As anyone who’s been to East Africa will tell you, it’s a paradise for wildlife photographers, flush with gorgeous shooting locations. I had been dreaming of a photo safari in Africa for as long as I can remember and finally got the chance in January of 2017 when I headed out to Tanzania along with several of my friends all fellow photographers. We’d been planning the trip since 2016, when a friend put me in touch with Godfrid Ndunguru, who operates Nasera Safari with his father, senior guide Joseph Ndunguru.
Before initiating contact with Godfrid, we spent months researching online, reaching out to friends who had made the trip before, and reading guide books on the area. Ultimately, we put together the best itinerary for our photo safari, or at least what we thought was the best plan at the time. Once we had the basic outline for our safari, I began emailing and skyping with Godfrid to iron out the details of the trip. He was very responsive to all of our needs and very accommodating to the few adjustments we made in the final draft of our schedule. Being that this was my first trip to Africa, I had a LOT of questions and Godfrid was there to answer all of them. Needless to say, I was impressed by his attention to detail. He was dedicated to making sure things would go as planned when we arrived in Tanzania. At long last, we landed on a concrete plan: 3 days in Tarangire National Park, 1 day at Lake Manyara National Park, 3 days at Ngorongoro Crater, 5 days in the Ndutu Conservation Area, and 1 day in the Serengeti National Park. All in all, we had 13 days in Tanzania with 16 total travel dates.
We flew Delta Air out of Boston on a late Saturday afternoon to Amsterdam for a three-hour layover. From there, we changed to KLM and flew into Kilimanjaro Airport, about one hour outside of Arusha. We arrived in Tanzania just before 9 PM and were greeted by Godfrid and Joseph Silvo, who would be one of our drivers and guides. After a full day of travel and another hour’s drive to Mount Meru Hotel in Arusha, we were ready for some serious sleep. Once we had our well-deserved rest, we enjoyed a delightful breakfast at our hotel (the food was VERY good everywhere we stayed) and met with Godfried, Joseph Silvo, and another guide Abou Suleiman to go over some last-minute details. Then, we set out for the beginning of our photo safari at Tarangire National Park. Both Joseph and Abou were truly nice guys with great senses of humor. They knew what to do once we arrive at each park and had tremendous understanding of the wildlife therein. These guys were a real pleasure to be with, happy to share their knowledge of the native culture, natural history, and all things Tanzanian. If you have ever traveled to a foreign country and hired a guide, you know how they make all the difference in determining if you have a productive trip or not and a huge reason why our safari was as successful as it was is because we had Joseph and Abou. They could even change a flat tire in around four minutes!
There were five of us in total, split between two safari vehicles. Each photographer had two beanbags with an entire row in the vehicle so we could move from side to side with ease. This is a must if you are on a photo safari as your row in the vehicle is your “home” for the entire trip. You become very mindful of the space you have and how best to use it when photographing in such a tight environment. A vast majority of the photography taken on safari is done either standing up and shooting from the top of the vehicle or from the seat looking out a window. We all brought tripods, but were only able to use them a few times. One of which was at Lake Manyara National Park, where having our tripods was key to getting photos of several species of birds there, including Greater Flamingo. So while you may hear from other photographers that you don’t need to bring a tripod, it’s better to have it and not need it than vice versa. Just recognize that your opportunities to use them will be far and few between. In fact, all of the Tanzanian national parks have a rule that you must remain on the roads and are NOT allowed out of the vehicle except at certain designated spots, most of which are picnic areas with bathroom facilities. This is for your safety as well as the animals’. Keep in mind that the majority of wildlife you encounter in these parks have been for the most part habituated to seeing humans inside of the safari vehicles. They do not see the vehicle, and by extension you, as a threat.
This is a big reason why countries like Tanzania have such well maintained and regulated park systems and have become a desirable destination for eco-tourists over the decades. People from all over the world flock to Tanzania and its national parks to view and photograph the abundant wildlife. It may be a third world country, but you’d never know it by the parks, the undisputed crown jewels of the nation. The people are friendly, the lodges are first rate, the food is very good and the level of services is as good as any I’ve experienced in the US or abroad. We had absolutely no issues from the time we arrived until we departed, it ran like a Swiss watch!
I had no idea at the time that the trip would turn out to be as successful, fun, and spiritually fulfilling for me as it did. It was, as they say, the trip of a lifetime. You hear and read about the large, majestic mammals of Africa in your childhood, but to see them up-close and personal in their natural habitats, with some of them only a few feet away in certain cases, is simply awe-inspiring. I will never forget the sight of my first herd of elephants, a group of about 15. For a few minutes after I saw them, I didn’t take a single photo, I was too busy just observing them and taking in the magic of the moment. But then I remembered what I was there for and realized, “oh yeah, I should probably photograph these elephants.” The same feeling repeated when I saw my first lion, giraffe, black rhinoceros, cheetah, leopard, zebra, and hippopotamus. I could have spent entire days watching and photographing each subject.
Many of the friends I spoke to about their trips to East Africa had the same warning for me: the first thing you think about when you depart is when you’ll return. Turns out they were all spot on! As we were waiting for our return flight at Kilimanjaro Airport, I could not stop thinking about when I might return for my second photo safari. I would eventually return two years later, in January of 2019. Sidebar: both trips to Tanzania coincided with a return to Boston on Super Bowl Sunday and each time the Pats won. But when I didn’t go in 2018, the Pats lost. I’m not saying I had anything to do with those winning Super Bowls, I’m just saying maybe the Patriots might think about bankrolling a trip for me and my photography buddies to Tanzania next year. Just to see what happens.
In part two I will explore more specifics of Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park.
Take care, good shooting and please remember to help protect wildlife and wild places.
Shawn P. Carey