By Guest Writer Jen Hellman
A Bucket List Adventure to Africa
The cheetah brothers parked themselves by the wheel of our jeep, under my window. They cuddled together, licking and nuzzling. I watched in awe as the three of them stood and dropped into different positions, rolling on their backs, their striped faces resting on each-other’s bellies, the penultimate expression of brotherly love and connection.
After I’d shot dozens of pictures of them frolicking, there was an abrupt change in their demeanor. They stood in unison and surveyed their surroundings. It was time to hunt. Heads pointed in the same direction, something caught their attention, and we followed them slowly as they changed from sweet little kitties to sly predators, walking stealthily together down the dirt road. Suddenly dispersing in different directions, we caught sight of the unknowing target, a grazing zebra. The cats crept low to the ground forming a triangle-trap, until suddenly, their legs like springs, the chase was on. Dust flying, we watched wide-eyed, trying to track their 60 mph speeds. I’ll spare the photos and details, but we saw one cheetah take down the zebra, as the other two joined and did their part in making sure dinner would be served. They took turns watching and guarding against lions and hyenas who could steal their meal. Such is the cycle of life in Kenya.
Jambo. Hello. As a full-time artist and photographer, I’d always dreamt of travelling to Africa to witness and photograph the wildlife and scenic beauty of that region of the world. I belong to “Creative Photo Academy” in Los Angeles which collaborates with “Simba Marara Expedition” for trips to Africa (firstname.lastname@example.org). As luck would have it, two people dropped out from a scheduled July 2022 African safari to Kenya and I decided, now is the time. I often travel with my sister Jill and knew Africa was on her bucket list. I called her and without hesitation she replied, “I’m in.” With only six weeks to prepare, I had much to do.
Amboseli National Park
Following twenty-nine hours of travel, we arrived in Nairobi and spent two days getting acclimated to Kenya. The safari began following a quick flight to Amboseli National Park. Our first stop gave us a view of Mount Kilimanjaro, and from inside the tent walls we could view elephants, zebras, giraffes, and dozens of other species. The park is a protected flatland for wildlife covering 150 square miles, making it easy to see the variety of animals in their element. We would often watch huge herds of elephants walking for miles on land toward water or loafing and splashing around in the marshes with their young, Troops of baboons were omnipresent, including the roof of our tent and would often wake us up with their hair-raising screams. More often, we experienced them right under our feet, grooming, playing, lip-smacking, sometimes temperamental, sometimes manifesting a mesmerizing solemnity.
The Art of Jen Hellman
For the past twenty-five years I’ve evolved my art using images I find in nature and create photographically based abstract art called Photomosaics. Typically, the images I look for are used for the purposes of creating my unusual abstract mosaics. For the first time, the images I was shooting in Kenya were meant to stand on their own. My goal was to soak in the incredible experience, and to come back with expressive images of various animals in the wild; images that would capture the authentic essence of their nature. The next step would be finding a way to combine these images into my Photomosaics. I was excited for this new venture in my creative life.
We spent most of our time on game drives. 6:30 am to 10:00 am and then out again from 3:30 pm to dusk. Groups of four were assigned to a 4 x 4 Land Cruiser with a driver. The Cruisers were designed specifically for Photographers – with a pop-up roof offering a 360-degree unobstructed view, and sandbags for heavy lenses to rest. Most in our group were experienced photographers, loaded up with the latest in photo equipment. There were also a few novices who, armed with an iPhone, took some amazing pictures.
I was most exhilarated by the herds of protected Elephants, being able to watch them exactly where they’re supposed to be, rumbling and trumpeting on their land. The young are playful and everything they do is endearing. They are emotional, loyal, magical creatures. It is still a mystery to me why one elephant intertwined his forearm with his trunk and held the pose. Elephant yoga?
After Amboseli, we travelled to Maasai Mara where we spent the next eight days. The Mara was lush with rolling hills and jaw-dropping sunrises and sunsets. One morning we waited patiently until the sun rested perfectly in the limbs of the Acacia tree.
What made our trip most amazing was our knowledgeable driver and guides. Gideon was a member of the Kikuyu tribe and after fourteen years was in perfect rhythm with the park and wildlife. The guides are well trained; they work together sharing intel and always know where to find the Big 5 (black rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo).
We were in Kenya at the peak of the Great Migration, where over a million Wildebeest arrive every July from Tanzania to feed on the vast grasslands after the Spring rains. This once in a lifetime experience involves watching the huge herds running down the steep banks and trying to cross the Mara River as fast as possible to avoid hungry crocodiles or a waiting lion at the other side. They can wait lined-up for days before something triggers one of them to courageously take the first step. When the first one goes, the whole long line of them move en masse. Amazingly, we were able to view not just one, but two crossings!
Every day, we had lessons from Gideon as he drove us hundreds of miles through the Mara. He taught us how leopards hunted alone, how female lions make the kill but let the males eat first, and how dangerous hippos could be. Being driven down those dirt roads is not for the faint of heart. At times we had to hold on for dear life as he would nonchalantly share nuggets of wisdom. But we had great trust in Gideon.
As for the other cats, prides of lions were spottable in the Mara. Regal as they appeared, I was struck how battle-scarred they, and many of the animals, were. Every day they are fighting for their lives, fighting for their every meal, and many had missing teeth and tusks, bloody skin, and scars. Leopards are mostly solitary and the rare shot I was able to get of two leopards together is still one of my best.
One morning as we were nearing our camp, I saw a creature slinking furtively through the grass to our right. Stop the car! I yelled to Gideon, grabbing my camera. He complied quickly as I put all my focus on this creature which I could see was from the cat family and started snapping away. With no break in shooting, I yelled out to Gideon if he knew what species of cat this was. His response was calm but loud enough for me to hear. “Yes. It is a house cat.” I will never live that one down. For the rest of the trip my jeep mates would yell out periodically, “Jenny Look! It’s the elusive house cat! You can tell by the bell around his neck. He answers to ‘Whiskers.’”
We visited a Maasai village on our last day. We met spear-carrying warriors who dressed and accessorized in stunning handmade garb. They generously invited us into their dwellings, called Enkaji, which were made primarily of soil. I photographed the traditional warrior jumping dance – where warriors, who are bachelors, compete to see who can jump the highest. In American terms, the Maasai ladies find the highest jumper “hot”, and he will “get the most girlfriends”.
Kenya was truly a wonderland, and for me, the not knowing what was coming around each corner was thrilling. By the end of our trip, I would miss all the varied animal calls so much, I taped them to use as ringtones.
After returning to the states, I spent over a month going through and editing my 3,000+ pics. I am thrilled with what I was able to capture. Goal accomplished: I got my photos of glorious animals, silly, thoughtful, tired, hunting, playful. Africa is a life changing experience, and through the lens of a camera, I was able to capture and experience the greatest life has to offer, to enjoy and relive again and again.
Next on the agenda is creatively combining my Africa images with my Photomosaic process. Stay tuned! Gotta go. My phone is trumpeting… it’s my sister. www.jenhellmanart.com