Exactly one month ago to the hour, as I write this, we were sat in Johannesburg Airport waiting for our transfer flight to Kasane, Botswana. Although it seems like a lifetime ago as I sit here now with the central heating on, looking out at 50mph winds and rain hammering against the window.
We had our itinerary planned out and an idea of what we were going to see but other than that we didn’t know what was ahead of us or what animal encounters we would have. That, for me, is the excitement of a safari trip – it’s unpredictable, always packed with surprises and an element of luck & a little danger thrown in!
The four of us, Mark, Steve, Andy & myself, are all members of the Sheringham RNLI Lifeboat Crew, and in the middle of 2019 had decided to book this trip through Tawana Self-Drive, a safari company based in Botswana. Mark had previously used Tawana in 2019 for a trip to the same area so we had the advantage of Mark’s experience and we knew that the company provided an excellent service. Vincent at Tawana had planned us a detailed itinerary, maps for the daily drives and organised our campsite bookings + park entrance fees, all we had to do was turn up and not get eaten!
I was excited to have the chance to document the trip through video (with some photos thrown in) and produced this 25 minute film of our adventures…
Visiting in the ‘rainy season’ aka Green Season meant that the trees were in leaf with lush grasslands and plenty of water & food around for the animals. As a result it is breeding season for many of the species which meant lots of baby animals & colourful plumage on the birds. We saw very little rain apart from a couple of nights when it poured but other than that we had mostly sunny days and temperatures around the mid thirties. Many people tend to avoid safari in Botswana at this time of year, possibly because it’s not in the school holidays but also as they believe that rainy season means rain every day. I have also read that people mainly go in the dry season as it means the animals tend to congregate around the waterholes so are easier to spot but with this many animals around I don’t think that’s an issue. Besides I would much rather see the animals when they are happy & well-fed and with the lush greenery as a backdrop rather than lots of dead, brown grass!
As you can see in the shot below our trucks were certainly built for the job, 4×4 Toyota Land Cruisers with two roof-top tents on each vehicle. The rear storage spaces contained a fridge, cool box, tables, chairs, cooking utensils, gas stove, spade, axe and much more. We were fully self-contained, just add food, water, fuel and plenty of beer & wine (plus Amarula – the South Africa cream liqueur as a nightcap)!
With plenty of USB charging ports inside the vehicles (we brought some extras) and two powered sockets in the rear (South Africa plug type) it was no problem to keep all of my cameras, torches & laptop charged. We also brought two walkie talkies which proved invaluable for chatting between the trucks when we spotted something interesting.
I was struck by the beauty and variation of the habitats in Botswana, (dense scrub, open grassland, rocky outcrops, ancient mopani forest, huge marshes, and of course the Okavango Delta) add to that the thriving populations of animals & birdlife and you have the recipe for a hugely memorable safari trip.
We started off in the Chobe National Park and camped for the first couple of nights right by the Chobe river at Ihaha, the first of many of our truly wild campsites, we were visited by a family of mongoose, heard lions calling each night as we fell asleep and had giraffe feeding in the bushes right behind us one evening. Absolute magic!
Chobe National Park is famed for having the largest surviving elephant population in the world, currently thought to be at around 120,000, always a huge pleasure to watch as they feed, drink, bathe & interact with each other. Sometimes interacting with us – mostly very placid & calm, occasionally they decide they want to remind us who is boss so will pull a mock charge (as the baby in the film shows) or just hold their ground, flapping their ears and shaking a nearby bush to demonstrate their power. So long as we showed respect, gave them time to move on (or on the odd occasion slowly backed away) they would carry on their feeding and allow us to pass without incident.
The hippos on the other hand are a different kettle of fish as we learned one morning at Moremi when we found one still feeding on the grass just outside our campsite. As our lead truck (Mark & Steve) pulled alongside, the hippo decided he didn’t want us around so charged them at full speed, jaws wide open. Luckily Mark accelerated off just in time to see the huge beast sprinting after him in the wing mirror. We sat about 20m behind watching in awe, I’ll never forget the sight of the hippo’s large behind wobbling with fury as it ran after them, eventually giving up when he realised he wasn’t going to catch them. Sadly it all happened so fast I didn’t manage to turn a camera on to film it, I couldn’t take my eyes off what was happening, it was a good shot of adrenaline to start the day (especially for Mark & Steve!)
Each day was punctuated with the taking down & putting up of the tents, while we did get fairly efficient at it after a few days, it was a sweaty, dusty job so we always saved the showers for after the tents have been put up or down.
Once we had all the tents up each evening the next job was to get the fire lit, with the mopani wood we bought at the roadside stalls, then we got the chairs & tables up, cracked open a cold beer & got to work on dinner. Our evening meals ranged from steak cooked over the braai (most nights!) to chicken, Kielbasa sausages (known as ‘Russians’ in South Africa) and a hotpot one night. The key was to keep it fairly simple and provide something filling since this was generally the only meal we had on many days.
As you’ll notice below we are all sitting with our backs to the vehicles – since none of the campsites have fences, the animals (including the large predators), can wander into camp at any time if they wish so it pays to be vigilant, we would make a pretty easy meal for a lion, being devoid of any claws, antlers or decent teeth to bite back with!
We stayed at some amazing places during our trip, our favourite campsites were Ihaha in Chobe, Mbudi at Khwai and Xanakaxa in Moremi, with Tshaa campsite at Mababe having real potential but being deserted & overgrown (although that may have been due to us being there in the off-season, it wouldn’t take too much work to get the site back up to scratch, being in such a stunning location it could easily have been our favourite site if operational at the time of our visit).
We all found the dung beetles fascinating, busily rolling their balls of elephant dung around, not sure where they were taking them but they didn’t hang about. Often they would choose to roll them down the smooth ruts of the sand roads which required a sharp eye and quick steering to avoid squashing the poor animals in their prime!
Water buck (below) are my favourite antelope, their beautiful shaggy coats & faces remind me of a Jim Henson creation. We saw so many different species on our trip – lion, wild/painted dog, black-backed jackal, spotted/laughing hyena, banded mongoose, slender mongoose, dwarf mongoose, genet, baboon, vervet monkey, tree squirrel, honey badger, giraffe, zebra, elephant, hippo, warthog, buffalo, wildebeest, tsessebe, dik dik, impala, water buck, lechwe, kudu, sitatunga, bush buck, crocodile, leopard tortoise and a huge array of birds. Sadly no leopard (although we must have scanned hundreds of trees looking for that telltale silhouette or the hanging tail) and not a single snake, while it would have been nice to see one we were all quite glad not to have bumped into a black mamba!
This yellow-billed hornbill was great fun to photograph, very tame and with those great colours & eyelashes I had to get a close-up portrait…
While staying at the brilliantly named Xakanaxa (promounced ‘kakanaka’) we took a boat trip on the Okavango, a huge inland delta which eventually feeds in to the Chobe & Zambezi rivers and feeds the Victoria Falls. We had two lucky sightings of the rare Sitatunga antelope, a marsh-dweller specialised for their aquatic lifestyle and no stranger to swimming through the water with just the tip of their snout showing…
When driving the sand roads we were always checking for animal footprints, Mark was great at spotting and tracking the prints, following a set of lion print one morning, taking us right to a pride of lion with eight cubs. Below is a hyena print, discernible from lion print by the size, shape and fact that the claws are showing in the impression. Cats generally have their claws retracted when walking apart from the cheetah – the only cat with non-retractable claws.
We found this young adult male lion in some bushes right by the road while driving between third & fourth bridge at Moremi. He was panting & still very out of breath from just killing a red lechwe antelope. We sat with him for around 15 minutes, he seemed on-edge, obviously wary of having his kill stolen by another lion or hyena. It was intense sitting just 6ft from him with our windows wide open knowing that he could easily get to us with just one jump if he decided he didn’t want us around any more. Amazing to be able to make out the reflection of me sitting at the window of the truck in his pupils!
The birdlife at all of the parks we visited were incredible, below is a hoopoe, yellow-billed storks, red-billed hornbill and fish eagle. We also saw great white pelican, great egret, grey heron, goliath heron, ostrich, saddle-billed stork, marabou stork, hamerkop, spoonbill, sacred ibis, spur-winged goose, knob-billed duck, jacana, blacksmith plover, crowned lapwing, spotted thick-knee, southern black korhaan, kori bustard, swainson’s spurfowl, guineafowl, cape vulture, black kite, hawk eagle, marshall eagle, steppe buzzard, black shouldered kite, osprey, grey go-away bird, little bee-eater, carmine bee-eater, lilac-breasted roller, pied kingfisher, woodland kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, southern ground hornbill, yellow billed-hornbill, common fiscal, red-billed oxpecker, quelea, sunbird, weaver bird and many more that we couldn’t easily identify!
On our penultimate evening we took a riverboat safari on the Chobe river from Kasane, it was a wonderful last safari experience in Botswana with huge numbers of elephant, hippo, crocodile, buffalo and many birds. The sunset was incredible and I was thrilled to get some shots of hippo fighting in the river with the sunset behind.
As I had been mainly concentrating on getting video footage rather than still photographs for much of the trip I didn’t get as many stills as I would have liked but it’s impossible to do justice to both at the same time. These photos hopefully capture the stunning array of wildlife but to really get a flavour of the trip I recommend getting a cup of tea & watching the video.
On our last day we took a day trip over the border into Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls, ‘the smoke that thunders’, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Prior to coming out here we had seen press reports stating that the falls were drying up. As we stepped out of the vehicle on arrival at the falls we instantly knew that wasn’t the case with the roar of water indicating a good flow. It was a truly impressive sight, I was glad I took a raincover for my camera as we all got thoroughly drenched by the spray.
Botswana was an amazing experience, and my third safari trip in twelve months, I feel very lucky to have been able to visit such beautiful places and photographing/filming such wonderful wildlife. I really recommend anyone have at least one safari holiday in their life, I wasn’t sure it would appeal to me but how wring I was, I am now well and truly hooked! As people told me before my first African trip: “It gets under your skin”, it certainly does, I’ll be back!
In fact I’ll be back in Africa again this year since myself & Leanne are leading a safari photography trip to the Maasai Mara, Kenya in June. The trip is being organised through London safari travel experts Far & Wild Travel, more info on the trip is available on their site here. It promises to be an amazing trip, while aimed at helping people improve their photography (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to get the best possible shots on a trip of a lifetime?!), it will be a great chance to experience the thrill of a safari in this world-famous ecosystem. Spaces are limited so book now to learn all of my tips & tricks for getting the very best out of your digital camera.
We are very excited to announce that on 13th-20th June 2020 we will be leading a photography safari adventure tour to Kenya – back to the beautiful Enonkishu Conservancy in the Maasai Mara.
We’ve teamed up with the UK-based safari holiday specialists Far & Wild Travel to offer a unique opportunity to spend 8 days in the Maasai Mara and learn how to take better photos. For more information and booking details please see their dedicated page to this Photography Safari in Kenya here.
Here’s a short video I made to show what to expect…
We have some amazing plans for the trip, while it is aimed at photographers it would also be a trip of a lifetime for non-photographers who just want to experience the magic of the Maasai Mara. All of the photography activities & learning are optional (although included in the price), to all intents & purposes this is an amazing safari trip with the bonus of photography tuition included.
Over our last two trips we have seen a huge array of the diverse wildlife that live on Enonkishu Conservancy and the neighbouring conservancies of Lemek & Ol Chorro – the three conservancies have an agreement so our conservancy fee for Enonkishu (included in the price) allows us full access to Lemek & Ol Chorro giving us a huge area to explore and many different habitats – from the foothills of Kileleoni Hill (the highest point in the Mara), to the savannah grasslands, scrub woodland, marsh areas and many waterholes where the animals come to drink. Not to mention the mighty Mara River with it’s thriving population of hippo & nile crocodile.
Bordering Enonkishu is the rhino sanctuary with two resident white rhinos – we have included a trip to see the rhinos one morning which should be an amazing photo opportunity since the rhinos are very tame and docile.
Each day begins with an early morning start in order to be out amongst the animals as the sun rises. The sunrise in the Maasai Mara is a beautiful spectacle in itself but when you then add in the iconic animals that live here it is absolutely mindblowing. After a few hours seeing what animals we can find & photograph before the sun gets too hot, and the animals retreat to the shade, our drivers will find a shady spot under an acacia tree and set up for morning coffee & a snack – usually homemade cake or cookies. Morning coffee while watching hyena skulk past and the view across the plains dotted with zebra, wildebeest, impala, Thomson’s gazelle, giraffe & buffalo is like nothing on earth.
The Mara is a haven for bird-lovers too, my favourite is the Secretary bird (below, top right), an incredible looking bird which eats snakes, like something out of a Harry Potter movie! There are hundreds of species in the Mara, including many eagles, vultures, egrets, bee-eaters, ground hornbill, great crested cranes, mousebirds, oxpeckers and much much more. Our guides are great at identifying the birds and carry bird guide books so if it’s just a fleeting glimpse they can show us what we just saw.
It always astounds me how close to the lions we can actually get. So long as you stay in the vehicle you are perfectly safe, the lions & other predators are used to safari vehicles and totally ignore them so we get a chance to see their natural behaviour up close & personal!
One of the big features of this trip is that you will learn how to get the most from your camera. From optimum camera settings, lens choice, composition, exposure tricks to the little tricks of the trade which will make your photos the envy of your friends! I’ve been running photography workshops for a few years now and we always see plenty of ‘lightbulb moments’ when it finally clicks (pun intended).
We will have daily photo challenges with vouchers for the evening bar to be won for the best shots. Compositions like the below of a giraffe can be really interesting and offer a different take on the standard safari photos.
In the evenings I will be offering post-processing instruction and advice using Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop – lots of tips & tricks to really bring out the best from your images and make them sing!
Often when we find the lions they are lazing in the shade since they generally hunt at night but that’s not to say we might not get lucky & see a hunt. The below shot was from one of the mornings when we found the resident pride of Lemek lions (originally from the famous Governor’s Camp Marsh Pride as seen on David Attenborough’s Dynasties series), finishing of a buffalo carcass from the previous night’s hunt.
On the subject of the Marsh Pride – we have put aside one of the days of the trip for a day at the Mara National Reserve – home of the Marsh Pride and world-famous thanks to countless TV documentaries. There is an additional fee of $80USD to visit the reserve but I guarantee it will be worth every penny.
These two cheetah brothers below are resident on Lemek Conservancy – just a ten minute drive from Enonkishu (well, ten minutes if you don’t stop to check out anything on the way but the beauty of any game drive is that you never know what you will find, so driving without stopping many times to view the animal activity is very unusual!)
There are many leopard living at Enonkishu & the surrounding conservancies, the challenge is finding them. We were lucky enough to see this resident female one evening on the hunt in the scrubland along a small stream. She is known as ‘Half Tail’ due to her short tail after an altercation with another big cat. Such an amazing treat to see these stunning creatures.
Thanks to the amazing work by the rangers and land-managers of this area the lion population is thriving. Enonkishu is an incredible success story of re-wilding where they have taken an area which was once intensively farmed and devoid of wildlife to this thriving ecosystem. It’s taken a lot of work and we will learn about the process while there. In fact every person that visits is contributing to the conservation through the conservancy fees, tourism in the Maasai Mara is essential for the survival of the wildlife.
Plenty of moody buffalo in the area, not a problem in the vehicles but I wouldn’t fancy meeting one on foot!
Our camp for the stay is at the Mara Training Centre, part of the Enonkishu Conservancy and right on the edge of the Mara River. On the right here you can see the safari tents and to the left are the banda cottages which are available for a small upgrade fee. The bandas have ensuite toilet & showers, for the tents there is an ablution block (just hidden in this shot in the trees just behind the tents). Falling asleep in the tent listening to the hippo in the river, the millions of crickets & frogs chirruping and pinging and distant hyena & lion calls is just incredible. I would take this over a luxury safari hotel any time – it really is an immersive experience and truly life-changing. If you have never been on safari before this really is the best introduction.
Below is ‘The Cow Shed’, the social area where we have our meals, it also has a self-service bar (mmm Tusker beer!) and in the evenings the log fire is lit. This is where we will do the evening post-processing training and presentations. Plenty of power sockets for charging laptops & camera batteries and the good news is that Kenya uses the exact same three-pin plugs we have in the UK so no need for any travel adaptors.
Below, myself & Leanne with the wonderful Enonkishu Rangers – we will have a chance to meet the rangers and they will hopefully put on a ranger parade for us, showing off their marching skills. A really great bunch of chaps who dedicate their lives to the protection of the wildlife at Enonkishu.
To ensure everyone gets a great view of the animals we will only have 4 guests per safari vehicle – everyone gets a corner seat so no-one gets the short straw of being stuck in the middle and having to crane over other people to see the action.
We will be using specially adapted Toyota Land Cruisers with our own friendly, experienced safari guide drivers. These guys really know their stuff and are more than happy to share their knowledge while using their tracking & spotting skills to find us the wildlife and get the best positions for viewing & photographing them. We are hoping to be able to use brothers Wilson & Moses (pictured with me above), absolute legends of the Maasai Mara and incredible hosts.
Below the rangers with the headtorches we gave them on our last trip. We were able to take bags of essential equipment for them including binoculars, torches, a telescope, compasses, etc plus we gave them each a Leatherman multi-tool which will be very useful on their patrols. We made sure the tools have a wire cutter which is needed for removing any illegal snares they may find on their patrols.
Through the ‘Power the Rangers’ fundraiser in 2019 we were able to raise over £6000 to help the rangers and would like to do something similar when we return in 2020. We are hoping some of our guests may get involved & help us to bring them more equipment.
One of the other unique features of this trip is that we will be meeting and photographing the local Maasai Tribespeople – they have a settlement at the base of Kileleoni Hill. We will visit the village to see their traditional singing & dancing and they are only too happy to show us around their huts finishing with a visit to their gift area where traditional Maasai jewellery, etc is available to purchase.
We will also head along to the cattle-dip on Thursday morning to watch & photograph their cattle getting their weekly bath and we’ll be spending some time with them to capture beautiful portraits of them (with full instruction from myself where needed).
Another exciting offering of this trip is the chance to do a night-drive or two – nothing prepared me for the experience of heading out into the night in the safari trucks armed with red torches (so as not to dazzle the animals). The Mara takes on a totally different atmosphere at night when the nocturnal animals emerge and the grazers try to get some sleep between avoiding the predators.
We found a huge hyena den, below you can see a mum suckling a pup, we saw elephants, sleeping giraffes, a huge eagle owl on the ground, spring hares bouncing around, bat-eared foxes and so much more. Many safari reserves don’t allow people to be out at night as it hampers their poacher prevention but at Enonkishu the poaching problem is minimal so we can make the most of the incredible opportunity.
Not just the sights but also the sounds and smells at night are totally different – this will blow all of your senses!
While staying at Enonkishu last time I set up a wildlife camera trap outside out cottage and was stunned to find that we had captured photos & video of this beautiful adult leopard right outside our room. I will be bringing a couple of camera traps with me in June and if any of our guests wanted to bring one it would be great to get them set up at various places around the camp/conservancy & see what we can get.
We will also be having some sundowners on the trip – drinks & snacks while watching the sunset – a magical way to see the end of an incredible day on safari.
I’m a sucker for a nice sunset so while the sun drops we can take photos which capture the colours and atmosphere – more tips & tricks there since many people can’t understand why their sunset photos look washed out & unimpressive. I also love shooting timelapse videos of the sunset/sunrise so will be more than happy to teach the tricks of the trade if anyone is interested.
This really does promise to be an incredible trip, we have so many great adventures planned for the trip and a few surprises up our sleeve. The trip is limited to 12 people so don’t delay if you think this may be for you.
More information about the trip is available at the Far & Wild page and their advisor Marc would be more than happy to answer any of your questions and send a personalised quote/trip itinerary.
The price per person is £2935 per person, staying in a safari tent. The price includes all accommodation, food, soft drinks, conservancy fees for Enonkishu, Lemek & Ol Chorro, a visit to the rhino sanctuary, internal flights from/to Nairobi to the Maasai Mara (Ngerende airstrip, just a 15 minute game drive from the camp), full photography instruction and we’ll produce a hard-backed book for every guest on our return with a selection of the best photos from everyone on the trip. Leanne will also be filming the trip and producing a short video – the ultimate holiday video to show your family & friends!
All that isn’t included is your return flight out to Nairobi (this can be arranged by the guys at Far & Wild if necessary), any alcoholic drinks and the $80 reserve fee for the visit to the Mara National Reserve.
I am also happy to discuss our plans and advise on photography equipment in advance of the trip so please feel free to drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call on 01263 821589 / 07941009745.