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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Then I rotated the lens and captured the entire crane standing high on a branch.
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 lions 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 cat don’t like other species of big cat, and indeed, often don’t like other members of their own species either.
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:
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.
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.