Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for March, 2013

And then Paul said “let there be colour”… and there was colour!

OK Paul, wipe the smug smile off your face, I’m not quite comparing you to an all-creative deity! But between us all on our learning safari there is no question there were some moments of impressive genius! And, yes, Paul did have a lot to teach us.

So, last week you saw the Black and White previews, this week you’ve got the rest of my shots in all their Canon technicolour splendour! But first let me tell just a little about what we got up to…

Our esteemed teacher and guide on this trip was Paul Joynson-Hicks, a well known photographer in Tanzania (his large red coffee table book is one of the first things you’ll see when you arrive in Tanzania – it’s innovatively titled ‘Tanzania’!) and I had done a course with him previously down in Ruaha (please check out the details here) where I had learned a great deal, so I was very excited about what would follow.

But this trip would be different again. Partly because I had some new equipment to play with – an infrared camera and my fabulous 100-400mm lens – and partly because of where and when we were going.

This Capture Safaris tour would take us into sections of the Ngorongoro and Serengeti National Parks that I had never seen before, and all at the precise moment that over a million wildebeest gather on the plains and give birth to over half a million calves in preparation for the Great Migration (A journey of 500 miles that takes them all the way to Kenya in the longest and largest terrestrial migratory journey on earth).

The safari split essentially into three sections: Leaving Arusha took us through Manyara, and then up to the Ngorongoro Crater rim and finally allowed us a day’s shoot inside the Crater; we then settled for three nights in the Nomad Tanzania-owned Serengeti Safari Camp and enjoyed luxury service and accommodation whilst still reaping the benefits of camping amongst the wildlife (this was where the majority of the calving, and thus the predator, action was); and then we moved to the outskirts of the park and the enchanting yurts of Nomad’s Ndaura Loliondo Camp, enabling us to do some walking safari, macro photography and spend some very special time with Maasai tribe.

It certainly satisfied the traveller in me… but it also pleased the geek in me! I was travelling with five other photography obsessed individuals, three of us amateurs and two pros, and I was fully licensed to ask questions and talk photography all day long! And the days were long.

We were generally up by 5.30am (after being woken by tea being delivered to my tent!) and in the car ready to take advantage of the morning light. The sun comes up pretty fast as we are so close to the equator and you had to be thinking in order to make the most of it. I know not everyone who reads this blog is into photography so I won’t share all the hints and tips we gathered, but suffice to say I experimented with all sorts of new ideas and the results… well that’s for you to judge.

The Green Season is a great time to travel, it’s off-peak so there are less other tourist vehicles around to spoil your shot and the soft greens and dappled light make for spectacular backgrounds. Plus, I’ve never seen so many predators on any one trip and this time we also got to witness a kill, as well as several very dramatic attempted kills. The entire place was bursting with life… and death, and we were absolutely hooked from beginning to end.

Here are just a few of the shots I took during the trip. You’ve already seen the Black & Whites from last week. This is a selection of the colour images. Again, if you can let me know which pictures in particular catch your eye it would really help me out in deciding which ones might be used if I’m asked to write any articles about the trip.

Our first stop was Lake Manyara where this little chap was happy to show off for us

Our first stop was Lake Manyara where this little chap was happy to show off for us

But he did get a little shy for his close up!

But he did get a little shy for his close up!

We were up at 5am ready to explore the Crater!

We were up at 5am ready to explore the Crater!

And it didn’t disappoint, though most of my shots from that morning are in black and white or infrared so you’ve already seen them.

Next stop was the main calving area and I was expecting lots of sweet little baby shots – not so much! Firstly, they have been taught by years of evolution to run as soon as anything that’s not the same species as them comes close – the new babies can run just minutes after being born and they use this skill pretty effectively. And secondly, it wasn’t really the babies we were interested in at all – it was the predators eating the babies!

So Ndutu, and Serengeti Safari Camp, were all about the big cats. I have honestly never seen so many cheetahs and lions in one spot; or so many near misses and chases and kills. It was thrilling stuff.

The lions were certainly on form:

And the cheetahs were posing all over the place too!

But they aren’t always that safe to be around…

Of course there was plenty to see aside from the big cats…

And finally it was time to move on, across the Southern Serengeti Plains, to Loliondo. It rained part of the time as we drove, but that only added to the drama of the scenes we were seeing.

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When we arrived in Loliondo we loved the little yurts for the dining room and bar, where we had a workshop review session and enjoyed a three course dinner in comfort.

The following day we went walking and learned a little macro photography:

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And were also able to spend some time in a Maasai village taking portraits.

What we hadn’t anticipated was the evening’s entertainment…

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and so did they…In fact they enjoyed themselves so much, that they stayed!

This really was an incredible trip – one I’d highly recommend. Huge thank yous to Paul, Tim, Andrew, Mike and our fantastic driver Phillip who all shared the trip with me and made it so much fun!


Africa in Black & White

Having returned yesterday from an incredible photographic workshop safari with Capture Safaris and Paul Joynson-Hicks, I thought (for once) I wouldn’t write too much, instead I’ll let the pictures do the talking. The trip was so packed with amazing sights and great learning opportunities that it’s going to have to come in two parts. So… part one is in black and white as well as some infrared, part two will be in colour and by that stage I should have sorted out how on earth I am going to put into words just exactly how fantastic it all was!

Let’s start with the animal portraits (just click on any picture to make it full size):

And some funky techniques I picked up from Paul (note: this is a slideshow so pause here!):

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And then the beautiful Maasai we hung out with on our final day:

I had a great time messing about with the new infrared camera (note: this is a slideshow so pause here!):

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And we all absolutely loved learning and hanging out with other photographers!

Any comments about which ones you like best would really help me make selections to present to publications for articles I’m writing so please do say what you think! Full colour next week and a few stories to help you share the adventure… watch this space!

TIA Tales – Stop Police!

(Note the deliberate lack of comma between the two title words!)

As many of you who ‘liked’ my status only a couple of weeks ago on FB (about a policeman threatening to deal with me ‘perpendicularly’!) might have figured out, getting stopped by police is a pretty common thing around here. Whilst I am not here to write about corruption and scary stuff (I prefer to keep my visa!) some of the stories make for hilarious anecdotes in the classic TIA Tales style that you guys have come to know. A couple of recent experiences triggered memories of others, and I couldn’t help but want to bring them all together just for you!

I think my all-time favourite story has to be the time a few of us were coming back in the early hours of the morning from a nightclub in Nakuru, Kenya. It was during the time when the road from Nairobi to Nakuru was still being built, and as we headed out for the evening we had noticed some large rocks strategically placed to divert traffic off the parts they were working on but we didn’t think much of it. There were no signs of course.

So… it’s now around 3am, we have found a random taxi driver who doesn’t exactly know where we live, but there are four of us so we decide it’s not a problem. One of us has had quite a lot to drink so we put him in the front – we’ll call him A!

As we get out of town we find that the road looks nothing like it did. Further work has been done and the stones on the road have beenmoved to create a new diversion through some fields. It’s all over the place and we quickly realise we no longer know how to rejoin the road. The taxi driver is getting stressed and wanting to go back to town. The three of us in the back are insisting he continues on, A is just swaying quietly to himself!

Just at the point where we have all accepted that we are definitely lost and the car has slowed to almost a complete standstill, the darkness is illuminated. Boom. The lights are so bright it’s like daylight and we are all squinting to see what on earth just happened. As our eyes adjust we see silhouettes of headless men (not really, just that we could only see to the height of the car) carrying AK47s go past. At this point the three of us in the back and the taxi driver realise we are in serious danger. A, however… is sick!

He’s sick in a way I have never seen in my whole life. It projectiles onto the windscreen in front of him and the force is so great that it bounces, in a giant splash, back into the car. It is now dripping from the nose and eyelashes of the driver and is all over the three of us (I was directly behind him so was afforded some protection from his seat thank goodness). The smell is incredible. The taxi driver says nothing. He doesn’t even move!

A tumbles out of the car and onto his knees, where he pukes all over the boots of a gun toting man in uniform. We are all holding our breath (fear and the smell make this an instinctive move. A, on the other hand, looks up and manages to croak one word. ‘Malaria’.

I cannot believe they fall for this, but their demeanor changes instantly. They explain that they are protecting the property which we effectively pulled up outside, they don’t consider us a threat (no shit!), they are very sorry for A’s illness and will escort us to the road! Amazing! I would like to say we all breathed a little easier, but the smell was pretty overwhelming.

Our poor taxi driver drove us home without a word, he still had not wiped his face. We paid him all the money we had to get his car cleaned and he left in shocked silence!

So that time the police were brilliant and we loved them and laughed for days over the craziness of the whole event. Other times they have been less brilliant, but equally funny!

I was once stopped for not wearing my seatbelt just outside Nairobi.
“But I am wearing it officer. Look!”
“You are not wearing your seat belt.”
“I am! Look!”
“This is ridiculous. I am clearly wearing my seat belt.”
The officer puts his head in through the window and talks so close to my face that I can smell his breath. ”Eh!” he says crossly, “I am the law maker… and you are the law breaker.”
I laugh so hard the policeman doesn’t know what to do and let’s me go!

Actually laughing at a policeman can be a pretty dangerous game. In truth what works best is crying. I learned this from my friend at Greensteds who had taught his young daughter to cry if a policeman looked as though he was going to fine her dad or make them go to the police station. She executed this job perfectly and every time would get a response along these lines:
Policeman to child: “why are you crying?”
Dad: “oh she is afraid of you, she thinks you’ll take her daddy to jail.”
Policeman to child: “Oh no, no. It’s ok. Smile. We are just taking care of business.”
Child: cries harder
Policeman: “Just go!”

I was stopped years later in Mwanza turning the wrong way down a one way street – again no sign posts – and I remembered this tactic (to be honest I was having a crap day and was pretty close to tears anyway!). In fact I applied a combination. “I’m so sorry,” I say, welling up, “I didn’t know. My husband has malaria and I am rushing to get to him.” Instant release!

Of course being able to bend the rules isn’t always a good thing. When we were stopped for overtaking in a restricted area my friend admitted his mistake instantly and agreed that he deserved to pay a fine.
“I have been a policeman for 15 years,” responds the officer proudly. “Today I am training this new recruit.”
“Oh” we say, “well… congratulations.” He nods his acceptance and sends the boy to get the fine book. At this point my friend pulls out his bag to get some money (he’ll need around Tsh60,000 or $40 for the official fine). As he opens his bag a bundle of Tanzanian notes is revealed. “Ah but…” exclaims the officer, clocking the cash. “we are friends. Perhaps we do not need to make a fine…” We offer him Tsh30,000 at which he smiles and waves us on, having effectively just taught his new junior exactly how to go about initiating a bribe without actually asking! We paid the fine and insisted on a receipt on principle, much to his annoyance.

But that takes us into a whole other selection of ‘chini chini’ activities (chini literally means down but the phrase indicates ‘under the counter’ dealings) so I guess I’d better stop there for this week! Please do share if you have amusing tales of being stopped by the police – we’d love to hear them!

I’m off to the bush now on a writing assignment (in fact I’m back at the airport again!) so, no question as to what next week’s update will be about! Until then.

TIA Tales – Expectations of Africa

This week is election week in Kenya and it’s hard for any of us who were there last time not to think about the terrible time so many people suffered during the previous election. But I don’t think of the scary moments. What I remember from last time is how furious I was about the many misrepresentations. How the media seemed determined to present the country as a war zone and a slum. Why? Perhaps it’s simply because that’s what people think of when they think of Africa. Let’s give the people what they want they think. But why perpetuate the misunderstandings?

In preparation for this election I have seen ex-students of mine commenting on FaceBook about how frustrating they are finding media footage that insists on showing Nairobi’s slums, not its high rise buildings, beautiful hotels, modern shopping complexes or first world business district.

So it got me thinking… about people’s misplaced expectations of this hugely misunderstood continent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to understand it either. Heck, I don’t even think I understand England. But there are some things that are obvious to anyone who has been here, and which provide a great source of TIA Tales humour when they are completely missed by those who have not.

For a start, I recently tried to write a feature for an American travel magazine. “A piece on Safari in the African bush?” they cooed at first. “That sounds exciting!” It all started so well! But then they wanted me to fit their standard feature format – each section was to be no longer than 50 words and must have a picture to go with it. OK, I thought, short attention spans I can handle (sorry to all you US readers who’ve so far read 289 words and don’t fit this stereotype at all!!). Then they gave me the section headers, which included: where to eat – on safari if you don’t eat at your accommodation you’d be moving around the park in the dark which is neither safe nor legal so there are no choices, and evening entertainment – well you might get some Maasai dancing (with a really bad rendition of Jambo Bwana if you’re very unlucky!), but there isn’t exactly a programme of entertainment. If you aren’t happy with listening to the sounds of the bush, looking at the stars and talking then there’s always reading a book I guess! When I tried to explain that these sections didn’t quite fit with the safari experience… they pulled the feature! They just could not conceive of a place without a selection of restaurants and evening entertainment!

Even people who should know better find it hard to really imagine being here though. Take the examiners for the International exams. They’re set by educators in the UK under the remit of the British Curriculum and twice I’ve had major problems. Once in an exam for the youngest students I taught, where the writer described a snow storm – not only had these children never seen snow, but they also have no concept of the weather vocabulary employed to describe it. Here our weather is either ‘hot’ or ‘wet’ there really is very little else, they do not need a thousand extra words (blizzard, flake, flurry, squall, chill etc) to describe the wide and infinitesimal adjustments in the weather!

But the one that really annoyed me, was a SAT paper with a ‘read and respond’ section about the school cafeteria and vending machines. Only one child in the class knew what one was. It simply wasn’t a fair test of their English skills.

Even my friends – you know who you are! – make insane comments about me living here. When I first moved it was things like ‘will there be lions in your garden’ or ‘will you live in a mud hut’ but now it’s a different type of ignorance. It’s things like ‘when do you go back to South Africa?’. I don’t live in South Africa. It’s a six hour flight to SA from where I live, that’s almost as long as it takes from the UK! It’s nothing like SA. Africa is a continent. It is full of countries. SA is a tiny, tiny one. SA is not Africa! It’s not even a tenth of the Southern part of Africa! Oooh, sorry, calm down Mel. Am I ranting!?

You get the idea. The misconceptions are rife. No doubt I could write a part 2 to this later, now that I’ve got onto this train of thought. But the real irony is that I’ve recently understood that these misconceptions work both ways. Many Africans (not those I’ve worked with or taught, but certainly the average guy on the street) think that London is England the same way the Brits perceive South Africa as Africa. They also believe we are swimming in money in spite of the fact that I owe more than many of those same people will ever see in their lives (that’s pretty humbling, what did I spend it on – was it worth it?). They believe we speak in weirdly high voices and will often mimic us. They think we eat strange things, drink too much (probably fair) and value strange things (they’re often right). They say things like ‘just go, that’s a mzungu driving they won’t hit you’ and believe it absolutely.

In a world where we misunderstand each other so much, it is difficult to see how we will ever get it together to ensure a peaceful and unified future. But our differences and our perceptions and the humour we can find in them are also what bring us together.

I gave Suzy, our house help, a lift to town last week and I asked her to put on her seatbelt. She speaks no English so we were talking in Swahili and she looked very surprised. I explained that the police would stop me to fine me if she didn’t so she tried to put it on, but she had never used one before and stuck her head between the two parts. I showed her how and she was so embarrassed and sweet about it, she giggled the whole way into town. I couldn’t help but laugh with her.

I love our differences, as much as I am frustrated by them. I want to be open to learn new things and understand new perspectives, as much as I find it hard to leave my Western perceptions behind sometimes.

I am writing this at Mwanza airport where I have just queued behind a whole series of Tanzanian, Kenyan, Ugandan, and Dutch people – all carrying a selection of apple products… you think Africa is backwards? You might want to see the hardware the average African is carrying around before any judgement is passed!

I think at least 90% of my readers have been here, so you know how I can laugh about something I perceive as crazy one minute, be furious about it the next and then defend it moments later. It’s a bit like your mum – you can say what you like about her but if anyone else dares to say anything you will leap to their defence (not that I ever say anything bad about you mum, and nor does anyone else! Just using mums in general to serve as my analogy!).

The truth is your expectations are re-born every day here. Sometimes it is frustrating, but at times like these it is amazing how people unite. Look at the messages coming from the majority of Kenyans and East Africans. They say ‘we love our country’. They say ‘peace’. Regardless of what happens, the majority stand by that. And I stand with them.