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