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Big 5 in Record Time

Lions sunning themselves after a strenuous day,
Ngorongoro Crater, Tz
3rd Jul. 2002

Elephant also keeping an eye on us,
Ngorongoro Crater, Tz
3rd Jul. 2002
Leopard, Ngorongoro Crater, Tz. 3rd Jul. 2002

Rhino keeping an eye on us,
Ngorongoro Crater, Tz
3rd Jul. 2002

Cape Buffalo
Cape Buffalo wanting to get in on the act,
Ngorongoro Crater, Tz
3rd Jul. 2002
This came as a complete surprise. The opportunity came as a pure fluke as we weren't actually on safari at the time, but cutting through the Crater to our lodge on returning from Oldupai Gorge.

The sequence starts with the Leopard sunning itself on a tree in Lerai Forest at the tip of Gorigor Swamp. At the time we didn't bother to photograph the elephants we saw in the forest as we didn't expect to see Rhino again that day as they had proved elusive the previous two days. Next we came across the lions at the edge of Gorigor Swamp, which weren't wholly unexpected as we had seen them earlier in the morning on our outward trip. While Alison photographed them, I as usual swept the area for more game and happened to see a herd of buffalo on the far shore and two Rhinos in the distance on the edge of Lake Magadi.

So we'd seen all of the Big 5 in only 13 minutes. It was only then we thought of capturing photos of them all which took us 31 minutes in all as we had to travel to the other end of the swamp before we came across another elephant and a buffalo close enough to stand muster.

Special Early Season Treatment
Although early and late season may not be the best for game viewing the local staff are always very grateful for the custom, especially for 'repeaters'. We returned to Tanzania right at the beginning of the season and found ourselves the only lunchtime guests at the Tarangire Sopa Lodge. On our first night the manager gave us a complimentary bottle of wine and the following day the staff served us lunch by the pool, rather than in the restaurant.

Here Alison is being served tea before lunch, with just the squirrels, hyrax and Ashy Starlings for company. Ashy Starlings are endemic to Tarangire and are quite a boring washy brown colour.
Alison being served tea
Tea by the pool,
Tarangire Sopa Lodge,
29th May 2001

Lion Experiences
Lions blocking the road
Lions blocking the road,
Ngorongoro Crater, Tz
24th Dec. 2000

We were lucky to come across this pair of Lions lazing in the road just as we drove in to the Crater - a marvellous event on our first ever day in the Crater! Scanning around we spotted the female group amongst rocks high on the adjacent hill.

What was most surprising was with everybody's attention on the pair of Lions in the road nobody spotted the other behind us hiding in the bushes not 30m away!
Another Lion hiding in the grass behind us
Lion hiding in the grass behind us,
Ngorongoro Crater, Tz
24th Dec. 2000
Lioness using a tree to spot game
Lioness using a tree to spot Wildebeest and Zebra,
Ngorongoro Crater, Tz
24th Dec. 2000
Up a Tree

We had heard about Lions sitting in trees trying to avoid the tsetse flies at Manyara but hadn't expected to see any in the Ngorongoro Crater. This young Lioness was hunting by herself and used the tree to spot Wildebeest and Zebra. She was totally useless and simply stampeded the herd towards us.

This wasn't an isolated case. We came across another young Lioness (or was it the same one) in a tree just before our Big 5 experience - see above.

Under a Bush
Lions difficult to spot under a bush in the middle of the day
Lions resting under a bush,
Serengeti, Tz
26th Dec. 2000
Although they are quite large animals Lions can 'disappear' into the bush and be very difficult to find. I'd seen some movement under these trees from the track nearby but even though we waited for 10 or so minutes our driver always missed the tail swishing. Alison bet him it was a Cheetah, but lost it when we drove up and found this small pride of male Lions.

Lioness keeping the Hyena at bay, protecting the Buffalo the pride had killed the night before
Lioness protecting its kill,
Ngorongoro Crater, Tz
27th Dec. 2000
Protecting Its Catch

We had passed the rest of the pride heading off for some shade c. 20 minutes before. This Lioness was obviously left behind to protect the Buffalo they had killed overnight - keeping the nearby Hyenas at bay.

Orphanage Safari
We were lucky enough to win Eco-Resorts $500 voucher towards another safari in their launch year and decided we were happy enough to simply experience the safaris they had arranged for us. After a few ping-pong emails we decided to match their offer and ask them to arrange a safari for the Children of the Rising Sun - a local orphanage they supported.

Well, it sounded very simple as an idea but the planning and execution was far more involved than we imagined - little on our part, more on theirs. Firstly they had to find a suitable venue. Turtle Bay Beach Club, Watamu stepped in there and offered the use of Sobo Safari Camp on the Galana River, which happens to be in the middle of Tsavo East - the closest park to the orphanage. Kenya Wildlife Service granted the orphans free entry. All of this kept costs to a minimum allowing more children to benefit from the experience. We had learnt over the years few inland Kenyans have ever been to the coast and coastal Kenyans have rarely seen the animals the tourists take for granted.

Unfortunately the budget didn't allow all the children to go, so it was decided a competition was to be run based on chores, study and good behaviour to select the ten children to travel.

During this time we had the opportunity to visit the orphanage. This was enlightening for us. The greatest surprise was the children were provided basic shelter and classrooms in what can only be described as a mud field, all raised through donations etc - everything was run on a shoestring. There were only two permanent adults - a handyman and a teacher. The children are taught to look after themselves, tending the livestock and cultivating their vegetable garden in between lessons - unlike other children of their age there is little time to play!

By this time we had travelled to Tsavo East a few times and I had produced printed charts showing what animals we had personnaly spotted and where. We presented a composite, as well as animal and bird charts to the orphanage so they could study before we travelled. It was only at this point we realised half the children didn't speak English!

After our visit I thought an Eye-Spy book would be a good idea, showing actual pictures and providing a few details of the animals size, weight etc. That's when KWS had to come to our rescue again - I needed the English version translated into Swahili. It took a few months to complete as Swahili is a trading and not a formal langauage, so many phrases had no direct translation. Anyway everybody was pleased with the result.

As the months of planning progressed we were considering our next safari when Anne from Eco-Resorts suggested we travel as escorts with the children! As a rule we don't do children but after a little deliberation we opted to go and it was a worthwhile reward!

A local reporter was also engaged to join us and I was surprised even he had never been into a safari park before, so he was seeing the experience with similar eyes to the children.
Photograph of the orphans and their escorts just before we set off.
Orphans, reporter and escorts,
Turtle Bay Beach Club, Watamu
30th Aug. 2000
The day arrived and the two mini-buses turned up c. 06:00 at our hotel. The children had already been picked up - but only after they had completed their daily chores! We were all introduced and duly had our photos taken before departing.

The first leg was a long 3-4 hour drive to Buchuma Gate and so the break was welcomed by all to allow us to stretch our legs etc. The Wardens were co-opted as tutors and gave a short talk on looking after the environment, not disturbing the animals etc - another photo opportunity.
Group shot with the angers before we entered the park.
Orphans and KWS rangers,
Buchuma Gate, Tsavo East
30th Aug. 2000
After this the safari really began. The first leg took us to Aruba dam, where we had a packed lunch (this was before the lodge was revitalised c. 2006/07). The highlight of the morning was coming across a pride of lions just after feeding on a wildebest South of the dam.

The next leg took us to Sobo Camp via Hippo Point on the Galana River. As we crossed the plains to the river the radio suddenly came to life with a panicy voice of one of the camp staff. Our driver explained the cook had never been to camp before and was surprised to find 'Mr Ed', a huge male elephant who resided in the area, which we weren't aware of even though we had been there a few times before! Suffice to say the cook was still there when we arrived, thank goodness.

On arrival the staff really spoilt the children. Led by Salim the duty manager they fussed over them and showing them to their accommodation, luxury tents with en suite bathroom and toilets - probably better than their usual dwellings. At dinner we couldn't get over their appetites, some going up for 'thirds' of the main course and eating all the spare rolls on the table before desserts! Eventually the long day took its toll on the younger guests and Salim escorted a troop of 6 to bed, only to return a few minutes later with 5 in tow, only explaining - 'Mr Ed', as they passed through the dining tent for an alternative route. We only discovered later the sixth escortee had slipped back to the table unnoticed in the darkness!

Breakfast the following morning was an equal treat for the children - especially eggs which must be rationed in the orphanage. Before setting off we had to take a photograph of the staff with the children - see right. They couldn't have been better with the children, who obviously enjoyed their short stay.
Camp staff with the Orphans around the breakfast table with the Galana River in the background.
Orphans and staff,
Sobo Camp, Tsavo East
31st Aug. 2000
A lucky photograph of an elephant drinking and another pair fighting in the background.
Elephants drinking and fighting,
Voi Lodge, Tsavo East
31st Aug. 2000
Then we were off on our return trip, passing Hippo bathing in the water below Lugards Falls, across the plains again to Voi Lodge. As usual we disembarked from the mini-buses to gaze across the wonderful views below the lodge. As there was scarce water about we were treated to herd after herd of elephants coming to the waterholes - with one or two scuffles as one herd were reluctant to move off and allow another to come to water.

After Voi we headed back to Buchuma Gate via the swamp close to Voi and Aruba dam, where we again saw the lion pride who had not moved very far from where we had seen them the previous day.
Another group shot with Robert, the reporter overlooking the plains.
Orphans and Robert,
Voi Lodge, Tsavo East
31st Aug. 2000
By the time we got back to Turtle Bay the children were exhausted but had been rewarded with such a wonderful safari.

Follow this link to a reconstruction of Robert Nyagah's article published in The Nation a little after our return.

Elephant Experiences
Baby elephant sniffing our bus.
Baby Elephant sniffing
our mini-bus,
6th Jan. 2000
If you're patient and allow elephants to approach you they can get quite inquisitive and offer some of the best shots.

We spotted a herd crossing the river in Samburu and drove round to get a better view. They emerged from the trees at the far end of a sunny glade and we stopped to watch as they grazed and gradually moved closer. This youngster was curious, sidled up to us and had a good sniff around the mini-bus. I don't think it was us it was after but trying to see if we had any fruit or sweets. From previous experiences we know not to carry these!

You do however have to have a good guide and don't startle them - especially if they have young. The Elephant to the right was photographed at Manyara, Tz, where we came across the herd grazing by the roadside. Our driver, James turned off the ignition to encourage them to approach us.

Play the video!

Imagine experiencing this only to find the dicky battery connection let us down again and the engine wouldn't start!

Young female elephant obviously annoyed with us.
Young female Elephant,
Manyara, Tz,
27th Dec. 2000

Walking Safaris
As you may imagine you can't just wander out of your camp/lodge and walk across the plains or through the bush! Walking safaris have to be carefully prepared and are only allowed in some locations where armed guides are available and this may take a couple of days to arrange.

Our armed guide.
Armed Guide,
Empaki Crater
4th Jul. 2002
The picture (left) shows the guide who escorted us down Empaki Crater in Tanzania. He couldn't speak a word of English. However this didn't stop him taking his responsibilities seriously. We didn't realise the effect high altitude would have on our climb back up. The guide was tuned to our breathing, mine particularly and stopped literally every 10m climb for me to catch my breathe. It would have been impossible for Alison and the guide to carry me if anything should have happened.

Suffice to say it took us far longer to climb out of the Crater than it did to walk into it. The effort was well worth the while, as the view ( right ) shows.
View of Empaki Crater as we descended.
Empaki Crater,
4th Jul. 2002
If you're not careful you can get in to a lot of trouble with inexperienced guides. On one walking safari the guide gave us the usual brief about sticking together and following his instructions. Unfortunately having only arrived 2-3 weeks earlier he was unfamiliar with the area and planned a far too ambitious 'troop march' and constantly prompted us to keep up. The local Samburu guide told us a few days later it would take him 3 hours to walk the distance! Not only that he took us into thick bush with a single track and no escape route. This was rhino country and we followed a large male lion along the track bordering the area just the following morning!
An lone male Elephant we encountered on another walking safari.
25th Dec. 2002

Encountering wild animals with a good guide however can enhance your holiday.

As we walked through the bush I caught a glimpse of this Elephant and pointed him out to our guide. He immediately took us on a circuitous route to ensure we weren't in any danger. Lone male Elephants are notoriously tempestuous and will charge without warning.
As the distance you cover is so short unless you're very lucky you'll see far less game on a walking safari. On one 45 minute walk in the middle of the day on open plains we saw one distant Impala and a dung beetle!
However you can improve your chances by going prepared. We'd spent the best part of 6 months planning our Millenium re-union safari and included a walking safari. We ensured everybody came prepared with long trousers and boots as we knew the bush was rough and had many thorns, some over an inch long! The evening before some other guests at the camp invited themselves along which we weren't too pleased about, but this was in staff hands. They totally spoilt the experience. Firstly they turned up in shorts and open toed sandals! And then had the cheek to ask the guide to keep to the vehicle tracks because they couldn't cope! Once out on the track they kept up a constant chatter about other holidays and trips! It wasn't any surprise this distant shot of a Waterbuck was all we saw in 1 1/2 hours!

Waterbuck, a distant view on our Millenium walking safari.
Waterbuck, Tsavo East
21st Dec. 1999

Baboon Raid
Baboon with baby.
Baboon with baby,
Voi Lodge
30th Dec. 1999
Voi Lodge has excellent views across the wide open plains and has its own watering hole that attracts a wide variety of game. It also has a resident troop of baboons.

This mother was quite happy sitting on the wall with its baby as we sat with a drink taking in the view. Although she looked quite bored she was obviously eyeing up the tourists - a true role reversal. Suddenly, with her baby still clinging to her chest she jumped down from the wall, ran up to the Italian tourists coming out of the lodge and tried to snatch a watch from one of their wrists! The baboon even tried to steal it from her bag when she put it out of sight for safe keeping!

Leopard Spotting - difficult enough at the best of times!
As with our first safari Leopard can be extremely difficult to spot at the best of times (see Big 5 on first Safari above) - let alone on the ground!
Zebra in trees.
Zebra, Masai Mara
14th Sept. 1999
We had stopped to view the Zebra in the bushes and as we pulled away I had a fleeting glimpse of this Leopard sat watching them in a nearby glade. The driver reluctantly backed up after a lot of pressure from us and couldn't wait to get on the radio to all the other buses when he realised we were right. They came streaming from all around!

Leopard sat in a sunny glade.
Leopard, Masai Mara
14th Sept. 1999
Leopard on a mission!
Leopard, Buffalo Springs
7th Jan. 2000
At other times and with a bit of luck Leopard can be very co-operative like this one we tracked for c. 2 kms on one morning game drive. He was obviously on a mission as he hadn't eaten for a while. We later saw him feeding at a baited tree when we returned to the lodge.

I felt really lucky when I spotted another Leopard on the ground on an evening gamed drive in Samburu. I was standing in the back of the mini-bus which allowed me to see the track much further ahead than the driver and just managed to catch this Leopard as he crossed the track. We followed him as best we could - he was trying to hunt at the time. When he drew too much attention from the tourists he took a rest in this tree and waited for the brouhaha to settle down!

Another Leopard I spotted on the ground!
Leopard, Samburu
28th Dec. 2004

Elephant Charge - not an uncommon experience!
Elephant charging us, just because we were in his way.
Charging Elephant,
Tsavo East
29th Dec. 1998
On our third safari to Sobo Camp in Tsavo East we were taking an evening safari along the Galana River just before sunset. We came across this lone male elephant quietly chomping away and gradually strolling down to the river for a drink. We had been photographing him for a while but he suddenly reared up, as we were blocking his way! Joseph (our favoured driver - this was the third time he had driven us to Sobo and he now knew our needs) wasted no time and took-off at a fair rate, as you can see left.

We continued our safari and on returning found the same elephant quite happily munching on new delicacies no worse the wear.
The same elephant quite content and no worse for wear
Elephant feeding,
Tsavo East
29th Dec. 1998

Lion Charge - dummy charge really!
If the elephant charge the previous day (see above) wasn't exciting enough I had to go one better.

We came across a pair of mating lions at the road-side. Being shy they retired to some nearby bushes. Wanting to get the best photograph I'd climbed on to the roof of the Land Rover, stretching full height with my digital camera extended at arms length to get a clearer shot - Alison had a great shot the previous year with a blade of grass cutting though its nose. At that point the lion considered me a threat and made a dummy charge! As Joseph advised me to get down I simply clicked the shutter to get this shot as I dropped back into the vehicle. David, our travelling companion was videoing the event but in his haste his camera swung up in the air and he only recorded the roar!
Mating male lion making a dummy charge at me - simply because I wanted a good photo of him!
Lion Charge, Tsavo East
30th Dec. 1998

When we retired to Voi Lodge Joseph told us the lion would have taken me off the roof in a single bound if I hadn't heeded his warning.

The 'Man-eaters of Tsavo' are famous, having killed some 119 labourers who built the railway from the coast to Nairobi. It is considered the lack of the more common bushy main reflects their high testosterone levels - similar to balding humans!

Fly-camping Safari - our second safari!
Well, I thought it was a challenge to get Alison to safari at all the first year - let alone fly-camping in a back-packing tent, which she hadn't done in the U.K. let alone the African bush! I think she thought she could survive anything for one night - even if it was just before our wedding.
Our fly-tent, sat conveniently between two trees - a possible escape route?
Fly-tent, Amboseli
29th Dec. 1996
Everything started O.K. as we drove down from Whistling Thorns just outside Karen. We had a bush-drive of sorts as we entered the park and settled in on our arrival at Amboseli Community Campsite. The facilities were a bit basic and after Tony's report on the toilets decided to find our own! After our drivers had acquainted themselves with the local chief, we were off for an evening game drive. (It pays to keep the locals happy and it only cost us an evening meal and breakfast which would probably have gone to waste anyway)!
We visited the local Maasai village (part of the negotiations with the chief), something we skipped on our first safari. As you can imagine the village is basic and the huts, which sleep the whole family are cramped. Alison's hair (long and blond) is always an attraction to the local women, who can't help but feel it! Sue was adopted as the 'Moma' - I'm not sure whether that was appreciated or not!
Maasai village - the two girls have been adopted by the tribeswomen.
Masai village, Amboseli
29th Dec. 1996
A quiet night-in by the campfire!
Campfire, Amboseli
29th Dec. 1996
Anyway we returned to the camp at sunset and settled in for an evening meal and a few drinks around the campfire before retiring for the night.

That's when the fun started!

Obviously the noises were unfamiliar and kept us awake for a couple of hours, but we finally drifted off. I can't say I was woken, but I was alert and conscious of the sounds around me. I was only troubled when I recognised what I was listening to. Alison woke with a start thinking the latest sound was somebody breaking into the mini-bus - it did sound a bit like the sliding door. I rolled over and clamped my hand over her mouth and we both lay there wide awake with all possibilities running through our minds. Well, after what seemed a lifetime we heard the rangers drive by and fired a few warning shots. At that our paralysis was broken and I fumbled to unzip the tent to get out and see what we had been facing. It was a bit of a let-down as there was nothing to see!
Elephant footprints - 20 yards from our tent!
Elephant footprints, Amboseli
30th Dec. 1996
Our colleagues were also up by that time and we discussed the experience - an elephant rummaging through our beer cans - not 15 feet from the tent!! After a while the others returned to bed, but Alison couldn't sleep and sent me off to forage for firewood in the dark! As I scoured along the fence-line the only thought going through my mind was 'what happens if a leopard's out on the prowl'! Suffice to say, I didn't hang around.

Eventually we retired for a fitful sleep but were rewarded in the morning with clearing skies over Kilimanjaro and managed to get a photograph of dawn breaking over the snow-tipped peak!
Kilimanjaro at sunrise - a little reward for the overnight experience!
Sunrise over Kilimanjaro, Amboseli
30th Dec. 1996
We tracked the elephant's prints to see where he'd broken through the electrified fence and chased off by the rangers. The staff quite happily regaled the elephant's previous raid a few nights earlier, where it had picked up a similar tent with the occupant still asleep. He fell out, but the elephant was happy to rummage around for the fruit he had stashed away!!

Lunatic Express - an unforgettable experience!
While we were lying on the beach over Christmas 1995 Tony was beside himself as he described his experience travelling on the Mombasa-Nairobi overnight train, saying he'd never do it again. Well, as we planned our wedding for the following year we decided to do a fly-camp beforehand, combining it with a day trip to Mombasa before travelling up-country for the safari. Well the idea took hold and we decided to try the train, with Tony in tow!

Well, we did book it and had been warned. We duly arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare. The girls weren't too impressed with the toilets at the station to start with. When the train pulled in, we found our cabins and settled in. At least we had booked overnight sleepers and weren't travelling true cattle class, which probably would have been too much to bear. While we gathered 'fresh-air' one of the stewards turned up and befriended us by taking our picture. He was wearing dark trousers, a white jacket with matching gloves - but they were all too big for him! The fact he was already three-sheets-to-the wind didn't add much to the impression. Anyway that didn't stop him 'reserving' a bottle of wine for us at dinner.
The Lunatic Express - Mombasa to Nairobi train at dawn heading towards Nairobi.
Lunatic Express, Kenya
28th Dec. 1996
We duly departed and were soon invited to take our seats in the dining car. How he managed to serve the soup in the swaying carriage and in his condition without tipping it over any of us is a complete mystery. As the meal progressed he presented the wine. Well the taste wasn't particularly impressive but that was nothing compared to the price - we hadn't asked him that when we ordered it - but it certainly wasn't worth a second bottle he offered.

We retired to our cabins to finish off the half bottle of scotch I bought duty free on the plane. The evening turned into our hen and stag-nights - with the ladies settled in one cabin and the gents playing cards in another. At least it passed the time before we retired to bed.
That's when the fun really started. The cabin door didn't lock and we needed the window open to keep cool. So security was playing on Alison's mind, which wasn't helped by the fact some of the passengers travelled on the roof. So as we pulled into every station I was holding the window closed with my foot and the door shut with my hands. I didn't get much sleep that night.

Anyway the night went by without incident. We had an early breakfast - I don't recall much about that, before we disembarked at Nairobi early the following morning!

Big Five - on our first safari!
Rhinoceroses. I think Madi was relieved, having spent all day searching for them!
Rhinoceroses, Masai Mara
21st Dec. 1994
Madi, our driver had spent the third day looking for a rhino reported SE of Keekerok and wasn't having much luck. Towards the end of the day he suddenly took-off at high speed across the plains - obviously the jungle telegraph had kicked in! We noticed a lot of safari buses gathering from quite a distance and quickly spotted a pair of Rhinoceroses.
After a few minutes we noticed many of the buses were circling a small copse and paying little attention to the Rhinos. By mixing with them we were lucky enough to get a 5 second glimpse of a Leopard, who popped his head out, took a quick look round and disappeared into the bush, never to be seen again! Only Colin was quick enough to catch this shot, which he was pleased to circulate on returning home!
Leopard seen close to the rhinos. Yes, it was only a 5 second glimpse!
Leopard, Masai Mara
21st Dec. 1994
Well, we had been lucky to see the Big Five - Elephant, Rhinoceros, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard in our first few days. This is the Holy Grail for most safari tourists - certainly it's what the drivers/guides believe as they tend to tear around the savannah chasing them, at the expense of seeing other beautiful animals. It's probably a hangover from the big White Hunter days.

Unfortunately, due to tiredness Alison had missed this particular game drive and it was a further five years before she finally spotted a Leopard, completing her set!