Tag Archives: Baboon

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 4 of 7

Our fourth day of this trip to the Maasai Mara was to be largely spent as an all-day trip to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, south of Mara North Conservancy, and north of the Kenya-Tanzania border.

A day or two earlier, Mario had decided that it would be worth visiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve, just as we had done last time, as it provided a change of scenery, a somewhat different environment, and plenty of opportunities which we may not have had if we had stayed in Mara North.

As the morning greeted us, we had no idea that the day would be another day of first-time experiences.

After our usual morning ritual of a hot drink by the camp fire in the darkness before dawn, we headed out, and ventured south-west towards a familiar location: Leopard Gorge.

We had visited Leopard Gorge a few times during our first trip to the Maasai Mara.  Leopard Gorge is a fantastic location, which was made famous as a result the BBC’s highly successful production Big Cat Diary.  Some of the series was shot at Leopard Gorge, particularly during the seasons which featured the female leopard Bella and her cubs, who inhabited this very area.

During our visits to Leopard Gorge in 2015, we encountered two large male lion siblings from the Cheli Pride, as well as a young male leopard perched in an elephant pepper tree.

When we returned during this visit, the residents were somewhat different.

We entered Leopard Gorge from the north-eastern side, and as there were apparently no predators around, we decided to disembark from the 4WD and shoot some landscape images.

The morning was grey and cloudy, which had become the norm for the trip so far.

From down in the centre of the gorge, I shot a few landscape images featuring the large fig tree to the north-east.  I found myself struggling with composition, as the altitude was just not right, the sky was uninteresting and the composition just was not working for me.  There was too much sky, and also a lack of foreground interest.

I usually find composition very easy, but on this occasion I was just not finding anything pleasing, so I decided to climb the embankment on the southern side for a different view.  Playing around with a few compositions, I finally landed something more interesting than what I had seen below, and this time the sky had improved, as moody cloud was drifting in from the west.

Here is the image I captured:

Leopard Gorge

Leopard Gorge

While the four of us were near the position from which I captured this image, Mario decided to publish a live broadcast on Instagram.

Given the fame this location had achieved as a result of Big Cat Diary, and the somewhat disappointing fact that there were no big cats in the immediate area during our visit, we humorously shot our first and only episode of No Cat Diary, featuring a non-existent leopard.

After we had finished shooting landscape images, we headed back down to the 4WD and continued south-west through the gorge, stopping to look at the elephant pepper tree in which I had captured a pleasing image of a young male leopard four years earlier.

We did not spot a leopard in the tree, but soon enough, we saw baboons on the top of the ridge, which was a sure sign that there was not likely to be a leopard nearby.  There were also some hyenas a little further away from the gorge, which was another sign that spotted felines would not be found.

Mario suggested that we shoot some silhouette images of the baboons against the moody sky.

It was a good call, as we landed some good images which were quite different to what we had shot so far.

Of the numerous images I shot, there were two which stood out.  This is the image I chose to process and publish:

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

When shooting a subject in silhouette, it is very important for the subject’s shape to be clearly defined, and not touching any other subject matter in the scene; and with wildlife in particular, this can be more challenging, as legs and tails can easily become obscured when they are intersecting with an other part of the animal.

In this image, the shape of the young baboon can clearly be seen.  While there are little patches of grass which make the image less clean than I would like, the image still turned out well.  In the other image I had short-listed, the shape of the baboon was more pleasing, but there was an annoying clump of grass between the two centre legs, which I found distracting and detracting.

Moving further south-west through the gorge, we turned our attention to the cliff face on our right, where we spotted a group of rock hyraxes (also known as dassies).

We had seen these cute mammals at Leopard Gorge during the last trip, but I had never photographed them.

This time I took the opportunity, and captured this image:

Rock Hyraxes

Rock Hyraxes

Apart from the cuteness of these rock hyraxes, what appeals to me about this image is that it is very different to the type of image I typically shoot in the Mara, and it depicts a subject not often featured in images.

After we had captured our images of the rock hyraxes, we continued further towards the south-western end of Leopard Gorge; but we were not done yet.

We spotted a common eland, which is one of Africa‘s largest largest plains game, and the second largest type of antelope in the world.

Continuing the silhouette theme, I captured some images of the eland.

Eland and Friends

Eland and Friends

Here, this male, who sports a damaged antler — probably the result of a dispute with another male eland — stands high on the south-western edge of Leopard Gorge, joined by three oxpeckers.

Again this made for an interesting image, and the damaged antler shows that in Africa, not everything is perfect.  Wild animals do fight, and they do suffer injury and death.

After five or six minutes photographing the eland, and also a hyena which had arrived, we exited Leopard Gorge and headed further south-west towards Figtree Ridge, another location made famous by Big Cat Diary.

Because we were going to spend most of the day in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we were heading towards Musiara Gate, which is positioned further south-west of Figtree Ridge.

Musiara Gate is one of the entrances to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and is the entrance one would use if entering from the Mara North Conservancy.

After arriving at Musiara Gate at 8:15am, we stopped to check the tyres.  The term “checking the tyres” was a euphemism Mario and Francis had used during our last trip, and again this time, to refer to the need to respond to nature’s call.

While we were refreshing and stretching our legs, the Maasai women who sell beadwork at the gate decided to descend upon us like vultures on a kill.  They sure like to haggle, but after some time, we managed to land the beadwork we wanted for the price we wanted to pay.

A short time later, we headed south, and spotted a pair of topi fighting.

When animals are fighting, it is a story to be told, and always makes for compelling wildlife images.

Topi Tussle

Topi Tussle

Here I captured the two topi engaging in a fight for dominance, locking horns as they battled to be the boss.

After we captured this event, we headed south, where a new ‘first’ was awaiting us.

Not far south of Musiara Airstrip was the famous lion pride which inhabits the Musiara area: the Marsh Pride.

The Marsh Pride, which has inhabited the Musiara marsh for decades, is the resident pride, made famous by the BBC’s Big Cat Diary.  This was the first time we had seen the Marsh Pride with our own eyes.

There were several lionesses and numerous cubs, all resting under the cover of a stream embankment.  Quite a few vehicles had arrived on the scene, with people taking delight in seeing this famous lion pride.

I captured a few images, but photographically it was not a good sighting, as the lions were difficult to see, and there was too much foliage.  It was great to at least see the Marsh Pride for ourselves.

After our time with the Marsh Pride, we departed in an easterly direction, and soon encountered a few hyenas.

We had quite an unusual sighting of a hyena taking cover inside the hollow trunk of a large tree, peeking out to look for danger or opportunities, while another hyena rested outside on the grass.

Peekaboo

Peekaboo

This was fantastic opportunity for a very different kind of image, and shows that hyenas, while fierce predators and enemies of big cats, can exhibit cuteness and vulnerability.

After some time with the hyenas, we headed south-east for breakfast, and then headed south-west, eventually encountering a very typical Mara scene of two topi standing on a mound, facing opposite directions, surveying their surroundings for signs of danger.  In the distance was a Cape buffalo.

Less than ten minutes later, further south-west, it was time for some big cat action.  We encountered a large male lion and a lioness from a familiar pride: the Double Crossing Pride.

We first encountered this pride during our first visit to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in 2015, further east towards Olare Orok Conservancy.

The Double Crossing Pride lions we found this time had apparently been mating, and shortly after our arrival, they made their way to the shade of a large tree for some rest.

Unfortunately the lions did not continue to mate in our presence, and were content simply resting in the shade.  It was late morning, and quite hot, so we may not have seen much action even if we had stayed for longer.

We did land a few portraits, such as this image depicting the male looking towards us:

Busy Boy at Rest

Busy Boy at Rest

Soon enough, we decided to leave the lions to rest, and headed south towards the Talek River.

A very short distance from the western bank of the Olare Orok River, Francis stopped the vehicle, as he had spotted something.  It turned out to be a dung beetle on the road.

We leaned out of the right side of the vehicle, and saw the beetle in action.  It scurried under the vehicle, emerging from underneath the left side of the vehicle, and made its way away.

This was another first-time sighting, and as great as it is to see Africa‘s larger animals, it is also special to see the smaller creatures which may not normally be seen or noticed.

Ironically, just ten metres ahead of where we had seen the dung beetle, a large Cape buffalo was resting in a thicket.

There, we had seen one of Africa‘s smallest animals, and one of its largest, within metres and minutes of each other.  Africa is a land of contrasts!

Francis continued south, and we crossed the Talek River, spotting an eland in the distance.

As we continued on, we found that we were in the midst of the beginnings of the Great Migration!  The plains were already populated by herds of wildebeest which had been early migrants from Tanzania to the south.

Being early June, it was quite unusual to see any signs of the Great Migration in Kenya, as it usually takes place in this area from July; but this year, the herds had already crossed the Sand River in a northerly direction, and had arrived in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

As we made our way further south from the Talek River, we saw plenty of wildebeest, and I captured some brief video footage of two males fighting before one fled.

Further along the way, we spotted a dead wildebeest calf hung over a branch in a balanites tree.  This was so far the only evidence of the presence of a leopard in the area, but of course, we did not see one.  So far, four days into the trip, leopards had not been seen.

Francis changed direction, heading south-west.  Fifteen minutes later, we experienced a special sighting.

For the first time, we encountered the Five Musketeers.

The Five Musketeers (also known as the Fast Five, and by various other names) is a coalition of five male cheetahs which has dominated the Mara plains and caused quite a stir.

Male cheetahs often form coalitions, and can often contain siblings.  To encounter a coalition of five is not very common, and these particular cheetahs have achieved infamy.

When we encountered these legendary cheetahs, it was early afternoon and quite hot, so they were resting under croton bushes and not doing very much, only occasionally standing alert to something in the distance.

Photographically, it was not a great sighting, but that did not stop me from capturing numerous images of the Five Musketeers as they rested.

One of the Five Musketeers

One of the Five Musketeers

Despite their lack of activity during our visit, it was great to see this rare and legendary coalition of cheetahs.

This was our fourth day, and our fourth sighting of cheetahs.  We were doing quite well in the cheetah department, and by now, had seen nine individuals.

After spending 30 minutes with the Five Musketeers, it was time for lunch, so we headed east, and Francis found a tree which we would use for a lunch stop.  Before we stopped, we saw numerous wildebeest congregating around the base of the tree.  As we approached, they ran away, but one of them decided to come back and challenge us!  He was apparently annoyed at being interrupted.

After lunch, we headed north-west and crossed the Talek River closer to Olkiombo Airstrip, further north-east of where we had crossed the river earlier in the day.

We then headed north-east, spotting a hartebeest along the way, before continuing further north in the general direction of camp.

Shortly before 4pm, we spotted a female impala in the distance, with a very young calf beside her.  The calf must have been only a day or two old.

As the afternoon was getting late, Francis continued north, exiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve and re-entering the Mara North Conservancy.

We drove through the lush Offbeat area, and further north, encountered two Cape buffalo bulls.

I am not impartial to photographing Cape buffalo, as the textures of hair and hides can look quite striking in an image.  Plus, we had a clean background and some nice afternoon light.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Big Buffalo Bull

Big Buffalo Bull

After photographing the large bull, we continued further north, and an hour later, stopped at a location not far south from camp, for a sundowner and a landscape photography session.

In the distance was a distinctive, lone acacia tree.  As the sun continued to descend towards the cloud-laden horizon, we shot numerous silhouette images of the acacia tree.

Sundowner

Sundowner

Within a few days of publishing this image on Flickr, it attracted a lot of attention, and as of the time of writing, it has been viewed over 17,000 times.   In over 13 years on Flickr, this image has been my most popular.

After our sundowner and photography session, we headed back to camp for drinks and dinner with the other guests.  By now, more guests had arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, so we had some new people to meet.

Tuesday, 4th June, 2019 had been another great day in the Mara, with most of it having been spent south in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we had enjoyed more first-time experiences, a variety of wildlife, and captured different images.

We had visited Leopard Gorge for some landscape photography, and had also photographed baboons, rock hyraxes and an eland in the process; we saw and photographed topi fighting; spent time with the Marsh Pride of lions for the first time; captured the cuteness and vulnerability of hyenas; encountered the Double Crossing Pride lions for the second time; saw a dung beetle; experienced our first sighting of the legendary Five Musketeers coalition of cheetahs; witnessed the early stages of the Great Migration of 2019; seen a newborn impala; captured a pleasing image of a Cape buffalo; and finished off the day with a pleasing silhouette images of an acacia tree.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day five.

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 3 of 7

Monday for many people means that the weekend is over, and that the reality of the daily grind has returned.

Not when you are in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya.  In the Mara, Monday means yet another day of opportunities for amazing wildlife sightings and photography.

Even a ‘bad’ day in the Mara is better than a good day in the office!

As usual, we rose early to prepare for the day ahead.  We still had Elephant Pepper Camp all to ourselves, but on our third day in the Mara, more guests would begin arriving at camp.

After hot drinks around the camp fire, we headed out in the darkness, again with the intention of shooting some landscape images at dawn and sunrise, but it was cloudy and not looking favourable, so we continued in a south-easterly direction.

Within less than an hour, we spotted a lioness from the Cheli Pride, not far from the Olare Orok stream.

Focused

Focused

The lioness seemed focused, but we managed to land a few images and some video footage before we continued southward a few minutes later.

Ten minutes later, we spotted an elephant before continuing further south to the Offbeat area to look for any signs of a leopard.

A short time later, even further south, we had an unusual sighting.  Up on a steeply sloping ridge was a lioness and three cubs, but within close proximity, and perhaps only ten to fifteen metres in front of the cubs, was a Cape buffalo!

The lions were members of the Offbeat Pride which inhabited this area.

Lions and buffaloes are enemies, and buffaloes will try to kill lions — especially cubs.

It was not clear what was happening, but the cubs were watching the buffalo as it was grazing.  Perhaps it did not know that the cubs were so close, but there did not appear to be any tension, and the lioness further back did not seem interested in, or concerned by, the presence of not only one buffalo, but another higher up the ridge and further away.

Soon enough we turned our attention to a large fig tree next to the stream, which meanders down to the Olare Orok River.

In and around the fig tree was a large troop of baboons, which presented some great opportunities for photography.

A large alpha male baboon was sitting on the ground, somewhat out in the open, whilst many of the youngsters played in the fig tree.  I took the opportunity to photograph him amongst the lush green foliage.

All Eyes on Us

All Eyes on Us

In wildlife photography, eye contact with the subject always makes for compelling images, and occasionally, this male baboon looked directly at us despite all the monkey business going on around him.

The Alpha Male

The Alpha Male

During the time we spent with the baboons, we also experienced some nice, warm light, and had an opportunity to photograph one off the youngsters in the fig tree.

Monkey Business

Monkey Business

We had seen baboons in the wild before, but mostly from a distance, and we had not had the opportunity to properly photograph them, until now.

It was rewarding to be able to spend some time in the company of baboons in good light, and capture a few pleasing images of them.

Of course, the presence of baboons in this area meant that it was unlikely for a leopard to be nearby.

Soon enough, the baboons descended from the tree and headed south-east, so we decided to also depart, and headed further south along the waterway, spotting an eland, a jackal, a woodland kingfisher (with its distinct, bright blue plumage), and a pair of juvenile short-tailed eagles, all within a fifteen-minute period.

We then headed sharply north-east of the Offbeat area, and encountered some giraffes feeding on tall acacia trees, so we stopped and captured some images and video footage.

It was time to start thinking about breakfast, so Francis headed back to the Offbeat area where we had seen the juvenile short-tailed eagles, and we pulled up by the waterway for some food and a stretch.

After breakfast, we headed north, back in the general direction of camp, and in an open part of the conservancy, Mario spotted the distinctive colours of an agama lizard upon a rock.  We had seen one before, but during this sighting we were too far away for a decent image, so we shortly moved on.

Whilst driving in the open, Francis noticed a disturbance in a small tree nearby.  Upon it were perched some starlings, but there was panic amongst the birds, and Francis suggested that there may have been a snake in the tree.

He positioned the 4WD right next to the tree, and quickly spotted a very small snake (perhaps an inch in diameter), which had killed two birds.  It was very difficult to see anything, but using our long lenses and viewfinders, we could see patches of the snake amongst the very dense foliage, as well as the unfortunate starling that was soon to become the snake‘s breakfast.

We continued to watch as the snake began to devour its prey, and shortly noticed that the snake was descending the tree, prey in mouth.

At the base of the foliage, we saw the snake suspended vertically from the tree as it made its way to the ground.  We all scrambled for our cameras, but a second later, the snake and starling had landed on the ground, and the show was over.

This was another ‘first’ of many firsts.  Never before had we seen a snake killing a starling.  It was only because Francis had noticed the disturbance and veered off our course to investigate, that we had experienced this sighting.  It was near-impossible to even see the snake, and an event in nature such as a tree python killing prey in a small tree is something that few people would ever witness.

After this unique sighting, we headed north to return to camp, along the way encountering another female saddle-billed stork.  We spent a few minutes photographing the stork and then continued, stopping to photograph some spotted guineafowl and a zebra drinking from a watering hole very close to camp.

Back at camp, I downloaded and backed up the images and video footage from the morning shoot, and we had lunch, this time with a new guest who had arrived while we were out in the field.

After our afternoon down time (which is never proper down time for me, as I cannot sit back and do nothing when on safari — there is too much excitement and plenty to do), we headed back out, this time venturing to the northern part of the conservancy.

Not far south of the C13 road, we encountered a pair of mating warthogs, which was worth photographing.

Bacon Factory

Bacon Factory

After that brief and amusing spectacle, we continued north, and a short time later, about half way between camp and Mara North Airstrip, we found some young members of the Cheli Pride.

At this location, there was a male and a female.

This is a young female from the Cheli Pride.  Her younger age is revealed by the pink colour of her nose.

Looking into the Distance

Looking into the Distance

The young male lion nearby was becoming bothered by flies, and was trying to swat them as they pestered him.

While it was late afternoon, the two lions were still resting, occasionally sitting up, yawning, rolling around or trying to sleep.

Francis had spotted two other sibling lions from the pride a few hundred metres south of this pair, so we drove over to see and photograph them.

Again there was a young male and a female, and I was fortunate enough to photograph the lioness yawning.

Yawn

Yawn

After spending time with these siblings, Francis took us back to the first pair of siblings we had seen.  The day was soon to give way to the evening, and as the sun descended closer to the top edge of the Oldoinyio Escarpment (also known as the Siria Escarpment) in the west, I captured a glimmer of light in the eyes of this young and handsome male lion.

Handsome

Handsome

Male lions are always impressive, even when they are young.

One day this young male lion may be the king of Mara North, but for now, he is still honing his skills as a male lion.

Future King

Future King

His youthful age is revealed by the size of his mane.  It has not fully developed yet, so while he is not a cub, he is not a fully-fledged adult.  Based on his appearance, he would be around two years of age.

It is surprising how close one can get to lions (as well as other wildlife) in the Mara.

This behind-the-scenes image shows just how close we were to one of the young male lions from the Cheli Pride.

Behind the Scenes: Photographing the Cheli Pride Lions

Behind the Scenes: Photographing the Cheli Pride Lions

After sunset, we noticed three zebras heading straight into the area in which the lions were resting.  We were excited with anticipation, as it was likely that a hunt would soon follow.

The plain was increasingly darkening, and the lions were becoming more active.  When a potential meal arrives on one’s doorstep, one would be silly not to take advantage of the opportunity.

It was becoming harder to see, as darkness was rapidly consuming the scene, but one of the young and inexperienced lions decided to launch into a chase as the zebras moved even closer into their territory.

Fortunately for the zebras, the chase was premature and ultimately unsuccessful, but it was an exciting moment.

It was time to leave the lions to deal with their defeat (and hopefully enjoy some success later) and head back to camp.  Before we returned, I captured a couple of silhouette images of a tree on the plain.

Monday, 3rd June, 2019 had been a mix of activity in the plains, with second and third sightings of the Cheli Pride of lions, a second sighting of the Offbeat Pride of lions, some quality time with baboons, a variety of birds, an unusual sighting of a tree python devouring a starling, a pair of warthogs continuing the species, and an unsuccessful hunt of zebras by inexperienced Cheli Pride youngsters.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day four.

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 1 of 7

We have recently returned from our second trip to the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, where we undertook an intense week-long wildlife photographic safari in June of 2019.

This is the first article in a series of articles, in which I will provide a day-by-day account of our sightings, images and experiences during this trip.

After two long flights to Kenya, we rested at our hotel in Nairobi during the day of our arrival, and in the evening, we met for the first time since 2015 our go-to photographic safari leader, Mario Moreno of South Cape Images, to discuss the exciting adventure ahead over a nice dinner of steak and an Argentinian malbec.

This was the beginning of our third trip to Africa, our second trip to Kenya, our fourth wildlife photographic safari, and our third wildlife photographic safari with Mario.

We were heading back to the Mara North Conservancy, nearly four years to the date on which we first visited the Mara.  It was very familiar, but it was also very new in some ways, as the trip would reveal over the next seven days.

After landing at Mara North Airstrip, we were met by our guide Francis of Elephant Pepper Camp, who was also our guide during our first trip.  It was great to see him again, and he had prepared brunch for us, which was soon followed by the commencement of our first game drive.

On that first game drive to camp, which can take 20 minutes or three hours, it did not take long before it became apparent that this was not going to be a short drive.  Nature, not us, is the shot caller, and nature had something it wanted to say.

Soon after boarding our private 4WD, a short distance south-west of the airstrip, we encountered cheetahs.  Not even ten to fifteen minutes into our first game drive, we had already encountered one of Africa‘s spectacular species of big cat, and not just one cheetah, but four: a mother with three cubs.

The mother cheetah is known as Amani, and she has three sub-adult cubs of around 12 months of age.

Here is an image I captured of one of Amani‘s cubs:

Amani's Cub

Amani’s Cub

While sub-adult cheetahs quickly grow to the size of an adult cheetah, the distinctive feature which identifies a cub (either very young, or sub-adult) is the mantle — the wild tuft of hair along the back of the head and neck.

The mantle serves two purposes: it assists in camouflage, and makes the cub resemble a honey badger, a species of animal most wildlife would happily avoid.

We spent most of this game drive with Amani and her cubs, but also encountered vultures nearby, and spotted a few baboons, a wildebeest, a topi, and some helmeted guineafowl (affectionately known as Maasai chickens) on the way to camp.

After a fantastic first drive with the cheetahs, we arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, an outstanding luxurious eco-lodge in the Mara North Conservancy.  It is nestled amongst a distinctive ‘X’ cluster of elephant pepper trees, just south of the C13 road between Mara Rianta and Lemek.

It was great to be back at the camp.  Since we were last there four years ago, its operation has been taken over by Elewana, and the camp is now run by Tom and Alison, who we got to know during the week.

We met Tom and Alison, and went through the formality of the briefing given to guests upon arrival.  Much of the camp was the same as it was when we were last there, but there have been some good changes and enhancements, too, such as AC power in all tents, and wireless Internet access throughout the entire camp.

Shortly afterwards, we sat down to lunch.  As it was the first week of the season, the camp had only just opened, and we were the first guests.  We had the camp to ourselves for the first two days and nights before other guests began to arrive on the third day.

Lunch at Elephant Pepper Camp was superb as always, and we were joined by either Tom or Alison, who attend all lunches and dinners with the guests.

Already we had a great story to relate, having spotted Amani and her cubs early into the trip.

After lunch, I set about my highly disciplined ritual of transferring the images and videos from the flash cards to my laptop and backing them up to an eternal hard disk.  It is very important to ensure that there are at least two, or preferably three, copies of one’s images and videos.

Fuelled by the obligatory glass or two (or three, perhaps) of Amarula, which was my habit at Elephant Pepper Camp last time (and a habit into which I easily and happily fell again this time), soon enough it was time to head back out into the plains to see what the afternoon and evening would bring.

Shortly into the afternoon game drive, we encountered two magnificent elephant bulls on the open plains north-west of camp, not far south of where we had first seen Amani and her cubs earlier in the day.

We had a brief look at the first elephant bull, before heading towards a second elephant bull not far away.

Mario is a big fan of capturing almost symmetrical, frontal images of approaching elephants, so Francis positioned the vehicle such that the elephant was heading straight towards us.  He kept walking, and we snapped away furiously as his imposing presence dominated our viewfinders.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Mighty Elephant Bull

Mighty Elephant Bull

Once he got close to our vehicle, he veered left and walked in front of us at a distance of only one or two metres.

This big tusker is a magnificent, healthy elephant who has the Mara plains at his disposal.

Less than ten minutes after I captured my final image of this elephant, we encountered Amani and her cubs for the second time!

They were in the same location where we had first encountered them four hours earlier.  As cheetahs can travel considerable distances in a short period of time, it was nice to find them again so soon.

My guess is that they spent the entire time resting.  There is no telling whether they hunted or not, but they had not recently eaten, so any attempts at hunting would have been unfortunately unsuccessful.

Here is an image I captured of Amani resting on a mound and surveying her territory for potential predators or prey:

Resting and Surveying

Resting and Surveying

We spent a around an hour with the cheetahs, during which time I had the opportunity to capture a clean image of Amani as she rested on a mound in the afternoon, soaking in the sun’s rays.

Amani

Amani

Eventually we decided to move on, heading west-north-west towards the Mara River, and soon encountered a banded mongoose.

After a few quick shots, we continued on, and spotted two male waterbuck and a small group of females in the open, just south of the Mara River.

Having photographed only female waterbuck in South Africa, we briefly stopped, where I was fortunate to see this impressive male standing out in the open, staring straight at me:

Male Waterbuck

Male Waterbuck

While many people visit Africa to see and photograph the big cats, there are many species of antelope to be seen and photographed, and these animals are just as important in the ecosystem as the predators, with their own stories to tell.

I am quite partial to a good antelope image, and as these animals are quite skittish and like the cover of thickets, capturing a pleasing image of such an animal is not always easy.

In this case, I was fortunate that the male waterbuck was out in the open, clear of distracting foliage, and that he was staring straight down the barrel of the lens.

The resulting image is pleasing to me, as it places this waterbuck in his environment, and his impressive stature stands out.

Late in the afternoon, we slowly began making our way in a south-easterly direction back to camp.  Less than ten minutes later, we experienced our first lion sighting of the trip, and again, it was during the first day of this trip.

We encountered some members of a familiar pride: the Cheli Pride.

The Cheli Pride is a dominant pride of lions which inhabits the area near camp in the Mara North Conservancy.

We had seen lions from the Cheli Pride four years earlier, when it was quite a large pride, consisting of 27 members or thereabouts.

Things have changed somewhat, with the pride being apparently smaller, and quite a lot of disruption having taken place.  The pride still exists, but rather than being one large pride as it was four years ago, there appear to be various off-shoots from the main pride.

On this drive, we encountered a female who was resting out in the open during the late afternoon.

Cheli Pride Lioness at Rest

Cheli Pride Lioness at Rest

Very close to where she was resting, a large male lion was taking shelter in a thicket.

While I did photograph the male, the busy setting was not great for photography, and even though nightfall had not yet arrived, it did not look like these lions were going to become active, so we moved a little further south-east towards camp, and encountered another female and a very young cub in a thicket.  The cub looked to be around six to eight weeks of age, and was the youngest lion cub we had seen in the wild.

Some 40 minutes later, we were further south toward camp, when we encountered a young hyena sleeping on a mound.  After spending a few minutes there, and determining that the sky was unfortunately not ideal for any landscape photography, we headed back to camp for dinner, drinks and a debrief before bedding down for the night, as an early start the next morning awaited us.

Saturday, 1st June, 2019 had been a fantastic first day in the Mara, with not one but two sightings of the same family of cheetahs, an impressive big-tusker elephant bull, a great photographic opportunity with a male waterbuck, and our first encounter with the Cheli Pride lions, including a tiny cub.

It was fantastic to be back in Mara, a familiar place with new stories to tell.  This trip had taken some time to materialise, but finally we had returned to a place we love to be — one with many more great sightings ahead of us.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day two.

Africa: Day 4 – The Big Five in One Drive

By Day 4 of our time in Africa, and Day 3 of our safari in the Motswari Private Game Reserve in greater Kruger Park, the motions of waking before 5am, driving in the bushveld for three hours, coming back for breakfast, a rest, lunch and then going out for another game drive from 3:30pm until the darkness of night, had become normal — almost routine.

A rather fantastic routine, that is.

By Day 4 (Day 3 in Motswari), we had been for three game drives, which was half of our safari in terms of wildlife sightings and photography.  We had been out twice for afternoon/evening game drives, and once in the morning.  The 6th of October was a full day worth of game drives, and much awaited us.

Astute readers will have noticed that so far, we had not seen any lions.  We had seen and photographed two unique leopards (Makepisi male and Rockfig Jr female), but the King of the Jungle had been somewhat elusive, which is ironic when it is to be considered that leopards are very elusive, and we had seen two of those.

Lions were very much on the mind of Chad Cocking, our guide.  He was well aware that we had not seen any yet, but he was also aware that lion activity in the reserve had been somewhat subdued over the past few days.  There were some small signs of lion activity, but no guarantee we would encounter any.  Chad probably felt under pressure, but being the reserved professional he is, it did not show.

As we embarked upon our second morning drive at 5:30am before the rest of the guests at the lodge departed 30 minutes later, Xenedette and I were mentally resigned to the fact that we just may not see any lions at all.  However, we were only half-way through our game drives, so the situation was not as dire as it may have seemed.  Still, we were over the moon to have seen everything we had seen to this point, and not seeing lions was not going to otherwise diminish the awe of what we had seen and experienced.

A few minutes into the morning drive, before sunrise, we encountered a giraffe grazing near the Motswari airstrip.  We stopped for some silhouette images against the reddish glow of the pre-sunrise sky.  Here is one of the images I captured:

Standing Tall at Sunrise

Standing Tall at Sunrise

After a short visit with this lanky individual, we proceeded onwards.  Our next stop was Argyle Dam, home to hippos and crocs, and a popualar watering hole for much of the Motswari wildlife.

Chad took the Land Rover onto the muddy banks of Argyle Dam, where we disembarked, and in so doing entered the back yard of the most dangerous animal in Africa: no, not a predatory cat, but the hippopotamus.

Mario and I dashed off for a silhouette landscape we captured just after sunrise, while Chad followed us, and spent his downtime videoing and photographing Mario (our safari leader) and I in action, using one of Mario’s cameras, which he had brought to shoot video footage of the safari.

Throughout the trip he shot his stills with a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and used a Canon EOS 60D for video.  Meanwhile, Xenedette and Petros (our tracker) stood on the bank chatting.

Here is an image I captured of a sunrise over Argyle Dam:

Sunrise over Argyle Dam

Sunrise over Argyle Dam

A faint reflection of the rising sun in the water can be seen.  What was more interesting was what we would next see.

The sun continued to rise, and the light became very warm.  We could hear the distinctive grunts and snorts of hippos echoing throughout the morning silence of the Timbavati.  The hippos were only a little way in the distance in Argyle Dam.

Mario and I set about photographing the hippos, patiently waiting for a hippo to yawn, as it makes for much more interesting imagery than what otherwise looks like a submerged rock in the water rather than the hippo that it is.

Finally, our patience paid off.  Not only did we both land shots of a hippo yawning, but the angle and direction of the sunlight backlit the hairs on the hippo’s nose.

The Hippo's Yawn

The Hippo’s Yawn

Soon enough, it was time to make tracks for further wildlife viewing.

Well after sunrise, our next encounter was a pair of southern yellow-billed hornbills perched high atop a tree.  From where we were, even with a focal length of 600mm, it was not going to be possible to feature a hornbill prominently in the frame, so some liberal cropping would later be needed.

We sat for a few minutes, capturing these distinctive birds in their habitat.  Fortunately our vantage point was such that the warm morning light shone upon the hornbills.

Portrait of a Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill

Portrait of a Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill

As we continued on our morning drive, we had sightings and captured images of impala, a Wahlberg’s eagle, a solitary crocodile basking in the morning sun, and more impala.

Ten minutes after the most recent impala image I shot, we were laying our eyes upon something magical.

The Motswari trackers and guides had been hard at work, and all of sudden, in front of us, resting on a termite mound in the morning sunshine, were two Jacaranda pride lionesses.  Wow!  Finally, we had seen one of the species of majestic big cats we had longed to see.

Not only did we finally lay our eyes upon wild lionesses, but we were a matter of only a few metres away from them.

Jacaranda Pride Lioness

Jacaranda Pride Lioness

Just to be seeing these regal big cats was an awesome experience, but the photographic opportunities were also fantastic, with warm morning light in the right place, and a relatively clean background.

Even though we were quite close, I used long focal lengths to produce tightly framed portraits, isolating the Jacaranda pride lionesses from the bushveld surrounding them.

Pretty Kitty

Pretty Kitty

During the 25 minutes we spent with the lionesses, something rather unexpected happened.

One of the Jacaranda lionesses got up, climbed down off the mound and wandered about 20 metres away.  We followed her, and observed her doing something out of our direct sight.  Little did we realise at the time, but we had observed the most unexciting lion kill in history.  She had found a small tortoise and killed it!

She returned to the mound, where we shot stills and video of her with the small tortoise in her mouth!  I have not processed or published any images from that spectacle yet, but will eventually get to it.

Soon we departed, had a morning coffee and biscuit on the banks of the Nhlaralumi, and eventually made our way back to the lodge for breakfast.

As exciting as it was to see Jacaranda lionesses towards the end of the morning drive, we did not know that on our afternoon drive, we had see and photograph every African wildlife species in the ‘Big Five’: Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino.

Within a short time of embarking on our afternoon drive, we encountered six Cape buffalo bulls in the bush near the Sohebele River.  While we stopped to photograph them, I did not land any great images, as the light was still quite harsh and the buffalo were in thick bush, with points of contention being branches, foliage and messy backgrounds.

Our next sightings included kudu, elephants (again in thick scrub under harsh light), a large crocodile on the other side of Argyle Dam (where we had been that morning), and giraffes.  We also spotted baboons running through the scrub, which as it turned out, was to be the only baboon sighting we would have during our time in Africa.

That aside, it had been only 15 minutes, and we had seen and photographed two of the big five.

Our next sighting, merely an hour after embarking, was a familiar creature: Makepisi, the male leopard we had encountered on our first night.  We found him again, less than 48 hours after our first sighting; and looking at the GPS coordinates, he was in almost exactly the same spot.  On this occasion when we found Makepisi, he was sitting in the shade.  The sun was a little lower, but still quite hot, in the high thirties.

I captured a number of images of Makepisi, and have one ready to publish, but have not quite got to it yet; I will post that image on another day.

Our second encounter with Makepisi meant we had seen three members of the Big Five in the one drive.  So far, that is.

The next sighting was an elephant bull grazing in the scrub, and we spent a bit of time there watching, photographing and videoing him.

As the sun got lower in the sky, our next encounter was three white rhino grazing in the warm afternoon light.  They were heading for a drink, so we got ahead of them and parked down on the banks on the watering hole in anticipation of their arrival.  I kept my eyes on the bush up the banks, and spotted the tell-tale shape and movement the first rhino.  Sure enough, two of the rhino came down to the waterline for a drink, with the third following a short time later.

Fresh from a Mud Bath

Fresh from a Mud Bath

This rhino sighting clocked four of the Big Five.

The best, and last member of the Big Five was yet to come, only we did not know it.

Less than 20 minutes after watching white rhino drinking from a watering pan, we found ourselves in a dry river bed where two Ximpoko male lions were resting in the late afternoon light.  Another big wow!

Seeing male lions was a real highlight of  this drive, and of the whole day.  We were rapidly losing light, and the lions were quite sleepy, but we did manage to land a few shots and witness them moving around a little, with just a hint of a roar from one of them.

I managed to land a pleasing image of one of the Ximpoko males looking directly at us, and what a majestic lion he was.

The King's Face

The King’s Face

As darkness fell, Petros brought out the spotlight for some lion light painting!

The King of Timbavati

The King of Timbavati

The lions soon moved up the river bank and plonked themselves on the ground for more rest and sleep before the big night they had ahead of them.  We shortly thereafter departed and rushed back to the lodge.

A pleasant and unexpected surprise was a sighting of two porcupines in the bush along the road.  During the night drives, Petros waved his spotlight in an arc across our field of vision, looking for wildlife.  How he managed to see these two porcupines in the darkness and hindered by the speed at which we were travelling, I do not quite know; but he is a tracker, and his job is to find the wildlife that prefers not to be found!

Earlier that day, I had mentioned to our party that it was Xenedette’s birthday.  To have seen all members of the Big Five in one day, and even more incredibly, in one drive, was a magnificent birthday present.  Of seeing what we saw that day, Xenedette said it was the best birthday present she could ever have received.  There we were, in the African bushveld, seeing and photographing some amazing wildlife, right in the thick of nature’s finest.

We soon arrived back at the lodge, and headed to the boma (escorted, of course) for dinner and celebratory drinks.  It was Xenedette’s birthday, and she had experienced some amazing sightings that day.  A cause for celebration indeed, and there we were, having the experience of a lifetime.  What a day it had been.

Stay tuned for Day 5 of our African trip, which would be our final day in the Timbavati.