2012
01.14

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.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos grouped tightly together in the mud and algae-infused shallow waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya

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.

Aerial image of hundreds of Lesser Flamingos walking through the shallow waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya

 

Hundreds of Greater and Lesser Flamingos taking flight, aerial shot, Lake Logipi, Kenya

 

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos, grouped tightly together, walking through the shallow, muddy waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya

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.

Aerial shot of Shrew-shaped congregation of Lesser Flamingos on the shallow, mud coloured waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya

As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, the feeding Flamingos cast attractive shadows on the shallow brown waters.

Hundreds of Greater and Lesser Flamingos feeding in the shallow waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya, aerial shot

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.

Small Date Palm clump among sand dunes, aerial shot, Seguta Valley, Kenya

Interspersed between some of the sand dune are ancient volcanic features.

Aruba Rock set amongst sand dunes, aerial shot, Seguta Valley, Kenya

Even these dunes received heavy rain, leaving behind finger-shaped pools of brown water.

Sand dune and temporary rain filled pool, aerial shot, Seguta Valley, Kenya

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.

Helicopter flying over sand dunes, aerial shot, Seguta Valley, Kenya

 

Helicopter landing in sand dunes, aerial shot, Seguta Valley, Kenya

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.

Aerial image of seasonal streams and soda pools amongst grassy vegetation, Seguta Valley, Kenya

 

Soda pools set in volcanic landscape, aerial shot, Seguta Valley, kenya

With aerial photography, I’m always looking for interesting shapes and patterns on the ground.

Lava, wind and rain eroded grooves and gullies, aerial shot, Seguta Valley, Kenya

 

Erosion patterns left by seasonal streams, aerial shot, Seguta Valley, Kenya

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.

Aerial image of thousands of Lesser Flamingos lining the shore of Lake Bogoria, Kenya

 

Aerial image of thousands of Lesser Flamingos carpeting the shallow waters and shore of Lake Bogoria, Kenya

The following image is one of my favourite from the trip. I especially like the small patch of green vegetation.

Thousands of Lesser Flamingos carpet the shallows of Lake Bogoria, Kenya, aerial image

 

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos along the shore of Lake Bogoria, Kenya

 

Lesser Flamingos in shallow-water, algae infused pool connected to Lake Bogoria, aerial shot, Kenya

 

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos on algae infused pool connected to Lake Bogoria, Kenya

 

Lesser Flamingos surround small island, aerial shot, Lake Bogoria, Kenya

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.

Algae trails and cloud reflections on Lake Natron, aerial shot, Tanzania

 

Algae infused water beside a crust of sodium bicarbonate, aerial shot, Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

 

Hundreds of Lesser Flamingos walking through the shallows of Lake Natron, Tanzania, aerial shot

 

Hundreds of Lesser Flamingos flying over Lake Natron, Tanzania, aerial shot

 

Aerial image of Greater Flamingos in late afternoon sunlight, walking through the shallow waters of Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos running to take flight, Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

Aerial image, backlit, of Lesser Flamingos on river tributary flowing into Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

Aerial shot of Lesser Flamingos walking in shallow water beside the brittle, sodium bicarbonate crust on the shore of Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

Great White Pelicans grouped together on river bank, aerial shot, Lake Natron area, Tanzania

As we left Natron, we would periodically fly over small groups of the local Masai pastorlists, herding their cattle and goats.

Masai tribespeople leading cows along river bank, northern Lake Natron area, Kenya

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.

Black-Backed Jackal pups play fighting, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Black-Backed Jackal pups playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Crowned Crane in Acacia tree silhouetted at sunset, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Lioness carrying Thomson's Gazelle fawn kill, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Three male Lions walking closely together, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Three male lions walking closely together, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Four Masai Giraffs standing together, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Male Lion with wet mane, snarling, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Two African Elephants walking, silhouetted against dawn sky, Masai Mara, Kenya

After a largely quiet day, we met up with a different herd in the late afternoon, which contained several adolescents.

Adolescent African Elephants playfighting, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Leopard in a tree, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Male Lion shaking rain off wet mane, head shot, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Male Lion shaking rain off wet mane, head shot, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Impala giving birth, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Adult female Impala with newly born fawn attempting its first steps, Masai Mara, Kenya

Over the next few days much of our focus was on the Lion prides.

Lioness with chin resting on the back of another Lioness, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Two sub-adult male Lions investigating scent marks, Masai Mara, Kenya

We had a number of good sessions with two of the prides with much playfighting and interaction between the cubs and juvenile members.

Lion cubs playfighting, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Lion cub in tree, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Lioness climbing tree, head shot, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Lion cubs playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

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…

Male Impala silhouetted at sunset, Masai Mara, Kenya

…followed by a Lilac Breasted Roller…

Lilac-Breasted Roller on perch, silhouetted against dawn sky, Masai Mara, Kenya

…and a male Kori Bustard displaying.

Male Kori Bustard displaying, backlit at sunise, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Wildebeest river crossing chaos, Mara River, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Lioness carrying Wildebeest calf kill on the bank of the Mara River, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Adult African Jacana, showing long toes and claws, walking on floating vegetation, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Adult African Jacana, showing long toes and claws, walking on floating vegetation, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Ostriches running, silhouetted against dawn sky, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Two sub-adult male Reedbucks with heads touching, backlit, Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Wildencounters group photo, Masai Mara, Kenya

18 comments so far

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  1. Very very nice images Paul. I especially like the dune patterns & sunsets. I beg to differ — the shrew is President Richard Nixon. I envy all your trips as all the rest of mine will be restricted to the western USA and Canada. I now have a new laptop to replace the broken desk top PC and am making sure I have all my images backed up and in order twice over before I start the new laptop. Neck surgery on Tuesday. Then delete Ultra Antarctica images like crazy and edit the best ones before art shows start in March. I won’t get in a lot of photo time in 2012 again but will go to New Mexico ruins and hard rock in April. Perhaps I’ll finally get in my rutting bighorn sheep trip in Glacier National Park next Thanksgiving? Thanks for sharing, Bud

  2. Paul, I am mesmerized by your photos – I have soooo many favorites. What a treat to see these fantastic shots and read your
    interesting comments. Thanks for including me. Send me details on your next trip.
    I’d love to know which one is you in the picture?

    • Hi Nilla. Thx for your kind words. I’m on the extreme left!

  3. Hi Paul, I love all your images above the Flamingo shots are all worthy of wall mounting, as are the abstract dune shots if I had to choose one I think it would be the – Algae trails and cloud reflections on Lake Natron, aerial shot, Tanzania – just brilliant.
    The wildlife shots are so good, I particularly like the shot of the Giraffes.
    Thanks so much for sharing.
    Gordon

    • Thanks again Gordon for all your support and generous praise. It’s always interesting to see which images others like. Usually very different from my own but that’s one of the things that makes photography so interesting – seeing what other people like and don’t like vs your own preferences.

  4. Hi Paul, I am the cousin of Suzann and Gordon. Just wanted to say amazing photos. If there is anything I appreciate in life it is a good photo. Well done. Very best regards. Richard

    • Thanks Richard.

  5. Thanks, Paul for another delightful collection of images from your Fall trip to Kenya and Tanzania. Your commentary is so informative and engaging, which helps the viewer, like me, to appreciate more fully the total experience. I love so many of your images that I can’t pick just one or two as favorites.
    You have lived a most fascinating life. How wonderful that you are able to pursue your passion and share it for the rest of the world to see. I don’t think it can’t get any better than that!
    Thanks,
    Joanna Patterson

    • Hi Joanna, am so happy that my photos are inspiring to you. Take care, Paul.

  6. Hi
    I get really happy looking at your photos. They are so beautiful. I have seen pictures from these landscapes, soda lakes, sand dunes, flamingos on nature programs, but I think your pictures are on top regarding beauty and quality. It is very inspiring. Also that you write about how you made the trip and your thoughts about the places. Thank you!

    Ulla

    • Hi Ulla – many thanks for your kind words. Am really happy that you find these images inspiring. Best regards, Paul

  7. Hi, Paul:
    OMG your photos are so unbelievably awesome – and your descriptions as you travel along just make them all the more interesting. My favourites are certainly any/all of the animals but the sunsets, birds, dunes, aerial shots, etc., they’re are all spectacular.
    I was immediately totally immersed in your photos. I couldn’t wait to see the next photo and each one was more interesting and more beautiful than the last. Loved them all! Thanks, Adeline

  8. Hi Paul ,

    Goodness me…I am speechless. Your photographs just blow my mind!! We will be in Kenya from the 1-12 April this year. I hope the weather will be kind to us and that we see lots and lots on our self-drive holiday. Awesome photos again ! Would love to go to the North. Alas, so many places to see , so little time…

    • Hi Lindie. Hope the weather will be kind to you in the Mara as you will just about be entering the rainy season (although this has been all over the place in recent years). Would love to hear about your self drive experience.

  9. you must be a magic man. how did you capture an impala giving birth? This is fantastic Paul.

  10. lovely pictures

  11. Double Thumbs Up!
    Can you pls tell us what camera gear you were using? :-)

    • Lots! All Canon. Camera bodies (for last year or so) are MK 1V and 5D MK2. Lenses – everything from 15mm fisheye through to my 12 year old 600mm f4 IS lens. Use the 16-35mm lots as well as the 70-200 f2.8 and on certain trips the 300mm f2.8 lens (still Canon’s sharpest lens). Underwater: 5D MK2 in Subal housing with 15mm, 14mm, 16-35mm and 100mm macro lenses.

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