Amboseli elephants on the Tanzanian side (2008).
November Part I: Elephants in Amboseli

I just opened Big Life Foundation’s Facebook page to see the news that 2 poachers were killed last week and a high-caliber rifle was confiscated in the Amboseli area. Having spent 16 days there this month guiding Nick Brandt as he photographed the elephants, it had been extremely distressing to see the behavior of the herds of elephants change, from calmly walking passed the car to turning and running as we approached; displaying obvious signs of alarm and panic. One particularly disturbing sight was a stampede of about 80 elephants coming from the water holes heading back to Tanzania where it had rained and they were obviously feeding. The trumpeting and cowering elephants passing the vehicle displayed behavior completely unheard of in the Amboseli area. These elephants have had so much exposure to research vehicles that they are known to be extremely relaxed. The elephant researchers later informed us that one of the females from the herd was missing and that they had found an orphaned calf, who we encountered later as well.

In the past seven years, Nick Brandt has spent hours with the elephants in this particular ecosystem, photographing them and taking some beautiful portraits of incredible individuals. The loss of some of the largest tusked bulls to poaching, elephants that he had photographed, prompted him to start a foundation focused on anti-poaching in the area. Commendably, Big Life Foundation is already effectively operating on the ground by cooperating with other organizations already managing anti-poaching operations on both sides of the border. The website is up (, and if you become a fan of BIG LIFE on facebook you can read the latest updates. During our 16 day visit, it seemed that once every 3 days another report of a killed elephant was coming in- from both sides of the border. These reports furthered the importance of Big Life’s presence, which, being a non-government organization can help to coordinate cross-border anti-poaching.

Adding to the sadness is the fact that during the extensive poaching that occurred in the 70’s, when black rhino went extinct in many parts of Africa; Kenya lost an estimated 85% of its elephants over a 4 year period. However, the Amboseli elephants managed to survive with very little poaching. Cynthia Moss attributes this to the Maasai in the area being uncooperative with poachers. This resulted in the Amboseli and west Kilimanjaro elephants earning a reputation as having extremely large tusked bulls whose numbers are now dwindling. The extensive research has added a tremendous amount of information we now know on elephants and their family structures.

Kilimanjaro sunrise (2008)
November part II. Lake Natron.

With the coming of the rains, Amboseli became too difficult for me to move around confidently, so Nick and I headed to northern Tanzania to the shores of Lake Natron and slopes of Oldonyo Lengai. Having driven the eastern shores in January this year (see blog article), I was excited to continue to explore the shores of the stunning and harsh landscape. Working with a photographer is interesting because the focus of the trip changes from an overall wildlife or cultural experience to the pursuit of the artists’ subject. It is particularly challenging because it involves trying to see the world through their schema.

We spent hours driving and walking the eastern shores of the lake and I hope to get back there sometime to explore some of the valleys and streams that come off the escarpment. Particularly enjoyable are the springs that seep fresh and sometimes hot water into the lake. The warmth allows algae to proliferate and feed a food chain including numerous flamingos and hundreds of tiny cichlids that swim up the little streams from the springs and create amazing ripple patterns as they try to escape your approach.

As usual the scenery was stunning and as I drove back to Mto-wa-mbu (River of mosquitoes) to start the next adventure, I was pleasantly surprised to see the beginnings of the zebra migration from the Tarangire ecosystem.

November part III. Mwiba and Ndutu.

Visiting a new area is always exciting, especially when it promises adventure. Having attempted to visit Mwiba earlier this year, I was particularly excited to get the chance to visit with friends and explore an area that looks promising for walking, fly camping and having fun. Within half an hour of driving into the private conservation area we were already walking around springs examining tracks and getting a feel for the place. As the sun began to set we explored a small rock canyon and then climbed a small kopjie to enjoy the sunset.

Reports of wild dogs in the area and the chance to see roan antelope prompted a little more driving around to cover ground, but nonetheless everyday had great highlights. The 19,000 hectare ranch borders Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Maswa Game Reserve and has traditionally been used as a hunting concession. The area is dotted with springs that attract game throughout the dry season and it was exciting to merely discuss the options of activities that are possible. I was chomping at the bit to get some activity in and on the first morning found myself climbing a Yellow fever tree and helping measure out plans for a tree platform from which to watch animals come down to the spring. We then enjoyed a 3 hour walk to the edge of the escarpment that looks out on Lake Eyasi.

I’ve included some photos with captions to describe more of the fun that we had in the area. 

The view of Lake Eyasi from the escarpment. Photo credit: Emily Cottingham.
Planning the waterhole viewing tree-platform. Photo credit: Emily Cottingham.
Cheetah cub in Ndutu who played with us. Photo credit: Mike Beckner.


I began writing this blog a year ago. Clicking through my entries, it all seems a little crazy how many completely different experiences I’ve had since my first entry about Ngorongoro Crater. I can see a weave forming and the stories that have started out as threads are coming back and joining with other threads to create a bigger picture; the fine art I’d originally intended my safaris to be.

My first client came back with her photography project. Attempting to capture the beauty of the Hadzabe and their way of life in the Eyasi basin, we spent 12 days shadowing, listening, and watching. Some would say we roughed it, but I loved it. We finished the trip at Oliver’s camp, where I started my next safari. The dry season in full swing, an estimated 800 elephants feeding daily in the swamp among a couple thousand buffalo and few thousand zebra. A week later, I was walking in talcum-powder dust with an eleven year old, his mother and friend, vaccinating 139 chickens in a neighboring (wa)Arusha village- revisiting The Chicken Story that had begun with Nicol’s first visit.

Revisiting the Hadzabe (Images copyright and credit to Nicol Ragland Photography)

Sitting around the campfire, we repeat rituals. Sipping black cowboy-coffee from the kettle on the fire, as we did last nights caramel scotch. The thin sliver of light prompts a dawn chorus from the birds, their murmurs of greeting. The bustle of cameras, batteries, lenses, memory cards, water and sunscreen, as we set off. Off we tread on the hunt, before the cattle come through and scare the game, before the sun is high and the animals lay down in the shade. The sun will rise as it has done for millennia, and within a few hours the light will soon be as harsh as the environment. We pause every so often, wondering which way to go? The wind keeps changing. The hunters stop, pull out their fire sticks, twirl them until the familiar smell of myrrh smoke, ahh, yes, a tiny coal has formed to light the newspaper wrapped tobacco. Then one of us treads on the wrong twig, or coughs and the invisible kudu or giraffe crashes through the bush.
Taking aim.
The first day we walked for 8 hours in near silence. A hand signal and we’d squat as the hunter stalked. Losing his shoes, his body would take a different being, stringing arrow to bowstring. He would draw it back, the tension of the muscles in his back a reflection of the tension in the air. The twang, the curse, and another one has got away. Later on we sit as they whittle their arrows, using only a knife and their hands to lathe beautiful long arrows, stripping guinea-fowl feathers and tying them on with sinew. Another takes a hammer, nail and stone and proceeds to pound out a new arrowhead. They tell stories that I try to translate.

It’s an interesting journey into the past, but also into the reality of the present. It’s the story of population pressures that are marginalizing pastoralists who in turn marginalize hunter-gathers. We sit with men and women on rocks overlooking beautiful vistas. There is a history here. It is quite simple. The Hadzabe live off the land. When the men are hungry they hunt, when the women are hungry they go digging for tubers or picking berries. They come back to camp with what they have and then tell stories. The most complicated piece of technology is their arrow, which takes up to 9 steps to make if it’s an arrow with poison.
Hadza fixing a new bow.
Our conversations while drinking sundowners overlooking the widest vistas and around the campfire under the stars revolve around the dilemmas we face. It’s a very different experience than the first time Nicol and I visited the Hadza. We are looking deeper, and have researched more, yet the experience written up in The Irony of Poison reiterates itself.
Overlooking traditional hunting grounds.
Frank Marlowe describes it well in the Afterword of his book: The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. There is no easy answer.

Where will these boys be in 10 years?

Revisiting the chicken story

It has been an intense, and wildlife packed four days. With highlights including a lion jumping out from the river bank and killing a wildebeest as they crossed the river, watching elephants in the most beautiful light with a brewing storm as the backdrop, and three leopard sightings alone. It’s another early morning, but we need to get to the village before the chickens are let out. A couple of weeks ago, in discussion with an opinionated journalist I had been told that it wasn’t possible to have a meaningful cultural experience in half a day. “I can” I replied, and I have.

Since visiting our neighbors last year with Nicol, the same chicken vaccinators have vaccinated over 35,000 chickens. (The Chicken Story). Now a young boy was carrying around a little bottle of the precious liquid, one drop in the eye per chicken, two months of his pocket money donated to the project. It is enough to vaccinate 1,000 chickens.

Meaningful? Yes! Meaningful in many ways.

We do the calculations again. If a bottle of vaccine costs $2-$3, and can vaccinate 400 chickens @ 3 cents per chicken, the vaccinator earns about $12. But, the value of the vaccination is much higher. A chicken sells for around the equivalent of $4, so vaccinating 400 chickens is worth $1600, and we haven’t started counting the value of the eggs or chicks that the live chicken may produce.

I’ll leave it to you to decide the meaningfulness of this exchange to the boy.

Encounters in Kenya!

Though no day is ever typical or the same, some of the encounters on trips have to be written up. I “scored” some lifers- and as Paul Oliver put it;

“Life is about lifers, i.e. seeing or experience things you’ve never seen before”.

Sometimes staying in lodges isolates you from night life in the bush and the first two night on this trip with elephants and leopard around the tent made me realize how great the Kenyan luxury mobile camp is- providing the luxury without taking away from the experience. I’ve selected a few encounters to write about from this last two week trip in Kenya with Simon Belcher.


I’m sitting on a foldable chair outside my tent. There’s a small flame burning in the kerosene lantern but I’ve turned that down. The wind is blowing and there’s a slight chill to it. But I can see the stars and there are elephants feeding. I haven’t heard them at night in so long and I was actually in bed but have come to sit and watch. I can see their silhouettes against the starry sky. There is no moon and the elephants look huge. The sound that they are making makes them sound much closer than they are. I love this. I can hear them pulling up the Doum Palm seedlings. Occasionally I can hear the low rumble as they communicate with each other. It’s amazing to think that the sound I’m hearing are actually the higher notes that they are making and there’s so much going on that I can’t hear. I’ve turned the screen off so there’ll be plenty of spelling mistakes but I’ll correct that in the morning… oh I hear a third elephant joining and it looks like this one is moving a little closer. I can actually see her trunk now and hear them breathing.


I spotted 4 Somali galagos or bush-babies in an Acacia tree this morning. I was quite surprised as they are usually strictly nocturnal and tend to hide in thick foliage or nests during the day. We know so little about these little animals. From Jonathan Kingdon’s map and description I think these are Somali galagos of which very little is known. “Food: Presumed to be mainly gum and invertebrates”. (Pg 104, The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals). They are very similar to the Lesser galago (G. senegalensis), the closest animal we have to Madagascar’s lemurs. These amazing little animals are the high-jump, triple and long jump champions of the mammal world. With a standing jump of up to 7m, they can repeatedly bound (bounce) along the ground. Their eyes are so big in their heads that they can’t move them in their sockets. This gives them excellent night vision and they can see up to 20m just in starlight. I’ve heard one guide say that if we had eyes as big as theirs relative to our body size, ours would be the size of basketballs. Tonight, a large leopard walks through camp. He grunts his loud contact call that sounds like sawing wood so close to my tent that it takes my breath away for a second. I lie in bed listening as he walks around the tent and continues through the bush calling.


This afternoon the other vehicle spotted a cheetah mother and her daughter. We sat and watched from a distance as they stalked some grant gazelle, the young one lagging behind. As the mother inched closer, the young one suddenly ran at a 90 degree angle over the horizon and then around, spooking the Grants gazelles towards the cub’s mother. The hunt failed, but this is the second time now that I’ve seen young cheetah behave in this fashion. The first time was last year in Samburu National Park, and resulted in a successful kill.


I scored a lifer today. If you don’t know the bird watcher/ twitcher’s term, a lifer is a bird that you’ve never seen/ identified in your life. I love the birds and when I see a particularly special one I get quite excited. Getting out of the car at the picnic spot we’d chosen I disturbed a pair of Pel’s fishing owls. These owls are specialized fish eaters and rather rare. We followed the pair up the river until they disappeared among the Doum palm leaves.


As Jonathan Kingdon writes: “When animals have become as scarce as rhinoceroses have today it is difficult to describe them as successful. Yet living African rhinos were, until recently, the widespread, abundant, advanced and successful representatives of a family that had seen a very wide range of types in the past (i.e. 30 fossil genera).” Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals.

We’ve now seen so many that we’ve almost become blasé about these wonderful animals. In total we’ve seen at least 7 black rhino, and upwards towards 20 white rhino. Add a leopard sighting, lions in trees, and the mystical yellow fever-trees, the rising mist, the bubbling cassinas in the night, the croak of black and white colobus monkeys in the trees- it is no wonder that Africa captures people’s souls.


This morning we stand again on the shore of Lake Nakuru as the dawn brings the sunrise, drinking coffee and eating warm cinnamon rolls. The large flocks of Lesser flamingo flock in vast numbers eating Spirulina algae that flourishes in the alkaline waters of East Africas rift valley lakes. Having woken up before dawn we are there as the sky begins to change color. It’s a spiritual moment and we stand quietly watching. The sun rises and the pink colors of the flamingos, a result of the high levels of carotenes in their food, become vibrant and reflect off the water.


The cutest encounter transpired as we watched a mother white rhino feeding with her calf. Parked about 25m from them we sat quietly watching when the calf decided to come play. He approached so close that had I stretched my hand out to scratch his developing horn I would have been only about 8 inches short. He (she?) then proceeded to prance around like a 2 week old goat-kid.


There’s a reason to get up at dawn that is only really understood when you get to slowly follow a male lion for a few miles through waist height grass, blind to the scents that drive him towards a pride of 3 females and their cubs, only to watch and listen to the females put him in his place before he proceeds to steal their kill. We ended up seeing these females every day including the last day, as a monstrous storm drenched the Mara, using headlights at 6:30 p.m. we found them sitting in the middle of the road, as we returned from our finale sundowner. This last drive also pulled out a new ‘lifer’ for me- the Pennant-winged nightjar as it flew low across the grassland, the stormy winds approaching.

Highlights of a Family Safari

It’s a fun tradition to share highlights around the dinner table on the last night of a safari. I thought I’d share with you, some of the highlights of a 5 day safari to Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater, and Serengeti. (Photos by Tom Kenny and Claire Mills)

General highlights.

The excitement of looking for animals and spotting.

Standing in the jeep and the wind in the hair.

Watching dynamics happening between animals after we’d just been told about them.

The sky at sunrise, sunset, and night.

Tarangire National Park

Sitting with the elephants in Tarangire for a long time and watching their dynamics.

Lions roaring close to the tents.

The lion cubs posing on the termite mound.

The picnic on the river bend with elephants drinking, zebra stampeding, baboons eating sausage flowers and impalas hanging out underneath.

Finding tracks of two leopards on the path outside the tents.

Ava spotting the leopard from the lookout at the lodge.

Dikdiks everywhere we looked.

Tracking the two lioness until we found them.

Baobab trees.

Ngorongoro Crater

Breakfast next to the hippo pool.

The sheer beauty of the landscape and so many animals.

Serengeti National Park

Popping open a Kili beer as we watched black baby hyenas playing around their den.

28 lions in one day.

The leopard coming down off the rock and walking through the grass.

Being alone for the whole morning.

Climbing and making music with the gong rocks in Moru.

Wilddogs and Camels

My latest adventure was a safari designed by Charlie Babault. Starting in Maasai Mara we had spent four nights watching migrating wildebeest and zebra, driven long distances with picnics and taken naps along the river. We then spent a couple of nights in Nakuru National Park capturing great images of flamingo, white and black rhino, and watching lions and leopard. Driving from Nakuru to Laikipia had turned into a longer drive as unexpected rains forced us to detour, but gave us a good feel for the vast wilderness in Kenya. We’d arrived on a road that petered out to nothing as we pulled up to a host of Laikipia Maasai waiting for us.

(Zebras in the red-oat grass)

(Flamingos in Lake Nakuru)
(Siesta along the banks of the Mara river)

(Camp in Nakuru)

As I stood alone on top of a granite outcrop, watching a dramatic sky and landscape change as evening crept in, baboons climbed the biggest granite outcrops, bickering for the best roosts and a lone white-necked raven cawed as the darkness and silence set in. We had arrived on a beautiful piece of land just south of the Ewaso Nyiro River in northern Kenya. The next morning we headed off on a long morning walk while the camels moved camp. Three camels accompanied us should anyone tire or feel like riding.

That night, the Maasai sat around the fire watching buckets of smokey water heat for the guest’s showers, murmuring and sipping on camel milk chai. A chef diced vegetables for a wonderful dinner he was preparing, all the while watching his metal box oven covered in coals, taking care not to burn the fresh bread. Everything had arrived on camels that had been hobbled for the night.

The next day we set off on the walk after a wonderful breakfast. The rains on the previous day had cleaned the ground and we picked up fresh hyena, caracal, kudu, and warthog tracks. We talked of the animals, the plants, and insects that we found along the way. In a sudden clearing we stumbled upon our new camp, fully set up. The camp chairs sat under a flysheet looking out across the bush, the tents were tucked under trees, and a table had been set with campfire baked pizzas.

Another highlight materialized as I left the next day to drive to Meru National Park. Not 10 minutes out of camp I drove around a corner to find African Painted Hunting dogs, otherwise known as wilddogs as they regrouped around a large male impala they had just killed. I am very fond of wilddogs and this sighting allows me to boast, having now seen members of 3 of the 4 largest populations of wilddogs in Africa.

Meru National Park proved to be another beautiful corner of Kenya where we closed the safari sitting on the banks of a river, reading and fishing as the sun set.

Part III: Ruaha's cats

Camp lay on the boundary of two massive lion prides and it was common for us to have lions in camp. These lions killed a massive male giraffe just outside camp at 6:30 a.m. one morning. Above, a young male tears into the thick and beautiful hide.

Cubs are always cute.
Together with another lioness, this one killed this zebra in perfect light right in front of our eyes. It had been such a peaceful scene with elephants and baboons digging for water, and zebra waiting their turn to drink from the holes the other animals had dug. She waited in a bush until the elephants had left then attacked. It was interesting to see all the baboons come and sit around this sight- they would get so excited every time the zebra twitched.

Finding lions in the afternoon light overlooking waterholes.

Cheetah sightings were always a great treat.

Part II Giants of Ruaha- Baobabs and Elephants

An elephant's ears are a giant cooling system- the massive blood-vessels are clearly visible in this up-close shot of this bull.
I never tire of watching the interactions between mother's and their babies.

Not all elephants have tusks- but tusks are extremely useful in ripping bark off trees, digging and among males- fighting.

Photographic Memories: Ruaha Part I

I was recently handed an i-pod that had a year’s worth of photographs from Ruaha National Park that I thought I’d lost. Flicking through them, I realized how significant the events that the images recorded were in steering me in the direction to where I am now. I’d never had time to edit them and as I touched up the images and took an inspirational trip through the memories.

The rains end in April and early May and by June the long grass has turned golden. The grass seed-heads are mature and many of the trees start to lose their leaves or are turning red- its Africa’s version of autumn. Distant waterholes have started drying up and the Ruaha River takes on its role as the animals slowly return to the floodplains. The surface water on the Mwagusi Sand River is limited to a few spots that become wallows for elephants and regular drinking troughs for huge herds of buffalo. The skies are clear of dust and smoke and the last clouds depart as the dry sets in.

Stunning sunsets... and spectacular light.

The large buffalo herds coming down to drink in the Ruaha river towards the end of the dry season when the water flow is nearly stopped.

and magical light like this...

The toothbrush combretum has the most beautiful flowers and seed pods loved by kudu and giraffe- but some of the most beautiful were the various seed pods that we would dry and use to decorate the camp.

Living in camp for months on end, these little things began to fascinate me and the appearance of snakes would always cause a great deal of excitement among the other staff there. I managed to capture some beautiful images of these spectacular creatures.

This puff-adder was so cold in the morning sun and the buffalo weavers wouldn't give it a break.

And of course the wild dogs... my first encounters with them. Ruaha has one of the last viable populations of these beautiful and fascinating creatures.

The morning they ran through camp and stole the back off one of the safari chairs.

Typical mid-day behavior in the shade.

A classic greeting frenzy...
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