Kenya Wildlife 2012 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Sep 14, 2012

Our 2012 Kenya Wildlife tour began in Masai Mara National Reserve. With the Serengeti to the south and a number of conservancies to the north, our safari camp was centrally-located to photograph one of the greatest natural wonders in the world—the Great Migration. Wildebeest numbering 800,000 to 1,300,000 are not the only migrants. Together with 500,000 Thomson’s gazelles, 97,000 topi, 18,000 eland and 200,000 zebras, they follow the rains and green grasses from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara and back. For the wildlife photographer, this is like shooting ducks in a pond!

As we left our camp which is adjacent to the Talek River, we began to encounter the masses of animals that inhabit the grass-covered hills of the Masai Mara. The numbers are staggering—animals cover the landscape as far as the eye can see. We stopped often to photograph and, judging by the constant mechanized drone of motor drives, everyone was in their element. It’s the sound of music to a photographer—and tour leader! Exploring further from camp, our driver and guide indicated there was a cheetah ahead on one of the favorite viewing platforms—the common termite mound, used by wildlife to watch for both predators and prey. None of my previous trips to the Mara prepared me for what was about to happen next. While, occasionally, a cheetah will climb on the hood of a Land Cruiser or Land Rover for a better view than that provided by the local ant hill, this particular cheetah had developed a habit of jumping onto the back of a vehicle and up on top of the sunshade, which sits above the photographers. This provided quite a show for me and, especially, for our clients in the other Land Cruiser! After our native guide confirmed it was not a problem or, as they say in Swahili, “Hakuna matata,” we did what any true photographer would do in a similar situation—start shooting. The cheetah made a couple more forays onto the tops of our vehicles, entertaining everyone before disappearing, in typical cheetah fashion, across the open landscape. A great beginning to our safari!

During the rest of the week our vehicles, with 2 to 3 photographers each, headed into the Mara each day at sunrise in search of predators and prey. Although heavy rains and tall grass affected the annual migration, there was no shortage of animals—numbering from the tens to hundreds of thousands. After photographing for a few hours, we found a quiet place to eat our boxed breakfast, enjoying the pastoral scene from our morning retreat. After shooting our way back to camp, we arrived in time to download, freshen up, and enjoy lunch—one more like a feast than a typical light lunch. One could see the British colonial influence, as a huge selection of food and sterling service complemented every meal. If you like to eat and to photograph wildlife in style, this trip is for you! We repeated the process for our afternoon game drive, returning at sundown to sit down for an enjoyable dinner while listening to the cacophony of sounds of the African night.

During the week we photographed countless animals, from elephants to the smallest of bee-eaters. Everyone was most impressed by the predators and, on many occasions, we photographed lions, leopards, cheetah and the rarely-seen serval. Lions were never in short supply and were on major killing sprees due to the abundance of migratory animals. Although most of us did not witness a classic river crossing, some in the group had had the opportunity. “This is why they call them wildlife,” explained our local guide. But, at sundown on our last night in the Mara, the wildebeest gave us a treat just as we approached camp. A herd of 10,000 to 20,000 (a conservative estimate!) wildebeest running at full speed stampeded past our vehicles—with no apparent end to the thundering herd. I unloaded my Nikon D4 motor drive for several long bursts of 10 FPS and, at one point, had to put the camera down to watch in awe as the ground vibrated from the thundering hooves. It was a once-in-a-lifetime scene with total sensory overload and one that will be burned into my memory forever.

Our last evening in the Mara was also capped by a bush dinner. We were guided down a long dark trail illuminated by candles in paper bags. Soon we came to an opening next to the Talek River and a luxuriously-set table laden with a buffet fit for a king. The evening was highlighted by singing Maasai dancers and guitar music by Stanley, our safari guide. A moving moment for all and one enhanced by the light of an African full moon—the perfect ending to our last night in the Masai Mara.

Leaving the Mara the next morning, we passed countless villages and small towns on our way north to Lake Nakuru National Park. The park is best known for its population of one million lesser and greater flamingos, Defassa waterbucks, Rothschild’s giraffes, black and white rhinos, leopards and lions. While motoring through these small villages, one feels rather like royalty in a foreign land. Everywhere we encountered the same scenes of young children and adults waving at our convoy of off-road vehicles as we drove through. Friendly faces and photographic opportunities were on every corner—all part of our African experience.

Shortly after we reached Lake Nakuru we were greeted by a thunderous rainstorm. Prior to our arrival, typical rains had been flooding Lake Nakuru more than usual—the lake lies in a closed alkali basin—affecting the flamingo food supply and flooding many roads in the park. In addition to the logistical problems of flooded roadways, most of the flamingos had “flown the coop” to find shallower water in which to feed. Not to be outwitted by Wile E. Flamingo, we made plans for a several hours drive to Lake Bogoria where some flamingos were to be found. There, we photographed the birds adjacent to the shore until it was time to return to Lake Nakuru. During the rest of our visit to Nakuru we checked off our “shot list” of species unique to this conservation area, such as rhino, Rothschild’s giraffe and Defassa waterbuck.

Our last destination was Samburu National Reserve. Before entering the park we visited a Samburu tribal village and had an opportunity to photograph their dances and lifestyle. The traditions of the Samburu are similar to the Maasai, but they are best known for their exquisite beadwork—which, at sunset, made for some colorful photography.

Our camp in the reserve was situated on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River (or “brown river”). Surrounded by a complex of acacia, riverine forest, thorn trees and grassland vegetation, the river is the lifeline of this arid desert region. It is the habitat of three of the big cat species—cheetah, lion and leopard—along with reticulated giraffe, oryx, elephant, hippo, Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk and Kirk’s dik-dik, as well as over 350 species of birds. As we did in the other parks and reserves, we managed to photograph the major wildlife species, adding to the many gigabytes of images already taken.

This was a fantastic trip for the wildlife enthusiast and anyone interested in a classic African safari. We stayed at prime locations—with the best vehicles and the best guides in the business—for an unforgettable adventure. It was a real pleasure to lead some great people on this safari and I hope to cross paths with you all again on another fantastic journey. In the meantime, browse through some images taken on the trip—and whet your appetite for Kenya. I will return in 2013 and hope to see you there!