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Posted December 9, 2011
Dispatch #7
Hard Lessons, Hard Choices

This is one in a series of email dispatches from Africa written this fall by photographer Michael Nichols to his picture editor, Kathy Moran.

Photo: A storm approaches
“The rains bring skies to the Serengeti that literally can take your breath away.”

Dear Kathy,

It rained hard again at sunset, so again we missed being able to call you and Chris [Chris Johns, the Editor in Chief]. We are in a pattern of incredible sunset storms. This storm light is extraordinary, the stuff of Serengeti fantasy.

I learned another hard lesson today. The last two days we have been trying to do a flight test with the micro-copter, using elephants as subjects. I suspect they will tolerate it as if it were a huge mechanical tsetse fly. We drove west along the river to an elephant paradise we discovered in our scouting. This took us out of the open plains where the light is so magnificent. Yesterday we aborted the flight. The storm hit us just as we were ready to start.

Today we saw a huge mass of wildebeests cross the river, but could not get in a spot to make good images. I watched the back of literally thousands of heads dive into the water.

After this we returned to camp, picked up the micro-copter, headed for the elephants, and found four big males in beautiful light eating an acacia tree they had pushed over. Below them—the wild Mara River—just the setting for an aerial view from the portable, remote-controlled helicopter.

I could tell Nathan was excited. He has invested many months learning to fly and field-repair this complex piece of technology. I drove us into position above the elephants and we quickly prepared all the tools required to make this work—a computer to monitor the battery level, video goggles to see what the small camera mounted on the copter sees, and finally the little six-bladed machine.

Nathan fired it up, lifted into the air, and it immediately ran away, went out of control, and crashed into the grass uphill from us.

A complex piece of technology! In his excitement, Nathan made it take off in autopilot and the thing’s brain was amiss and we lost control. Nathan is perfectly capable of flying and takeoff but decided to trust the machine over himself. Ha! A hard lesson that will be costly in time and money.

I missed the light again, letting the hope of what the micro-copter will later allow me to do in photographing lions get in the way of my instincts and experience, which screamed: Take what this place is giving!

A hard lesson.

Previous Next dispatch: “Last of the Breed”

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