Epic Crossing of the Mara River…The Great Migration

For decades, I have watched National Geographic and other documentaries about the Great Migration that occurs each year on the Serengeti. Always wanted to see it in person. Millions of animals…primarily wildebeests and zebras…seek water and fresh grasslands, as the seasons change in Tanzania…Eastern Africa. At one point, the Mara River must be crossed to get to the better grazing lands and water. This is the spot you have undoubtedly seen…where huge numbers of animals plunge off the side of the river embankments, into the water and onto the rocks and swim/run/walk across the river with giant crocodiles picking off the injured and swarms of vultures circle overhead…awaiting a meal. Once the survivors reach the other embankment, they have to find a way to scramble up the muddy, slippery, steep and highly congested trails to get to their promised land. Many fall backwards, back onto their fellow beasts and some right back into the water. And a few…a few find themselves completely uninjured, but hopelessly wedged between rocks in the river…unable to move despite their desperate efforts. It is just a matter of time before the crocs come for dinner and the vultures clean up what might be left.

In early October 2018, my wife and I participated in a photo safari that was designed to perfectly time our eleven days on safari so we could witness the Mara River crossing. The safari was a cooperative effort between Nature’s Best Photography magazine and Thomson Safaris. They did a perfect job on all aspects of the safari. The best part…despite many possible other outcomes…they did, indeed, put us at just the right spot at just the right time for an unbelievable 40 minute crossing of the Mara by tens of thousands of animals. When it was all over…I found myself unable to speak…I was completely choked up with emotion. Linda and I have never seen anything like it.

The animals are apparent for days before the crossing. You start noticing mile long columns of them slowly walking, and sometimes running, through the Serengeti…headed in the general direction of the Mara River. One morning I saw a line of them that reached as far as my eyes could see. Other times, we would encounter great herds of them grazing or slowly headed toward the river…herds of many thousand animals. Some herds were wildebeests only. Others were zebra only. Sometimes they were all mixed together. And you could see the problem…the water was drying up and the vegetation was eaten right down to the dirt. In fact, dust was a hallmark of these herds…big clouds of dust everywhere they went.

The morning we rolled up on the Mara…the animals had beaten us there. They were staged in groups that seemed to reach back to the horizon…they were everywhere, except in the water. Our guides explained that there may or may not be a crossing today. If there are too many crocs in the water…if the other tour operators were not careful to hide their vehicles in the bush until the crossing started…if…if…if…the crossing was not guaranteed. And then all hell broke loose. The sound hit us first…the sound of a stampede and of chaos. Clouds of dust filled the sky. I looked directly below me…and I mean directly below me…and saw a stampede going on along the ledge of the river…just ten feet below. Off to the right, the wildebeests were leaping maybe 15 feet from the ledge and into the river. The crossing was on…big time.

We positioned ourselves for relative safety and for a clear view of the action that was just in front of us. Hard to know what to photograph first. The line of animals formed into three lines of animals…each line several animals across and traveling as quickly as their legs could carry them through belly deep water. In one or two spots they had to cross the rocks that would end up trapping a few unlucky wildebeests. In a couple or more spots, they had to swim…but not for far…just enough to cause congestion and panic in the water. I don’t think I saw any animals taken by crocs that day…but who would know. The crocs could grab one and pull it underwater and no one would even notice in the commotion of the moment. I did see a croc go for one the next day…missed…and shut down and turned around another full crossing. The crocs looked very well fed and we did come across some carcasses of wildebeests down river…as yet untouched by croc or vulture.

I shot the whole event with a Canon 5D Mark 4 and a Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens. I had Sony A7R3 with me with a 70-200 lens and fired off a few frames with that as well, plus took one poorly shot video. The action was so fast and so compelling that I didn’t do much composing…just shot away at whatever got my attention. I did zero in on one spot where I noticed a ray of light that might fall upon a wildebeest lunging off the cliff…but it would have to be a super leap to hit that spot. So…I focused in on it and waited…and one star jumper hit that spot in midair. Bam…got my best shot of the whole safari…a single wildebeest in midair, spotlighted in sunlight, against a background of many other animals, dust, vegetation, shadows and river.

We saw strange things happen during the crossing. A number of animals made the full crossing…made it to safety…turned right around and crossed again to the original side. We saw animals standing fully on the backs of other animals. Heard sounds we have never heard. Saw chaos in it’s purest form. It was just plain amazing.

And then it came to a screeching halt. Just like it started…it stopped…in an instant. The river looked like nothing had ever happened there. The herds on both sides of the river moved away from the river. The crossing was over at that spot for now. We would try again tomorrow…with very little success. As mentioned, the crocs scared them off the next day and a couple of the tour vehicles kind of botched things up as well…a little too anxious to please their customers and may have spooked the herd. Our guys hid well back in the bush and waited patiently for the crossing that never really materialized that day.

So…a dream come true for us. Few things in life are more impressive than you think they might be…but this was one of them. In fact, the whole eleven days of photo safari was like that. I quietly told Linda at the end of day one that I had enough quality photos already that, if disaster struck and we had to go home tomorrow…I was good with it. Between the two of us, we took over 30,000 images on the safari…and one of them that I will think about until the day I die…a flying wildebeest jumping into the sunlight high above the Mara River.

Magical Encounter on the Road to Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

The road from Arusha International Airport toward Tarangire National Park is a long, straight, two-lane paved highway. The road can be congested in the daytime with cars, small motorcycles, people walking, vendors hawking, animal drawn carts and small herds of animals tended by one or two Maasai. In most places, there are either bare bones retail shops or vacant land…with dust everywhere. When you do encounter people in larger groups, they tend to be colorfully dressed and fully animated…except the shop keepers who seem to be mostly women sitting in front of the stores, looking dejected and bored while waiting for a customer. Open air food vendors seem to be everywhere…cooking corn or other staples on barbecue setups of all kinds. Young men sitting on small motorcycles are omnipresent…waiting for what…I do not know. Miles down that road, our off road vehicle turned abruptly onto a fairly rough dirt road and a few miles later we were at the entrance of Tarangire National Park…a huge park that is completely vacant of any development and filled with all the creatures that nature placed there…lions, elephants, leopards, giraffes, monkeys, gazelle and on and on…a first class safari land for adventure photographers or anyone else who wants to see what nature looks like up close and personal.

Midway along the road from Arusha, one of our party had to “check a tire”…code for “take a leak”. Our driver pulled over, looked around to see if the area looked safe from animals (we were now well out into the countryside or “the middle of nowhere” as I would normally call it) and pointed toward a bush. Our friend headed toward cover and we waited patiently…for about ten seconds. Out of nowhere, there was a knock on my car window. Caught me by surprise, as I saw no one there when we pulled up (my wife tells me she believes a car pulled up and four people got out when I was not looking). I noticed movement to my left…two men heading directly at our lady in the bushes. I started to jump out of the car on the left side to intervene…but the two men veered off in another direction. I then turned back to see who was knocking on my window. It was a tall, beautiful, young black lady. I pushed open my window and she said to me, in perfect English, “This is my son and he has always wanted to meet you.” I looked down, and there was her three year old, good looking, smiling son looking up at me. She then said that he wanted to shake my hand. There was no door on that side of the vehicle and I was a bit confused as to what was really going on…so I just leaned way out the window and shook the young mans hand. He got a huge grin on his face and got kind of emotional. He said something to his mom that I could not understand. As he looked back at me, she said “This is a bit embarrassing, but he would like to kiss you.” I leaned out again…even further this time…picked him up under his arms and raised him up to my level…and I then planted a big kiss on his forehead.

Once on the ground, the young man stepped back, smiled that big smile of his and gave me a double shaka. A shaka is a Hawaiian hand gesture that is kind of like a “thumbs up” in meaning….thumb pointed out, little finger pointed out…middle three fingers pulled into your palm and then the whole hand is shook back and forth…a very friendly greeting in Hawaii. It kind of dumbstruck me..it was the last kind of gesture I expected to see someone give me in Africa. At that, the young lady thanked me and said I made her son very happy and she wished me well. They moved off with the young man continuing to look back and wave at me.

There were four of us in the car and we all witnessed this event. We all went kind of silent, as the tire checker got back in the car and we prepared to drive off. Later I asked the driver if he had witnessed what had happened. He had and spoke briefly to her when they first showed up. He asked her if she was Maasai…as we were in the heart of Maasai territory and she did not look nor dress Maasai. She said she was not…that she had married a Maasai. The driver said this was extremely unusual…women from outside the Maasai community do not normally voluntarily sign up for the role a woman plays in Maasai life…because it can be a difficult role. But she had done so happily and lived nearby.

The driver knew nothing else about her. I told him what she said to me and he guessed that what she meant was “My son has always wanted to meet an old white guy.” He is probably right…but that is not what she said and it makes a better dream story in my head and in this writing if she said exactly what she meant. I asked him about the shaka. He said it was not a hand gesture used in that part of the world and he had never seen it used by a Maasai or anyone other than a few Hawaiian visitors such as ourselves. He too thought the whole encounter was dream like and highly unusual.

One last thing…as I put the young man back down on the ground after kissing him, I noticed a medical port in the back of his hand…the kind used to deliver intraveneous drugs. That gave me pause for thought. My first thought was concern for the young man…wonder what serious illness he is fighting (I have to say that he looks like he is winning that battle…what ever it is…because he looked great and perfectly healthy). My second thought was “What have I just exposed myself to?” Happy to say…it has been three weeks since that encounter and I am still healthy and still a bit confused by the whole episode with the lady and her son.

I wish…I wish I had not been so startled and had taken a few photos of her and her son and asked for their names. They asked me for nothing other than the interaction. They could not have been nicer. I would love to know their whole story and never will. And so, for the entire safari…in between photo ops…I ran the story over and over in my head until it has now developed into a book length story that I may or may not write. If I do, 99% of it will be fictional. The one percent that will be factual will be the words written in this blog…all real and all a mystery. My welcome to Tanzania…half a world away from my home in Hawaii…and one I will never forget.

Another Warning…Graphic Content…Lusty Lions in Four Photos

One afternoon on safari, we drove up on a male and female lion sleeping in the grass near a water hole. Our driver suspected something was going on and stayed longer than I expected. We were maybe ten feet away, so we were happy to take a few shots in hopes that one of them would get up and give us a pose. We got more than we hoped for…much more. The male lion got up and went directly to the female. Our driver said…”They are going to mate.” He got that right. No foreplay. No discussion. Just had at it. Quite the sight.

The whole act took about a minute. I was not all that impressed, nor was the female lion. However, the driver advised us that there would be a follow up performance in ten to twenty minutes…and that they would continue at that pace FOR DAYS. Now that IS impressive. Sure enough, about twenty minutes later, round two. Another quicky, but the female seemed a bit happier this time around.


I was determined on this trip to finally get at least on succinct and properly shot video…so I turned the camera to video mode and hit the button. I am the single worst videographer in the world, but I actually did a great job on the one minute video and figured out how to edit out the two second “out of focus” moment that I managed to do right in the middle of the action. My first ever decent video. Wish I had videoed round one…it ended in a huge roar from the male lion and that face you see in the second photo.

Caught two giraffes in the act later that day…that was also quite a sight. Aloha.

Warning….Graphic Content…Blood and Guts Lions Eating Lunch…In Four Photos

Linda and I rolled up on an amazing scene…two female adult lions with a fresh kill…a warthog. Kill is not exactly right…the warthog was still alive as it was being eaten. Made it pretty hard to watch. They had ambushed the warthog at a waterhole. One of them grabbed the warthog by the throat and choked it out. Good idea because the warthog has sharp tusks that can do a lot of harm…we saw the damage they can do on other lions during our safari.

The lions ate basically the whole back end of the warthog before they filled up. By the time they were done, their bellies looked like beer kegs. Waste not, want not…one of the lions walked off to get a drink of water and rest and the other was left with the task of dragging the carcass into the brush for later consumption. Good they protected the carcass because there were vulture on the killing ground within minutes picking at whatever had been left. We saw vultures clean up several carcasses during our safari…huge birds…20-30 at a time…tearing the animal to bits in no time.

Team coverage the scene by Linda and I. Difficult to witness…but part of the circle of life in the Serengeti.

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Full Speed Cheetah Chase…With A Twist…In Four Photos

Linda and I rolled up on an area where a cheetah was chasing a juvenile Hartebeest. We pulled out our cameras and started to shoot the scene in front of us…right in front of us. All of a sudden, everything changed. The chase for the small Hartebeest was abandoned and the tables were turned. The entire herd of Hartebeest went after the cheetah. The cheetah could normally outrun them all, but she was out of gas from the first chase. She cranked her speed up to about 70 miles per hour for just a few seconds and then started fading and fading and the Hartebeest closed in. I found myself torn as to who to root for, but really didn’t want to see any of the animals killed right in front of us. My camera held focus throughout the entire chase…save one critical frame…the frame where the Hartebeest darn near got the cheetah. Guess what…Linda caught that frame perfectly and you will see it in the attached photos. In the end, the Hartebeest veered off and let the cheetah escape by it jumping into a nasty looking thorn tree…well up off the ground and not an area where either animal would voluntarily go…the cheetah hated it, but it saved her life.

I went back and looked at the time on my camera. From start of sequence to first shot in the thorn tree…just 15 seconds. In those 15 seconds, maybe 300 yards were covered…blinding speed at first and then…not so much. One lucky cheetah.

Hurzeler’s Visit Africa

The walls of our galleries on the Big Island are mostly filled with Hawaiian subjects…customers come into see Hawaii and that is what we want to provide for them. However, we do travel and we take our cameras along. As I write this blog, CJ is in Mongolia and we just got back from Tanzania, Kenya, and Europe. Linda and I took some 30,000 images during our photo safari of eleven days in the bush. We will probably end up with just two of those images on the walls of our galleries, but will make good use of the others in our online gallery and with a possible book. And…we can not wait to see what CJ brings home. His last trip to Mongolia he brought back absolutely amazing images.

When you get a chance, take a look at our new Africa gallery on this website. It is in the larger gallery of Images from Around the World. Linda and I think the photos of some of our best ever due to the unique subject matter and conditions that allowed us to get up close and to shoot at low ISO with great gear. We’ve only posted a few here, but will be thinking about how we can post maybe 150 or so for those who are curious. The diversity we encountered was beyond our expectations.

In the coming days, I will feature a photo or two from that trip in new blogs…giving some of the story of what we saw and how we managed to get the shot.

So thankful for our successful trip to Africa and so very happy to be back home. Aloha.

New Commercials for Lava Light Galleries

If you live on the Big Island…you have probably heard our old commercials way too many times. Why…because we are too lazy to change them. However, we got a burst of energy and cut some new radio commercials…one voiced by Linda, two by me…with a few more to come. Here are the first ones. I’m guessing that this will not be a something that everyone is going to spend two minutes or so doing…but it is nice to have them here so we can play them for relatives and others who can not get out of having to hear them. Aloha.