Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Iconic east Africa

I have traveled across east Africa many times over the last 12 years and visited all of the major highlights it offers. However, this was the first time I had traveled to all of the most iconic places in one safari. Together with Iconic Images International and my company C4 Images and Safaris, I co-hosted a safari that turned out to be more magnificent than one could ever imagine. The simple reason being that each of the destinations are so closely linked to each others ecosystem and one only gets to appreciate this when you connect all the dots in one safari. "read more".

Photographically it offered two highlights for me. One being in a hot air balloon flying over the full flow of the migration for a complete hour with the noises and beasts stimulating my senses as never before.

The second was flying in an open door aeroplane on a chartered flight over Lake Natron and Lengai. I'll discuss more about these in a future post...

 A safari that combines all the destinations we traveled to should elicit some great scenes and we sure did have these. The predators of the Mara produced, Amboseli revealed elephant sightings in front of Kilimanjaro, the Crater awed us with the greenery and grandeur of its contained beauty and the Serengeti was a hive of activity with the calving wildebeest all over the plains. Ending it with a balloon safari was simply the most exciting way to polish off a, quite iconic safari.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Svalbard Magic

There are more stories written about the isles of Svalbard or Spitsbergen, whichever way you want to pronounce it, than I can care to even remember. When I first set eyes upon these islands I was struck by the extreme beauty, but almost as immediate, I was also struck by the harsh weather that is borne within it. I learnt very quickly that there is no such thing as bad weather in Svalbard, only bad clothing.

This wouldn’t have been much help for the men and woman who first set eyes upon these islands. There were no designer outdoors stores stocked with Gore-Tex in Longyearbyen in those days. So I have to wonder what compelled the first pioneers to risk life and many a limb to spend winters upon winters in Svalbard. And not just a few men; people from Russia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and even Americans and a few crazy British were all part of the scramble for Svalbard: Most never returning and many returning quite poor and almost dead. Well it was coal, polar bears, foxes and birds. Today the coalmines still operate and today we still head up to Svalbard as ‘explorers’ to find polar bears, foxes and birds. There are somewhat fewer of each now due to mans greed and lust, but one thing is sure about Svalbard, as much as the weather was a killer, it is too a saviour. In this case it’s the wildlife that survives simply because man could only reach it for three months of the year.

And I am also sure that the beauty of the landscape surrounding them also bewildered each person who went into the hinterland of Svalbard’s shores 150 years ago. Back then it was the wilderness that caused them to fear their environment, alone and lonely in one of the harshest places on earth. Today we head to Svalbard for that exact same reason. We want to enjoy the quiet wilderness far from cities, far from any cell phones and e-mails. We head out to Svalbard into the purest place on earth to witness nature in its purest form and know that even with our Gore-Tex and a strong vessel, should nature want, we could disappear.

That’s why I go to Svalbard. It’s the wildest place on earth, I know of. For ten days I see no one else. Where else in the world could you do that?

Enjoy some of these images.

You can join me on safari in Svalbard this September. See this link for more information.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Shem Compion -Keynote Speaker at Three Workshops in Australia - May 2014

Shem will be presenting the following one-day workshops in May 2014,with Dennis Glennon in following areas in Australia.
  • SYDNEY - Saturday 3 May 2014 at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts (SMSA), 280 Pitt Street.
  • MELBOURNE -  Saturday 10 May 2014 at The Backlot Studios, 65 Haig St, Southbank.
  • PERTH - Saturday 17 May 2014 at the WA State Library Theatre, 25 Francis Street.
For any further details of information please read on or follow this link...

Africa Geographic reports Shem Compion as “one of the top three nature and wildlife photographers in Southern Africa”.

Shem is an adventurer, nature photographer, successful author and photography hide designer who’s passion is to share his love and experience of the natural world with others. His full time occupation is wildlife and nature photography. His creative photography explores every aspect of the natural world, making him one of the most diverse and celebrated natural history photographers in the Southern Hemisphere, whose work has been awarded and published worldwide. For an overview of the books he has published, Shem’s Books.

Born in Africa, Shem travels internationally to share his photography, his knowledge and his natural history expertise with photographers of kindred spirit. To view some of his award winning images, go to Shem's Images

Upon discovering his love of photography, he decided the best way to become a wildlife photographer was to live like one. He sold his belongings, quit his ”day job” and for seven months traveled through Africa in a Landrover exploring the majority of the well known game reserves, to live his dream. On this adventurous trip to mostly remote destinations, he captured many of his first iconic images – ones that have underpinned and accelerated his professional career. From those carefree days, he continued work as a successful professional photographer and in 2005 established what has become South Africa’s premier photographic safari company – C4 Images and Safaris.

Ever the adventurer and explorer, he still undertakes one trip per year, generally alone, to a wild and remote destination. Here he “clears his mind” and ”becomes one with his camera” – often producing some of his best and most compelling photographic work.

Shem is continually honing his skills on being a naturalist and a photographer. These skills have been recognized and used by many clients, including the BBC Natural history Unit on the multi-award winning BBC Planet Earth series. He was involved in the Great Plains series depicting lions hunting elephants in the Savuti, Botswana.

He still personally hosts a number of photographic workshops and photographic tours each year as well as guiding his private photo safaris.

Iconic Images International has worked closely with Shem and C4 Images and Safaris since 2008 and Shem and Denis Glennon AO personally co-lead all of Iconic Images’ photography safaris in Africa.

It is with pleasure Iconic Images invites Shem to Australia to share his story, skills and expertise with Australian photographers.

Shem and I will present three one-day workshops in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, in May 2014.

For any further details of information please follow this link.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Interview with Nature and Wildlife Photographer Shem Compion

Originally on Discover Africa.com

Have a look at our featured interview with celebrated nature and wildlife photographer Shem Compion. He tells us about his passion for wildlife photography, where he draws his inspiration from and some of the challenges he's faced as a professional nature and wildlife photographer.

Above: A hornet flies past two very mesmerised meercats in the Kalahari.

1. How did you get into photography
I have always had a love for nature. I even studied it at university. When I picked up my camera it was inevitable that I would combine the two, which is exactly what happened.

Above: A mother hyena carries her young while the older pup struggles to keep up.

2. What kind of photography are you most passionate about?
Nature and wildlife are truly the two aspects I feel most passionate about. When I’m placed in an environment where these two elements are present I can really feel my photographic/creative side emerging.

Above: A young lion cub greets its mother in a show of affection that imprints a special bond between the two.

3. What do you draw your inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from being surrounded by nature. The calmness and the vastness of the true wilderness makes me want to capture them to the best of my ability. Observing the work of the photographers I grew up admiring also inspires me. Seeing what those photographers did with hardly any equipment makes me realise how hard I still have to work. This is quite a driving force for me.

Above: Flamingoes fly over the shores of Lake Nakuru; covering the sky in a wash of beautiful pink.

4. How would you describe your photographic style?
I won’t consider myself as having any kind of specific photographic style; instead I try to concentrate on taking the best photograph each and every time. It seems to be working as I’ve received numerous awards in a number of nature and wildlife categories.

Above: A tiny, but beautiful weevil clings to a flower bud at the start of summer.

5. Are you a traditionalist who occasionally uses film or have you gone completely digital?
For work I use digital cameras. When I play around with old cameras I use film.

Above: A young cheetah cub investigates its surrounds as an act of learning.

6. What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?
Get out there and enjoy the medium for all it can offer. Don’t worry too much about equipment; rather focus on the results that you are getting. Always try to improve on your photography by coming up with new and creative ideas.

Above: A light outlines the profile of a lioness in the evening, alert and just about to head off to hunt.

7. What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve had to face as a photographer?
My greatest challenge up to this point has to be the photo market crashing. Stock images went from $500 an image to $5 an image. This affected practically all photographers and everyone had to find some way to reinvent themselves. I personally went the route of photo workshops and tours, which is great because I interact well with people and I love to travel.

Above: In South Luangwa a leopard stalks from the shadows across a dry riverbed late in the afternoon.

8. Have you ever fallen short of taking the perfect shot?
All the time; I’ve come to question what exactly a 'perfect shot' is. Even when I look at my best images, I can find flaws in them. That’s one of the joys of being a photographer; we are always searching for an image that’s just a little better than the previous one.

Above: A wildebeest running in the rain.

9. Where is your favourite place to take photographs of wildlife?
Probably dry, arid areas, these environments require you to focus on the little you have around you, thus presenting a greater challenge. Also, when change happens, it happens fast, which is very appealing to me.

Above: Wildebeest gather in a stampede of dust just before crossing the Mara river.

10. What is your greatest achievement as a photographer thus far?
I’d have to say being able to support myself as a wildlife photographer in a very small market. The international awards are great and they increase exposure to one's work, but being able to do what I love while being able to live comfortably is an achievement in itself for me.
If you enjoyed Shem's photographs as much as we did and would like to see some more of his work, take a look at his website.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The urge to climb, a volcano

We arrive near the top, just in time for sunset. The whole place stinks, sulphur steaming from the side vents and the light is beautiful. I ask our group to stop. I’m exhausted but we are almost at the top. I grab the camera and try take a few images. Anywhere off the path is fresh ash, I’m creating new tracks in brand new earth which no person has walked on, quite a sensation. The light is amazing but I’m totally exhausted and we’re on a spur that has some serious drops on either side. Red flags are going off in my head- being tired and on top of a windy spur at 2800m is not a good place to be. I grab a few images and feel the wind pick up. “Hmmm not safe at all” I surmise. “Lets keep moving up to the crater rim.” 20 minutes later we crest the rim and the wind almost blows us off our feet. We are immediately bent down onto all fours. Pilot, my Masai friend hears the earth rumble- normal volcanic activity and proclaims he will never look into the crater again, something about man not supposed to look at the home of God. He averts his gaze to the dark horizon and straight into the howling wind. We need to find shelter, and fast.

Set in the middle of the Rift Valley, Ol Doino Lengai stands proud. 

“You want to climb now?” he asked. Through the sweat, the heat and the not so unnoticed effects of some serious drugs maintaining my health, I replied “Ndio”, Yes. He looked at me incredulously shaking his head, “No one climbs Lengai in the day, only at night. Too hot in the day”. I almost understood, the sweat dripping off me right there. I imagined how hot it would be on the slope of the volcano… The guide chipped in; “Umzungu, I have climbed that volcano 47 times and not once have I done it in the day”. I looked at my Masai friend, Nuorori, ‘Pilot’. He understood, and so the next round of Maa rattled off with lots of shaking, gesturing and worried faces being made. Pilot is a good friend of mine because he is a great guy, has untold resources in remote Africa and stops to admire every cow we pass on the road. But he also has this skill for getting things done, and in remote Africa that is worth a lot. One hour later we were in his cruiser with a guide and porter heading towards Lengai with rudimentary foodstuffs, lots of water and cameras in hand- all before 11 in the morning. In Africa, sometimes things move very, very quickly. 

I awake to a sound. Something I’m not familiar with at 01h00 in the morning, nor at 2850m above sea level. The side of the tent was flapping wetly across my head, my beanie keeping me slightly dry, but that was not it. I sat up and listened. There, three bodies away lay the Masai porter prostrate, still fully clothed in his beads and shuka, singing softly away. It was a gentle kind of monotonous hum that can be either a lullaby or a calm inference of intended death. I looked closer and saw him cradling his Kisu, a long stabbing knife/dagger on his chest. I wasn’t exactly sure if there was evil intent or not, but I was sore, tired and so mentally low that I didn’t really care either. I lay back on the cold ground, my head 6 inches from Pilot trying to go back to sleep. The cold and rain had come quite unexpected, which resulted in 4 of us being crammed into a 3 man tent dirty and still clothed. I heard the beads of the porters jingle as he turned over, the singing stopped. The tent flapped again against my head and neck. It was going to be a long night; I was very aware of it. All I could hope for was that the rain would clear before dawn. Another 2 hours and 30 minutes before the alarm clock goes and I can check the conditions. Man I want to use my damn camera. 

The view while climbing up is nothing less then spectacular overlooking Lake Natron and the Serengeti plains to the west.

Pilot stops in his tracks. I’ve never seen him look like this- purple. I walk on, concentrating on not sliding down in the ash- at 30 degrees angle it’s not very easy. Every step is three up, two down. Pilot shouts, “Shem Stop, I don’t feel very good. My head is dizzy”. It dawns on me. I ask him “what is the highest mountain you have climbed?” He looks at me, puzzled that I could ask such a stupid question. “In the Mara, Lookout Hill. Why should I climb a higher hill? No grazing for cattle on the hills”. It’s confirmed. Pilot is suffering from Vertigo. I don’t blame him. Ol doinyo lengai is no easy climb. It is exactly the opposite; it is described as “… an extreme climb and scramble. Make sure you are not afraid of heights…”. I reply to him. “Pilot, you have height sickness. Don’t worry, you will be fine, you are a Masai, not a gnu. Just keep looking at the ground and walk.” All I had to do was mention a comparison to a gnu. Pilot loves using them as a metaphor to describe anything crazy or useless. To his credit, he only decided to climb up with me at the last minute with only his satchel bag holding two extra shukas (Masai blankets) and some water. In a way it was best, because climbing Lengai, as I discovered, is one hour of hiking pain in 40 degrees heat and 5 more hours of mental torture, scrambling, slipping and eating volcanic ash in your lungs. I knew what I was getting myself into. Pilot on the other hand was winging it with his umzungu friend, and learning a few things about extreme heights at the same time! 

The wind on top of the crater rim as so strong that it rendered us to sitting down or on all fours.

 It’s the last wake up call. I’ve set it for every hour of the morning since 01h00 in the hope of the sky clearing. As it rings I’m up and out the tent only to be greeted by more rain and wind. Damn. All my photographic plans thwarted. Rain, wind and cloud covered this mystical volcano from the moment I arrived at the top. The name Ol Doninyo Lengai means “The Mountain of the God” in Maa and if you climb it you will know why. Even Pilots father, an old Masai mzee in his 80’s asked his son to bring him back a white stone from the volcano. The place has reverence. I expended a lot of time and energy to get here, ending up with no results. My emotions are torn between despair and exploration. I came her because no one else does. Then I climbed it when no one else does- in the heat of the day, with some seriously good people. The exersize in getting to Lengai was as painful as it gets but as enriching as any I could imagine getting anywhere else in the world. I interacted and bonded with guys who were fighting as much pain as I was. Yet I got not one single usable photo: thwarted by the weather gods. Plus I am suffering in extreme physical pain. Due to the extreme heights and slope angle, the weight limit is 10kg per person. I was carrying 22kg. Good training for the iron man I thought… Was it worth it? Up there I thought no way. Climbing down, quads aching, sliding through the soft ash, falling over and again eating dust, no way. Yet he following morning at 04h00 packing up to drive back to Nairobi I looked up from our campsite. There, 15km away in the starlight it stood in perfect photographic conditions, beckoning quietly to me. The dream was reignited. Pity I was 10 hours of climbing away from the top. 

My one photo of the inside of the crater before the cloud moved in.

 I’ll remember the first climb to Ol Doinyo Lengai for many years to come. I may not have got any usable photographs from the trip. But the love of photography my life that much more richer just by taking me there. And for that I am ever grateful to the medium. 

Masai Manyattas (huts) are dwarfed by Lengai in the background.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The magic of Svalbard and its polar bears

It is hard to describe a place that is just so foreign to any other place on earth. I have travelled to cold environments before. I did 3 winters in -20 C Switzerland and 21 days in northern Japan where the thermometer dropped down to -25 one morning, so it was not really about the cold. The main difference is that the other cold places I had visited were quite populated and near cities. Svalbard though, is something quite different. It is the northern most landmass on earth. North of it is nothing but ocean and ice- all the way to the North pole. So landing on Svalbard in golden sunlight at midnight is a sensation akin to landing on an expedition to a place that only scientists, hunters, trappers and wildlife photographers go to… In other words; crazy people that love the wild frontiers of this earth. Which is exactly what it is.
(Click on images to view in lightbox)

My reason to go to Svalbard was of course to see the artic wildlife with a high prioritty on the one of the worlds apex predators, but the island archipilego also offers way, way more than that. I researched the place very well. The first and most important aspect is your boat. I selected a boat that was small, had a shallow draft, the most experienced captain in the area, was ice class and could take only a small number of people. Why was I so selective? Well it allowed us to title our trip an 'expedition cruise': with no set daily itinerary like on the larger boats. We went and stayed where we wanted- photographing what caught our eye. The shallow draft allowed us to go to places no other boats could go. We could stay in the pack ice longer (home of the polar bear), going deeper into it than the other ships and our small group of people gave us flexibility for landings and excursions. 11 people all focussed on getting the best photographs that Svalbard had to offer. Perfect.

And what a smorgasbord of opportunities it offered us. Having the ability to determine our own course gave us amazingt freedom and we headed on walks where no maps had been written nor soundings been done… The term “Expedition” really comes to mind when you are walking on virgin land- having used the map to determine the photo potential. And what potential it offers! Polar bears may be a focus for many groups, but the walks we did were an amazing array of landscape photography, discovery and exploration.
Speaking of polar bears- we also did have some encounters with those. In fact, so close that they were climbing up against the ship! You quickly realise that the polar bear is the king of the icepack. The polar desert is a barren place- wide open and very white. So when a ship our size pulls up into a polar bear's area, the apex predator comes to inspect what this large hunk of metal is. Our best sighting (we had a few), was at 03:45 in the morning. We were at 82Deg North and in full golden light. I had stayed up since midnight watching out for a sign of movement amongst the white. At 03h00 we spotted one on the horizon, then two. She had a cub. Our Expedition leader said she would come to see us. Drawing on my experience of animals in other parts of the world I was very sceptical. Why would a mother and cub come to see us, a potential disturbance? Well, blow me down, she made a bee-line straight towards us, cub in tow. 45 minutes later everyone on the ship was awake and photographing like crazy as the bears inspected us, our ship and a beanie that inadvertently fell into the water. In no time at all the beanie was ripped apart- a gift to the polar Gods!
This is one such story which sums up the type of experiences you have up in such a magical place. We encountered reindeer, pure white arctic foxes 5m from us, glaciers in pink light at midnight, mist, rain, polar bears hunting walrus, fjords, landscapes from another planet and the holy grail of them all, lenticular clouds! My enthusiasm for lenticulars was a quite evident. So much so in fact that our Expedition leader had to calm me down a bit to say how common they are in Svalbard. This did not dimish my fervour for them…
Svalbard really is one of those places on earth that is like no other. If you don’t need to sleep, then it will have you busy with a camera all day and night long. Over the years I have come to know that a great trip constitutes me not knowing which excellent sighting fitted into which day. After ten days in Svalbard I didn’t know what my name was! The number, frequency and class of sightings were so high that all I knew was, “I cannot wait for 2013”. 

Join me in Svalbard 2013 for a photo expedition on the best vessel in Svalbard, excellent photography and more great fun on this wonderful part of the world. 

Friday, 23 November 2012

At the whim of the Masai Mara: 10 years on.

This year was my ten-year anniversary in the Masai Mara. In 2002, together with André Cloete, I was on a 7-month self-drive safari through Africa. We were on a mission to see Africa for ourselves and visit and photograph all the great game parks of Africa. It was the most wonderful times of my life and as we entered the gates of the Mara with another friend Michael Collins in the Landrover, the three of us immediately opened up a Tusker beer to celebrate. It was exactly as we had imagined- wide-open grass plains, more biomass than you could point a stick at, predators around every corner and lots of mud.
We camped on the sand river by ourselves. The rangers let us fish in the river, drive into the Tanzanian side (the Serengeti) and explore the area late at night. Ok, that was more because we got hopelessly lost. I had the best time of my life in the Mara because we were having about as much fun and adventure three bush boys could muster. 10 years later I am still returning to the Mara. I have travelled here now 22 times on different trips. Having traversed the whole ecosystem, I know where the best spots are and have selected one area in the Mara that has excellent sightings all year round. I don’t get lost anymore, I don’t get that stuck in mud that often and I know many of the animals around our camp individually by name and by nature. It feels like a second home to me. Each time I return I get the exact same feeling I have when returning to my own house. Even the nearest tributary river to our camp is the same name as our old farm in Kenya: Rongai. The biggest bonus is that there is a major crossing point right in front of our camp-, which means private crossings for my guests and me…
This year was like no other (isn’t each one?). Actually each year I get told by a ‘first-season visitor’ exactly how the season will pan out and where the crossings will be and why I am going there at the wrong time. I like hearing that and mostly I nod and smile. The Mara and the wildebeest are so dynamic that not one person can predict where and what will happen. Not even me who has been going there for 10 years and not even the locals who are born and live there. Each year is different and every time you think you may have the answer, the beasts do something completely different. Thus I choose to go in my time and enjoy he Mara for what it is. Of course I have my own little secrets, but personally, I love being at the whim of the Mara. Put me in a crossing and I’m happy, put me on the open plains without a vehicle in sight in the late afternoon and I am in heaven. The Mara just delivers time and again and its whims are foibles that clutch at your spirit. I, for one, am happy with that.
This year I did some of my own photo work in the Mara after which I had a personal adventure planned into some remote country to photograph a volcano. I had already spent 10 days in the Mara. Yet as I was about to leave there were masses of beasts building on the far riverbank. Masses in this instance means 200-300k of animals. Pepper dots sprinkled over the plains as far as the eye could see. And I was due to leave in a plane… in 90 minutes. I cancelled. There was no way in the world I could miss this- the mother of all crossings. I was at the whim of this beast and she kept me on the hook. It paid off. The plane landed and the beasts crossed. The next day they crossed again, in a fury that was unbounded. It took a lioness 2 strikes to stop the mass.
I departed the following day a tired man, a day shorter into my next adventure but again under the spell of the Mara. 10 years later, and I am still having the most wonderful time of my life, Had I got my shot? Not really. Did I escape my caprice? Never. But next year Ill be back. I have a whim…