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This is a guest post by Terence Carter. Terence is one half of the globetrotting writing and photography team behind the wonderful GranTourismo project. Terence is an experienced travel photographer and his work can be seen at TerenceCarterPhotography.com.
After almost 20 years of travelling together, it wasn’t until last year, as part of our HomeAwayUK sponsored grand tour of the world – an experiment in slow and sustainable travel, experiential travel and local travel – that my travel writer-wife and I went on our first safari in Kenya. From our base in a holiday rental in Diani Beach on Kenya’s southern coast, we did two safaris, to the Masai Mara and to Tsavo West – fantastic! I’d photographed wildlife before, mainly for travel books we’d written in Australia, Asia, and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East, but no matter how long you’ve worked as a photographer, there’s nothing that prepares you for shooting the Big Five in Africa.
There are two approaches to take when making photographs on an African safari. Go all out to nab perfectly framed photographs of the Big Five at dawn or dusk or just make some photographs that give you some memories of what is for many a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is a guide to going all out.
#1 Going all out means having two DSLR cameras and good lenses (not cheap zooms) ranging from 14mm to at least 400mm. And, no, a lens that zooms from 14mm to 400mm is not going to make fantastic photos. A wide angle lens is great to capture the wonderful landscapes you’ll see, and, at the long end, because the (good) safari drivers try to keep a safe distance from the animals, you’ll need a telephoto lens. Anything less than 400mm and that lion will be the size of an ant in the frame. Unless your driver has an unexpected encounter. And that unexpected encounter is why you need a second camera with a wider lens on it.
#2 The cameras have to be great in low light (i.e. be capable of producing quality shots at 3200 ISO) because you’ll be shooting the bulk of your best photographs when you should be sleeping or cracking a beer. Why do you need to use such high ISO settings? It’s not just because of low light at dawn and dusk, when you’re using a long lens you need to shoot at a faster shutter speed because any camera shake is multiplied by having a long lens. And you don’t want a blurry rhino. A commonly recited rule is that your shutter speed should be at least twice that of your lens length – which means that if you’re shooting a 400mm lens your shutter speed should be at faster than 1/800th of a second.
#3 And speaking of speed, you’re going to need cameras that can shoot several frames a second (at least five) to capture that burst of animal action, as well as know how to keep focussed on the action. For this you need to be able to track focus, a mode where the camera constantly refocuses, often called ‘servo’ or continuous focus. If you don’t know the difference between single-servo focus and continuous focus (or know where to change it on your camera), do some reading before you hit the ground or better still, go practice by trying to photograph birds in flight and you’ll soon get the idea of why continuous focus is a good thing.
#4 Finances permitting, try to hire your own guide when you go on safari. A professional guide will be used to working with photographers – both amateur and professional – and will do his best to make the most of every opportunity. Both guides we used knew just where to position the vehicle for the best angle and had such great knowledge of the animals that I captured photos that photographers in other vehicles in the area didn’t get a chance to.
#5 None of this is helpful, however, if you’re bouncing around in a vehicle that is difficult to shoot from, such as a converted delivery van that some guides use. You need a 4WD with an ‘open’ passenger area so that you can easily move from one side of the vehicle to the other to take your photographs and have your gear at hand.
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Unless you’re doing this for a living, don’t get too hooked up in the whole Big Five thing, the wildlife photographers stay there for months to get those classic photographs.
Many folks who spend a fair chunk of their lives travelling will get asked one question more than any other: "What's your favourite place?" We remember the places we instantly fell in love with and which we recommend to all our friends. But what about those other less successful stops on our trips - the towns we couldn't wait to see the back of, where we wiped our feet on the way out and swore we'd never return?
There are many reasons why we might take a strong dislike to a particular place - the fact that we know in most if not all cases that our reasons for hating a place are totally irrational does not make the feelings any less strong or real for us. So what does cause us to get so turned off by a place that we wouldn't wish our worst enemy a stay there? Here are seven things that might make us choose anything ahead of a return visit:
Nothing makes a place seem worse than staring at the inside of a bathroom door for most of your time there; the worse the state of the bathroom the more traumatic the experience. If you're feeling rough you can't get out and make the most of your temporary surroundings. If the sickness lasts for the entire length of your stay then the lasting impression of that whole place will not be a good one.
2. Being a victim of crime
Whether you have your bag stolen, your room broken into or worse, falling prey to criminals is likely to be the over-riding memory of the place where the incident happened. Even if crime is not rampant in that place that doesn't help you if you're one of the unlucky ones (I thought San Cristobal de las Casas was a very attractive city, but....) .
3. Being ripped off (legally)
There are many ways to lose money quickly and most of them are sadly quite legal. Hotels charging more than you expected, a taxi negotiation that gets nasty or a restaurant bill that includes certain extras that weren't mentioned at the start of the meal. Incidents like these get linked to our memories of a whole city (sorry, Bucharest).
4. Nightmare companions
You know the ones - they say hello as soon as you get on the bus and before you've even sat down you know you're in trouble. Perhaps you even choose to get off at a different stop just to avoid their self-obsessed monologue. But fate tends to have the last laugh, inevitably forcing you into another chance encounter with your hard-to-shake-off companion. An exit from wherever you are can't come quickly enough in these cases.
However lovely a place may be it is hard to appreciate it when looking through sheets of relentless downpours when you spend more time trying to keep at least your valuables dry than you do admiring your surroundings. This is nothing more than bad luck; it does rain pretty much everywhere after all. But think back to a place where you were trapped indoors (or soaked to the skin) and the memories will be somewhat dampened.
6. Closed for the season
Off-season can be a great time to visit some places. Less queuing, less noise and better service are some of the benefits of arriving in a place away from the crowds. This can work the other way however and when EVERYTHING in town is closed (including the restaurants), the place that was a must-see according to the guidebook suddenly becomes an empty dump.
All travellers will have occasional disagreements with their companions, whether it be their spouse, friend or insignificant other. Whoever you are with those moments of anger will cloud your memory of the unfortunate place you happened to be in when domestic bliss was shattered. When you get home and the mention of that place instantly brings a flashback of a blazing row, there's not really much likelihood of a return visit.
What are your reasons for falling out of love with a place on your travels?
There is no getting around it, Kenya is a big country with lots to see, so careful selection is key – the last thing you want is to spend too much time on the road.
View Kenya in a larger map
One Week Safari: If you’ve only got one week in Kenya then it’s hard to beat a Masai Mara and Great Rift Valley trip. In 6 days you can comfortably spend a couple of days exploring the Rift Valley Lakes of Nakuru and Naivasha with their incredible birdlife and big game before heading onto the Masai Mara for the remainder. All this can be done by road at a comfortable relaxed pace.
(Nairobi – Lake Nakuru = 2 hours, Lake Nakuru – Masai Mara = 5 hours, Masai Mara – Nairobi = 5 hours driving time)
Two Weeks Safari and Beach: If you’ve got two weeks then you can fit in some beach time with your safari. Lamu is easily the highlight of the Kenyan Coast and given the journey from Nairobi to the coast at Mombasa is an arduous drive, it makes sense to spend the extra on flights to Lamu. You could combine a Masai Mara and Rift Valley safari (or Masai Mara and Amboseli safari) with four days in Lamu at the delightful Robinson Crusoe-esque Diamond Beach Village.
One Week: If you are on a whistle stop tour, then you could easily fit in a short stay on the Coast with a four day safari to Amboseli and Tsavo East.
(Driving Time: Mombasa - Amboseli = 6 hours, Amboseli - Tsavo = 4 hrs, Tsavo to Mombasa 2 hrs)
Two Weeks: With two weeks you can do something really special in this part of the world. Combining a safari with stays at the wonderfully chic Che Shale with the wonderfully eclectic Mida Eco Lodge (both in the Watamu and Malindi area)
(Driving Time: Mombasa - Amboseli = 6 hours, Amboseli - Tsavo = 4 hrs, Tsavo to Mida Eco Camp 2 hrs, Mida Eco Lodge - Che Shale = 30 minutes, Che Shale - Mombasa = 2 hrs)
One Week: Mount Kenya + Samburu: For trekkers, it’s just about possible to squeeze in a Mount Kenya trek with a short safari in nearby Samburu in one week’s holiday. This is all possible by road (Nairobi – Mount Kenya = 4 hours, Mount Kenya – Samburu = 2 hours, Samburu to Nairobi = 5 hours)
Two Weeks: If you want to include a Mount Kenya climb into a two weeks holiday then you have two options. If your priority is safari, you could combine with a Masai Mara and Rift Valley safari, or if you want some time on the beach, then head to nearby Samburu then onto Lamu for some beach R&R
Tourdust specialises in mid-range camping and lodge safaris, using small responsible local guesthouses and eco lodges. Browse our shortlist of off-the-shelf Kenya holidays, treks and safaris, or contact us by email (email@example.com) for a tailor-made quote.
There are so many excellent articles and blog posts each month that it's impossible to keep track of all. In this monthly feature we try to capture the best of the travel web in one single place. We're on the look-out for the best posts to recognise them in a special round-up post.
Here we feature the top posts of June 2011 in three completely random categories:
There's also an award for Best Photo of the month. There are of course many contenders for these prestigious titles, which are selected in an entirely subjective and unaccountable manner. If you have a post that you would like us to consider for the July awards just send us the link to the post via Twitter (@Tourdust) or in the comments box below. So on to the winning posts:
For most Brits our knowledge of the details of the brutality of the war fought with the Japanese across eastern Asia in the 1940s is vague at best. It was fascinating therefore to read this moving account from Dave at The Longest Way Home of his visit to an old British fort in Penang. Still bearing the scars of its bitter legacy, most local people do not choose to venture near to the place. Indeed even tourists only visit the area for paint-balling rather than learning a little about the bloody history that SE Asia had to endure.
The Jordanian Tourist Board has been very busy in recent weeks inviting the great and good of the travel blogging world to sample the highlights their country has to offer. What has followed are a series of posts that describe the history, the cuisine, the culture and of course the sights of Jordan. One of my favourite posts is this one by Matt Long of LandLopers, in which he describes his feelings of indifference to some of the initial historical sites and how these were blown away once he arrived at Petra. Looking at his excellent photos it's easy to see why.
In these days of ubiquitous travel blogs it's rare to find an article about a place that others have written little about. So it was refreshing to come across this informative post from the Travels with a Nine Year Old blog about a recent visit to East Timor. An independent state for a little over a decade, this tiny nation is still very much off-the-beaten-track. This post provides a brief history lesson on the conflict that has blighted this fledgling nation and also an insight into what visitors there might expect to find.
Always having had a soft spot for a good sunset I was instantly drawn to this photo. Keith's lyrical description of witnessing this spectacle only adds to the wonder of this northern scene.
To introduce our collection of Kenya holidays, safaris and treks we have asked Rough Guide to Kenya author Richard Trillo to give his expert tips on what to do and where to go in this wonderful country. Over to Richard!
On the coast – your entry point if you fly to Kenya by charter flight – it’s the smell that grabs you first, announcing you’ve arrived in the tropics. The rich, warm scent carries notes of pungent mud, charcoal braziers, cow dung, diesel fumes, red dust and spices. When you emerge from Mombasa airport at night, this aromatic air is like a soft, dark blanket, blown on a monsoon breeze, carrying a chirping cricket chorus. It’s an aroma you never forget, perfectly in keeping with the coast’s sultry, historically charged atmosphere.
Up in the highlands, Nairobi airport at dawn paints a much more prosaic picture for visitors arriving on scheduled airlines, but the smell of dung and charcoal is here too, especially after rain. And your other senses are soon being stimulated: you’ve barely picked up your bags and done a double-take at the life-size sculptures of scrap-metal elephants outside the arrivals hall, than you’re glimpsing real big game in Nairobi National Park. Specked with zebras and giraffes, the wild savanna of the park, bordering part of the busy highway into the city, lies just a stone’s throw from thousands of commuters who walk, cycle and jam themselves into shared minibuses for the journey to work. Overhead, huge marabou storks circle on the day’s early thermals, looking for trash to scavenge.
The southern side of the park isn’t fenced, and thus dangerous wildlife and highway billboards advertising mobile phones vie for the attention of Nairobians. When a rogue buffalo was shot by park rangers recently, the story was up on YouTube, captured by onlookers, almost before the same crowd had registered their disappointment that a free beef handout wasn’t on offer.
Striking contradictions like these, setting visceral nature and the struggle for survival against metropolitan life are a Kenyan hallmark and soon become part of your everyday experience while travelling here. For example, in the Rift Valley, an unlikely wooden “internet café”, powered by a solar panel, is guarded by a man wearing an Arsenal T-shirt and carrying a hefty bow and a pouch of arrows; between Nairobi and Mombasa, the highway is skimmed by speeding buses, with air-con and video, traversing old grazing lands where traditionally dressed herders drive their cattle to pasture; on the Mount Kenya ring road you pull up behind a line of stopped cars to find three bull elephants crossing ahead; and on the coast, a small propeller plane sweeps you from a modern city to a medieval one over remote creeks and tracts of coastal jungle inhabited by hippos, crocodiles and monkeys.
So what are Kenya’s parts? How do you make sense of such a diverse, complex, expressive country, one that is two and a half times the size of Britain?
Seen from the Nairobi perspective, Kenya faces in four directions: east to the Indian Ocean and the monsoon trade winds; north through the highlands to rocky desert plains on the borders of Somalia and Ethiopia; west across the Rift Valley to the cultivated basin around Lake Victoria; and south to the vast, wildlife-rich savannas that continue into Tanzania and rise towards Kilimanjaro.
It’s a landscape of exceptional beauty, full of people of extraordinary physical and mental resilience – and good humour.
The first part of Kenya you’ll experience is the urban, where the rich-poor divide is starkest and you can expect a sense of culture shock and dislocation. Kenya’s four cities, like a string of ever-expanding beads, are Mombasa on the coast, Nairobi in the highlands, Nakuru in the Rift Valley and Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. Shopping malls, supermarkets, offices and hotels attract hopeful migrants from the rural areas, and these newcomers create sprawls of shanty towns and slum-like suburbs. There’s much about it all that will seem familiar – and you can certainly hide away in comfort if you spend a bit of money – but the sting is in the immediacy of people’s circumstances out on the streets, where the relentless poverty can be hard to take in. This string of cities is also the busiest road and rail route through the country – though don’t expect motorways or high-speed trains: the railway line is the same metre-gauge railroad built by the Victorians, and the highway mostly consists of two, un-separated lanes.
Next, the highlands, and Kenya’s western and central highlands rise high enough to escape the climate you would normally associate with a country sitting astride the equator. Mount Kenya itself soars from plains on one side and farmlands on the other to a height of nearly 5200 metres. When this extinct volcano was first formed it was a couple of thousand metres higher: today’s spectacular, craggy outline is the result of water and ice erosion over the past 3.5 million years. The neighbouring Aberdare range (a national park, like Mount Kenya, protecting large numbers of elephants, buffalos and other species) rises through dense forest to almost Scottish moorlands where giant, Afro-Alpine plants grow in the cool air like Sci-Fi experiments.
Flowing north from these highlands is the Ewaso Nyiro river – one of Kenya’s biggest – looping in a great arc through the Samburu-Shaba-Buffalo Springs national reserves, where elephants reign supreme and you’ll see masses of other wildlife, from leopards and ostriches to handsome oryx and lions. The river also waters the dry country of Laikipia, a region of old ranches rapidly making the transition to community-facing wildlife conservation and adventure tourism.
Below the eastern, rainy slopes of Mount Kenya, isolated on the north side of the Tana river, lies one of Kenya’s most beautiful and under visited parks, Meru National Park, where the Adamsons of “Born Free” fame worked with lions and cheetahs.
The highlands further west include the Mau escarpment, the Loita and Cherangani Hills and another old volcano, Mount Elgon, straddling the Ugandan border. With smaller national parks of rainforest – Saiwa Swamp, Kakamega Forest – these are all highly recommended objectives for keen hikers and naturalists.
Throughout the highlands, the lower slopes are intensively cultivated – these are Kenya’s farmlands. Around Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range much of this agriculture is the small-scale terracing of subsistence farmers, with patches of coffee and fruit grown for cash. The north side of Mount Kenya, however, has extensive wheat fields, and the southwest highlands are tea country – hundreds of square kilometres of trimmed, waxy-green tea bushes draped across the landscape. And everywhere you go, that supermarket favourite, the plastic greenhouse, is on the march, blocking the view with humid rearing sheds for string beans and cut flowers.
Sloping to the west, the highlands dip down to the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria and a normally lush, rolling scene of farms, grasslands and sugar cane fields. Visit the area for intriguing islands of fossils and bird life, local cultural and historical sites and something called the “Obama trail” – Barack’s father grew up here, although apart from the odd sign, there’s nothing to indicate the fact.
Cutting through the middle of the highlands, the Kenyan portion of the Great Rift Valley (which stretches from Jordan to Mozambique) is a giant gash in the earth’s surface, dotted with jewel-like lakes and geothermal activity. Hot and dry, this is where you’ll see one of Kenya’s archetypal images, countless thousands of pink flamingos flocking in the algae-rich alkaline shallows of Lake Nakuru and Lake Bogoria. Lake Nakuru, securely fenced and bursting with wildlife, is also a fine place to see rhinos and leopards.
The two freshwater lakes, Naivasha and Baringo, are characterised by pods of snorting hippos, acacia woodland and amazingly rich birdlife. Both make wonderful places to camp – or relax in a bit more luxury – for a few days. In the far north, touching the Ethiopian border, lies the jade sickle of Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, with its often wildly attired Turkana, Samburu and Elmolo inhabitants and its enormous population of Nile Crocodiles.
The part of Kenya that receives the most visitors is the southern savanna region. It’s a huge area, dominated culturally by Maasai herders and in natural terms by vast herds of migratory wildlife. In the southwest, the Mara river flows beneath the landmark Oloololo Escarpment through Kenya’s number one tourist attraction, the Maasai Mara National Reserve, location of one of the most vigorous and dramatic eco-systems in the world, where an annual migratory herd of more than a million wildebeest takes possession of the grasslands from July to October, surging west and south again and crossing the crocodile infested Mara river in a phenomenon of unforgettable, electrifying intensity. Although you can’t walk inside the reserve, the conservancies around it (there’s no fence) are community-run and game walks, cycling and horse-riding are all possible.
Southeast along the Tanzanian border, enclosing a clutch of lush swamps, lies the major elephant sanctuary of Amboseli National Park, beneath the snow-capped massif of Kilimanjaro. Further southeast, in the huge expanse of dry bush country shelving down to the coast, lies the duo of Tsavo West and Tsavo East national parks, together amounting to an area the size of Wales and including thousands of miles of tracks you can explore to your heart’s content. Don’t miss the wide, shallow Galana River in Tsavo East and the stunning oasis of Mzima Springs in Tsavo West.
The last part in the story of Kenya’s landscapes is the coast. In many ways a separate country, separated from the interior by a hundred-kilometre band of thorny desert, the coast was, until the early twentieth century, part of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, and was only married off to the Kenya Colony forty years before the country reclaimed its independence (some coastal people would say they exchanged the domination of Zanzibar for that of Nairobi). For such an effortlessly laid-back part of the world, the coast.
is surprisingly politicised, with a deep-seated Swahili culture that has been amalgamating interior languages and cultural norms with the laws and language of Islamic and Arabic culture for more than a thousand years. Seasonal trade winds – the northeast and southeast monsoons – play along a coast of beaches and creeks, protected by a coral reef.
The diving and snorkelling are excellent, the constant breeze encourage kite- and wind-surfing, and much of the coast lives up to tropical beach paradise expectations. True, there are some stretches of fairly intense hotel development near Mombasa, and at Malindi, but much of the coast is still relatively unspoiled – notably the Lamu archipelago, in the north, where the main island of Lamu still has no vehicles and some of the lesser islands are almost completely self-sufficient.
So how does travel work in Kenya? What is a safari and how do you avoid being eaten by lions or squashed by an enraged elephant?
Think of the country, in one sense, like any other: you can travel without restriction all over Kenya, with the exception of parts of the northeast where travel is limited by Somalia’s insecurity and local banditry. Public transport or car hire will do the trick (and you can choose to have a driver/guide rather than doing the driving yourself, but either way you should hire a 4x4). In towns, you can stay overnight in hotels (there are very few campsites outside the parks), which don’t normally need to be booked ahead. If you’re driving a private vehicle, the parks are open to you, though you’ll need to book lodge or tented camp accommodation in advance (a tented camp is a permanent encampment of large tents, usually with floors, furniture, plumbed-in bathrooms and a separate roof for when the heavens open. Don’t forget park fees, which are payable per 24 hours, and usually range from $40 to $75 per day.
Rather than travelling independently, many visitors go on an organised safari – which just means journey in Swahili, so a safari is simply a tour. Most safaris concentrate on the national parks and will include “game drives” for several hours twice a day – after dawn and before dusk – when you leave your lodge or tented camp and set off in search of wildlife. In most of the parks, you can’t leave your vehicle – except of course in the camps, where spear-carrying watchmen look out for inquisitive wildlife – but some parks allow game walks, which gives you the chance to really absorb the natural environment in the company of trained rangers or local Maasai guides.
Kenya’s busiest tourist seasons are July and August and Christmas and New Year, when many lodges and camps are sold out and prices are highest. The best deals are to be had from April to June, during the so-called “long rains” (often a bit of a misnomer), when it sometimes feels as if you have half the country to yourself.
And the question of wildlife danger? The facts are: the wildlife is wild; most parks, and many lodges and camps, are unfenced; and wild animals and people don’t mix well, as a glance at virtually any daily paper will show, with marauding elephants, unseen crocodiles, surfacing hippos and goat-nabbing lions all regularly featured. You need to take care, as accidents do happen, but that’s what Kenya is all about. Guides and other staff will invariably protect you with great skill and devotion, but you can’t make a safari one hundred percent safe. And that’s why travelling here retains its emotional allure: the word exciting might apply to a theme park ride, but it doesn’t come close to describing the experience of travel in Kenya.