Shortly before I embarked on my recent Antarctica trip, I made a two-week excursion to Kenya on what must be now at least the 30th trip to the country of my birth. For the first week I was on my own, after which I was joined by nine clients.
In 2006 I undertook my first aerial photography flight in Kenya and since then I have been hopelessly addicted. Of all the wildlife, landscape and underwater photographic situations I have been in over the years, nothing can quite beat sitting in a small plane, doors open (removed) beside you and the scenic wonders of Kenya unfolding below.
It also gives you an appreciation of what an immensely diverse country Kenya is from a geographic standpoint. It’s hard to think of another country outside the major continental landmasses that contains the variety that Kenya has. From tropical beaches to glaciers to alpine meadows to deserts to rainforest to open Savannah to rivers and soda lakes, Kenya really does have it all. But in my view, the most spectacular landscapes, certainly as seen from the air, lie in the extreme north of the country.
Lying in the cradle of the Great Rift Valley, this is a land from another time. Virtually untouched by the hand of man, it is a parched, heat blasted, largely vegetation-devoid landscape, punctuated by ancient volcanic features and shallow soda lakes on which thousands of Flamingos seek refuge. Mostly inaccessible by vehicle and a great distance from the well-known tourist parks, it is seldom visited by tourists or outsiders. The lives of the handful of hardy tribes that eke out a meager existence from the unforgiving terrain have, for the most part, changed little over the last several decades.
An aerial visit to this area has now become something of an annual pilgrimage for me. Drug addicts have heroin and cocaine and alcoholics their spirits but for me it’s aerial photography in northern Kenya. As long as my trusty pilot is still around to do the flying and the cost doesn’t get completely crazy (this is not a cheap undertaking!), I hope to keep fueling my addiction.
And so six hours after disembarking from my international flight, I found myself back in the small Cessna climbing into the skies above Nairobi. More than an hour later, we touched down at a remote, dusty airstrip where we removed the doors at the back of the right side of the plane. Firmly strapped in – it’s only a seat belt between you and a death spiral to the ground – we headed for Lake Logipi, a small seasonal soda lake, just south of Lake Turkana. This is my single favourite destination in the area. As a seasonal lake, conditions are always different each time I go, being entirely dependent on the amount of rainfall that the lake has received in the preceding months. Some years I have arrived to find an almost bone dry lake bed with only a few pools remaining around the spectacular volcanic feature of Cathedral rock. In 2011, the area had unusually heavy rain in April and May and even more surprising, in August.
As we approached the lake, I could see that water levels were higher than I had ever seen them, but more importantly, there were staggering numbers of Flamingos – certainly, the congregations were larger than anything that I had seen previously.
During the formation of the soda lakes in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, much of the ground was covered in volcanic ash, rich in sodium carbonate. Rain water and rivers percolating through the soil and flowing over rocks, absorbed and transported volcanic chemicals and mineral salts into the lakes. The Rift Valley Lakes are unconnected and have no outlets. The dissolved salts accumulated and have been concentrated through evaporation leaving behind sodium compounds, specifically sodium bicarbonate and sodium hydroxide. Concentrations of these compounds vary from lake to lake, influenced heavily by the amount of rain. The less rain, the greater the concentration and typically the more vivid the colours. High concentrations also make the lake waters highly corrosive. A few years ago, a helicopter was forced to ditch in Lake Logipi. The pilot and passengers all survived but one of the passengers was trapped in the helicopter with her legs underneath the water. When she was eventually freed several hours later, her injuries were not the result of the crash but rather the scalding she received from the corrosive waters.
While the lakes are inhospitable to most life forms, the Flamingos thrive in them. And the reason for this is that one plant species has adapted to cope with the challenging conditions – algae, and in particular one species, spirulina. The algae thrive in the mix of carbonate and phosphate rich waters, high temperatures and abundant sunlight. The algae in turn, provide the flamingos with the all nutrition they need while the corrosive waters keep predatory threats to a minimum.
Because of the heavy rain in Kenya in 2011, many of its soda lakes have had much higher water levels than usual. This has had the effect of diluting the concentrations of algae, making some of the lakes less attractive to the Flamingos. Although water levels in Logipi were much higher, muddier and browner than normal (the lake is fed by the Seguta River) there was still more than sufficient concentrations of algae to sustain vast quantities of Flamingos. In 2011, the numbers were further elevated by the shunning of Lakes Nakuru and Elementatia, further down the Rift Valley, by the birds on account of insufficient algae production due to the heavy rains.
Flying around the edge of the lake, we passed over many small and giant pink clouds of Flamingos. On this flight, I concentrated mainly on tighter group shots using a 70-200mm lens.
Are you one of those people who sees shapes in clouds? I certainly am, and I’m always looking for shapes in the Flamingo groupings. Over the years, I’ve taken images from the air of Flamingos in heart, tree, mushroom, devil tail and sperm (!) shapes. What do you see in the image below? I see a Shrew.
As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, the feeding Flamingos cast attractive shadows on the shallow brown waters.
After an overnight stay on the western shore of Lake Turkana, we had another aerial session over Lake Logipi before heading south down the Seguta Valley. This time we took a slightly different course to explore an area of sand dunes that my pilot had discovered earlier in the year.
Interspersed between some of the sand dune are ancient volcanic features.
Even these dunes received heavy rain, leaving behind finger-shaped pools of brown water.
As we were leaving this wonderous area, a helicopter appeared, providing a degree of perspective to the dunes. If you are thinking about ever hiring a helicopter for aerial photography, which given the hovering capabilities of a helicopter, would provide the ideal platform for flight photography, you’d better have a seriously large bank balance as the cost is truly astronomic and far more than the charter of a light aircraft.
Continuing down the Seguta Valley, we came to an area of ancient lava fields. This area is on occasion fed by temporary, seasonal streams and small rivers, allowing vegetation to flourish. Small soda pools also occur with the coloration indicating the presence of algae.
With aerial photography, I’m always looking for interesting shapes and patterns on the ground.
From the Seguta Valley we continued heading south down the Rift Valley, passing firstly over Lake Baringo and then proceeding onwards to Lake Bogoria. I’ve spent many hours on the lake shore here and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the best place to photograph Flamingos from a ground level view. Unlike Lake Nakuru, which can also be very good and which lies three hours south by road, Bogoria receives very few visitors and there are always Flamingos on the lake.
As Bogoria came into view from the plane, it was quickly evident that many of the Flamingos that would normally be at Lake Nakuru, were instead at Lake Bogoria. And if the numbers in Lake Logipi had been impressive, they were even more so in Bogoria.
The following image is one of my favourite from the trip. I especially like the small patch of green vegetation.
From Bogoria, we made the short hop to Lake Nakuru, where we landed, reattached the doors and headed on down to Nairobi. Four hours later I was back in air, this time headed south to the border with Tanzania and the surreal landscapes of Lake Natron. Much larger than Logipi, Bogoria and Nakuru, it is also shallower although even it had experienced unusually heavy rain in 2011. In most years, the entire lake is full for only a few weeks, usually after the long rains in April and May; for the rest of the year, large expanses are dry, exposing a brittle crust of sodium bicarbonate covering vast expanses of soft, slimy mud. For the Flamingos, it is one of the very few sites in Africa where they breed.
Whatever the conditions, Natron never fails to amaze and from the air, photographic opportunities abound.
As we left Natron, we would periodically fly over small groups of the local Masai pastorlists, herding their cattle and goats.
After an overnight stay in Nairobi, I flew to the Mara early the next morning. 2011 was an unusual year for the Wildebeest migration in Kenya (everything seems to have been unusual in Kenya in 2011) with the herds arriving earlier than normal in June and many leaving earlier than usual in August and early September. When I arrived there will still pockets of sizeable herds but nothing like the numbers at this same time in previous years. As a consequence, river crossings were less frequent and when they did take place, they were mostly at the relatively unattractive Serena crossing. Therefore, the main focus for me this year was on other animals and activities.
Whereas in 2010, when I devoted much of my time to following a Cheetah mother and her six cubs, this year there were hardly any Cheetahs to be seen. On the other hand there appeared to be unusually large numbers of Jackals and especially, Lions.
Within an hour of arriving in the Mara we had found a Jackal Den with two adults and four pups. While the parents were out looking for food, the youngsters played vigerously for almost an hour before tiring themselves out and retreating to the safety and shelter of the den.
Most days the weather followed a predictable pattern for this time of the year: clear mornings with the heat building in the late morning and then with clouds drifting in by mid-afternoon often resulting in an hour or two of rain although on a few of the days this continued into the evening time. We had a number of beautiful sunrises but only one sunset of note, on my first day, when I was able to capture this image of a Crowned Crane in an Acacia tree.
The next morning we headed for the Marsh area where we had spent the previous afternoon in the company of an adult and several cubs. As we were arriving we saw a Lioness walking towards us with a dead Thomson’s Gazelle in its jaws. Whether she had actually killed or scavenged it was unclear.
About half a minute after this image was made, the Lioness dropped the kill, turned around and began looking anxiously in the direction, firstly to where her cubs were and then further off into the distance, to an area of woodland. Initially walking, then galloping and then almost breaking into a full sprint, she bounded off in the direction of the cubs. We followed at a distance. After a while we stopped and through binoculars, the object of her distress became all too clear: three male Lions moving rapidly in the direction of her cubs. From the behavior of the Lioness, these males were certainly not from her pride. Rather they were outsiders, bent on taking over her pride. And for any youngsters this would mean certain death if caught. The sole raison d’etre for all adult male Lions is to have a pride of their own, with their own territory and with exclusive breeding rights to the pride’s females. In order to bring the adult females quickly back into heat, cubs will be killed and sub-adults driven away. With the pride’s own males nowhere to be seen to defend the pride against the interlopers, the female’s only action of choice was to try and get the cubs out of harms way as quickly as possible.
Even at a young age, the cubs have pretty good instincts as to what represents danger. The mother was very quickly able to round up all seven of the cubs and all were soon moving rapidly in the opposite direction to the oncoming males. We then noticed that one of the cubs was much smaller than the others. The logical explanation was that this was a cub belonging to another Lioness from the same pride but for whatever reason had joined the creche that the other cubs’ mother was looking after. This smaller cub lacked the agility of the older, larger cubs, and repeatedly lagged behind. The Lioness would always wait patiently for her. At one point this cub looked to be in real danger with the Males having cut the distance to less than 100m but inexplicably at this point, they slowed down and engaged in a spot of mutual grooming. By the time they had finished, the Lioness and cubs were safely out of danger. I have seen on two occasions the results of a pride takeover where cubs are involved and it is sad, gruesome and difficult to watch so these youngsters can count themselves to have been extremely lucky.
A little later the three males got up and walked back from where they had come from; in this case right towards our vehicle.
A little later, not far from where we left the Lions, we found four Masai Giraffs engaged in a bout of neck jousting. This went on for the better part of the hour broken occasionally by brief rest periods. During one such moment, I made this image showing some nice symmetry with the necks and heads.
In the afternoon it began to rain at which point we caught up with two male Lions. Male Lions are always great subjects in the rain when their manes are sodden with water.
The next morning, before the sun had risen but with the sky a golden yellow, we found a small herd of Elephants on the horizon. Positioning our vehicle in a small undulating valley below the elephants, I was able to avoid cutting off the legs in the shot, which is often the problem when shooting elephant silhouettes.
After a largely quiet day, we met up with a different herd in the late afternoon, which contained several adolescents.
The rain set in again late in the afternoon, but just before it got dark, we found a female Leopard lounging in a tree, just five minutes from our camp. Returning the next morning in much better light, she was still in almost exactly the same position.
More heavy rain in the afternoon and more opportunities with male Lions. I’m always looking for the moment they shake their wet manes, usually after the worst of the rain has passed and I like to vary the shutter speed to get different effects.
Early the next morning, I went to collect my nine guests who had arrived by private charter. Within thirty minutes of their arrival, we watched in awe as an Impala gave birth. The immediate period after the fawn’s birth is extremely hazardous as it is highly vulnerable to predation. However, after just five minutes of licking by its mother, the fawn was up, attempting its first steps. And while initially taking on the gait of a drunkard, it wasn’t long before it was skipping about confidently. This was a real treat, not just for the guests but also for me as this was the first time I had witnessed an Impala birth.
Over the next few days much of our focus was on the Lion prides.
We had a number of good sessions with two of the prides with much playfighting and interaction between the cubs and juvenile members.
Every morning dawned clear which gave us abundant opportunities to shoot silhouettes and backlit images of birds and animals. First up, we have an adult male Impala…
…followed by a Lilac Breasted Roller…
…and a male Kori Bustard displaying.
Despite the relative lack of migrating herds, we did get to see a few large river crossings, and on two occasions were able to witness Lion kills on juvenile Wildebeest at the banks.
We spent a good part of one afternoon watching a pair of African Jacanas foraging on a large pond of floating vegetation. Most birds and animals would simply plunge through the thin plant layer but the Jacanas have extraordinarily long claws and toes that provide the same sort of support in snow as a snow-shoe.
On our last morning we awoke to another clear day. On our way to the Lions, we stopped to take silhouette images of a pair of Ostriches. I was fortunate to be in the right place with the camera set up correctly when they broke into a sprint with one chasing the other. This image ended up being arguably my favorite from the whole trip.
A little later we spent some time with a pair of sub-adult male Reedbucks, normally a shy species, but in this case, seemingly at ease with our vehicles.
All too quickly it was time to say farewell for another year to the Mara. It had been another fantastic trip and the group were great and for the most part, all happy campers. Despite the burgeoning tourist numbers which are becoming a very real problem in the Mara, especially at the river crossings, the fact is that there is nowhere in the world that has the density of game and associated predation that the Mara has. I will certainly be back and am already planning at least two return trips in 2012. I will likely have some room for a few guests, details for which I will announce within the next few weeks.