Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with EF 500mm f/4L IS lens, ISO 400, Aperture Priority and Evaluative Metering, exposure 1/320 sec at f/5.0, EC +2/3 EV.

TIMING OF OUR VISIT AND THE WEATHER

This was the issue that concerned me most. I have always travelled to Tanzania in January/February. It is then that the plains’ animals are in the southern areas of the Serengeti and the wildebeest are calving. There may then be some rain but never enough to spoil the opportunities for photography. By choosing the early part of May, I worried about too much rain and also just where the migrating herds would be situated. As it turned out these was by far the best conditions that I have experienced, both for viewing and for photography.

We were very fortunate that the long rains started late, in fact only towards the middle of April. This resulted in the migration still arriving and being in the Ndutu area of the southern Serengeti. Predators were abundant – many with cubs. Most impressive was the flowers that decked the plains and the floor of the crater. It looked like Namaqualand at times. When we travelled up to the central Serengeti (Seronera area) the grasslands were green and lush, again with many lions and leopards. On our return to the Southern areas, the migrating herds were then moving up and around Naabi Hill. It was the biggest concentration of game that I have yet experienced in my many visits to Tanzania.

Whilst the plains were quite muddy, the weather never interrupted our schedule and photo opportunities. When there was rain, and it was quite heavy at times, it was isolated and largely confined to the evenings and night. We may just have been lucky, but it turned out to be the best time to visit. What really made it special was the lack of other people. We pretty much had the crater to ourselves and were never troubled by other vehicles. In the Seronera area there were more visitors, but nothing like the crowds in January/February.

THE ITINERARY 

Lake Manyara

After spending a restful night at The African Tulip in Arusha, we set off  to Lake Manyara with our dedicated vehicle and trusted driver, Salvatory. We spent the afternoon and the following morning driving the length of the lake. It was interesting to go right down to the hot spring that flows into the lake. We were hoping to see tree lions but to no avail. However, more of those later. It was beautiful driving down near the shore of the lake and next to the verdant indigenous bush which was lush and green. There were the ubiquitous primates around and the blue monkeys in particular. It is always fascinating to watch the baby Olive Baboons up to their antics.

Lake Manyara is a good place to start your photo safari. It gives one a chance to “tune-up” all your camera settings and button manipulations without the sometimes hectic action of the Serengeti. The lookout point on the way back to the Lake Manyara Serena Lodge is a great place for the evening sunset over the lake. See the full image on Smugmug. At this stage we began to realize that the lodges and the various locations may well be quiet as there were far fewer vehicles in the Lake Manyara National Park and the lodge was quieter. Service was excellent and the rest of the family had their first taste of Tanzania.

Ngorongoro Crater

After a morning drive through Lake Manyara National Park we travelled into the Ngorongoro Conservation area and the Crater. The drive from the entrance to the conservation area up to the look out point into the crater was spectacular. I can’t stop using that word! The vegetation was so lush and green and the view back towards Lake Manyara was special. A very windy road but well worth it. As you arrive at the look out point where the memorial to the fallen heroes of conservation in the crater is located and you have just been admiring the view back to Lake Manyara, you are confronted by the sheer splendor of the crater. It must rank as one of the best views on the planet.

Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, panorama consisting of 10 frames, ISO 200, exposure set manually to 1/80 sec at f/13

Just about the first thing we see the next morning is a kill. This pride of lions had killed a buffalo during the night . The amazing thing was that we were the only people there. The crater was deserted and we were well rewarded for getting into the crater even before it was light. This young lion looks strange, but the color is from the stomach contents of the buffalo mixed with blood. There was a large pride on the kill with two huge scarred males, a few females and a number of young lions. The jackals paraded around and made hasty incursions to grab some scraps. There were no hyena nearby, although I am sure they were lurking about. The light was perfect and we were able to place the vehicle to gain optimum sun angle. This was a great way to start our few days at Ngorongoro.

This particular image was captured with a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with an 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, ISO 200, Aperture Priority and Evaluative metering. Exposure was 1/250 sec at f/6.3. The light on the image required no exposure compensation. The decision to take an 800mm lens was already paying off. Although we would have been able to get close to the kill, the 800mm gave us the opportunity to give the lions some room, without intruding on their space and I was also able to take this close-up head shot of the young lion with the ravaged jaw bone of the buffalo.

The crater turned out to be a feast for the eyes. The floor of the crater was covered in flowers, particularly yellow flowers and with a partly cloudy to cloudy sky, the light was ideal for photography. It was even more enjoyable as there were no other vehicles chasing around the crater. The picnic spot which is usually crammed with 60 to 70 vehicles was occupied by one or two! The Elephant in the flowers with lovely light was too much to resist.

Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, ISO 500, Evaluative metering and Aperture Priority, Exposure 1/1000 sec at f/8, EC = 0

 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, ISO 250, 1/125 sec at f/8

 

I could go on and on about the crater. It was a spectacle. We saw all five prides of lion that are within the boundaries of the crater, countless Hyena, many Elephant, Black Rhino, Eland, Thompsons Gazelle, Grant’s Gazelle, Red Hartebeest, both Black-backed and Common Jackal, Wildebeest,countless birds and a rare sighting of a Serval.

This image below was also taken very early in the morning. They are nocturnal and we were lucky to see one briefly on our way to see what had happened to the pride of lions we had seen the previous day. A difficult image to capture in the very low light. Fortunately it stood still just long enough to be able to take the image at a slow shutter speed of 1/40 sec without having to increase the ISO beyond 400. The Serval image was captured with one of the trusty 1D Mark IV’s with a 500mm f/4L IS lens at an aperture of f/5. As you can see the grass was fairly long – up to the bottom of its belly, but the ear position was perfect.

The Serengeti

We drove across the crater the next morning and exited up the steep incline on the north-western side. The view back down into the crater was fabulous, but unfortunately we were in the clouds as we got up onto the rim. Now the best part of the trip was beckoning -NDUTU. This has to be one of my all-time favorite places to visit to both view and photograph wildlife. I was not to be disappointed. Because the rains had been late, the migrating herds were still in the southern plains around Ndutu, although in places there seemed to be a  movement in a northerly and northwesterly direction. There was the normal concentration of wildebeest, but I had not seen as many zebra congregating on any previous trip.

The predators were abundant. The various prides of lions were all in great condition and in many instances appeared to have overeaten on the available game. . Most had cubs with them which provided some good photo opportunities. There were also a number of young males in peak condition. The featured image to this blog is a good example. This will provide for some interesting battles in the months and years to come.

The large male lion on the left was almost the first sight that greeted us as we neared Ndutu Safari Lodge. Again, no-one else there! There were lots more of these and cubs!

Taking the 800mm lens was proving to be a good decision. The cubs were often hidden in the undergrowth and it was possible to frame some images between the grass and flowers without getting too close which would have disturbed them – to say nothing about the attendant lionesses. I could go on and on about Ndutu and its environs. The plains were full of migrating wildebeest, zebras and eland and there were a number of cheetah mothers with cubs.

Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS lens and 1.4x TC, ISO 400, 1/100 sec at f/5.6, Evaluative metering and Aperture priority, EC +2/3 EV

There was quite a story behind this group. This image was captured towards the late afternoon. The following morning we went out onto the plains to find the group. Nearby where we had left them the previous evening, we found the mother and just two cubs. The mother looked distressed and was calling frequently. We moved away and started to look for the other cubs. About  800 meters to a kilometer away we found one more cub, which was also frantically calling. The mother and this cub had by now heard each other and they started to move towards each other and eventually meeting up – what a reunion. The other cub was still missing. We noticed a Tawny Eagle that kept flying up out of the grass and we went to investigate. We found some entrails which seemed to confirm our worst thoughts. After getting out and exploring the vicinity of the bits of bloody entrails we did find a small piece of fur which was very evidently from one of the cubs. Looked like a hyena had probably attacked the group and killed one of the cubs. The others had likely dispersed and we had come across the mother looking for her cubs. They all appeared really forlorn and sad. The cubs, as can be seen from the image above, were already a few months old and the mother must have done a pretty good job of getting four of them to this stage.

It was a sad tale, but it demonstrated the challenge of survival out there. The cheetahs have a particular hard time of it. They are timid and are easily frightened off their kills by hyena. There is no place to hide with open grassland and just the occasional acacia tree which might provide some shelter.

Probably enough about Ndutu. However, one last image. The light, which was so influenced by the cloud formations, provided some great morning and afternoon spectacles. One evening was particularly dramatic with a beautiful sunset and the moon rising over the escarpment. It is not always about the long lenses. The 24-70mm f/2.8L lens proved its worth for many of the landscape images

And then there were three!

We really would have liked to stay on at Ndutu for a few more days, but the Seronera area of the central Serengeti beckoned. We had a glimpse of a leopard at Lake Manyara, but it was time to see them from much closer. Our first stopover was the Seronera Sopa Lodge. Whilst the lodge is in beautiful surroundings, the herds were still in the south and there was not much activity in this south western part of the central Serengeti. The action really started around the Seronera Wildlife Lodge. It is a pity that such a good area is mainly served by this lodge. We just found the service and standard of the rooms not nearly as good as the other places. But we were there to see what the wildlife was like. Again, our expectations were more than met. An abundance of both lion and leopard. Strangely most of the lions had taken to the trees! What we had not seen as expected at Lake Manyara, was here in full view. In fact, we seldom saw lions out of trees. I think it had to do with the longer grass and the trees provided the lions with a view of their potential prey as well as reducing the troublesome insects.

Not nearly as elegant as a leopard

Can’t escape the lions by climbing into a tree

But nothing beats the excitement and sheer beauty of a leopard. We saw a number of them, but the most exciting was when late in the evening (past home time!) we encountered a leopard high up in a tree, eating a guinea fowl. As  it finished it it must have spied its next prey. It was transfixed on something and then began to descend from the tree. Photographically, it was a most difficult situation. The tree was quite far away, it was after sunset, my flash batteries were running out (no time to change), and the movement was fast. However I did manage to capture some good images. The leopard performed a “spiderman” act as it first went down the trunk head-first, then did a double movement by twisting itself into a more upright position and then again turned down head-first and descended vertically with tail outstretched behind it.

Both these images were captured with a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with a 500mm f/4L IS lens attached. Because of the low light and distance to subject, ISO was increased to 1000 and the flash was used in the left-hand side image. Exposures were 1/100 sec at f/4 and 1/320 sec at f/4 respectively. It was a great way to end the trip.

But things weren’t over. On our journey back to Arusha, with a stopover at the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge, we saw massive concentrations of migrating wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle around Naabi Hill as they now made their way into the central Serengeti. Our timing had been perfect. If we were a week or so later , Ndutu would have been nearly deserted and the migration would have been concentrated near Seronera. We could not have asked for more.

In spite of all the predators and other excitings things we observed, there is still always the lingering memory of the migrating wildebeest, which is so synonymous with the Serengeti. Tanzania remains my principal nature destination.

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