by Bill Lockhart
When I read that Chas Glatzer and Andy Biggs would conduct a photography safari in Kenya, I was immediately interested. Chas is, in my opinion, the finest wildlife photographer in the world. Andy, is without doubt the world’s leading expert on Africa safari’s. Combined, the two offered me the chance to visit Kenya, a country I have not visited before, and experience the abundant wildlife in the Maasai Mara, knowing in advance that what they would offer is unmatched.
So, I booked the tour.
I did so months in advance of when the tour would actually occur. The reason is simple, tours of this quality book early, getting my name in the pot early seemed appropriate.
I soon learned that there are lots of different organizations involved in such a tour. While I booked with Chas and Andy, I was soon handed off to Eyes on Africa, Andy’s tour coordinator, and from there to Bush and Beyond, the ground coordinators for my tour in Kenya. Eyes on Africa was helpful about lots of things. The first was getting my visa processed. Which meant I needed a letter from Eyes on Africa, I had to complete a visa application form, I needed to acquire two passport-like photographs, I needed to get a cashier’s check for the visa, I needed to have both a way to get the stuff to the Kenya embassy and a self-addressed return FEDEX packet to get my stuff back, and I had to FEDEX off my passport, something I hate doing. All in all it worked.
It worked fast. Five days after I sent all the stuff to the Kenya Embassy, I had my passport back with a neat visa attached to a page of my passport.
Eyes on Africa required me to have travel insurance, including medical evacuation insurance. That cost me about $1,000. Yes, a lot of money, but if you get sick in Africa you need to make sure you have covered yourself for all possibilities. That done, I was finished with the pre-planning.
I arrived in Kenya on May 22 and after clearing customs, I was met by the Bush and Beyond guide who transported me to a hotel for the evening. To say the least, I was exhausted from nearly 28 hours of travel, including 23 hours flight time. I soon fell asleep but knew I had to be up early the next morning for my flight to the Maasai Mara.
Our group assembled at 0700 and soon we were on our way to the airport for our flight. The traffic in Nairobe is horrific.
The traffic on the way from my hotel to the Nairobi Airport is like nothing I have experienced. Three lanes filled bumper to bumper with an array of cars and vehicles crammed with people. The streets are filled with people as well, darting here and there, along with a vast array of street vendors selling items that seem out of place, certainly not the Africa I have come to see. It takes our driver one hour to traverse five kilometers through the disarray. I yearn to be free of it, to board the Cessna and fly west into the Maasai Mara. I hate cities, my quest is to find the heart of Kenya, and there to reacquaint myself with what I love, nature and all its rich blessings.
Hundreds of people are walking, moving in great hordes to the growing needs of a vibrant country. My driver speaks to me in perfect English, which he tells me that he learned in grade school. I feel embarrassed at my southern drawl and mispronunciation. He speaks English far better than I. Kenya has an excellent free school system coupled with free medical care. I could live here, I think, this country cares about its people, although I soon learn from many Kenyans that the government has a long history of corruption. “Sorta like the US Congress,” I say, laughing with my new found friends.
We find a Giraffe near a Acacia Tree. I find it interesting that the Giraffe and the tree mimic one another in abstract form. The two are one, interdependent.
Kenya, for me, is a romantic place. It has to do with my admiration for Ernest Hemingway, and countless others who ventured here 80 years before. I can only imagine what Kenya was then.
Soon our Cessna lands on a grass runway, and I meet our hosts for the next eight days. Champagne and crumpets greet us along with our guides, all of whom are smiling and pleased that we are in the heart of their country.
Soon I would find what I had come to see, an amazing savannah filled with wildlife everywhere.
Sleeping in the Maasai Mara has its moments. My first night was filled with the sounds of Hippos splashing in the Mara River just outside my tent, along with repeated howls of monkeys. Then I hear a friendly voice awakening me at 0515. “Jambo,” the attendant said. I stumble into the bath area and feel the warm water from a bucket shower cover my aching body. It feels good to soap down and rinse. I skip a shave.
The head waiter finds me coffee. I settle down in one of the large chairs of the main tent at Mara Toto Camp and await the arrival of my companions. We are scheduled to leave promptly at 0600. It is my new routine. Up early, at first light, looking for cats and other critters in the Mara.
As we drive from the camp into the Mara, I start a conversation with my guide Daniel, a Maasai. I ask about his life, if he is married, and about his family. A companion asks Daniel about his initiation rites. “I understand that you can no longer kill a lion as part of your initiation,” he said. “That’s right,” Daniel said.
“What are you required to do?” my companion asks.
“I was required to spend six months in the Mara alone, tending cattle,” said Daniel. “Alone?” I asked. “Yes, alone” said Daniel.
“What was the greatest danger you encountered?” I ask Daniel.
“A large bull Cape Buffalo attacked me, ” said Daniel. “Really!” I say. “How did you escape the bull?” I ask. “I climbed a tree,” said Daniel. “How long were you there?” I asked. “Until 1000 the following morning,” said Daniel, “the bull finally gave up.”
I soon learned that my guides were among the best that Kenya has to offer. All of them have two years of college, and have gone through a very rigorous testing program to become certified guides. Speaking in perfect English, I often feel embarrassed at my Southern Drawl, or as one of my guides said “Genteel Southern,” with a smile.
Soon I find myself concentrating on doing photography. The opportunities were everywhere.
The light was simply awesome, we were fortunate to have many days with open skies and lots of light to frame our subjects with. We avoided mid-day to spend our time in the golden hours, early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I soon found myself thinking in black and white, simply because of the nostalgic feeling one gets from being in this special place.
Our accommodations at the Mara Toto Camp were superb, even though Andy Biggs had to shift us from a planned stay at the Mara Plain Camp. Planned renovations at the initial camp simply had not been completed as expected. What made the camp delightful was that our group of 16 photographers had the camp to ourselves. This made for great interaction among us. Most of us were from the USA, but we had members from Australia, the UK, and Germany. Conversations at meals were always filled with laughter. It was a great group of people who shared a common interest – photography and travel.
Mara Toto Camp gets its power from solar chargers. I found it wonderful that I could recharge my camera batteries, my macbook air, and my iPhone from an electrical source that is green friendly. Further, the camp had wifi, meaning that I could connect to the Internet, send email, read the news (which I refrained from doing), and post to my blog, all possible because of the great attention to detail that the Mara Plains staff provided.
My equipment consisted of the Nikon D800, the Nikon D800e, and two lenses – the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II and the Nikon 300mm f/4. I found out that I really did not need more than 300mm for most of my shots. I did bring along a Zeiss 21mm but did not have the opportunity to do landscapes, there simply was no time or opportunity, we were constantly moving across the Mara. I did bring along a new tripod which I found exceedingly wonderful, I will be writing about the Tripod in a subsequent article. Suffice it to say all my equipment performed flawlessly, I was particularly impressed with the battery life on the two D800s. I only had to recharge one battery while there for eight days!
Our vehicles were Toyota Landcruisers, open on the sides with a canopy overhead. Most were configured with three rows of seats, each photographer having a complete row for storage of equipment and movement from side to side. Andy had gotten the camp to modify the Landcruisers with shelfs along the left side of the vehicle, thus one had a convenient place to use a sandbag as support for long lenses.
Andy and Chas had sold the safari as a chance to photograph big cats. Well, they certainly did not disappoint us, there were cats everywhere.
Having been to Africa on two previous occasions, I knew the problems of doing photography there. While in Tanzania I found it difficult to isolate animals, and in South Africa at Kruger Park the vegetation was always an issue. But here, our vehicles could leave the road and we could pursue animals anywhere we could drive. It made a big difference in our opportunities to get good shots. As well, we were in a private reserve which meant that only our vehicles were allowed there. This cut down considerably on traffic from nearby camps and lodges. The result was a spectacular opportunity to do wildlife photography at close range, sometimes as little as 10 feet away from our vehicles.
And it was Ping, Daniel, Duncan, Kevin and Edwin, our guides who made the biggest difference. All Maasai, they know the land, and the animals. They have even given some of them names and know their history. It was wonderful getting to know them, each one with a special way of making one feel at home in their marvelous land.
Throughout the time I was there, every moment was filled with opportunities for photography. But, while at camp it was the camp staff who made the trip memorable. Outstanding meals, and a never ending supply of wine and coffee were icing on the cake. Our accommodations were meticulously maintained. I felt like I was staying in a four-star hotel given all that was available to me. The Mara Plains group is as good as it gets.
I returned home with 3600 photographs, and frankly after two weeks of processing, I still have hundreds to examine in detail. I never expected to have some many really good photographs to process, I am totally elated. Here are a few of my favorites.
I miss Africa, when I was there I missed it. I want to return. Perhaps some day I will again visit the Maasai Mara, and perhaps too share stories again with one of my new found friends. In the meantime, I will be posting more photographs from this tour at my website, please visit here to see my portfolio.
In sum, the Photographic Tour provided by Andy Biggs and Chas Glatzer was one of the greatest experiences of my life, in every respect the tour lived up to what was advertised, in fact it exceeded my expectations.
Administrative Coordination – Eyes on Africa – Four Stars * * * *
Ground Coordination – Bush and Beyond – Five Stars * * * * *
Opportunities for Wildlife Photography – Six Stars * * * * * * (Exceptional)
Accommodations at Mara Toto Camp – Three Stars * * * (I have had better with Abercrombie & Kent)
Mara Plains – Vendor for Mara Toto Camp and Conservency – Three Stars * * *
Guides and Camp Staff – Six Stars * * * * * * (Staff was constantly returning things to my tent that I had left in a vehicle, lens caps, GPS, gloves, etc. How they knew it was my stuff is beyond my best guess! Food was outstanding, and service was as good as any accommodation I have stayed in anywhere in the world.)
Adventure Index – Six Stars * * * * * * (You haven’t lived until you cross the Mara River in a Landcruiser, 45 degree angles of approach!)
Delivered What Was Promised – Five Stars * * * * *
Cost – Three Stars * * * (Expensive, but all travel in Africa is expensive, I have enjoyed better at the same price.)
PTR rates on a one to five star scale, this tour was good but not outstanding!
Overall Rating – Four Stars * * * * ( Recommended)