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George-Ann Maxson, left, wearing an African necklace with carved animals, and her husband, Steve, right, are both wildlife biologists who had the trip of a lifetime on their photo safari in Kenya. Patt Rall | Bemidji Pioneer

A Kenyan photo safari

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entertainment Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

BEMIDJI – Not even the rain and cold winds could keep the audience at home Tuesday when wildlife biologists George-Ann and Steve Maxson told of their photo adventure.

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The Maxsons recently returned from a two week trip to Africa, the trip of a lifetime for wildlife biologists, and shared only a smaller number of their 18,000 photos. Homeschoolers to seniors sat in rapt attention during the most recent Adventures in Lifelong Learning speaker series – the last of this semester – while the Maxsons gave their “A Photo Safari to Kenya” talk.

Steve retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as its wildlife biologist for waterfowl in March 2006. He received his bachelor and master degrees at the University of Minnesota, and a doctorate in biology from the University of North Dakota. George-Ann graduated from Carleton College with a geology degree and met her future husband, Steve, while both were studying for their master’s degree in biology.

They have been married for 37 years and have two adult daughters, one of whom is an entomologist. All this background gives credence to their statement that the guides were not as knowledgeable as they about the wildlife in Africa.

The Maxsons flew from Bemidji to Minneapolis to board an overnight flight to Amsterdam, where they boarded the final leg by Kenyan Air to Nairobi, a bustling modern city with slums at the outskirts. They stayed at a hotel with all the amenities of Victorian England. Kenya outlawed big game (lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo and rhinoceros) hunting in 1977 so the safaris today are much simpler because there are no trophies to be sent home to mount on the game room wall.

However, there are wood carvings of game that can be bought at local co-ops by tourists if they still want a “trophy” animal to send home. Ebony is highly prized and difficult to carve because it is a very dense wood. Native craftspeople do the initial carvings which are then sent to groups like the Nanyuki Woodcarvers, who use files to finish the figure and then the ebony is polished to a high sheen. Lesser woods like rosewood and teak are also used for carvings.

“How do you get those carvings home,” someone in the audience asked. With a smile, George-Ann let the audience know that credit cards are accepted everywhere, even at the most remote village shop. The shop owners just access the credit card companies on their cell phones, which are universally used; landlines are almost non-existent in the country.

“This was the trip of a lifetime, especially for wildlife biologists,” said George-Ann. “The trip was very physical for we went out from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (dawn to dusk) in vehicles that housed three photographers, one driver and one guide. We stood up in the vehicles while we drove through the parks and were not allowed out of them except for one time at a lake.”

George-Ann also said the tour groups were kept in this “plastic bubble” which prevented any interaction with the locals. The drivers went to talk with other drivers during a rest stop and others were too busy working to just chat a bit. Coca Cola has the national pop concession in Kenya so the red signs are seen everywhere. One crafter was seen sitting on an old, red Coca Cola container.

The Maxsons filled their nylon bags with rice, others used beans, to use as tripods and set off on their adventure by Land Rover and 12-seater planes as they toured Kenya’s national parks: Amboseli, Samburu, Lake Nakuru and Masai Mara.

There were many international tourists on various photo safaris and the equipment ran from the simple “point and shoot” digitals to top of the line cameras with foot-long telephoto lenses. George-Ann said 90 percent of the photos they showed were taken with her point and shoot camera. She also noted she took many shots that others did not see because they were so intent on getting just the right angle.

Out in the wilderness, the vehicles are largely ignored by wildlife, which see the machines as just another beast. Because they are wildlife biologists, the Maxsons were actually more conversant with the sub-species within a particular specimen. For example, they showed pictures of the tall reticulated giraffe most often seen in zoos, the very rare smaller Rothchild and the still smaller Masi with muddy brown spots. A video of vultures pecking at the bones of a wildebeest already devoured by Lions or Jackals brought sighs from the audience.

Steve will be showing his pictures at an upcoming presentation to be held at the Bemidji Library in early December.

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