Kenya: Focus on Africa

By Sarah Marshall

Patience and speed are key to photographing African wildlife that refuses to pose prettily, learns Sarah Marshall.
A beautiful Kenyan sunset. Photo / 123RF
A beautiful Kenyan sunset. Photo / 123RF

A messy break-up, the death of my first pet hamster, and the scene when Elliott and E.T. fly across the full moon on a bicycle; these are all episodes in life that have brought me close to tears.

Now, I can add a 53-year-old man in khaki shorts, wielding a Canon 1DX camera, to that list.

"James, can you move forward?" bellows wildlife photographer Paul Goldstein to our safari guide and driver, who's manoeuvred us into position for a shot of two male cheetahs climbing over a fallen tree trunk.

"Some diva's complaining about a twig in her picture."

It's true, there's lots of foliage in Kenya's Masai Mara in June, but this particular rogue branch is obscuring my photograph, crowning one of the cats with a race-day fascinator.

As we lurch forward, the cheetah leaps up, soaring through the air before hitting the ground in a cloud of dust.

It's spectacular to watch, but not one of us gets a picture - including Paul, whose fiery temper is now a blazing inferno.

Cue several choice swear words.

An award-winning wildlife photographer, Paul guides specialist tours all over the world for travel company Exodus and at the Kicheche camps, which he co-owns, in Kenya's Masai Mara conservancies.

Vast plains and big open skies that run a spectrum from burning red to stormy blue, make the Mara an appealing canvas for any artist.

Wildebeest migration. Photo / 123RF
Wildebeest migration. Photo / 123RF


But it's the conservancies bordering the National Reserve, where we'll be dividing our time between Kicheche's Mara and Bush camps, that are particularly special.

Before even reaching camp, we're issued with a series of strict do's and don'ts: do be prepared to work hard, get up early and be shouted at; don't mention the Big 5 ("it's a butcher's term"), be satisfied with "safe" shots, or turn up wearing a multi-pocket utility waistcoat - the last foolhardy guest to do that had his garment tossed on the fire.

"This is not about a dull accumulation of species, or about going out after breakfast from some characterless, ethically derelict mainstream lodge and chalking off a few sleeping cats," warns Paul.

Kit-wise, I've borrowed a Nikon D4s (capable of shooting 11 frames per second) and two lenses - an 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 and wide-angle 16-35mm f/4.

Our first outing begins before sunrise, as tantalising streaks of orange creep across the sky. We quickly find our subjects, a pride of lions with cubs frolicking in the false dawn.

I attempt to capture them play fighting, but all I seem to score is backlit bum shots.

"Too slow, too slow," tuts Paul, who's fired several volleys before I've even touched the shutter release. Lesson number one: you have to be quick.

"Imagine every picture you take is for a calendar. Someone's got to look at that for 30 days," says Paul during lunch back at the camp.

Taking great pictures is also about taking risks.

"If you're prepared to fail when gambling with your camera, the potential rewards are huge," advises our uncompromising mentor.

Lion cubs play on the Masai Mara. Photo / 123RF
Lion cubs play on the Masai Mara. Photo / 123RF


Slow panning - opting to track an animal with continuous focus on a slow shutter speed rather than freezing the action - really is going for broke, and it's Paul's signature style.

"Lock your arms into your body, swing down until you hit a V-shape, then fire," he instructs.

I give it a go. For the most part, I end up with a blurry mess, but when it works, the results are superb: a cheetah strolling through long oat grass is now swathed in colour.

We have another opportunity to hone our technique the following day, after hearing news the great wildebeest migration has started.

Setting off at 5am, we head for the National Reserve and the Sand River, a tributary of the Mara, hoping to witness a crossing.

Thousands of the ungainly antelopes have gathered on the riverbank, galloping back and forth like athletes limbering up for competition.

Wildebeest are famously indecisive, and we wait hours for them to do something.

But our patience pays off when a herd cascades down a hillside, leaping into the water to create Paul's holy trinity of photographic conditions - dust, air and spume.

Lesson number two: rewards come to those who wait.

Further proof of this comes when we track a hungry cheetah, Malika, and her brood of four grown cubs. Once again, the Kicheche drivers put us in the right position and we monitor the cats' behaviour.

An impala hides in the grass. Photo / 123RF
An impala hides in the grass. Photo / 123RF


After two hours of waiting, Malika springs into action, chasing an impala straight down the barrel of my lens. She disables the prey, but invites her cubs to finish the job. Mayhem ensues as cats dart between vehicles, photographers fire like kamikaze fighters and Paul has a quasi-religious experience, hopping up and down enthusiastically screaming: "This is nature!"

Paying to go on holiday with Paul is, at times, like self-flagellation, but the scolds and scars deliver results.

What's more, it's extremely good fun.

Kenya's Masai Mara is a photographer's dream. Photo / 123RF
Kenya's Masai Mara is a photographer's dream. Photo / 123RF


Wildlife hot spots

Masai Mara
Covering 1510sq km of southwest Kenya, the Masai Mara National Reserve is a land of breathtaking vistas, abundant wildlife and endless plains. The reserve is home to an excellent concentration of game year-round, as well as the two million animals that make up the Great Migration.

The Lakes
Great, glistening mirrors of water, Lakes Nakuru, Naivasha, Elementaita and Baringo are havens for big game among a backdrop of pink swathes of stately flamingos.

Amboseli National Park
This scenic park is synonymous with majestic herds of elephant and glorious views of Kilimanjaro. Kenya's second-most popular national park after the Masai Mara, Amboseli was declared a Unesco-Mab Biosphere Reserve in 1991.

Samburu National Reserve
The best feature of Samburu is not the wildlife or the picturesque surroundings, but that it is one of Kenya's lesser-visited regions. The peaceful atmosphere and authentic wilderness experience set it apart from better-known reserves.


Ol Pejeta Conservancy
In the foothills of Mt Kenya, the conservancy is home to the Big Five and the largest sanctuary in East Africa for the endangered black rhino. It also houses a sanctuary for rescued chimpanzees.

Aberdare National Park
With its mountainous terrain covered in thick tropical forests, Aberdare is home to a great diversity of plants and wildlife including elephants, lions, black leopard and the colobus and Sykes monkeys.

Meru National Park
Made famous by Elsa the lioness, George and Joy Adamson in Born Free, Meru is re-emerging as a popular safari destination. The park houses a poacher-proof rhino sanctuary.

helloworld.co.nz/UniqueExperiences 0800 66 68 88

Checklist

GETTING THERE
Emirates offers daily flights from Auckland to Nairobi, via Dubai, with Economy Class return tickets starting from $3259. emirates.com

- AAP

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