On safariPosted: November 2022
I have been stung by Africa. And by that I don't mean those hundreds of tsetse flies that terrorised every uncovered body part over the course of many weeks of lion sightings or when I spend months in the middle of herds of thousands of wildebeest. I’m talking about my recurring passion to organise yet another safari to the place that keeps me forever hooked: the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania, East Africa.
An area that includes Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, the protected area around it and part of the Maasai Mara in Kenya. It covers about 37,500 square kilometres, making it almost as large as the Netherlands.
The Serengeti is undeniably the most famous animal sanctuary in the world and unrivalled in its natural beauty. It is home to the largest concentration of wildlife in Africa, providing the stage to the greatest phenomena known to the natural world.
Its famous migration sees herds of up to 1.5 million wildebeest, countless zebra, and Thompson gazelles taking their hazardous journey in a grazing pattern. Through the Serengeti they weave, in a seemingly endless queue of mammals seeking out luscious grasslands.
Thunderous hooves plough through the magnificent, sculptured landscape of rolling plains, acacia-scattered savannahs and woodlands, interspersed with breath-taking rock formations, to create one of the most incredible wonders of the world.
Golden-maned lion prides feast on the abundance of plain grazers. Solitary leopards haunt the acacia trees lining the Seronera River, while a throng of cheetahs prowls the south-eastern plains.
My early morning game drives start just before sunrise. One is woken up by a cup of steaming hot coffee or tea, and biscuits, followed by a voyage through a magical African sunrise.
As the sun climbs, we are out on the savannah, inhaling the scent of dewy golden grasses and allowing the scenery to seep in through its amazing landscape and wildlife. This time provides the best chance to see animals in motion - as the sun comes up - before the heat of the day drives them to shade.
This is generally the best time to spot the wildlife, as the temperature is cool and the animals are still very active, including the big cats, which will be returning from a night of hunting.
It is an excellent opportunity to see elephants going for an early morning drink and catch a hippo returning to its pool. Many of the animals will be making their way to water holes or rivers for their first refreshment of the day.
Around 8.30am the most beautiful light has gone. Temperatures start to rise. This is the perfect moment to enjoy breakfast in the bush under the shade of an acacia tree.
In the Serengeti, the short rains from November to December are the first to break the grip of the dry season. These rains are unpredictable and are unlikely to interfere with the safari. The long rains then follow, from March to May. They produce the highest rainfall months, transforming the landscape into emerald glory. This period has been dubbed the ‘green season’.
Sometimes the rains fuse into one extended period, particularly in the north. Or the short rains may fail entirely, especially in the southeast of the Serengeti.
Should you ever be ambushed by an unexpected ‘downpour’, the savannah can be flooded in no time.
One day one February, Marleen and I got stuck. We had to wait until evening before the water subsided and we were able distinguish the paths and roads again.
Driving without the ability to see the surface is way too risky. You might land in a ditch or get trapped in an animal's burrow, resulting in wheel-bearing damage, suspension or axle problems and steering issues.
As with early morning, the evening game drive is another prime time to see wildlife. It provides perfect light conditions to capture stunning photos. Predatory animals begin to stir from their heat-of-the-day slumber, and similarly, their prey become more active and alert as darkness falls.
First a sundowner - the sound of ice clinking in a cold gin-and-tonic. A daily ritual to toast the passing of the sun’s light and the advent of the evening fire.
After an extensive bush-dinner, a cosy campfire has become one of the most potent symbols of human life in the African wilderness. The dawning of a yellow flame and black soot shooting upwards against the pink tinge of a sunset are palpable signs that the long, hot day is over and the time for relaxation has begun.
Nestled together on a canvas seat, all toasty and warm from the flickering flames, we enjoy an excellent glass of champagne and a cigar. The song of crickets accompany us, as does the distant roar or grunt of a lion; the sudden rush of hooves as zebra or antelope flee; the howling of jackals; the menacing cough of a leopard defending its kill from hyena; a shrill cry from a bush-baby. Safari stories fly around as the moon rises over the surrounding plains and night creatures rustle in the grass.
Special moments like this keep me returning to the African bush ...
Out in the bush
Most of my animal portraits were taken from a four-wheel drive.
During a month-long safari, sometimes it’s just the two of us in a Land Rover.
Marleen is an excellent driver, and is comfortable with going off-road. It allows me to concentrate on taking photos and not waste time positioning the vehicle at the perfect angle for the ideal composition.
Another benefit to travelling together is that we get to fully enjoy our breakfasts, lunches and breaks in each other’s company. There is nothing more romantic than spending time as a couple in the bush, enjoying the miraculous, impressive, far-reaching views.
Around noon, the sun is at its highest and the earth vibrates with a heat pronouncing that there’s no sign of life even among the galleries of tall trees lining the river. The silence of the African afternoon is oppressive and soporific. At such times, we enjoy a cold glass of wine, reflect on the encounters we’ve had during the morning, have wonderful conversations, and take notes.
And while we wait, the sun wearily descends towards the horizon and the colours of the wild are illuminated in contrast with the pale glow of the afternoon sun. Then we move on again, looking for new encounters with the big cats.
Sometimes we hire a safari specialist who provides us a four-wheel drive with driver-guide. The advantage of working with driver-guides is their incredible handling of their vehicles in often ungodly road conditions, not to mention their off-road driving skills. And, they usually have excellent knowledge of the vast area.
They are also connected to each other via radio. That means you can drive to a specific spot where all the action is taking place.
On several occasions, I’ve approached animals on foot – practically always accompanied by an armed game ranger or tracker.
Getting yourself out into the African bush is so incredibly exhilarating! In the words of American writer Peter Matthiessen, "On foot, the heartbeat of Africa comes through your boot."
In a way, it gives me a sense of returning to our roots. After all, the footsteps of the very first hominids were set on East African soil. Our senses and minds evolved to survive on these very plains.
The smells, sounds and sights of this rugged region are deeply rooted in our collective reptilian memory, recalling an era when human curiosity and adaptability allowed our ancestors to move safely here.
You feel the connection with the first safari pioneers who travelled to Africa without the comforts of planes and roads, who hiked their way through this rugged landscape. Their skills and survival techniques, along with those of their guides, kept them alive and brought them up close to the animals they had travelled such great distances to see.
Trekking around means you can reach places inaccessible to vehicles. Riverbeds, deep gorges, and high ridges. You can study Africa up close, and make fascinating discoveries, such as life inside a termite mound. Such discoveries are just as enthralling as laying your eyes on the big game.
Only with years of experience, knowledge and exceptional observation skills can you approach a wild animal on foot. These are skills you can never learn from a book, as they take practice and you must gradually master them.
Moving silently along paths strewn with stones, twigs and dead leaves is an exercise in concentration and balance, while at the same time you must keep your eyes, ears and nose alert to the presence of game in the immediate vicinity. All this gives a tremendous adrenaline kick!
When certain areas are too remote, and it would take us too much time to drive, we use fly-in safaris.
Over the course of my many stays in the bush I have experienced different thrilling moments.
In the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania I was taking footage of an elephant bull in heat. The animal charged without any warning!
The terrain was swampy, and my driver struggled to shift the Land Rover forward in the mud.
The elephant was persistent and chased us for hundreds of metres through the crater!
Several times his tusks made contact with the back of the vehicle.
One evening I was cleaning my cameras whilst sitting outside my tent at the edge of Lake Baringo in Kenya, when a hippo suddenly appeared in the darkness; it then proceeded to blunder through my camp, trampling everything in its way.
And then there was the time while photographing a klipspringer in the Serengeti in Tanzania on foot, that I found myself standing practically face to face with a male lion. I was accompanied by a game ranger who – insisting that there would be no lions at that site at that particular time of year – had decided not to bring his rifle with him on our outing.
During my stay in Amboseli, Kenya, I was accompanied by a tracker who was also the cook. The good man had fresh pineapples swinging around the kitchen tent. During the night, the tent was ransacked by an elephant in search of … fresh pineapples.
On the shore of the Mara river in the Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya during a hippo photoshoot, I was attacked by a Nile crocodile! A game keeper dragged me away just in time – thankfully he had seen the danger coming.
During a stay in Samburu, Kenya, I was charged by a mature male baboon when a younger baboon close by suddenly started shrieking wildly. Perfectly timed, a Samburu askari intervened, and chased the animal away.
While I was doing a lion shoot in Nakuru, Kenya, my driver accidentally drove into a branch, making an entire bee’s nest fall through the Land Rover’s open roof. I couldn’t leave the vehicle … because of the lions lounging right next to it. A swarm of angry bees buzzed around my head. For a long time after that encounter I was still removing stings.
I was once woken up during the night in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya by a hyena trying to get inside my tent.
During a lion shoot in the Serengeti, I was standing in an open topped Land Rover with the boiling hot sun beating down on me. I was literally covered in hundreds of tsetse flies whilst trying to capture a specific composition of two male lions; I soldiered on for five hours, until I finally got the shot I had been waiting for.
In Manyara, in Tanzania, I got too close for comfort to a gigantic elephant bull.
Before I knew it the bull turned to face me. As he raised his head I could see (from awfully close range) the dark wet tear trail that ran from his tiny eye across his dry, wrinkled cheek. In fact, I was completely exposed at the rear of an open-top Land Rover. And apart from my driver - who gestured that he couldn’t start the engine without startling the animal and ducked uncomfortably into his cabin - I was the only person standing in the open vehicle.
The bull raised his trunk. The rubbery fleshy fingers at the tip flexed to sniff, searching for my scent. In doing so, he moved his body a metre forward. The giant was so close that I could have touched his forehead.
I felt my heart pound at my throat. Like a dancing cobra, the trunk snaked towards me and rested on the heavy telephoto lens attached to the camera lying idly before me.
Insane scenarios raced through my mind. I stood as if nailed to the spot, barely daring to breathe. For the slightest sound could be enough to spook that powerful trunk and send me reeling - or worse!
After what seemed like an eternity, he turned around and ambled off in the other direction.