THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
Amboseli, Kenya – 206
Amboseli on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border is one of the best canvases to work with in the world. The amphitheatre has an elemental starkness that suits my clean, ground-up style of photography – the backdrops are rarely that busy in this arid dustbowl. The name Amboseli means ‘place of dust’ and that is instructive. It is just a flat and raw terrain, albeit nestling below the towering Mount Kilimanjaro.
I go to Amboseli for one principal purpose – to work close to elephants as they cross the dry Lake in search of water in the park. When a big herd crosses, it is as serene a spectacle in the natural world as I have ever come across. That is why Amboseli holds such a special place in my heart. It offers the chance to capture evocative imagery of elephants in a barren and remote wilderness.
Ten years ago, lake crossings of large herds were common, especially at the end of the summer dry season when the surface water was scarce and the elephants travelled from the Kilimanjaro foothills across the lake for the remaining sources of water. There is no greater friend to a wildlife photographer than repeat or predictable animal behaviour. With the first rains arriving in late October, there were rarely tourists around and it often felt as if I had exclusive access to write the stories for the ‘daily elephant news’. The evening skies would often have a menacing, dark countenance, which complements the scorched earth below.
But recently the elephant behaviour in Amboseli has been affected by the growing number of Masai moving to the area with their cattle. This has impinged on the elephants’ way of life as cattle come with human tenders and also attract more lions. We were told as kids that elephants have great power of memory and, increasingly, there must be a disconnect between their memories and the current habitat. They are unsettled by change and Amboseli is changing.
For three years I had not seen a big herd cross the lake and my regular guide has started to greet me at the landing strip with eyes of resignation. He knows what I want and this means working out of the jeep, on the ground on the dry lake, with a big elephant herd approaching. Since 2013, I had not had the privilege of seeing this and I have certainly put the hours in. There have been special vignettes with giraffes, zebras, wildebeest and small elephant groups, but no big elephant crossings.
Until, in October 206, in the middle of the day, my ‘look out’ scout saw something that had the shape of a big herd starting to cross the lake. They may have been five miles from his vantage point, but through his binoculars his premise was confirmed; the herd numbered over 25 and was the biggest group the locals had seen for sometime. Being outside normal filming time, I was sitting writing at my camp when the news came back to me. I was only wearing loafers and casual clothes but there was no time to change and I picked up my cameras and we drove the seven miles in record time.
As we sped to the west side of the dry lake, I was emotionally focused but equally aware that the light was patchy, with the sky dominated by localised rain cloud. I knew that this could complement any ground content perfectly: much better to have threatening clouds at midday than a high sun.
Those 20 minutes I spent that Sunday with the herd were spectacular. One image The Circle of Life stood out and the reaction from people honed in on the image’s grace and serenity. The composition has spirituality to it and, in retrospect, I made good quick decisions on both camera bodies and lenses. The photograph has a very good chance of passing the test of time. The detail is pleasing and the composition is a gift that perhaps the hours of persistence deserved.