Going on safari?

 

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For many photographers a safari is dream. Here is an article about my experiences from a travel to Kenya in the summer 2006. I also include some technical advice and tips at the end of the story. There is also a link to larger versions of the images.

The dream of Africa was originally my fathers. Fifteen years ago he visited Kenya for the first time. Although he was an experienced traveller, Kenya and its wildlife made a deep impression on him. He went back several times and he thought this was something he wanted his family to see. After several years all the pieces came finally came together and the trip became a reality. All in all we were a group of fifteen, family, relatives and friends.
We flew from Stockholm to Amsterdam, and from Amsterdam to Nairobi. After spending the night at an excellent hotel, Nairobi Serena Hotel, we started out early on the first of several long drives on roads that on some parts were unbelievable bad. Along the roads you saw a poverty that made you realize how fortunate you are, living in a richer part of the world. At the resting places and at the entrances of the game reserves (not at the lodges) there were eager, sometimes pushy, salesmen, trying to sell artwork or souvenirs.

But we didn’t see signs of drugs or alcohol abuse, the people were generally nice and friendly, easy to communicate with, since English was the official language, although most spoke Swahili. The fact that tourism is an important revenue for Kenya made the ambivalence you might feel against the contrast between the poor countryside and the luxury lodges a bit easier.

Samburu
After the long drive, we checked in at he the excellent Serena Samburu lodge (all the lodges were fine, like five or four stars hotels). Then at 16.30 it was finally time for the first game drive. We drove in the same though four-wheel drive Toyota mini-vans with retractable roofs as we travelled with, and the drivers were our guides.
I didn’t know what to expect. I understood of course that this should be some great photo opportunities. I had little experience of wildlife photography before. I had been working as a photojournalist in the 80s, mostly doing news and sports photography. Once I did a story about wildlife in the city, chasing rabbits and reebooks with a 300 2.8 lens and a 2x converter, but that’s about it. I started to prepare myself by looking on on-line galleries from safaris, reading about equipment. I finally decided on bringing a Nikon d200, a 70-200 2.8 VR lens, a TC17 teleconverter, and a second body, a Nikon d50 with an 18-70 lens. I also brought a very small digicam, a Canon Ixus i.
I was a little bit worried by the fact that the period our journey lasted, 12-22 June, was regarded as low season. High season started in July when the big migration of wildebeest from Tanzania reached Kenya.
However, after less than half an hour I realized that the problem wouldn’t be getting images of animals. Around every second corner there seemed to be antelopes, elephants, monkeys, giraffes. The challenge was to compose, find interesting light, find new angles, in short create interesting photos while things often happened fast around your camera.

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The drivers had radio communication. At the end of the afternoon, they started to talk eagerly on Swahili on the radio, it was obvious that they were excited. A big leopard had been spotted. “He is so elusive”, our driver said, explaining their excitement. The ten or twelve safari vans almost created a traffic jam as the drivers tried to sneak closer to the leopard. We didn’t get any real good images, though. The leopard was a bit too far away and soon disappeared among the bushes.
The next morning we started out at 6.30. One reason I had choose the 70-200 2.8 with a TC instead of a longer lens was that I wanted to be prepared for low-light shooting by detaching the TC. I have read that the predators were most active in dawn or dusk. However, it showed that the period between pitch black and good light was short around the equator and for the rest of the trip I kept the TC on almost all the time.
On this drive we had good luck. First three cheetahs were spotted, sneaking in on a small heard of impalas. However, the distance was bit too far for an otherwise excellent opportunity.
Then the drivers found a leopard, resting on a tree in the shadow. Our driver manoeuvred carefully with great skill, so we got incredibly close.
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Back at the lodge some Samburus (the tribe that lives around Samburu, in many was similar to the Masais) performed dances, and I got the opportunity to get some close shots of these colourful and beautiful people.
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On the last drive in Samburu, the drivers were looking for lions. The landscape in Samburu is dramatic and wild, not the like the gentle savannah landscape. It was dominated by elephants. On one occasion we found ourselves in the middle of an elephant herd. A mother was almost separated from her infant calf by our van – a potentially dangerous situation. But the driver slowly backed off, solving the problem.
The animals seems to regard the safari vehicles as dead object, they hardly react to them. But if you step out it is another matter. Some weeks before our trip the news reported about a Swedish woman who almost got killed by a lion in Tanzania when she stepped outside the van when it had broken down.
We didn’t find any lions. But in the strange landscape, were you almost expected some dinosaurs to appear, we fittingly enough saw a big reptile – a large crocodile with his jaws open – frozen in motion as if he was lifeless.

Mount Kenya
Next morning we started out on another long drive. This time our destination was the Mountain Lodge, situated on the base of Mount Kenya. The Mountain Lodge was built at a waterhole. It had an observation deck and every room had a balcony overlooking the waterhole. The hotel also had a bunker, closer to the waterhole. Here we shouldn’t do any game drives, only observe.
There was some drama around the waterhole. A herd of about a hundred buffalos arrived at the waterhole, drinking and resting. Later a wounded elephant arrived, badly limping – apparently one of his knees was damaged, and both his tusks were broken. After a stalemate some of the buffalos backed off and gave the elephant access to the water. A Marabou stork walked around close to the bunker, and some of us ran down to the bunker. It was fascinating to watch the big bird, five feet tall, from only a few meters distance. He turned his head suspiciously, showing his peculiar face, as if he understood that he was being watched, but not how.
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Later at night we got a remainder that this wasn’t a zoo. I woke up about three o clock in the morning at a very loud howling and a terrifying growling sound. I open the balcony door just in time to see three wild dogs attacking a hyena. (A weak floodlight lighted the waterhole) After a short fight both parties retreated, the hyena limping – or maybe it was just his or hers odd way to walk.

Lake Nakuru
Next stop – the Nakuru Game Reserve. The famous Nakuru lake looked like a true wonder of nature. From many miles away you could see the pink shimmer of the flamingos all over the lake. But the park is small, and most safari parties only do one game drive.
On our way out we saw a dead antelope hung up in a tree – a sure sign of a leopard – but we couldn’t see him. Getting photos of the flamingos wasn’t hard, but a longer lens could have made it possible to get some tight in-flight shots.
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From a viewpoint overlooking the lake – The Baboon Cliff – I tried to get some abstract shots of the flamingos. Their number was estimated to about 1,5 million, a couple of months earlier there were about 3 millions, according to the guides.
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On our way back we got photos of rhinos – now we only missed lions to complete the Big Five (Lion, Rhino, Buffalo, Leopard and Elephant). Julius, our excellent guide and driver drove back to the body of the antelope, and now the leopard was there, resting higher up in the tree.

Masai Mara
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The end goal of our trip was Masai Mara – Kenyas most well known game reserve. Here we stayed several days and went out for five game drives. The landscape here is the traditional open savannah. Our main target was, at least for me, lions – but also to try to catch something of the beauty of the landscape with the herds of animals – many giraffes, zebras, antelopes, ostriches – not so many elephants.
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On one occasion tree cheetahs walked by only a few meters from our van. A heavy rain took away our photo chances on one drive, transforming the dirt roads to mud. But the four-wheel drive vans with the skilled drivers never got stuck. The lions we saw was usually lying in the grass, obscured and hard to get a good shot at. But at the last hour of the last drive our guide took an extra sweep and we found a big male, licking blood from his face after eating something unrecognizable. Around him were two jackals, hoping to get a bite. He was irritated and chased them away. We got very close and got good time to get some cleans shots. The scars on his face, the blood on the fur, and the sparkle in his eyes gave a different shot than what you could get in a zoo. For me it was a good finale on a very exciting trip.
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Advice and tips
Finally some general observations and advice.
It was not as hot, as I expected, usually like a normal summer day here in Sweden. In the early morning hours you sometimes needed a sweater. It wasn’t as dusty as I expected – although I had plastic bags covering my equipment inside the camera bag. And there were less mosquitoes and insects, than I expected (of course we took malaria pills, had insects repellents and had all the recommended vaccinations). I have also read that during the migration the big herds bring lots of flies with them. The roads are sometimes incredibly bumpy – you need a well padded camera bag.
The crime rate in Nairobi is very high. We stayed at the hotel, relaxing by the pool, during the hours we spent in Nairobi.
How long lenses do you need? The 70-200 plus TC17 converter I used on my Nikon D200, which gave 120-340 mm focal length (same field of view as an 180-510 on a 35 mm film camera or a full frame DSLR) was enough most of the time, and when it wasn’t, in most cases we got a closer opportunity on another drive. I do recommend a lens with optical stabilization. We never used any monopod or any beanbags.
The light levels was generally good, and since the drives took place either in the mornings or the afternoons the angle of the sun were usually low, giving a pleasant light.
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For larger images, klick here:

6 Responses to “Going on safari?”

  1. Must be an amazing experience, hope to be able to do it myself.
    200+1.7x still seems short to me. Don’t you think that -if available- a 300 2.8 would be better? Or 80-400? Or 200-400?
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I think 300 2.8 lenses in general has an outstanding IQ with excellent bokeh and subject isolation, but they are also cumbersome and not as flexible as a zoom. I considered a 80-400, but I wanted AF-S focusing. A 200-400VR is probably terrific, but also very expensive…
    Good luck with a future safari!

  3. Anonymous Says:

    what do you think…. 80-200+TC vs 80-400?

  4. I think the VR function is important, so I would say 80-400 VR. Another option is the 70-300VR.

  5. Enjoyed your comments. Nairobi Serena is an old favorite and brings back memories.

  6. [...] TC17 teleconverter. I was booked on a safari to Kenya (see the page “Going on safari?” here) and I wanted something better than the 70-300 ED I had at the time. If the new 70-300 VR had been [...]

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