Like My Last Day on Earth

April 1, 2009

By Joe Morahan

For nearly a month in the summer of 2007, I was on safari, traveling across southern Africa: through the Namib Desert and the Sossusvlei in Namibia on Africa’s Atlantic west coast; the Kalahari Desert and Okavango Delta region of Botswana; into the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti plains of Tanzania bordering the Indian Ocean on Africa’s east coast.

In each camp I stayed, people from all over the world had come to witness Africa’s beautiful, vast and varied landscapes and amazing wildlife. They seem relaxed, at ease and very rested. Their days and nights were spent viewing the animals and sharing safari experiences with fellow campers while sipping tea and having every need or want satisfied by helpful, courteous camp staffers. The only thing working during their stay in the bush was their wallets.

I, on the other hand, was not relaxed, not at ease, and definitely not sitting back sipping tea. Nor was I enjoying piña coladas in the blazing African sun. I may have been on safari but, for me, this was no vacation.
A photographer’s day begins long before sunrise and ends well after sunset. To paraphrase the old Irish proverb, “You can sleep when you’re dead.” Well, I was close; I was dead on my feet. But the beauty of Africa defies description.

The trip was an opportunity of a lifetime. The costs are high, and Africa’s fragile political landscape is constantly changing, rarely for the better. As a result, there is no time to waste. Shoot, shoot, shoot—plan the shoot, shoot the plan. When not shooting, I was ready to shoot—you just never know what you will see next in Africa.

My plan was to work the safari and enjoy it later when I reviewed the work product. Easier said than done. Reviewing the work was a more arduous task than I could have imagined. How long does it take to cull, edit and prepare a month’s work? A long time if you have 22,000 pictures to review. But what a trip it must have been for those relaxed campers. I now see in print what they were viewing live and I hope I captured the essence of the safari experience.

The day began approximately at 4:30 a.m. I hopped into our open-roofed Toyota Land Cruiser, gear in hand and wrapped snugly in blankets. The animals move at first light, and I wanted to be there when they began to prowl. I shot until noon then, after a quick shower followed by a spectacular feast for lunch, I had two hours to download cards, clean lenses and review notes before heading back out in the bush.

After dinner at 8 p.m. there were a few hours of downloading, battery charging and planning the next day’s shoot.  By 11 p.m. I was lying in bed, dead tired but ready to do it all again the next day. How good can it get?
It took two days of traveling to position ourselves in our first camp, Duma Tau, deep in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. But it was well worth the effort.

Duma Tau is located on the edge of the Okavango Delta, which provides plenty of food and water for the animals, making it an attractive place for most forms of wildlife. There was no shortage of either game or
action there.

A big advantage for photographers in Botswana is the ability to drive off-road, deep into the bush, in the quest to find wildlife that is wary of dirt roads and people. Most African countries restrict safari vehicles to designated dirt trails and observing the animals from a vehicle on a road can prove both visually restrictive and very frustrating.

Land Cruisers are perfect vehicles for bush travel, capable of traversing sandy desert terrain, crossing small rivers, moving steadily through muck in swampy environments, climbing over downed trees (a favorite trick of elephants wanting to reach the fruit on high branches is to simply knock the tree down) and crushing bushes that block the way in heavy thicketed areas.

I was rewarded for my efforts in the bush by filming four of the “big five”—lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant—during the first 24 hours. Only the rhino elluded me that first day.

Every hour or so we saw amazing sights: lions leisurely making their way to a drinking hole at sunset while other animals scattered at their approach; two cheetahs devouring the delectable delights of their kill; a pod of elephants facing off with several cheetahs, who quickly got the message and slipped off; and a very large hyena intimidating two cheetahs away from their kill. It was an auspicious beginning.

We then flew into the heart of the Okavango Delta, to an island camp named Xigera. Rainfall had been unusually heavy in the Angola Mountains to the north in the past year and the runoff gradually made its way south to lower ground in the delta. As a result, there was no way into Xigera other than by boat. The camp had been provisioned for nearly a year solely by boat, a logistical headache.

There are only two ways to view the wildlife at Xigera, one of which is by makoros, indigenous, hand-carved boats that resemble canoes. The makoros, piloted by tribesmen who propel them through the water by a stick they push against the muddy swamp bottom, glide silently through the reeds, stirring to life only the insects living among the tall water grasses. The other travel option in Xigera is by motorized, flatbed boats similar to the machines used by locals in the Florida Everglades. You cover more territory by motorboat, but you appreciate more of the delta in a makoro.

However, a word of caution: There is little movement allowed in a makoro. Its sleek design is ingenious for slipping over or through the tall waterborne grasses, but it is not designed for surviving rough waters or weight-shifting passengers. Flipping your makoro in the delta is potentially lethal. Drowning is only one risk you assume. Other, more dangerous risks include death by crocodile, hippopotamus, Cape Buffalo and all sorts of venomous watersnakes. Once you have seen lions swimming in the delta, one knows not to rock the boat!

Water everywhere makes shooting more complicated but does present advantages. Just before sunrise one morning, I noticed an impala relaxing in the reeds, awaiting the rise of the early morning sun. I got an idea for a shot just as the sky began to light up, moments before the sun would break through the horizon. We maneuvered the makoro into position so as to put the sun’s reflection on the water directly behind the calm animal. It worked as planned and was a beautiful shot. What a great way to start the day, one image under my belt only minutes after sunrise.

After a week in the world’s largest inland delta environment, it was time for a change. A flight to the Sossusvlei in Namibia would do that in spades.

The landscape in Sossusvlei, with its rust-red color looks like the surface of Mars. Our twin engine plane circumnavigated the surrounding mountains, and we landed in the middle of nowhere on a long dirt airstrip in an area devoid of buildings and people. Willowy, but sparse 8-inch tall white grass grew out of the rocky surface and blew silently in the wind. The grass is your only companion in the Sossusvlei, during the heat of the day.

I shot an image from the landing strip that captured the rocky, rust-colored road we would need to take to get to camp. Trimmed by the tall, bleached-white grass, the curved road ran gently uphill to the horizon where it met the bluest sky I have ever seen. We’d come a long way to see the barren beauty of the Sossusvlei and its first impression was certainly impressive.

As starkly beautiful as the Sossusvlei was, we were not here to shoot the desert. The real prize lay two hours away. We were on the road by 4 a.m., racing toward the world’s largest and tallest complex of sand dunes. Nearly 40,000 square miles of monstrous, ever-changing dunes fill the landscape. The dunes turn fire-red in the morning sun and yield fantastic images as the shadows cross the myriad shapes the wind has carved in the sands. The natural built-in composition of the dunes is a photographer’s dream come true.

Situated more than a mile inside the dunes just beyond the world’s tallest of them—this one known affectionately as “Big Daddy”—is nature’s best kept secret. Those willing to trek over the dunes out to the dead lake, called the Dead Vlei, are rewarded by the magnificent sight of petrified trees that have grown out of the bleached lake bed and stand like iron monuments under the fierce sun, surrounded by monstrous ridges of sand.
The lake dried out seven centuries ago, but the trees still stand tall and proud in their fossilized state. In this part of Namibia summer temperatures can exceed 120°F with little rain. With humidity levels hovering near zero, there were simply no insects to attack the wood, and the dunes shielded the trees from the bite of the high winds that rake the dunes. Hundreds of such petrified trees spot the dry lake bed and demonstrate nature’s unlimited power to enthrall those willing to go out and look.

After a week in the desert, a week in the delta and four days on Sossusvlei, we now looked forward to Tanzania. We started off our last week on safari in arguably the real Garden of Eden, the
Ngorongoro Crater.

Crater is really a misnomer for it since it was not formed by a meteor strike. Rather, it is actually a caldera, the fallen remains of the cone of a dead volcano. More than 12 miles in width, and covering more than 100 square miles, Noah might well have filled his ark here and floated out of Ngorongoro when the great floods occurred since the species of animals in the crater are so numerous.

Thousands of zebra and wildebeest filled the horizon, while well fed lions took shade near the wheels of our safari vehicle. We sat there waiting for the king of the jungle to rouse from his nap. Then, bored with lions lying only three feet away, we gawked at tens of thousands of flamingoes turning the lake waters red, and I photographed nearly extinct rhinos as they fed in the wet areas of the crater. We caught a pack of over 30 hyenas coming upon a pride of lions enjoying the taste of a recent kill. The hyenas surrounded the lions, intent upon finishing the lions’ meal. But if you go after the king, you better finish him off. The hyenas didn’t have the courage, and a few angry lionesses showed the hyenas just who’s boss. The hyenas backed off, and the lions slept the sleep of kings next to their kill. The hyenas still awaited their departure as we drove off.
We were spoiled—witnessing lions stalking their prey, a cheetah running down an antelope, and kites [long-winged bird of prey] dive-bombing unwitting tourists and stealing their sandwiches. There was action from sunrise to sunset.

From the crater we traveled to one of the most amazing places on Earth, Serengeti National Park. I remember a quote from my childhood that went something like: “Every day in the Serengeti an impala awakes and thinks, ‘Today I must outrun the fastest lion, or I will die.’ And that very same morning a lion awakes and thinks, ‘Today I must outrun the slowest impala, or I will starve.’ It doesn’t matter whether you’re the impala or the lion, when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

My experience in the Serengeti proved the adage true, as we followed a pride of lions stalking impalas all morning. The vast Serengeti plains appear endless, spreading to the horizon in all directions. Umbrella trees dot the plains, and, no matter how long you drive, the Serengeti just rolls on. Animals graze everywhere. Enormous herds can be seen moving to and fro.
Kudus, tommies, wildebeests, elephants, hartebeest, warthogs, giraffes and zebras caught our eyes. At waterholes and river crossings, hippos eyeballed us—nostrils, eyeballs and improbably small flapping ears the only parts of their huge bodies visible in the dark muddy waters. Prehistoric crocodiles soaked up the sunrays on riverbanks, their stillness belying the speed and ferocity they display when the mood strikes them, most notably at feeding time. Every few hours, we became alert at the sight of lions.

A month of shooting completed, my hard drives full (more than 240GB), my computer maxed out, and my iPod music erased (the songs replaced with more of Africa’s images), we begin the arduous two-day trek home.

It’s tough traveling with my gear, hard drives, lenses, tripods, computer and batteries halfway round the globe. Exhaustion sets in. But the worst of it is the concern I have for protecting the integrity of my work product, my images, as I navigate customs in multiple countries, with nosey customs inspectors, X-ray devices and numerous baggage transfers.

As our flight finally descended into LAX after a grueling 48 hours of travel, I looked out the window of the 747 and concluded four things: First, I had truly enjoyed the trip of a lifetime. Second, months of hard work would be required to edit and prepare the 22,000 images I had produced. Third, I was very tired and very stressed. I really wanted to get home. And, last but not least, I admit it; I am an American carnivore. Home would have to wait; I was heading straight to McDonald’s.

Joe Morahan is a professional photographer with a degree from Brooks Institute of photography. A talented athlete in his younger days, Joe never lost his passion for competition and thrills at the opportunity to catch an athlete in the midst of his struggles. Whether a soccer match, an extreme sporting event, or a surf competition in dangerous waters, Joe is always in his element. Joe is a part owner in Fattail Gallery, which is opening in Denver, CO, early in 2008. You can view more of his work at www.joe and