Were back! and an overview on our recent photo safari “Big Cats and the Great Migration” is in order. In short: they were, it was… and vise versa.
Sometimes everything lines up better than one can reasonably hope for – such was the case on this last safari. We enjoyed terrific weather and light everyday, spectacular landscapes, and most importantly – wildlife encounters that surpassed our wildest expectations. Keep in mind, this is the Serengeti, and amazing wildlife sightings are commonplace… but this was at another level.
Our group was made up of experienced (and fun) photographers / videographers – and they were enthusiastic from start to finish. We worked hard everyday – all day… departing before sunrise – and usually getting back in the dark around 8pm. Many photo-ops presented themselves like gifts – others we worked for with persistence and patience, at times waiting hours for the right shot. Overall, it was an all you can eat buffet of nature experiences and photo-ops… and we gorged.
As I typically plan, our safari started with a photography warm-up by shooting in the Ngorongoro Crater for a few days. I just love this place, especially at this time of year… as it’s a verdant wonderland with very few other people, and the plethora of wildlife seams particularly active and cooperative. We photographed the biggest of the big tuskers, several heavy maned male lions, many black rhinos… the list goes on. This is a great place to start burning up the memory cards and getting in the photography groove.
From the crater we moved on to the woodlands and short grass plains – within both the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and in the Serengeti National Park proper. The latter being where we would begin to explore remote (off the beaten track) areas and utilizing our special filming permits. These permits allowed us to access habitat and wildlife rarely seen, and are a privilege for sure.
While we photographed a lot of the wildlife diversity the Serengeti offers, but our objective was to stay focused on finding and shooting the cats – and we did so in spades. To say the cats were active would be an understatement, as we photographed more dramatic hunts than ever before. In addition, we witnessed several cats get into territorial skirmishes with other wildlife – like a big male lion vs a black rhino; cheetahs vs a cory bustard; and leopard cubs vs a barn owl… to name a few. In total, we had opportunities to shoot and film 114 lions, 22 cheetahs, 7 leopards, 9 serval cats, 3 wildcats, and 2 civet cats – and those are different cats – many of which we encountered multiple times. In truth, the cumulative quantity and quality of our big cat photo-ops was beyond outstanding.
Our cheetah encounters were simply spectacular. The sign of things to come was evident from our very first sighting: It was our first morning in prime cheetah habitat and we were exploring a remote area (with no one else as far as the eye could see). From about a quarter mile away, we spotted what appeared to be a couple cheetahs hunkered down with just their heads above the brush. As we were moving closer to check it out, our vehicle flushed an African hare from the underbrush – which ran directly at the resting cheetahs. The cats saw the running hare, which then triggered an explosion of five cheetahs emerging – and instantly running full tilt boogie trying to catch it …which also happened to be straight at us! We had a crazy few minutes of shooting the high speed zig-zagging chase at close quarters. It was a mother and four sub-adult cubs, and they made quick work of their small snack.
Then, after the excitement had settled down and the cheetah fivesom had wandered off – we proceeded to fix a flat tire on one of the vehicles. A few minutes later we looked up to see an orphaned wildebeest calf less than 50 yards away – and just about the time we were joking how lucky the calf was that the cheetahs had departed – the mother cheetah looked back and saw the calf. They made an about face and proceeded to stalk the calf in perfect squadron formation …and again, straight back at us! The whole thing played out right in front of us – and no, it did not end well for the calf. This all while were just trying to fix a flat.
While still parked near the kill, I glassed up yet another cheetah hunting about a half mile away…so off we went to follow and photograph him. Later that same day we shot a couple beautiful male lions, a couple very small cute lion cubs – then spent the last couple hours of light with a beautiful male leopard lounging in a tree during a beautiful sunset. Wow, what a day that was, and one that would be very hard to repeat or improve upon – but we did, the very next day.
At first light the following day we found another mother cheetah, and again, against all odds, she also had four sub-adult cubs. We spent the entire day with them as they hunted, with the good mother intent on giving all the cubs a chance to practice the skills they would need to survive. We were along for an amazing day of observing cheetah hunting school. It was spot, stalk, chase – and repeat… all day long.
Most of the chases were unsuccessful, but the many near misses were very exciting, especially when they took down a calf only to be attacked by the mother wildebeest. No doubt the cubs learned some valuable lessons, and so did we. The day ended with a sunset kill of a Thompson’s gazelle fawn – which included all the cubs taking turns showing mom their chase down and trip-up skills.
Lions were an everyday staple – from magnificent males to cute little cubs. We had big male lions roaring their heads off a few times while we shot them, which is always cool beyond belief. You can hear a male lions roar from miles away, so just imagine what it’s like from 50 ft and strait at you… you can feel the power reverberate in your bones! Moreover, on many nights they were roaring just outside our luxury tents at Mbuzi Mawe. No rest for the timid.
Leopards: While we saw and shot many leopards, it was the mother with a couple four month old cubs that provided the most memorable experience. We found them in a Sausage tree first thing one morning, having a yummy breakfast of Aardwolf (not a typical menu item) We were able to watch and photograph them in varying light and conditions over a 5 day period, which gave us the opportunity to shoot them both with their mother and also while they were alone. One thing you can count on with cubs – when moms away, they will play! We photographed and filmed them in a perpetual game of chasing each other – and a Barn owl – up, down and around the tree… such fun.
The great Migration was as spectacular as I’ve ever seen it, probably more so – we were literally wading through continual herds on the short grass plains – it was mostly wildebeest, but also zebra, thompson’s and grants gazelles and eland for as far as the eye could see. While I’m still working on learning Swahili, I do happen to be fluent in wildebeest speak. So yes, I’m bilingual.
This recap is just a snippet of the experiences we had… leaving room for several more detailed accounts for future blog posts. I’ll close with a big “Thank You” (Asante Sana) to the guests/film crew that I shared this safari with; our partner Proud African Safaris; Adam and Sitta – the unequivocal best guides in the Serengeti; and lastly, the dedicated game rangers of the Serengeti – who work tirelessly to protect this amazing ecosystem.
Please note: We are offering two similar photo safaris in March/April 2014, one of which will include the exclusive filming permits… see the details in our safari page. In addition, we will have several excellent safaris that will be a bit shorter and offer a more relaxed pace.