An Elephant called Winona in the land of Salty Dust

Tragically, from as far back as we can remember elephants have been seen as an exploitable commodity, so much so that the Greek word Elephas from which the name elephant was derived, means ivory. Early Arab traders plundered East African elephant populations and were followed by Colonial hunters who took up the challenge of shooting all the biggest tuskers for bragging rights of their manly exploits and the vanquishing of these dangerous beasts. Today heavily armed poachers continue the slaughter, even using gun ships and automatic rifles to mow down panicking herds. In the 1930’s there were said to be10 million African elephants roaming the continent, by 2018 that number was down to around 350 000. Indeed today there are said to be less than 30 of the iconic tuskers alive whose ivory touches the ground and reminds us of the magnificence of what once was. Were it not for the work of so many dedicated individuals, organizations and researchers undoubtedly there would have been none left at all.

To these people I am eternally grateful.

They have not only protected one of the natural icons of our planet but have given someone such as myself a chance to get so much more out of life by having had exposure to these complex social giants who touch you in so many ways and teach so many life lessons that have long since been forgotten in modern society.

Team work, trust, survival, protection, determination, bravery, playfulness, caring, tenderness, loyalty are just a few attributes that embody a herd of elephants.   

It is perhaps fitting that I begin a recollection of our latest Fine Art photographic expedition with an image of the greatest tusker ever known, shot in 1898 on the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

Poignantly this is the exact area where a week ago along with the Masai we wild camped gazing across the marshes replenished by Kilimanjaro’s ever receding ice cap and lashed by the salty dust from which Amboseli got its name, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of these last living Natural wonders of our planet.

The big tusker gene perilously clings on in just a few populations, Amboseli, Tsavo and The Kruger National Park being the best known. In these parks these icons are revered, they are guarded and they are rightly seen as national treasures.

On two previous 10 day long visits to Amboseli we had got within feet of Craig and the late Tim, two of the most famous of all the living tuskers. We had taken hours to let them get familiar with our vehicle, so much so that eventually they were practically rubbing up against it. Whilst obviously a fantastic photographic opportunity it was perhaps the complicated suite of emotions that I most remember. I remember being very emotional, wondering how anyone could derive pleasure or feel a sense of achievement from lining up such a trusting animal in a scopes sights, pulling a trigger and watching this incredible animal transform into a pile of bloodied flesh. Likewise were I a buyer of ivory, how could I ever look at an ornament and justify its place in my home knowing the gap that now existed in the soul of a continent?

This time on our arrival into the wild areas surrounding the park, we literally stumbled into Craig as we were traversing a conservancy bordering the National Park. I could not believe our luck, day one and here was one of the primary reasons for our being in Kenya, served on a proverbial silver platter.

We drove slowly towards him, but even from 75 yards he was nervous, even terrified. We stopped, he continued to move away. We drove a big orbit around him and slowly approached again, same result.  From being such a placid animal just a year before, he was now terrified of our vehicle. Sadly I no longer wished to pursue this image, his wellbeing as an icon of Africa far outweighed my photographic aspirations. I could not but wonder what had so drastically changed his disposition.

We arrived at our camp site, which was literally a single Acacia tortillis tree with little to no shade. Our team of three Masai, one being our guide and driver, the others being a spotter and guard of our camp were there to greet us. This was to be home for the next ten days, raw and simple, just the way we love it.

Our aim was to get powerful fine art images of large herds of elephants in uncluttered habitats that really show off our subjects in an uncomplicated manner.

To do this I was using Canons latest R5 mirrorless camera, new 70-200 F2.8 lens and then an assortment of wide angle lenses.

Each day large herds of elephants cross from the surrounding woodlands into Amboseli’s verdant marsh areas. This journey which can sometimes be in excess of 50 km, gives you a huge variety of photographic opportunities. There have been great photographers before me, Brandt, Yarrow, Veronessi to name a few who have captured remarkable imagery of the kind I was after. Their work was an inspiration, my challenge was how to stamp my personal signature on the theme.

Each day was the same. Wake up before sunrise, head out to elevated points and wait, wait and wait some more. Often days would go by without crossings, on other days there would be no clouds and hence no atmosphere…’s not easy. Add temperatures of 35c, no shade, dust, mechanical issues and breakdowns with our vehicle and just dehydrated food as sustenance and it’s challenging. You wonder why the heck you have gone through the rigors of covid related travel nightmares for when you are not getting the rewards.

Day 6 dawned bright and cheery, Kilimanjaro looked resplendent, I wasn’t mirroring it’s countenance, I wished for clouds. Anyhow, I was with my wonderful wife, three great Masai friends and looking for magnificent elephants at the base of the world’s highest free standing mountain, damn privileged is what I was.

Heading out, we get a call from Melubu, our spotter that elephants were coming across the lake. We rush off. In the distance I see them, running down a beautiful grass embankment, dust going everywhere, arrgh still too far away, but just powerful to watch.

The herd of around a dozen enter the dry crusty texture filled lake, I start shooting, it’s great BUT the sky is flat. I put my camera down, I enjoy it. The temptation it to always get closer and in front of the herd. They don’t like that and you can see they constantly change direction, it looks unnatural. You need to build their trust in you, you need to drive along with them , let them realise you are nothing more than an annoying distraction, likable to a fly that you would squash if you could but you learn to live with and ultimately forget about.

Eventually if you follow this way of doing things the elephants will pass at extremely close quarters, even though they could choose to go any number of ways.

So we sit, the waiting begins again, one hour, two hours, clouds begin to build. I sneak up onto our vehicles roof to scan the horizon. Several kilometres away I see specks, are they cattle?  No, zebra? No, it’s elephants, lots of elephants!

We head over, it’s a huge herd, 53 strong led by a magnificent female we learnt was called Marigold. Some of her fellow herd members are simply incredible, most notably a female called Winona whose long tusks cross over at their terminus like a pair of giant knitting needles.

I can’t believe it, three trips and over a month in waiting, finally my chance.

The temptation was so great to rush in but we bided our time, let them get onto their path and be comfortable.

Waiting a long way ahead, I take a low vantage point and I begin shooting, the heat shimmer is terrible, I curse, please come closer, as the jagged chunks of dried earth that bite into exposed flesh test your ability to stay still.

The R5 allows you to place your focus point anywhere in your viewfinder, it’s a game changer. With the huge 46Mb RAW files it allows a lot of creative cropping if need be and with the incredible frame rate of up to 20FPS in the electronic mode you literally don’t miss a thing if you choose to shoot in that format.

What also helped hugely was the eye tracking auto focus function as when the herd was close, provided I had chosen my target, the camera did the rest in terms of focusing and moving with my subject allowing me to concentrate on composition. With the cameras very quiet shutter, the elephants seemed a lot more comfortable to come closer than ever before.

That said when you have 40+ elephants a stone’s throw away coming straight at you, you kind of just keep to the basics, get your framing right, pick the best looking animal that is close to or at the front of the herd, stay still, stay calm and trust in your instincts.

At the end of the crossing take a deep breath, sit back and enjoy the surge of adrenalin and nervous energy that is the drug of nature and being touched to the soul.

Over the next few days we had a few more incredible crossings, often with the same herds and its members, who even with our short exposure to them, had obvious personalities within those herds, simply amazing.

Photographically I believe I did well. I got images I felt did some justice to these magnificent creatures and their daily toil in a way not that often seen before. Due to Covid we had had Amboseli to ourselves and it is perhaps this lack of pressure on the animals that made them so comfortable in our presence.

That night we lay in our 6ft long 3ft wide tent, looking up at the stars and thinking where we lay, giants once walked. Today few remain, but there is always hope, hope for a world where hunter’s guns fall silent and the rumble comes from the footfalls of giants as they run to assuage their thirst in the shadow of Kilimanjaro.

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020