29 September 2009

The Migration: The Greatest Show on Earth

We were pretty worried for this trip as Kenya faced the worst drought to hit the country in over a decade. The so-called "long rains" that usually fall in March and April failed this year, and some areas have now been in drought conditions for almost three years. No one knows why the drought has been so bad. Many attribute it to global warming, but others say it is simply part of the long-term weather cycle in East Africa.

Luckily, by the time our Squiver Phototrip started, so had the rain. On our first night in Nairobi we got some serious showers and we were all hoping the same was happening in the Masai Mara. On our flight to the Mara we didn't know what to expect - how many wildebeest would be there, if any?

The annual wildebeest migration happens from July-September between Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Thousands of wildebeest and zebras make the seasonal migration in search of food during this time, and predators such as lions take advantage of their movements. From July-August the wildebeest cross the Grumeti River in Tanzania on their way to Kenya.

When we flew over the Mara, we couldn't believe our eyes: there were wildebeest as far as our eyes could see, literally covering the landscape. It was a wonder we could land the plane without hitting some of them! The following days the weather was perfect; fresh in the morning, nice and warm during the day, and usually some showers in the afternoon. We could see the landscape getting greener and the wildebeest certainly enjoyed the fresh grass.

Obviously, we all wanted to see a crossing, which is actually easier said than done. It takes a lot of time, and luck, to see one. On several occasions we waited on the edge of the Mara river, sometimes watching thousands of wildebeest piling up on the other side, gathering courage to cross. But the Mara river is infested with huge Nile crocodiles, so it's understandable the wildebeest are a bit hesitant. And if one wildebeest gets spooked, they all run off. Patience is the key to success, and eventually we got to see a crossing from very close by. The water level was still low and there were no crocs in the water, which made it a lot easier for the wildebeest. Quite an impressive sight!

Of course wildebeest were not the only species we saw on this trip. We got some good lion sightings, lots of elephants and even a cheetah kill. Again, our patience paid off. We saw that the cheetah was watching a small group of gazelles from a distance, and decided to wait and see. The cheetah was just sitting and watching and didn't seem all that interested, the gazelles were pretty far away and the cheetah was not making any effort getting closer. But then it suddenly started to move towards the gazelles, first creeping, then trotting and then running at full speed. By the time the gazelles noticed what was happening, the cheetah was already half way there. One of the gazelles was still a young baby, and the cheetah tried to confuse it and separate if from its parents, an effective strategy. Moments after it took off, the cheetah caught the gazelle - it was all over before we knew it. Something we will not easily forget.

Another highlight was the balloon trip over the Masai Mara. It's already impressive to see so many wildebeest on the ground, but you don't realize the magnitude of this phenomenon until you see it from the air. Thousands of wildebeest forming long trails covering the landscape below, zebras and impalas running across the plains, and hippos and crocs in the rivers. Our pilot landed the balloon in the middle of the Masai Mara, after which we had a bush breakfast with a long line of wildebeest passing only a hundred meters away from us. The perfect end to a perfect morning.

Thanks to all participants for a wonderful trip, we hope to see you again!

15 September 2009

Marsel wins in International Photography Awards

The International Photography Awards (IPA) has announced the winners of 2009's competition, and we're proud to announce that Marsel was awarded 3rd place in the Nature category for the winning entry On The Lookout. This year's competition received nearly 18,000 submissions from 104 countries across the globe and is considered one of the most prestigious photography competitions in the world. The winning image was shot in Botswana, Africa, and features a meerkat silhouetted against the setting sun.

The meerkat or suricate (Suricata suricatta) is a small mammal and a member of the mongoose family. It inhabits all parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and South Africa. Meerkats forage in a group with one "sentry" on guard watching for predators while the others search for food. Sentry duty is usually approximately an hour long. The meerkat standing guard makes peeping sounds when all is well. If the meerkat spots danger, it barks loudly or whistles.

Marsel: "I really wanted to photograph a meerkat silhouetted against a big ball of fire in the background, because my research had shown that no such image existed yet. In order to get this result I needed specific weather conditions (i.e. dust and haze) to get the highly saturated colors of the sun. I therefore had to try my luck several days in a row before everything finally came together. In order to be at the right spot at the right time, I had to follow these little fellows on foot, constantly trying to anticipate where they would stand. During the day they stay for longer periods in one spot, but around sunset they're in a hurry to get back to their burrows and they only occasionally stop for a few seconds to check out the surroundings for potential danger. After a few misses, I eventually managed to pick the right spot to set up my tripod and a meerkat appeared in my frame."

Amongst the other winners are Steve Bloom, Sebastian Copeland, Nadav Kander, Chris Frazer-Smith, Peter Lik and Kacper Kowalski.