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

Lions of the Serengeti and Masai Mara

I’ve spent the last four months teaching photography at Klein’s Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas, Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp and Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp. Here are a few facts about lions I picked up from the guides along the way…

One of the male lions at Klein’s Camp

One of the male lions at Klein’s Camp

Klein’s Camp

  • The main pride at Klein’s Camp is the the Kuka or Black Rock pride (depending on who you talk to), which contains five male and seven female lions. The second, third and fourth oldest males may be from the same litter. There are also two other prides at either end of the valley called Buffalo Hill and (confusingly!) Black Rock.

  • The Kuka males can be recognised by the following features:

    • 1: Dark mane, circular bare patch in mane behind neck, crescent-shaped scar on shoulder 

    • 2: Black mark beside right eye, wound on neck in the mane, the mane is very close to the face

    • 3: No distinguishing features, no scars, darkish mane, but not a full one

    • 4: Deep, diagonal scar on face, scars on back, short mane (not seen since a fight with another lion, so probably dead…)

    • 5: ‘Bald’ on top, no scars

Lioness in silhouette at sunrise on the bank of the Maji Mbele pool

Lioness in silhouette at sunrise on the bank of the Maji Mbele pool

Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp

  • Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp is in the Grumeti pride’s territory, consisting of one male and a total of more than 50 lions.

  • There used to be a coalition of 12 brothers who used to hunt at any time of day - they were ‘killing machines’, according to Waziri, the head guide - but they haven’t been seen recently. 

  • There are three other lion prides in the area: Sabora (3 males, 5 females and 16 cubs = 24), Nyasirori (3+ males, 43+ total), Ranger Post/Kirawira (3 males - 2 dominant, 30-33 in total).

Three male lions take down a female buffalo in the Serengeti

Three male lions take down a female buffalo in the Serengeti

Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp

  • At Cottar’s, there used to be one pride called Henry’s pride, but it split into two - both the males being ‘shared’ between them. The rump of Henry’s pride has 15 lions (2 males, 8 females and 5 ‘teenagers’), while the other ‘Scotch’ (or ‘Scotch Rocks’) pride has 10 (2 males, 4 females and 6 cubs of 3-6 months). There are also three big males called the ‘Georges’.

Can you spot which of the Kuka males this is?

Can you spot which of the Kuka males this is?

Facts and figures

  • There are only 20,000 lions left worldwide (compared to 700,000 leopards!), and their range is now only 8% of what it was.

  • There are 3,000 lions in the whole of the Serengeti in Tanzania.

  • Females come in season at the same time to avoid males fighting for them and to raise the cubs together or because a new set of dominant males has killed all their cubs, leading them to enter oestrus at the same time.

  • Lions mate for around seven days, starting every 10 minutes and slowing down gradually to once every 20 minutes.

  • There are around 1,500 matings to every cub that survives.

  • Lions are trained to hunt by their mothers when they are 7-12 months old. At 12 months, they start to hunt on their own, but by the time they are two years old the male cubs have to be perfect hunters because that’s when they are kicked out of the pride.

  • A lion hunts whenever it has the opportunity, whatever the weather, and an ‘opportunity’ is when a zebra, say, is less than 60-70m away.

  • Despite what we’re taught at school, it’s not just the female lions who do the hunting - as you can see from the picture above!

  • Lions sometimes roll in the droppings of the wildebeest or other prey animals to mask their scent when they hunt.

  • When lions yawn, it’s a sign that they’re about to move. 

  • Lions sleep and walk on the roads to avoid the dew in the long grass. 

  • Lions’ manes only fully develop after 4-6 years.

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

 

How to stand out from the herd

When you’re taking shots of wildlife, it’s very easy to end up with ‘record shots’ rather than what a friend of mine calls ‘printables’ - in other words, pictures that you’d be happy to print and hang on your wall. So what makes the difference? In this article, I’ve tried to suggest a few alternative techniques that should make your images stand out from the crowd - or herd, as the case may be!

Action shots

In the early days of my photographic career, I used to take a lot of portraits - both of animals and of people. Now, that’s fine as far as it goes, and I like to think I took some pretty good shots, but these days I like to focus on action shots. Why take a simple shot of a ‘bird on a stick’ if you can wait for the crucial moment and capture it in flight or with its wings outstretched just about to land?

Lilac-breasted roller

Lilac-breasted roller

I was lucky with this shot. I was actually trying to take a run-of-the-mill portrait of the bird when it suddenly fluttered its wings just as I pressed the shutter release. I ended up with an image that was chosen by Outdoor Photography for a double-page spread!

In this case, the bird co-operated nicely, but it doesn’t always happen. What if the animals don’t co-operate? What if they just sit there and don’t do actually anything? Well, it is possible to increase your chances of getting action shots. One thing you can do (if you’re in Africa) is to follow the big cats around. Normally when you’re on safari, you drive around and then stop when you see an animal, take a few pictures and then drive on to the next one. Rinse and repeat. That’s what I did on my first four or five safaris, and I didn’t see a single kill! On my next trip, though, I went to Kicheche in the Masai Mara with Paul Goldstein, and the experience was very different. Paul paid out of his own pocket for a ‘spotter’ in a separate vehicle to radio in the location of any leopards, cheetahs or lions that he saw. Given that knowledge, we were able to find a group of cats to follow every single day. But it didn’t end there. Rather than just taking a few portraits and moving on, we stayed with the animals. Granted, there were some occasions when they didn’t do a great deal for half an hour or even an hour, but we kept at it, and eventually I saw five kills! That approach might not be for everyone, but at least it gives you a much better chance of getting that elusive ‘action shot’. And even if the animals aren’t actually chasing prey, you can at least wait for what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call ‘The Decisive Moment’. It might be a lion yawning or a warthog scratching its ear - whatever the activity, it’s a lot more interesting than the kind of awkward snap that would look better in a High School yearbook!

Slow pan

I learned this technique from Paul Goldstein, who’s a wildlife photographer and tour guide for Exodus. He’s a big fan of using slow shutter speeds to capture animals in action, and the results can be spectacular. Most people would use a high shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or more to ‘freeze’ an animal or bird in motion, but the slow pan does the reverse. The problem with freezing the action is that you don’t get a very great sense of energy or movement. What the slow pan tries to do is bring that back by blurring all the non-essential elements, including the legs (or wings) and the background. What you have to do first of all is choose the right shutter speed. It will be slower than you’re used to using, so you have to be brave, but it also varies depending on the speed of the animal and the angle of its approach. If it’s a cheetah at full speed running straight across your field of view, the right shutter speed might be 1/80 or 1/100 of a second, but it might be as slow as 1/4 of a second for a walking elephant. The higher the speed of the animal, the higher the shutter speed you’ll need, but the angle also matters because getting the right blurred effect depends on the relative motion of the animal and the background. If it’s running straight towards the camera, there is no relative motion at all: the animal is not moving relative to the background, so the shot won’t work. You can obviously experiment as you’re shooting, but here’s a rough guide:

  • Elephant: 1/4s

  • Walking animal: 1/6s

  • Running animal: 1/13-1/20s

  • Birds in flight: 1/80s

  • Cheetah running: 1/80-1/100s

Once you’ve chosen your shutter speed, you just need to check that the aperture and ISO settings are okay, too. How you do that obviously depends on whether you’re shooting in manual, aperture priority or shutter priority (or any other mode), but these slow shutter speeds let in a lot of light, so you may have to stop down the aperture or reduce the ISO all the way to 100. The flip-side of letting in so much light, of course, is that you can slow pan to your heart’s content even in very low light conditions, so that’s another reason to try it!

What you’re trying to get is a shot in which the eyes and head of the animal are sharp (-ish) while the legs and background are a creamy blur, so technique is important here. It’s obviously easiest with a tripod - particularly one with a gimbal-head design that is ‘damped’ to avoid camera shake - but most of us don’t have one of those, and you couldn’t use it in a safari vehicle anyway! There are a couple of alternatives. If you’re in a Land Cruiser or something similar, you can stand up and rest the lens hood on the frame of the car - ideally on a beanbag. If you’re on foot, you have to press the camera against your forehead, tuck your elbows in at your sides and turn from the hips. It’s not easy, so you might want to practise on cars on something before you make your trip! I learned the slow pan in Spitsbergen from Paul Goldstein, and I remember spending the whole day in a Zodiac taking slow pans of kittiwakes and guillemots: out of 1,500 shots, I only kept four! So why bother? Well, you don’t care about the 1,500 that didn’t work when you find one that did. I went on another trip with Paul to Kicheche in the Masai Mara, and I was determined to come away with a decent slow pan shot of a cheetah. In fact, I got quite a few, but this was my favourite. You be the judge…

Cheetah

Cheetah

Sunny silhouettes

There comes a time in every game drive when you wonder if any of the shots you’re taking are any good. “I’m just taking the same pictures as everyone else,” you think. “How can I be different?” Well, the answer sometimes comes in a flash of inspiration. When I was in the safari park at Cabárceno in northern Spain, I was taking pictures of the giraffes in their enclosure. They came right up to the fence, and the sun was behind them, so it was a bit awkward to get a decent shot. It was then that I thought of underexposing them to get a backlit silhouette with rim lighting. I positioned myself so that the sun was right behind a giraffe and underexposed by two or three stops. I played around with it in Lightroom afterwards, darkening the background and taking out any remaining detail in the neck of the giraffe, and this was the result:

Giraffe

Giraffe

The image was runner-up in The Daily Telegraph's weekly Big Picture competition and earned over 2,000 likes on Instagram!

Day for night

When filmmakers want to shoot a scene that’s supposed to take place at night, they sometimes do it during the day and underexpose the images, perhaps adding a blue filter for effect. This is called ‘day for night’ or ‘nuit Américaine’. I first tried it when I was on a game drive in Tadoba, India, and overheard Paul Goldstein telling one of the guests in his truck to underexpose the tiger in the water hole. At that point, I thought to myself, “Go big or go home!” So I decided to underexpose by three stops - that’s the equivalent of cutting out up to 7/8 of the light required for a normal shot. It was nice and sunny, and the sun had been beating down on us all day, but that meant any shots of the tiger were a little bit dull. What I wanted to do was something completely different. I wanted to create some mystery in the darkness, paint in a little light and shadow and pretend that the tiger was in a pool in a cave, illuminated by a single beam of sunlight from the entrance. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if I succeeded or not, but Paul thought this one was good enough to go in the Exodus calendar in 2018…!

Bengal tiger

Bengal tiger

Sunsets

One of the problems with going to a national park in Africa is that you always have to leave at sunset. That means it’s very difficult to get any shots at what should be the ideal time of day. One of the advantages in going to a place like Kicheche is that it’s in a ‘conservancy’, which means it’s owned by a group of landowners, and that in turn means that you can stay as long as you like. What we used to do with about half an hour to go before sundown was to pick a spot on the brow of a hill, find a group of animals and park so that we could all get out and take pictures. We did that almost every day (except when the clouds rolled in), and we ended up with some great shots. One of the good things about taking silhouettes of animals against the sunset is that you don’t have to do much with your camera settings. The camera is ‘fooled’ by the bright sky into believing that it has to underexpose, and that means the animals are automatically turned into silhouettes. The one thing to remember is that the horizon should be very low down in the frame - it’ll be pitch black anyway, so there’s no point in showing more than a thin strip at the bottom. Just make sure you pick an animal with a recognisable shape and in the right position to get a clear silhouette with no overlapping body parts and no other animals in the way.

Blue wildebeest

Blue wildebeest

Slow shutter speed portraits

People often say that you should use a wide aperture when taking portraits of people or animals so that the subject is ‘separated’ from the background. However, one of the problems with that approach is that you get left with a thin strip of the frame in which not just the subject but everything else is in focus. For example, imagine a shot of a lion lying in a field of tall grass. Yes, the lion is sharp (hopefully!), but so is a long line of grass. The result is that we don’t get a smoothly blurred background and foreground. One way around that is to use a slow shutter speed such as 1/8 of a second. It only works, obviously, if the grass is swaying in the wind, but, done correctly, it will give you a perfectly sharp subject isolated in a sea of creamy blur.

Cheetah

Black and white

There’s an old joke in photography that says, “If a picture’s no good, just turn it into black and white!” It’s not true, of course, that you can rescue just about anything like that, but black and white is a different medium, and it emphasises different things. If your picture looks ‘cluttered’ because there are too many competing colours, for example, then that problem can easily be solved by a switch to monochrome, which emphasises patterns, shapes and textures. I don’t use black and white very much in my wildlife shots, but elephants are a special case. For a start, they’re grey rather than colourful, but they also have the potential to show great texture in their wrinkled skin. I once took a shot of an elephant in Tanzania with the ‘wrong’ lens. I was using my 800mm when one of the elephants came a lot closer. I couldn’t fit everything into the shot, and I ended up with the animal’s eye far too close to the edge of the frame. However, I cropped it so that the tusk at the bottom was equally close to the edge and turned it into black and white, pushing up the Dehaze and Contrast sliders in Lightroom. What do you think…?

African elephant

African elephant

Bad weather

When it starts raining or snowing or sleeting or hailing, most photographers head home, but - if you’re willing to put up with getting a bit wet - you might find it’s worth staying out in the storm in order to take more unusual pictures. There are plenty of shots out there of lions lying in the sunshine, but not so many of lions in the pouring rain with water dripping off their manes! Whether you’re trying to sell your work or just find something to put on the wall in the downstairs toilet, it pays to be different. I went to Brooks Falls in Alaska once and had to put up with the most miserable weather. It rained the whole day at one point, and it was generally cold, wet and miserable, but - and this is a very big but! - I ended up with the best picture I’ve ever taken in my life!

Brown bear

Brown bear

Night photography

I like wildlife shots with black backgrounds as they’re so rare and striking. Most of the time, I’ve had to create mine in Lightroom, but that’s not always necessary if you’re able to photograph at night. These days, a lot of safari companies offer evening game drives after sunset, and some may even shine torches or floodlights on the animals to allow you to take pictures. I was once in the Brazilian Pantanal driving home from a boat ride to see the jaguars when we heard there was a giant anteater right next to our lodge. We rushed home - over a VERY bumpy road! - and found it walking around with a baby on its back. It was long past sunset, so it was virtually pitch black, but one of the staff was lighting it up with a torch. Anteaters don’t have very good vision, so we were able to get incredibly close. Having said that, taking pictures was still very difficult. One of the guests ended up with nothing at all (after he forgot to take his lens cap off!), and I found it very hard to get the right shutter speed and aperture settings. Our guide Andy Skillen showed us the way by getting a beautiful close-up of the baby anteater on its mother’s back, but I had to delete all my efforts!

The closest I came to finding out the secret of night photography was when I went on a photography workshop in Cabárceno with Marina Cano. She promised us ‘the secret to getting a black background’, but she didn’t tell us immediately. We had to wait until the next day to find the answer. There were a few zebra next to an empty shed, and Marina threw some bread inside to tempt them to go in so that we could get some shots of them with a dark background. “So what’s the secret?” I asked. “Bread!” she said.

Grévy’s zebra

Grévy’s zebra

Video

Whenever I get back from a trip abroad, I show my favourite pictures to my friends, but I always have the sneaking feeling that they’d prefer to see videos instead! I’m a wildlife photographer, so I obviously focus on taking photographs, but I still take video every now and again. I have a choice between my DSLR, my GoPro or - at a pinch! - my iPhone. The picture quality of all these devices is pretty good, but the main thing to worry about is camera shake. It’s bearable if you’re using a GoPro or a camera phone because of the wide angle of the lens, but trying to take video with a long lens on your DSLR without a tripod is a recipe for disaster!

The ones that got away

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

Taj Mahal

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

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

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

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

Jumping impala

Not quite sharp enough...

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

Caracal

This is what it looks like on Wikipedia.

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

Polar bear

The best of a bad bunch

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

The kill

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

 

Watford Camera Club talk

Thanks to everyone who came along to my talk. I hope you enjoyed the show!

My opening pitch...

I gave a talk to the Watford Camera Club last night at the Friends Meeting House on Church Road. A very nice lady called Sarah looked after me, and she and a few other members helped me set up the projector, connect my laptop and lay out a few wildlife prints on a couple of metal stands plus a few business cards and a visitors' book for people to sign. After a few club notices from Sarah, I started my talk.

I was due to speak for around an hour and a half, which was a bit longer than usual, so I had to expand my slideshow by adding a few more images. I ended up with around 150 pictures from all the photographic trips I've taken around the world, and, as I went through them, I told a few stories and picked up on a couple of technical points as I went along. The audience also chipped in with a few questions. After 45 minutes or so, we stopped for a tea break, and then i carried on for another 45 minutes. I finished on time - which was a relief! - and I was given a couple of generous rounds of applause, so I hope the audience enjoyed the talk as much as I did!

Four people signed up to my mailing list, and a couple left some kind words in my visitors' book, so thanks again to everyone. I'm just sorry that Terri, my original contact at the club, couldn't make it on the night.

Your amazing photos!!
— Simon
Great presentation!
— Megan