Maasai Mara: Day 4 of 7

Our fourth day in the Maasai Mara region of south-western Kenya had arrived after a good night’s sleep following the magical big cat activity and stunning skies we had witnessed the day before.

As had become our habit by now, we were again the first to rise from slumber at 5am, walking through the darkness of the camp, with our Maasai guard leading the way, towards the freshly stoked but unoccupied campfire, where the other guests at Elephant Pepper Camp would meet later on, well after we had already departed into the plains under the cover of darkness to capture the pre-dawn light and sunrise.

We headed to Mario’s Tree again, which is located maybe one or two kilometres west of camp, taking five to eight minutes to reach by 4WD.

In the rapidly fading dawn, we parked a little further away from the acacia, and jumped out of the vehicle, armed with long lenses and the monopod.

We were aiming for a silhouette shot of Mario’s Tree against the stunning colours of the African morning sky, and it did not disappoint, as can be seen in the following image:

Crimson Mara

Crimson Mara

Some stunning clouds were lingering in the eastern sky as the sun below the horizon bounced warm light rays off the clouds, producing an intense crimson colour against which the lone acacia stood out.

There was scattered plains game in the distance, and in this image, I captured a disant topi watching us, acutely aware of our presence.

A short time later, the sun peeked over the horizon and quickly rose, warming up the plains as we snapped away with 300mm and 400mm lenses.  I captured a ‘post card’ image of the African sun rising, with Mario’s Tree providing striking contrast against the rich orange sky.

Sunrise on the Mara

Sunrise on the Mara

Again our topi friend photobombed me, but I wanted him in the scene, as he added a sense of scale, and added life and context to a scene which would otherwise just be a landscape.  There’s no mistaking this place for anywhere other than Africa when one sees an acacia tree and antelope on the savannah with a sunrise and warm sky in the distance.

We shot our last sunrise frame at 6:47am, by which time the sun had risen a little higher, but still remained quite low in the sky.

We decided to head off and look for lions again.  We ventured east-south-east, and four minutes later encountered a jackal scurrying around.  These little fox-like creatures can be very difficult to photograph, as they are constantly moving.  I snapped away furiously, and finally the jackal stood still enough for me to land a decent portrait.

The Jackal

The Jackal

By the time I captured this portrait, the light had become warm and almost golden, which made for a very flattering image of the jackal’s reddish coat against the greens and browns of the plains.

A mere few minutes later, we continued on our search for lions.  Along the way we spotted a lone topi and grabbed a quick shot, but we pressed on, and eventually arrived at a spot south-east of camp, where we had found the Cheli Pride.  There were two or three lionesses and as many as eight cubs, which strolled along in the medium-length grasses.

I captured a few images of the Cheli cubs wandering around in the warm morning light, but I didn’t capture anything particularly fantastic, as reeds were typically cutting right across the cubs’ faces, thus ruining the shots.

We only stayed with the pride for three minutes before Francis banked sharply north and drove a few hundred meters to the zebra kill site we had visited on the previous afternoon.  We wanted to see if there was anything left.  The Cheli Pride lions we had just seen had moved south of the kill site, as they were done resting, and probably didn’t hunt overnight.

We found a breeding herd of elephants close to the kill site.  The elephants were calm, which was probably due to the fact that the lions were a few hundred metres south, and didn’t pose a threat.

We spent a good 12 minutes watching and photographing the elephants, which were somewhat playful.  Some of the larger herd members interacted affectionately with each other, which sent our cameras into rapid-fire mode as we captured these majestic giants playing in the warm golden light.

Trunk Wrestling

Trunk Wrestling

Here, two of the larger adults are engaging in some trunk wrestling during playtime.

Elephant Embrace

Elephant Embrace

These tender moments provided a strong contrast to the extreme but necessary violence which had taken a few metres from here the previous morning as the Cheli Pride took down and devoured a zebra which had straggled from the herd and been targeted by the lionesses, always looking for their next meal.

We moved over to the kill site and found that there was not much left.  The hyenas had probably been there during the night, and there were only a few signs of the deceased zebra left.  However, in the morning light, four jackals and a lone hyena had arrived at the scene to steal the last of the pickings, which were enough to provide a meal for some predators.

The jackals picked away at a few pieces of zebra remains, and a hyena emerged from the distance, grabbed a chunk and trotted off into longer grasses in the distance, where I captured him on the lookout.

Hyena on the Lookout

Hyena on the Lookout

While the predation of an animal is nature’s way in the wilderness, and at times difficult to watch or accept, nothing goes to waste, and one animal’s demise represents the continued survival of other species.  It is a fine balance, but it works.

Francis drove a little to the west, where we witnessed and photographed an elephant engaging in a colossal toilet break, emptying himself of hundreds of litres of water he had been drinking during the previous evening.

We then headed south, as the morning was wearing on and hunger was setting in.  Shortly before we stopped for a bush breakfast near a Talek River tributary, we spotted the brilliant blue and orange colours of a Hildebrandt’s starling perched on a branch.

After breakfast, we headed back to camp.

We didn’t capture any more images along the way back, until we encountered a grassland pipit just a few minutes away from camp.  We stopped and photographed the pipit for a minute, during which time I captured the bird calling before he promptly flew away.

Grassland Pipit

Grassland Pipit

After lunch and some more time processing and publushing images, poking around online and doing some backing up of image and video files, we headed back out into the Mara plains.

Having encountered the Cheli Pride quite a few times, we went out looking for these lions again.  We had seen the lions in the morning, not far south from the kill site, so it was likely that they’d still be in the general area.

Francis drove south-east of camp, right back to the area where we had been in the presence of the Cheli Pride for the last few game drives.

Just north-east of where we had found the pride earlier in the morning, we found one of the Cheli lionesses sitting on her own, out in the open, on a patch of grass.

The 4pm afternoon light was casting a warm glow on her as she began looking for the rest of the pride members, who at the time were not immediately nearby.

In the warm light, I captured this portrait of the Cheli lioness as she awaited the return of her cubs:

Cheli Mother

Cheli Mother

She’s not paticularly happy, as shown by her hunched position and the semi-flattening of her ears.

Typical of an afternoon in the Mara, a thunderstorm was brewing, and rain soon started to fall.

The lioness was intently looking into the distance left of frame, and began roaring to call her cubs.  She was plagued by flies, as indeed were we from our position 16 metres away from her.  The constant pestering by the flies, and the rain, which began to soak her, made for an unhappy lioness.

She really wanted her cubs to return to her.  They were around… somewhere… but were not quick to respond to her roars.

The rain became heavier and heavier, and the lioness got wetter and wetter, as did we.  While we had a canvas canopy above us, many parts of it were torn, and the rain pooled up and dripped onto us, covering our lenses, as well as us!  My lens was already half-exposed to the rain as I perched it on the camera platform and continued photographing the lioness.

The lioness’s roars became more intent and louder as she sought the company of her cubs while suffering the unpleasantness of the pounding rain.

I captured this image of the lioness in the middle or a roar:

Roaring in the Rain

Roaring in the Rain

Every now and then, the rain-soaked lioness would shake her head rapidly to drain herself from the constant drenching she was enduring.

Mario and I began trying to capture the rapid motion of her periodic head shakes, and became very excited when we landed a sharp action image like this:

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

I would rate this as one of my best wildlife action images.  I would have liked a faster shutter speed to freeze the water droplets entirely, but the lioness’s eyes and nose are in sharp focus, which is pleasing.

She continued roaring for the pride, and showed her eager anticipation of the arrival of her cubs.

Anticipation

Anticipation

During the next 20 minutes, she continued sitting in this position, roaring in the rain, before she got up and wandered a few hundred metres north towards the kill site, where, maybe 20 metres from the site, she sat down again and continued roaring and smelling the air for signs of proximity to the other lions.

At long last, there were signs of the other Cheli Pride lion cubs and lionesses nearby, as they emerged from the distance and headed towards the lone lioness, finally placating her after much calling and longing for their return.

As the other pride members approached, the lions all headed a few hundred metres south, so we followed, and once we perched ourselves nearby, we were treated to the joy of seeing a pride reunited.

As the lions greeted, groomed and played together in the open grass, our cameras were intently snapping and filming away as the light rapidly fell during the transition from late afternoon to early evening.

Here is a view of some of the members of the Cheli Pride, reunited after a lioness’s long endurance of flies, a rainstorm and the absence of her family:

Reunited

Reunited

After some time spent with the Cheli Pride, it was time to head back to camp, and what a fantastic way to finish the day: seeing a pride of lions together, enjoying each other’s company, and grooming, playing and resting before the long night ahead.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day five of our trip to the Maasai Mara, during which we would head out of the Mara North Conservancy and into the Maasai Mara National Reserve, closer to Tanzania.  It was a huge day, in which we saw wild cheetahs for the first time, and also got to witness lion aggression as a dispute over a meal escalated.

Maasai Mara: Day 3 of 7

A new day for us in the Mara had arrived.

While it was only the third day, the routine of the early rises, a Maasai escort to the campfire, some quick online activity over a hot drink, and departure into the ever-fading darkness, had become very normal and comfortable.

We met Francis at the 4WD and climbed in, as we had planned to head out for another dawn and sunrise shoot at a tree Mario favours, which affectionately became known as “Mario’s Tree” throughout the trip.

We headed due west of camp for a short distance and jumped out into the wet plains for some dawn silhouette photography of Mario’s Tree, with the first frame shot at 6:38am.  It wasn’t the world’s greatest sunrise, but there was some nice colour in the sky, and I captured a distant passing wildebeest in most of my images.

We ventured south-west to Leopard Gorge, where we hoped to see our young male leopard friend, or maybe one of the Cheli brothers again, but alas, the big cats weren’t to be found on this morning.  We spotted a few impala, and on our way back north-east, we spotted a topi, zebra and general plains game.

Less than an hour after the first frame was fired off for the day, we encountered a herd of Cape buffalo out in the open.  The herd was quite a decent size, and there were a few calves.  Typical of these large bovines, they didn’t do anything exciting, preferring to graze, rest and groom, fighting off the ever-present flies.

Francis moved the vehicle to a more appealing spot for photography, where I captured this mother buffalo grazing with her calf:

Mother and Calf

Mother and Calf

Trying to isolate a particular animal, as well as capturing interesting activity such as action or tender moments, can be quite challenging.

We continued shooting, and Francis moved the vehicle again to a better spot, where I captured this frame-filling portrait of one of the large members of the herd:

I Am Not Amused

I Am Not Amused

Typical for these types of animals, the look on this buffalo’s face is decidedly grumpy and not at all amused at being constantly harassed by flies.

We continued shooting for a short time longer, and I didn’t realise it at the time, but I captured a far more pleasing image of a buffalo, in which, in a split second, I’d also captured an oxpecker launching into flight from the top of the buffalo’s head!  I didn’t discover I’d captured it until a few days later when reviewing the many images I had shot.

Here’s what I consider to be the finest buffalo image I’ve captured:

Lift Off

Lift Off

I managed, this time, to not only isolate one animal from the crowd (well, mostly), but I captured some interesting action too.

After we had finished photographing the buffalo, Mario took us in a north-westerly direction, where a surprise awaited us.

The staff of Elephant Pepper Camp had organised a bush breakfast, and all of the guests were being taken by their guides to a nice spot which had been set up, and where a hot breakfast and a chance to mingle with the other guests awaited us.

It was a really nice experience, and with the size of the Mara North Conservancy, most of the time one doesn’t see any other vehicles or have any interaction with other guests, as the vehicles can be spread in terms of time and distance.  Usually when there’s something very exciting, or some ever-appealing big cat activities happening (leopards and male lions in particular), all of the vehicles tend to descend upon a scene quickly.

We sat down to a fantastic breakfast with all of the other guests and exchanged stories, viewed photos, and tried to stop the flies swimming in our coffee and juice, to varying degrees of success.

As breakfast drew to a conclusion, some of the guests spotted fighting plains game way down on the distant plains, so they headed off to see what was going on.

Mario and Francis had other plans: we’d instead head towards the Mara River.

On our way north to the river, we spotted a few jackals and grabbed some shots, and then continued along our way, spotting another topi grazing.

As it turned out, we never quite got to the river itself, as something distracted us.

We stumbled across the River Pride of lions, which inhabits the territory just south of the river, and within a very short distance of the Mara North Airstrip, from which we’d depart the Mara four days later.

Not only had we encountered a different pride of lions, but a lioness was perched in a tree!

A Little Bit Stuck

A Little Bit Stuck

Lions aren’t great climbers, and this lioness seemed to be stuck in the bough, awkwardly repositioning herself every now and then, and seemingly attempting to descend.

Here, she looks rather uncomfortable, but in spite of her challenging predicament, seeing a lioness in a tree is rather uncommon indeed, and was a special, unexpected treat.

The look on her face certainly isn’t one of contentment.

Camera shutters were flapping furiously as this uncommon spectacle unfolded in front of us.  I also captured some frame-filling video footage as the lioness fumbled around trying to decide whether she wanted to be up or down.

Lioness in a Tree

Lioness in a Tree

This is not the Mara’s happiest lioness at this point in time.

By now, one or two other vehicles had arrived, so the other guests were also enjoying the spectacle.

As luck would have it, she was not the only lion nearby, as two young River Pride males had also descended upon the scene to see what was happening.

Thus far, most of our lion sightings had been cubs and lionesses — always a treat — but after seeing the Cheli brothers, we were glad to see some more male lion activity.

One of the young males decided to park himself under the shade of a tree not far from where the female was awkwardly positioned.

Lion Around

Lion Around

This particular male still has some youth under his belt, as his mane is not yet fully developed; but I loved the pose here, as he ever-so-casually leaned on a rock under the shade and gazed in our general direction, as well as keeping an eye on the female in the tree.

Perhaps only 50-70 metres to the south-east of this male was another, younger male who was also resting, enjoying some sunshine as well as some shade.

Here he is, taking it all in:

River Pride Male

River Pride Male

Shortly after resting, this younger male wandered over to a tree to see what the lioness was doing.  She had previously descended from the tree in which we found her, but had then climbed into another tree nearby!

This time the young male was curious, and walked over to her tree.  Her dangling, swishing tail was a source of interest for the young male lion, who looked up at the lioness as she sat perched in the bough.

It was now quite late in the morning, and time to head south, back to camp.  Along the way we spotted a giraffe on the open plains, and even closer to camp, we spotted a Maasai farmer leading a herd of cattle.

We soonafter arrived back at camp, where we rested, worked on images and had a light lunch.

Little did we know, but the afternoon drive would bring us something truly special.

At around 3:45pm we ventured back out into the plains in a south-easterly direction, and soon encountered a pair of elephants drinking in the afternoon light.

Drinking Problem

Drinking Problem

We watched and photographed the elephants drinking and splashing water over themselves to cool down.

The sky was starting to become moody and threatening, with some high storm clouds lingering.  I reached for a wider lens and captured an image of two elephants grazing, with a thick cluster of trees in the background beneath an increasingly brooding sky.

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

The sky was develop into a dramatic show later in the afternoon and into the early evening.

Francis soonafter continued heading south, as we were hoping to see something more dramatic.  Along the way, while Francis was cornering, I spotted an intense patch of blue in the grass as I was spotting for lions.

It was a blue-headed tree agama, a small, brightly-coloured reptile.  I snapped a few images, but unfortuntely didn’t land anything good, and the scene itself was scrubby and busy anyway.

A minute later we continued on.  Less than ten minutes later, north-east of where I spotted the agama, we happened across an intensely amazing sight.

We had found the Cheli Pride.  Not only had we found the Cheli Pride lions again (they’re everywhere!), but they were feasting on a zebra they had taken earlier in the day.

This was yet another first: a sighting of lions feasting on a kill.

It was quite a fresh kill, too, as there was no stench from the carcass; but it had been quite substantially devoured, and we figured it had been taken during the morning.

What an intense sighting.  We were glued to the drama as a three cubs gorged themselves on the kill under a bush, while other Cheli Pride lions rested in the thicket or were lurking and sunning themselves very close to the site where either the zebra had fallen, or more likely, where the pride had dragged it to keep it out of the open plains where other predators could have got in on the action.

I used a combination of wide focal lengths and short focal lengths to capture the drama.

Chowing Down

Chowing Down

Here, this cute little cub — one of the younger members of the pride — was very engaged in the business of chowing down, and kept feeding well after the other lions had all moved aside to rest and roll around.

A short time later, most of the pride members strolled a short distance north-east of the kill, and into the open grasses, where they bonded, groomed, rested and played.

Facepalm

Facepalm

Here, one of the well-fed cubs decided it was time to play, and in so doing, he gave one of the females a mighty good smack in the face.

It was enjoyable to watch the lions rolling around, stretching, playing and bonding with each other after a huge meal.

Here, one of the lionesses looks into the distance as other lions played around.

Cheli Pride Lioness

Cheli Pride Lioness

One of the cubs wandered over to a small watering hole in the grass, which we couldn’t see, but which he certainly could.

He lapped up water, and even managed to let some of it drool out of his mouth as he looked back towards us as we furiously snapped away.

Cub Drool

Cub Drool

While we were immersed in the company and actvity of the Cheli Pride, a herd of nearby elephants entered the area, and they were obviously distressed.  There was trumpeting and running as the elephants, who realised they’d stumbled across a pride of lions, ran further away to avoid any confrontation.

The elephants kept moving south, further away from the drama we had witnessed; so, we decided to follow them, as it was a breeding herd, which contained a few calves and some big tuskers.

In the relative safety of the distance the elephants had put between themselves and the Cheli Pride, they grazed more calmly as the sky continued to brood and become more intense.  I captured this image of a big tusker at fairly close proximity as he made his way through the thicket, grazing.

Big Tusker

Big Tusker

Early evening was rapidly approaching, and in the opposite direction, the sky became very menacing.

We headed north, back to the kill site, to see what was going on.  More cubs, and several larger lionesses, were now feasting on the zebra.

Feast

Feast

We stayed for three or four minutes before deciding to leave the lions and head off for a sundowner and some landscape photography under a dramatic sky.

Francis drove us south-west in search of a particular tree, which we reached in about 12 minutes.

We stopped here for a sundowner, and we jumped out of the 4WD and rigged up for some landscape photography under an intense sky, where I captured this image of a distant acacia tree under a dramatic sky:

Brewing Storm

Brewing Storm

It was at this location where we had our sundowner, but we decided to head another few hundred metres away, where we’d capture the trail end of the rich colours of sunset on the Mara.

Drama on the Mara

Drama on the Mara

Here we resumed our sundowner as the evening rapidly descended upon us, while we stood only a few hundred metres from where the Cheli Pride was resting after a huge meal.

It was an intense afternoon/evening, and perhaps this landscape in the northern part of the Maasai Mara captures some of that sense of drama.

So concluded our third day in the Mara.  We headed back to camp where we met the other guests over dinner, and related the amazing sights we had seen that day.

In the morning we were treated to the River Pride, with its clumsy tree-clinging lioness and two young males nearby; and in the afternoon we were treated to the spoils of the Cheli Pride, as the lions feasted on a zebra kill, followed by a sundowner under a very moody sky.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day four of our trip to the Maasai Mara, during which more great sightings greeted us, and when the roar of a Cheli Pride lioness would be heard for the first time.

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.