Safari photography may be the mental reset we all need

Lying belly down on the grass, I slowly creep forwards on my elbows. The sun has already disappeared, wiped out by heavy rainclouds and the thick, suffocating cloak of night. All that remains of day is a tangerine glow streaking the horizon, illuminating a bull giraffe below a boscia tree.

Beautiful to behold, the scene is a struggle to capture on camera, as I race against the rapidly fading light. But it’s moments like these – so ephemeral they verge on illusion – that have the power to create pictures worth more than a thousand words.

Twelve years ago, when I first went on safari, I haphazardly hit the shutter button on my camera, snapping at stationary hippos and reframing photos of sleeping lions every time they twitched a whisker. Overwhelmed by a new, fresh environment, I didn’t want to miss a minute. By keeping a visual diary, I hoped I could package up that feeling of excitement, freeze it in time and take it back home with me.

Today, most of those files are gathering digital dust on untouched hard drives, but the images I cherish are the ones with a story to tell.

Read: Why a sustainable safari should be your next holiday

Photographer and guide Paul Goldstein has spent years studying Africa’s wildlife through a lens. But several standout pictures have defined his career.

“It was early October, and we’d been following a cheetah and her cubs for four days,” he says, as we drive in darkness across Kenya’s Naboisho conservancy.

“The cubs were playing on a stump, but 400 metres ahead I saw a single acacia tree, so I positioned the vehicle and told my guests to stay with me on this one. I knew those cubs wouldn’t be able to walk past without treating it like a leisure centre. But I didn’t expect the mum to go up it as well.”

The picture of seven tree-climbing cheetahs was highly commended at the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition in 2011. That same year, an image Mr Goldstein took of flamingos taking flight at dawn over Lake Nakuru was also exhibited in the prestigious exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum.

“I needed the rain – but I wanted it clear by sunrise. I was awake all night checking the weather,” he recalls. “Finally, the downpour stopped, generating a thick layer of mist. I drove to the far side of the lake and gambled on hyenas chasing the flamingos and sending them into the air.” Proof serendipity also plays its part.

Read: Tips for snapping great sunrise and sunset photos

More than a decade later, and given ample time to reflect during the pandemic, Mr Goldstein is on a mission to take people back to the roots of crafting a decent photograph. His training ground is Kenya’s Maasai Mara, where he co-owns three Kicheche camps in the conservancies, tracts of community-owned land bordering the national reserve.

Dividing my time between camps in Naboisho and Mara North, I’m hoping to achieve a digital reset.

Of all the safari destinations in Africa, the Mara ranks highly with professional photographers, many of whom regularly stay at Kicheche: talents such as Greg du Toit, Jonathan Scott and Art Wolfe have all signed their names in the camps’ guest books.

For starters, the concentration of wildlife is unbeatable. Naboisho, for example, currently has the highest density of lions in East Africa – a claim I can verify after seeing different prides on every game drive.

We watch cubs clambering over fallen branches, mothers carrying newborns by the scruff of their necks, and males parading golden crowns in the syrupy morning light.

One remarkable sight involves seven juveniles drinking from a hippo pool, sipping with their eyes set firmly on the heavyweight honkers who could snap their jaws at any time.

It’s tempting to zoom in on the cubs, but Mr Goldstein insists “the story is the hippo” – making it essential to shoot wide to fit all the characters in frame.

Mr Goldstein looks at his watch: “That’s 11 minutes from camp.”

Timing, I learn, is everything.

Every day, there are several plotlines to follow. Moving between each scene as it unravels, Mr Goldstein is in constant conversation with his guides. Rather than driving around aimlessly, hoping to strike it lucky, movements are carefully considered.

But along with finding the action, light and background are key to crafting a beautiful photo – and the Mara delivers on all fronts.

Heading out shortly after 5.30am, we arrive on the plains as the sky begins to burn and long shadows start to form. Desperate to fill our canvas with a subject, we search for an animal.

In the end, we settle for a herd of wildebeest, shooting into the sun and slowing down the shutter speed on our cameras until the animals float like ghosts through our frames.

Even though he’s been on thousands of game drives over the years, Mr Goldstein always challenges himself to be original, trying something different each time.

“It’s about seeing new light through old windows,” he insists.

Hitting a shutter button is the culmination of a much longer process. While technical skills are important, understanding an animal’s behaviour is essential. And it’s noticeable how much time Mr Goldstein spends away from his camera.

In Mara North, a scenic conservancy of granite-strewn valleys curved by the Mara River, we track two cheetah brothers until they collapse under the shade of a gardenia tree. Ordinarily, this would be a good time to leave; cats sleep between 12 and 20 hours per day. But cheetahs are diurnal hunters and judging by their concave bellies, these two are in need of a meal.

Aware we also need to feed, Mr Goldstein radios the camps and organises for lunch to be brought out to us “because I can”.

“Not every camp would do that,” he proudly claims.

Then comes the hard graft: waiting. Admitting he once sat for over 10 hours with a cheetah, Mr Goldstein is in no hurry.

“The moment those clouds come in and the temperature cools, they’ll move.”

As if on cue, when the sky turns grey and fat raindrops begin to fall, the cheetahs snap into action. Eyes fixed on a herd of grazing wildebeest, they slink through the wispy oat grass. Now the real fieldwork comes into play: figuring out which way they’ll run.

It’s impossible to drive over the sharp granite, so we head across the valley, anticipating where the brothers might end up. Mr Goldstein’s hunch is correct.

Like a bowling ball striking through skittles, the lithe predators scatter their confused prey, singling out a weaker adolescent.

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Mr Goldstein has also clocked the unfortunate victim, so he knows exactly where to focus his lens when the cheetahs pounce – or rather, before they pounce.

“Anticipation is the most vital ingredient for a wildlife photo. You want the audience to ask ‘what happened next?’ It’s the faunal photographic grail.”

Speed, unfortunately, isn’t my forte. But it’s those lightning-fast decisions, made in a fraction of a second, that separate a mediocre snap from an award-winning photograph.

A week spent in the Mara might not have transformed me into super sharp shooter, but looking through a lens has refreshed my world view. For me, photography is a form of meditation; it allows me to focus and concentrate on one thing.

And sometimes the greatest pleasure lies in not taking pictures at all.

Experience – I’ve learnt over the years – is just as much about knowing when to put the camera down as it is about knowing when to pick the camera up.

Would you like to try out a photography safari? Which animal would you most like to see in the wild?

– With PA

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Written by Sarah Marshall