Kenya Photography Safari (with Tin Man Lee)

Kenya Photography Safari (with Tin Man Lee)

Olonana on safari went on a Kenya Photography Safari with Tin Man Lee. I had been raring for this trip. We were 3 travelers; Zhengzheng, Tin Man Lee, and I.

Samburu National Reserve:

We set off from Nairobi at 7:00 am and got to the Samburu National Reserve at around 1:30 pm. The Samburu weather was typical of August, hot and dusty. Later on the trip August switched back to the July overcast weather.

We started the game drive in Samburu at 4:00 pm first meeting the grants gazelle followed by a big herd of grevy’s zebra with young ones. Driving on, we joined a vehicle parked on the road side. They were watching a mother cheetah with her 3 cubs. Just as we were settling in the cheetah family moved in to the bush and we moved on. Sometimes when you find the cats within a particular territory, you will find them again, especially those with cubs.

The leopards in Samburu lived up to their evasion report. Evidence of them being around was all over the place. The HF radio said so. Their footprints on the road said so. Their kill said so. In fact a male lion lay sleepy and full under a tree having eaten a leopard’s kill. We wanted shots of it but it had different plans. The bush and grass seemed to have a conspiracy to hide the cats from us.

The reticulated giraffe, grevy’s zebra, beisa oryx, Somali ostrich, and gerenuk are animals you will see in Kenya’s northern parks like Samburu, which are seldom seen elsewhere. We saw them, yet the highlight of our Samburu visit was the striped hyena. It actually was the best encounter of the Kenya Photography Safari with Tin Man Lee. I hope he agrees.

                                                Reticulated Giraffe – Samburu National Reserve

We always set out early. Foremost on our minds were the leopards that had been dodging us. On our last day in Samburu word came on the HF radio about a wild dog sighting, we forgot about the leopards. There was a time a few years ago when finding wild dogs in Kenya parks was extremely challenging. Even though they are now more ‘discover-able,’ it is still special to meet them.

They were there, where the radio said to find them – a good sized pack of them.  African wild dogs can be a busy lot and we had to maneuver around to get good shots of them. I saw the stripped hyena as we were busy positioning and clicking away. I was excited, very excited. I actually worked hard to stay calm as I pointed it out to Tin Man Lee. For 15 years working as a safari guide I had never photographed a striped hyena. I had seen them occasionally, but never as close as the one that came to us. It really came to us. Tin Man Lee said “like a phantom.” The striped hyena is nocturnal. It could be that the wild dog’s commotion got it curious enough to get out of hiding. Tawny eagles flew about above. They were following the wild dogs for remainders of whatever catch they got.

Striped Hyena – Samburu National Reserve
African Wild Dogs – Samburu National Reserve

We did see the lions and cheetahs. Notably there were huge numbers of vulturine guinea fowls in Samburu. Heading back to camp after the last day morning game drive, we watched a pair of dik diks. Like the stripped hyena, they are monogamous. They are known to mark their territory with tears but in this case they were doing so with dung. I read that they use urine and dung to “make a place smell like home.”

Interestingly, we did not see as many elephants as Samburu is known for. It was dry. They had migrated. They would be back. They always go back. A bat eared fox did a good thing showing itself to us towards the end of our Samburu stay.

A big herd of grevy’s zebra was one of the last going away fauna we saw. It probably was the same herd that bid us welcome when we arrived. Departing from Samburu, we saw a leopard in the salt bushes– still hiding. 

Olpejeta Conservancy:

The Olpejeta Conservancy was our second stop on this Kenya Photography Safari with Tin Man Lee. It is a 3 hour drive from the Samburu National Reserve to Olpejeta. The conservancy is a park where you will be able to see some animals that you will not see in any other Kenya Park. It is for instance the only place to see chimpanzees in the country – trans-located chimpanzees. We started with a brief visit to the chimpanzee sanctuary before heading to the camp.

The first evening game drive began with plains game meetings; the impala and the plains zebra. There are also some grevy’s zebra at Olpejeta. We saw the masai ostrich and reticulated giraffe. What you will find in Samburu is the somali ostrich, and zebra – the grevy’s zebra, but not the plains zebra.

At olpejeta we embarked on finding the spotted hyena with the same exuberance we had for the leopard in Samburu. We went in search of the hyena dens and found one with only one adult crocuta crocuta. We were hoping to meet the cubs also. Crocuta crocuta is the spotted hyena.

Spotted Hyena – Olpejeta Conservancy

Not far from the hyena den we found about 10 elephants digging into the grass with their front legs – raising dust. We started taking photos; they started walking away towards the setting sun. We got silhouette images.

Exit the elephants; enter a full herd of buffaloes. They were walking towards us but then suddenly started running as if being pursued by an enemy. It was baffling, but only for a moment because soon after the problem emerged – a black rhino, running madly. The buffaloes scattered. The rhino kept going. Back at the hyena’s den, fellow guides solved the puzzle. Apparently there had been a fight between 2 black rhinos. The one that had come scampering was the looser. It must have wanted to get far far away. We passed a lioness on the roadside, in the dark, on the way back to camp.

We spent a good part of our second morning at Olpejeta with the hyenas. Yes we found them. The puppies gave us a swell show. We had left the camp before sunrise. There was actually no sun rise. It was a cloudy morning. After the crocuta crocuta we sort to look for rhinos.

A short drive took us to a black rhino that was completely un-bothered by our presence. It was in the spa. Actually it was lying on the ground adorned by 5 oxpeckers that were helping remove ticks and other things from it. It looked like it was feeling good. A few metres away a buffalo also seemed to feel good rolling in dust. A southern white rhino was grazing somewhere between the black rhino and the buffalo. To our delight we saw that it had a calf, a playful energetic calf. We stayed there a while.

Black Rhino & Oxpecker friends – Olpejeta Conservancy

There was sunshine in the afternoon so we went to find the hyenas to photograph them in good light. They were nowhere to be found. A big male buffalo drinking water at a pool posed for us instead. This was near the place of the mother rhino and playful calf. The rhino and calf we found there were not the same. The calf was bigger, the mother different. The pair we hoped to meet again was not far off. The mother rhinos grazed towards each other. When they met they ‘greeted’ each other. The calves did the same. Things did not go as well for a big male southern white rhino that tried to get close to them. The male tried everything to show that ‘I come in peace.’ It even tried to impress with several eland inspired high jump moves unsuccessfully.

Southern White Rhinos – Olpejeta Conservancy

There was certain playfulness at Olpejeta. As the sun was going down the hyena pups were playing. We took photos of them. The zebra also got the bug. We found them jumping, chasing, wrestling, and kicking each other in a friendly game.

Olpejeta conservancy is a rhino sanctuary. It is the only park in Kenya where you can see the black rhinos, southern white rhinos, and northern white rhinos. In 2009, 4 northern white rhinos were translocated to Olpejeta from a zoo in the Czech Republic. At that time it was said that there were only 7 white rhinos in the world including the 4 that were moved to Olpejeta. 2 of the 4 were male – Sudan and Suni, and 2 female – Fatu and Najin.

Sadly, so far, 5 of the world’s known northern white rhinos have since died including the 2 males at Olpejeta. Sudan, the last male died in 2018. The two females, Najin and Fatu, are the only 2 remaining northern white rhinos. Recently, eggs were harvested from the 2 females and successfully artificially inseminated with frozen sperm from the northern white bulls. Details of this can be found on the Olpejeta website, the conclusion being that “scientists are now one step closer to saving the northern white rhino from extinction.”

Masai Mara National Reserve:

We spent 9 out of the 16 days of our Kenya Photography Safari with Tin Man Lee in Masai Mara. We stayed in 3 different camps situated in 3 different locations. We got to Masai Mara in the afternoon after a layover in Naivasha. It was a 5 hour drive from Naivasha to Masai Mara.

We went exploring the park in evening. The plains were bare. As bare as to make us wonder if we were in the right place. We drove around for a while and then came across the reigning residents of the savannah – three lionesses with 5 cubs that nursed on whichever mother they chose. The season’s stars – a herd of wildebeest took themselves near the lionesses. The lionesses saw them. It was time for us to leave the park.

On this Kenya Photography Safari with Tin Man Lee, the animals had lots of ‘children,’ the lions especially. Almost every pride we saw had cubs. There was one that had 10. Masai Mara is said to be the park with the highest number of lions in Kenya. Although warning has been given that the general population of lions in Kenya is decreasing, what we saw was encouraging.

Lion Family – Masai Mara National Reserve

I felt good when we met a lion family that I have known since they were cubs. It happens a lot in Masai Mara. People know cheetahs, leopards, and lions that have lived and survived in the park for a long time. We even met Scar face. Everyone knows him – a real legend of Masai Mara. We found him seated on the roadside with his brothers. Before this safari I had seen him limping horribly. He has survived many battles. It was said that a buffalo caused his latest injury. We did not get to see if he was still limping or not.

Masai Mara was not just about lions and wildebeest. The park has a whole range of wildlife. The first location of our stay was not as good as the next two in terms of distance to the game. We left with picnic breakfast everyday to make the most of the mornings. Plains game – warthogs, zebra, and gazelles, get active and grazing or browsing pretty early. Elephants, buffaloes, and giraffes spread out in the savannah. Of course you will see the hippos and Nile crocodiles in the Mara River.

It was interestingly different to see a chase that was not about capturing a wildebeest. From a distance, it looked like a cheetah chasing a gazelle. On getting nearer we saw that the predators were black-backed jackals. The chase was a life saving diversion – of the thompsons gazelle steering the jackals away from her safely tucked away offspring. They hide them when grazing. Knowing the game, the jackals searched frantically. They can be daring hunters despite of their size. A pied king fisher was another that we found doing whatever it needed to do for a meal. We found it striking a big frog on a mound in order to kill it I suppose. Just as I was saying that it couldn’t possibly fly away with the catch, it did.

While the leopards in Samburu had taken us on a hide and seek game, the leopards of Masai Mara did not. They let us see them severally. When you see safari vehicles at a spot in the park, you know there is something. It was the day that a female leopard was walking in the open field. She walked head on towards us giving us some nice shots before going to a seasonal river to mind other business.

Leopard – Masai Mara National Reserve

Wildebeest Migration:

Some topi and a small herd of wildebeest ran towards the Mara River. I turned the vehicle around to follow. They stopped and started grazing. On a certain other day we drove to one of the major Mara River crossings. A medium sized wildebeest herd was there. It was early. We waited. The wildebeest kept pacing, changing positions. Lunch time reached. We agreed to skip lunch. We waited. Half of the herd broke off and went back where they had come from. I made us wait some more telling zhengzheng and Tin Man Lee that we shouldn’t give up. We saw others who had been waiting like us drive away. We decided to try a different crossing point. We had not gone for 5 minutes before a big herd of wildebeest approached from a different side. We drove back ready for the action. They got into the river. They drank water and went away.

The wildebeest river crossing sometimes happens quickly, sometimes it takes some waiting. It can be a long wait. Our Kenya Photography Safari with Tin Man Lee was in the month of August. At this time Masai Mara was all about the wildebeest migration season. The predators did not have to look far for a meal. The numerous half eaten wildebeest kills we found said the hunters were not hungry. The huge Nile crocodiles in the Mara River had reached a point of not being in a hurry to go after the gnu (wildebeest). The rest of the prey was spared during this season. We saw a male lion in the grass not far from the river. It was a serial killer. Hunting alone, it brought down more gnu than it could finish.

It was on the last 3 days of our stay in Masai Mara that we got to witness ‘quicker’ wildebeest river crossings. Zebra are the wildebeest’s main migrating partners although their numbers are un-comparably fewer than the wildebeest.

At one crossing point 3 zebras steadfastly started a march into the river and hundreds of wildebeests followed. Nile crocodiles approached them lazily. At the river’s edge a wildebeest got caught by a crocodile. There was a struggle as usual. They don’t go down quietly. Instantly, 2 wildebeest that had crossed successfully scurried back to the river as though coming to the rescue. The crocodile let the captured wildebeest off but not without battle scars. The 2 wildebeests had run back preferring the crocodile riddled river to the male lion that waited to make a meal of them on the other side of the crossing.

Migration Partners – Masai Mara National Reserve

It is true what Tin Man Lee said on our last day in Masai Mara. He more or less said that he got a new outlook of the migration. That it is not just an event. We got to see that the wildebeest feel things.

We approached the Mara River slightly upstream from the main crossing and saw a huge herd of wildebeest heading to the river. Vehicles had already taken position on the riverside. We got ourselves a place. The wildebeest got closer and closer. This time the gnu (wildebeest) were serious. Without wasting time they ran straight into the river. The exit riverbank was rocky and slippery – a crossing point known to cause injuries and deaths.

A female wildebeest and calf were the last to cross. Getting to the opposite end, the calf got out of the river but the mother could not. We thought that a crocodile had got her. She turned and headed back for the start. The calf jumped into the water with the mother. It was a tense moment especially since the mother wildebeest evidently had a broken leg that was slowing them down. Luckily the crocodiles did not move in on them. They reached the shore. The calf really seemed to be speaking – encouraging the mother. It was not funny when they resolved to do the crossing again. The calf got out again and again the mother could not; leading the calf in the risky wade back to the start. We were on the edge of our seats wanting a safe passage for them. Again the crocodiles let them through.  Only Masai Mara knows the rest of their life story.

Thinking it was all over, we noticed something on the riverbank. It was another calf waiting for another mother that was unfortunately among those that failed to make it out. The calf could not wait forever. It had only walked for a few metres when 2 lionesses got it.

Nature can deal a bad hand to the migrating stars. Theirs is a perilous journey. The yearly wildebeest migration is famous – considered to be one of the wonders of the world. The numbers of wildebeest vary but it is generally estimated that about one million gnu make the journey from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, and back.

Many things about nature and wildlife can be unpredictable. The wildebeest used to arrive in Masai Mara in the months of June/July and leave in October/November. This has been shifting. As it is, this year 2019 the wildebeest went back to Serengeti before the month of October. There was a time when they would leave in December. Many things have been said about the wildebeest, one being that they follow the rain. I do not know how true that is but when there suddenly was a downpour one sunny evening during game drive, that day we saw the wildebeest heading for the rain.

Tin Man Lee:

Before the afternoon game drive on day 3 in Masai Mara, Tin Man Lee got to see some of the images I had taken. I got to see his. I thought to myself – “these are worlds apart!” Listening to him, it was obvious that he had acquired a lot of photography knowhow over the years. That, however, is not all. On the entire Kenya Photography Safari with Tin Man Lee, I got to see that he appreciates nature. He has affection for the wildlife, and this is not just drumbeating. He minds the animals.

Zhengzheng and Tin Man Lee were not hesitant to get a taste of the local. We started with fruits on the roadside markets along the way. In Samburu we accompanied zhengzheng to have a local hairdo. If you do not know what nyama choma is, ask me or ask someone when you visit Kenya. Zhengzheng and Tin Man Lee liked it.

Tin Man Lee is passionate about photography. One thing he communicated to me before the safari is that he absolutely would like to have good light. It is not only the wildebeest migration that has got shifty over the years, the weather too. I hoped for sunshine but I must say we got it all – sun, cloud, rain. Tin Man Lee maneuvered his camera in all these.

Winning awards such on Nature’s Best Photography competitions and other major photography competitions is no mean feat. You will see on Tin Man Lee’s website that his images have featured prominently in other places as well. What he has worked tirelessly to learn over the years about photography, he has condensed into photography packages that you can learn from. I am learning from him. This is my forth photography story. The next ones will be in ‘photography language.’

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