Just Add Water …

There are no truer words than ‘God bless the rains down in Africa’, for as the first major storm breaks, water flows like glistening tears of joy across the wrinkled cheeks of a parched Serengeti.

The result of this deluge triggered one of the most special experiences we have ever had in a lifetime of photographing the Planet’s most iconic wildlife on all seven continents.

Staying in the Central Serengeti’s Namiri concession gave us the incredibly privileged opportunity to watch from start to end the passage of the Great Migration in a magnificent setting, and practically all on our own.

On our arrival, the magnificent endless plains after which the Serengeti is named, were devoid of the ubiquitous herds of wildebeest and Zebra.

Despite this, there was still plenty of predator activity with at least four to five different lion or cheetah sightings each day. Quite simply, in all of our African travels, the Namiri Plains area is hard to beat when it comes to the opportunity to see or photograph these two iconic cats.

We were however hopeful that our stay would coincide with the coming of the great herds.

Just how big these herds are is anyone’s guess. Some say 1.5 million animals, some say three million, some say far more …    

What is for sure, is that with the coming of the rain, come the nomads.

Whilst each day brought a glut of predator sightings, our objective remained spending each moment searching for those first dark ribbons of moving bodies.

Suddenly on the second day after the heavy rain, the first pioneers hove into view as tiny specks on a shimmering horizon.

As more rains again fell, so the numbers swelled in response.

First it was hundreds, and then thousands of zebra that filled the meandering valleys.

Soon the real sea of bodies appeared and stretched many dozens of kilometers from the woodlands of Ndutu right through to the aptly named Zebra Koppies.

We gazed upon tens upon hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra dotting the horizon, sprinkled like raisons over the endless undulating plains.

This was the arrival of the Great Migration to the South Central Serengeti.

From dozens of kilometers away these restless nomads had watched and smelt the rains that triggered their mass exodus from a grazed landscape, to a soon-to-be ripening emerald one filled with new shoots of nutritious palatable grasses.

Apparently, the herds can hear the storms from over 50km away, and when closer, they are able to smell the rain that triggers an unflinching determination to get to the drenched landscape.  

Many have waxed lyrical about this sight but words cannot truly express the emotion at seeing and experiencing such an explosion of animal life in an uncrowded environment that so embodies what a wonderful continent Africa is.  

Comparable only to South Africa’s sardine run, or a walk along South Georgia Island’s mammal and penguin packed St Andrews Bay beach, this monumental movement of bodies has no terrestrial equivalent.

And with the prey, come the predators.

Suddenly so many of the previously uninhabited koppies now had lions on them, sitting sentinel-like as they scanned the freckled horizon, knowing that the coming of the night would be a glut of opportunity.

Photographically, like stepping ashore to a half a million strong penguin colony on one of South Georgia’s beaches, the scene is overwhelming. It is simply not possible to capture an image of a 360-degree horizon-to-horizon sea of animals, and one is best advised to focus on key features that give a snapshot of the story of instinct, sustenance and survival.

Our objective from the start was to seek out some of the more picturesque of the koppies that dot the horizon at regular intervals from our Asilia Africa’s, Namiri Camp base. Our hope was to have the opportunity of finding one of the great cats sitting on one of these koppies as it waited and watched for their turn to hunt.

In this respect, we were spoiled for choice. Koppie after koppie had a resident of tooth and claw, some dressed in khaki, and some wearing spots. The greatest difficulty was to choose what to stay with, or be lured by the ever present temptation of literal greener grass calling you siren-like to the next koppie, hoping for an even more prominently positioned cat.

As crazy as this sounds, it was fairly easy to find a lion or cheetah on one of the beautiful granite slabs that adorn the Namiri area.

The difficulty however was in finding a koppie devoid of clutter as well as being architecturally strong and aesthetically pleasing that would allow an unbroken flow from rock to landscape falling away into the distance.

The final added challenge in creating a truly exceptional and unique artwork is to artistically combine all the other components of this amazing story into one scene that is pleasing on the eye.

Fortunately, after scouting out literally dozens and dozens of koppies over hundreds of square kilometers, we found a few that had a pleasing architectural feel to them.

One rock in particular showcased the depth and distance of the area by being positioned atop of a plateau that gave the sense of looking down into the undulating plains below.

If possible, I hoped that if the opportunity arose, to be able to sprinkle into the background a herd of wildebeest that the trained eye would immediately connect with the migration and give a sense of regal predator and prospective prey.

To give mood, we had planned to be in the area with the rains, which would bring the chance of dramatic skies, and if we were lucky, we would be able to position ourselves to include a distant rainsquall as Nick Brandt had so wonderfully achieved with his lion on Monolith work created more than a decade before.

Combining all these components require planning, anticipation and luck.

To bring them all together is never easy, but of course the biggest challenge is to find a completely wild male lion to sit, or even better, stand, atop the rock regally surveying this beautiful stage on which we had planned for him to be the star.

I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I have pleaded for a predator, tusker, raptor or other to sit atop of a certain rock, walk through a spot lit corridor, or follow a route I had patiently positioned myself on, knowing it would create a beautiful scene, only to be disappointed when my subject did the exact opposite.

On this particular morning, we had already had four different lion sightings and three different cheetah sightings, all in the space of two hours.

Each sighting had been worthy of sitting with and waiting to see what would transpire, but each was ignored in my single minded, and at times questionable pursuit of my objective.

Finally, after scouting the many koppies, we arrived at one of my three favorites, and there sitting 50 meters away were two magnificent male lions we has seen several times over the preceding days.

It was now 08h30 in the morning and with the coming of the great herds of wildebeest came the flies, millions of them. Coupled with the flies, came the sun, and for lions lounging out in the open, these two factors are a call to move.

Eyeing out my chosen rock, I prayed they would go towards it as they had sat at its base not three days earlier.

The first male got up and walked right past the rock to a medium sized Acacia tree that offered shade. This was not part of my plan and I knew he would in all likelihood sleep there all day. Never the less, we followed him and sat with him for around ten minutes, watching him intermittently swatting flies, giving us hope that he would move again. 

Then his companion got up and walked towards the shade close to ‘The’ rock.

He momentarily disappeared out of view so we decided to check out where he went. Coming round the blind side of the rock, we suddenly saw that he was not at the base, but unbelievably going up it to the rock’s summit.  

Panic broke out and our very tolerant guide, Ngimba, was besieged with my calls to go this way, then that, two meters forward, try to position for that cloud, can we go a tiny bit closer, no, further away looks better.

No sooner had this magnificent male alighted the rock than his brother in arms decided to join him by scrambling ungainly up the rock face with his powerful claws chewing at the granite like chalk grating a chalkboard.

Sitting atop this beautiful dome of granite were now, not one, but two magnificent male lions. For the next eight hours we photographed them from every conceivable angle.

Unbelievably however, at no time did they ever stand up together, or do anything in unison other than sleep.

As the afternoon progressed so too the sky began to build, with cumulonimbus clouds swelling all around us, adding wonderful mood and the anticipation of rain. The scene was magnificent with the open plains of the Serengeti, partially laden with the first major herds of wildebeest, acting as a layered story completing the backdrop.

At around 16h30, one of the males left the rock causing the other to become more active.

This change in behavior was just as just as the sky was building into its most beautiful state with a distant storm and deluge of rain adding drama to the scene.

On perfect cue, just as we had positioned ourselves to create separation between rock and foreground, and include all aspects of the story above and around him, he stood up, and akin to the famous scene from the lion king, he gazed out over his kingdom. 

Quite simply we could not have wished for a better opportunity to create a work celebrating Africa’s greatest cat

 surveying the continent’s most famous natural spectacle from this beautiful granite throne, enhanced by moody elements.

A huge thank you is due to our guide, Ngimba, whose enthusiasm, patience and understanding during our time at Namiri was instrumental in setting up this opportunity to showcase this wonderful scene that we were now so privileged to be able to share.

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020