests were two lovely American couples, Bob and Sue and Monica and Kurt. We spent most of our days together, going on game drives and having dinner in the bar/restaurant. I didn’t do much teaching, but it was nice to have such good company. If you’re looking for wealthy, successful, intelligent, well-educated and interesting people, a safari is a good place to start!

After a few days, the camp had no more guests, so from 11-15 March they sent me down to Serengeti Under Canvas, which is a mobile camp they set up for a few weeks at various different locations in order to follow the Great Migration of zebra and wildebeest. At the time, it was at Lake Ndutu in the Southern Serengeti, so I was driven down there with my cameras and a bag full of clothes and toiletries. It was a long drive of around six hours with a stop at Naabi Hill, but at least I had a chance to take some pictures on the way.

Once I got there, the assistant manager Ben gave me another orientation, and I was immediately asked to go on a game drive with two American couples, Scott and Amie and Chris and Amy. The following day, I went with another couple called Xavier and Genevieve, and, in each case, we all got on very well together. And more to the point, there was lots of game to see. It was low season at Klein’s, and it was quite difficult to find any animals at times, although we were quite lucky with the local Kuka pride of lions. They were almost constantly mating, so I got a few good shots of that.

One can only imagine what these lions are shouting at each other…!

“No means no!”

“No means no!”

Klein’s was good for lion, elephant and buffalo, but Under Canvas had 700,000 zebra and 2,000,000 wildebeest - plus all the usual predators! Unsurprisingly, I took as many pictures in five days at Under Canvas as I had in 10 days at Klein’s, and I was lucky in being able to see eight lion cubs putting on an almost daily show!

“Bundle…!”

“Bundle…!”

When I went back to Klein’s, I went on one game drive with an international couple called Boris and Watanan with their 17-year-old son Nico followed by a few on my own with a local driver called Patita. After that, there was another lull in bookings, so I went back to Under Canvas again for a couple of nights. I went on one game drive on my own with a chap called Moses and then a long one with three more Americans called Margy, Kath and Michael. Finally, I returned to Klein’s, where a party of 12 Americans arrived on 25 March. They didn’t need my services, though, so we simply had a few drinks at the bar together, and I did my game drives on my own again with a driver called Alpha. He’s the camp’s star soccer player, so he was a bit disappointed when Klein’s got beaten on goal difference by the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in the &Beyond championships! I’ve since been on game drives with Desray and Trevor and Jim.

Overall, it’s been a very good experience so far, and I’m very grateful to Claire and &Beyond for giving me the chance to do what I love. I had a lot of logistical problems to deal with before I flew out, so it was a relief to arrive safely. Both the guests and the staff have been great. I’ve met some lovely people, and nothing is too much trouble for the local staff - does the word ‘no’ even exist in Masai or Swahili?! I’ve been a bit disappointed not to be able to take more action shots, including slow pans, and, of course, not to see more kills, but I have witnessed a huge range of animal life, including 54 different animals and 111 different birds (see full list below). There haven’t been any truly great moments or any truly appalling disasters, but, if you asked me what my ‘highs and lows’ have been, this would be my list:

Highs

  • Taking any 5* shot (see pictures in this article)

  • Two lion kills (although I didn’t see the actual hunt)

  • Three lionesses hunting a warthog (unsuccessfully)

  • A newborn impala only 20 minutes old try to get to its feet

  • A brown snake-eagle - for its amazing yellow eyes!

  • Wildebeest and zebra crossing a lake in the ‘Hidden Valley’

  • Tawanda’s leaving do, in which hundreds of his friends and colleagues danced and sang and presented him with gifts, including a whole bed!

  • Telling myself, “I’m in Africa”, which always makes me smile…!

Lows

  • Dropping both cameras - it happened both times on a downhill slope, so I must be more careful…

  • Four punctures! As Oscar Wilde once said, “To lose one tire may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four looks like carelessness.”

  • Getting stuck in the black cotton soil and having to be towed out. Not a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours…

  • Almost getting eaten alive by tsetse flies - there aren’t any at Klein’s, but the Serengeti was so dreadful on a couple of days that I had to tuck my trousers into two pairs of socks and wear a long-sleeved shirt and jacket, a snood and a hat just to try and stop the flies biting me…

  • Getting electrocuted by the lamp switch in the shower - no wonder they have rules about that in England!

And finally, here are a few more of my favourite images. (You can see the complete collection on Facebook.) Let’s hope I get a lot more over the next few months…!

Simba, aka a male lion

European bee-eater

Morning glory

Morning glory

Guess what time I took this…

Sad eyes…

Sad eyes…

Brown snake-eagle: look at those eyes!

How a leopard got its spots…

Kirk’s dik-dik

Kirk’s dik-dik

Kirk’s dik-dik

LBR

LBR

Secretary bird

Secretary bird

 

African crowned eagle

African crowned eagle

Butcher's bill

1 x dental retainer (I flushed the cleaning solution down the toilet, not realising the retainer was still in the glass!)

Species list:

Animals

African civet

African elephant

African wild cat

Banded mongoose

Bat-eared fox

Black-backed jackal

Black-backed/silver-backed jackal

Blue wildebeest

Bohor reedbuck

Bush baby

Bushbuck

Bushbuck

Cape buffalo

Chameleon

Cheetah

Coke’s hartebeest

Common warthog

Common/golden jackal

Defassa waterbuck

Dwarf mongoose

Eland

Eland

Grant’s gazelle

Green turtle

Hippo

Impala

Kirk’s dik-dik

Klipspringer

Leopard

Leopard tortoise

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

Serval

Slender mongoose

Spotted hyena

Steenbok

Thomson’s gazelle

Topi

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

White-tailed mongoose

White-tailed mongoose

Wild dog/painted wolf

Spitting cobra

Birds

Abdim’s stork

African crowned eagle

African cuckoo

African fish eagle

African green-pigeon

African grey hornbill

African hawk-eagle

African hoopoe

African wattled lapwing

African white-backed vulture

Augur buzzard

Bare-faced go-away bird

Bateleur eagle

Black stork

Black-bellied bustard 

Black-chested snake-eagle

Black-headed heron

Black-lored babbler

Black-shouldered kite

Blacksmith plover

Blue-naped mousebird

Brown snake-eagle

Burchell’s starling

Cape wheatear

Chestnut?

Common buzzard

Common kestrel

Common ostrich

Common sandpiper

Coqui francolin

Crowned plover

Dark chanting-goshawk

Eagle owl

Eastern chanting-goshawk

Egyptian goose

European bee-eater

European roller

European swallow

Fischer’s lovebird

Fork-tailed drongo

Goliath heron

Great spotted cuckoo

Greater blue-eared starling

Greater striped swallow

Green wood-hoopoe

Grey crowned crane

Grey kestrel

Grey-backed fiscal

Grey-breasted spurfowl

Grey-crested helmetshrike

Hammerkop 

Helmeted guineafowl

Hooded vulture

Kori bustard

Lappet-faced vulture

Lesser kestrel

Lesser masked weaver

Lesser striped swallow

Lilac-breasted roller

Little bee-eater

Little green bee-eater

Magpie shrike

Marsh eagle

Martial eagle

Montagu’s harrier

Mountain buzzard

Northern anteater chat

Northern wheatear

Northern white-crowned shrike

Pale spotted owlet

Pallid harrier

Pin-tailed whydah

Pygmy falcon

Red-backed shrike

Red-necked spurfowl

Red-winged starling

Ring-necked dove

Rufous-naped lark

Rufous-tailed weaver

Ruppell’s griffon vulture

Ruppell’s long-tailed starling

Saddle-billed stork

Sand grouse

Secretary bird

Senegal lapwing

Southern red bishop 

Steppe eagle

Sunbird

Superb starling

Swamp nightjar

Tawny eagle

Tawny-flanked prinia 

Three-banded plover

Two-banded courser

Two-banded plover

Usambiro barbet

Verreaux’s (or black) eagle

Verreaux’s eagle-owl

Von Der Decken’s hornbill

Wattled starling

White stork

White-bellied bustard

White-browed coucal

White-crowned shrike

White-headed buffalo weaver

White-headed saw-wing

White-headed vulture

White-winged widowbird

Wire-tailed swallow 

Yellow-billed oxpecker

Yellow-throated longclaw

 

Safari bingo: animals

Tired of always having to ask your safari guide what you're looking at on a game drive? Here's your cut-out-and-keep guide to the most common animals. Shout 'Bingo!' when you've crossed them all off...but not too loudly!

Safari bingo: birds

Confused by all the species of birds you're seeing on safari in Africa? Here's your cut-out-and-keep guide to the most common ones. Shout 'Bingo!' when you've crossed them all off...but not too loudly!

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

As Noël Coward never said, "Very flat, Tanzania."

You've heard of LBJ, right? Well, this is an LBR...

You've heard of LBJ, right? Well, this is an LBR...

When God painted Tanzania, he did so with a very limited palette of green and brown. There's not much variety in the landscape either, and some of the grassy plains are so flat you could lie on your back and see for a hundred miles! The only relief is the occasional kopje, or rock formation, but that's more like the artist's signature on a blank canvas. However, when He carved the Serengeti heat alive with wildlife, His imagination knew no limit. I saw a total of 38 animals and 85 birds during my Classic Tanzania Safari with Exodus Travels, including lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, cheetah, zebra, giraffe and impala. We even saw the very rare caracal, which is a medium-sized cat similar to a lynx. There wasn't as much game as there is in the peak season from July to September, but we still saw thousands of wildebeest and zebra taking part in the Great Migration, and I took over a thousand pictures a day! In the end, I came back with 669 shots I thought were good enough to sell through stock agencies, and I even chose three prints to include in my next exhibition.

The spectacular and exciting variety of animals in places like Tanzania is the reason I keep going back to Africa, and, for me, the highlights of any trip are usually connected with the pictures I manage to take. After all, I count myself a professional photographer these days, so I never just go on 'holiday' any more! We didn't see a kill - which is the crowning glory of any safari - but we did see a cheetah just after it had killed a hartebeest. It spent around half an hour gorging itself right in front of us - only five or ten yards away - while a marabou stork and over a dozen vultures waited patiently for their share of the spoils. On the horizon, the hartebeest's mother kept up a solo vigil the whole time. Very sad...

Cheetah

Cheetah

The same cheetah

The same cheetah

Another highlight was seeing so many lions. One day, we were driving through a meadow with very tall grass, and I told our driver Julius that we were in 'lion country' now. Within a couple of hours, we'd seen around 14 lions in two separate prides, one lounging on a termite mound and another sleeping beside a tree! I love the excitement of predators, so it was great to be able to get such good sightings.

Feline graffiti

Feline graffiti

Lion

Lion

Lion

Lion

The other highlight was the birds we saw. Tanzania has a huge bird population, with more than 1,100 species, and we saw some spectacular specimens, including a red-cheeked cordon-bleu and a red-and-yellow barbet that I never even knew existed! When it comes to individual shots, my favourite was the one of the lilac-breasted roller at the top of the page. It's a beautiful bird anyway, but I was particularly lucky when it fluttered its wings unexpectedly without taking off. That gave me the chance to get a rare 'action shot'. I prefer action shots to portraits, but there wasn't much action to see on this trip, apart from a couple of buffalo fighting in the distance and two elephants 'fighting' like punched-out heavyweights in the 12th round of a fight, so we had to make the most of what we were given.

There were nine guests on the Exodus trip, which ran from 12-21 January 2018, plus an excellent guide called Jackson and a couple of drivers - Alex and Julius - for the four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers we were using. One of the guests put a message on the Exodus community website before the trip, so I ended up meeting her at Heathrow and travelling with her all the way to Kilimanjaro, where we joined with the rest of the group. The actual 'travelling' is the only bit of travelling I don't like, so it was nice to have some company on such a long journey (and in the jeep later). Getting to Africa is never straightforward, and it took me over 38 hours to go from my flat in Putney to the front seat of the Land Cruiser on our first game drive!

I love close-up shots, so I followed my usual habit of renting a Nikon 800mm lens from Lenses For Hire for our trip. I have two Nikon camera bodies, a D810 and a D850, and I usually fit my Nikon 80-400mm lens to one and the 800mm lens to the other. I end up taking roughly half my shots with each camera. The only other things I take with me are my SpiderPro belt (just to help me carry everything to the jeep!), a lens cloth and a spare battery. You generally spend most of the day in the safari truck, so you don't need to worry about bringing hiking boots. I just put on trainers, cargo pants (with plenty of pockets!), a long-sleeved shirt (or merino base layer if it's cold) and a proper sun hat with a chin strap (not a baseball cap, as the brim gets in the way, and it might blow off!). The sun is usually very hot, and I always use a Nivea stick on my nose, but I avoid having to put on too much sun cream by covering up my arms and legs. If you're a photographer, you don't go on safari to get a sun tan!

Game drives are the whole point of going on safari, and you soon get into a routine. Whether you're staying at lodges or permanent tented camps or even in tents you have to put up yourselves, you always end up doing pretty much the same thing - and this trip was no exception. You generally wake up to an early breakfast - either at dawn or even earlier - and go out in your safari trucks for a few hours before returning for lunch or eating a packed lunch somewhere along the way. After another game drive in the afternoon, you head back to camp for a shower, drinks, dinner and a relatively early night. When I get back to camp, I like to edit all the pictures I've taken during the day, so that usually means hunching over my laptop for a few hours here and there. I wake up early at the best of times, so that means I can do a few hours' work before breakfast or, if I can't sleep, in the middle of the night! 

Most safaris take place in a few different places, so the routine will also often include a journey to the next stop. Apart from a quick visit to the Oldupai Gorge to hear about the Leakeys' paleontological discoveries, we visited four main locations on our trip: Lake Manyara, Serengeti National Park, the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park, and they were all very different.

Lake Manyara

Lake Manyara National Park is not the most famous safari destination, but it does have a reputation for its 'tree-climbing lions'. In fact, all lions can climb trees, but the lions that climb trees at Lake Manyara (which we actually saw) get the extra benefit of cool breezes on the slopes of the surrounding hills. Inside the park, you'll find Lake Manyara itself and a flat, marshy plain around it, but also the heavily wooded hills that form the walls of the Great Rift Valley. This was formed by plate tectonics and is a vast corridor that runs the length of Africa, all the way from Jordan to Mozambique. It splits into eastern and western spurs, but they're both so wide that you can never see the hills on both sides. Instead, you find the enormous flat plains known as the African savanna(h), which are the home to all the 'traditional' game animals, including the Big Five (rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo). When you enter Lake Manyara National Park, the first things you notice are the trees and the hills that form the walls of the Rift Valley. The lack of open ground means that game is tricky to spot initially - apart from a few vervet and blue monkeys in the trees - but it gets easier once you drive out to the lake. Sadly, there was an unusually large amount of overnight rain during the course of our trip, so the lake and other water holes we passed were not the 'game magnets' that they normally are during the dry season. However, if the quantity of sightings was low, the quality was high, so that kept us happy.

Serengeti

The Serengeti plains are the stereotypical African safari destination. There is a good quantity of game all year round, and the landscape is ideal for spotting them as there are so few trees. Apparently, all the volcanic activity in the area has left a layer of tough igneous deposits a few feet below the surface that prevent trees from getting the nourishment they need to grow. Whatever the reason, it means that you are able to see those iconic, unbroken vistas that remind you of the etymology of 'Serengeti', which means 'endless plain'.

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

Male impala

Male impala

Black-headed heron in black and white

Black-headed heron in black and white

Ngorongoro Crater

The Ngorongoro is named after the sound a Masai cowbell makes. It is surprisingly small, and you can see the walls of both sides of the caldera from wherever you are on the central plain. There is also a strange optical illusion at work. The crater is 600 metres deep, and it looks like a very long way from the viewpoint up on the rim at 2,400 metres above sea level, but, when you look back up from the crater floor, the hills don't look that high at all. Strange... Anyway, the Ngorongoro has a justly deserved reputation as a safari destination and contains all the animals you'd expect to see - with the exception of the giraffe, which can't get down the steep slope from the crater rim because its legs are too long! On our trip, we had a couple of good sightings of lions here, particularly on the kopjes, where they choose to lie high up on the rocks to get a better view, and we came across a family group of elephants on either side of the road that gave us a great chance to get up close and personal.

African elephant

African elephant

Tarangire

In terms of the landscape, Tarangire National Park is a kind of cross between Lake Manyara and the Serengeti. It boasts the hills and water of the first, but with the open savannah of the second. It also has quite a few of the distinctive baobab trees.


Did you know?

Baobab trees can be up to 2,000 years old, but there are few young ones as they get eaten by elephants, which eat the bark of the tree in the dry season as it contains large amounts of water.


Unfortunately, we didn't see much game there when we went. Normally, it's an important source of water for the animals, but the unseasonal rains meant that there was enough water for them to range far and wide without being tied to the Tarangire River. That meant they could 'save' that water source for when they really needed it in the dry season. We spent most of our time in Tarangire driving around looking for game, and the only good shot I got was the one of the lilac-breasted roller. On the other hand, the views were spectacular, and we spent our last night at a wonderful place called the Tarangire Safari Lodge, which gets a star rating in Lonely Planet. It had a long row of tents for all the guests, each with solar-powered lights and showers and a veranda with chairs and a table out front. There was a lookout point on the cliffs a few yards away that offered a spectacular panorama of the hills and river below, and the main building incorporated an enormous circular banda, with a vast roof above the dining area.

The food was a cut above the usual fare, and our dinner there consisted of pumpkin and ginger soup, mango and green pepper salad, bean and vegetable salad and then beef stew with rice or potatoes, followed by passion fruit mousse and plum tart with custard. The only problem was all the bugs flying around - even indoors. They managed to bite me even through my shirt, leaving four angry red spots on my back. It was horrendous, and it was the first time on the entire trip that I threatened to lose my sense of humour. Trying to edit my pictures on my laptop at the bar after dinner was almost impossible. The staff didn't do anything about all the creepy-crawlies and flying insects - apart from clearing away the dead bugs with a broom! - and it got even worse when I got back to my tent. It was crawling with insects, but there was no bug spray, and the bed didn't even have a mosquito net. When I couldn’t find the light switch as it wasn’t in the bathroom...well, I lost it and started sweating my head off! I hope my neighbours didn’t hear me! In the end, I had to squash all the bugs with a laminated menu card from the welcome pack. What a way to ruin - and I mean absolutely ruin! - what should’ve been a great experience to end the trip. 

This Is Africa

That brings me on to a final point about going on safari. You have to take the rough with the smooth. 'This Is Africa', as they say, so you should expect a few minor problems and even one or two dramas, but you have to take it in good part. "Hakuna matata," as they say, or "No worries." If you were to write a list of pros and cons for going on safari, it would look something like this:

Cons

  • Very expensive
  • Long journey to get there
  • Long hours in the jeep
  • No electricity during the night (if at all!)
  • No hot water during the night (if at all!)
  • Patchy mobile coverage
  • Patchy or non-existent wi-fi
  • Broken equipment, eg in-car radio transceivers
  • Mosquitoes carrying a risk of malaria (and therefore having to take Malarone pills every day)
  • Tsetse flies (with a very sharp bite!) carrying a risk of sleeping sickness
  • All kinds of other insects and bugs, dropping on you wherever you are and making a home in the bathroom
  • Not being able to drink the water
  • Poor quality food and lack of alternative options
  • Constant worry about losing something or having it stolen (particularly bad in my case when staying in a tent without a lock on it with £30,000-worth of camera equipment in my bag!)
  • Daily risk of food poisoning (particularly from ice in drinks and/or washed vegetables such as green peppers - which directly caused me to make five unscheduled trips to the bathroom in Tarangire!)
  • Having to share a room/tent with someone who is not necessarily your favourite person in the world (unless you pay hundreds of pounds to sleep on your own!)
  • Vehicles often breaking down or getting stuck
  • Animals trying to get into your tent at night
  • Having to be escorted around the camp after dark in case of animal attack
  • Etc, etc, etc...

Pros

  • Wildlife
  • Er, that's it...

Yes, I know it's a very long list of cons and a very short list of pros. In fact, it was worse than that on our trip as a bridge was washed away by the flooding, and we had to find a way to ford the river in our Land Cruiser. So many jeeps got stuck in the mud trying to do the same thing that it looked a bit like the elephants' graveyard, but we eventually found a way across. Our problems didn't end there, though, as some enterprising locals had decided to pile rocks on the way up from the makeshift river crossing and were demanding money to let us through! We eventually had to have a whip-round and gave them a few Tanzanian shillings. Even then, we got stuck in the mud on the way back to the main road, and it was only when all the passengers climbed out of the jeep that Julius was able to make it to safety. We all thought he'd done a great job - until we found out that Alex had managed drive the other jeep across without any problems at all!

And yet, and yet...we did see fantastic wildlife. It may not sound like much compared to having to get up at five in the morning and go without hot water, electricity and wi-fi most of the time, but the fact I keep going back speaks for itself. When you sit down with your grandchildren on your knee, and they ask what you did during your lifetime, are you going to tell them you had eight hours' sleep every night and a hot shower every morning and never let a day go by without checking social media, or are you going to tell them you saw the best of God's creation in Africa...?

 

 

 

Butcher's bill

1 x tube of sun cream (confiscated at Heathrow)
1 x tube of shower gel (confiscated at Heathrow)
£60 fine for exceeding hand luggage weight limit (confiscated at Heathrow)

Species list:

Animals

Agama lizard
Banded mongoose
Bat-eared fox
Black rhinoceros
Blue monkey
Bohor reedbuck
Bushbuck
Cape (or African) buffalo
Caracal
Cheetah
Common (or plains) zebra
Dwarf mongoose
Eland
Elephant
Goff’s mongoose
Golden jackal
Grant’s gazelle
Hartebeest
Hippo
Impala
Kirk’s dikdik
Leopard
Lion
Masai giraffe
Mongoose
Monitor lizard
Mouse
Nile crocodile
Olive baboon
Rock hyrax
Silver-backed jackal
Spotted hyena
Thomson’s gazelle
Topi
Vervet monkey
Warthog
Waterbuck
White-tailed mongoose

Birds

Abdim’s storkAfrican fish eagle
African hoopoe
African jacana
African spoonbill
Ashy starling
Augur buzzard
Bateleur
Black kite
Black-bellied bustard
Black-headed heron
Black-headed weaver
Black-necked sand goose
Black-shouldered kite
Blacksmith plover
Blue starling
Brown snake eagle
Common house martin
Crested guineafowl
Crow
Crowned plover
D'Arnaud's barbet
Eagle owl
Eastern chanting goshawk
Egyptian goose
Eurasian roller
Fiscal shrike
Flamingo
Francolin
Giant heron
Greater kestrel
Green pigeon
Grey crowned crane
Grey flycatcher
Grey heron
Grey hornbill
Grey-headed heron
Hadada ibis
Hammerkop
Knob-billed duck
Kori bustard
Lappet-faced vulture
Lilac-breasted roller
Little bee-eater
Little egret
Long-crested eagle
Madagascan bee-eater
Magpie shrike
Marabou stork
Martial eagle
Mosque swallow
Ostrich
Pelican
Pin-tailed whydah
Red-and-yellow barbet
Red-billed hornbill
Red-billed oxpecker
Red-billed weaver
Red-cheeked cordon-bleu
Sacred ibis
Secretary bird
Silver bird
Silver-cheeked hornbill
Somali bee-eater
Southern ground hornbill
Speckled mousebird
Striated heron
Superb starling
Tailed rufous weaver
Tawny eagle
Violet wood-hoopoe
Von der Decken’s hornbill
Ward’s starling
Watt starling
White stork
White-backed vulture
White-browed coucal
White-browed cuckoo
White-capped shrike
White-faced whistling duck
White-headed buffalo weaver
White-ringed dove
Yellow-collared lovebird
Yellow-necked superfowl

 

Tigers in Tadoba

"What did you do for your birthday, Nick?"
"I shot 12 tigers."

Shere Khan, aka Maya 'The Enchantress'

Shere Khan, aka Maya 'The Enchantress'

"Tigerrrrrrr!" shouted our guide, and the driver stomped on the accelerator so hard we were doing 60mph before I knew what was happening. I clung on for dear life as we rounded a 90° bend without slowing down at all, cradling my camera in my arms. After a couple of the most exciting minutes of my life, we came across two young male tigers playing at a water hole...

That was my first experience of tigers in India. Unfortunately, the two we saw were just a bit too far away to get any decent pictures, and we had no more sightings on the trip. That's why I went back a couple of weeks ago to try again.

If you're happy to travel 20 hours to be woken up at 0445 in the morning to spend eight hours in 47°C heat waiting to catch a glimpse of tigers up to 500 yards away, then this is ideal the trip for you! I went with 10 other guests on an Exodus tour called Tigers in Tadoba, led by Paul Goldstein. I'd been on a trip with Paul before, to see polar bears in Spitsbergen, so I knew that he always gives you the best possible chance of taking pictures of the animals. He describes himself as being 'like Marmite' - you either love him or you hate him! - and he's certainly not shy of swearing at you or giving you a withering putdown for getting in his way or making a fool of yourself with your camera! However, he's a great photographer, naturalist and raconteur, and that's exactly what we needed for this kind of trip, considering the rather challenging conditions. In fact, almost all of the guests had travelled with Paul at least once before, so their loyalty is the real proof of his credentials. 


Paulisms

'House of Tards' - the place where the idiots on the trip lived

'Mincing' - faffing around (see also 'quincing', which we decided was faffing around for more than 10 minutes)

'Muppetry' - any sort of mistake, particularly faffing around or making a photographic error

'Nonsense' - hors d'oeuvres

'Spaz' - idiot


In the end, we saw around 12 tigers spread over 11 game drives in the course of five-and-a-half days at the Tiger Trails Resort in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. We also saw a sloth bear, a variety of spotted, sambar and barking deer and several smaller animals, but the tigers were the main focus. That's something you have to understand before you take this kind of trip. It's not like an African safari where there are so many iconic animals that you can just keep driving around until you see something else. In Tadoba, we were there to see the tigers, and we happily drove past herds of eminently photographable animals in the constant rush to see the star of the show. That means we did spend hours parked up at a water hole or other likely spot, sometimes surrounded by rows of other jeeps and trucks, waiting for a sighting. The roads were bumpy, there was a ton of red dust that got all over your clothes and camera equipment and there was usually very little shade, but the payoff was huge.

I love to take pictures of the big predators, such as lions, cheetahs and leopards, but all those pale by comparison with the tiger. It's the largest of the big cats, and it sits right at the top of the food chain in India. Not even the leopard comes close. There is also something about its orange and black stripes and the gorgeous power and grace of the animal. They do look a bit ungainly trying to climb out of a water hole, but that's just a tiny quibble set against everything else. Our local guide Himanshu Bagde had even written a long article with pictures about 'Maya the Enchantress' in the Indian Times. Maya was one of the tigers we saw, and the article was posted up on the wall of the dining area, so we could all learn a lot more about the animal. All the adult tigers have names, and we saw Maya, Matkasur and Madhur as well as several sub-adult males and females. These 'cubs' are only given names when they separate from their mother.

Our general routine was to have two game drives each day in Suzuki Gypsy 4WD vehicles, the first from 0500-1000 and the second from 1500-1900. We only had three guests in each jeep, but they were still a bit cramped - especially for me when I had to try and squeeze into the front seat with two cameras and an 800mm lens! In between, there was a generous buffet-style brunch from around 1100 onwards, involving omelettes and chapattis made to order, and at around 2030 we all went up to Paul's balcony for a few drinks and what he called 'nonsense' (ie nibbles) before having dinner in the open air. The local Indian food was excellent, particularly the mango lassis and some heavenly chicken satay skewers, and there were even a bowl of chips and one or two western dishes if you were nursing a touch of 'Delhi belly'. Ellie and I celebrated our birthdays on the trip, and we were both given cakes with relighting candles - a special gift from Paul! The accommodation was also very comfortable. I had a suite that was about five times the size of my studio flat in Putney, which consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom and a shower room. It also had a staircase leading up to the first-floor balcony. That was handy on the first night, when I spent half an hour before dinner taking shots of what was a gorgeous harvest moon.

Yes, it really was this colour!

The balcony was outside Andy and Eddie's room, and we all ended up taking pictures together. They needed a bit of help with their photography, so I gave them a few tips over the first few days, and we regularly ended up in the same jeep for the game drives. 

The highlight of the whole trip for me was the first sighting of Maya in the water hole, mainly because of the pictures I was able to take. I happened to overhear Paul suggest underexposing the image by a full stop, so I experimented with one and then two stops of exposure compensation and then played around with the images in Lightroom. I was delighted with the results.

Is this what 'fine art' photography is supposed to be...?

Is this what 'fine art' photography is supposed to be...?

I should perhaps explain that this looks nothing like what we actually saw in real life, but then that's the point, isn't it? Photography is art, and every artist's challenge is to come up with something new, challenging and dramatic. Paul called it 'top work, and it's the first time I've taken a photograph that might be classed as a 'fine art' print. My whole reason for going to Tadoba was to get a five-star picture of a tiger, so job done!

If you prefer a more 'realistic' shot of what the tigers actually looked like, here's one I took at the same water hole under the same conditions, but this time without underexposing the image.

HMS Tiger

You can see that the images are completely different. I like the low-key portrait, but it depends what you prefer. The second shot is just a different way of approaching the same problem. Paul actually saw me playing around with it on my laptop one lunchtime and was kind enough to help out. He's exceptionally good at knowing how to improve an image in Lightroom, and with this one he completely changed the crop to show the tiger in the corner of the image with the 'wake' in the background. I had originally left the subject smack bang in the middle of the frame, but people generally don't like that, so this is a much more appealing image. Paul also helped optimise all the other settings in Lightroom to make subtle changes to the colour of the water and the tiger and get the most out of the picture. I've only been a photographer for four years, so I guess it might take another 20 for me to reach his level of confidence and expertise! Here's another of the pictures he helped me edit.

I'm coming to get you...!

The joy of this image is that it shows a tiger walking straight towards the camera. It's very rare to get that perspective in wildlife photography, as the animals naturally want to run from danger, but I just happened to be in a jeep that parked only five yards from the pile of branches where a tiger was sleeping, and - after a good hour's wait! - it finally emerged.

We were lucky in seeing so many tigers, but one of the other highlights was seeing a sloth bear. They're very shy, and sightings are very rare, but we were lucky enough to see one digging out a termite mound just by the side of the road. The sloth bear is the animal on which Kipling based Baloo in The Jungle Book, and it's a small, black omnivore weighing around 300lbs.

One sloth bear weighs the equivalent of 156,378 termites

The sighting lasted around 20 minutes, and the shot I really wanted was this one of the animal digging with a puff of earth shooting backwards. I thought I'd missed out, but I found out when I was looking through my images back at the lodge. The face is not quite sharp, but I'm trying to take more 'action shots' than simple portraits these days, so I was pretty pleased - especially considering that both Paul and Charlie said it was the best sighting of a sloth bear they'd ever had.

I guess the obvious question is, "What did you do when there weren't any animals around?" Well, if you happened to be travelling with Paul, he'd probably be playing the lyric game or challenging you to work out four or five cryptic clues to the names of Tube stations, but there was still wildlife to see, particularly at a local lake. We went on a couple of game drives to the 'buffer zone' between the national park and the neighbouring farmland, and we managed to find a rather picturesque lake with a relatively large number of birds. While we were waiting for reports of a tiger, we simply took pictures of the birds. There were lots of different kinds of egrets, storks and pond herons, and I took the opportunity to play around with the kind of underexposed settings that had worked so well with the tiger in the water hole.

"Egrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention..."

"Egrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention..."

The other chance we had to take pictures was during the break in the middle of the day. Indian bureaucracy is a nightmare, and we weren't allowed to enter the park between 1000 and 1500, so this was a chance to catch up on sleep, work on my photos or take more pictures, this time of the sunbirds at a tap in the garden. Paul told us about them when he presented his 'shot of the day' one evening, and, for the rest of the trip, there was a regular posse of snappers trying to capture the perfect mid-air close-up.

Male purple sunbird 'avin' a drink with the missus

In sum, then, we were lucky to have so many sightings of the tigers, but I thoroughly recommend the trip if you don't mind a little hardship. If you can stand the heat, the dust, the exhaustion, the illness, the boredom and the insults, you'll have a wonderful time!

 

Butcher's bill

1 x sunglasses (scratched irreparably)
1 x cuddly toy tiger (left in overhead locker on flight home)

 

Species list:

Animals

Barking deer
Bengal tiger (Maya, Matkasur, Madhuri and Chati-Tara plus several cubs)
Crocodile
Iguana
Indian gaur (bison)
Mongoose
Sambar deer
Sloth bear
Spotted deer
Squirrel

Birds & insects

Asian open-billed stork
Asian paradise flycatcher
Black-headed ibis
Black-naped monarch
Bronze-tailed jacana
Cattle egret
Common egret
Common iora
Common kingfisher
Crested hawk eagle
Darter
Dragonfly
Eurasian collared dove
Fish eagle
Great egret
Grey jungle fowl
Honey bee
Honey buzzard
Indian roller
Jungle fowl
Lapwing
Laughing dove
Lesser adjutant stork
Lesser whistling duck
Little cormorant
Little ringed plover
Magpie robin
Night heron
Osprey
Paddy field pippet
Paradise flycatcher
Peacock
Pheasant-tailed jacana
Pied kingfisher
Purple heron
Purple swamphen
Red wattled lapwing
Red-vented bulbul
Rufous tree-pie
Serpent eagle
Spotted dove
Tri-coloured munia
White-breasted water hen
White-throated kingfisher 

Getting the most out of game drives

The worst part about taking pictures is knowing you've just missed a great shot. Here, I try to help wildlife photographers learn from 'the one that got away'.

The one that got away...

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...

In order to avoid moments like that, here are my answers to a few obvious questions:

What equipment do I need?

Good question. It's obviously too late to do anything once you're on safari, so it pays to get your equipment sorted out beforehand. People often ask me what camera I use, and it reminds me of a story I heard about Ernest Hemingway. He went to a photography exhibition in New York and was so impressed he asked to meet the photographer. 

Hemingway: These pictures are great. What camera do you use?

Photographer: Well, I use a Leica with a 50mm lens for most of my shots. I'm actually a big fan of your work, too, Mr Hemingway. I've read all your novels. Can I just ask: what typewriter do you use...?

The point is obviously that a good camera doesn't necessarily make a good picture, and it's mildly insulting to photographers if you ask about their equipment without complimenting them on their talent! However, all other things being equal, a good camera can make life a lot easier for wildlife photography. I'd suggest getting a full-frame DSLR with a zoom lens with a maximum focal length of at least 300mm, preferably 400mm or more. The problem with a bridge or DX camera is that you won't get the quality you're after, as they don't have large enough sensors. I started off with a bridge camera and thought the zoom was great - until I saw the Nikon DSLR one of the other guys had! I had a severe case of 'camera envy', so I emailed a friend of mine who was a professional photographer to ask what he would get. He recommended either Nikon or Canon, but Canon made photocopiers, so that was out of the question! Instead, I bought myself a Nikon D800 - complete with 36.3 megapixels! - and it's served me well ever since. I now also have a D810, which is an upgraded version of the D800. Having two cameras means I don't have to worry about changing lenses. Instead, I carry them both cameras on a SpiderPro holster that looks a bit like an old Western cowboy's gun belt. I can take them out and put them back with just one hand, and I can lock them in place if I'm going on a boat ride or clambering over rocks and don't want to take any chances. 

As for lenses, I mainly use an 80-400mm on the D800 and rent an 800mm prime on the D810. They're both made by Nikon, and for a very good reason. I tried a Sigma 50-500mm and then a Tamron 150-600mm lens, but the images just weren't sharp enough. I now manually check the autofocus of all my lenses using Reikan Focal automatic lens calibration software. All you do is print out a 'target' and set up your camera on a tripod to take pictures of it from a certain distance away. Once you load the software, it guides you through the set-up and takes a number of exposures automatically, just asking you to change the manual focus adjustment anywhere from -20 to +20. When the routine is finished, it gives you a PDF report showing the optimal adjustment value - and that's what persuaded me to use only Nikon lenses. I'd been on a trip to Svalbard and wasn't happy with my shots of the polar bears, which were all just a little bit soft. One of the other guys on the trip told me he did a manual focus check, and that's when I started doing it, too. It was only when I bought my new 80-400mm lens that I realised the huge difference in sharpness: the Sigma and Tamron were down at around 1400 on the numeric scale, and the Nikon was way up at 2200! In short, check your lenses. They're mass-produced items, so there's always bound to be some slight variation in focus, and you'd rather fix it yourself than have to use it as an excuse when you don't get the sharpness you want.

I also make sure I always pack a polarising filter together with a lens cleaning kit (with sensor swabs and cleaning fluid), a beanbag (for resting the lens on the windowsill of a jeep) and my laptop (so that I can download and work on my pictures in the evening). If I'm going to be near a waterfall, like Iguazu or Victoria Falls, I'll also take my tripod and a 'Big Stopper' neutral density filter to give me the chance of taking creamy pictures of the water with a  long shutter speed.

What else should I do before I leave?

Getting the right equipment (and changing the time zone on your camera!) is one thing, but you can help yourself out by booking the right holiday in the right location at the right time. Check when the 'long rains' are if you're going to Africa. Check when the peak season is for wildlife viewing. Check if it's possible to visit when there's a full moon or - even better - a harvest moon. You can ask all these questions (and more) to make sure you get the very most out of your trip. One useful site for African expeditions is Safari Bookings, which allows you to search for packages by location, duration and price. I also like to travel light. I hate the whole airport experience, so I avoid having to check any bags in by having a roll-aboard camera bag and packing all my clothing into a jacket that has a pocket in the lining that goes all the way round. It looks a bit funny when you walk through customs - and some people just couldn't do it - but it saves me an awful lot of time and bother. If you’re a birdwatcher, you might also want to invest in an app to help you identify the local species. I downloaded one called eGuide to Birds of East Africa, and it’s excellent. It does cost around £27.99, but it’s very quick to check the name of a bird - which is often what you need to do when your guide tells you what it is but you’re too embarrassed to ask him how to spell it!

What should I take with me on the game drives?

If you're a keen photographer, you won't want to miss anything while you're out taking pictures from the 4x4, but that doesn't mean you need to take the entire contents of your camera bag! I would simply take your camera(s) and your longest lens(es) - protected by waterproof covers - plus a couple of spare batteries and a lens cloth. A beanbag might come in handy on certain vehicles, but that's about it.

What should I wear?

I generally cover up to avoid sunburn and insect bites, so I generally wear green cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a floppy sun hat and trainers. (It's very easy to get sunburn, though, so do slap sunscreen on any exposed areas before you leave.) I also take a jacket on morning game drives as it gets quite cool before sunrise. If it's a walking safari, I'll wear hiking boots instead. I avoid baseball caps as it's hard to look through the viewfinder without bumping the camera on the brim, and sunglasses rather get in the way when I'm taking pictures. My wardrobe consists of greens, browns and blacks. I'm not sure if animals are exactly frightened by bright colours, but you'll get some funny looks from the other guests if you turn up in hot pants and a Day-Glo pink T-shirt!

What camera settings should I use?

There's an old photographer's joke:

Fan to photographer: I love your pictures. What settings did you use?

Photographer to fan: f/8 and be there!

The point is that 'being there' is more important than any camera settings, but that doesn't mean they don't matter at all - as shown by my shot of the leaping impala.

Exposure

The 'Exposure Triangle' consists of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO value, and these are the only three ways you can change the brightness of the image: either having a bigger hole, keeping it open for longer or increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. A lot of beginners stick to automatic as they don't trust themselves to use manual settings, but they lose a lot of control by doing that. The camera doesn't know how fast the animal is travelling or how much of it you want to be in focus, so how can it possibly decide the best combination of shutter speed and aperture? Why not experiment a little and decide for yourself the kind of image you're going to take? Now, you still have to make sure you get the correct exposure somehow, and I'm not suggesting you use the exposure meter and manually change the settings for each shot! What I do is start off with a good set of general-purpose settings and set the ISO to automatic. That way, I get exactly the shutter speed and aperture I want, but the camera makes sure it's correctly exposed. The general rule is that you need a shutter speed the inverse of your focal length, so, If I'm using my 80-400mm lens at the top end of the zoom range, that means around 1/400th of a second. (Bear in mind, though, that you have to take into account the speed of the animal as well as how steady you can hold the camera!) I generally like to take 'portraits' of the animals, so I want to throw the background out of focus to emphasise the eyes. That means a wide aperture such as f/5.6, but I've started using f/8 because my lens tests tell me that both my lenses perform at their sharpest at f/8, and I want the maximum sharpness I can get. The problem comes, obviously, when there's not enough light to use your default settings, or the animals are moving too fast. That's when you need to take charge and make a difficult decision: which is the most important, the shutter speed, the aperture or the ISO? If it's a fast-moving animal, the shutter speed obviously takes priority. If the light level is dropping, then you probably want to compromise and change both aperture and shutter speed by 1/3 of a stop (or more). Most stock agencies don't want pictures taken at high ISO values (640+), so that's something to bear in mind if you're trying to sell your work.

Autofocus

Manual focus has its place in macro photography and in low light conditions, but wildlife photography generally demands that we use one of the two methods of autofocus: single point (AF-S on the Nikon) or continuous (AF-C). I generally keep my D800 with the wide-angle lens on single point, as I'll be using it to take landscape shots, but I keep my D810 with the long zoom lens on AF-C 3D, as I'll be using it to take pictures of animals. In fact, sharpness is so important for wildlife shots that I use what's called 'back-button focusing', which means setting up the camera so that I can focus by pressing the AF-ON button on the back with my right thumb. The AF-C 3D setting continuously focuses on one particular point on the animal that you select when you first press the AF button, and it magically follows that point even if the animal is moving. It's not perfect, but what it does mean is that you don't have to worry about losing focus when you half-press the shutter and then take a picture. By separating the focusing from releasing the shutter, you get the best chance of getting that all-important sharpness in the animal's eye.

White balance

You can always change it in Lightroom later (or another image-processing software package), but I generally still try to update my white balance setting as the light changes. It saves time later, and it follows the general principle of trying to get everything right in camera. Messing around in Lightroom should always be a last resort.

Quality (RAW)

Shoot in RAW. There. Is. No. Alternative. 

Other settings

One of the confusing and frustrating thing about the DSLR is the number of settings there are and the fact that you can't 'reset' everything in one go. It would be wonderful if there were one button that would do everything, but there isn't. There are mechanical as well as electronic settings, so it's impossible to assign one button to change both. As it is, it's worth having a mental checklist to go through before you go out on the game drive and even while you're out there. The main settings to monitor are the following:

  • Mode: Manual, unless you've never picked up a camera before...

  • Shutter speed: 1/1000 (I know the 1/focal length rule, and I know Nikon's Vibration Reduction and Canon's Image Stabilisation mean you might get away with up to four stops 'slower', but animals move too quickly to take that chance!)

  • Aperture: f/5.6 or f/8, depending on how big the animal is and therefore how much depth of field you need

  • ISO mode: auto

  • Exposure compensation: None, unless you're photographing a very bright or dark animal such as a polar bear on ice or a gorilla

  • Autofocus: AF-C 3D on the Nikon, continuous servo on the Canon

  • White balance: Daylight - if it's your typical African sunny day, although you can always change it later if you shoot in RAW

  • Active D-lighting or Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO): Auto or off unless you're taking a picture into the sun and want detail in the shot (It's a kind of in-camera HDR to squeeze the histogram for images that would be too contrasty otherwise.)

  • Lens lock (off, obviously - you don't want to miss a shot because you can't zoom in!)

  • Artificial horizon: if you have symbols in your viewfinder to tell you when the camera is straight and level, then do use them. It’ll save you an awful lot of time later on straightening horizons in Lightroom…!

What should I do on the actual game drive itself?

Although you may end up spending many hours on game drives without seeing much of interest, it's very important to be ready for anything. That means paying attention to a few simple guidelines:

  • Tell your guide what you want to do or see. For most people, the epitome of the safari experience is to see a kill. To make sure you have the best chance of doing that, I’d suggest asking your guide to try and find the big cats for you and then - crucially - to stay with them for as long as it takes. Leopards are ‘ambush’ hunters, so that won’t work unless you’re very, very lucky. Lions are possible, but they tend to hunt in the evening. The best are probably cheetahs as they hunt during the day and - when they do - offer spectacular opportunities to see the fastest land mammal sprinting at up to 70mph! However, if you’re a bit squeamish or if you’re worried about your children seeing something that might upset them, you might ask your guide just to drive around with no particular plan in mind, stopping to take pictures of whatever you happen to see. If you have a specialist interest such as birds, for example, you’ll need a different strategy. Birds don’t come very high up most people’s list of things to see, so you might need to arrange a one-off day for all the birders in the group. In general, though, you should just make sure that you let the driver know when you want to stop and when you’re happy to move on. It’s your holiday, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you want!

  • Make the most of the sunset. If you’re in a national park, it can be very frustrating towards the end of the day when you have to get back before they close the gates, which is usually around 1800-1830. That means missing out on all sorts of possible opportunities, including taking pictures at sunset. The good thing about going to a privately owned ‘conservancy’ is that, first of all, you’re allowed off-road and, secondly, you’re allowed to stay as long as you like! One way to get great shots is to drive to the brow of a hill around half an hour before sundown, find a herd of animals and then take shots of them in silhouette against the sky. Just make sure the horizon is nice and low so that you make the most of all the colours.

  • Make sure you're camera settings are correct. It may sound obvious, but it's no good being lazy and thinking, "Oh, I'll set the shutter speed and the aperture if an animal comes along." There's often very little time to get a good shot before the animal turns or moves away, so the last thing you want to be doing is checking your settings. Just stick to the basics, with the shutter speed at 1/1000, aperture at f/5.6 or f/8 and the ISO on auto. If it's still a bit dark in the morning, that might not work, and you might have to reduce the shutter speed or increase the aperture, but the important point is to make those decisions in advance, not when you're about to take a picture.

  • Get into a comfortable position from which it's easy to take pictures. If you have more than one camera or a camera with a long lens, find a good spot for all your equipment so that it'll only take a few seconds from spotting an animal to taking a picture. If you're in a jeep, that might mean winding the window down half-way so that you can rest your lens on it or taking your shoes off so that you can stand on your seat if there's a pop-up roof. Just don't end up in the same predicament as a friend of mine, who thought his camera wasn't working when he'd actually just left the lens cap on!

  • Keep a good look-out. Your guide or driver will usually be very good at spotting animals and birds and stopping in the right position so that you can take a picture, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention. I generally sit in the front seat and point things out as we go along. If the animal is far away or it's something common like an impala, I'll just say, 'Impala on the right', but I'm quick to tap the driver on the shoulder if I spot something more interesting. Even if you end up right at the back, don't be afraid to tell the driver to stop. He may have seen it all before, but it's your trip and your memories!

  • Tell everyone where and how far away the animal is. If they see an animal, a lot of people will just point and say, "Oh, look!" or "Over there!" but that's not terribly helpful unless it's a herd of elephants on a treeless plain! It's difficult to follow someone's arm when they're pointing from a different position, and it's hard to know where to look if you don't know how far away the animal is supposed to be. I'd suggest using the 'clock' method and giving a rough estimate of distance. For example, if you see a lion on the right side of the vehicle, you might say, "There's a lion at three o'clock about 100 yards away."

  • Take care of your kit. A lot of safari destinations are very dusty or sandy, and it's easy for your camera and the front lens to get covered with a film of dust, so be sure to clean them regularly. It's often hard to tell if you have a lens hood, but it's worth checking. When I was in India, I wiped the front of my 800mm lens with a lens cloth after a couple of hours on the road, and it turned almost completely red from all the dust!

  • Keep the noise down. Animals and birds are easily spooked, so try to keep your voice low, either when you're chatting to other guests or when you spot something. There's nothing worse than getting a great sighting of a leopard or something, only for someone to scare it off by talking too loudly...

  • Don't rock the boat. The best wildlife shots need a rock-steady platform, so twisting around in your seat, standing up, sitting down or generally moving around too much is a nightmare for the other photographers. If you have to change position, either wait until other people have taken their shot or do it very slowly and gently.

  • Be considerate. Tempers often get a little frayed in the excitement of the chase, so do be aware of the other guests and what they're trying to do. If you jog someone's arm or tell the driver to move on before someone has finished taking pictures, just apologise. You're there for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to hack off your fellow guests!

What makes a good photograph?

Dust, air and spume. That's the Holy Trinity of wildlife photography, according to Paul Goldstein, who is a wildlife photographer and also a great speaker and raconteur. I went on two of his trips to Spitsbergen and Tadoba, and I've seen several of his presentations. The idea is that 'dust' is thrown up by the movement of the animals and gives you a sense of dynamism and energy, 'air' means that an animal is in the air and about to land - so we have a sense of anticipation - and 'spume' is the spray that is thrown up by movement in water.

That's just Paul's view, and there are obviously other aspects to the question. One thing that he also points out is the difference between a 'record shot' and a 'photograph'. To him, a 'record shot' is just a snapshot, a picture that records exactly what's in front of you, but a 'photograph' is something that obeys the rules of composition and has been consciously constructed by the photographer to provoke an emotional reaction. There aren't that many rules of composition in wildlife photography, but it's worth bearing them in mind when you're out shooting. Here are a few of the common ones:

  • Fill the frame. Robert Capa once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” People don't want to have to search the image for the animal, so zoom in or ask your driver to get closer so that you can make it the centre of attention!

  • Use leading lines. Where available, they can lead the eye of the viewer into the image, for instance in a picture of an impala on the horizon crossing a road leading into the distance.

  • Use the Rule of Thirds. Human eyes don't like things that are too symmetrical - unless you can manage a perfect reflection - so try to put the focal point of your shot off-centre. That adds dynamism and a different kind of balance.

  • Focus on the eyes. People don't care if 99% of an animal is out of focus as long as the eyes are sharp.

  • Capture the moment. A guide in the States once compared my shots to those of another guy on the trip. He said that Stefan's were always technically perfect, very sharp and with gorgeous, saturated colours, but mine were all about the moment. I take that as a compliment. It means you have to wait for the right moment to take the shot. Don't just keep clicking away like a Japanese tourist by Big Ben. Compose your shot and then wait for the animal to do something to make it more memorable. It could be a sneeze, a yawn - anything! - but it will mark your picture out as special.

  • Tell a story. The tagline to this website is 'Every picture tells a story', and that's a goal we should all aspire to when taking pictures. What are we trying to say? What mood are we trying to create? What's the emotion behind the shot? It's not always easy, but picking exactly the right composition can create humour, joy, sorrow, horror and any number of other powerful reactions - which is just what we want.

  • Break the rules - selectively! Obeying the rules will give you a nice, balanced image, but Paul for one hates 'nice', and I can see his point. Sometimes, the best way of creating a strongly emotional image is to break a rule or two. You have to do it sparingly - and consciously - but it sometimes gives you that much more of a chance of creating a genuinely arresting image. One of his favourite techniques is the 'slow pan', which means following a moving animal or bird with a slow shutter speed and taking a number of shots as it goes past. The idea is to create a sense of movement by blurring the background and the legs or wings of the animal or bird while keeping the body and especially the eyes sharp. It's a technique that's very difficult to master. You have to do a lot of experimentation, and it helps to have a tripod! I once went on a boat trip in Svalbard and took 1,504 pictures of guillemots using the slow pan - but I only kept four of them! It sounds like a lot of effort, but it's worth it in the end.

Botswana and Victoria Falls

If you fancy watching a herd of 30 elephants crossing a river, photographing a malachite kingfisher perched three feet away or seeing an elephant chase off a pride of lions, try Botswana!

Water. You don't realise how important it is until you've been on safari in Botswana. I'd been to Kenya three times, but I'd never been to the Okavango Delta or the Chobe River, and it made all the difference. You don't have the iconic silhouette of Mount Kenya or the wildebeest migration across the Mara, but the landscape is utterly transformed. If Nigella were writing the recipe for Botswana, it would be something like this:

1. Take a country like Kenya or Tanzania
2. Smooth off any surface imperfections (like Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro)
3. Sprinkle with dead trees
4. Add water
5. Serve hot

The water makes the landscape itself beautiful - especially when your guide cuts the engine, and you're watching the sun set over the Delta! - and it acts as a great backdrop for wildlife photography. Which is why I was there in the first place...

Itinerary

The reason I wanted to go to Botswana was to take pictures in a different environment; the reason I was able to was that I had a wad of cash burning a hole in my pocket when a property deal fell through! Whatever the reason, it worked out well enough, as an Indian couple wanted me to teach their two young children in Nairobi from 11-17 April. I did the same thing last year, and it's been a pleasure both times. It also gave me a head start in getting to Botswana. I found a useful site called Safari Bookings that allowed me to enter the location, duration and cost of the trip, and I searched through all the possible options. A friend of mine Jason was thinking about coming, too, but he eventually couldn't get the time off, so I decided to go for broke. I was a once-in-a-lifetime trip - although I seem to do one of those every few weeks nowadays! - so I didn't want to compromise on the itinerary. A group tour would've been cheaper, but that would've meant spending more time in a big truck on the road, going to places I didn't really want to go to and having to put up with other people (eeeuuugghhh!). In the end, I found an American company called WorldwideXplorer that was willing to tailor their 14-day safari for me and me alone. Marisa looked after my booking, and she was always very helpful. It wasn't cheap, but I was guaranteed to see the highlights I wanted, starting off on Chief's Island in the Okavango Delta and then moving north through the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park before finishing with a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. It was going to be a 'mobile safari', which meant I'd be travelling in a customised Toyota Land Cruiser with a local guide and two other staff, camping every night and making the most of all the travel time by spending every day on game drives from sunrise to sunset.

My route from Maun to Victoria Falls

The only downside to tacking the safari on to the end of my trip to Nairobi was that I had to go during the 'shoulder season'. That meant it was harder to see the animals due to a combination of denser undergrowth and altered migration patterns following heavy late rains caused by El Niño. It didn't look too promising during the first few days, and I had to have a couple of 'chats' with my guide Makabu about the itinerary, particularly when we didn't see a single thing on a two-hour boat ride! When a group of Germans arrived, we almost ended up starting our game drive at 0800 rather than 0600 until I let him know in no uncertain terms that wasting two hours was 'unacceptable'! Anyway, I persuaded him to get permission to junk the boat rides in favour of game drives, and we soon settled into a routine of waking up at 0530, leaving at 0600 on a game drive, eating a packed lunch, getting back at 1800 for a quick 'bush shower' and then dinner and bed. Once we'd left Chief's Island, we changed campsites every couple of days, which meant picking up our cook and handyman, hitching the trailer and then driving north. Our overall itinerary was as follows:

Night of 18 April: Flight from Nairobi to Maun via Johannesburg

19 April: Sedia Hotel, Maun

20-22 April: Chief's Island, Okavango Delta

23 April: Third Bridge, Okavango Delta

24-25 April: Moremi Game Reserve

26-27 April: Savuti, Chobe National Park

28-29 April: Ihaha, Chobe National Park

30 April-1 May: Waterfront Lodge, Livingstone, Zambia (near the Victoria Falls)

2 May: Flight from Livingstone to London via Johannesburg

Wildlife

The density of wildlife might not have been as high as in peak season, but we more than made up for it by the sheer number of hours we spent driving through the bush. I can only remember one day when we had more than a few minutes for lunch, and we must've spent over 100 hours on game drives and/or boat rides during our 10 days on safari. Apart from the rhinoceros, we saw all of the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant and Cape buffalo - and we saw a total of 29 mammals and reptiles and 81 different types of birds, including my two favourites: the African fish eagle and the lilac-breasted roller (see list below).

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

My only disappointment was hearing the roller's call for the first time. For such a beautiful bird, why does it have to sound like an angry crow with a sore throat! Makabu's species knowledge was excellent, and there were only a couple he didn't know or got slightly wrong. Having said that, there was always a bit of a language barrier between us. We usually had to ask each other to repeat what had been said, and bird names are not the easiest words to pick up - you can imagine how many times Makabu had to repeat 'Swainson's francolin' to me!

As I say, I was in Botswana to take pictures, so the highlights for me were inevitably coloured by the ones that turned out well.

Birds

I'm very fond of the lilac-breasted roller and the African fish eagle, but my favourite bird encounter came when I was on a boat ride on the Chobe River. I spotted a malachite kingfisher in the distance and asked my driver to get a bit closer. He did as I asked and then cut the engine, letting the boat drift closer and closer. I immediately started taking pictures, and the bird got bigger and bigger in my viewfinder until it almost didn't fit in the frame. I was using a 400mm lens, but the malachite kingfisher is only a tiny bird, so I had no idea how close I had come until it eventually flew off. I put my camera down and realised I had only been three feet away from it! I'd seen one before in Kenya last year - again on a boat ride - but this shot was the mother of all close-ups!

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

Lions

We saw a lot of lions during the trip, but we were particularly lucky in Moremi, when we saw the same two lions at sunset and then early the following morning. We were able to get incredibly close - no more than five yards away - and the light during the 'golden hour' was fantastic.

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

Elephants

Chobe is famous for its herds of elephants, and I certainly enjoyed my boat ride on the Chobe River when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a herd of 30 elephants crossing from one side to the other! However, the most exciting moment I had came when we spotted a couple of young male elephants in the Delta and drove to within ten yards of them. They were happily eating the fruit that was being dropped by vervet monkeys in a tree when one of them decided to step forward and challenge us by trumpeting in full-on Tarzan fashion! I have to admit, that sent my heart racing! Makabu later told me elephants attack silently - so I needn't have worried - but I defy anyone to be calm when an elephant is trumpeting at you from five yards away - even Makabu started the engine at one point!

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

Lions & elephants

As if lions and elephants separately were not enough, they actually joined forces at Ihaha. We were driving along a track on the shore of the Chobe River at dusk when we saw a pride of eight lions lying in the shade of a tree. I could see an elephant heading their way, but I had no idea what was going to happen next. Out of nowhere, the elephant suddenly started trumpeting at the lions and then chased them all away! I've never seen lions move so fast...

Elephant 1 Lions 0

Leopard

The first time 'we' saw a leopard was in Moremi, although I didn't actually see anything at all. I was busy watching an impala when Makabu suddenly shouted, "Nkwe," which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen a leopard cross the track right in front of us, and he immediately drove after it. After a few yards, he jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then unhooked the trailer and followed it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact that Africans believe rules are meant to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but we did see one three days later in Savuti. We had started our game drive at 0630, and almost immediately we saw a leopard sitting in the middle of the dirt track. It trotted towards us in the golden light, and I got some great shots - although I was worried my favourite was a bit blurred. You be the judge...

The cat who walked by himself...

The cat who walked by himself...

Victoria Falls

The other highlight, of course, was seeing the Victoria Falls for the very first time. The walking tour was useless - there was so much spray we couldn't see a thing! - but the helicopter ride was sensational, much better than the one I did over Iguazu a few weeks earlier. I'd managed to book a private tour, so I sat in the front seat and took pictures while the pilot flew over the falls and then went down into the gorges downriver.

It's a very dramatic landscape, so cresting a ridge and dropping down to a Grade 6 rapid is really quite exciting - especially as we were no more than 20 feet above the waves! I did have a few problems with reflections in the glass when shooting into the sun, but there was no window to open, so I just had to put up with it. It was only when we landed and I told the pilot I was a professional photographer that he told me that, if he'd known beforehand, he would've taken the rear door off and let me shoot from there! Grrrr...

Dr Livingstone discovered them, I presume...

Verdict

I'm very glad I decided to visit Botswana for the first time. I still have a sentimental attachment to Kenya, as it was the first country I ever visited in Africa and provided me with lots of happy memories of climbing Mount Kenya as well as seeing the Big Five on various game drives, but Botswana has the big advantage of water. It makes such a difference and turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. I just hope my pictures have somehow managed to capture that.

List of species

Animals

  • Banded mongoose
  • Black mamba
  • Black-backed jackal
  • Blue wildebeest
  • Burchell's zebra
  • Cape buffalo
  • Chacma baboon
  • Cheetah
  • Common warthog
  • Eland
  • Elephant
  • Ground squirrel
  • Hippopotamus
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Leopard
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Lion
  • Nile crocodile
  • Red lechwe
  • Sable antelope
  • South African giraffe
  • Steenbok
  • Tsessebe
  • Vervet monkey
  • Water monitor
  • Waterbuck
  • Wild dog
  • Yellow mongoose

Birds

  • African darter
  • African fish eagle
  • African green pigeon
  • African harrier-hawk/harrier hawk/gymnogene
  • African hoopoe
  • African jacana
  • African marsh harrier
  • African skimmer
  • Bateleur
  • Black crake
  • Black egret
  • Black-collared barbet
  • Black-winged stilt
  • Blacksmith plover
  • Brown-headed snake eagle
  • Burchell's sand grouse
  • Burchell's starling
  • Cape turtle dove
  • Cape wagtail
  • Cattle egret
  • Coppery-tailed coucal
  • Crowned eagle
  • Double-banded sand grouse
  • Egyptian goose
  • Fork-tailed drongo
  • Gabor goshawk
  • Glossy ibis
  • Great white egret
  • Great white pelican
  • Green-backed heron
  • Grey heron
  • Grey hornbill
  • Ground plover
  • Hadeda ibis
  • Hammerkop
  • Helmeted guineafowl
  • Hooded vulture
  • Kori bustard
  • Lappet-faced vulture
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Little bee-eater
  • Little egret
  • Long-tailed pied shrike
  • Malachite kingfisher
  • Marabou stork
  • Martial eagle
  • Meyer's parrot
  • Monotonous lark
  • Ostrich
  • Pied kingfisher
  • Pygmy goose
  • Red cormorant
  • Red-billed francolin
  • Red-billed hornbill
  • Red-billed oxpecker
  • Red-billed teal
  • Red-breasted korhaan
  • Red-eyed dove
  • Sacred ibis
  • Saddle-billed stork
  • Secretary bird/snake eagle
  • Slatey egret
  • Southern ground hornbill
  • Southern pied babbler
  • Southern red bishop
  • Spoon-billed stork
  • Spotted eagle owl
  • Spur-winged goose
  • Swainson's francolin
  • Swallow-tailed bee-eater
  • Three-banded plover
  • Water dikkop
  • Wattled crane
  • White-backed vulture
  • White-browed robin chat
  • White-crowned plover
  • White-faced whistling duck
  • Yellow oxpecker
  • Yellow-billed egret
  • Yellow-billed hornbill
  • Yellow-billed stork