The Writing Traveler: Safari with a Telephoto Lens by Darlene Jones

The Cheetah watches us as we watch him. Photo: Animals Around the Globe.

On our photographic safari, we click and snap our way through the haunting wilds of Kenya and Tanzania.

In Nairobi, I join five other tourists, all of us keyed up and anxious to begin our first safari.  I climb into the land cruiser and compete for space with backpacks and telephoto lenses so big they obscenely dwarf the cameras attached to them. Not an auspicious start, I think.

I have my camera with me, of course. I even take a picture or two. I photograph the big five, the little five, and a number of fives in between. I take a picture of our guide, a few of the landscape and a couple of our luxury tent camp.

My fellow safarians are not so casual about their picture taking. Three minutes into the first game drive the conversation goes something like this:

“How many gigs have you got?”

“Four. You?”

“Me too. I brought four cards with me. I hope that’ll be enough. I might have to buy more.”

Now where in the Serengeti, I wonder, will we find a store selling gigs. I cradle my little Canon on my lap, protective of the runt of the litter.

The conversation switches to zoom power. I know I’ve got a one-gig card and that I can zoom. But zoom power? I glance down at baby Canon and see 4X. That must be it. My relief is shattered when I hear numbers like 14, 20, 300. 300?

“Zebras on the left,” someone shouts. Click, click, click go the cameras. The zebras begin to move away. Click, click, click. Just how many pictures of zebra bums does one need?

“Sawa sawa?” the driver asks.

“Sawa sawa,” we say. The signal to move on.

“What’s that?”


“Over there at two o’clock. By that different-colored grass.” Click, click, click.

“There. Do you see it?” Click, click, click.

“A tree stump,” says the driver.

We click and snap our way through Kenya and Tanzania.

“Road kill.” Click, click, click.

“Airplane.” Click, click, click.

From a hot air balloon we watch the magnificent migration of wildebeests. I feel like I’m seeing all two million of them. We see lions, hippos, zebras, and an amazing sunrise. My camera is in the truck. I didn’t forget it. I left it there on purpose.

“Wasn’t that incredible?” I say to the nearest safarian when we land.

“Yes, but the light wasn’t quite right for my camera,” comes the reply. I groan inwardly and walk away.

We visit a Masai camp. I surrender baby Canon to one of the fanatics. I want a picture of myself dancing with the Masai warriors. She takes twenty-seven. I delete twenty-three. After all, I’ve only got one gig.

A cheetah moves parallel to our vehicle then begins to close the gap. “He’s stalking the gazelle, using us for cover,” says the driver. The cheetah bursts across our path. A telephoto lens whacks me on the head. Another bruises my shoulder as the fanatics try to follow the cat’s charge on a herd far to our right. For God’s sake, put the damn cameras down and watch. It’s what I want to say, but I don’t. My mother raised me to be polite.

“I lost him,” one moans.

“He’s too fast,” says another. A cloud of dust rises and then settles. The hunt was successful. I mentally salute the cheetah and rub my throbbing temple.

Game drive number seven.

“Hartebeest,” our driver says. “Shall I stop?

“No thanks. Got it,” four sing in chorus.

“I don’t have a picture of one,” says the fifth.

We stop. Click, click, click, go five cameras.

“Sawa sawa,” someone says and we motor on only to come to a stop moments later behind one of the other land cruisers in our party.

“What do you see?” I ask the group in front of us.

“A baby topi. All alone. We’re wondering where the mother is,” one of the men says.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Do they have to stop at every little thing?”

I stifle a snort of laughter. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing for four days now? Isn’t that why we’re always way behind the others?

We’re jumping with excitement at the rare sighting of a tree-climbing lion.

“Stop here,” they shout.

“I’ll go a little more forward,” says the driver.

“No, no, here.”

He stops. The cameras click away.

“I can’t get the right focus.”

“It’s the leaves in front of his face.”

I borrow the driver’s binocs and try to ignore the grumbling and complaining. The magnificent animal is sprawled along the tree branch, tail and one front paw dangling limply and twitching occasionally.

“Sawa sawa?” asks the driver.

“No, no,” they protest.

He moves forward anyway and we have an unobstructed view of the lion. I snap a quick picture as we pull away.

“Stop!” they cry.

“This is where I wanted to go but you contradicted me,” says the driver in his first display of impatience. “Now I have to move for the other vehicles.”

My picture is just fine. I show the driver. He grins, his eyes sparkle and he gives me a thumbs-up.

The driver slows as we pass through villages and towns. Workers, bicyclers, pedestrians, old ladies, and children—all become subjects of the fanatics’ cameras. Reactions vary, but most of the photographed appear disgruntled, offended, irate.

“Ah, look at that,” the safarians coo collectively when we cross a bridge and see a woman bathing a naked young lad. The boy waves. There’s another collective “ah.”

“Did you get a picture?” they ask the fanatic at the back.

“Oh, no,” she replies with a heartfelt sigh. As I begin to think there is hope, after all, she adds, “There was way too much glare from the window.”

I put my camera in my knapsack, send silent apologies to the photographed, and grope for something to say. I’m at a loss. The right words don’t come.

We turn onto a paved highway. We’re going too fast for picture taking. There is a god. Click, click, click. How naive I am. Now the fanatics are comparing the blurs of their “drive-by shootings.”

Darlene Jones is the author of Whispers under the Baobab. Please click HERE to find the novel on Amazon.


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