Africa. Something in all of us seems to call us there. The beginning of humans, the last wild refuge for animals, our shared colonial heritage. For most of us it is the adventure of lifetime. For photographers, it’s the destination of a lifetime. There’s a little National Geographic presence in all of us who go there. Most of us have only explored the continent by proxy, whether it be by the Discovery Channel, or Britannica. We all urn for a time when we get to experience this place with our own senses, and perchance take a memory or two back home with us. Sharing this experience is our goal at Aperture Academy. Our professional photographers, naturalists and guides strive to make our trip to this fascinating continent, the trip of a lifetime. This time, we sought adventure in Tanzania.
Day One – Travel on Airplanes
The continent of Africa is half a world away. Nearly 10,000 miles from the west coast of the United States, as the crow flies. That’s quite a ways to go for adventure, and even with modern transportation, it takes more than 30 hours from doorstep to hotel. What does one pack for such a journey? For a two week journey, there’s everything but the kitchen sink in our packs, and that’s not even counting the camera gear. Thankfully, Stephen and I were already in country wrapping up our previous trip across Tanzania. So at least we wouldn’t have to bear the brunt of airline travel until the conclusion of this one. For most of our clients though, they would be spending the next day in an airliner.
After all the travel, it’s really nice to be able to call somewhere home to lay your head and clean your feet. Arusha lies in the shadow of Mount Meru, often mistaken for Kilimanjaro, which lies 43 miles to the east. The climate in Arusha is not that dissimilar from the rainforests of Central America. Humid breezes blow gently while occasional rain spouts drench the countryside. Our guests arrived in Arusha and the run of the Lake Duluti Lodge, which is an amazing resort of mixed bungalows nestled between coffee and corn plantations by the quiet shores of Lake Duluti. Rest and relaxation was our goal for the guests after their long travels. The next day, the real work would begin.
Day Three – The Maasai at Ngorongoro
We woke to the birds chirping and gentle rain falling on the broad leaves in our bungalow. Morning breakfast was exemplary, and Stephen and I greeted our now complete compliment of guests over coffee. We highlighted our itinerary, met our guides, and joined them in our safari vehicles for a drive though the bustling town of Arusha, and into the countryside for our first stop; The Ngorongoro Crater. Although our first full game drives in the crater wouldn’t begin until the next day, we couldn’t resist warming up the camera gear along the beautiful drive outside the rim of the crater to a local Maasai village. The Maasai people are some of original inhabitants of the lower Nile valley and began migrating south as far back as the 15th century. Their pastoral culture has been mostly preserved and they gladly shared their customs with us in their family village. These village visits are always a quiet pleasure for me, as I admire their heritage and welcome a peek inside the daily life of such a beautiful people. Our group had a tremendous time too, as we happily blended with them in dance and song. You can’t beat the photo opportunities either, as this village was eager help our shutters sing, and the images and experiences they helped share, were extraordinary.
After a long night, the cool mountain air was a refreshing touch to wake up to, and the mountain rim of the great crater was covered in a thick layer of fog. As our vehicles made the journey down the steep hills into the crater, its full glory came into view and we could see the amazement in our groups eyes as they finally were able to see Ngorongoro unmasked. Our attention was diverted almost immediately though as a lioness and her two cubs were sitting patiently just off the road! We blazed though the photos and momma and young played around the muddy slopes of hill not 10 yards from our vehicles. Was this an omen of things to come? For nearly an hour we sat shooting the trio before the mother grabbed her kill and hid it in the bushes just out view. And onward we pressed. Like kids in a candy store, every animal was new, and around every corner, was a new opportunity for joy and amazement. We photographed thousands of flamingoes who had journeyed to the alkaline lake of Magadi. After our lunch break, heading back down into the crater we spotted a rare caracal, one of the most elusive smaller cats, hunting just by the road! But the day didn’t end there, as we managed to find elephants, buffalo, some more lions, and even two black rhinoceros! That’s four of the big five, in less than a days work. The crater was a bountiful harvest!
Today we had to say goodbye to the crater, and trudge on towards the Serengeti. With our spirits high, we loaded into our safari cruisers and headed west, to the savannah. After a little over an hours’ drive, we stopped at the first marker of the Serengeti for a group shot and some candid travel photos, we popped the tops on our cruisers and began a game drive toward our next accommodation on the shores of Lake Masek. This is probably Stephen and I’s favorite camp. The “tents” are lifted off the ground, with hardwood floors, multiple rooms, and even a shower outside (which I took advantage of every night under the stars). Lake Masek is awesome. We were permitted to drive off-road there on the border of the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which makes finding and photographing the wildlife much more enjoyable. After a fabulous lunch, we headed out into the dusty plains, and didn’t have to wait long before we had our first cheetah sighting and it was amazing. Any time you get to see wildlife in their natural habitat is tremendous, don’t get me wrong, but when you get to witness wildlife like a cheetah hunting, in the flesh, whoa baby, that is special. Although this mother cat didn’t succeed in finding a meal, she succeeded in giving us a show worthy of a NatGeo special!
Riding high from the last days encounter we set out to find that mother cheetah and her cub. In the same area we found her the day before, we witnessed another amazing sight worthy of a nature channel special. A mated pair of golden jackals were getting harassed by the local troupe of vultures, now that’s nothing Stephen and I hadn’t seen before. But what really made us swoon, was when one of the jackals began attacking a vulture, right in front of my cruiser! All the cameras in my car were singing at the sight of this bold action. The moment was a fleeting as it was exciting, and as the two jackals pressed on, we did the same. After seeing a very curious hyena sniff at our vehicle for what seemed like an eternity, we had our bush breakfast and commiserated on the morning’s events. After lunch, things calmed down a tad, so we returned to the marshy area where the previous group had photographed s small pride of lions. We hit another bull’s-eye. Just by happenstance, we were driving by a rather large bush when I spotted to female lions lazing about. We stopped and to our surprise we spotted one more adult female and three cubs in the depths of a hollow in the bush. We waited there for a while until the cubs exited and crossed the road with mother and her sisters. Then to our amazement, one of the lionesses pulled another two cubs from the reeds in the marsh. As we adjusted our position, we were able to photograph the whole family interaction! As if that wasn’t enough, there were also two male lions nearby, who made excellent subjects before we had to retreat back to our lodge! It was a monster cat day!
It was hard to leave the area. Every day spent here was fruitful, every day we had seen something amazing, but today we had to press further north. In the morning, after packing up our belongings we game drove up to Naabi Hill, which is the sight of the official entrance to the Serengeti. We stopped there to grab a quick refreshment, and climb the hill to survey the flat expanse of the African savannah. We saw a herd of elephants, laughed as we watched the mating rituals of the rock agama (who seems to do pushups on the rocks as he threatens other males) and took the last look of the mountainous range near the Ngorongoro Crater. On our way to the next camp, Naona Moru, we stopped to photograph some lions lazing in the treetops. This spectacular sight went on for the better part of half an hour, as our vehicles all jockeyed for position while the lions slept and then woke to amuse in our actions. Naona Moru is deep in the central part of the Serengeti. Nestled between two hilly ranges, the wooded area of this camp feels the most remote and peaceful. Each “tent” is outfitted with the usual heavy furniture, and really exudes (at least to me) that Victorian Safari feel that I think of when I dream of Africa. As the rains came, Stephen and I thought it best to skip our afternoon game drive in favor of some post processing. The pace with which we had been going felt epic, and a break to actually look at and admire our photos, was well worth the afternoon.
In the morning, a fog set in again, making the area near our camp feel like a dream as we exited and started our game drive. We didn’t have to travel far before we found two male lions gorging on a wildebeest they had presumably killed hours before. We caught up with them as they were nearing thr end of their feast. The vultures, buzzards and eagles had zoned in on the kill, as well as two pesky hyenas, whom the lions chased away before they retreated to nearby creek to drink. As the vultures swooped in, a feeding frenzy broke out and we were able to catch whole affair! After breakfast on a small hill overlooking another beautiful 360 degree vista, luck shone on us again as we were able to find another lioness mid-hunt! Today wasn’t her day though as a pair of hyenas ruined her chances to stealthily catch some waiting zebra. But we were able to fire off a fair bit of photos as she crossed the road right in front of us. Just before retreating to our camp we made our first leopard sighting! A gorgeous specimen lazing in the midday heat atop a branch in a tree. The light wasn’t in our favor, so we waited for bit but with no signs of her moving we called it a morning and returned to camp. In the afternoon fortune smiled again as we caught another leopard resting atop a kopje! This time the light was in our favor and she was much closer, so we took advantage and popped of a run of photos before she marked her territory and slinked off into the trees. How could we keep this pace up?
A kopje is a rocky hill amidst the flat savannah. They were formed when magma deep below the earth welled up and then cooled slowly beneath the surface to form solid granite. Over eons, the topsoil eroded away to reveal these structures, as individual bastions over the flat expanse of the African plain. The kopjes are favorite places of cats like leopards, and lions. This morning’s mission was to return to these areas in the hopes of finding more big predators. After a small hiccup in with one of our vehicles electrical system, we managed to make it out to one of these kopjes and spot yet another small group of lions. A female sat perched atop one and greeted us with fantastic looks for half an hour before we realized there were two spotted eagle owls in the tree directly overhead! It was at that point that I began to seriously question our luck! We had been so fortunate to find even the one lion, but to then have the opportunity to photograph two owls – in the daytime no less – was simply amazing! To that end, as we made our way back to Naona Moru we happened upon two cheetahs hunting! Okay, now it was getting silly. The leopards we saw the day before, the lions from earlier and now two cheetahs? I don’t know how you can top that. Stephen agreed, and over a late lunch we informed the group that instead of heading out again so quickly, since we had come back to camp so late and full of images, that our afternoon game drive would be optional and that another round of post processing would commence just before dinner. A couple of our group decided to maximize their time out in the bush, so while I went with them, and we managed to witness a baby elephant and his family, Stephen stayed back with the rest of the group and helped to enlighten them with some processing techniques and image review.
Everyone was riding high as we said farewell to Naona and began another lengthy drive further north to the ends of Tanzania. On our way in the mornings drive, we came across another pair of lions and managed to capture them as they crossed a short creek on their way to better hunting grounds. It was an awesome way for the central Serengeti to wish us goodbye! So we battened down the hatches and made great time through the open plains and wooded areas up north, stopping only a few a times to marvel at the great migration of wildebeest and zebra, as they were making the same, although much more arduous journey. Our last camp, KasKaz, was only a few miles from the Kenyan border and the landscape up there is more akin to what my mind’s eye sees when I think of Africa. Open plains, gentle rolling hills, and lone acacia trees dotting the landscape. It’s the perfect place for that quintessential sunset shot of pink skies with a silhouette of an acacia. Our accommodations at KasKaz have no equal. The staff there provide an amazing experience for all and the views outside the tents are to die for. Its hard leaving that camp for anything as it’s where my heart wants to be. Our afternoon game drive was not as exciting as some of our others, and even though we had an amazing experience with a band of elephants for nearly an hour, I could feel the whole trip slowly winding down and found myself wandering off in thought as we watched the landscape and wildlife. On our way back to camp we settled on the perfect tree to shoot the sunset colors behind. It was the perfect way to end an already amazing day of shooting.
Morning. Our last full day in the Serengeti. And it seemed our luck had not run out. Just after leaving the confines of our camp we were greeted by a somewhat surprised male lion. We stayed with him until just after the dawns light came over the savannah. Epic. We drove around some of the northern kopjes and photographed some birds, hyrax and topi, before setting off to another open area with a higher population of herbivorous herds. We stopped briefly at one of the many border stones delineating the boundary between Tanzania and Kenya. We all got out and stretched our legs as the thought of leaving this amazing places crept closer into mind. On our way back to camp we caught up with yet another cheetah and followed her on a short journey through what we thought would be a hunt, but it turned out she was looking for shade rather than a meal and conked out under the coolness of an acacia. We figured we had better do the same since it was now afternoon and getting hotter. We had another amazing lunch from our hosts at KasKaz and went out again in the late afternoon for another game drive. When we returned to camp, our hosts had prepared a farewell party for us in a clearing with an amazing view the surrounding landscape. As we were treated to their singing and dancing, we enjoyed some champagne and snacks while watching the sunset off in the distance. Our generous hosts made it exceptionally hard to come to terms with the fleeting time left on our journey. We spent the evening with our new friends, our Tanzanian guides, as we ate dinner with them and conversed about the adventures we all had shared in their company.
After all the amazing things we had seen on this trip, it wasn’t hard to understand why only a few of our group wished to take advantage of the one last morning game drive for our time in Tanzania. I think everyone was content in their accomplishments of seeing and photographing on this whirlwind of an adventure to the Serengeti. Those that went on the morning drive – myself included – were trying desperately to grasp onto whatever time we had left out in the wilderness. And although the only thing of note that we found was the moonset, we would have taken just the drive itself, to soak up whatever we could with the fleeting moments we had left. Our trip wasn’t over just yet though, as we still had a charter flight back to Arusha, which went off without a hitch (this time). And Stephen and I thought it best to use the extra time we had to visit the Cultural Heritage Center in Arusha, for some last minute shopping. This place is the best by far to go for all your African trinket needs. We got more than few items to say the least. Stephen and I had even had procure boxes to fit everything in! We made our way back to the Duluti Lodge and got everything packed up. We had one last meal with everyone, said goodbye to our hosts and made our way to the Kilimanjaro airport for the long goodbye home. I hate goodbyes. It’s also very hard leaving a place that you feel a connection to.
I will cherish my time in Tanzania. We made new friends, had a wonderful adventure in a country half-way around the world, took some amazing pictures and created some amazing memories. We hope you all had the trip of a lifetime. And we hope we can bring you another adventure here in the future.
Until next time,
Scott, Stephen and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
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