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Tanzania Wildlife Photo Safari 2020
Trip Report

Day 1.

wWe left our hotel in Arusha by 8AM, stopping for a short ‘shopping’ break and a stop at the Ngorongoro Crater overlook, and arrived at our camp in time for a late lunch. As we drove along the crater rim our driver-guide had a brief glimpse – just the tail – of a Leopard that crossed the road in front of us. Less than five minutes later another Leopard ran across the road, and we backed up and waited, and just a few minutes later the Leopard reappeared and crossed the road directly in front of us, giving Sandy, on her first trip to Africa, a great view when the cat turned and looked at us as it passed.
We left for  the crater at 3:30 for a fairly short visit that did provide nice shots of Bull Elephants in the grasses near the marsh. Water was everywhere, and the tracks were rutted or, in some cases, impassable. Two weeks ago there had been so much water that those vehicles entering from the east only had the eastern side of the crater accessible, and those from the west likewise.
It had been raining nearly constantly since October, and had finally abated just prior to our arrival. The crater was green, with grasses and vegetation everywhere, as lush as in summer after the long rains.

Day 2.

We had an early breakfast and headed for the Crater, but the park guards didn’t show up to open the gate and we waited ten minutes until one of the drivers from another company opened the gate and drove through. We followed
This time of year should coincide with the peak of the Gnu births, and our plan was to get to the opposite side of the crater and to the herds early. Gnus generally give birth in the morning, with the peak fairly early in the day. That didn’t happen.

My route brought us to five male Lions lying just off the track in the long grass. They were just yards away and oblivious, and all of our vehicles arrived for shots. We continued on, encountering more bull Elephants and several birds, including African Spoonbills and Avocets, delaying our arrival until late morning. We had a birth, very distant, and obscured by low brush, and we kept looking.

mLater in the morning we stopped at a family of Vervet Monkeys playing on a large Yellow Fever Acacia Tree. The young were playful, wrestling with one another and periodically popping into openings for some wonderful shots.
While we didn’t do well with births, we had great opportunities with baby Thompson Gazelles, Grants Gazelles, and a spectacular session with a small herd of Gnus after a rain, when the newborn Gnus played and ran and hopped about before us, quite close for great shots.
At the end of the day we headed to the picnic area lake where several curious Hippos swam close to our position on the shoreline. Sitting low on shoreline rocks we had near water-level shots of the approaching Hippos.


Day 3.

We followed the same schedule, with the same intentions, and once again the shooting was so good that we arrived late in the morning at the herds. My vehicle encountered a Serval just prior to sunrise; the cat wasn’t shy and trotted down the road ahead of us. Eventually it moved off into the sparkling dew-covered high grasses, and we managed some nice shots.


eElephants at sunrise was the highlight for many, with backlighting, side lighting, and front views with the fog-shrouded escarpment of the crater in the background. Later, a bull Elephant waded into the crater’s lake, with Greater Flamingos in the foreground – a very unique juxtaposition.
A huge herd of Eland, Africa’s largest antelope, marched along the lake shore for great pattern shots and portraits, and a herd of Zebras and a small group of Thompson’s Gazelles crossed a small inlet of the lake. Mary’s vehicle was there when the antelope bounded across the shallows in great arching leaps.


We just missed an incredible birthing opportunity. Mary’s vehicle, and two others, had passed a small herd about ten minutes before I did the same, and during that time the Gnu gave birth. We arrived when the calf was still soaking wet, and we filmed the calf and mother nuzzling, and the calf falling down repeatedly on its new, unsteady legs.

It was nearly noon before we left the crater and headed to our next lodge. We reached the Ndutu forest area around  4PM, and soon arrived at Ndutu’s lake. It was an inland sea. Normally we can drive along the lake shore, often on the shoreline itself, but now, with the high water, all of the tracks were under water. We stopped where the road ended, and had a Black-headed Heron capture a frog closeby.
Continuing on towards our camp we encountered an enormous Gnu herd – the migration was in. Everyone was almost speechless with the sight, with Gnus extending in bands and herds from one horizon to another.

Day 4.

We headed to the Gol Kopjes today, hoping for cats. At 6:15AM, about twenty minutes before sunrise, we stopped for an acacia silhouette with Abdim’s Storks roosting on the branches. Suddenly the tree erupted with birds, like confetti tossed in the air, as the birds left en masse for their day’s feeding.
At the first kopje we stopped for Spotted Hyenas that were carrying the remains  of a kill, and a Tawny Eagle that had a piece that it ate atop a boulder. The shots were full-frame in wonderful light.
We stopped several times for Gnu herd shots, catching animals backlighted in the orange glow of sunrise. As the golden light faded I spotted what I thought was a Leopard disappearing into a bush. It was one of a pair of Cheetahs that soon settled on top of a kopji. While we photographed, the cats spotted a Steenbok about 300 yards away and began a hunt. It looked like a sure kill, as the Cheetah was less than 100 yards away from the antelope, and during the chase the Steenbok tripped and fell, just feet from the Cheetah. Incredibly, the Steenbok regained its feet and gained ground, escaping the cat!

Since the Cheetahs  were  heading into a roadless area we left them, and soon found another Cheetah on another low boulder pile. Eventually that Cheetah wandered into the grasses. After a late morning coffee break we continued to another Cheetah, a mother with five cubs. They were relaxing atop a rock, and the light was harsh, and we left them after a short time.
As we returned to camp the Gnus were replaced by Zebras in the thousands, with most standing with their heads on each other’s backs. Wonderful poses, but the light was high.
We returned to camp at 1:15PM, giving us just about 2 hours to eat and download before our next game drive.
At lunch, when we headed home, Common Zebras were resting,with almost all clustered together with their heads over each other’s rumps. The light was harsh, and we hoped to catch the same pose at 4, with softer, more directional light. While we had some success, most Zebras had resumed feeding.

We continued on to the kopjes, getting nice shots of a roosting Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, and a pair of African Harriers sparring in the sky. We had a tiny chick of a Kori Bustard, with the little one following close behind the adult.

Later, unexpectedly, one of three Kori Bustards launched in a short flight, something the world’s heaviest flying bird rarely does. After it landed, I spotted a Caracal, the African Lynx, running off. It settled in a thicket of Sodam’s Apples but incredibly, as we drove near, our driver/guide spotted a small patch of fur. Some of us managed a headshot before the Caracal left cover, sprinting and then trotting off, with three Kori Bustards keeping watch and following the cat.
At the end of the day, as we headed back to camp, Zebras dust-bathed in the late, golden light. A magical ending, timed just seconds before the sun disappeared behind a massive thunderhead. We finished with a spectacular sunset as we drove in te camp.


Day 5.

Today was a day for the Gnu migration, and what a great day it was. We started with Spotted Hyenas at dawn, backlighted by the golden light. At the entrance to the Serengeti, we stopped for Speckled Pigeons, a species we normally see at a distance on top of kopjes. These were close, roosting in an acacia, where our guide spotted a Barn Owl. While we watched, the Owl swooped right passed us, landing overhead in the beams supporting the Serengeti arch. Shooting straight overhead, we got shots of the adult and two full grown nestlings.
gWe continued and entered the herds, sweeping to the horizon. Watching the butt-end of tens of thousands of Gnus can be tedious, as we looked for the protruding hooves of babies about to be born. Eventually we had three, with the third an extremely cooperative Gnu that gave birth in the open (in contrast to the high grass or low shrubbery they often pick) and we had a close and clear view, the best we’ve ever had in the Serengeti plains.
We had this Gnu because of the hours we spent earlier, waiting and watching as a Thompson’s Gazelle gave birth. It was fairly distant, but we didn’t want to disturb her and the spectacle was still wonderful. Two of our guides had only seen this happen three for the one, and twice for the other guide, and two of the times were on our previous trips!
We continued on towards Hidden Valley, a low depression in the otherwise flat grasslands. Sometimes hundreds of thousands of Gnus gather here to drink, as well as being a great place for Zebras and Lions. En route we had the greatest concentration of Gnus in a migratory herd we’ve ever seen, with animals bunched up as if they were channeling themselves through a narrow gap. We were in the thick of them, and shots were literally in every direction.

Hidden Valley had few Gnus, but thousands of Common Zebras, many bunched up together to make wonderful pattern shots. We found the Lions, spotting a ‘honeymoon’ couple along the shoreline. The male’s brother, a blond maned lion, was there as well, and the Lioness, who was just at the peak of heat, solicited both when one or the other was unresponsive. While we shot, however, we were treated to three matings, with the pair facing us each time. Often, a Lioness will get up and lead the male away, stopping somewhere along the way to mate, and requiring the drivers to race to reposition the vehicle. Not today – the males were lazy, and the female had to get the male’s attention where he lay. It made for easy shooting.
We left Hidden Valley late, requiring us to drive directly back to camp, but along the way I shot Abdim’s Storks as they flew by, while I hand-held my 12-100mm lens as we were driving a bumpy road at 25kmp. I got two sharp shots that were framed correctly, despite the bouncing, out of 8 frames. A nice ending.

Day 6. Gol Kopjes

We headed back to Gol, spotting two Cheetahs almost immediately in the predawn light. Just prior to sunrise I spotted Lions, an entire pride feeding upon a Gnu. One black-maned male fed while another lounged nearby, with a third following a female that was coming into heat. The Lionesses waited nearby, with one occasionally slinking in, belly flat to the ground in a submissive posture, attempting to snatch a morsel. The male growled her off with a warning.
When the male finally left the kill the females, as if being granted permission, rushed in. They didn’t have long to feed before the male with the female in heat rushed in, roaring, driving the Lionesses off as he claimed the kill and fed.
Having our fill of shots we moved on, stopping soon for some young stallion Zebras that were play-fighting. Good light, close, and a lot of action.
We drove on, eventually finding the mother Cheetah with five cubs. While we filmed she began a hunt, spotting a pair of Grant’s Gazelles, a mother and large lamb, and she took chase. It was a very long run and eventually the Cheetah burned out. We left the family in the grasses where they were off-road, and we continued our search for Lions.
We found a male lying atop a low kopje, with the cat eventually climbing down and heading towards the rest of his pride several hundred yards away. We were able to keep ahead of the cat for front-on walking shots, and more once he joined up with his brother who was following a Lioness back to the kopje rocks. All three posed wonderfully on the rocks, and as it was getting late we decided to head back for a more normal lunch time.
mWe didn’t make it. My vehicle retraced our old route and we encountered the Cheetahs. They had just made a kill, with the legs of their prey, a foal Zebra, still kicking as we arrived. Zebra kills are extremely rare, and this one concluded right off the road – what a sight that would have been! When we left the Cheetahs earlier, nothing was in sight, and I’d never have guessed the Cheetah would go after a Zebra. Mother Zebras, and even the herd’s stallion, can be extremely protective.
We stayed with the cheetah family as they fed. Our shoot was momentarily spoiled when a driver with two cellphone-toting tourists pulled right in front of us, between our vehicle and the Cheetahs, and stopped, Our guide, and I, started yelling, and their driver just argued until finally moving off. The driver was from LEOPARD TOURS and this is not the first time we’ve seen the worse behavior of any driver/guides. In my opinion and experience, LEOPARD TOURS is the most irresponsible and obnoxious company I’ve encountered in Tanzania. I have multiple examples of why.
We reached camp at 1, and took a half-hour longer break for our afternoon game drive.
cPM. We left camp at 4PM, stopping almost immediately for Masai Giraffes. The plains were fairly empty and we continued on to the short grass plains where we hoped to find Honey Badgers. We didn’t have long to search before one of our guides spotted a pair of Cheetahs (a female and male that we think have just been pushed out by their mother) on top of a kopje. A storm cloud formed a wonderful blue-gray background, and the Cheetahs cooperated by standing, sitting, and posing wonderfully before beginning their hunt. That was aborted, however, when Hyenas appeared near their target, a herd of gazelles.
It was getting late and we headed towards camp, but the Devil Tree was silhouetted nicely against the western sky. While we photographed the tree, European White Storks started to land, making for some magical silhouettes as they hovered prior to landing. With fading light we headed home, stopping for one of the morning’s male Lions that was sitting, Sphinx-like, on the road --- our last images of the day.

Day 7. Ndutu area

We did an all-day game drive through the grasslands and the acacia forests surrounding Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek. It was a fairly slow day, with a fair amount of bird activity. I was under the weather and had no energy to write … hence the brevity. We returned home by 5, with a Lioness high up in a tree, leopard height, which was most everyone’s highlight. It would have been interesting to see how she negotiated the narrow limb she was on for getting back down.

Day 8. Gol Kopjes to Sametu area

We broke camp and headed to the Gol Kopjes where we hoped to find the Cheetah family once more. We did, but along the way we had a solitary Cheetah in the high grass that provided a nice portrait. The Cheetah family, when we found them, were hunting but relaxed at the time. A lone Grant’s Gazelle with a bad leg – we couldn’t determine if it was broken or just bruised and sore causing a limp--  walked in the Cheetah mother’s general direction and was immediately spotted.
The Cheetah began a hunt, but surprisingly for us, did not immediately try running down the gazelle. The antelope spotted the Cheetah, but eventually the gazelle dismissed the danger and started walking away. The cat moved again, and was spotted, and we had a repetition of the scene. After nearly two hours a herd of Zebras arrived, and they spotted the Cheetah, too, which prompted the cat to get up and walk back to her cubs.
hWe had another pair of Cheetahs, too, a mother and cub, and the mother climbed atop the bonnet (hood) of one of the vehicles, and later onto the back tire of another. This was the obvious highlight for the folks in those vehicles! When I arrived, too late to witness this, we promptly drove into a hidden Masai well hole. This was disguised by a rich growth of vegetation, and our front tire went straight in, lifting a rear wheel into the air. One of our other vehicles had to tow us out.
eLater, I learned that some of these wells can go ten feet or more deep, and be wide enough to fit the front end of a vehicle. Driving in to one of those could prove fatal. Nonetheless, it reinforces our belief that a good tour with several vehicles is the best and safest way to do a safari. Not only are there more eyes for spotting game, but in the case of a disabled or stuck vehicle, there is immediate help available. Had this been a solitary car, one might be there for hours, or overnight, until another vehicle passed that route and offered help.
On the way into our next camp we spied a Leopard far off in a tree. We were told that this was a mother with two cubs at a very convenient kopje, where she had her cubs safely at its top.
PM. We headed to the kopje in hopes of seeing the Leopard, which was often seen in the late afternoon or early morning. We didn’t see her, and I assume she was still out hunting. The cubs stayed hidden.
Although the afternoon was rather unproductive, it ended spectacularly with a BLACK Serval cat. Normally, Servals are spotted, but in high country, like Mt. Kenya or the Aberdarre Mts., black morphs are occasionally seen. We’d never seen one, and we were extremely surprised to see on in the low grasslands of the Serengeti. The cat was extremely tame, and while my vehicle only had shots from behind, eventually our other vehicles zoomed ahead, and had the cat walking down the road right at them, actually going beside the bumper. My vehicle moved on ahead, since the road was blocked by our vehicles, and I anticipated the Serval walking around them and returning to the road. It didn’t, and instead moved off into the grasses, unhurried and unfazed by the extremely close encounter.

Day 9. Sametu area

We headed out for  the kopje for the Leopard, which obliged us by lying on a rock completely in the open. The cubs soon appeared, and after playing on rocks for a bit they joined the mother. We had decent views, although the lip of the rock partially obscured the Leopards at times, and the light was contrasty. Eventually the mother headed to the shade of a fig tree at the crest and we thought the show was over.
We remained, though, just to be sure, and the mother reappeared on the edge of the kopje in shade, and with her front end facing us and clear. While we photographed her one of the cubs appeared, and we had incredible shots of her grooming the cub and having it climb beneath her chin. A true highlight.
Later we looked for 2 or 5 (reports varied) African Wild Dogs that were spotted at another set of kopjes. In the tall grass, and late morning, we had little chance of finding the dogs, as this time of day they sleep. We were not successful.
On the way back to camp we had a Secretarybird catch two lizards beside the road. I missed focus!
lPM. We visited another series of kopjes, hoping perhaps to encounter another Leopard. We did not. However, we had great shooting of Rock Hyrax, African Elephants, a Black-shouldered Kite harassing a Tawny Eagle, and wonderful landscapes. At the very end of the day we found 3 Lions that were in the process of hunting approaching Hartebeests. The antelope spotted the cats and ran off, but an approaching herd of Elephants scented the Lions and advanced. The Lions ran, with two of them coming towards our vehicles, their heads poking above the tall grasses. Looking right at us, in the late golden light, nearly obscured by grass – it was a great shot.

Day 10. Sametu area

Our last day on safari and we headed to the mother Leopard for another shoot. She was on the same rock where we'd first seen her yesterday, and both cubs were playing with her in the open. After a half hour or so the Leopard mother got up and headed into the shadows provided by a large fig tree, and we thought the shoot was over. Almost all of the vehicles drove off, but we stayed behind a bit longer, and as we started to drive off, giving up like everyone else, the Leopard reappeared on the rock where we had our best show yesterday.


We started shooting, and the family put on an even better show than the day before. Eventually the sun climbed high enough to shine on the rock, and the Leopard retreated to the shade. We waited an hour but she didn't return, and we headed back to camp.

Our plan was to arrive at camp early enough for one of our guides to pack luggage and head back to Arusha, but our plans were thwarted when, just a half mile from camp, we found a mother Cheetah with 3 young cubs, still fuzzy and resembling honeybadgers. The Cheetahs were close, but in high grass, and the shooting was a bit compromised, as was our time since we needed to pack. These conditions caused a bit of stress, but everyone got shots and we arrived back in camp.





In the afternoon, Mary and I sat next to the driver (separate vehicles) since we were now short one vehicle, as one headed back to Arusha with our luggage. Rain was all around us but not where we were, and the light was golden. Rock Hyrax, Elepants, and birds were our subjects, and it was a great last game drive.



Day 11

We left camp, drove to Seronera -- seeing another Serval en route, and waited for our flight to Arusha. We were told that the plane was waiting for us, but we ended up spending at least an hour, going through security twice, as our carry-on luggae was weighed, but the flight to Arusha went uneventfully.

The group flew out that night, while Mary and I stayed behind to relax, pack more leisurely - we leave some material in storage, and to meet with the safari company owners for a debriefing. A nice ending to a great safari.

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