Last week, I was privileged to join my photo-buddy, Elana Erasmus, on a photographic workshop to the Serengeti in Tanzania. We went as part of a tour group but had our own vehicle so were able to explore independently. We only joined the group in the evenings over a beer and dinner to share the experiences of the day.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
– Mark Twain
The trip was arranged by ExplorePlus, who specialise in organising trips and tours for individuals and groups throughout sub-Saharan Africa. (Double click on the logo to transfer to their website).
This was an eight day trip, of which a full day was spent getting there and another getting back, leaving us with six full days to explore and photograph. To Rika Groenewald and Mariska Griffin a big thank you, all the arrangements worked like clockwork, which in Africa is no minor achievement. Helping us at the airport to ensure we get our camera kit into the aircraft cabin rather than in the plane’s hold was much appreciated. This is always a point of concern given the high precision and value of the camera equipment.
It is my intention to publish posts weekly for the next few weeks showing a small selection of my images taken during this trip. The wildlife part of the trip included six days and took us to Lake Manyara, the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorogoro crater. Our first full day in Tanzania was spent exploring the Lake Manyara National Park, the intervening four days were spent in the Serengeti National Park and the last of the six days was spent in the Ngorogoro crater.
“In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.”
― Ansel Adams
This first post chronicles our day exploring Lake Manyara National Park which is located about 125km south west of Arusha. The park is around 330 square kilometres in area and has a wide variety of mammals and over 400 species of birds. Full of expectation and with cameras ready, we entered the Lake Manyara park. Tanzania’s national parks have no fences, which is unusual from a South African perspective where everything seems to be fenced. The park stretches for about 50kms along the base of the Rift Valley escarpment. We arrived in the park at the tail end of the wet season so the open grasslands were still very green.
From the entrance gate, the road winds through an expanse of verdant forest where you pass through groves of giant mahogany trees and thick jungle-like flora. We saw many Olive Baboons in the forest. These Baboons are smaller than our Chacmas and have much thicker coats.
In the forest, we saw many Grey-headed KIngfishers.
In a large grove of giant Mahogany trees within the forest, we sat quietly for about half an hour watching a flock of about ten Silvery-cheeked Hornbills cavorting in the forest canopy. These Hornbills have a massive casque on top of their upper mandible. The casque is thought to serve to resonate their calls enabling them to carry further in the forest.
These large Hornbills were raucous and tended to stay at the top of the forest canopy which made the photography tricky because of the severe light contrast and many branches obscuring the direct line of sight. Whilst trying to get reasonable images of these unusual birds I was reminded of the quote:
“What makes photography a strange invention is that is primary materials are light and time”.
– John Berger
After tricky shooting in the forest, where the shooting distances were quite far, Elana was quick to add that distance as a third primary raw material for photography.
Lake Manyara is an alkaline lake and the algae blooms which grow in the lake attract large flocks of Lesser Flamingoes. These birds are filter feeders. The Lesser Flamingo feeds in the characteristic pose of a flamingo with its head down and its bill upside down in the water. The tongue is pumped in and out to suck in the alkaline water and the fine filters in the bill sieve out the microscopic algae floating in the water. The spectacle and thrill of seeing this vast flock of Flamingoes is indescribable. You can only but stand back in wonder and awe. This is one of the few scenes where a camera does not capture the dynamism and vista of the scene in front of you. It was one of my ‘must see’ scenes
It is an incredible sight to see so many Flamingoes and they are constantly moving. When something disturbs them, huge numbers take to the air and the movement, noise and colour are spectacular. The Lesser Flamingo is smaller than the Greater Flamingo and usually much pinker, though the intensity of colour depends on the food they eat. These birds have intriguing courting rituals where large numbers appear to dance in a ritualised train of head bobbing and head turning sequences. These birds usually feed at night and in the early morning when the lake surface is its calmest.
Along the edge of the lake is a wide open flood plain. We saw an unusual sight in this open floodplain area where a number of adult Giraffe where sitting down next to the lake.
The Giraffe must have felt safe from Lion attack because there was a fair distance between them and the edge of the forest. The Giraffe were particularly dark in colour. The whole area around the south-west section of the lake is flat and there is a subtle transition between the floodplain and the open grasslands. After the rains, large pools of freshwater collect in depressions in the grasslands. These freshwater pools attract many mammals from Hippo to Buffalo and Warthogs to Elephant, Lions to Hyaenas.
Another feature of this area is the large congregations of freshwater birds such as Yellow-billed Storks, Pink-backed Pelicans, Black-winged Stilts, Egyptian Geese and numerous other types of waders and ducks.
Between the floodplain and the forest is a narrow belt of acacia woodland which is the favoured haunt of Manyara’s legendary tree-climbing lions but unfortunately we did not get to see them this time.
“I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy.”
– Ernest Hemingway.
The vast grassland with plenty of freshwater provides grazing for large herds of Buffalo, Wildebeest and Zebra. Lake Manyara provided an ideal introduction to Tanzania’s birdlife. More than 400 species have been recorded there. We saw a few Yellow-throated Longclaws on the open grassy plains.
We also saw Grey-crowned Cranes feeding on grass seed and hunting for insects in the lush open grass areas.
Alongside the fresh water pools there were reed beds where we saw many pairs of Broad-billed Weavers and White-browed Coucals. There were also Black, Squacco and Rufous-bellied Herons, Collared Pratincoles and all the Egrets.
The next image shows a pair of Broad-billed Weavers busy building their nest.
The Warthogs seemed to appreciate the cool therapy of the fresh water pools, though by southern African standards, it was not fiendishly hot.
In South Africa the Fiscal Shrike is ubiquitous but seeing the Long-tailed Fiscal was a novelty.
In the transition zone between the forest and grasslands, we were fortunate enough to see a family of Ground Hornbills.
This part of Tanzania has some wonderfully coloured starlings, Barbets and even Go-away birds. The Red-and-Yellow Barbet in the next image is one such example.
The sightings were better than the photography on the first day but it provided a perfect practice round. There is no doubt that photographers need a day or two get their ‘eye in’. The day was mostly overcast and we were not allowed to go off road so getting into the right position for the light conditions proved a challenge but we were enthralled by the spectacle of what we saw the first day and the promise of even better things to come in the Serengeti.
“When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.”
– D. H. Lawrence
Seek to understand nature, marvel at its interconnectedness and then let it be.