Mbuni tent

Kenya – Our African Safari

After the huge disappointment of our South African safari last year, I couldn’t wait to get back to Kenya.  In order to maximise our chances of seeing game, David and I timed our visit to coincide with the Great Migration.

From the moment we left Ol Kiombo airport for Bush Camp I could barely contain my excitement at being back in Africa again. It had been far too long, in fact, the last time we had visited Kenya was our honeymoon back in 2001.  The drive from the airport afforded us our first sighting – a cheetah and her 11 month old cub.  A good omen for the start of our African Safari!

The jeeps at Bush Camp have been specially adapted with platforms off each window and there were plenty of beanbags in the cars for steadying our cameras. Our driver, James, was known for his uncanny ability to anticipate the movements of the animals.  A handy skill to have when ferrying around photographers looking for the best photographic positions.

As the harsh light of the first game drive of our african safari finally turned into beautiful golden light, we came across a pride of lions just waking up from their nap. At 22 strong, the Monaco pride is the dominant pride within the conservancy. I literally did not know where to point my camera because there were so many lions and cubs around us.

A son of the Monaco pride taken during our african safari holiday

Incidentally, the camera and lens combo I was using on this trip was a Canon EOS 7D teamed up with my trusty Canon 100-400mm lens. I know there are noise issues with the Canon 7D but provided the subject and main focus is sharp, I personally think that a bit of noise in the background is ok.

We stayed with the pride until there was no light left before reluctantly leaving to find somewhere to enjoy our sundowner. What an excellent way to start our safari!

Over the course of the next few days, we bore witness to some incredible sightings: African Wild Dogs (also known as painted dogs) that have not been seen in the Mara for over a decade and have the ability to run great distances. This pack more than lived up to their reputation as we followed them for over half an hour and covered miles.

African Wild Dog (lycaon pictus)

We also met Narasia the Cheetah and her two young cubs who were just 10 weeks old. The cubs kept us highly entertained with their antics but my favourite memory of them was when they interacted with their mother. The bond of love between them was just so beautiful to see and I feel privileged to have been able to capture the sequence below.

Cheetah cub jumping onto his mother

Cheetah cub playing with his mother

Cheetah mother and cub love

Perhaps our most adorable encounter was with a small herd of elephants that contained a tiny baby calf snuggling with her older sibling. We were thoroughly enchanted by this baby elephant and her sister who was still a young elephant herself.

We were mindful not to get too close to the young ones as we didn’t want to be charged by the adults in the group. However, they seemed relatively relaxed about our presence which gave us the opportunity to watch and photograph the gorgeous baby elephant as she explored the area.

Elephant calf snuggling with her older sibling

The morning we were due to enter the Masai Mara, we encountered the famous Marsh Pride, well, some of them anyway. The cubs were 10 weeks old and had not long been re-introduced to the rest of the pride. There was a third lioness but her cubs were very young so she had taken them away from the pride for now to keep them safe. In time, she would rejoin her sisters.

Marsh Pride with cubs

A rare opportunity to capture hippo with their young out of the water.

Adult hippo with a young hippo by the river's edge

I had hoped to capture an iconic animal under an acacia tree but it just never happened so I settled for a Topi on a mound with the acacia tree in the distance.

Topi on a mound on the mara plains

Our best sighting of a leopard came during the magical golden hour. We had hired one of the brand new Canon 300mm f/2.8 lenses for the trip but I had been reluctant to use it simply because it didn’t have the range of my 100-400mm. I can’t say that I loved the lens on first using it, mainly because I am used to telephoto lens and not primes but I can see that I could grow to like this lens.

Leopard in golden light

I also marvelled at the fact that we had not seen any hyenas. It turned out that not many hyenas hang out at the conservancy due to the high density of lions in the area. Ironically, the lack of hyenas meant that cheetahs thrived in Olare Orok since it meant one less scavenger trying to steal their food.

Hyena in the brush

One of the reasons I love Africa so much is because there are so many opportunities to capture images that are made so much more interesting because of their backstories.

I mentioned earlier that the dominant pride in the conservancy was the Monaco pride. For some reason, two of the lionesses have split from the pride to form their own little family. On our penultimate day in Africa, the bulk of the Monaco pride came across the two lionesses who had young cubs with them. The talk at dinner that night was of the annihilation of this small pride and our hearts ached at the thought of the cubs being killed. The following morning we travelled to the last known resting place of the small pride, looking for signs of survival. We found one of the lionesses alone.

Lioness at dawn sat in long grass

She got up and left as we approached and we noticed that she was wounded – her hindquarter had a particularly nasty gash on it. James surmised that she must have stayed to fight off the Monaco pride, allowing her sister to take the cubs to safety. We found her sister eventually but with just two of the cubs and they were terrified. We left them alone as we didn’t want to draw attention to the traumatised group but our concern for the missing cub grew. We eventually found the first lioness again and to our relief, the last cub was with her.

Lioness with her cub

I think the whole group was glad that the little pride was safe as it would have cast a pall over the end of our african safari had the pride been lost.

There was also good news on the cheetah front in that the coalition of brothers had managed to make a kill and it had been a good one of a wildebeest. We didn’t see the actual kill but we witnessed them feeding and then clean each other. I was also impressed with how they expertly extracted the stomach and laid it to one side of the carcass, completely intact! It seems they don’t like to eat the stomach so leave it for others to feed on.

Cheetahs cleaning each other

Our african safari ended on a high with what felt like the entire Monaco pride coming out to bid us farewell. It had been a fantastic trip and I think it will be a while yet before I get through all the photos I took. Farewell Africa, we will be back!

Golden Jackal

Eye of the Tiger

WHF Smarden

The WHF (Wildlife Heritage Foundation) was where David had his first proper nature photography lesson back in 2009, so it was only fitting that my first proper lesson was also here. My photo day was bought for me by David as a wedding anniversary present.

Since that day, we have been back to photograph the big cats and the little cats at WHF Smarden many times and in the process, have gotten to know both the cats and the wonderful volunteers who look after the place very well. It would be so easy to fill my blog with the photos that I have taken at WHF but I prefer to share a few images of some of my favourite cats.

Xizi an amur leopardess of WHF Smarden

Meet Xizi, an amur leopard. In the time we have known her, she has had three litters of gorgeous cubs. Her son, Argun, may be seen in the gallery below.

A Snow Leopard of WHF Smarden

Ranschan was my very first snow leopard and he remains my favourite. He wasn’t always obliging for the camera but when he was in the mood, he made a fantastic model.

Murphy the Snarling Cheetah from WHF Smarden

Murphy the cheetah, affectionately known as “Smurf” is a superstar when it comes to posing for the camera. He has the most amazing collection of facial expressions and it is all too easy to forget that he is not a domestic cat.

Clouded Leopard photographed at WHF Smarden

Ben the Clouded Leopard was a former resident of Santago until the rare leopards project was closed down following the death of owner and founder Peter James.  The loss of Peter is a huge blow to cat conservation – many of the big cats that can be found at WHF, Paradise Wildlife Park and other sanctuaries around the world were rescued by Peter. David and I were one of the last people to visit Santago before it closed in 2009.

Sumatran Tiger as photography by Pui Hang Miles at WHF Smarden

Nias the Sumatran Tiger has fathered two litters of cubs in the time that we have known him. Sumatrans are instantly recognisable by their slightly mad looking faces. You can read more about his second litter of cubs, Toba and Kubu here Kittens and cubs at WHF.

Eurasian Lynx at WHF Smarden

Petra is an ex-TV star. She was retired from the world of animal actors after she got a bit too playful on set. Considering photographers are actually allowed into the enclosure with her now, I think it would be fair to say that she has calmed down.

Snarling Puma from WHF Smarden

WHF Smarden is home to two puma sisters, Valentina and Viktoria. The former (pictured above) gives wonderful snarls whilst Viktoria likes to entertain her audience by jumping across water.

Juvenile fishing cat from WHF Smarden

Neptune the fishing cat came to WHF Smarden with his brother Aquarius and sister Angel as part of the deal that saw Pamir the Pallas Cat move from WHF to the Rare Species Conservation Centre. The timing of their move was quite fortuitous as their father had started to become intolerant of their presence and it was only a matter of time before he hurt one of the kittens.

Below is a gallery of more of my favourite images from WHF Smarden. I hope you enjoy looking at them and would love to hear your thoughts on my photos. As ever, click on a thumbnail to see a larger image.

Corsac fox in winter coat

Hamerton Zoo

Hamerton Zoo is located near Sawtry in Cambridgeshire and was originally opened in 1990 as a conservation sanctuary. It is home to a wide range of birds and mammals. One of their more unusual residents are the red maned wolves. They have an odd gait when in motion but are quite lovely.

Red Maned Wolf walking through long grass

The Corsac Fox, also known as the Steppe Fox is a medium sized Asiatic Fox species, so called because it can be found throughout the central steppes of Asia. It is also referred to as the Tibetan Fox as it can also be found in the arid environments north and west of the Tibetan plateau.

Foxy look

These cute little critters are very social and can often be found with many friends.  Hamerton Zoo is home to no less than 7 Corsac Foxes.

Corsac fox standing on tree branch

The photographic opportunities at Hamerton Zoo are great but for me, the reason I visit is for their big cats. I can honestly say that Hamerton is THE place to go to for cheetah photography.  There is nowhere else where you will get such amazing photographic opportunities.

Cheetah looking over his shoulder

Now I’ve taken photographs of cheetahs at Dartmoor and at WHF, but I have to say that the opportunities afforded here at Hamerton is something else.  It was almost impossible to take a bad picture of them here.

Close-up of cheetah looking over his shoulder

The zoo also has the largest collection of cheetahs in the UK, all of them are extremely photogenic and extremely amenable when it comes to photographers.

Cheetah head shot from Hamerton Zoo

One of the reasons why Hamerton Zoo is so great for cheetah photography is because they allow the grass to grow long.  As a result, your pictures could look as though they were taken in Africa and not Cambridgeshire!

Cheetah snarl photographed at Hamerton Zoo

The long grass also works great for natural, “in the wild” shots of the tigers.

Tigress in long grass

As with the cheetahs, the photographic opportunities with the tigers were just phenomenal. My last shot isn’t something you would ever see in the wild but it is unusual enough that I thought it was worth posting.

White tiger, orange tiger