As some of you may know, Mary had undergone major neck surgery in May of this, having a cervical disk replacement as part of an experimental study. At the time of surgery we were not sure what her recovery time would be, and consequently scheduled our Kenya photo safaris for the earliest possible time, post surgery. The results -- later trips than normal, and only two, of two weeks each. Both proved, as always, to be spectacular -- different in many ways, with each offering their own special gifts and highlights, but both wonderful. As always, afterwards all we could do was plan and configure as to how we could offer more trips for next year -- it is a habit-forming location that we simply can't get enough of. Here's why...
I have a mental checklist of subjects or behaviors I eventually hope to see and film. So far, I've been lucky for, with the hindsight of many, many trips and the wisdom that this has imparted, previous disappointments, I know, are the norm, and the luck, when it comes, is truly that -- as well as a true gift. Over the years we've seen many lion kills - of wildebeest, warthog, topi, mongoose - yes, mongoose, and buffalo, but I've never seen a zebra take-down. Sure, we've seen probably thousands of lions feeding on zebra carcasses over the years, but we've never been there during the hunt. This year we were lucky.
Our group had split up, with two of our vehicles ending up at a cheetah that was hunting and two with a trio of lions. Earlier, while photographing some hyena my driver-guide spotted a zebra as it rounded a hill and approached a trio of lions. We watched the drama from nearly a half mile away as the zebra neared, expecting some action that, of course, would be too far away to film. Nothing happened. The zebra stopped its forward progress and the lions lay immobile - an African standoff in the hot mid-morning sun.
As we watched I noticed that the zebra scratched its side repeatedly with a hind leg. Scratching isn't odd, necessarily, but doing so repeatedly, in clear view of lions, seemed just a bit suspicious. We decided to drive closer. Over the next hour we watched as the lionesses displayed varying levels of interest and intensity while the zebra seemed to alternate because bouts of sleeping on its feet to half-alertness, an odd behavior for a zebra alone less than one hundred yards from the lions. It didn't seem right, and as we watched we discovered the reason. The zebra had a large draining wound on her shoulder and side - the aftermath of a near-miss with a lion, we guessed - and she was sick. That's why she was scratching, and why she was dozing and alternating between alertness and apparent apathy. Seeing that, we became very interested, but there was no perceptible difference with the lions. In fact, one of the three flopped over and fell asleep. Nonetheless, I radioed the other two vehicles to get here quick - a situation was developing!
About twenty minutes passed and the zebra started moving again, and this time towards the lions. Our other two vehicles had just arrived, taking position further downhill in the general direction that the zebra seemed to be heading. As the zebra walked closer and closer to the lionesses I kept muttering, 'she's dead,' but I changed that commentary to 'it's now or never' as the zebra walked passed the lionesses. As she advanced they coiled and crouched, shifting their axis to align for a charge, but nothing happened. The zebra continued on its way.
We were disappointed. The zebra started downhill and from what had been a prime position for shooting I resigned myself to seeing the back end of a chase, at best. But the zebra paused at a broken snag to scratch the wound, and as it stopped all three lions stood, and in a low crouch, padded towards her. One broke into a charge, the zebra exploded into a gallop, and the chase was on. But instead of running downhill the zebra did a 180 around a set of bushes and termite mounds and ran directly toward two of our vehicles.
One of the lionesses slipped a hearty kick from the zebra, somehow maintaining forward momentum while standing on her hind legs and securing another grip on the zebra. At that point, at the crucial moment of the take-down, my 1D Mark II buffered out -- I'd been firing bursts all along and, not watching the countdown of the buffer, and momentarily buffered out. Two seconds later I had some space, but that's literally a life-time for a zebra and she was down. John, in another vehicle and at a different angle, caught the moment of decisive action just as the lionesses clambered aboard the zebra.
How common is it to have ringside seats at a spectacular chase and take-down? In what was collectively about 100 years of experience -- some of our driver/guides have been doing this for 20 or more years, none had ever seen a take-down close. Why not? While luck certainly played a part, most photography or tourist groups either do not read behavior, noticing suspicious little details, or do not have the patience to wait something out. Our groups do, which is why our driver/guides see things with us they've never seen before. That's a fact, not a brag.
One highlight, of many. On other days we watched an impala trot down to a waterhole where a lioness had rested after an unsuccessful attempt at a reedbuck, only to see the lioness begin an explosive charge prematurely as the impala buck slowly and inevitably grazed towards certain doom. Impalas were lucky, this year, for on another day we watched a leopard stalk almost directly at our cameras as it approached an impala buck minutes before dark. Leopards typically approach within three meters or so before making their lethal rush -- this impala must have been 3.5 meters away for the leopard never charged.
We've only seen one start-to-finish buffalo kill in all our year's of doing safaris but we almost had another one on one of our last day's of this year's safaris. A bull buffalo wandered alone toward an area where we'd seen a large pride earlier in the day. It continued in that direction until it eventually caught the attention of some lionesses that had been focused on a group of waterbuck. From almost a half mile away five lions of varying ages triangulated onto the buffalo, who, as it turns out, probably was an old-hand at lion hunts. As they approached he ran, they chased, but before a lion could leap upon its back the bull would counter, stopping and rushing at its aggressors. Buffalo can be pulled down from behind, but face-on it is a different story, and, without a large male lion to assist, the lionesses were stymied. Eventually the bull's resolve broke and it ran, with the lionesses in pursuit -- a chase that almost ended in our laps as the bull ran directly at my vehicle. It swerved passed and the lionesses stopped. Less than fifty yards on the bull stopped, tossed its head, and resumed a more leisurely walk to where ever it was going.
While the portfolio that accompanies this text will more clearly convey these trips' excitement, a couple of other events must be mentioned for their uniqueness. For example, we discovered two Bat-eared Fox dens, with pups, that were extremely tolerant, with the youngest pups we've ever filmed piling out of their den to play with their parents or each other, and, on one lucky evening, to nurse. We filmed crocodiles doing their 'death roll' as they grabbed chunks of flesh or hide from an old cow carcass in Samburu, and Yellow-billed Hornbills exchanging beetles and bugs in courtship. Banded mongooses galloping across the plains, gnus leaping ditches, vultures and eagles swooping into kills, Lesser Flamingos performing their odd ballet, White Pelicans gliding across shallow pools, hovering Kingfishers ... a zillion photo highlights pass through my memory.
The year 2005 marks two decades of photography for me in Kenya, and, in total, Mary and I have what amounts to nearly THREE YEARS of photo safaris. People frequently ask us if we ever get bored, or if we ever get tired of doing safaris. The answer, quite obviously, is NO, no, no! Each safari is unique, with each offering something new. This year's two safaris are classic examples. Many of our first safari's participants were first-timers, and they were treated to a spectacular first experience. Many wondered if they could ever have a better time than that which they just had. Perhaps not, but I'd doubt it, for as a simple example cheetahs almost eluded us completely --we had 4, while we sometimes have 20 or more. On the second safari we had a more usual 16! On the second trip we had 5 in one afternoon! And, on this second trip, cheetahs performed wonderfully. We watched an injured zebra limping along, approaching two cheetahs that hadn't made a kill in three days. An adult zebra is a huge animal, and usually beyond the capability of a cheetah, but this one was just too tempting. The cheetahs charged -- right at our cameras! -- but the zebra mustered strength and galloped into a larger herd. The cheetahs followed, spotting a young zebra and continuing the chase with a new target. Incredibly, mother zebra and foal ran right to our cameras again, but the mother was defensive and the cheetahs never closed upon the foal. An hour later the cheetahs hunted again, chasing a topi and calf again, incredibly, right at some of our vehicles, but again the hunt was unsuccessful. On another occasion three large male cheetahs, aftrer missing a gnu, took shade at some bushes besides the vehicle track where we were parked. Because of the lighting our Landrover's windows acted like a mirror and two of the cheetahs reacted, staring intently into their reflection at less than 6 feet, then circling the vehicle to find the interloper. The intensity of the gazes made for incredible portraiture.
Birds are a huge part of any safari -- typically we see over 150 species and photography 50 - 75 different species. Vultures are always great fun, which is surprising to people as vultures have a bad rap - scavengers are not very endearing. But in flight, especially when gliding STRAIGHT AT YOU as they sail in to a kill, offers fantastic flight photography possibilities. For sharp shots, we generally use the center focus spot on our AF sensors and attempt to keep that area targetted on the vulture's head. This year, for the first time, we filmed a Martial Eagle as it completed a very unusual kill - an adult Egyptian goose.
While this narrative highlighted the most exciting hunts we filmed, the safaris were, of course, far more extensive, and we filmed virtually everything - from Black Rhinoceroses with babies to neck-dueling giraffes, from Savannah monitors exploring the desert grasslands to Dung Beetles rolling dung as they recycle and replenish the land. Our success is, in part, due to the expertise of our driver/guides, but also to the patience and focus of our participants. These photographers were anxious to photograph everything, and to spend the time necessary, when required, to get a great image. We had four vehicles fanned out for our first trip and five the second, and while everyone finished the safari with some unique and one-vehicle-only images, most of the time great events -- like the leopard and lion hunts -- were witnessed by all.
Next year's trip dates and prices will be available shortly, so please contact our office if you're interested. I must report that our 'waiting list' for people who say they're going next year already exceeds our available space, but whether or not all of those photographers will follow through on their commitment remains to be seen. So if you're interested, contact our office ASAP.
Truly, the wildlife viewing, the quality of the experience, the spectacular photography -- a Kenya photo safari is the greatest show on earth.