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"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page" St. Augustine
TRIP REPORT: Green Season On The Serengeti, March/April 2013
I don't like writing trip reports, so don't expect this to be your typical TR. I'm a photographer, and my purpose on a safari is attempting to capture that elusive perfect image of what I see. I'm a visual person, so I find taking notes (what a verbal person might enjoy) rather distracting from my main purpose. Call me selfish, but on this safari I didn't take any field notes, instead soaking in the visual, aural and olifactory stimuli for my own personal pleasure. Now, three months later, I'm sure I've forgotten some of the details, nuances and even some wildlife encounters, but I will try to recount some of what I found and my observations to accompany some of the photographs I managed to capture.

Sorry for the smaller images and obstrusive © overlays--as more than one ST member has found, image theft off the web is rampant. For the typical ST member that probably isn't a problem, and maybe even flattering, but for a person who markets their images it is troubling and even costly.

First a little background: Over a year ago I joined a planning in progress Serengeti safari started by Anita, after expressing to her my thoughts of an ideal safari (a focused photography safari, not a prepackaged 'see everything' one; a mobile camp, rather than the reduced flexibility by working out of lodges; during the Green Season, to hopefully reduce the number of other safari vehicles, with pleasing green backgrounds; and most important, an exclusive vehicle/guide to avoid any conflicts on what and where and how long to photograph). This echoed her thoughts, and fit in perfectly with her plans for a post-calving, predator-focused photo safari centered around the wildebeest migration in late March/early April on the southern Serengeti. Her choice of mobile camp locations, after exhaustive research, were spot on--a remarkable feat considering the vagaries of the migration--so we almost always had wildebeest and zebra within sight and sound. On my first night at Big Marsh campsite near Ndutu, I swore I was sharing my tent with the herd, as the canvas literally vibrated during one particular herd grunt-off!

Bill Given (of The Wild Source) arranged a mobile camp much more luxurious than I expected, with a staff of three to provide for our needs, at Special Campsites in Serengeti NP and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). Near the end of the safari we visited Lake Natron, and spent the last night at Sopa Crater Lodge.

Some might remember several posts on ST by Anita in March regarding her workload preventing her from starting the safari on schedule, so she joined us at Big Marsh about one week late, and then continued for another 10 days after I departed.

One can justifiably argue that what makes a safari successful is the quality of the guiding, and I was lucky to have the indefatigable Fadhil Deo, son of the legendary guide Deo Magoye (who was Anita's guide when she arrived). Rather than me going into specifics about his education and experience--he has just joined ST and I'll be conducting an interview with him over the next few months (when he has internet access, one of the hazards of his job). Lets just say that he is a great guide, with very good intuition and plenty of wildlife knowledge, especially of the Ndutu area. Some have commented that he can be a man of few words, but like myself, he doesn't feel the need to fill in the quiet time with platitudes. Instead, he is using that quiet time to plan his next moves, much to the benefit of the clients.

Although he is quite skilled in wet season driving, sometimes it takes more than just skill...
THE GREEN SEASON, IN PHOTOGRAPHIC TERMS: During the first 5 days on safari we were blessed with what most visitors would call perfect weather--beautiful, cloudless blue skies. Ugh! Not what a photographer wants. By mid-morning, the sun was so intense that I limited my photography to only the best and unsusual situtations, and probably still won't ever use the shots. Two-toned elephants (over-exposed gray tops and black underbodies) just ain't natural! Photoshop can only do so much.
But then the rains threatened and soon started, producing dramatic landscapes with beautiful light and huge thunderheads...the reason I was grateful to be on the Serengeti at the start of the rains.
Granted, on some days I was using camera ISOs higher that I would have liked, and would have appreciated higher contrast in some photos, but generally the light was much softer and the backgrounds a welcome green. Some parts of some days were a washout (literally), but I remember having only one completely rainy day.
The Green Season has its drawbacks of course--like getting stuck in the mud and worrying about drowning your camera gear in the rain, but there are benefits like pleasing green backgrounds and vibrant wildflowers. And images of forlorn cats in the rain...
THE SERENGETI: My first three safari days were in Serengeti NP proper, with the mobile camp at Rongai 1 Special Campsite. The original reservation was for Moru Kopjes 5, but heavy rains had fallen several days prior, and our camp staff vehicle became majorly stuck in the mud trying to reach the campsite (and had to be extracted by a monster 4X4 truck). Not a big problem, just extra driving, but we were now closer to a photographic gem, Lake Magadi. No, not the one in the Crater. This is a shallow pond teaming with wildlife and great reflections, at least during the rainy seasons, but not well frequented by vehicles until later in the morning. The size and approachability were great for capturing sunrises, with a classic African background and a variety of birds and animals in the foreground.
Overall, I wasn't that thrilled with Serengeti NP--too many safari vehicles, and no off-roading, which meant that the several leopards I saw were too far away to successfully photograph. I didn't get to see the Masai Kopjes; unfortunately we happened to arrive there for the morning "just arriving from Ngorongo" traffic jam, so decided to not bother. Add the typical "blue sky = harsh light" weather and the not overly abundant wildlife, and I was ready for Ndutu and some rain.

But the tree climbing lions near Lake Magadi made up for much of that. In all my years in East Africa, frequenting parks where that is common (like Lake Manyara), I had yet to see or photograph a decent example. This one grand tree appeared to be the home base for the pride, and they all climbed it (or smaller ones nearby)--much to everyone's delight.

LAKE NDUTU AREA: We were fortunate to be able to switch our campsite reservation to the Big Marsh Special Campsite at the last minute--very centrally located to both Big and Small Marshes, and saving probably a half-hour drive over staying at the Lake Ndutu lodge. And about the closest campsite to the plains just west of Small Marsh which proved to be so popular with the cheetahs. The wildebeest and zebras appeared to use the marshes as transit corridors, which provided good photographic opportunities.
THE MIGRATION: With the start of the rains and the abundance of fresh grasses, the migration herds were in no hurry to move, so fragments of the herd could be found both in the open plains and in the trees, in small groups and in the thousands. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised how the nearly constant presence of the wildebeest gave the Serengeti such vibrance, and if none happened to be within sight, evoke such an emptiness.
At only 6 or so weeks old, the wildebeest calves were surprisingly large, and numerous.
One problem I've always had with trying to photograph the migration on the Serengeti is the inability to gain enough altitude to be able to satisfactorily capture the size of the herd--the terrain is just too flat! [Yes, I know I could charter an airplane or ultralight, but the scheduling and logistics of being in the right place at the right time in the best light is difficult. <rant> And I have problems with photographers who do this, who in the process cause the herd to unnaturally stampede, which of course is described as capturing the migration. Do you think it is natural for a herd of elephants to stampede across flooded plains of the Okavango? It's a shame the resolution isn't high enough to see the panic on the animal's faces. </rant>]
But during our stay at Nasera Rock in the NCA, we found ample hills and mountain sides for enough elevation to get panoramic views of the wildlife on the plains. The migration had followed us from Ndutu, or maybe we inadvertently followed them, and although in fewer numbers, still provided enough animals for decent photos of them and the expansive Serengeti.
A MINI-MIGRATION: Fadhil and I usually ate both our breakfasts and lunches in the field, rather than traveling back to camp (my choice; I prefer watching cats instead!). On a day that we hadn't planned to have lunch in the field, we encountered a "mini-migration" while returning to camp. For over a half-hour we watched and photographed wildebeest as they ran past us in Big Marsh--until we became bored!--and then continued on to camp! (Heresy, I know). I estimated 3-5,000 animals passed us during that time (and yes, I do have animal counting experience, caribou on migration) and maybe that many passed after we left (they stretched as far as I could see). I rank this just as thrilling as any Mara River crossing I've witnessed, complete with all the thundering hoof beats, the grunts and bleating, the choking dust, etc., but without the crocodiles and bank-filled parking lots.
THE CHEETAHS: I'm not one to keep a scorecard, but over the seven days at Ndutu I think I managed to see and photograph most of the 20+ cheetahs reported to be residing in the area. They were definitely the main attractions on the plains around Ndutu, so were well attended by safari vehicles, and if you did happen to find some on your own, you soon had lots of company. Most of the vehicles were from the largest tour companies, and since most of their guides are not really trained guides, they find it easier to find animals via radio and cell phone rather than skill.
A STRANGE ENCOUNTER: One afternoon, under some of the harsh light I was lamenting about earlier, we watched (along with about a half dozen of our closest friend's vehicles) this female and her three 10 month old cubs (The Twin Trees Cheetahs) when she spotted a herd of gazelles in the distance. She slowly stalked the gazelles, while the cubs remained.
Before her stalk turned into a serious chase, two very large male cheetahs (The Coffee Boys) appeared out of nowhere--actually they had spent the afternoon some 300 meters away, attended by another subset of safari vehicles, who quickly joined us.

The cubs ran towards their mother, upset by the appearence the males, while the mother gave up on her stalking and quickly returned to her offspring. Surprisingly, the mother was not overly upset with the presence of the males, but only joined the hissing of her now stressed cubs as the males played with the cubs. They pursued one and held it down (not really visible in the photograph), but really never became overly aggressive.

The encounter was a little strange: Why wasn't the mother more distressed and defensive, since protecting your young is one of the primal urges? Discussing this with Fadhil, we came up with: Being the territorial males, the cubs are probably their own; they may have been checking the estrus status of the mother; and this was probably just a friendly visit. But I couldn't help thinking maybe they were just putting the teenagers in their place....