14-Day African Wildlife Adventure Photography Workshop - Early August 2012 | Sojourn Series, Aperture Academy

14-Day African Wildlife Adventure Photography Workshop - Early August 2012

Excerpts from the daily journal kept by Instructor, Stephen W. Oachs, during this memorable and exciting workshop...

:: DAY 1 ::

Fellow [Aperture Academy] instructor Scott Davis and I just arrived at San Francisco International Airport and are ready to board our KLM flight to Nairobi, Kenya, with a quick connection in Amsterdam, Netherlands. It's going to be a long flight, but we're excited to spend the entire month of August in Africa with two groups of 12 participants photographing the amazing wildlife and culture the country has to offer.

  _ _

We just arrived in Nairobi and have checked into the Fairview Hotel. This place is very nice and will be perfect for the workshop orientation. It will also give our guests a chance to rest before we depart for Samburu, our first location. A good place to start.

:: DAY 2 ::

We've finished a quick breakfast, and our gear is loaded, including beans in our beanbags, luggage and of course, our camera equipment. We are taking off on our drive north to Samburu, very excited to see what photo opportunities wait for us!

  _ _

We just stopped for lunch at one of the coolest restaurants you've ever seen, Trout Tree. It's built into a tree on the side of a hill and has large pools below it, filled with trout! And guess what their special is...trout! Yes, you can order other things, but I love fish, so I'm going for it! While we're eating, the Colobus monkeys are watching from the nearby trees. And a Hyrax is running about on the floor. Yes, very cool place.

  _ _

Everyone is getting excited -- we just arrived at our first tent camp in the heart of the Samburu reserve.

We're getting settled in our tents and we'll be leaving for our first game drive in about 30 minutes.

  _ _

Back from our first game drive of the trip and WOW, it was a good one! In our first three hours in the field we saw a group of elephants crossing the Samburu River, a baby elephant playing with a stick under momma's watchful eye, and right at sunset, a leopard! He was laying in the open grass and he was a beautiful one.

:: DAY 3 ::

This morning, with a game drive departure of 6:15am, we were in prime positions for sunrise and to see and photograph jackals as they taunted a hyena. The jackals rested in the early morning light allowing for some great images to be captured.

As we explored the windy roads of Samburu, we came across many Hornbill and Basket-weaver birds.

The Basket-weavers make the most amazing nests...they actually look like baskets, and most Acacia trees have at least a dozen nests hanging from the tips of its branches.

  _ _

On today's afternoon game drive, we saw another elephant crossing, this time as many as 20 elephants played in the muddy waters. It was very entertaining to see. Toward sunset, we came across two female lions with cubs and everyone got to photograph them for nearly an hour before it was time to head toward camp. As we drove back, we made a quick stop for sunset with a large Acacia tree as our foreground. What a day!

:: DAY 4 ::

In Africa, they often refer to the game as "The Big 5"...the elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and Cape buffalo. But Samburu has its own "Special 5," which are five species of animals only found in this region. They are the Grevy's zebra, Somali ostrich, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk and the beisa oryx. Today we saw ALL of them! It took some hunting, but we finally found the Grevy's zebra at the end of the morning.

Then we headed to the river overlook for breakfast served by our guides. From breakfast, we headed east to a native Samburu village. They welcomed us and everyone gave them gifts. In exchange, we were allowed to photograph their huts, traditional dance and living conditions. When we arrived, school was in session, which consisted of about 20 children sitting in the dirt, under the shade of a tree. They were excited to sing to us and it was a great photography opportunity to capture some of the reality of African culture.

  _ _

This afternoon's game drive was pretty good...we saw reticulated giraffes, many gerenuk, even some impalas sparring. All in all it was a very busy, and highly productive, photographic day. Dinner was very nice and everyone relaxed and recounted the amazing things we had seen today.

:: DAY 5 ::

We packed up early this morning and made the drive from Samburu to Lake Nakuru. Along the way, we stopped at Thompson Falls to eat lunch and stretch our legs. The drive is pretty, taking us up and over some of the higher elevations of Kenya past giant coffee and tea fields as well as large green houses for roses (Kenya is the largest exporter of roses in the world). A couple of bathroom stops allowed us to see some of the amazing craftsmanship that goes into the many masks, jewelry and statues carved by local woodworkers. To see them in action was pretty amazing.

After checking into the Lake Nakuru Lodge, we headed out for an afternoon game drive around the shores of the lake. A giant rain storm rolled over us during the drive, adding a lot of vibrance to the grasses and trees--and the air smelled so fresh. We saw and photographed white and black rhinos and many other grazing animals.

:: DAY 6 ::

Our game drive this morning was birds, birds and more birds! We saw some very colorful and amazing species, including flamingos. It was a great chance to capture their reflections in the calm ponds near the shore, as well as some in flight. We spotted some lions, too, but the grass was too tall to photograph them so we decided to come back later.

In the afternoon, we headed out and first thing we found some female lions in a tree...napping. The light was awesome, so we took advantage, photographing them high on a large eucalyptus branch. Then, we came across a giant herd of Cape buffalo crossing the road. It's quite a feeling sitting there in the middle, literally, of a hundred giant buffalo as they pass by your safari vehicle. The photo opps were many, as the egrets follow the herd to eat the bugs stirred up by these giant grazers.

  _ _

Just as the sun was setting, we spotted five baby Rothschild giraffes and they were in fantastic light! We spent about 45 minutes with them and they came quite close, allowing some great images to be captured. Today was a very good day.

:: DAY 7 ::

Today we flew from the Lake Nakuru airstrip on our private chartered plane to the Masai Mara Serena airstrip. It was a quick and smooth 45 minute flight that gave us great views of the vast Kenya landscapes.

Once settled into the Mara Serena Lodge we left for our first game drive and high priority was the nearby Mara river...and our first chance at a migration crossing...mother nature did not disappoint!!

I couldn't believe it, but within the first 10 minutes at the river, a gigantic herd of wildebeest came running across the grasslands on the other side of the river. We quickly moved our Land Rovers into position and photographed thousands of wildebeest and zebra swim across the croc-filled waters. It was nothing short of amazing and a sight that many never get to see.

We were so lucky that we saw this crossing at all...let alone on our first game drive in the Mara! Everyone is pretty excited, myself and Scott included. Just incredible!

  _ _

Tonight's dinner is great and the views from atop the hill where the Serena Mara is located are stunning. I never want to leave this place..it's that amazing....

:: DAY 8 ::

This morning's game drive started off slow but then we spotted lions...WITH CUBS! They were playing in the bushes, so we sat, watched and waited. Finally after about 30 minutes they left the cover of the bushes and we followed at a safe distance. We got out ahead of them and they made their way across the landscape, right toward us, and we captured some great images of the cubs running and playing.

Then a call on the radio...another vehicle had found a cheetah on a kill and off we went! Took us about 10 minutes to arrive at the scene and sure enough, a cheetah had just caught a Thomson's gazelle. This was a true Wild Kingdom (wow I just dated myself) moment...the circle of life...in real life. This cat was beautiful! A perfect coat, and it made a lot of eye contact. Then in a flash, she took off running...she was off to catch another gazelle! We watched the pursuit, but the distance was too great and she gave up...likely tired from the first chase and full from her meal.

  _ _

On our drive back after a day of shooting, one of our drivers spotted a leopard. He was in a difficult area for photography, but we took a few images in the fading light before heading back to the lodge for dinner and to recount the great sightings of the day.

:: DAY 9 ::

Today was nothing short of EPIC. Where do I start?! For me personally, it was one of the most amazing days of wildlife photography...EVER.

We left the Serena lodge just before sunrise and quickly made our way to a nice area to capture the very colorful sunrise. From there we headed southwest and within minutes came across a cheetah walking along the road...WITH FIVE CUBS! We couldn't believe our eyes and very carefully followed them at a good distance as to not scare them or alter their path. When they cut into the deep grass, we went ahead and found a side road, hoping to see them again. And see them again we did! The mother had perched on top of a termite mound and all five cubs were up top with her.

The early morning light was muted by some high clouds, so the conditions and subject matter were perfect. As we were all capturing the moment, we saw a male and female lion were also watching. Lions will kill for territorial reasons, so this was a tense and dangerous situation for mother cheetah. As the lions drew closer, she ran off with her cubs into the deep grass...with the lions in pursuit. Emotions were high as all we could do was watch nature unfold. Next thing we knew, the cheetah turned and began chasing the male lion!! It was the craziest thing...here was this big lion running fron a cheetah...for the mother cheetah, this was life or death and she was going to do anything she could to save her cubs.

Just as we though we had seen it all, the Kenya Wildlife Rangers showed up and used their vehicle to get in between the cheetah family and the lions, driving them away to stop them from killing the cubs. Cheetahs are endangered and their preservation is a priority for the region, and since lions are plentiful, the intervention was logical, and needed. We all sighed a breath of relief, that's for sure.

:: DAY 10 ::

After such an over-the-top day yesterday, we wondered how we could ever top the cheetah/cub event, but this morning's game drive is proving to be pretty strong none the less.

  _ _

During this morning's game drive, we came across a herd of wildebeest that, no exaggeration, spanned from one horizon to the next. Easily 50,000 wildebeest on the move. As they ran past our vehicles we sat in awe. With an endless stream of animals running, we decided this was a great opportunity to practice "panning," a technique where you use a slower shutter speed to capture the movement of the running animal. It's tricky to do and we worked at it for nearly 30 minutes, hoping we'd end up with one good and sharp frame. Many were excited about what they were seeing on their camera screens...myself included.

  _ _

After breakfast, we packed up and made the one-hour drive from the Serena Lodge to our last tent camp, just to the east, in the Masai Mara. Our afternoon game drive was good; we photographed baby warthogs (they really are cute when they are babies) and at the end of the day we found another mother cheetah with a single cub on a fresh kill. Watching and photographing the playful cub was a lot of fun.

:: DAY 11 ::

Today we got up super early and drove over to the next camp, where we took an hour-long ride across the savanna in a hot air balloon! What an amazing experience and unique vantage point. As we floated slowly across the grasslands, we saw hyena, Cape buffalo and giraffes. Once we landed, we were treated to a champagne breakfast out in the field near our landing location. The balloon operator provided us with quite a spread!

  _ _

Time for lunch and an afternoon nap, so we've returned to our Intrepid's tent camp. After some food and a rest, we'll head out to see what else we can capture in our cameras.

  _ _

Our tent camp is located on the Telek River, so that means we had to cross it...and we did! The smell of hippo poop in the water was pretty strong, but that didn't stop us...until one of our vehicles broke a drive shaft...oops! Luckily, these Land Rovers are very tough vehicles and they were able to keep going using the front wheel drive.

  _ _

Late in the drive, after much waiting in the area, we finally spotted and photographed a leopard!

:: DAY 12 ::

I can't believe how many lions we saw today. This morning we came across a pride of eight lions, then this afternoon we found a mother with a cub, and their interactions were so cute and playful.

  _ _

We spent late morning visiting a native Masai village, where we left more gifts such as socks, clothing and school supplies. They danced and sang for us and allowed us to photograph some of their village. Some of our guests brought a portable printer and printed some of the pictures they took. The Masai people were thrilled to receive photos of themselves, which is something many of them had never seen before. An amazing experience.

:: DAY 13 ::

The first hour of our game drive this morning, we didn't see much at all, then all of the sudden, a cheetah!! And, she had a cub. They were sitting on a tall termite mound surveying the grasslands and we were able to get very close...and the light was early and amazing. Many great images were captured, and their playful interactions in that light were really something special.

We've returned to our tent camp to pack up, eat lunch and head to the airstrip. What a trip this has been! So many good laughs...amazing photographic opportunities and stories to tell.

  _ _

When we were all ready to go, we all shook hands and gave hugs. I said good-bye to the group and then they took off into the vast skies of the Masai Mara to return to Nairobi.

I want to say a big thank you to everyone who joined Scott and myself on this trip. I won't soon forget all the great times we had and can't wait to see all the new images each and every one of you have in your portfolios! I know from working with many of you in Photoshop and Lightroom during image review that you have some real winners and should be very proud of what you were able to achieve!

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