Within the Frame Kenya: Traveling with David duChemin and Jeffrey Chapman

» Posted by on Jan 5, 2013 in Featured, kenya, location

About a year ago, my wife and I joined David duChemin and Jeffrey Chapman’s workshop “Within The Frame” and went to Kenya to explore the Maasai Mara. It was my second organized trip where someone else was doing all the planning for me. The first one in Spitzbergen was not a success so I was unsure about what to expect. This time we were looking for an organized photo safari with a lot of freedom to take pictures of the wildlife, especially not being timed and be able to go early in the morning and late in the evening where most wildlife is visible. We were a bit overwhelmed by all the options available to visit the Maasai Mara and relying on guides like David and Jeffrey who have traveled to Kenya on numerous occasions seemed a smart choice. Here is a link to this year “Within the Frame Kenya“.

David Duchemin being watched carefully by an armed guard

David duChemin being watched carefully by an armed guard

The Workshop

The workshop lasted 10 days and took place in the Maasai Mara Reserve, which is a large game reserve in south-western Kenya, contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It is part of one if not the largest natural ecosystem on the planet. It displays the ravishing open grassland landscape and shelters an exceptional population of wildlife, including the Big Five (lion, leopard, African elephant, African buffalo, and Black Rhinoceros).

We arrived in Nairobi on January 16th. We met our fellow travelers and David and Jeffrey at the hotel that night. We were a group of 10 including Jeffrey and David, plus two local guides to drive us around (JJ and James). The next morning, we took off early to reach Sekanani Camp right at the East entrance of the Reserve where we spent 4 nights. On the 6th day, we traveled across the reserve to reach the West side. We stayed on the Kenya side of the border with Tanzania but for one mile where we cross over the border. Unfortunately nobody was there to stamp our passports not even an elephant so we continue to the North West to reach Kitchwa Tembo where we spent 5 nights. We flew back to Nairobi and then went home.

Note that mid-January is supposed to be the start of the dry season (which is where wildlife will gather more around the rare to find waterholes) but is still the off-season for tourism. So the lodges were pretty empty but for us. They had a few other guests for a few days but there had been a few days during which we were the only guests at either lodge. It also made the reserve less crowded and we could travel for miles without seeing anybody, just wildlife.

View Kenya in a larger map

The lodges

Sekenani Camp and Kitchwa Tembo lodges were really luxurious despite their location. Frankly you are in the middle of nowhere, elephants and giraffes are grazing around you while you stay secluded surrounded by the high bushes in these luxurious tents with full bathrooms. On top of that, the lodge restaurant serves fantastic fresh vegetables from their garden (or shamba). Sekenani Camp did not have a fence around and Kitchwa Tembo had a fence but they told us the animals could still get through if they really wanted to, so you had to be escorted by a Maasai warrior at night to get around (mainly from and to the restaurant). The Maasai warriors do walk fast and it was a workout to keep up with them to get back to our rooms. On that note, the restaurant manager of Sekenani Camp took us to visit their shamba and he told us that they have other pest issues that the ones we encounter in the US. The shamba was surrounded by a 10-foot high fence and that was not to protect the carrots from gophers. He showed us where they were actually repairing the damage made by an elephant! He said the elephant will just go through the garden and trample all the plants!
At Kitchwa Tembo, the tents were a little smaller but the camp felt a little more luxurious than Sekenani Camp (probably because of the Wifi access and the expresso machine). Since it’s owned by &Beyond, it also felt a bit more “corporate” than Sekenani which is not part of a bigger corporation. But the service was impeccable and there is nothing better than waiting for the sun to rise over the savannah at the edge of the camp with a waiter asking you if he could bring you a cappuccino while you are taking pictures.

Dawa (kenyan cocktail) [Honey, Lime, Vodka,  and a stick]

Dawa (kenyan cocktail) [Honey, Lime, Vodka, and a stick]

Fire pit at Sekanani Camp

Fire pit at Sekanani Camp, where we were doing our photo discussion at night.

Lantern dinner at Kitchwa Tembo

Lantern dinner at Kitchwa Tembo

The game drives

Since it was a photo workshop, the schedule did maximize our shooting time by having sunrise and sunset game drives. Our daily schedule varied during our stay mostly due to the group adapting itself to everybody’s idea of the schedule but after a couple days we managed to agree on some daily agenda. A typical day was pretty tiring. We would wake up a 5:45 to get some tea and cookies the lodge staff had brought to our tent and we would leave for an early sunrise drive starting around 6:15am. We would return to the lodge by 9:30-10am for a very fulfilling breakfast. After breakfast we had some personal time to rest next to the swimming pool, except that almost nobody was resting as we would use this time to transfer and to sort our pictures (about 200 t0 300) on our computers from the morning drive to get ready for the critique session from 12 to 2. On a side note, Adobe Lightroom users outnumbered Apple Aperture users although about everybody had a mac of some size (including an hackintosh). The lodge staff would accommodate us by serving lunch around 2pm as our group was more than half of their clientele if not the totality. We would then take a quick nap in the tent because it was damn hot outside (even in the shade) till 3:30-4pm when we would meet again for our sunset game drive. We were back to the lodge by 6:30pm. We would transfer our pictures to our computers (again! 250 of them!) and meet for dinner around 8:30pm. Our evenings were generally spent talking with David and Jeffrey over drinks. Jeffrey and David were surprised that we would participate to almost every drive (in fact only my wife did every single drive) but they encouraged us to take it slow and told us it was ok to miss a game drive or two and rest if we were feeling tired. The wildlife will still be there to watch tomorrow after all.

A big contribution to the success of this trip was our two local guides: James and JJ. I have never experienced a travel where you have your own guide for the entire trip. If the guide is good, it is simply amazing. For example, during the game drive, both JJ or James would anticipate our needs for our images and position or reposition the van so we had a better angle, a better background, or simply a better chance at the animal looking at us. They would asked us where we wanted to be (in the limits of the reserve regulations). They would cut the engine so we wouldn’t have vibrations that could blur our pictures. All this was very important because due to park regulations we were not allowed outside of the vehicles at any time. David did convince the guards to allow us to get out of the vans under their watch to do some sunset pictures (see the above picture with David and the armed guard).

Our guides were also very knowledgeable about the wildlife and the area in general so we learned a lot about the behavior of the wildlife, the kenyan history and the kenyan culture. Having our own drivers allowed us to plan more efficiently too. For example, our guides drove us from Nairobi to Sekenani Camp, which we reached for lunch and then after a little break to settle down and have lunch we left for our first game drive that very afternoon.

We had a total of 17 game drives so we had plenty of opportunity to take pictures of the extraordinary wildlife and the gorgeous landscape.

Close encounter with a giraffe

Close encounter with a giraffe

 

The 2012 Within The Frame Kenya group and the van

The 2012 Within The Frame Kenya group and the van (I don’t know how this bottle of wine got there)

Open grassland and our van

Open grassland and our van

 

Wildlife

The wildlife is abundant. You cannot do a game drive and see nothing. That’s impossible. We did see the Big Five: Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Black Rhino. At first we were so amazed to see the zebras, the impalas, the buffalos, the gnus, the giraffes, the elephants, the hippos… And then we saw our first lioness, our first cheetah, our first leopard! I must admit, I was really there to see the “cats”.  In the first days, we captured in images some young lions that didn’t have a full mane yet but almost at the end of the stay, we got an older one with a beautiful mane. Capturing a good picture of the leopard was a challenge as the 2 we saw took refuge in a tree and without a big lens and the extender I couldn’t have gotten the shot. Besides taking pictures it was amazing to watch 2 cheetahs running after an impala (they missed). Wow they ARE fast! You’ve seen it on TV, you’ve seen nothing. And sometimes a miracle happens. One evening as we were driving slowly back to the lodge, a lioness and her two cubs got out the open grass onto the road. They strode with us on the road for a while, the 2 cubs playing with each other, jumping on their mother’s ears. Soooo cute! The light was perfect. Only 2 other cars, so the lioness was not too eager to leave. We watched them for a good 10 minutes, and then they were gone back into the grass and we let them get back to their playful family gathering.

Close and personal with leopard

Close and personal with a leopard

Lioness and cub

Lioness and cub

Giraffes

Giraffes

cheetah lounging

cheetah lounging

Was it worth it?

No doubt about it. Sure it’s expensive and quite a long way from San Francisco. The “Within the frame” workshop is a very personal journey with David and Jeffrey as your guides. They are treating you as a friend who happens to share a couple days with them. They will share with you any knowledge they have about taking pictures. For me, beside two of my best images of 2012, I have discovered East Africa.

It was nice to have everything included in the price of the workshop except drinks and the hot air ballon ride. David and Jeffrey had organized a visit to one Maasai village and we were set free to take all the pictures we wanted. David actually challenged us into taking pictures of people and took us out of our comfort zone (thanks David!).

David is a great educator and was available either for group critique or for one on one discussions. I have learned a new language to describe my images, I have heard what others see in my images and the way they see them and I have made new friends.
I can not wait to travel again with them.

The logistics and organization were impressive, everything was very easy. That’s one of the reason why organized trip can be great, Jeffrey and David have hand-picked the lodges, and the guides/drivers. Sure you can probably have a similar trip by using &Beyond (which owns Kitchwa Tembo and others lodges in Africa) but you will be dependent on the hotel schedule. Here we had our own vans, we had complete freedom to go where we wanted to go, whenever we wanted.

One more thing: For the story about the monkeys, ask David….

Sunrise in the masaii mara

Sunrise in the Maasai Mara

All the images presented here are available for licensing or as fine art prints.