by Kate Humble, The Telegraph, January 26, 2018
“What’s your shutter speed? The light’s a bit flat, so you may need to up your ISO.” I looked over my shoulder at Paul. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, at which point the buffalo that had been posing obligingly a few yards away gave a derisory snort, turned tail and stamped off into the undergrowth.
For the past few years I have been one of the judges of the ZSL Animal Photography Prize and when wildlife photographer Paul Joynson-Hicks initiated the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards, now in their third year, I was asked to join that judging panel too. It’s a delight to judge both these competitions, but also rather embarrassing, because my own photographic skills are woeful. In fact I became so disheartened by my miserable attempts that I gave up trying and now don’t even own a camera. “That’s silly,” said Paul. “You just need to learn a few basics and you’ll be able to take perfectly good photographs. I’ll show you.”
Which is how I came to be in Meru National Park in Kenya, clutching a camera borrowed from my husband. Meru was once one of Kenya’s most visited parks, made famous by George and Joy Adamson. It was here that they hand-reared Elsa the lion cub and released her back into the wild, a story immortalised in the book and film Born Free. But in the Seventies and Eighties the park was devastated by poachers.
For years it was all but abandoned, but an ambitious restoration project by the Kenya Wildlife Service in the early part of the new millennium has brought many of Africa’s iconic species back to Meru, although tourists have been slow to return. For the three days Paul and I spent there, we didn’t see another safari vehicle.
Before our first game drive Paul went through the rudiments of composition. “Don’t always feel you have to put your main subject in the middle,” he said. “If you are photographing an animal, take note of what it’s doing and the direction it’s looking or moving in – which will help dictate where you might place it. Ready to have a go?”
We were staying in a mobile camp hosted by Steve Carey. Ten years ago he and his wife Annabelle left his native Zimbabwe for Laikipia county at the foot of Mount Kenya. Here they established Laikipia Wilderness, a small, family-friendly tented camp on a 20,000-acre ranch, but they also run expeditions to places they love. Meru is high on their list and that first afternoon, driving out with Steve and his guide Mugambe, it was easy to see why. It is true wilderness – and to find its wildlife you have to put some work in. You can’t just drive and expect to see vast herds of animals in every direction. There is no one with radios telling you where the lions are, or that a cheetah has just made a kill.
So everything we saw felt like a reward for patience, for the excellent field craft of Mugambe and Steve, for the willingness to sit, to listen, to wait. And we were more than rewarded: elegant reticulated giraffe, protective elephants with youngsters, a hippo with a tiny calf, magnificent oryx and kudu and a strange little antelope called a gerenuk that I’ve never seen before. One morning we caught sight of a pair of cheetahs – handsome males – and watched as they climbed a dead tree, scratching and scent-marking before making for the shade of an acacia tree and disappearing, perfectly camouflaged in the long grass. Tracks in the red dust led us to a sleeping lioness and cubs, alert and unblinking. And then, one evening, as we were returning to our campsite in the twilight, we spotted a leopard, in classic pose, stretched along a tree branch right above our heads.
“The light’s terrible,” whispered Paul, “but sometimes it’s worth having a go and seeing what you get.” The rest of our photographic safari was to be spent at the Laikipia Wilderness base camp. Before we went there, however, Steve’s wife Annabelle suggested that we spend a couple of nights on Mount Kenya: “It seems crazy for you to bypass it when it is such a feature of this part of the country – and I think you will like where we are staying.”
We drove up a track that wound through a forest of cedars, up and up, until, ears popping, we were above the tree line. Our route carved its way through thickets of protea bushes until we came to a stop. “This is Rutundu.”
We climbed out. There was no sign of any buildings or camp, just what looked like a sort of zip wire with a cage slung beneath it crossing a gully. As we were unloading a man appeared, seemingly from thin air. “I’m Peter,” he said. “We’ll sort out your luggage and see you over there. The path is this way.” As we walked down the gully we looked up to see our bags being hauled across the gap using the zip wire. We climbed back out, slightly breathless from the altitude, rounded a corner and came upon the most unexpected sight. Tucked in against the slope were two log cabins. Inside was cosy: big squashy armchairs, logs in the grate, jugs of flowers, hot water bottles.
Outside was pure majesty, a landscape of literally breathtaking grandeur, the peak of Mount Kenya just visible above a distant ridge. I would love to have climbed it, a challenge that will have to wait for another time, but thanks to Tim, we did get to see it in all its rugged, snow-dusted splendour. He arrived early one morning, landing his helicopter just beyond the cabins, and flew us over green slopes, gullies and lakes to the very top, circling over the crags and glaciers.
Rutundu isn’t a place to come for big game. It’s a place to walk, to fish in the pristine lakes for trout, to watch birds, to sit by roaring fires when darkness falls with mugs of tea or glasses of whisky. It’s eccentric, glorious, idyllic and romantic. And I was getting a little braver with the camera. Paul would look through my day’s efforts and his constructive criticism and encouragement gave me the confidence to experiment a bit. I can’t say I’m ever going to rival any of the entries of the competitions I judge, but my photos were improving. And at Laikipia Wilderness an extraordinary encounter taught me the most valuable lesson of all.
African wild dogs are one of the continent’s most charismatic and dynamic species. They are also one of the world’s rarest mammals and seeing them is a real treat. Two packs have territories that include the land around Steve and Annabelle’s camp and for five years they have been monitoring them, building up not just a deep understanding of their behaviour but also a level of trust that allows them and their visitors to view these remarkable creatures in a way I never thought possible. The alpha females of both packs have radio collars, which makes finding them in Laikipia’s rugged, rocky terrain easier, but not a given. Once we went out and failed to find them; once we tracked them down in thick scrub, and were rewarded with the briefest glimpse before they disappeared; and then there was the morning that will, I hope, remain in my memory long after I’ve forgotten almost everything else.
We left the camp just after sunrise, Mugambe holding aloft the antenna, hoping to pick up the recurring “beep” that tells you they are close. There was a faint signal. Steve turned the Land Cruiser up a track and headed for a ridge. The signal became stronger. The dogs were so close we could smell their distinct musky scent, but they were invisible in the thick scrub. The twitch of an ear gave one away, and then all at once we were surrounded by dogs, squeaking, licking and biting.
“They’re getting ready to hunt,” said Steve. We followed them, watching them fan out into the bush on either side of the track. “They’re looking for dik dik.” These tiny antelope lurk in the shadows under almost every bush on the ranch and they are largely the reason why wild dogs are doing so well here. That morning we witnessed the pack flush out and devour five or six dik dik with ruthless efficiency.
“They’ll head for the dam to drink now,” said Steve, “so we’ll get ahead of them and you can get out of the truck. You should get some great shots.”
Not quite believing what we were doing, Paul and I slipped to the ground at the water’s edge. Just as Steve predicted, the first dogs trotted up to the dam moments later and started to drink yards from where we sat. “Get down on your tummy,” whispered Paul. “The low angle will make you feel much more like you are in amongst them.” Our cameras clicked, more dogs arrived; they moved around us, some so close we couldn’t keep them in focus. They drank, they frolicked in the water, play-fighting and scrapping almost within touching distance. And that’s when I realised that both Paul and I had stopped taking photos and we were just sitting, dumbstruck, eyes shining, stupid grins plastered across our faces.
“You’ve just learnt another valuable photography lesson,” said Paul. “There are times when it is just as important not to take a photo, to savour the moment with your own eyes and not through a viewfinder.” And it’s true. No camera can capture that euphoric joy of an unforced encounter with an entirely wild animal, however well the photographer understands their aperture settings.
Kate Humble travelled as a guest of Natural High Safaris (01747 830950; naturalhighsafaris.com), which has 20 years’ experience creating tailor-made safaris. An exclusive 10-day photographic safari led by Paul Joynson-Hicks starts at £6,795 per person, based on four people travelling together. The itinerary is an all-inclusive safari experience staying at a private tented camp in Meru National Park, at Rutundu Log Cabins and at Laikipia Wilderness Camp. The price also includes a helicopter flight around Mount Kenya with Tropic Air, all domestic flights with Air Kenya and road transfers, but not international flights.
Kenya Airways (020 8283 1800; kenya-airways.com) flies daily from London Heathrow to Nairobi from £690 per person.
Natural High Safaris will be running a photographic safari with Paul Joynson-Hicks in October 2018; inquire now to find out more.