The Trip of a Lifetime – with Don Hurzeler

Written by Don Hurzeler
wildebeest jumps into mara river tanzania

My wife and I are seasoned (that means about 70 years of age), professional adventure photographers who have visited over 100 countries. We’re spoiled rotten when it comes to travel. We like unique travel and seek opportunities to see things few people see, with an expert or two alongside us. We want to feel safe and comfortable in our travels and well taken care of along the way.

serengeti landscape with clouds

The biggest thing missing on our list of things we wanted to experience was an African safari. We knocked that one off the list this year, with the impressive help of Thomson Safaris. I will leave it to them to explain the services they provide, but they were just plain perfect for what we wanted to do.

Our trip took us to Tanzania for 11 days in Tarangire and the Serengeti along the Mara River. I have never seen so much wildlife in a natural setting, with huge numbers and great diversity – birds, big animals, monkeys, reptiles and the oddest trees I have ever seen.

lilac breasted roller catching prey

We were in vehicles that were built for off-road conditions and perfect for photographers or anyone wanting to see things up close and personal. Alongside us was Craig Sholley of the African Wildlife Foundation and various experienced local guides – all there to make sure we saw what there was to see, understood what we were seeing and stayed safe in the process.

During our time in the bush, we went out twice a day on safari. Every single time we went out, we scored something surprising and interesting. One morning we found a family of lions within ten minutes of our camp. Another morning we encountered a cheetah chasing a hartebeest, and then the herd of hartebeests turned on the cheetah and nearly ran him down right in front of us.

cheetah chases hartebeests in tanzania

closeup of a lion
We saw a leopard bound up a tree like it was on flat land, an elephant shake a tree so hard the nuts fell out for him to eat and two lions kill and eat a warthog, which is hard to imagine because a warthog is a very tough and dangerous looking animal. Giraffes walked right by our vehicle and looked inside to see if we were friend or foe. One afternoon we came across a water hole with hundreds of resting hippos.

We never had an uneventful excursion; they were all off the charts.

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As a kid, I watched adventure travel shows on TV and elsewhere, and they created a couple of imagined images that I have carried in my head for decades, shots I wanted to get during my lifetime, two in particular.

One was of the Mara River Great Migration Crossing, where thousands of wildebeests, zebras and other animals dive off a riverside cliff into a croc-infested river to try to make it to the other side where they find food and water for part of the year. The other shot I had imagined was of elephants walking in the trees with an orange African sunset directly in front of them. Happy to say, I scored both on this trip.

Even though we timed the trip to maximize our chances of seeing a Mara River crossing, there was no guarantee that it would happen as planned. So, one morning we headed out from camp and noticed tens of thousands of animals all heading for the river in lines that stretched for miles. We headed for the river ourselves and found thousands more all grouped at the river’s edge. All that was needed was for one of them to take a leap and show the others the way. Our guide hid our vehicle behind a bush, shut off the engine and the wait began. We did not have to wait long.

wildebeest kick up dust near mara river

Within a couple of minutes, we could hear the commotion and see the dirt up in the air. The herd was on the move. Our driver rushed us up to the cliff, and we could not believe our eyes – complete chaos. Wildebeests stampeded behind the vehicle, in front of the vehicle, ten feet below us on a ledge and on a cliffside just a few hundred feet in front of us. Within moments, we were positioned so we could see them leaping from the cliff to the river and landing on the water, each other and the rocks. The noise was intense. We could feel their panic. They seemed to fully understand they could be swept away or wedged between rocks or grabbed by a HUGE croc. Thousands of animals crossed in three big lines over the next forty minutes.

lines of herds cross the mara river

When the lucky ones reached the other side (and happy to say there were few casualties during this crossing) there was more chaos. The other side was steep and slippery and crowded beyond belief with wildebeests and zebras. Watching them claw their way up the cliffside was just amazing.

wildebeest herd crossing mara river

And then it stopped. It came to an absolute halt, not a single animal in the water. That was it for the day. Next to me was my wife and next to her was one of the world’s great wildlife and landscape photographers, Jeff Vanuga.

Jeff said to me, “What did you think of that crossing?” I said, “I can’t talk,” and I couldn’t; I was completely choked up with emotion. This had been one of the great moments of my life.

 

I captured that image I had imagined decades ago and had been carrying in my head ever since, exactly as imagined.

The image featured a wildebeest jumping off a cliff, through a beam of light that only really illuminated that single wildebeest. So, once I got over my initial frenzy of shots when we first arrived, I took a moment to look for a beam of light and found it. I set my telephoto on that beam and waited for a wildebeest to leap directly through the light, and one did immediately. I could not believe my luck.

wildebeest jumps into mara river tanzania

Another evening, Jeff, my wife and I rolled up on a herd of elephants in some trees with the sun setting in front of them, an orange African sun. We all knew what we had instantly and started taking photos. Scored again.

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I would love to hear what epic things you have seen on your safaris or hope to see on a safari in the future. Drop me an email at djhzz@aol.com. I really would like to hear from you.

For those of you who have not been on safari and are wondering if you can do this… YOU CAN DO THIS. Our group was a seasoned group, and we did it. All the things that I had thought might be a problem were anticipated by the folks at Thomson Safaris and taken care of. I felt no more “in danger” than I do on a day at the beach here at our home in Hawaii. The food was good, the accommodations terrific and the support we got from start to finish was world class.

Best trip of our entire lives…and we have been on a few. Aloha and happy travels.

don and linda on flight to sernegeti

Don Hurzeler and his wife Linda traveled on safari with us on a special African Wildlife Foundation, Nature’s Best Photography adventure in September 2018. They own Lava Light Galleries, along with their partner, C.J. Kale. The galleries are located in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and Waikoloa, Hawaii… on the Big Island. You can see their images and read more about their trip at lavalightgalleries.com.

Don is also an author and his newest book, Smells Like Retirement, is available on Amazon and Kindle books and at donhurzeler.com