Back in November 2020 I was privileged enough to lead three back-to-back photographic safaris in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. I used to work in the Luangwa Valley, back before I worked in the UK in the wildlife travel business, so I am very familiar with the wildlife and it is like home from home for me. The week before my first guests arrived, I went to a national park I hadn’t previously heard of – Luambe National Park. In fact, a friend of mine (and my old boss) now runs the only accommodation in the park and offered to show me around.
So here is a little taster of my first week back in the Zambian bush, the place where I probably feel most at home. As well as Luambe, I went for a few game drives in the Mfuwe sector of South Luangwa National Park – so believe me when I tell you that the wildlife sightings were world class.
I hope you enjoy an image-based round up of week one …
The African wild dogs (or painted wolves) were taken in Luambe National Park whilst staying at the truly stunning Luambe Camp. I can't recommend this remote and beautiful camp highly enough, so please do visit the website to find out more.
P.S. The next few posts show even more variety and a whole host of cats ...
At the end of the dry season, the heat in Mana Pools National Park just seems to build up and up. A natural crescendo, until eventually the rains come and bring a little relief. In early November though, the rains had still not arrived and day time temperatures were regularly hitting 44 degrees Celsius.
Driving through the park on this particular morning, it felt like you were in the firing line of an industrial hairdryer, a stifling, warm breeze filling the air and making it feel a little uncomfortable. We were back in search of the wild dogs once more. Having spent the previous afternoon on the river, it seemed like we had to catch up with the dogs and find out what they were up to.
However, no matter how hard we tried, we were unable to find the dogs on this particular morning. Instead we found a very sociable, and approachable, flock of long-tailed starlings. When a group of wildlife photographers are together, any slightly different subject just means you have something new to focus on. Later on we managed to find the small pride of lions, two adult females and a young male and spent a bit of time watching and photographing them before heading back to camp for lunch.
The majority of the group decided to go out on the river once more this afternoon, all but one, who wanted to head out after the dogs once more. In order to keep the group size manageable for the canoe safari, I headed out with the one client and our guide Daryl. Well there is no other way to describe the afternoon with the dogs, other than that it was pretty magical. It was only going to be a shorter game drive/walk as we had arranged a BBQ on the banks of the Zambezi up stream of our camp.
We found the dogs resting in the same drying river gulley we had left them a few days earlier. As there was only three of us, we slowly made our way towards the pack, taking our time and keeping the noise to a minimum. The whole pack were so incredibly relaxed and we were able to get extremely close. This encounter was right up there with my very best anywhere in the world, probably only coming second to coming face-to-face with the gorillas.
I am not really going to say much more, other than that it was a real privilege. The following pictures and footage can do all the talking for me.
If you would like to join me in October 2019, we still have a few spaces remaining. You can find out more and book your place by visiting the Wildlife Worldwide website.
With the start of our trip to Mana Pools being so successful, particularly with the African wild dogs, the pressure was off and the whole group could just enjoy themselves. There is nothing better for me as a leader than knowing your group are happy after their first couple of days on safari.
When I asked everyone what they wanted to focus on for the next few days, half the group said they would like to try their luck with the southern carmine bee-eater colony, while the other half wanted to keep following the dogs. I kept with the wild dog group to keep numbers nicely balanced and we had a brilliant time with the dogs.
It took a little time to find the dogs this morning as they had moved some distance overnight. Nick Murray (our guide and the BBC’s Dynasties series guide) and I used our combined tracking skills to eventually find the dogs much further to the east. The pack had come across a small herd of zebra and decided that this was a good lesson for the pups. Zebra are not typical prey for these painted wolves, they focus their efforts on impala, but that is all part of the learning curve for young dogs.
We watched them play with the zebra for 10 minutes or so before they went off at high speed after a herd of impala. Even in the vehicle we couldn’t keep up, such was their speed. When we eventually caught up with them, they had found a warthog and were desperately trying to catch it. However, every time they got close the warthog, which was a very healthy large male, he backed himself into a drainage culvert.
Eventually the pack gave up and just went about the daily routine of getting ready for their siesta. This is a great time to photograph the dogs as the sun is often still low in the sky, meaning you get some lovely rich light. At the same time, a large bull elephant appeared and started to browse the high branches of a fruiting sausage tree. We were truly blessed with some excellent photography. We also came across a small pride of lion just a hundred yards or so from where we had a breakfast stop on the banks of the Zambezi.
After a little while, all the dogs eventually crossed a drying pool and ended up resting in a shady dry gully, where the sandy soil was still moist with small pools of water. We found the dogs in the same spot in the afternoon before they suddenly got up, crossed one of the small pools and sprinted across the open plain towards the higher ground of the park.
Above the floodplain the vegetation is radically different and we lost the dogs in the thick undergrowth. It was only the noise of the dogs on a kill that meant we were able to locate them in a dense thicket. The photography opportunities here were limited, but the proximity to the pack and their kill was incredible.
It all got rather exciting as the light started to fade. As we were watching the pack finish off the last scraps of the impala carcass, a small herd of elephants arrived on the scene. Within moments the elephants had the scent of the wild dogs and charged – the only issue was that we were between the two and we had to make a very speedy retreat and move back towards the vehicles. Our guides were absolutely excellent, keeping the group out of harms way without any hesitation or panic. Clear, calm and incisive commands kept us all safe with some heightened adrenaline levels.
So, the 5th day of the tour, and our last opportunity to get some shots in the Mara. We went for one last morning drive before heading off towards Amboseli NP. If you didn't know, Amboseli like the Maasai Mara is on the border with Tanzania and it has quite a spectacular backdrop: Mt. Kilimanjaro (the world's tallest free standing mountain). Firstly though we would be staying the night at Lake Naivasha, enjoying the tranquility of this beautiful setting, and hopefully getting some good shots of the wildlife too.
One thing that had managed to elude us over the past few days was a big handsome male Lion, we made sure we ordered one for the last drive, instructing our fantastic Wild Eye guide Joseph to deliver. Of course we offered to buy him a Tuskers if he succeeded! So, we left the camp on the Mara River for one last time, knowing we would meet the staff the next day in Amboseli. We were heading towards the Mara proper as a pair of Jackal crossed the road in front of us. We of course got a few mandatory snaps before moving on.
As we rounded one of the gentle hills I noticed a light shape in the grass, only a couple of hundred yards ahead and you could tell it was a big cat. Luckily for us, the cat was laying right by the road, we quickly realised it was the same Cheetah as from the night before (it had some sort of skin condition, mites perhaps, and it had rather scruffy ears). The light was superb (changing every couple of minutes) and the cat performed perfectly, sitting and posing before moving off and then laying back down again. "Purrrfect!!!" (And yes, before you ask, Cheetahs do actually purr.)
Sorry to interrupt with some text, but I would love for you all to pay close attention to the image above! I am going to nerd it up a bit here and I am sure some of you are already well aware of this fact anyway. Cheetah are from a different family of cats to those of the Lion and the Leopard, which are both part of the Panthera family. The Cheetah, unlike the Lion and the Leopard, can not fully retract its claws and as you can see in this photo, the claws are well and truly on display! Fascinating huh? (Back to the pictures now I promise!)
What a great start to a day it was then, you couldn't ask for a better opportunity to practise your big cat portrait photography. Also interesting to see that these majestic animals don't have it all their own way, a skin condition might not seem like a life threatening condition, but if you are at not at your peak in such a competitive environment then it could be your downfall. I really hope that this Cheetah carries on feeding successfully for many more years to come.
After this fantastic sighting we made our way to the bridge, where we would leave the Mara Triangle one last time before heading through the Maasai Mara NP and onwards to Lake Naivasha. As we signed out, at the offices, there were ample photography opportunities. Most people opted to photograph the Mara River and the extraordinarily coloured Agama Lizards but I set my sights on some small rodents.
Just as we were readying ourselves for the drive to Lake Naivasha, we got some news that a large male Lion had been seen not far from us, back in the Mara Triangle. We turned around and headed to the spot to see if we would strike lucky and see the cat. We arrived full of excitment to find no sign of the large male but we did find the local Park Guard. A few other vehicles arrived ahead of us. The guard directed them across the valley to where there were some lions in the grass (no male though). As we approached the guard's vehicle, we had invited him to breakfast the day before, he hinted that the large male might be in the bushes next to us and indeed it was.
As the other vehicles made their way across the shallow valley we primed ourselves, ready for the lone male to make his move. We didn't have to wait long as after only a few minutes, he was up and moving across the hillside. We of course snapped away happily, enjoying the moment we had ordered earlier on in the morning.
We decided to leave the big male in peace and quiet, and thought we would go and pay a quick visit to the Lionesses across the valley, before finally heading off and making our way out of the Mara. However, once again, we got to see something miraculous. A lone Wildebeest was wondering straight towards the lions, and suddenly one of them went into stalking mode.
It was amazing to watch and before we knew it the Lioness sprinted off, chasing the Wildebeest down into the valley below us. Not making for the best photographic opportunities but it was all very exciting. The Wildebeest got away and then we were lucky enough to experience one of the Lions greeting her cubs and walking with them through the long grass. It was a lovely intimate moment and one that I very much enjoyed.
We decided that it really was time to head off after this chance sighting. We eventually made our way out of the Maasai Mara NP and onto the road Northwards towards the Maasai town of Narok and onwards again to Lake Naivasha. We arrived at the extremely comfortable Sopa Lodge (admittedly after a pretty long and bumpy drive) and were treated to our first sightings of the wonderful Black & White Colobus Monkeys.
To sum it all up then, another day full of fantastic photographic opportunities and some truly amazing wildlife sightings. We really couldn't have got the shots we did without the patience of Joseph, our guide. He listened to every thing we said, always getting us exactly where we wanted to be at just the right time. So once again a massive thank you to Joseph for putting up with us picky and demanding photographers. Thanks again to the Wild Eye photography experts, Gerry and Andrew for their guidance and thanks to fellow tour participant Richard for his continued good humour!
So after an amazing third day in Kenya, filled with fantastic sightings, I really wasn't sure how day 4 could get any better. But don't be alarmed, the 4th day was certainly one to remember! Perhaps the photography opportunities weren't quite of the same standard as the day before (primarily due to some harsh or unhelpful lighting) but once again that is all part of the challenge of a trip like this.
I love simple monochrome photography, it is something that has always appealed to me and I like to try my hand at it when I can. Harsh lighting often works really well for this type of photography, providing strong shadows and bright highlights. The hardest thing I always find is getting the composition just right.
Anyway today was one of those days where the colour often disappeared from the images, and so I shot a lot of monochrome photos. The morning was quite quiet on the big cat front, a couple of young Lion early on and some Elephants too, including a good sized bull. Don't get me wrong these are all wonderful sightings, and I love every minute in the field but it did not quite have the same wow factor as the day before.
We were heading for the northern part of the Mara Triangle for what was meant to be a breathtaking breakfast spot and on the way there wasn't all that much about in the endless sea of grass. We stopped to photograph another Lioness in a truly vast, open landscape which was short but sweet.
Then we arrived at our breakfast stop, quite late on in the morning and goodness me, it was one phenomenal view, absolutely astounding! The panoramic shot I took just doesn't and it never could do it justice but I hope it at least gives you an idea of how spectacular this landscape actually is.
So after spending an hour or so at what has to be one of the best spots on Earth to sit and eat your breakfast, we primed our big lenses once again for the journey back along the Mara River to our campsite.
As we descended the escarpment down into the valley we came across a couple of giraffe making their way between the scattered Acacia trees. It was then that one started to walk over a rise in the rolling landscape, providing an eye level view of a giraffe's head. It again provided something a little different with the heat of the Kenyan sun beating down.
As we got further down towards the plains proper, one of our vehicles stopped and we soon noticed that there was a Lioness up a tree. Now this is not something you see everyday in the Mara, the tree climbing Lions of Queen Elizabeth NP in Uganda are well known, but here it is a rare sighting. Actually I was pretty excited and really rather chuffed with it all. Being the picky photographer I am, the lighting wasn't great, but none the less it was one heck of a sighting and it really made it a top morning. It seems every morning in the Mara stands out, and it does!!! It is just one of those places which can provide you with the most memorable of sightings.
So after another exciting and productive morning it was time to head back to camp and relax. That actually meant it was time to go back to camp and get on the laptop, sort through the vast quantities images from the past few days and have a cold drink. We would be going out again in the afternoon but this time it would be only for a short drive close by to the camp.
So, refreshed and with the camera again at the ready, it was time to head out on our last evening drive in the Mara. By this time, the long hot day had turned rather stormy, there were big dark clouds looming overhead, threatening to release a deluge of water, which they eventually did (leading me to almost fall flat on my face as I arrived in camp).
The light levels were rather low but we found some subjects to photograph early on. The one that stands out most was a Secretary Bird. This amazing looking bird is perfectly adapted for the plains of the Rift Valley and they are instantly recognisable. It was amazing to watch this bird try and take flight, it certainly isn't an easy process as you can see further below.
There were still a few Wildebeest around at this time of year, not in the vast numbers you find during the migration, and we soon found a herd thundering around the plains. This provided a great opportunity to try and get some panning shots ... we also kept the vehicle moving, enabling us to really get a sense of the speed and power that these strong antelope possess.
Then to our amazement the herd of Wildebeest startled a Cheetah that had been laying in the grass, it was very nearly trampled! By the time we caught up, the cat was resting again, with the Wildebeest and some Thompson's Gazelle providing a backdrop.
Thanks again must go to the Wild Eye team for keeping everything running so smoothly on yet another busy day. The wildlife sightings were, once again, superb and the company was excellent too. A great guide again in Joseph, always putting us where wanted to be and two Canon buddies in Wild Eye Ambassador Andrew Aveley and tour participant Richard Sparks providing plenty of entertainment and banter.
The 3rd day in the Mara promised to be a good day, after the success we had the day before, it was going to have to be pretty epic. And the morning started off absolutely perfectly, we found our Leopard friend up the tree, looking rather relaxed and pretty sedate. We did find some other subjects to photograph, including Grey Crowned Cranes and a Jackal but the Leopard stole the show somewhat!
After taking far too many photographs of our lovely Leopard we heard about a Cheetah only a few hundred yards away. As we hadn't yet seen a Cheetah we decided it was worth a chance and we left the Leopard to enjoy its rest. However when we got there we were rather disappointed, there were quite a few vehicles around the Cheetah and after only a few moments it moved off. Without getting a single decent shot we were a little frustrated.
We then heard about another Cheetah sighting further down the road, sat atop of a rock and we rushed off to see whether we could get some shots. What happened over the next 3 hours was truly phenomenal. It was probably one of my top photographic and top wildlife encounters at the same time. It was truly exhilerating!
After 15-20 minutes of excellent portrait photography the Cheetah decided it was time to move on. She jumped down off of the rock and headed straight towards a herd of Thompson's Gazelle. They spotted her very early on and she quickly gave up going to ground. We stayed with her for the next couple of hours, watching and waiting!
It was then, after the gazelle came too close, that the Cheetah made its move. Within only a matter of moments it was off, running at full speed after a young male Thompson's Gazelle. Unfortunately for us it was over the hill in a split second. We quickly made ready and we headed off to see whether or not it was successful. It was successful and its quarry was still alive. Seeing this side of nature is at times very hard, but at the same time you cannot help but be enthralled and I for one feel extraordinarily privileged to have been able to say I saw such an intense spectacle.
We decided to leave her to it so she could feed undisturbed and not draw attention to her. We would come back later and see how she was doing. We headed off across the Mara River and into the Maasai Mara NP for a spot of lunch and we explored some of the big open landscapes that this has to offer. We came across some Lion lazing in the shade, a rather grumpy bull Elephant and plenty of Topi. We then headed back to camp, checking up on the Cheetah which had eaten a whole leg and was starting on another.
What a wonderful day it was then, big cat sightings galore and some truly epic landscapes. Animal behaviour at its absolute best and a great day out with our guide Joseph as well as Wild Eye ambassador Andrew Aveley and Richard Sparks.
After a lovely night catching up on some much needed sleep, it was time to spend our first full day in the Mara. Awoken bright and early with an enthusiastic "Jambo!" (actually it was still dark), the camera gear was already waiting to go and after a spot of Tea (in my case, everyone else had coffee) I was ready too!
We climbed aboard the Land Cruiser, our guide Jimmy was ready and raring to go. It wasn't long in fact before my French counterparts gave Jimmy a rather appropriate nickname. For the rest of the trip Jimmy was to be called "Jimmy Loeb", after the French World Rally Champion: Sebastien Loeb. Jimmy is a top quality guide and his driving skills are second to none, and at times pretty nippy, always getting you to the right spot at the right time.
So anyway, after only 30 seconds of driving outside of camp, we saw some Impala all alert and looking the same way. A moment later we spotted a lone Lioness making its way across the open grassland, the light was warm but not very bright, it was time to push the new Canon EOS 5D mkIII and see just how well it performed at a higher ISO. An ISO of 2500 was just right and the image showed almost no signs of noise, what a great start to the morning. We only stayed a short while before heading off to find some other species to photograph. We noticed, in the distance, a herd of Wildebeest running in all directions and we quickly realised a lone Hyena was trying its best to hunt. As we arrived on the scene the Hyena went to ground, seemingly worn out by its morning exhertions.
After this little foray we heard that there were some Lion not far from where we were, so off we went with our trigger fingers hovering over the shutter release button. It was Canon all round in our Landcruiser with two 60D's and my 5D mkIII plus my 7D, a 70-200mm f2.8, two 100-400mm's and my 300 f/2.8. We had all angles covered as we arrived to find a young male and a young lioness stood in the open.
We again moved on quite quickly as we knew the rest of the pride, including some young cubs, were just over the brow of the hill. We got there to find two large females relaxing with two sets of cubs. What a wonderful sight it was and I took far too many photos as always.
So after a lovely morning with the Lion and the excitement of the Hyena chasing the Wildebeest it was time to head back to camp for a well deserved rest! On our way back we stopped at the Mara river, as you can see below, and came across some Giraffe making their way across the rolling plains.
After a busy morning with some great sightings we thought it would be difficult to beat. And to start with it seemed as if this might be the case. The gloomy clouds were coming in (not always a bad thing for dramatic photos) and after 45 minutes we hadn't seen very much at all, even with "Jimmy Loeb" once again at the wheel. Then we heard that the Leopard was in the tree where the kill had been found the day before.
Before we knew it Jimmy's rally skills were put to the test as we raced back before the cat disappeared. After only 10 minutes, we arrived to find the cat was still up the tree but it was no prime photography opportunity. Well unless you like lots of branches in the way, being photographers we are always particularly fussy but you can't help but watch Leopards and we did just that!
After working in Zambia's South Luangwa NP, I have spent quite a bit of time with Leopard and once we had got our record shots I asked Jimmy if we could move back from the other vehicles. The way the tree sloped and the postioning of the lower branches I thought we might strike it lucky if it decided to come down. Then just to make sure we got the shots, an almighty rain storm came in and the Leopard decided it was time to find some better shelter. Our positioning was spot on, thanks must go to Jimmy for really listening to where we wanted to be and helping us get the shots. This is the key difference on a photography tour to a normal safari and one that you really appreciate, this is where Wild Eye really excelled.
After all that excitement, and a complete soaking, we went off to find the Lion family that we saw earlier on in the day. We quickly found them and after a bit of water was removed from the front of my lens, it was time to get some nice Lion portraits in the soft light. Then it was time to head back to camp, dry off and spend another evening in the great company of my fellow tour participants.
As many of you will know I went to Kenya last November, with my girlfriend. It was my first time visiting Eastern Africa and I was blown away by the wildlife, we even caught the tail end of the migration. We saw a great number of Lion on our 5 days in the Mara, including some young cubs, so I thought I would share a few of these with you all.
The male Lion above, was one of the first larger males we saw in the 5 days we were in the park. We spent a few minutes with the pride and before long the flies were becoming a real hassle. He decided to take some action against the flies and covered his eyes with his paw, before long he was back asleep in shrubby vegetation. Not long after the flies had become too much for us as well and we moved on.
This large cub was with a sibling when we spotted them walking along one of the tracks. We quickly realised that the cubs were heading in the direction of a herd of Wildebeest and Zebra. With no cover to conceal them the split up and started to trot towards the herd. Their efforts were entirely unsuccessful as the herd watched the two individuals before quickly moving on. Eventually the two cubs gave up and headed off up the hill.
This is the sister of the Lion cub above, not long after they had finished chasing the herd of Zebra and Wildebeest. The two were heading up the gentle slope of a low hill, and then we heard their mother, who quickly appeared from a thicket close by. They came right towards the vehicle as they headed towards their mother, allowing some lovely close up portraits, so close in fact that I could not fit the whole cub in the frame.
This lioness was laying on the edge of the Mara River watching the world go by when she saw some movement close by and went off to investigate. We followed her to find she was stalking a Monitor Lizard in the heavily grazed grass and she was very curious about it. It looked an awful lot like a domestic cat playing with a toy mouse, as it circled around it. It soon lost interest and rested within a few feet of it, eventually dozing off.
Here are a few of my big cat photographs that I never really gave a second chance and so I thought that now they deserved to see the light of day and be seen by others. These were all taken whilst I was working for Kafunta River Lodge in Zambia.