Trip Report: 2014 Big Cats and Tuskers Photo Safari

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry, Penny 7 Comments

Penny writes: Arriving at OR Tambo International Airport on the evening of the 4th February, there was no denying the spring in my step as I made my way towards the Kenya Airways check-in counter to meet up with the Big Cats and Tuskers Photo Safari guests.

Flying with them to Kenya, we were then driven to the Mara Triangle to meet up with Gerry, who I would be joining in hosting this safari, and the Wild Eye East Africa team at the camp that we called home for the first leg of the safari.

Our Big Cats and Tuskers Photo Safari comprises of 4 very different and picturesque destinations, each holding its own beauty, its own photographic possibilities, it’s own allure.

Starting off at the Mara Triangle, where we stayed in one of the Wild Eye camp’s on the Mara River, this part of the trip is where our main focus was on capturing the Big Cats of this area. Our next destination was Lake Nakuru, where we stayed at Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge and focused on the birdlife on the lake, with the magnificent Yellow Fever Trees as a backdrop. From there we moved on to Lake Naivasha, where a boat ride on the lake presented us with multiple photographic opportunities to capture birds from a different perspective.

Our last destination on the safari was where our primary photographic focus was on big tuskers; the eElephants of Amboseli.  With the landscape ranging from swamps, to palm forests, to dry savannahs and dense clumps of forest, all our images were varied and told an abundance of different stories!

Day 1: Mara Triangle

There is nothing better than arriving at your destination on the banks of Mara River after a long drive, and being met by the Wild Eye team that have the most welcoming and friendly smiles on their faces.

Immediately being helped out of the car and directed into the camp, the guests were introduced to the team and offered a cool beverage while their bags were taken to their tents.

After a delicious lunch and a tour around the camp, we were off on our first photographic game drive in the Mara Triangle!

Our first target of the day? Lion cubs. What could be better than that?

Well, there definitely was something much better than that.

Much better…

Like the cubs being right on the edge of the road so that we could get very close to them?

Oh, and how about adding in some great interaction between the 7 of them while we are at it.

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

The sound of shutters going off was a beautiful sound indeed.

One of our aims at Wild Eye is to share our knowledge and help people achieve the type of shots they want, and to teach them new tips and techniques that will help them achieve this and grow. This was a great opportunity for me to help encourage the guests I was in the vehicle with as we got to focus on what kind of images they were wanting to take and what story they were looking to tell.

The results were fantastic!

Using a 600mm lens and having the lion cubs only a couple of meters away from our vehicle, I had to pay particular attention to my composition (as I was very limited) and my how my depth of field was going to be affected due to the lens magnification and my distance from my subject.

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

This was a great exercise and one that I was able to show the effects of both to the guests.

The image above was a prime example that further highlighted the importance of knowing one’s camera equipment and its resultant effects.

After an exciting afternoon with the cubs, photographing elephants and waterbuck under the pre-storm saturated sky, we headed back to camp to enjoy drinks by the camp fire that overlooked the Mara River as we caught up on everyone’s afternoon.

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As darkness descended and settled in, the sound of hippos snorting and walking out of the river, hyena’s whooping to one another, and other wild sounds heralded the end of our first day of the Big Cats and Tuskers Photo Safari.

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Day 2: Mara Triangle

Waking up to the cheerful ‘Jambo’ from one of the Maasai  that help out in the camp, we filled up with coffee and some snacks before we headed out onto our second game drive before the sun rose.

With the thrill of being in the Mara Triangle and the great photo opportunities we had the previous afternoon still fresh in everyone’s minds, there was a lot of excitement and anticipation to see what they day held in store for us.

There is something very special about being in the Mara Triangle.

The open landscape with dense forest scattered around, herds of antelope silently grazing while the calves jovially play around, elephants letting out a deep rumble here and there as they communicate with one another, all this and more just completely makes you feel like you are living in a different time.  The fact that the animals you see are free-roaming, just adds to the utter majestic atmosphere and wildness of the area.

We therefore had to stop and photograph a lone hot air balloon as it made its way over the misty forest that lines the Mara River by our campsite.

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

We sent some time at this scene, some of the guests continuously photographing while others after a while just drank in the view before us as it steadily changed with each passing moment.

Before the golden light completely disappeared, we headed back to the lion cubs from the day before as we couldn’t miss the opportunity of photographing them in this rich light.

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After heading back to the camp for lunch, having some down-time in the media tent as we downloaded our images from the morning, we decided to go photograph a subject that was not a cat.

Enter 4 black rhinos that Gerry and the guides found the day before I flew into Kenya with the guests.  Target acquired, and off we went.

Keeping in contact with the the Mara Triangle rangers, our guides were able to pin point the location of the rhinos in an impressive amount of time. Our relationship with the rangers was (and is) always much appreciated when it came to locating wildlife in an incredibly vast area!

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Although the members of the Big 5 are always a treat to photograph, and the savannah provided a great opportunity to show these beasts in a vast environment, we were not oblivious to the other creatures and birds that call this place home.

Being in the vehicle with some avid birders, it was a different experience for me to stop at every bird and photograph them. This became such a treat as learning their behaviour and photographing them accordingly proved more than satisfying when we were at the camp later looking through our day’s images.

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

One of the highlights of this day? Definitely seeing how one of the guests, who is an avid birder, started using depth of field, composition, and other technical and creative aspects to portray the birds he so loved photographing. This was a highlight for me, as his previous method of bird photography was capturing ‘documentary’ images of the birds to show that he had seen them. He was now looking at them in a new and different way, and this came clearly through his images as the day progressed.

Day 3:  Mara Triangle

Having had a cloudy evening the night before, the morning was overcast and bright.

Most of the guests were a little put-off by this, but Gerry and myself showed them how to use certain techniques, like exposure compensation, to get the details out of the subjects. This came into great use especially with the birds that perched in the trees with the bright sky as their background.

From then on it was go, go, go!

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

We spent a morning at a sighting that none of us could believe! Although it wasn’t a great photographic sighting, our eyes were glued to our cameras as we watched the scene infront of us unfold…

In the distance, we witnessed 5 lionesses stalking the herd of black rhino that we had photographed the previous day.  This was a magical experience, and one that kept up a constant flow of conversation in the car; ‘Look, the lioness on the right of the mound has suddenly crouched down and hidden in the grass!’, ‘the rhino bull is walking straight towards her..’, ‘there is a mother and her calf lying in the grass in the direction where the lions are looking!’ and so on, as I’m sure you can just imagine!

Sitting at the sighting for a good part of the morning, our guide Joseph broke the enthusiastic and incredulous atmosphere to explain that we had to go for breakfast.

After a bit of umming and ahhing, it quickly disappeared when he told us that we would be having breakfast at the same spot where a scene from the movie Out of Africa was filmed.

We reached our destination, after a few photographic stops here and there, to a scene that took everyone’s breath away.

There was a whole breakfast table and buffet waiting for us.

And of course, there was the Nutella on the table.  This has become a tasty and much anticipated fixture on our safaris in the Mara Triangle.  There are also now an abundance of teaspoons to be found on the table as a grateful accompaniment.

Tablespoons were only used by the brave. And yes. I am brave.

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The weather in the afternoon cleared, and along with it came the animals out from their shelters. In particular, I was amazed by the enormous herds of Thompson’s gazelles!

With the males starting to clash horns and sprint in multiple directions, this was a great opportunity to practice panning with the guests and show how there are always photographic opportunities and moments to capture in every scene!

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Did I mention the vast numbers of Crowned Cranes that we saw and photographed?

At the particular sighting below, we spent some time with a herd of Elephants and a pair of Crowned Cranes as we took a deeper look into the power of depth of field in telling stories in wildlife images.

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

As the sun started setting on our last evening, we couldn’t have asked for a better sighting to compliment the incredible photographic journey and experience that the Mara Triangle had given us.

Spending some time with the bull in the image below (instead of heading back to camp), the setting sun made the colours of the landscape and sky  take on a look that will always characterise evenings in the Mara for me; deep blue-grey skies and bright yellow-orange grass.

Add a magnificent lone elephant bull that posed for us?

Perfect.

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

Day 4: Mara Triangle to Lake Nakuru

After a later start to the morning and a stunning breakfast in the dinning-tent, we started to make our way out of the Mara Triangle to the next leg of the Big Cats and Tuskers Photo Safari.

Taking a short game drive through the Triangle to the Oloololo Gate, or what was meant to be short, we came upon a pride of 4 lionesses that were sleeping a couple of meters off from one of the roads. Staying with them for a while, we noticed that they were looking on edge and  knew that action or movement was soon to happen.

And it did.

They moved from one side of the road to sleep on a mound on the other side.

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

Yet still we stayed. The morning light on them was very beautiful and created a day-dream ambiance around them, as the colours of the long grasses caught the light. And the cats still looked quite restless.

Suddenly, one of the females leapt up from the mound, stared intensely into the distance, and then bounded off into the distance with clear intentions.

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

Now, everyone in the vehicle who had their cameras down quickly rectified this, and all cameras were poised and ready – a hunt was imminent.

A group of warthogs in the distance obliviously trotted in the direction of the lioness that had previously dashed away. What were the rest of the lionesses doing? They were still lying down, but their heads up were up now and they were awake.

At least they were attentive!

The hunt took place quite far away so we didn’t get any great photographs from it, but it was a spectacular event to witness. One lion even stumbled upon a Reed Buck that was laying low. Needless to say, I think the lion was as surprised to see it as we were!

Arriving at Sarova Lion Hill Lodge late in the afternoon, we all freshened up before meeting in the diningroom for a buffet supper.

The next stage of our safari had begun.

Day 5:  Lake Nakuru to Lake Naivasha

Gerry writes:  Lake Nakuru is one of the Great Rift Valley soda lakes and forms the heart of the Lake Nakuru National Park which, at only 188km2, is one of the smaller reserves in Kenya.  That being said, it has incredible photographic potential which is the reason we have included it in our Big Cats & Tuskers Photo Safari itinerary.

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Lake Nakuru’s ecosystem makes for a very unique experience, and when you combine the massive Fever Tree forests with large flocks of flamingoes and a very healthy buffalo population, you have the makings of an incredible photographic experience.

From a photography point of view, and this is priceless when looking for low angles, as you can get out of your vehicle at the edge of the lake to photograph the flamingoes, pelicans and other waterbirds that flourish on the edges of the lake.

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It didn’t take very long for everybody to get nice and low down and to get stuck into a fantastic morning of wildlife photography.

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Our focus was without a doubt the flocks of flamingoes in the lake, but the edges of the Fever Tree forests made for great images as well, as small groups of buffalo and zebra would make regular appearances.

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The scenery and environment in Lake Nakuru is truly unique and very different from what most people are used to.

After our morning of rolling around the edges of the lake, we took a drive around looking for more photographic opportunities.  The Fever Tree forests add so much to images, and even though we didn’t find ‘that’ shot of a leopard on branch, we had more great sightings of buffalo, lion and a wide range of birds.

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We left Lake Nakuru around 16h00 in the afternoon and made our way back South towards Lake Naivasha.

The inclusion of the two lakes into our itinerary was not only to add to the diversity of the type of images people can get on this safari, but also to allow the Wild Eye East Africa staff to move our authentic mobile camp from the Mara to Amboseli.  It was, and is always, great to hear people say that they miss their tents and the Wild Eye staff, and we were all missing Dickson, Francis and the rest of the team.

But before we would get to join up with the team in Amboseli, we had one more stop, one more photographic destination!

It was time to experience Lake Naivasha!

Day 6:  Lake Naivasha

Penny writes:  The lake was just beautiful.

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

As we headed out in two boats, the sun was reflecting off the Yellow Fever Trees, and their reflections upon the water’s surface was pretty magical.

Everyone was silent as we headed out as they took in the view before us and the amount of birds that call this Lake home.

And there were a lot!

It truly is a great experience to be able to drift up to different species of birds and capture images from an alternative perspective.  The Fever Trees and the reflection of the foliage just added to the ambiance of the place and to the images!

© Penny Robartes - Wildlife and Nature Photographer

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The abundance of birdlife and the variety of species was awe-inspiring. And all of this on one lake!

From Fish Eagles to Giant Kingfishers, Black Herons (being the creative hunters as always and showing us their hunting technique), and even hippos made an appearance.

After a successful birding morning on the river, we headed back to the lodge for breakfast and to pack up our gear as we were going to be driving to our next photographic adventure – Amboseli.

But before leaving the lodge, we got to have some quality photographic time with the Colobus Monkeys that were sitting on the roof of its entrance.

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These charismatic little guys are always a photographic highlight of this particular safari and they normally signal the end of the Naivasha leg of the trip.

Day 7 & 8: Amboseli National Park

Gerry writes:  Amboseli has long been on my list of favourite African parks.  The diversity in this small park is incredible and it is arguably one of the best places in Africa to photograph free roaming elephants.  Yes, the backdrop of Kilimanjaro also adds to the allure of this place, but on this trip we didn’t see the mountain at all and it did not take away from the Amboseli experience!

We had two full days of photography ahead of us in Amboseli and we decided to make the most of it.

For the next two days we would spend the entire day in the park. The weather turned out to be a bit of a double edged sword in that it was overcast and misty which meant that the mountain was hidden out of sight, but the early morning moods were amazing and the overcast conditions made shooting throughout the day very possible.

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The photographic goal in Amboseli is always elephants, but the diverse ecosystems and incredible array of mammal and bird species make for a very well rounded wildlife photography experience.

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One of the photographic topics that we specifically looked at and discussed was the different types of elephant images you can get in this park. From marshes and open plains, to palm tree thickets and dried up lakes, Amboseli has it all and can make for incredible images.

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Our two days in Amboseli yielded incredible moments, loads of laughs and some fantastic wildlife images.  Sure, we didn’t get to see the most famous of all African mountains, but I have no doubt that the overall experience was not diminished because of this.  On the contrary, the jokes about ‘there not actually being a mountain’ became more and more prevalent as our time went on and, along with the Nutella Penny mentioned earlier on, became one of the non-photographic things we will all remember from this trip.

As we got back to camp on the last day, most people quickly downloaded their images and then made their way to the fire.  Yes, these trip are about photography, but as the days roll by people get to know each other a lot better and more time is spent chatting and just enjoying the experience of being out in in the unspoilt places of Africa.

Now, a few years ago our Masai staff asked whether they could, as a way of saying thanks, do a traditional Maasai dance and prepare a goat for us over the fire.  This is never something we asked for, but the guys have kept on asking and the Maasai evening has over the years become a very special part of our Kenyan photo safaris.

The experience, and many of the guests echoed this, is one that does not feel commercial as is the case at a lot of lodges, but rather an honest showcase of one of the world’s most famous tribes.  What made the entire experience even better is that Dickson, one of our Maasai staff members, interpreted all the dances and meanings behind them which added great value to the guest experience.

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As the sun set, we were treated to a traditional Maasai meal of goat over the fire – something which is normally only done on special occasions, and this fact did not go unnoticed by the guests.  Around a camp fire at the base of Kilimanjaro we shared another incredible moment with some of the most genuine people I have ever met.

After diner we sat around the fire for one more drink before, one by one, people retired for the evening.

The sun had set on another fantastic Big Cats & Tuskers Photo Safari.

Day 9:  Heading Back to Nairobi

On the last morning of our photo safari we all, for the first time on the trip, slept in and met for breakfast at a very civilised time of 08h00.

There was however one more image that we needed to take.  For me, probably the most important of the lot, as this is why we do what we do.

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The guests and Wild Eye East Africa staff.

These are the people that made up all the amazing experiences, memorable moments, and shared in a lot of laughs.

These are the people that shared another amazing Wild Eye photo safari and I am quite certain that we will spend more time out in the field at some point in the future.

To the Wild Eye East Africa staff:  You guys rock my world and every time I get to spend time with you I am again reminded of this fact.  I feel privileged to call you guys colleagues and even more than that, friends.  Stay as special as you are!

To Penny: Thank you for all your assistance and input on this trip.  I look forward to sharing many more amazing adventures with you.  I am truly proud of how far you have come and look forward to watching you realise your full potential and to be a part of a journey which will no doubt see you inspire many photographers on the way.

To Andrew, Schalk, Mark, Sabine, Charlene, Geir, Ingeborg and Kalin:  It was an absolute pleasure and privilege to have you on this photo safari.  I know you all had a fantastic time and trust that you found what you were looking for in order to take your own photography to the next level.  I look forward to one day sharing more African adventures and photographic opportunities with you, and to seeing more of your images online!  Will be doign a post with some of your images as soon as I receive it from you guys.

So that’s it – Time to close the book on our 2014 Big Cats & Tuskers photo safari.

Penny and I will be hosting the 2015 Big Cats and Tuskers Photo Safari in February 2015, so make sure to stay tuned as we will be releasing the details by the end of March.

Thanks again to everyone involved in another magical experience!

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt & Penny Robartes

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Gerry’s Links:

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Penny’s Links:

Comments 7

  1. Jim Robertson

    Penny:

    Thanks for the report and the great images.

    Breakfasts are an everyday occurrence, a lion and black rhino encounter is not.

    I am afraid the priorities mentioned here would deter me from traveling with Wild-Eye.

    But maybe I am missing something

    1. Gerry

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Agree with you completely that lions and black rhino are not daily occurrence but not all wildlife sightings are photographic in nature. Will let Penny comment more on this but I do recall that all the guests in my vehicle – all photographers – agreed to leave the sighting without any images as they were happy with the amazing interaction that had seen in the distance and with the sighting having run it’s course felt that they would rather move on and in this case, to the Out of Africa breakfast stop.

      In some reserves in Southern Africa we might have been able to follow the sighting off-road but this particular sighting did not allow for that which meant that nature kinda decided for us hence we made our way to the breakfast stop which I can quite confidently say is one of the most spectacular spots I have ever been to.

      I am the first one to apply patience, work a sighting and take my time to get the shots but there are also times when we, as wildlife photographers, should just sit back, enjoy the experience and enjoy the privilege of being out in nature – something we at Wild Eye believe in completely! 🙂

      Thanks again for commenting!

      Warmest regards,
      Gerry

      1. Jim Robertson

        Gerry

        Thanks for your note.

        As I mentioned at the end, “maybe I am missing something”. You filled me in on what I was missing.

  2. Penny Robartes

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for your comment.

    As Gerry mentioned, the sighting took place very far away, so the only photographs that the guests took were ‘proof shots’, but then they put their cameras down as there wasn’t any photographic opportunities to be had.

    If we did have our cameras up, it was to get a better look to see what was happening. In a trip report like this one, it is impossible to go into detail about every sighting without the trip report becoming incredibly long. Therefore, it is more the certain experiences and proper photographic opportunities that the guests had, that we get more into, such as this particular experience with the lions and the rhinos. I did mention that it wasn’t a great photographic opportunity, and the only reason we kept looking through our cameras was to get a better look at what was happening.

    Of course, and this happens quite often on these kinds of trips, we missed quite a few meals due to sightings 🙂 We will not leave until the guests are ready to, and to be honest, I would much rather spend time on a wonderful photographic moment than rush back for a meal!

    If you have any questions on how we run our safaris, please feel free to contact me at penny@wild-eye.co.za, and i will be more than happy to assist where I can.

    Alternatively, why dont you come and join us on safari and you can get a first-hand experience of what we offer and what we are like 😉

    Thanks again for commenting, and I look forward to seeing you more on the blog!

  3. Jim Robertson

    Penny: Thanks for replying as well.

    With your, and Gerry’s, further backgrounders, the missing information was nicely filled in.

    I appreciate the time and effort it takes to do the blogs, but they certainly enrich, and entice, the readers.

    Keep up the good work !

  4. Kalin Botev

    Hey guys,
    as one of the guests who witnessed the interaction between lions and rhinos, I must say that it was an amazing experience, although distance did not allow us to take proper images. Nature is always unpredictable and I think this is half the fun of wildlife photography. I try to enjoy every moment when I am out there and if I’m not able to take the shots I think I wont, I just try to learn – animal behavior, better photography spots, not to mention the pure joy of being there. This event helped us to predict the lion hunt on the next day and take some nice shots. And one more thing – it taught us that patience always pays.
    Many thanks to the whole WildEye team for this amazing journey. Looking forward to our next trip!
    Kalin

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