Kenya Wildlife 2013 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Oct 25, 2013

If you are an avid wildlife photographer and world traveler Kenya has to be at the top of your bucket list as a destination to photograph some of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles. Whenever I lead this trip I am like a kid in a candy store prior to departure—no matter how many times I have visited the country each trip is special and unique in terms of experiences and photographic opportunities.

Adventure travel can have its challenges and our first step was getting through the Nairobi Airport following the fire that destroyed the international terminal a week before our arrival. We were assured that the airport was operating. The only inconvenience was picking up our luggage which did not arrive on a conveyor belt but was instead spread out under a large tent. We were met by my good friend and guide, Henry. Our guides on this trip are truly among the best in the business—and we’ve run many Kenya tours for us to test this hypothesis! We were also fortunate to have three brand new Toyota Land Cruisers in our fleet of safari vehicles. After a day’s rest we were on our way to the legendary Masai Mara Game Reserve.

The Masai Mara needs little introduction. It is known around the world for its population of leopards, cheetahs and lions, along with the annual migration of wildebeests, Thompson’s gazelles and zebras from the Serengeti. The Great Migration occurs every year from July through October. Our beautiful camp along the Talek River is in what is considered a low density visitation area—suitable for only the most rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles—and is centrally located for ideal game viewing in an area called the Mara Triangle. For the next five days we made daily morning and evening game drives—with only 3 participants in each vehicle—into the bush to photograph the abundant wildebeests, hartebeests, impalas, zebras, Masai giraffes, elands, bushbucks, servals and all the big cats.

On our final night in the Masai Mara a special treat was prepared by the staff and our guides—dinner in the African bush. Following a glowing pathway lined with candles in paper bag luminarias we arrived at a wonderful secluded location adjacent to the Talek River. The area was lit with torches and staffed by chefs and waiters for our own private party under the stars. Great food and laughs complemented each other and the evening concert of nature’s sounds from the bush brought to closure an exceptional week of photography. We all walked back reflecting on our memorable week in the Mara.

At Lake Nakuru National Park we stayed at Lion Hill Lodge overlooking the lake. The lodge is tucked away on a hillside with commanding views of the park and has great accommodations, great food and nightly cultural shows for the guests. Lake Nakuru is known for its flocks of lesser flamingos, black and white rhino, Rothschild giraffes, Defassa waterbucks, reedbucks and Cape buffalo. We had great photographic opportunities on most species, including several chances to photograph both the white and the very elusive black rhino.

The white rhino is always easier to spot because it grazes in open areas and has different habitat requirements than the black. The more elusive black rhino is a browser and is found in much brushier habitats. Their disposition and intolerance of people is high on the scale of dangerous animals in Africa—like the Cape buffalo, black rhino just go through life with a bad attitude. Stories abound of charging rhinos that on more than one occasion punctured a vehicle with their dagger-like horn. So, with great excitement, we watched one of the black rhinos slowly making its way to our group of photographers. We held our breaths and kept exceptionally quiet as the rhino threaded its way through our vehicles only to pause for a moment to identify the noise from our clicking cameras before moving on. When I looked at everyone in the other vehicles all I saw were grins—the guides included!

The flamingos, however, were more elusive. Due to heavy rains and flooding they had moved to drier pastures to feed. Flamingos require shallow water where they feed primarily on Spirulina, a species of algae that grows only in very alkaline lakes. When water levels exceed a certain depth it affects the pH and the growth of algae—essentially altering the habitat. Since the lake is a closed basin (no outflow) unusually high levels of rainwater changed the level of the lake this year resulting in little flamingo activity.

 

Our final stop was the Samburu National Reserve. Samburu is one of the locations where conservationists George and Joy Adamson raised Elsa, the lioness made famous by the book and movie Born Free. Our camp was situated on the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River (meaning “brown” river) and surrounded by groves of doum palms—the only species of branched palm trees and unique to the area—and riverine forest. While at first glance the reserve seems arid compared with the lush Masai Mara, Samburu has an abundant wildlife population that includes its own Big Five species, including Grevy’s zebra, beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich and gerenuk. In addition, Samburu hosts a sizable “red” elephant population—the elephants roll in the reddish mud of the Ewaso Ngiro and blend perfectly with their surroundings.

One morning several of us were parked on the bank of the river waiting for the elephants to cross when one of the males, known for having an attitude, came out of the bush towards one of our safari vehicles. Peter, one of our guides and in the front vehicle, found himself between “a rock and a hard place” as his brand new Land Cruiser was sandwiched between the elephant, a cut bank on the river and our vehicle in the rear. At one point I thought the big bull was going to charge the lead vehicle as he appeared extremely irritated that someone/something was obstructing his view. We must have looked like the Keystone Cops as the two vehicles performed 5-point turns in short rapid maneuvers trying to get some distance between us and the “raging” bull. As Peter’s rig started pulling away this large bull had his trunk snuffling the rear-door mounted spare tires as if inquiring by scent who was inside. Peter made me laugh when he excitedly explained that his new Land Cruiser would have been an unfortunate and expensive incident if the elephant had “customized” his front end.

In summary, our Kenya Wildlife shoot was a memorable trip to one of the greatest places on the planet with phenomenal photographic opportunities—and with a great group of enthusiastic participants! For more visual stimulation take a look at my slide show to see what you missed. Next year my good friend Len Rue, Jr. will be leading the trip and I hope you can join him for your own African wildlife adventure.