Maasai Mara: Day 2 of 7

Our second day in the Maasai Mara began nice and early, with a 5am rise after a fantastic first night roughing it in a luxurious tent at Elephant Pepper Camp, during which we heard lions roaring in the night, and hyenas becoming excited.  The night was filled with all manner of exotic wildlife noises, and at one point I got up to peek outside to see if I could see anything.

We quickly got ready, as our first morning game drive was awaiting us.  Once we were ready to leave the tent, we flashed and waved a bright torch into the night sky to signal our Maasai security guard to escort us to the camp fire.

Our tent was right on the outer edge of the camp, a good 220 metres from the safety of the lounge, dining room and camp fire.  When it’s dark, all guests must be escorted by armed Maasai, as dangerous wildlife roams throughout the camp.

After a five-minute trek through the bush, we settled around the camp fire for a short time and a hot drink before we made our way to Francis and the 4WD.  We headed out before the other guests, as we had plans for some dawn and sunrise landscape photography.

Our first stop of the morning was quite close to camp, at a magnificent acacia tree on the savannah, where a moody sky greeted us before the sun rose over the distance horizon.  I jumped out of the vehicle, rigged up and shot this image:

The Moody Mara Plains

The Moody Mara Plains

Overnight and earlier in the morning, there had been some rain, which threatened our photographic chances, but paradoxically enhanced them.

What a fantastic sky.  I rarely ever see skies like this at home, and instead have to travel many thousands of kilometres to another continent to photograph a decent sky.  I can tolerate it…

Barely seven minutes after photographing the acacia tree, we encountered the Cheli pride of lions!  I counted at least 10 or 11 lions (of the 23-strong pride), and I shot video as they strolled right past the front of the 4WD.  There were two or three young adult females, and the rest were cubs of varying ages.

I shot a few images of the pride in the soft, low morning light.  Here’s a view of one of the cute cubs:

Cuteness Factor

Cuteness Factor

We spent less than ten minutes with the Cheli Pride, before heading south-west in the Mara North Conservancy, where 20 minutes later, we stopped to view and photograph a solitary African white-backed vulture high on a perch.

We had seen vultures in South Africa, but as they’re typically perched at the top of large trees to afford them a great view of the territory, they can be difficult to photograph.  This time I had 800mm of focal length, and I managed to land a decent image of the vulture, despite the dull light that had set in by this time.

Vulture Vigilance

Vulture Vigilance

We spent five minutes with the vulture before departing in a north-westerly direction, very roughly towards Leopard Gorge, which lies directly west of the spot where we found the vulture.

Ten minutes later we encountered a pair of grey crowned cranes.  These medium-to-large, magnificently plumed birds mate for life, and are rarely separated.  The grey crowned crane is the national bird of Uganda.  I captured a few images before we carried on, this time in a south-westerly direction, heading directly towards Leopard Gorge, where a surprise awaited us.

Along the way, we spotted a buffalo bull, so we stopped briefly to grab a few shots as he grazed not too far from our ultimate destination.

Less than fifteen minutes later, we arrived at Leopard Gorge, a fantastic gorge south-west of the camp.

A young male leopard had been spotted in an elephant pepper tree on the east end of the gorge.  This was our first leopard encounter on this trip, and the excitement was bubbling.

The young male was high up on the tree, which had a thick canopy, thus making photography very challenging.  A combination of low light, longer-than-desirable distance and thick foliage made photography very difficult indeed.

We inched forward here and there, and soon enough, I was in the best position to photograph the young male chui (Swahili for leopard) looking straight at me, with his face unobscured by leaves from the elephant pepper tree.

Here is the image I captured, which would be the subject of some fierce debate between Mario and I.

Leopard of the Day

Leopard of the Day

So, why was this image the subject of fierce debate?

Frankly, I wasn’t happy.  The image was shot from too far away, which wasn’t at all something we could control; it was shot at higher-than-comfortable ISO setting, which made me uncomfortable due to the noise; and lastly, the leopard was semi-hidden amongst thick, busy and unsightly foliage.

In the Timbavati, I had been fortunate enough to capture leopards from much closer positions, and in much more open locations.  This made for frame-filling, clean, blurry background-laden images with little distracting subject matter.  The bar had been raised high on that first trip, and I was hungry for more images like that.

This location, however, was more than suitable for the young cat, but not so great for me!

Mario was adamant that it was a stunning image, worthy of being published on 500px, where I only publish my better images rather than all of my images.  I maintained that “good enough” was not good enough, and vocally expressed my displeasure at the busy appearance of the image.  I didn’t like the foliage and general clutter, but I did like the leopard.

It took me days before I started to relent and grow fond of the image.  By all accounts, I was the only photographer who captured anything remotely like this, and everyone who saw the image was seriously impressed by it.  Two or three other 4WDs were also at the gorge (we weren’t first on the scene), but they were too late and ill-positioned, as the leopard very quickly disappeared into the scrub, and emerged at the top of the gorge.

The gorge is very difficult to navigate, and it takes a good ten minutes to get from the inside to the top.

We watched the faint sights of the leopard for a few minutes before speeding off at 3km/h to get to the other side, where we might see him again.

Indeed, we did see him again, but he was quite obscured by the long grasses in which he sat.  A combination of long grass and ugly, manky rocks behind him made photography unappealing and less than useful.

Annoying foliage and visual obstructions abounded.  Welcome to the world of wildlife photography.

Our young male chui rolled around and yawned for a little while before he headed back into the thicket.  That meant we had to descend into the gorge again in an attempt to find him.  We never did, but we knew he was there… somewhere.  After doing our best to find him to no avail, we left the gorge, but not before capturing a few images of a hammerkop on a rock inside the gorge.

Here’s another view of the young chui, ever-so-cutely looking to his left as he sat in the elephant pepper tree:

Leopard in a Tree

Leopard in a Tree

We made the slow exit from Leopard Gorge and headed north-west towards camp.  Along the way, we spotted a zebra, and soon after, an eland.  We had seen eland in South Africa, but as this large antelope was out on the open plains, we stopped for a few photographs, by which time it had started to rain lightly.

Eland at Rest

Eland at Rest

Seven minutes later, as we meandered closer to camp, it was still raining, but a small sliver of intensely bright red colour on the plains attracted our attention.

It was a rosy-breasted longclaw, sitting on a dead branch in the savannah as the rain continued to fall.  We stopped to photograph this beautiful but small bird, and the result was pleasing.  Indeed, I had some very pleasing bird encounters on this trip.

Rosy-Breasted Longclaw in the Rain

Rosy-Breasted Longclaw in the Rain

He was located very close to where we encountered the 10 or 11 Cheli Pride lions earlier in the drive.

We soonafter stopped not far away from the longclaw to watch and photograph a few elephants, but breakfast was beckoning, so we headed back to camp.

What an amazing morning drive, with some amazing big cat sightings, and another ‘first’ of many on this trip: a leopard in a tree.

Mario and I continued to argue over the merits of my leopard images, but I was stubbornly dissatisfied, and we parked the issue while we processed images, checked online happenings and attempted to laze around at camp before our next game drive.

At around 4pm we headed out into the plains again in search of whatever would come next.

Not far south from the camp, we encountered a pair of cubs from the Cheli Pride.  We stopped and photographed them, but the long grasses didn’t make for great photography, so we left them to continue, veering off sharply in a south-westerly direction towards Leopard Gorge, where we thought we’d try our luck and see if our young male leopard was still there.

About three quaters of the way to Leopard Gorge, we encountered grey crowned cranes again.  They may have been the same pair we encountered earlier in the morning, as at this most recent sighting, it was not far north-east of where we had spotted them earlier.

This time the photographic opportunities were much better, and I landed some very crisp, clean shots of these amazing birds, opting for the 800mm focal length to produce frame-filling images with the backgrounds blurred to oblivion.

I firstly opted for a tight profile in landscape orientation.

Grey Crowned Crane

Grey Crowned Crane

Then I rotated the lens and captured the entire crane standing high on a branch.

Crowning Around

Crowning Around

We then continued our journey in search of a mighty big cat.  For some inexplicable reason, we headed north-west, which took us away from Leopard Gorge.  We did encounter a herd of Cape buffalo, which we photographed before getting back on track to reach Leopard Gorge.

We had high hopes of seeing our leopard again, but he was elusive, as leopards tend to be.  We figured out he was somewhere in the trees, but after much recon we could not spot him, or any signs that he was around.

Our inability to find him was soon easily explained when a large male lion from the Cheli Pride made his presence known.  We were looking for a big cat, and found one — it was just not the cat we expected!  What a pleasant surprise.  If the leopard was around, he was hiding and would not be found, as a large male lion in his home range would almost certainly kill him — big cats don’t like other species of big cats, and indeed, often don’t like other members of their own species either.

The Cheli male was sitting magestically in the grass when we first found him.  He rolled around, shaked his head, and soon headed right past us, towards a distant tree, where he had a scratch.

Once we saw the lion rear up against the tree, the machine gun-like fire of camera shutters dominated the sounds of the Mara.

Scratching Post

Scratching Post

Yet another ‘first’ was experienced — in fact, two firsts: our first Mara male lion, and our first sighting of a lion scratching a tree trunk.  He made up for the elusive leopard’s lack of presence.

But the magic show wasn’t over yet.  Another large Cheli Pride male — his brother — soon emerged from the plains surrounding the gorge.

Here is a shot of the large Cheli male approaching us to join his brother, who had returned from his scratching post:

On Approach

On Approach

Wow.  What a beautiful lion.  And what a great sight it was to see two large Mara males uniting and bonding, as they were soon to do.

The males greeted, re-bonded, groomed, rolled around and lazed before the time would come for these two males to get into the serious business of being male lions in the Mara wilderness.

Even at the top of the food chain, a male lion is never safe, as there is no shortage of younger nomadic males willing to challenge a pride protector in an effort to take over the pride, kill the cubs and then start his own family.  I only hope our boys here are still safe.

Surveying

Surveying

Spending time in the company of two magnificent Mara males from the Cheli Pride was a perfect way to end our first full day in the Mara.  We soon left these big boys to their business and headed off for a sundowner before returning to camp, where there were plenty of stories to tell as we joined Patrick and Sophie and a few other guests at the dining tent for some satisfying northern Italian food.

Stay tuned for day three of our Maasai Mara aventure, in which more big cat action was to be experienced.

Maasai Mara: Day 1 of 7

On the morning of the 5th of June, 2015, we awoke in our hotel room in Nairobi, and began preparing for a big day ahead: we were heading to the Mara North Conservancy, which is part of the larger Maasai Mara ecosystem in south-western Kenya.

Our seven-day photographic wildlife safari was soon to begin, but beforehand, we met Mario for breakfast in the restaurant, and soon afterwards, packed and prepared for pickup from the Boma Hotel.

Much of the morning’s discussion concerned the logistics of lugging large, bulky and heavy camera equipment, as we knew we were limited in the amount of weight we could carry, and that we’d be flying on small aircraft.

Once we arrived at Wilson Airport, we passed through security screening and headed to the Airkenya lounge.  Fortunately we had no issues getting our gear through.  We were early, but soon enough we would take a 45-minute flight westward for the Mara North Conservancy.

Some time after 11am, we landed on Mara Shikar Airstrip, which is located close to the southern bank of the Mara River.  We were greeted by Francis, who would be our guide and driver for the next seven days.

We then began a 40-minute drive south to Elephant Pepper Camp, a luxurious, eco-friendly, semi-permanent and self-sufficient camp located in a secluded, X-shaped cluster of elephant pepper trees in the north part of the conservancy.

Along the way, we encountered Thomson’s gazelle, zebra, eland and giraffe.  I captured some images, but the light was harsh, which doesn’t make for good wildlife photography.  Of these plains game, only the Thomson’s gazelle was new to us, as we had seen the others in South Africa.

Forty minutes later we arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, where we were greeted by Patrick, one of the managers of the camp.  We were soon taken to our tent, which was one of the two large tents on either end of the camp, designated for families or honeymoons.

Here is a view of what became our home for the next six nights and seven days:

Elephant Pepper Camp's Honeymoon Tent

Elephant Pepper Camp’s Honeymoon Tent

What a tough time it would be.  We would have to tolerate a king-sized bed, flush toilet, running water, double basins, a hot, running-water shower, beautiful British colonial campaign furniture, views of the Mara plains, absolute serenity, and the sounds of Kenya’s wildlife roaming about during the night.  I would appreciate some sympathy from readers.

After settling into our tent, we headed back to the lounge and dining area of the camp, where we were given a proper induction, and advised that after dark we would be escorted throughout the camp by Maasai tribesman to protect us from dangerous wildlife.

Other than the resident staff and four Kenyan medical students, we were the only guests at the camp on the first day.  The season had only commenced, but more guests would be coming and going in the following days.

Soon after the briefing and the ever-important paperwork, we sat down to a delicious lunch with Patrick and Sophie, followed by a short rest before we would head back out into the wilderness for an afternoon/evening game drive.

At about 3:30pm, after climbing into our open-sided, canopied 4WD, we headed out into the plains in search of wildlife.  It didn’t take long before we encountered an elephant bull grazing in the semi-long grass.  There had been a lot of rain in the Mara in the week prior to our arrival, so the plains were lush and green.

Minutes later, our first feeling of excitement hit us as we encountered a lioness and a cub.  We are lovers of the big cats of Africa, and to see a lioness and a cub on the first day was a pleasing start.  It was one of many “firsts” for us, as we had not seen a lion cub in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve when we first visited Africa.

This lioness and her cub are part of the Cheli Pride, a large, 23-member (give or take) dominant pride in the Mara North Conservancy, named after Stefano and Liz Cheli, the owners of Elephant Pepper Camp and other eco-lodges in Africa.

Here is a view of the Cheli lioness basking in the afternoon sun:

Lioness on the Savannah

Lioness on the Savannah

We would most likely see this particular lioness several more times during the trip, as little did we know at the time, but we would encounter lions on every single day of our time in the Mara. The Cheli Pride would appear on numerous occasions, and we would also encounter the River Pride and the Double-Crossing Pride.

When I first reviewed this image, I was very happy with it, but Mario told me that in the days to come, I would have encounters and capture images which would surpass this.  Of course, he was right.  I still like this image, though, and it does contribute to the story, as it was our first lion encounter, and our first Cheli Pride encounter.

Here is one of the Cheli cubs, looking very cute:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

After spending a bit more time in the company of these fantastic Cheli Pride cats, we headed off, spotting a young topi adult along the way, before we arrived at a place which would bring me one of my most pleasing images of the trip.

As we drove along in search of whatever would find us, Mario spotted a pied kingfisher, repeatedly hovering up and down in a single spot.  We stopped, and I grabbed my lens to prepare to shoot.

I shot only two frames of the kingfisher in flight, and to my astonishment, I landed this image in the very first frame:

Suspended

Suspended

Photographing birds in flight — particularly small birds –takes a lot of skill and luck, and in my case, it was more luck than skill.  I still do not know how I managed to land a sharp shot with very little effort, but I’m sure glad I had the opportunity, as the image has a surreal feel about it, and from a technical viewpoint, was not easy to achieve, particularly as I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which isn’t by any stretch of the imagination the most suitable choice of camera for action.

We then continued on our drive, encountering another elephant bull before stopping to view and photograph a lilac-breasted roller.  We had seen these birds in South Africa, but it was very fitting to see one in the Maasai Mara, as it is the national bird of Kenya.

The roller was close to us, was perched on a nice branch, and was bathed in beautiful afternoon sunlight, all of which made for excellent photography.

Here is one of the images I captured of our first Kenyan lilac-breasted roller:

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Lilac-Breasted Roller

After we were finished photographing the roller from different positions and at different focal lengths, we continued our drive, and shortly after, encountered more elephants in a breeding herd.

Plenty of photographic opportunities existed in the soft light of the early evening, and I captured quite a few images, including one of a somewhat isolated elephant in the distance, with the plains and clusters of trees in the distance.

Giant Grazer

Giant Grazer

As night was soon descending, we headed off for a sundowner and a landscape shot at sunset.

We jumped out of the vehicle after several hours of sitting, and Francis prepared for our sundowner, where some nero d’avola and crisps were enjoyed as we shot our first sunset, depicting a lone acacia tree on the plains of the Mara.

Mara Sunset

Mara Sunset

We then headed back to Elephant Pepper Camp, where a fantastic Northern Italian dinner awaited us, and where the night concluded with great food, great wine, great company, and great stories to tell about our first day in a truly magical place.

Stay tuned for the adventures of our second day in the Mara.

Back from an Amazing Trip in the Maasai Mara

It’s hard to believe it’s been less than a week since our intense and amazing wildlife safari in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, but we have safely returned home, a long way — both physically and mentally — from where we were just a week ago.

Due to time constraints and a backlog of images to process, I didn’t update this blog much during the trip, but in the near future I plan to provide a day-by-day summary of the wildlife viewing and cultural experiences we enjoyed, along with photographic highlights.

I have published quite a few images so far, but there are many more to go.  In the mean time, they can be viewed on Xenedis Photography, on Flickr and on 500px.

Please stay tuned for some proper accounts of our adventures.

First Day in the Maasai Mara

Yesterday we departed Nairobi and took a 40-minute flight to the Mara North Conservancy, where we will spend the next week surrounded by wildlife, and where our early mornings, late afternoons and early evenings will be spent photographing Africa’s amazing fauna.

After we landed in the Mara North Conservancy, we prepared our gear and headed off for a game drive en route to Elephant Pepper Camp.

After settling in and having some lunch, we headed out for the rest of the afternoon.

We first encountered and photographed some elephants, and shortly after, we were very fortunate to encounter a lioness and her young cub, which she was isolating from the rest of the Cheli Pride.  Here is an image I captured of the lion cub:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

This was the first time I have seen or photographed a lion cub in the wild.  It was fantastic to spend time in the company of the lioness and her cub, basking in the afternoon light.

Continuing on our game drive, we encountered topis, a pied kingfisher and more elephants.

The second fantastic photographic opportunity of the day was presented to us by a lilac-breasted roller.  I had seen and photographed one in South Africa, but the conditions were not favourable and the images were not pleasing.

On this occasion, however, the roller was very close to us, and was positioned on a clean branch in warm light.  Using a long focal length, I captured the vivid colours of the roller as it sat patiently waiting for me to land my shots.

Here’s one of the highlights of the roller sighting:

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Lilac-Breasted Roller

All in all, our first afternoon game drive yielded some pleasing images.

Many more photographic opportunities and amazing wildlife sightings await us, and shortly, we’re heading back into the plains to look for a leopard we spotted this morning, as well as more lions from the Cheli Pride, and if we’re really lucky, we might see the males.

Welcome to Kenya

Today we arrived in Kenya, a trip which has been in the making since last August.

It was a long journey to get here, with two long flights and a ten-hour stop-over in Bangkok in between flights.

We arrived in Nairobi early this morning, where our friend and safari leader (for the second time now) Mario Moreno met us.

We headed to the Boma Hotel in Nairobi, which will be our lodgings for tonight.

Here’s a view of the beautiful African architecture which greeted us in our room at the Boma Hotel:

Boma Hotel, Nairobi

Boma Hotel, Nairobi

Today we’re heading into Nairobi to do some sightseeing and grab some lunch, and tomorrow our big wildlife photography adventure begins in the Maasai Mara.

Stay tuned for more updates, and accompanied by some images of the stunning landscape and wildlife which awaits us.

Capturing the City: Return to Action

During a time of holidays and some special times, my long-dormant urge to get out and capture images has thankfully risen to the surface, and the photographer’s itch has become pervasive.

I have been wanting to get out and shoot, and of late I have been more drawn towards cityscapes and architecture than any other subject matter.

On a rare mid-week session, I headed to Circular Quay, a very busy precinct which I haven’t photographed much for quite some years now.

In the mid-to-late afternoon, I scouted for some vantage points along the western side of the Quay, and finally settled on the observation deck of the International Passenger Terminal, which affords a higher view, and additionally was empty and free from passers by.

I waited for the blue hour, and captured this view of Sydney which I have not seen (or photographed) before.

Circular Quay West

Circular Quay West

My effort was worth it, and it was good to capture a view of the city not often seen, which I found surprising, as the International Passenger Terminal provides a good vantage point.  I’m sure other photographers have used it.

During my time scouting for a location, I had difficulty finding a pleasing composition.  I tried a few spots along the western side of the Quay, including the circular area seen at the centre of the image.

The problem I encountered there was that while the view was good, the tallest building in the scene (the darker skyscraper near the centre) wouldn’t fit into the image in landscape orientation (even with a 16mm lens), which is what I wanted for my image.

When I captured this image, it was my second visit to that particular spot.  The ideal location would have been right in the middle of the water, on an island, of course.  Unfortunately there isn’t such a location, so the view I captured was the most pleasing from the west side of the Quay.

Feeling Itchy

From a photographic perspective, things have been quiet.  A combination of a busy schedule, a change in priorities, and a general lack of motivation, has meant that I have not shot an image for months.

Here we are, over four months into 2015, and photographically I have nothing to show for it.

Until now, that is.

Tonight for the first time this year, I published a new image, one captured this year.

We have family in town, and our visitors are staying in an apartment close to the Sydney.  From their balcony, there is a magnificent view of the Sydney skyline, from the ANZAC Bridge across to much of the city.

Tonight while visiting, I decided to shoot some twilight images of the city, and here is what I shot:

The View Sucks

The View Sucks

This is just a small part of the view from the balcony, shot with a telephoto lens to hone in on some of the skyline as twilight descended.

Over the past few days, I’ve been starting to develop an itch — the kind which makes me want to get back into photography again.  It’s all a balancing act, but I have some time off, and soon I plan to start experimenting with something I’ve not done before.

I am successful, it will be a new style of photography for me.  It’s something I’ve seen and quite liked, and while it’s been done before, and done very well, it hasn’t yet been done by me.

So, perhaps a new photographic project, combined with some time to re-engage, will get me back into the process of image making.

I might even find the inspiration to shoot a seascape again, too!