Chasing the wild: African photo safari

By Amy Russell 2 May 2012
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Follow Australian Geographic Adventure on a Kenya wildlife photography safari for the adventure of a lifetime.

I CAN’T TELL if the knots in my stomach are tangles of excitement or nerves. You’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the latter, considering there’s an armed ranger with an AK-47 in the seat next to me. All I can see in the darkness of this night are his gleaming, white teeth as he murmurs to our driver, Moses, in Swahili. But he’s not the cause of the fist-size ball of anticipation heating up in my belly; he is here for our protection. And the biggest danger isn’t in our Land Rover; it waits outside in the all-encompassing blackness that descends on Solio Game Reserve in Kenya, after the sun has set.

Before I have a chance to dwell any further on what form this lurking danger may take, our Land Rover jumps to life and we speed off, belting down the dusty track as if the devil is on our tail. It doesn’t matter that I can’t understand the now-urgent dialogue between Moses and the ranger. I can tell by their tone, and the few Swahili words I know, that we’re in trouble.

I jump up onto my seat, swing my camera onto my shoulder and peer out of the gap created by our hoisted roof. Squinting into the darkness, I spot what all the fuss is about: a baby rhino is chasing us. And while you may think a baby could hardly pose a great threat to our sturdy, green vehicle, I know that if a baby is behind us, its mum is too. And, that means we’re being pursued by almost 2 tonnes of angry rhino flesh. Not the devil then, but close enough.

I should probably be concerned that I’ve never heard the normally calm-as-a-millpond Moses sound panicked, but it’s hard to be worried when you’re having this much fun. My hair whips around my face and dust invades my nostrils as, holding on for dear life, I laugh into the night air. Moses expertly navigates a sharp turn and we continue to pick up speed until finally he creates enough distance between the rhino and us, enough that its interest wanes and it ceases running. We’ve escaped danger and we’re now, seemingly, alone in the African wild once again.

As we slow to a calmer pace I clamber over my three photographer companions and join our safari guide, Jess, at the front of the vehicle. Spotlight in hand, she paints the darkness with yellow light in search of big game, or more accurately, big cats. And just when I think we couldn’t possibly pack any more adrenalin into this night ride, her torch beam falls over something that looks suspiciously like a leopard’s spots in the distance. Moses has seen it too, and before I can grab a handful of roof to steady myself, he’s off again. This time though, we’re the ones doing the chasing.

With only our spotlight and the moon’s weak glow to guide us, we tail the cat through dense forest and prickly scrub, all the while closely following the rutted tracks that have been eroded by years of safari traffic. She slips out of sight, so we come to a stop and scan our surroundings. It seems we’ve lost her until Jess catches another glimpse of that unmistakable mottled coat, almost hidden by the nearby undergrowth.

My pulse quickens and sweat beads on my brow as I try to focus my viewfinder on her muscly hide; it’s in that moment that she turns to look me square in the eye. I lose my breath as two piercing, yellow pupils stare me down. I’m momentarily paralysed by the intensity of her gaze before I remember to push the shutter release on my camera. Click. Click. Click.

It isn’t every day you get so close to a leopard in the wild, close enough that you can clearly see her sniff the air, turn on her heels, and haughtily saunter off into the distance. Unless, of course, you’re on safari…

To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of the May/June issue of Australian Geographic Adventure.

Read the related blogs from the trip, or find out more about the Australian Geographic Society’s 2012 Africa trip.