A group of 12 photographers from all over the US boarded flights for Nairobi Africa. Several lucky folks took the opportunity to have extended layovers, to spend time in some fabulous destinations, such as Amsterdam and London. Pro photographer and instructor Ellie Stone along with Stephen Oachs, the Aperture Academy Founder and Pro Photography instructor, were among the 12 headed for Kenya Africa. Just out side the baggage claim we were greeted by the smiling faces of our drivers and guides.
The awesome African ground crew loaded up our baggage and we were off to the Fairview lodge for the night. The grounds are like an oasis within the hustle and bustle of Nairobi. With a little help from some sleep aids, we were able to catch some quality Zzz's.
Fresh as daisies, we brought all of our baggage down to the front lobby and enjoyed a delicious breakfast before officially welcoming our group over orientation. Stephen and I wanted to get to know everyone, their skill level, and expectations for the amazing days ahead. There were a few familiar faces, but also some bright and cheery new faces as well. After we got to know everyone, Stephen gave the run-down for the next couple days, including vehicle etiquette and wildlife tips and tricks. After getting to know one another we all loaded into our appointed safari vehicles and started the 3 hour trek to Lake Nakuru and the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge. After checking into our rooms and a quick lunch, everyone was very excited to begin our first game drive. Right off the bat we had some lovely grey crowned cranes among some wispy textured grass. the colors and textures, coupled with the beautiful backlight, made this a great start to the game drive. We broke the ice with the beautiful cranes, and the amazing animals kept coming, including Baboons, Waterbucks, African Cape Buffalo and the eloquent Rothschild Giraffes. We even saw 3 female lions hanging out in the grass, oh and Rhinos. This first game drive had many fabulous photographic opportunities, it was the perfect "get your feet wet" outing. We all recapped the great experiences over a delicious dinner, before calling it a night and getting some much needed shut-eye.
Many of us were thrilled to find hot coffee ready and waiting for our early 6:00am meet up time. After a quick cup, we hoped in our safari vehicles and headed back into the jungle. Right away we noticed a group of cape buffalo running, followed by a waterbuck. We wondered, what are they running from? Must be something. We looked, and scanned, and looked, and scanned...to no avail. Moving on, but discussing the idea of returning shortly. Return we did, and buy we're we glad. Not only was there something, but that something was a gorgeous leopard! A healthy young female with beautiful markings. We kept up with her, as she strolled across the landscape. A truly majestic and beautiful animal. We spent upwards of an hour following and photographing her. Talk about starting the day with a bang! We had set the bar pretty darn high, right out off the gate. That's okay, we love a good challenge. We would continue on and shortly after spotting the leopard, we stumble on the females lying in the grass. Just waiting it out, and excersizing patience a short time can reap photographic benefits. The lions eventually got up and walked right by us, before crossing the street and moving on the other side of us. As if the morning couldn't get any better, we came upon 2 Rhinos in beautiful light, a mother and her offspring.
After gather some nice rhino shots we made our way to a nice little spot by a waterfall for our gourmet boxed breakfast. We sat in a circled and talked about the epic morning, and all the amazing things we had seen. On our way back to the lodge we took our time and stopped occasionally to photograph some more giraffe and even some sparring male Impalas. The males are constantly seeking dominance over other males, in order to maintain their pack of females. We got some nice shots of two young males getting their dominance challenging on. After an action packed morning we arrived back at the Lion Hill in time to clean up and prepare for a delicious lunch. There was also time for a nice siesta before our afternoon game drive.
The afternoon game drive proved to be big cat dominant once again. Starting off with a lone female lion who was very close to the road. This meant great vantage points for us. She was sleeping when we first started observing her, but we know she would be active soon, as it was getting later in the day and temps were dropping as well. It didn't take long and she started waking up a bit, and providing some nice lion portraits for us. We got word of another female lion, not too far away, and this female had several cubs. She wasn't nearly as close to the road as our previous lioness, but it was exciting to get some glances of her adorable little cubs. It was raining a bit, but not enough for us to close the roof. The rain kept the dust down and filled the air with lovely african planes smells. The light was getting lower so it was time for us to make our way back to the lodge. We were only 10 minutes from the lodge and suddenly a leopard ran in the road, right in front of us. We were pretty sure it was the same leopard from the morning. The light was pretty low, so we raised our iso's pretty high in order to capture some shots of her climbing up a downed tree. Just after we got under way, we spotted another leopard. She was drinking water not too far from the road. Those who had larger iso capabilities were able to capture her, and a nice little reflection. Truly an amazing experience. One can visit Africa for weeks and not see one leopard, and we had 3 sightings in just one day. Dinner that night was a-buzz with all big cat talk.
After a good nights sleep and a hot cup of coffee we were raring to go... on another game drive that is. The light was gorgeous this morning, as the sky lit up in various vibrant hues of orange. Another beautiful morning in Lake Nakuru was under way, and as usual the area delivered some great lion activity. After driving around for a short bit, we had been alerted that a female lion was very close to the road. We were all able to get some nice shots of her before she decide to get get up and saunter off. We did stay with her for a little while and captured some great shots of her wandering through some beautiful landscape. After gathering plenty of stellar lion images we slowly made our back to the lodge, stopping a couple of times to photograph some more of Lake Nakuru's fantastic wildlife.
Everyone brought their luggage to the front, so our drivers could hit the road to the Masai Mara. After lunch, we sat in the Bar area and went through the many images that Lake Nakuru delivered. Stephen also took the opportunity to demonstrate some post processing tips, including his preferred method in photoshop for sharpening. Then it was time to hit the road for the local airstrip, for our short plane ride to the Mara Serena airstrip. After a quick group shot in front of our private plane, we hopped on board for a smooth and scenic flight.
Vehicles from the Mara Serena Lodge were waiting to shuttle us the 10 minutes to the Amazingly beautiful Mara Serena Lodge. The lodge is located on top of a hill the looks out on the Masai Mara Game Reserve. These are some seriously gorgeous digs. The accommodations, the view, the staff, all first rate, and truly outstanding.
After a delicious lunch we got comfy in our rooms, and our much to our amazement our bags quickly showed up at our door. We did not expect the drivers to make the long trek from Lake Nakuru to the Mara, so quickly. We are pretty sure it was a record. Everyone met in the lobby area to depart on a first Mara game drive. The lion vibe was still with us, as we found a couple of opportunities to photograph lions. The first was a healthy lone female. Next we found an awesome group of females and playful cubs. A joy to watch and even more fun to photograph. It was clear to see that the Mara was going to deliver and everyone was excited for the next full day to experience this beautiful landscape, full of awesome African wildlife.
After a long day oaf game driving, nothings better then an ice cold Tusker beer. We all gathered in the bar area and partook in our first group Tusker. After we talked about the next day and finished our cold beers, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner.
Today was our first full day in the Mara. After a hot cup of coffee, everyone piled in to their respective safari vehicle for an early morning departure. We were well into the game reserve when the sun was cresting the horizon. We stumbled upon a lovely little Acacia tree and grabbed some quintessential African Sunrise images. Very close to our perfect little Acacia specimen, there were a couple of vehicles parked. We remembered seeing a couple of Hyenas as we passed. Turns out the Hyenas were after some tiny jackal pups. There was a small group of black backed jackals protecting 4 tiny little pups. We were giddy to see these tiny little cuties, and the interaction they had with mom. We observed and photographed them for a We searched the savanna for our next wildlife opportunity. We stumbled upon a large pride of lions actively feeding on that nights prey. If it wasn't for the black and white remnants it would have been difficult t discern exactly what lie before them. Everyone got their fill of shots, while the lions got their fill of zebra.
Next we were hot on the trail of some pachyderms. They are so large they're pretty hard to miss. It didn't take us long to locate some. It was a really nice herd with several babies. We observed them as they traversed the land and ended up coming right towards us, which made for some spectacular images.
After a busy morning of shooting some bellies were rumbling... our bellies. Our drivers found a nice Acacia tree, aka "breakfast tree", and we enjoyed our plentiful breakfast boxes, along with some hot coffee and tea. It doesn't get any better then that -- a delicious meal out on the savanna!
After breakfast it was time to get back out and find some action. Well action is just what we found, lion mating action to be precise. A courting pair of lions, otherwise referred to as the honeymooners. Lions will mate every 15-20 minutes for about a week, without eating. The pair are quite week when the mating period is over. We were lucky to have a young couple on hand and most likely early into their mating period. They moved around quite a bit in between mating, and interacted so playfully together. Of course those playful interactions made for some stellar images. After we felt like we have intruded enough on their honeymoon we made our way for only about 5 minutes and stumble on a female and her cub. Observations revealed a wildebeest kill nearby. The lioness and her cub had probably been feeding for over a day, as they seemed pretty lethargic After spending a little time photographing them we hit the road for home. Seeing all the sleeping wildlife, was making us a little sleepy too. Time to head back for some lunch and a nap.
Due to the large amounts of Wildebeest on the plains above the Mara river, it was likely there would be a crossing. The wildebeest and Zebra will cross the Mara river to seek out better grazing. It's the classic, "the grass is always greener". While it might not be that much greener, it definitely is taller. There were quite a few Zebra and they wanted to make the first move. A large group of Zebra began to cross, so the wildebeest thought this might be a good idea, so they began to cross as well. Suddenly we all noticed a large crocodile in the water. This is the animals worst fear. That crock is hungry and he would love a Zebra or Wildebeest for dinner. The action was intense, and anxiety filled, as well all routed for the animals to escape the jaws of the crock. He almost had a zebra, it was so close, it was hard to believe the zebra got away. Then a wildebeest baby jumped off the head of the crock, also narrowly escaping the immense jaws. It truly was an epic crossing. Everyone got some amazing shots and fantastic video as well.
That evening we all reminisced over an ice cold tuskers, about the amazing event which we had just witnessed.
Today we would be making our way out of the park for a Masai village visit. On our way to the park gate we took a little detour to photograph a group of female lions with 2 older cubs. One of the cubs had a large wound on it's hindquarters. The lions were close to the road so it made photographing them pretty easy. We spent a little time, waiting for those eye contact moments, before heading down the road. The village was not too far beyond the Masai Mara Game Reserve. The chiefs son, "Michael", welcomed us to the village and gave us a lot of information about the Masai people and their way of life. It was very interesting to find our about their culture and beliefs. After our talk with Michael he escorted us to the village. The Masai men have an amazing warrior song and dance they demonstrated for us. The man who jumps the highest during the dance is revered by the women. The men even pulled in a couple of our students, to jump with them. The Masai women have their own song and dance, and they pulled up most of the students to dance with them. After all the dancing fun, we all made our way into the village dwellings. The tribe was nice enough to show us the inside of their little houses. It's small and dark, but very comfy.
After our tour the tribe had many things available for purchase, most of which are handmade by the Masai tribe. All the money they make on selling their items is split between the tribes, and most goes to the woman who make all of the jewelry. Once all the students had made their souvenir purchases, we all gathered around the present the gifts we had brought for the village. They were all so happy to receive our gifts, as well as our leftovers from our morning breakfast box. They were very appreciative of all the gifts and let us now how important they would be to the trip and surrounding tribes as well.
After a mid-day siesta it was time to head out once again. It's always a mystery when we head out...what will we see? That's the question of the day. Giraffe would be the answer, right out of the shoots. An open meadow down by the Mara river was a serene backdrop for a large group of Giraffe. A few of them were clustered around an acacia tree. All got some sweet shots, as the Giraffe moved into a fantastic crossed neck position. Mild weather made our Savanna treks very pleasurable. As we started to make our way back towards camp there were a few really nice photographic opportunities, including some elephants. A large pride of lions was the ultimate find. The light was getting slightly limited, but pushing the iso was worth it when a couple of cubs posed on a rock looking right at the safari vehicle. The best part of this late day find was knowing we would return in the morning!
A brilliant African sunrise greeted us this fine morning. Timing is everything, and we were at the most beautiful acacia tree at just the right time, as the sun rose above the horizon. Of course we had to stop briefly and take advantage of the classic African Savanna shot.
Ranking at the top of the food chain is a good place to be, and lions seem to know it. They lay around without concern, and even a bit of kitty arrogance. Observing this large pride from the night before sure was a treat. Cubs played in the early morning golden light, making for some fantastic images. Even the stunning large male would getup from time to time, allowing us to grab some shots of the majestic pride patriarch. Watching the interaction of the cubs with each other and their mothers, was awesome. Getting images to be proud of was preverbal cherry on top! With all the amazing interaction, it was easy to spend the entire morning with the pride. Some bellies were rumbling in our group, meaning it was breakfast tree time. ON our way to the tree we found several more lions. A lovely male with a gorgeous full mane. Some female were around, as well as some young males. The group gathered around a small but thick tree. A couple of them crawled up into the tree for a cat nap. Oftentimes a male will choose one female to court. He had made is choice, so as another female tried to get in on his action, he would have no part of that. Growling started and a chase soon ensued, as he ran her out in bold fashion. A very powerful display to witness, and of course photograph. Once the excitement was over it was time to move onward to the breakfast tree.
The breakfast boxes that get packed for us are filled with many yummy items. Nothing goes to waste, as we pool together all the uneaten items to bring back. It became great fun to partake in our morning breakfast, out in the bush. A tradition that is sure to be missed.
That afternoon we would be leaving our Serena Lodge digs for some authentic african experience digs, the Ashnil tent camp. Now when you here the words "tent camp" the imagination wanders... will it be like regular camping, are there animals around? This is nothing like the camping you've probably done a time or two with the family. These tents are luxury. Woods floors, full bathrooms, with slate showers and floors. Of course the beds are comfy, and the best part is the hot water bottle they sip under your covers while you're at dinner :)
After some post processing and a quick lunch at Serena Lodge, we game drove to the Ashnil tent camp. All got settled in the their new tent digs, before we departed for an afternoon game drive.
Thus far on our travels we had seen a ton of african wildlife, although there was one that had been eluding us, the cheetah. Elude us no more, as our afternoon game drive started with a gorgeous cheetah mother with 6 tiny cubs. Talk about adorable, these cubs were the smallest we had ever seen. She was close enough to the road that we were able to grab some images of mom with the cubs all around her. For our first cheetah sighting this was well worth the wait. After a while she decided to head down the hill, with cubs in tow. There were smiling faces abound as that was the most amazing experience for everyone.
The cheetah ice was broken, as we stumbled on yet another cheetah about 10 minutes away. Beautiful and looking quite regal, this female would roll from one side to the other, which provided some fantastic eye contact for literally everyone. She was like a runway model turning to be sure all spectators captured her best side. Light was getting lower, which meant we would all turn into pumpkins, unless we got back to camp before dark.
Smiling faces and hot coffee began our last full day of the workshop. Piling into our safari vehicles, we made our way into the vast lands of the Mara. We took our time, stopping for anything that the students had not get taken a photo of, from warthogs to topi. Our main goal was to go back to our female cheetah which we had ended our previous day photographing. She had not gone too far, so she was easy to find. After spending a little time with her we drove to a nearby breakfast tree to indulge in our morning meal and more hot coffee.
Breakfast was cleaned up and we were ready to find more wildlife to photograph. Female lions are thriving in the Mara, and we found some of them right near the road, seeking shade under a small tree. Lion shots were plentiful, so we only spent a short time with them. Gentle giants, the elephants were near by as well. A mother and baby came so close to one of the vehicles they could photograph just her eyes. Amazing elephant images were definitely captured during the close encounter.
Near the elephants was a saddle-billed stork hunting in a marshy area. The stork had pulled up a huge frog. The images that some captured were stunning and as the bird tried to eat the frog, parts of his legs were hanging out of the storks bill! Just watching the event unfold was astonishing -- to photograph it was epic. Another action packed morning was in the books, as we made our way back to camp for lunch and a quick siesta.
Heading out for our afternoon game drive, we almost immediately stumbled upon a group of giraffe. It was the quintessential scene, some perfect acacia trees, picturesque and dramatic sky, and even some warthogs running in the background. A couple of baby giraffe was simply the icing on the cake. We hung around for quite a while, observing and photographing as the mom and baby interacted. Some precious moments were definitely captured.
To say that wildebeest are prolific right now would be an understatement. They are literally as far as the eye can see, it's a literal sea of wildebeest. The grass has been heavily grazed, therefore they need to cross the Mara river in order to search for those greener pastures, or literally higher grass. They gather in masses by the river, in anticipation of crossing. We had already witnessed one crossing, but the thought of seeing another appealed to all. It truly is an amazing event to witness. Oftentimes you can wait for an hour or more, to witness a crossing. It was nice that near the river we located a couple of lions, young male and a female. A group of giraffe were nearby, including some smaller stature young. A showdown ensued, as the female lion locked on to the giraffe, and they faced her, staring her down. Suddenly the fame lion ran after the giraffe. We all thought we might witness a killing. Luckily that did not happen, but the lioness did chase several times before backing away. Definitely some intense action to watch.
Hard to say of the wildebeest would cross the river, but we watched and waited. It was an off again on again play of emotions. Yes, they are going down the hill to cross now, no they are going back up. Moving to another position on the banks. Oh they'll cross here. Yes, they are starting to go, no they turned back around. Finally it was time to say goodbye to the indecisive be-wilderbeests.
Stephen and I had a little surprise in store for our wonderful group. The drivers took us up the hill to a tree. Stephen picked up a few bottles of wine to celebration our last night. All were very surprised and very happy. What a fantastic way to cap off a fantastic African Wildlife Workshop.
The special treats were not over. That evening at dinner was a very special surprise. The next day was my birthday, so Stephen arranged the african birthday celebration for me. The entire staff dances around, while signing a very catching tune, and playing interments. They even carry a torch, it's quite a spectacle and so very special. I was very touched and also very happy to have a birthday cake.. my favorite at that, chocolate! Really amazing way to cap off our last evening together, and a very special way for me to celebrate my birthday.
Our final morning together, we made our way back to the Mara river. Were they finally ready to take the plunge? It appeared that they might at some point, but we probably had some time to go back and check on the cheetah mom and her cubs. Unfortunately she was down to 5 cubs. When the cubs are so small, they are easy pray for the hyena. Mom layer on a large mound, while the cubs played all around her. There was a dry shrub that they crawled all over, it was great fun to watch. The image opportunities would prove stunning, as she looked in all directions, making eye contact with every vehicle at some point. She eventually got up and walked across the road to an adjacent field, but not before posing on a small mound, while the cubs all played with one another nearby. Can't think of a better subject to photograph, on this final morning game drive. One more awesome shot before we enjoyed our last breakfast box under the quintessential acacia tree. Stumbling on a gorgeous and majestic older male lion was truly the nicest way to end our glorious morning.
On our way back we checked one last time for a river crossing. There did end up being a small crossing which we actually got to see from outside the vehicles...a pretty exhilarating experience!
Our last afternoon was spent doing some post processing lessons and Stephen passed around his iPad with all the images he and I captured during the entire workshop. Lost of reminiscing and image sharing made tour last time together. Then, one last lunch, before we said our goodbyes and sent off our fantastic group to catch their bush plane back to Nairobi.
On behalf of Stephen, myself and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team we want to say a very big thank you for joining us and we hope to see you again on another future adventure!
Written by Ellie Stone - Asante Sana!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.