I had a lot of expectations before going to the Masai Mara trip, as you might expect. It’s probably in the bucket-list of every wildlife photographer.
I had made plenty of arrangements regarding booking the luxury tents, making sure I get the best guides, making sure that our operator understands my needs, and so on.
I even made several weeks attempt in successfully booking the open-sided safari vehicles, particularly for the photography purpose. Not one, but two! A 4×4 Land Cruiser which easily takes 7 people in it, we were just 3 in one vehicle and 2 in another. Can you imagine the ease of moving around and having a whole row dedicated to you? That’s a dream for any photographer.
Yes! It was my dream indeed to photograph Masai Mara in the best possible way. You see, I am unique in the way I photograph and in the way I teach. I hope you agree. Don’t you? If not, please feel free to correct me either by commenting or by sending me a mail.
So, I had done a lot of prep work to make the best use of the situation.
I believed, as always, that the “Luck favours the prepared!”
Did luck favour me? Did I get those unique shots that I wanted? Was I able to teach my participants to make those memorable shots? Did I come back with loads of photographs to showcase? Did all my preparation to make sure the tour operator understands my requirements, were met?
Read on to find out.
THE COMPLETE STORY OF THE GREAT MIGRATION PHOTOGRAPHY TRIP IN MASAI MARA, KENYA
To get answers to the above questions, read this entire story of The Great Migration Trip in Masai Mara, Kenya. The trip started on 17th of September, 2016 in Nairobi and ended on 24th of September, 2016 in Nairobi.
The trip participants were Mickey and Gordon from the USA, Joel and Sylvia (couple) from the Philippines.
Gordon came on a day before and settled in the Comfort Suites hotel in Nairobi. On 17th, Joel and Sylvia came by the afternoon. But Mickey and I were supposed to come at around 8:30 pm Kenya Time on the same day. And, there was supposed to be a person with my name plaque waiting for us.
As I came out of the airport, after a considerable delay, there was none in the arrival place. I waited for quite some time only to be helped by a cleaner who lent me his phone. The person on the other side says she is waiting in another arrival area! That’s the first shock. There were two arrival spots in Nairobi. Can you believe this?
When she picked me up in terminal 1-A, she wasn’t sure that there was another person to pick up. She had no idea in which flight Mickey comes in, despite sending all the details to them a week before.
We had to wait for Mickey, who arrived in terminal 1-E, for another hour. It was around 12:00 am when we realized Mickey had taken another taxi to the hotel. Mickey came in at around 8:45pm and couldn’t find anyone. How can he? There was none!
I went to the hotel and met Mickey only to find out that we have a room with a bathroom that’s outside! Can you believe the frustration I was going through by then? I had to stay with Mickey as we didn’t want to disturb Gordon.
It was a pure form of mismanagement from one of the worst tour operators, who seem to have rigged their ratings. The name is It Started In Africa. I urge you not to trust them. And to inform all your friends and family members to be extremely careful while choosing the tour operators.
The next day, we all were supposed to catch our open-sided jeeps from a location called Norak, which was a 2-hour drive from Nairobi. Our bags were transferred to our safari jeeps and we took beans for our bean bags and also something to eat and drink.
THE REAL STORY BEGINS HERE
Mickey, Gordon, and I were in one Jeep. And Joel and Sylvia were in another Jeep.
I was aware that it was a bumpy ride, but never imagined it to be terrible. Yes! The road from Norak and Mara is as dangerous as it can be. And the driver of our Land Cruiser, Dickson, was probably inspired by Michael Schumacher. He just didn’t care about any hump, stones, ditches, potholes, etc. He drove as if he was on the highway. I assume it’s funny to hear now, but dreadful to experience!
Midway, he realized the other Jeep is out of our sight. He tried to call the driver, but couldn’t connect with him. He panicked. I smelled something wrong. He said we would wait for the other Jeep. When I asked if he knows the other driver, he says he met him only in the morning. Phew…it can’t go worse than this. I said okay.
With no idea about the other Jeep, I was increasingly tensed, as my other two participants were increasingly uncomfortable waiting in the scorching Sun and dust, in the middle of nowhere. So, we took a picture.
It was not until after 45 minutes that the other Jeep came in and told their terrible story. One, they were caught by the police and asked for the bribe. Two, they got a flat tyre, and this fellow does not have the lever! And Three, the door where Joel was sitting was loose, and he was about to fall off. Oh, by the way, the driver had to give his phone to get the flat tyre repaired. He was broke. BTW, his name is Melvin.
With luck not in our favour, we somehow reached our camp “safely” – Ilkeliani Camp.
After a good lunch, we went for the afternoon game drive in the Mara. The sight was not as incredible as I thought. Maybe I had a lot of expectations. I took my time to know the location, as I normally do. We drove a couple of miles and enjoyed the scenery and a few animals.
During the dinner, I suggested the participants about how we would make the best use of our time in the coming days. I gave them an idea about how we proceed – we scout the location for first 2 days, we plan our shots and execute them after the 3rd day. Everyone agreed.
Next morning we set out for the sunrise shot which I pre-visualized the previous day. Though we did catch the sunrise, the location was wrong. The shots didn’t turn out as good as I expected.
This day we enjoyed quite a bit of the morning sunlight as we went deep into the park. On our way, we spotted several familiar animals like Gazelles, Zebras, and many others. The breakfast was so delightful and having it in the middle of the open fields that spans many miles, was a sight to behold.
After the breakfast, Dickson (our Jeep driver) said he heard a message in the Radio (the only source of tracking) that there was a Cheetah kill. That’s great we said. We started driving towards a bunch of Jeeps that we could see miles away.
Suddenly, for some reason, Dickson took a U-turn!
Surprised with his behavior, I asked him what’s going on. He said to wait and started driving in a different direction. I wondered why we are not going to the Cheetah. He said he knows where he’s going. I was pissed off. But I gently asked at least let us know why we are not going to the Cheetah kill.
At this point Dickson got furious. He yelled at me that he knows where he’s going and I better keep quite. He argued that he had the complete right to take us wherever he wishes. In a way, he was asking me to shut up. I was startled. I didn’t understand his concept and his audacity to talk to his customer, who is also the tour leader.
Unfortunately, the drivers are your guides, trackers, and everything in between. That marked the beginning of the fateful game drives in Masai Mara.
After cooling down a bit, he said he wants to take us to the Lion pride which was around. His argument was that if he tells us before that he is taking us to the Lion, and if we don’t find them when we go there, he “imagines” that we would quarrel. So, he wouldn’t say where he’s going. That was “an extraordinary reasoning” I have ever heard.
We did see the Lion pride but were late. They ended up in the nearby bushes for the shade. We did some photographs for the pride with beautiful cubs.
Later we proceeded towards the Cheetah kill. There was a mother and her cub eating their prey. What prey? We couldn’t recognize because they had finished eating, almost. It was a heart-wrenching experience to have missed something so important because of the plain stupidity of a driver.
Nevertheless, we made a couple of good photographs. The motherly love and care after eating were something that was incredible. It’s a sight to behold.
For the rest of the day, I didn’t say a word to the driver just to keep things cool. It worked.
THE EVENTFUL GAME DRIVES IN MARA
The next day we were out as usual at 6 am to get our sunrise shot. We identified a place where we can get a beautiful sunrise shot. It was quite difficult to make the driver (or guide?) understand what exactly I was looking for. He hurried to the location as if we were in a race. Mickey made a funny remark asking me if I told him that we want to go to that place alive. We had a lovely laugh.
But little did we know we are indeed in danger with this idiot driver. As there was a cloud cover, I insisted on finding Lions or Cheetahs to shoot in the golden light. I don’t know what was going in driver’s mind. He rushed again. But only, this time, to lead us to a terrible incident.
Before I realize what was happening, we were in a 2-foot down in a side ditch. Yes! In a ditch 2-foot deep, but alive. Luck was in our favour, or was it? Mickey alerted all of us yelling “ow ow ow,” as we were driven to the ditch by this crazy guy. He came out almost unhurt. Gordon was hurt in his head, a small blood spot, and hit badly by the iron rods on his ribs.
I was terrified. I was hit badly on my left ear, got few bruises on my left leg and my left hand in pain. My left ear still is tender after almost 10 days. If Mickey didn’t alert us, I am not sure what would be our position.
It was a terrible incident which left me with more emotional bruises than the physical one. One might not understand what was going on inside me. But it changed several things in my life. This incident and the rest of the trip made me take several life-changing decisions.
As per the driver all that he said his “my friend, feel lucky that we are alive. It’s nature, and it happens.” I couldn’t believe what I heard. For some; life is of no value, especially others. He would probably make a good anti-hero for a movie like “Wolf Creek.” Maybe you can refer him if you know a producer.
I didn’t photograph that day. I was emotionally jarred. But Mickey and Gordon behaved as if it was nothing much to keep me happy. Joel and Sylvia made took care of the situation by sharing several lighter moments. My heartfelt thanks to all for being so supportive in the tough times.
On that afternoon, I skipped the game drive and paid enormous “bribe” to these terrible drivers in the way of the tip to just keep my participants safe. Have you been in a situation where you pay extra money to the guy who was about to kill you? I wish not.
I took a class to the worst tour operator in Africa – It Started In Africa – that evening. But there was no point. They just didn’t care. All that they did is to repeat the same words “sincere apologies, Prathap,” just the way the customer care executives do, and that’s it. Mind you; I was talking to the director! Not a customer care executive. They couldn’t replace these vehicles or the drivers. Nothing whatsoever!
From that day onwards, I had just one GOAL. To make sure my participants return to their home safe and sound. That’s it. Nothing else.
Every minute I spent on the game drives from that day onwards was to make sure that the drivers won’t do something crazy again. Every crossing, every slip due to rain, every time the driver looks out for an animal and so loses control of the vehicle slightly, my heart skipped a beat.
I feel lucky to be alive still and I think the participants do feel the same!
Though there were a lot of sightings in the following days, I was almost not in a mood to photograph anything seriously. I know you might be feeling that I am crazy. I should have moved on, and so on. But, I was the tour leader you remember. I was not a participant or a tourist to forget the incident and take it easy. My primary goal was to make sure my participants have a pleasant stay, excellent photo opportunities, and return home safely.
We did make it back home safely. Well, almost.
Here are some of the photographs that I made during the trip after that horrible incident. They are not up to the mark except few ones, may be.
I hope you enjoyed the photographs than my story today. But, I wanted to convey the right message and the actual story as it happened.
Oh…how about the great migration? We did witness it, but it wasn’t great. We saw only a few hundred Wildebeests and Zebras crossing. That too, we were late, as usual. We didn’t get a clear view. I don’t have any worthy photos to display here.
A WORD OF CAUTION BEFORE YOU VISIT MARA
If you thought I was probably not prepared well, it’s not true. I had around 160+ mail communications with the tour company to set things up. Yes, 160+ emails! I thought I had everything under my control. But fate had decided otherwise.
A word of caution for you: Don’t believe in the reviews. They are probably rigged as it was in my case. It Started In Africa tour company had over 200+ reviews and had a tie-up with BBC. But they are horrible.
Instead of going with the tour company, try and book directly with the camps. The camp where we stayed, Ilkeliani Camp, was impressive. They had open safari jeeps; I was fooled by the tour company that they don’t. When you book through the camp, you can at least get things under control if something goes wrong. Talk to the manager, Charles. He is a very nice guy.
Remember that almost everyone is looking to rip you off. They are money leeches. You’ll have to shell out several hundred dollars constantly. Be careful with whom you deal with and a safe trip. Be extra careful with the drivers. They are mostly from Mara village and they are ruthless.
I would recommend you to consider taking the flight from Nairobi to Mara. Though there are luggage restrictions as they are small aircrafts, you might really want to avoid crappy roads and hassles.
CONCLUSION ON MASAI MARA
Sadly enough, this trip was probably my first and last trip to Masai Mara. I have had enough. I wouldn’t be conducting any more photography tours in Masai Mara. I cannot risk it anymore.
I know many of you were hoping to join me for 2017. My sincere apologies for breaking your heart.
Thanks to Joel, Sylvia, Mickey, and Gordon for all the wonderful experiences despite some terrible events. Thank you so much. Here’s our team photo. See, how happy we look.
Talk to you soon.