In April 2016, one of my F8 colleagues, George Reekie, and I went to Tanzania for a 2 week safari arranged by Wild Images. This was a major overseas trip with the emphasis on the iconic African species we were looking to photograph: lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant, rhino, hippo, wildebeest and plenty of other mammals and birds.
After a long day of travelling – Taunton > Heathrow > Nairobi > Kilimanjaro – we arrived at our first stop in Arusha. We flew out a day before the tour started so that we could have a day relaxing at our first lodge, the Lake Duluti Serena Lodge. This allowed us time to wander around the gardens and photograph the bird species that visited. For me, being a first timer to Africa, I was just blown away – sat in the gardens watching Hornbills fly over, Variable Sunbirds flitting about and, in the evening, an African Owl watching us from a tree overlooking the terrace. Pure magic.
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After this first restful day, the second day was a full day of travel in a safari jeep as we headed to our first stop at Lake Manyara Serena Lodge on the Rift Valley overlooking the lake. We arrived in the afternoon, and had a chance to walk around the Lodge grounds before dinner. In the morning we headed down into the valley to explore the Lake Manyara National Park. We had close encounters with a troop of Olive Baboons (many females with young) and other apes in the groundwater forest before heading out to the wetland area to photograph the numerous bird species. It was bird photography overload – a great way to start the tour – but it was soon time to leave the lake and head back up the Rift Valley and into the mountains to our main stop for the first week of the tour – the incomparable Ngorongoro Crater.
We arrived at Ngorongoro in the evening, all relieved to get out of the safari jeeps for a stretch and to take in the wonder of the view from the crater rim. Tomorrow morning we will be in that crater in search of photographic opportunities.
We had an amazing 3 days in the Ngorongoro Crater. Even the descent road gave us excellent views of bird life in the area. But of course, the reason we were here was to photograph some of the “big 5” – lions, elephants, buffalos and rhinos. Each day we entered the crater and took a different route across it. It’s such a huge area (2,000 ft deep and the floor covers a 100 square miles) that you have so many choices for your day’s photography. Elephants and black rhinos were mostly distant sightings (you have to stay on the tracks inside the crater) but we were fortunate to see lions regularly, and plenty of gazelles and zebra. On one morning we were lucky to find a lion kill – one male and female were still at the kill – an African Buffalo.
We spent most of our day there, watching the lions come and go (they didn’t want to leave the kill for other scavengers) and watching the pair mate regularly. When they finally moved to a safe distance, the Spotted Hyenas came in to feed, followed later by a Black-backed Jackal. But the most incredible site was when the Buffalo herd returned; they slowly approached the carcass one by one, sniffed the ground, and then headed off into the distance – it was as if they came to pay their last respects! Here’s a short video of the male lion feeding.
Next stop was the Serengeti National Park, where we spent a couple of days. As with Ngorongoro, the safari jeeps have to keep to the designated tracks, which sometimes meant you weren’t able to get close enough to photograph some subjects. We saw leopards here, but on both occasions they were a little too far away, so my images are heavily cropped.
The Serengeti is, perhaps, the best known of the National Parks. We arrived at Naabi Gate after a long day of driving from Ngorongoro. We stopped here while our drivers got the necessary permits to enter the park. Stretching our legs we walked up some steep steps cut into the rock to get to the top of the kopje (kopje comes from the Afrikaans/Dutch language and means a small, isolated hill in an otherwise flat landscape – here, they are rounded rocky outcrops). From the top we could look out over the vast plains: as far as you could see, there were thousands of migrating Wildebeest – from here they looked like ants.
Kopjes provide more water than the surrounding grasslands, and there are cracks, holes and caves for protection. They are home to many species – from smaller residents such as lizards and snakes to shrews and mice, right up to large mammals such as lions which use them to hide their cubs. And plenty of hunters use them as vantage points, or sometimes just to bask in the sun. Driving around the kopjes we were treated to some wonderful sights – a lesser kestrel colony using the updraft from the steep rocks to hover while hunting, lions lazing about in the shade of trees growing on one kopje, and some colourful lizards warming up on some of the smaller ones.
Our final port of call was a stay at the Ndutu Safari Lodge, in the Southern Serengeti. This was a lovely place to stay. We arrived to find an elephant in the grounds, just yards from the main lodge building. So special to be that close to a wild animal. The beauty of staying at Ndutu Safari Lodge is there are no fences and wild animals are able to stroll through the grounds while you sit and watch from the terrace.
But the real treat for photographers is that in this part of the Serengeti the safari vehicles don’t have to stay on the main tracks – so if you see something, you can go off-road to get closer to the action. This was especially useful when photographing a Cheetah hunting, or to be able to find a Cheetah mother resting under a tree with her cubs. We saw a Cheetah hunting on three occasions while at Ndutu. On one occasion it was a lone Cheetah, on another it was a mother with a year-old cub that was learning to hunt, and on the final excursion it was a mother hunting to feed her 4 small cubs. Here are some images from these encounters.
Ndutu mornings started before sunrise. Sometimes we hung around the lodge just to watch a spectacular African sunrise before we ventured out; and sometimes we left earlier to get into position to see the sun rise over Lake Ndutu. Here are some images.
Being a bird photographer, there was a particular species that I desperately hoped we would see: Weaver Birds. Ever since I was a child these birds had captivated me. I’d only seen them in books and never dreamed I would one day see them in the wild. But our guide said there would be opportunities to photograph them because they usually hung around the lodges we would be staying at during our tour. I wasn’t disappointed. We saw Baglaflecht, Red-headed, Rufous-tailed, Speke’s, Vitelline Masked and Lesser-masked Weavers. I spent a very enjoyable lunch break at a watering hole in the Ngorongoro photographing Weavers nesting and feeding young; breakfast time photographing them at our lodge at Lake Manyara; and at various stops along our journey there were often weavers to be seen. The variety of nest shapes they build are intriguing, and watching a nest being constructed is very special. Here are some Weaver Bird images.
An unexpected highlight for me was the number of Sunbirds we saw. We saw 6 species: Eastern Double-Collared, Scarlet-Chested, Variable, Beautiful, Tacazze and Golden-winged Sunbirds. My images were captured in 2 of the locations – the first were on a morning walk in the grounds of the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge before we left for the Serengeti, and the others were taken during our mid-day breaks while staying at Ndutu Safari Lodge. I really would like to go back and spend some quality time with these birds.