October 2023: Kenya was the first African country I ever visited and it’s where I fell in love with photography. In 2004, Nic and I took a sabbatical from our jobs in journalism and spent several wonderful months travelling through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa.
I had with me my first ever digital camera – boasting a whopping 4MP of resolution – and while the photos from that trip won’t win any awards, they did plant a seed. When I got back to London the following year, I bought my first DSLR and lenses, and everything else followed from there.
I’ve been back to Kenya a couple of times since then, but it had been 12 years since my last trip and I was very keen to return. This visit was a bit different, however. As well as updating my portfolio and sharpening my photography skills, this was also about introducing my eldest son to Kenya, to the safari experience – and to photography.
Over the course of a week, Harry and I travelled to Buffalo Springs and Samburu National Reserves in central Kenya, then south west to Lake Nakuru and finally down to the Masai Mara and the Tanzanian border.
Photos by James and Harry Hopkirk

Camels on the road north from Nairobi to Buffalo Springs

Harry on arrival at Buffalo Springs. This national park is one of three connected reserves, with Buffalo Springs in the south, Samburu north of the Ewaso Ng'iro river and Shaba to the east. We spent time in the first two parks. Visitors should be aware that they are separate and you have to pay to enter each of them. Confusingly, the lovely camp we stayed in was called Ashnil Samburu, and yet it was in Buffalo Springs

African elephant, Buffalo Springs National Reserve

Kori Bustard – the largest flying bird native to Africa

Secretary birds – most often found on the ground, but also capable of flight

Yellow-necked spurfowl

Baboons with the Ewaso Ng'iro river in the background and Samburu beyond it

Female impala

Leopard tortoise

Male impala

Female gerenuk. These elegant antelopes are notable for their long necks and for the fact that they often stand on their hind legs to reach higher foliage. They are also known as giraffe gazelles

Grevy's zebra. With longer legs, larger ears and thinner stripes than the common zebra, these zebras are found only in Samburu and Buffalo Springs in Kenya, with some isolated populations also in Ethiopia

Grevy's zebra

Large male African elephant

Dawn in Buffalo Springs, with Mount Ololokwe in the background

Morning mist over the hills

Purple heron

We made our trip in October and the short rains had already arrived in parts of the north. Thankfully the roads were all still passable and it had the effect of damping down all the dust 

Female cheetah, Buffalo Springs

Female Kirk's dik-dik – a tiny antelope about the size of a domestic cat

Red-billed hornbill


Selfie in Buffalo Springs

Reticulated giraffe – a subspecies found only in northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia. Note the large, dark, solid patches of brown

Kirk's dik-dik

Ostrich with chicks. Not all will belong to this female, but she is their designated carer

Lionesses with zebra kill, across the river in Samburu National Reserve

The male had clearly had enough of eating in front of an audience so at this point dragged the zebra off into the bush to the right

Cheetah at dusk with young Grant's gazelle kill, back in Buffalo Springs

On the road to Lake Nakuru, with Mount Kenya directly in front of us – the second highest peak in Africa

Lake Nakuru is a much smaller reserve, centred around a salt lake and famous for its flamingos and rhinos. When entering from the north, Nakuru (the third-largest city in Kenya) can be seen in the background, which makes for a slightly jarring first impression – a reminder of our relentless encroachment on the natural world. As you approach the lake, the hills rise to one side, the foliage thickens and the city soon disappears. Here we met a lone buffalo in the drizzle 

Common warthog with Lake Nakuru in the background

African buffalo. Not to be confused with the smaller forest buffalo or Asian water buffalo. African buffalos can be very aggressive, especially lone males who have separated from the herd

Female defassa waterbuck

The shore of Lake Nakuru. In the last 10 years, the lake has expanded massively and is predicted to double in size by 2031. The park's original lake-side roads and office buildings have been submerged, along with some of the tree line. One impact of this is reduced salinity, which in turn reduces the abundance of algae. The lake is increasingly attracting freshwater birds – but fewer flamingos 

Great white pelican

A herd of white rhinos. There are five in this photo, but we saw seven together in total in this group

Lesser flamingos, Lake Nakuru. When the lake was smaller, it was much easier to photograph them close up. This was shot with a 500mm lens handheld, with my boots just in the water and they are still pretty distant

Harry with our Land Cruiser – flamingos in the background

Maribou storks fighting over a fish

Sleeping adolescent male lion, Lake Nakuru. I'd seen tree-climbing lions at Lake Manyara in Tanzania and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda in previously trips - but it was news to me that they climb trees in Lake Nakuru

Because Lake Nakuru is quite a narrow national park, with water taking up much of it, there are few roads – so when a double sighting of lions and a leopard hits the radio, a traffic jam ensues

These lions had chased a leopard off a kill. The leopard was hiding in a nearby tree – higher than the lions were prepared to climb – and waiting for them to leave. They were in no hurry

Baboons at dusk, Lake Nakuru

White rhino mother and child. The white rhino is the largest of all rhino species. There are currently estimated to be just over 16,000 of them left in the wild. Lake Nakuru is also home to the rarer black rhino, but we weren't lucky enough to see them. Security at the park has to be pretty serious as a result of these residents

Dusk, Lake Nakuru. For the sharp-eyed, there is a hyena lying down on the lake shore

Narok, the last major town before reaching the Masai Mara

Wathogs – or pumba in Kiswahili – in the Masai Mara

Masai giraffe – the tallest species of giraffe, and therefore the tallest of all land mammals. Here seen with three red-billed oxpeckers, welcome guests that eat ticks and other parasites

We were lucky enough to see this pride emerge from the undergrowth at dusk on our first evening in the Mara

Initially the lions were lolling around, stretching and generally waking up – until something suddenly grabbed their attention and the demeanour of the entire pride changed

By October, the giant herds of wildebeest have returned to the Serengeti across the border in Tanzania, but these three remained. They seemed to sense danger, as they kept looking in the right direction, but the lions were downwind and out of sight so they continued to feed 

What unfolded next was a fascinating lesson in strategy, camouflage, gambling - and, ultimately, impatience

There was no cover to the left of the wildebeest, so the lions started to encircle them from the front and to the right. One lioness managed to get behind them. They stayed low, used bushes for cover and moved very slowly

The adolescents watched from afar as the more experienced lionesses led the hunt

This was how close they got without being seen. I couldn't understand why the lioness here didn't go for the middle wildebeest when it was clearly within reach. But our guide explained that they were probably gambling on taking down two of them, so the whole pride could eat. For that to happen, all three needed to be to the right of the lioness in this shot. She could then prevent them from breaking left – into open ground – and force them towards the other hidden lions to the right and behind. This played out over about 40 minutes as we watched from our Land Cruiser, waiting for what felt like an inevitability

But then, suddenly, this lioness – perhaps bored of waiting or unsure of what was happening – poked her head up. The wildebeest saw her and broke off to the left, away from the lions and too fast for them to pursue over any distance. They lived to graze another day

The pride had gambled and lost – but it was fascinating to watch it unfold and see how the lions fanned out and worked with the landscape to get themselves in position. How this is possible without speech – and walkie-talkies – is extraordinary

Sunset, Masai Mara

Harry with the 500mm I rented for the trip. I own a 400mm, which we also had with us, but I wanted to see what difference this extra reach would make. It's a lovely lens and I'm very glad we brought it. Looking back at what we shot, not only are they many of my favourites, but we also shot more with this lens than any other 

Spotted hyena, dusk

Most days we were up at 5.30am for a 5.45 departure so that we could enter the parks as soon as they opened at 6. But for our first morning in the Mara I'd booked a balloon ride. We set our alarm for 4.45 for a 5am pickup and special early access into the reserve, where ten balloons were waiting

David, our pilot, giving us our safety briefing. There were 17 of us in our balloon – four per compartment plus David in the middle. The long and short of it is: sit down and hold on for dear life during take off and landing

Giraffes from the balloon


Harry used a super-wide lens for this one, so you can see part of our balloon at the top of the frame


We were told there are two types of landing: boring and exciting. Thankfully our landing fell into the former category – although I wouldn't personally use the term boring for it. Everyone was then whisked off for breakfast in the bush. We were joined at the end by a pride of lions passing to one side as we ate

I think these are white-backed vultures

Spotted hyenas with a baby zebra kill

The vultures looked on, biding their time

Young male steenbok

Eland – Africa's largest antelope

Grey crowned crane – the national bird of Uganda

We came across this small family in a thicket at lunchtime when we spent the whole day in the park. The light may not be as good in the middle of the day, but the number of vehicles is massively reduced, so it's an opportunity for some encounters without anyone else around

Mara picnic lunch

Nile crocodile in the Mara River. These monsters can reach up to 5m in length

Hippo skeleton by the banks of the Mara River

Buffalo exiting a mud bath where they had been escaping the heat of the midday sun

Lions on a warthog kill. We couldn't work out if there was more than one warthog being devoured, but even a couple would be little more than a snack

Three hippos watch a dead member of their pod floating in the Mara River. Lions and hyenas were congregating in the area and our guide thought they might be trying to work out how to drag it out of the river. They didn't manage it while we were there

These lionesses (with adolescent male in the foreground) are part of what was once known as the Marsh Pride, made famous by the BBC's Big Cat Diary. That pride has now split and this is one of its splinter groups

Dusk view towards Talek, a small town on the edge of the Mara, named after the Talek river

We returned the next morning to the same spot to find the former Marsh Pride members still there

Two male Topi jousting

This was an interesting standoff – and something even George, our guide, hadn't seen before. These black-backed jackals had killed a baby topi, possibly taken as soon as it had been born, George surmised. But they had competition

These white-backed vultures clearly wanted a piece of the action, and were making their intentions clear, getting very close

The jackals were having none of it, repeatedly chasing them away – but the vultures never went far. We spent about half an hour watching the drama unfold. When we left, the jackals were still in possession of their breakfast

Banded mongooses

Hippo pod in the Mara River

An elephant who seemed to be taking quite a significant risk on a very steep and inaccessible outcrop to reach this thorny meal

Note the red-billed oxpeckers on the back of the buffalo to the left and the claw marks from a lion on the buffalo to the right. The wound looked very fresh

We spent the morning looking for leopards along a river bank. Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity on the radio and we were on. This female emerged from the bushes and slowly ambled through the vehicles, passing right next to our car 

In the afternoon, we went back to the same spot to see if we could find her again, which we did. But this time, she was in a tree, with a kill

Yawning hippo, Mara River

Land Cruiser hatch view at dusk

Dusk on our final evening as we left the Mara

After a lot of very long drives between – and in – each park, we cheated and flew back to Nairobi from Olkiombo airstrip inside the Mara. A six hour drive became a 40 minute flight in a 14-seat Cessna Caravan

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