Since I began the travel photography work I’m now doing, I’ve had the good fortune of visiting some incredibly beautiful places. Yet, the more I travel, the longer my travel bucket list becomes. Truth be told, before this month-long trip to Tanzania that I took last year on a scouting trip for discovery photo tours, I was a relatively inexperienced Africa traveler with only one previous visit to the beautiful continent.
A whole new world
This trip changed all that and opened my eyes up to a whole new world, and opened my heart up to this magical place in ways I still am having a difficult time expressing in words. Thank goodness for cameras then; they are the tools that allow me to share this magic with you in the best way possible, other than visiting Tanzania for yourself, camera in hand.
Nothing could have prepared me for the journey that was lying ahead of me last summer. While I had always been a big fan of nature documentaries on television as a child ranging from National Geographic specials to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and later on in life, documentaries such as the BBC’s Planet Earth, seeing the African wildlife right in front of your own eyes is something that has to be experienced in order to understand the intensity of the impact on your soul.
I had been on game drives in Namibia and as my first experience with African wildlife in its natural habitat, it was fun and exciting for sure. However, the Tanzania Safari experience completely blew my mind. As I look back and remember the looks on everyone’s faces as they gazed for the first time upon elephants, lions, wildebeest, antelopes, zebra, leopards, hyenas, rhinoceros, giraffes, hippopotamus, cheetahs, dozens upon dozens of kinds of birds, and so many more incredible animals, it brings a smile to my face as we all felt like children with that wide-eyed fascinated look in our eyes, a giddy smirk on our faces, and an elevated heart rate that could only signify one thing… joy, pure joy.
From the very first day on safari in Tanzania where we visited Tarangire National Park, our small group of adventurers were thrust right into the action and bombarded with a wildlife show that just kept getting better as the day went on. In particular, there was a waterhole where the wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, elephants, and countless birds came to drink. There were even a few monkeys that darted in and out of the area as if just to add comic relief. We could have stayed the whole day just at this one spot but there were lions and leopards that needed our attention. Oh yeah, we photographed those awesome big cats that day too. Day one was good but it got better.
Tears and heartbreak
This place will move you, sometimes to tears, literally. When I saw just how majestic the lions, leopards, and elephants are and think back to reading about how they are often hunted for trophies by so-called big game hunters, it makes me angry beyond belief and saddened to tears. I just can’t conceive of how someone could have such a dark heart and want to end the life of a beautiful animal for no other reason than to hang its head on a wall. Just days before we began the first of two safaris, I read about how the son of Cecil the lion (who had been poached by an American dentist by tracking his radio collar) had also been killed by poachers.
This kind of news just breaks my heart and makes me wonder when the madness will stop. It also makes me think that we may just be one of the very last generations to actually be able to witness these magnificent beasts in their natural habitat. I feel blessed to be able to experience these moments when the animals are right in front of me or at least viewable with a long lens and I want to know that others too will have this privilege long after I’m no longer around. This is just one of the reasons that the time is now to visit Africa and see the animals and in particular the great migration that is constantly unfolding in Tanzania.
The three kings of Africa
As we came upon the three lions that were basking in the afternoon sun like the three kings that they truly are, my thoughts turned to Cecil and his son Xanda. While we had seen other lions by this point, none had looked so regal, so stoic, so dignified as these three. As if on cue, a mild wind started to blow, just enough to be able to add some motion in their manes and I quickly dropped my camera with the long lens (my trusty Fujifilm X-T2 and 100-400mm lens) and picked up my camera with the wide/normal lens (Fujifilm X-Pro2 and 16-55mm lens). The tree was the perfect setting for the shot of the three brothers doing what cats do best… relaxing! While they were asleep or just lounging while lying down, for one brief moment they raised their majestic heads in unison and I was ready to nail the shot. Even as I write this, a smile is creeping across my face as the memory of that moment dances in my head.
It’s moments like this that make me love photography as much as I do.
And now… in Technicolor!
Just to be clear… all of the animals in Africa are not black and white, there really are some serious colors on some of these gorgeous creatures. Seriously though, as anyone who knows my work, they know that I rarely delve into the black and white world but for so much of the work I did in Tanzania, I found that the photos had more impact with a light sepia-toned black and white treatment. There were some images though that begged for color, such as these rainbow tinted birds and lizards. Also, the lemur that I shot, I mean photographed (gotta be clear here!) in Zanzibar at an animal rescue center that we visit just looked awesome in full color so here he (or she) is in all his or her full-color glory.
Color or black and white, this epic journey throughout Tanzania’s national parks and the exotic island of Zanzibar is a photographer’s dream come true. I can’t remember another trip that affected me in such a visceral way in the last several years. On the photographic level, it was incredible but I’ll be honest, even without a camera, this is an experience that I would most certainly recommend for anyone who enjoys travel, animals, broadening their horizons, and having a momentous life experience that they will never forget. While I’ve been back from this journey for many months already and have visited many other countries since leading the photo safari in Tanzania and yet my heart remains in Africa.
Camera or no camera, black and white or color, it matters not. What does matter is what I promise you that you’ll get from just such a journey… a bigger heart, a deeper soul, and memories that will last a lifetime. One of my biggest joys in running these types of photography tours is getting the opportunity to spend time with new friends and see the looks on their faces when they get their first glimpse of a lion, elephant, giraffe, cheetah, or any of the other wild, free, and spectacular animals. It may sound corny but this is the kind of thing that releases your inner child and speaking only for me, I need that in my life. These moments when something so special is happening right before you need to be appreciated and cherished. We, silly humans, tend to dwell on the negatives in life far more than all the glorious things that happen to us or happen right in front of us and this trip… well, if it doesn’t make you let go of all the worries and weight in your life, if even for a few days, then possibly nothing will.
Traditions and culture
If you’re looking for more than just the animals on an African safari trip, you’re in luck. All that is possible in Tanzania. For our purposes at Discovery Photo Tours, we concentrate on the wildlife as the superstars on the safari but I also love that we take the opportunity to stop at a Masai village for an afternoon of culture and photography. This is an eye-opening day for most westerners who are used to having high-speed internet, a nice car, and take things like electricity for granted. There are still many places in the world that have none of these modern day “necessities” and yet they still are able to function quite well and have families, work hard, and follow their traditions.
I like the spontaneity of traveling in Tanzania with our small groups in the rugged Land Cruiser vehicles we use to get around. On the first day of the first safari I ran last year we ran into these young Masai men who were all wearing black and had their faces painted with elaborate white paint.
They were undergoing the coming of age “Emorata” (circumcision) ceremony where young men aged from 13 to 25 undergo a two-month tradition where they have to give away everything they own before shaving their heads and painting their faces with white chalk. The young men then don their traditional black garb sometimes with black ostrich headdresses. The ceremony consists of the men going to live on their own outside the village for three to four months before they end the tradition by having the village elders circumcise them.
The circumcision is performed without any form of anaesthetic or painkillers and any sign of pain from the young men during this process is considered dishonorable. After the circumcision, the men are considered to be warriors.
On this adventure, we had the opportunity to witness so many different special moments. Lions nursing their cubs, being surrounded by countless grazing giraffes of all ages, leopards devouring an antelope kill, the mating dance of ostriches, thousands of zebras congregating on the plains, cheetahs teaching their young to hunt, elephants of all sizes, vultures both at rest and during a feeding frenzy, wildebeest at the Mara river crossing and on one particular day the whole landscape in front of us was filled in every direction with tens of thousands of these creatures on their great migration.
What made the trip even more special was the quality of our local guides. These gentlemen are well educated about the terrain, geology, and wildlife in Tanzania. They also have a nose for finding some very special moments and are in constant contact with other guides who relay messages about exciting wildlife finds. They have eagle eyes and can spot not just subtle movement in the distance but more often than not, know exactly what kind of animal it is and how best to respectfully approach them.
Wherever I run my tours, whether it be Italy, Jordan, Japan, Iceland, or here in Tanzania, I spend a lot of effort in finding the best people on the ground to work with. This is important to me and in turn provides all of my guests with the best possible experience not just in terms of photography moments but also in terms of where we stay (in this case incredibly opulent and luxurious lodges, camps, and resorts) the food we eat, and the understanding of the places we visit as explained to us by our exceptional guides.
Getting the shot
Having run back to back safaris last year I can honestly say that no two days were even remotely the same. You just can’t predict wildlife behavior and thank goodness for that. There certainly is something to be said for spontaneity and the magic that happens when we allow things to unfold in front of us just how the universe intended it to happen.
Several moments that I witnessed last year will stay with me forever, many of which I was able to photograph such as the photos you see in this article, several of which were not captured with a camera and that’s by choice. I firmly believe that it is healthy to put the camera down sometimes and let the intensity of trying to capture an event or moment fade away as you simply become an observer. Breathe, I’ll tell myself, just stop and absorb what is happening, it is food for the soul. As photographers, we can easily become overloaded with trying to capture the perfect moment with our cameras (and I’m surely guilty of this myself) but I think it is vital as a traveler to take the time to savor a moment in time and build a memory. Let your photos become the triggers for these moments so that weeks, months, and years later, you can look back on these special times that you shared with wonderful people with a smile on your face and a gleam in your eye.
One of these moments, in particular, was when we witnessed the tens of thousands of wildebeest on our game drive from Northern Serengeti to Central Serengeti. It was like driving into a dream. Everyone in our vehicle just stopped and looked around in disbelief and I’m sure that it took me several moments to pick my jaw off of the floor as I stood there, wide-eyed and with goosebumps tingling on my arms, not knowing how to process the scene that was unfolding in front of me. Almost as fascinating as the animals outside the vehicle were the human animals inside the vehicle. I love looking at the expressions on the faces of my guests when they get the opportunity to witness something extraordinary. This was just one of many of these special moments in Tanzania.
After over a week on safari, it was a special treat to be able to head to Zanzibar to unwind, relax, and take some time to reflect on what we had just experienced on safari. Here in serene settings on the white sand beaches, I felt the dust from the Serengeti, Tarangire, and Manyara wash away into the turquoise waters of the Indian ocean. I can’t think of a better way to wrap up such a wonderful trip than to do so with my new friends in such a tranquil environment. Safaris can be a bit of a sensory overload (and I mean that in a good way) and taking a few days to let it all sink in before heading back to the realities of home was just perfect.
That’s not to say that all there is to do in Zanzibar is sit on the beach or lounge by the pool. We had the opportunity to visit an animal rescue center that caters to cheetahs, lions, hyenas and several other beautiful animals. We also went sailing, swimming, and snorkeling and of course visited historic Stone Town to absorb some local Zanzibar culture and do some street photography.
As I look back on September 2017, Tanzania will now certainly have a special place in my heart. Heading back in August and September of 2018 will now be the beginning of what I see becoming somewhat of a pilgrimage. I hope that the images that I’m sharing here and in the future from my time in Tanzania will encourage you to visit this remarkable land for yourselves. It will change you, move you, and inspire you in ways I can’t describe.
After a month in Africa, it was then time for me to move on to the next adventure. Just a few days after the end of the safari and Zanzibar tour, I was off to Jordan to run my annual photography tour there. Life is good.