Wednesday, July 27, 2011

THE MAASAI MARA LANDSCAPES


As I sit and stare out across the landscape in front of my house, as it stretches 60km’s into the distance, it dawns on me that the true magic of Africa lies in space. Acres and acres of space. The sad facts about the space lie in the failure of Africa to feed and clothe itself. This, however, is not any fault of Africans but of a harsh climate coupled with an unrelenting earth that does not easily reward efforts to tame it. The early migration of man, northwards, to greener pastures has created this space and the animals of Africa that were left behind simply adapted and made this space their own. Of course, this space is now in jeopardy in the 21st Century but as long as the climate remains harsh and unrelenting we will be able to enjoy the benefits of this space.
Down in the more affluent area of Africa, namely the good old South, human encroachment has pushed the animals back behind fences and into cages and the glory of the wide open plains is fast disappearing. But as one heads further North where development has not been able to get the same foothold we are still able to experience the true wilderness of a Continent that is unnervingly beautiful in its raw state. No power lines, no telephones, no highrise buildings and certainly very bad roads. All of these are key requirements for the survival of a wilderness area and its inhabitants, the animals.
As a photographer, besides capturing images of animals, I have become fascinated with trying to capture that essence of space in my work. It is, however, hauntingly difficult to achieve. On my now, almost forgotten, trip to the Masai Mara I took along a wide angle lens and finally started to get a sense of space in the images.  The Masai Mara, although a fairly well frequented area with its Lodges and Camps dotted on its borders can still, theoretically at least, be considered a wilderness as within its boundaries animals roam free without the confines of fences. An area devoid of much vegetation other than the billowing grass that feeds the millions of wildebeest, the landscape rolls out before your eyes and you can truly sense that beguiling beauty that words fail to describe.
As Africans we should be jealously guarding these spaces. It is here that we can continue to visit our Mecca and experience the peace and harmony that only the African Plains can offer us. We owe it to the ever adaptable animals of Africa to keep their Eden a reality.



Monday, July 18, 2011

THE MASAI MARA – A PHOTOGRAPHER’S PARADISE?

From the air the myriad of animals on the plains of the Mara can be seen. Then the wheels of the plane touch down on the dusty runway and the show begins.  The short drive to the camp is filled with involuntary arm extensions as I compulsively reach for the camera bag and silently curse the fact that everything is so well packed. Animals abound on all sides and it takes brute willpower to drive on by.
Entim Camp is one of the southern-most camps in the Mara. The Mara River meanders by in full view of the tent and the whole camp. Lunch is served in an open Bedouin-like tent with a show of grazing animals on the other side of the river. This must surely be heaven.
Finally 4pm rolls on by and the first game drive is no longer anticipated, it has arrived. Not even 500m from the camp and the first animals curiously watch as the vehicle rolls on by. In the Mara animals standing staring are ignored as they do not offer any exciting prospects. There is enough time and enough animals for careful consideration of setting, lighting and composition. Rarely does one get this opportunity elsewhere. The open plains are easily accessible by vehicle and there is very little hampering a good sighting. It is only on the river banks that the bush presents an obstacle. However, a good driver can beat these odds in this environment and there is seldom an insurmountable challenge.

The sighting list reels off like a book of the animals of East Africa.

DAY ONE
Waterbuck, Impala, Warthogs, Leopard, Giraffe, Cheetah, Elephant, Buffalo, Topi, Cox Hartebeest, Thompson’s Gazelle, Banded Mongoose, Blackback Jackal, Bateared Fox, Olive Baboons, Wildebeest, Zebra and Spotted Hyena.
Highlight shot of the day:
DAY TWO
Lion, Bateared Fox, Leopard x 3, Hippo, Southern Ground Hornbill, Elephants, Dwarf Mongoose, Spotted Hyena, Giraffe, Cox Hartebeest, Thompson’s Gazelle, Hippo, Zebra, Waterbuck and Impala.
Highlight shot of the day:
DAY THREE
Hyena, Cheetah with 6 cubs, Lion pride, dead Buffalo, Spotted Hyena, Giraffe, Elephants, Banded Mongoose, Blackback Jackal, Thompson’s Gazelle, Dik-Dik, Topi, Grant’s Gazelle, mating Lions, 4 x Lionesses, Zebras, Cox Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Buffalo, Vultures, Warthogs, Hippo.
Highlight shot of the day:
DAY FOUR
Mating Lions, Topi, Cox Hartebeest, Buffalo, Zebra, Cheetah with 6 cubs, Ostrich, Bushbuck ram, Spotted Hyena, Thompson’s Gazelle, Grant’s Gazelle, Giraffe, Elephants, Warthogs, Hippo, Whiteheaded Vulture, Ruppels Griffon Vultures, Yellowbilled Oxpeckers, Pygmy Kingfisher, Black Rhino, Lion pride.
Highlight shot of the day:
DAY FIVE
Thompson’s Gazelle, Cox Hartebeest, Topi, Buffalo, Impala, Eland, Cheetah, Waterbuck, Lion cubs, Tawny Eagle, Black Chested Snake Eagle, Lilac Breasted Roller, Ruppels Griffon Vultures, Red Billed Woodhoopoe, Olive  Baboons, Spotted Hyena, Crested Crane, Hamerkop, Grant’s Gazelle, Ostrich, Zebra, Warthog, Elephants, Lion, Leopard, male Lion alliance, Lion mating pair, Giraffe,Southern Ground Hornbill, Bateleur.
Highlight shot of the day:
DAY SIX
Thompson’s Gazelle, Topi, Giraffe, Hartebeest, Leopard, Lions on Hippo kill, Dik-Dik, Zebra, Buffalo, mating Lions, Vultures, Blackback Jackal, Impala, Marabou Stork, Spotted Hyena.
Highlight shot of the day:
DAY SEVEN
Thompson’s Gazelle, Topi, Cox Hartebeest, Spotted Hyena, male Lion alliance, 2 pairs mating Lions, Blackback Jackal, Hooded Vulture, Marabou Stork, Ruppels Griffon Vultures, Zebra, Impala, 3 dead Zebras struck by lightning, Crested Cranes.
Highlight shot of the day:
Drive after drive presents more opportunities than can be pursued. Each day there is a choice of locations and sightings and when the animals are lazing away under trees and there is little activity the plains of the Mara present landscape opportunities of note. The days are filled with frantic activity while camera equipment is put to the test.
At the end of the stay there cannot possibly be any sense of disappointment – just one day in the Mara is like a week anywhere else.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

THE MAASAI MARA.......EYEBALL TO EYEBALL

Or better said eyeball through lens to eyeball.
The Safarilink Caravan bumps down onto the runway at Olkiombo and I cannot believe that this is only my second visit to the Masai Mara. It is inconceivable to imagine that it has taken so long for me to discover the heart and soul of Africa. The anticipation is tangible and I look forward to the seven days ahead. This time I have deliberately chosen to visit the Mara when there are no wildebeest. The last time I touched down here there was hardly a spot unoccupied and the stream of grunting wildebeest constantly on the move did not leave space for the appreciation of the wilderness.
The plains are devoid of the players of this epic annual event and the eye can search back and forth and soak up the plains that stretch out in a display of golden harmony. The road to the camp (Entim Camp) is still as rutted as ever and the crossing of the Talek River is a little more difficult as the rain has washed the access badly this year. I have a different driver/guide this time. Samy, a broad smiling Masai is competent behind the wheel of his Landcruiser as he makes his way over the rough terrain. The camp is unchanged since September and the tent is a comfortable haven.  After a welcome drink, we head for the tent to unpack and get the gear ready.
It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how one may plan, the bush has its own plan, and the best course of action is to allow that action to dictate the activities on Safari. It is often a point of discussion while out in the bush with other photographers that we miss out on so much because we are behind the lens with a limited view. However, I find that my senses become heightened during drives, I am constantly looking around for opportunities and therefore I am not only looking but I am seeing too. Then there is the pleasure of pouring over my photographs afterwards. As I search for that perfect shot I am aware of so much more as photographs are studied intensely. It is amazing how much one can miss such as a crocodile hidden between the rocks behind the hippos wallowing in the river.
On review of my photographs from this visit to the Mara one pervading theme is evident. I think the animals were on Safari. It is astounding how many animals turned the tables this time round and studied me. So much so, that I tried to do some research on eye contact with wild animals. However, this was completely fruitless as most animal behavioural information is centered around what NOT to do in tight situations. For instance, eye contact is considered as being a sign of aggression and therefore not advisable with lions etc. However, there does not seem to be much information in the public domain as to why animals should watch you.
A case in point is the hyena at a carcass that is not her kill. It is obvious that the stare is to ascertain whether we are coming to get our bit of the carcass and another instance where a blackback jackal gives us the evil eye. Even the eyeballing that the antelope species do when they examine you to check your movements is one thing but another entirely when there is unusually intent examination going on of me behind the camera.

Whatever the reason, this time round, the close up photography is, once again, a very special moment as I manage to capture more than twenty five “eyeball” shots at different sightings.  Africa does not ever disappoint, and even when the light is bad (as it is this June) and animals are not doing what they normally do there is always a special moment out there just waiting to be snapped.