"You know you are truly alive when you're living among lions." - Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), "Out of Africa"
In Africa, the night is full of voices.
Allan Studer takes a moment to get into character. The sound he makes begins as a low grumble and swells to rhythmic chuffing, like Morse code transmitted by a distant steam engine.
"The Africans say what the lion's saying is 'This land, this land, is mine-mine-mine,'" says Studer, who runs Tenderfoot Safaris from his home in Divide. Studer does his animal impressions - hyena, lion, zebra - the first night the group spends in the East African wilds, after clients have gathered around the fire.
"I tell them they're going to start hearing night sounds," he says. "The staff always get a big kick. They think the 'mzungo' are crazy anyway."
A history major, substitute teacher and former museum curator, the 68-year-old Studer got into the photo safari business unexpectedly, after his former wife bought him a two-week trip to Tanzania in 1996. Studer was surprised to find the experience "absolutely transformative" and oddly familiar, enough so to get him thinking terms such as genetic memory.
"We can't have had hundreds of thousands of years of experience as part of the food chain and have no residual instinct," Studer says.
The contrast between Western life and that in the bush brought things into focus for the nature buff, who'd once dreamed of becoming a park ranger.
"The amount of wildlife is overwhelmingly inspiring, and I'm in their world. I have neither fang nor claw nor am I fleet of foot. If I got out of the vehicle and the driver left me out there, there's a good chance I'm not going to see the sunrise," Studer says. "You're not going to get that in Italy."
A tenderfoot is a novice, someone who's new to something. That's exactly what Studer was when he organized his first photo safari a year after his inaugural African trip, leading a small group of travelers to Kenya, a country he never had visited.
"I was scared to death, but it worked," says Studer, who did research about the nation and its parks, travel options and accommodations to construct a two-week itinerary that took clients across hundreds of miles of the Maasai Mara National Reserve for up-close shots of leopards, lions, hippos and hyenas. Bookings are handled by an outside agency.
Groups are small, usually five to eight people; travelers stay in lodges and upscale tent camps tailored for Western travelers and cruise the plains in Land Rovers with pop-up roofs, logging hundreds of miles and thousands of photographs.
"Africa is huge. You could fit the U.S., China, Europe and still have 168,000 square miles left over," Studer says. "It's fun to see people see their first elephant, to watch the transformation happen in them."
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"No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal. The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it." - Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), "Out of Africa"
Studer is a self-taught student of Africa, especially the animals found on the great plains and in the national parks of Kenya and Tanzania, where roughly 30 percent of the land is reserved for game sanctuaries and parks.
Much of his knowledge, he's gained the hard way - in the field.
"Never, never let the monkeys get in your tent. They will run riot, get into everything, open suitcases. They will throw everything around. They will go to the bathroom everywhere. You may see a monkey tearing across the lawn with a pair of underwear on its head," Studer says. "But seriously, you always have to be careful. You have to make sure the tent is zipped all the way down."
Did you know that a male lion can eat 50 to 60 pounds in a sitting?
Or that, spread out, an elephant's ears span about 9 feet? And, if an elephant raises his ears in that manner, it means you're too close.
"We had one stare right at us and take two charging steps toward the vehicle as a warning," Studer says. "Every game drive is an adventure."
In November, Studer returned from a 13-day trip to Kenya, his 10th photo safari. A safari to Tanzania is planned for 2014.
Sue Wear of Colorado Springs was among the Kenya group.
"We took a hot air balloon ride and were standing in a field waiting at dawn. Since we were at the equator, on one side of the field the moon was going down and on the other side of the field the sun was rising," Wear says. "That was just ... oh my goodness. I just never thought I'd see that."
The group also came upon a rare black rhino, considered a critically endangered species.
"There are only 15 in the area, and we got to see one," Wear says.
Wear and her tentmate, a woman from Woodland Park, became friends. After returning home, the Front Range members of the group got together to share the thousands of photos they'd taken.
"Alan trained us to watch for animals, where to look and when," said Wear, who snapped more than 600 photos before her camera broke. "I'm in awe that I got to go. The beauty of Africa is something I never imagined."