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The fall months in eastern Africa provide some of the most amazing wildlife experiences on the planet. Among the most memorable is the annual wildebeest migration. At this time of year, this incredible natural event is in full swing as millions of wildebeest make their way north in search of food, traveling relentlessly from the Tanzania Serengeti plains all the way to the Kenya Masai Mara.
Side by side with the wildebeest, the zebra's numbers are no small count, with roughly 250,000 sharing in this migratorial journey. This massive migration of grazing animals is something to be witnessed — especially when tens of thousands of them cross the Mara river at one time. It truly is a once in a lifetime experience, and this is the very reason we plan our wildlife photography workshops every year to eastern Africa.
On our first full day in Kenya, all our guests arrived into Nairobi smoothly for a good night's sleep before orientation the next morning. We spent about an hour going over the details of the trip, answering questions and getting to know one another. We then departed for the two-hour drive to Lake Nakuru, taking us north through the famous Rift Valley and up and over the hillsides covered in coffee and tea plantations that Kenya is famous for.
Once we arrived at Lake Nakuru, we checked into our rooms, grabbed some lunch and then it was out for our first game drive. The lake was much higher than normal, due to recent heavy rains, and the weather was perfect, about 70 degrees, partly cloudy -- you couldn't have asked for a better day to kick off this workshop.
Right after leaving the lodge, we found a few rhinos eating near the lake's edge, along with dozens of species of birds. An absolutely perfect start to what turned out to be a great beginning of our African adventure.
The next morning, our game drive started at 6am to allow us to be out in the field as the sun came up. We came upon a troop of baboons with several babies. Some of the younger baboons jumped up on the hood of our 4x4 Land Cruiser, and a few of the mothers carried their very young on their stomaches and back, making for some great photo ops.
Later that morning, after our field breakfast (breakfast box!!), we came upon a female Rothchild giraffe that had just given birth. The baby giraffe was only a few hours old and barely able to walk, but doing its best to make its way. A large male giraffe, we suspect not the father, was knocking the baby down in an attempt to separate mother and calf for mating reasons. The good news is, baby was strong and was able to get back up each time and get away with its mother to safety.
That night, just as the light was fading, we came across two beautiful male lions walking across a large field of grass. As we moved into position, they walked right toward us, providing us with fantastic head-on photos of them as they slowly made their way. Very exciting, and it was the perfect way to end a great day!
Our last morning game drive at Lake Nakuru did not disappoint! We were able to see and photograph many other species, such as waterbuck and massive herds of water buffalo. With a face only a mother could love, the water buffalo's sheer numbers were impressive.
From our game drive we went to the dirt airstrip for our bush plane flight to the Masai Mara. The flight was very smooth and the weather perfect as we landed at the Serena air strip and then drove to the Serena lodge, where we spent the next three nights and got many remarkable photo opportunities and enjoyed the experience of a lifetime.
The action continued in the Masai Mara as the next three days brought us to witness two large wildebeest crossings of the Mara river, as well as cheetahs hunting, a mother lion with cubs, and hyenas on a carcass. Seeing 10,000 or more wildebeest crossing the Mara river all at once is an amazing and incredible sight, and sound, to behold. To see it once is a real treat, but to see two crossings in two days can mean only one thing...our timing was excellent! And maybe there was a little luck involved, too.
From the Serena Lodge we made our way to the other side of the Mara river and checked into our tent camp for our last two nights. Once on the other side of the river, the amount of wildebeest and zebra was even more... and left us all in awe of their sheer numbers.
Our first day at tent camp, one of our guests opted for a hot air balloon ride, where he proceeded to capture some great images of the sunrise and a special treat, a mother lion with cubs in the center of some large bushes. From the balloon he was able to get some amazing images, and then once the balloon landed, we were treated to a gourmet breakfast in the field. How does it get better than that?
The rest of our group saw a variety of animals and continued to work on their photography skills and education as subject matter presented itself. Later that afternoon, we visited a Masai village where we met the locals and learned from them how to make fire and about their way of life.
The chief and his son gave us a tour of their mud and dung homes, called Bombas, and the women and children accepted gifts of clothing, shoes and school supplies brought by our guests.
On our way back to tent camp, we spotted a hyena den with babies that provided some great photo opportunities in nice light. We couldn't have been more pleased at such a terrific subject to photograph, just as the day was coming to an end.
Our last game drive in the Masai Mara ended on a great, and very exciting, note -- we found a leopard in a tree with a zebra kill, and while it was difficult to capture clear images, it was amazing to witness the elusive cat in the wild, in his natural habitat.
From our last camp, we drove to the airstrip, where we caught our bush plane back to Nairobi. With many happy, yet sad, good-byes, and very full memory cards, most of our guests departed for the Nairobi airport, for their return flights home. We were happy to continue our adventures with a few of our remaining workshop guests, who joined Scott and myself for our extension trip to Samburu National Reserve (five hours north of Nairobi).
4-Day Samburu Extension
With a good night's sleep at the Fairview Hotel in Nairobi, we took a short bush plane flight and landed at the dirt air strip in Samburu National Preserve. Samburu is home to large elephant populations and is also famous for the "Special Five," five species of animals unique to the Samburu region: The gerenuk, Grevy's zebra, oryx, Samali ostrich, and the reticulated giraffe.
We arrived at our tent camp around noon and checked in. As we started to settle in, we discovered that just outside our tent, along the river, was a large male elephant eating branches from an Acacia tree. He was literally 30 feet away, and we sat and watched him eat for about 20 minutes. It was a really great experience!
On our first Samburu afternoon game drive we were excited to be able to see all of the Special Five. While we checked the sightings off our list, only some gave us good face angles...so the hunt continued for better light and more subject matter. Just as the sun was setting we came across a leopard high in a tree and were able to get some quick images before our light faded.
Our second and third days allowed us close proximity to large numbers of elephants, and the highlight of the Samburu trip for me was an elephant crossing of approximately 20 elephants. They crossed the Samburu river in a beautiful, single file line. It was an amazing moment, one I'll never forget.
Beyond the elephants, we were able to locate and photograph a female cheetah with two older cubs. We came upon them just after a failed hunt on our last afternoon game drive. Definitely some great moments that day!
The elephants continued to offer up more surprises. Around 3:30am, Scott and I awoke to a large elephant just outside our tent. Our new large friend walked into the electric fence that was beside our tent screen door. When he felt it, he suddenly turned to run... right toward us! We both were half out of our beds, deciding if we should run or not in case the elephant came charging through. Luckily, after a few tense seconds, the elephant slowly walked past and on his way.
The next morning after a short early game drive, we made our way to the Samburu air strip and caught our bush plane back to Nairobi. We made our way to a great Brazilian restaurant where Scott and Phil, one of our Samburu guests, proceeded to have a meat eating contest. Witness to the carnage were two other guests who were both vegetarians. It was quite a meal, to say the least!
Everyone had a good laugh before we said our final good-byes and our Samburu guests headed to the airport for their return flight home. Scott and I left to connect to our own flight to Tanzania for our 2nd Aperture Academy Africa Safari workshop. We certainly were not ready to leave Africa yet!
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