In September 2013 I travelled to the Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya as part of a seven day photography expedition - See my Photo Gallery. It was a great excuse to take lots of photographs and practice my photography skills. My photography is normally based around shooting fighter jets and the odd bit of British wildlife so Africa was a bit of a treat and a life experience to be passed onto my kids.
The Camp and the Conservancy
We camped at Encounter Mara which is situated in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy in the South of Kenya not far from the Tanzania border. Conservancy basically means that the amount of people, vehicles and camps in that area is highly restricted and all residents have since moved out of the area under government funded schemes to protect and conserve the wildlife. Its wild, quiet and unspoiled. Camping in the heart of the conservancy meant being right there amongst the wildlife - Lions roaring outside your tent at night is a great experience and makes the whole trip that extra bit special.
Encounter Mara Camp seen from the air during the fantastic flight from Nairobi
The Dining Tent at Encounter Mara - Top class food day and night
Day to Day stuff.
Each day started very early, enjoying a light breakfast at camp during the dark hours. From then it was a case of jumping into the landcruisers and heading out. Often we would hear something interesting on the radios from other guides in the area or we simply checked all of the usual places for Lions before heading off to other areas for a look around. Most of the trip we simply roamed around our local area observing the wildlife. We would drive until about midday then head back to camp for lunch and snoozing during the hottest part of the day. We would then venture back out again and around 3 or 4 in the afternoon for more of the same. For one day we also ventured down into the national park which was 2 hours drive south towards the Tanzanian border where we hoped to observe the Wildebeest migration river crossings. This never happened but we did get to see plenty Wildebeest and it was lovely to venture into new areas outside of the conservancy. This was a nice change and I really enjoyed the early morning drive and the chance to see some of the country.
Moses our guide possessed superb driving skills as well as endless knowledge of the area and its inhabitant's
Roaming the African plains
In specially modified Toyota Landcruisers we roamed the vast African savannas and prairies in search of the most elusive wildlife. Cheetahs, Lions and Leopards all lay in wait - we just had to find them. On some days we were out in the vehicles for up 12-14 hours as we explored and scouted the endless vistas in search of our prize. Wildlife has to be found by looking and we were updated with radio chatter from other scouts in the area. There were no roads - at least non resembling the roman influenced tarmac structures of western Europe. We rode on dirt tracks, dusty plains, rocky river crossings and uneven grasslands. There was four of us in the back of the Landcruisers which could hold six, which meant we had plenty space for camera bags and clothing. Early mornings were near freezing and near mid day it become intense. I would start off wearing hats, scarfs and fleeces but by midday you lose them to the heat.
Pulling over for cold drinks and snacks at sunset each night was always a fantastic experience
Sunset were always a special time. Each night we would find some open or elevated ground and get out the tables, snacks and freezing cold drinks whilst we basked in the fading light that projected through the expansive and seemingly endless landscapes. It was a great time to try some sunset shots, time-lapse and video sunsets, some of which worked quite well. My only regret was not shooting more sunrises and sunsets on the trip. With a telephoto lens you can get stuck on shooting in that mode. My tip if you go is to consider using other lenses and swap round so you don't get bored. Macro, landscape, video and time-lapse all offer some great ways of capturing interesting images and it's not all about the big cats.
Male Lion, head of the pride - definitely the boss and he knew it
Lions of the Naboisho
I expected Africa to be wall-to-wall with animals and big cats and in many ways it is. Everywhere you go yo see Zebra, Giraffe, Gazelles and other mammals. However sometimes it seems barren and unpopulated and you will be surprised how rare many of the big cats are now, and it's getting worse every year. Before the trip I had lots of shots in my mind that I wanted. In the end I was not to get any of them and instead concentrated on capturing what I could in the best possible way.
The Naboisho Conservancy is home to many lions and a local pride provided some great photo opportunities. The difficulty with Lions is that they venture out at night to hunt and then return to their homes early in the morning. That pretty much means shooting them for about an hour after sunrise before they disappear into the long grass and shaded areas. Shooting Lions really was a challenge and significant effort from the guides was needed to get next to them before they retreated for the day. Saying that, I had some brilliant experiences with the Lions and we got really close several times, if only for brief moments.
Catching the Lion pride as they set off for their nightly hunt
One of the best experiences came as we drove back from one of the national parks about two hours drive from camp. It was dark as we drove back and we stumbled upon our local pride who were just heading out for a nights hunting. With distant lightning storms adding atmosphere and a brilliant day just behind us our final nature experience of that day was watching the Lion pride hunting in the dark and I even managed to get some video footage too.
Moses our guide with local school children
The Masai Guides
Moses, Dixon and Sammy were our guides. The guides would do all of the driving and worked tirelessly to track wildlife and spot for everything in the area whilst getting us close to the action. That meant being right on top of lions and even the far scarier and deadlier buffalo. Our guides would make complex manoeuvres to get us right into the thickets with the sun in the right place. Sometimes we would spend 30 minutes or so to get right into trees near to Lions. Of course great care was taken not to scare or harass the wildlife, something which was always 100% paramount and respected by all of us without question. The guides knowledge of the local wildlife and fauna was impeccable.
The driving skills of the guides were impressive - they could put us to shame driving through dried up river beds, climbing over rock faces or sliding sideways through water-logged mud tracks in the pitch black without batting an eye lid. All navigation was done by the guides without any kind of aid or device - no maps, no roadsigns, no roads...just trails and memory. I cant recall a single wrong turn - never mind being temporarily lost or going the wrong way, something of which i do regularly back home.
The luxury five star tents at Encounter Mara
The Camp at Encounter Mara
The five star tented camps at Encounter Mara were stunning - complete with double beds, wardrobes, a bathroom and even double porcelain sinks with running water and a hot shower. Water had to be driven in by road. Water-tanks were hand filled every day. Each night we enjoyed candle lit, three course dinner outdoors with silver service and food as good as any top UK restaurant. The waiting staff were highly trained and very impressive indeed. Armed guards escort you around the camp at night as wildlife roams freely in this area. Our stay included packed lunches, snacks and sundowners every day alongside breakfast and lunch. Bush walks and other activities were also catered for and a bird hide was under construction on site too.
Our tent at Encounter Mara - complete with day bed for afternoon snoozing
One of two specially modified Toyota Landcruisers we roamed around in
Specially Modified Toyota landcruisers
Holding two people in the driving cab and up to six in the back - the specially modified Landcruisers were incredible. They were open-sided as opposed to the glass sided open roofed vehicles often seen in safari parks. For this reason we were able to shoot out in all directions from the vehicle which was superb. They were also fitted with armrests/shelves which were idea for resting telephoto lens on. I attached beanbags for padding and support which was ideal. Channels ran down the sides of the interior of the vehicles and I found them ideal for resting my camera rigs in. Spare clothes were used as cover from the dust whilst on the move.
Showing the villagers our images during a visit to a traditional African village
Villagers check out Trai's iPad
Women of the village performed a song with their full traditional dress which made for some great footage and stills and we showed them our iPads and cameras. It all added to the experience and made for a great trip
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