Tag Archives: Cheli Pride

Maasai Mara 2019: Observations and Comparisons

Introduction

In the African wilderness, every day is different.  Every game drive is different.  Every encounter and experience is different.  That is what makes it so amazing and exciting.

As I have chronicled in recent articles, we spent a fantastic seven days (which is too few!) in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya in June of 2019, photographing wildlife and landscapes.

This was the second time we have been to this particular location, with our first trip being in June of 2015.

This time, we stayed again at Elephant Pepper Camp in the Mara North Conservancy, a privately run conservancy north of the public Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Elephant Pepper Camp is now run by Tom and Alison, whereas during our first trip, it was run by Patrick and Sophie.

Having twice been to the same place, it was interesting for me to compare the two trips; for while a lot was familiar and similar this time, a lot was different.

 

Abundance of Wildlife

One thing I did subsequent to this most recent trip was compile a list of all of the species of wildlife we encountered.

We encountered 42 unique species of wildlife.  There may possibly have been more; but as best as I can recall, it was 42.  Here they are:

  1. Agama lizard
  2. Baboon
  3. Banded mongoose
  4. Cape buffalo
  5. Cheetah
  6. Dik-dik
  7. Dung beetle
  8. Eland
  9. Elephant
  10. Genet
  11. Giraffe
  12. Grant’s gazelle
  13. Grey crowned crane
  14. Hartebeest
  15. Helmeted guineafowl
  16. Hippopotamus
  17. Hyena
  18. Impala
  19. Jackal
  20. Lilac-breasted roller
  21. Lion
  22. Marabou stork
  23. Martial eagle
  24. Ostrich
  25. Oxpecker
  26. Red-necked francolin
  27. Reedbuck
  28. Rock hyrax
  29. Saddle-billed stork
  30. Secretarybird
  31. Short-tailed eagle
  32. Starling
  33. Thomson’s gazelle
  34. Topi
  35. Tree python
  36. Vulture
  37. Warthog
  38. Waterbuck
  39. Wildebeest
  40. Woodland kingfisher
  41. Yellow mongoose
  42. Zebra

For a seven-day trip, this is quite a large list of wildlife species.  This list documents unique encounters, but we had multiple encounters with numerous species, and sometimes we encountered the same unique animal on multiple occasions.

What this list also shows is just how abundant and varied is the wildlife inhabiting the Maasai Mara.

I wish I had compiled a list of the wildlife species we encountered during the first trip; but certainly, we did encounter quite a few species from this list.

 

Year of the Cheetah

Amongst the wildlife we encountered during this most recent trip, the stand-out was the cheetah.

During our first trip, we only had one cheetah sighting, down in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

This time, we had numerous cheetah sightings, most of which were in the Mara North Conservancy.

On our first day, we had not one, but two cheetah sightings.

Early into our first game drive shortly after landing at Mara North Airstrip, we first met Amani and her three cubs.

This is Amani:

Amani

Amani

Later that day, during the afternoon game drive, we encountered Amani and her cubs again, and landed some pleasing images as the cheetahs rested.

On day two, we encountered Amani and her cubs for a third time, and on this occasion, they had captured a juvenile Thomson’s gazelle, and were in the process of killing it and consuming it right in front of us.

Fast Food

Fast Food

This was a special sighting, and happened to be the final time we saw Amani and her cubs.  I have no doubt that other people in the conservancy had seen her again after we saw her for the last time.

A few days later, we spent most of the day in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.  While private conservancies offer more exclusive access, as well as the ability to go off-road and get close to wildlife, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is always worth visiting, as it is a much larger reserve and is home too some truly special characters.

On day four, we were treated to some special sightings, including one of the infamous Five Musketeers, a coalition of cheetahs which has been dominating the Maasai Mara National Reserve and causing a lot of trouble.

When we saw the Five Musketeers, the weather was warm, and the cheetahs were resting in the shade; but it was still special to see these legendary cheetahs.

One of the Five Musketeers

One of the Five Musketeers

Back in Mara North, we encountered two new-to-us cheetahs on day five.

We had our first and only encounter with brothers Mbili and Milele, who are the sons of Kiraposhe.  We never met Kiraposhe, but her sons had unfortunately lost their lunch to hyenas, which is unfortunately quite a common problem cheetahs encounter.

Defeated

Defeated

We spent quite a while with Mbili and Milele, tracking and following them as they headed east and into Lemek Conservancy, which was the end of the road for us.

The next cheetah we would encounter — and a very special cheetah at that — was Kisaru, a female.

Kisaru is a daughter of Amani, and at the time we saw her, she was heavily pregnant.  She produced a litter of six cubs subsequent to our departure.  That is special.

We had two fantastic sightings of Kisaru, and during one late afternoon and early evening game drive, we had her to ourselves.  Inexplicably, nobody else in the conservancy was aware of her presence until it was too late, as when we left her to return to camp on the evening we first met her, other vehicles were heading towards where we had been, by which time it may have been too late.

Typically, when a big cat is spotted (no pun intended!), vehicles from all over the conservancy descend upon the scene.  We had the Dream Team of Mario and Francis, so we might have got a piece of the action before anyone else!

Here is Kisaru in her spectacular glory:

Portrait of Kisaru

Portrait of Kisaru

Indeed, this was what I call the Year of the Cheetah, as we had experienced, across seven sightings, a total of 12 individual cheetahs, mostly in the Mara North Conservancy, but also in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Kisaru in Silhouette

Kisaru in Silhouette

We had met Amani and her cubs three times, encountered Kiraposhe’s males Mbili and Milele once, seen the Five Musketeers, and experienced two fantastic sightings with Kisaru.

Life is good.

 

King of the Jungle

The term ‘king of the jungle’ in reference to lions is a misnomer, as lions do not live in jungles; they live on the savannah.

Naturally, on this trip, we encountered many lions.  We encountered familiar prides, as well as new prides.

On the first day, we encountered a lioness from the resident, and familiar, Cheli Pride.  The Cheli Pride, named after Cheli & Peacock Safaris, was the first pride of lions we encountered during our first trip.

The Cheli Pride has significantly changed in the past four years.  There have been numerous off-shoots, which have become distinct prides, as well as newcomers and disruption to what was once a 27-strong pride.

Members of the old Cheli Pride are scattered around the Mara North Conservancy, and we encountered these lions on numerous occasions and in various places.

What occurred to me during this trip is that some of the now adult Cheli Pride lions we saw may have been cubs we saw during the last trip.  We have no way of knowing, but it is pleasant to think that we may have seen some of the exact same lions four years later, some of which may have themselves become parents to a new generation of cubs.

Here is one of the handsome males we encountered.

Handsome

Handsome

One of the more memorable lion encounters we experienced was the mating of a large male lion, called Lenkume, from the nearby Angama Pride, with a female from the Cheli Pride.

This was a truly special sighting, as it was the first, and so far, only, time we have seen lions mating in the wild.

Firstly, here is Lenkume:

Lenkume

Lenkume

I did shoot video of these lions mating, but have produced any videos yet from the extensive footage I shot.  That is a project still on my to-do list.

I did publish a straight-from-iPhone, close view of the Angama and Cheli mating session on Instagram.

It can be viewed at the following link:

https://www.instagram.com/p/ByXKk5NAos2

Yes, we were that close!  To top it off, we got to share the experience with famous zoologist and wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott of Big Cat Diary fame, who put the Maasai Mara region on the map.

On our second day, we headed south to the lush area near Offbeat Mara Camp, from the resident Offbeat Pride takes its name.  We first met this pride early into the trip, but our most special time with these lions occurred on day five.

In the wee hours of the morning, the Offbeat Pride had taken down a Cape buffalo, and in the company of a large and impressive pride male, were devouring their meal.

Table Manners

Table Manners

This was the third time we had witnessed lions devouring their meal.  During the first trip, we experienced two such sightings.  The first was the Cheli Pride devouring a zebra kill; and the second was the Double Crossing Pride consuming a deceased elephant.

Seeing lions on a kill is always a special experience.  We have yet to actually witness a kill taking place by lions, but there is always hope for next time.

During this sighting, our Dream Team, knowing lions well, hastily departed the kill site, as the large male was seeking water.

We had the unique and exclusive experience of watching the large male drinking from a stream and climbing the bank right in front of us.

Here he is in all his glory, climbing the bank and heading straight towards us:

Thirst Quenched

Thirst Quenched

During day four, which we spent mostly in the Maasai Mara National Reserve south of the Mara North Conservancy, we experienced two special sightings.

The first was the famous Marsh Pride, which is a long-established, dominant pride of lions which was featured extensively by Jonathan Scott and Simon King over the years in Big Cat Diary.

This was the first time we had seen the Marsh Pride with our own eyes, and it was almost like meeting a celebrity.  These lions are very famous in Kenya, and we were seeing them in close proximity.

Unfortunately, the conditions were not at all ideal for photography, as the lions were under thick cover of bushes and down in a stream, so it was an eyes-only experience.

There were plenty of cubs.  I did shoot numerous images, but typical for wildlife photography, far more images are shot than published.  I do have my own memories and images of the Marsh Pride, but unfortunately the images are not of a suitable standard for publication.

Later in the day, we encountered a pair of mating lions.

These lions are members of the Double Crossing Pride, which we had first met in the Maasai Mara National Reserve on 9th June, 2015.

Unfortunately on this occasion, we did not witness them mating, but we did capture some images as they rested under the shade of a large tree.

Busy Boy at Rest

Busy Boy at Rest

By the end of day five, we had seen two familiar prides (Cheli and Double Crossing) and three prides which were new to us: Angama, Marsh and Offbeat.

We had many lion sightings, spread across five prides, on every single day of this trip.

Mario had been keeping count of the number of individual lions we saw, but somewhere after about 40, he lost count.  Forty-something is about as accurate as we can be at this stage.  It was a treat all the same.

 

What About the Leopards?

Keen readers may have observed that two of the three largest species of African big cats had been seen in abundance, but so far, one is missing: the leopard.

There is not much to report.  We did not see a single leopard during this trip.  This was the first time Mario had not seen one during a visit to the Maasai Mara, and he has been travelling to the region for many years.

We knew that leopards are notoriously elusive, but they proved it to us this this time.  On both of our previous visits to Africa, we had seen numerous leopards; but that was not to be the case during this trip.

Francis did his absolute best to find one.  There had certainly been evidence of the presence of leopards in the region, but finding one proved impossible.  We went looking for them often, and spent a lot of time searching, but to no avail.

These big cats just did not want to be found.  While it was frustrating and disappointing, from discussions we had back at camp, nobody else was seeing any leopards either.

That is the nature of wildlife in Africa: the experience is always on their terms, not ours.  This time, we were not to be graced by the presence of a leopard.

 

Something is in the Water: Fighting and Mating

During this trip, there must have been something in the water, as we had numerous sightings of animals either fighting or mating.

As described earlier, we witnessed Angama Pride male Lenkume mating with a Cheli Pride female; but it did not end there.

On our second day, one randy wildebeest was desperately trying to herd ‘his’ females and mate with them.

Here he is, flying the ‘flag’:

Gimme Some Action

Gimme Some Action

A few days later in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we saw another revved migratory wildebeest trying to mate with the females.  I shot a few video sequences of this spectacle.

The jackals were getting into it, and even the pigs were going for it.

Bacon Factory

Bacon Factory

Other warthogs were not so much in the mood for mating, but for fighting.

Disagreement

Disagreement

Also in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we spotted a pair of topi fighting for dominance, so naturally I had to capture an image.

Topi Tussle

Topi Tussle

During our first trip, we had the enormous pleasure of seeing leopards mating; but this time, we saw other species of wildlife mating, including the impressive spectacle of lions mating.

This time, we also had the pleasure of witnessing a few animals fighting.

 

Where Were the Elephants?

There were elephants around, but not very many.

We counted on three sightings of elephants on this occasion, and two of those sightings were of the same unique elephant bulls.

We did have a very pleasant encounter, as this giant strolled right up to our vehicle.

Mighty Elephant Bull

Mighty Elephant Bull

There is nothing quite like having a six-tonne animal right outside your vehicle!

Other than these two sightings, we only spotted elephants on one other occasion, but they were in the distance, and we were heading elsewhere.

 

Very Dry Conditions

One thing we noticed during this trip was that the grass was much shorter and drier, and that there was far less water, with the Mara River being noticeably shallow.

The wet season had officially ended, but by all accounts, it was quite a dry wet season, and we could see evidence of that.  Even in the image of the elephant above, the grass is very brown and dry.

Without being too political, it must be conceded that our climate is changing.  Africa is becoming hotter, and the mighty Victoria Falls has reduced to something of a trickle.  The plains of the Mara were very visibly short and dry, and while there was plenty of wildlife around, there had to have been an impact.

We visited the Mara River on a number of occasions, and the water level was dangerously low.  The height of the banks, and the potential height of the water could be seen; but the water was not there.

Four years earlier, the Mara was more lush and more green.

 

Dawn Landscapes: Craptacular Skies

The term ‘craptacular’ is the only appropriate invented adjective to describe the terrible skies we had at dawn during this trip.

Every morning, our plan was to shoot landscape images at dawn, but on most days, the sun was obscured by clouds, and the clouds were not photogenic.

Our best landscape images were captured during the afternoon, during which time we were treated to moody skies and an intense golden hour on day five.  We shot away from the sun, towards a brooding sky.

Golden Acacia

Golden Acacia

What amazing light!

Another stand-out landscape image was this silhouette of an acacia tree I shot during a sundowner on day four.

Sundowner

Sundowner

During our first trip, we were treated to far more rewarding skies; but this time, we still managed to capture some pleasing landscape images.

 

Beginning of the Great Migration

Something very unique about this trip was the early onset of the Great Migration.  On the day we spent in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we got to witness the beginning of this amazing event.

As we discovered, many migratory wildebeest had already crossed the Sand River, which meanders across the border of Tanzania and Kenya.

The wildebeest were already around the Talek River further to the north, where were had seen them.  These early migrants would soon enough be joined by hundreds of thousands more as the season continued on.

While we did not see the spectacle of a river crossing, we did witness the beginning of the Great Migration, which in this part of the African continent had arrived earlier than usual.

 

Conclusion

We had been on two amazing trips to Kenya over a period of four years.  There were many experiences, many encounters, many familiar sights, sounds and smells, a re-visit to old friends, and the making of new friends.

They had been two similar trips, but two vastly different trips.

This article has highlighted the unique differences, as well as some similarities, we had observed during this most recent trip, in comparison to our first trip.

In the African wilderness, every day is different.  Every game drive is different.  Every encounter and experience is different.  That is what makes it so amazing and exciting.

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 7 of 7

Our final day in the Maasai Mara had arrived, and our trip was soon to be over.

We had just the one morning game drive, before the unpleasant familiarity of packing and returning to Mara North Airstrip for the undesirable but necessary flight back to Nairobi.

After grabbing our gear and signalling for the Maasai tribesman to escort us through the darkness from our tent to the camp fire, we met Mario and Francis for a final morning drink around the fire before heading out into the plains to see what awaited us.

We headed into the north part of the conservancy.

For the seventh day in a row, the sky was not suited to compelling dawn landscape photography, so we got straight to the business of looking for wildlife.  In the Mara, one does not necessarily need to look for the wildlife; it is just there, sometimes in abundance.  The exception, and a challenging one at that, is to find an elusive cat such as a leopard, serval or caracal.

Not far north-east of camp, we encountered a red-necked francolin on the ground.  This was another first-time experience, having never seen one before.  The sighting was not ideal for photography, so it was an eyes-only sighting.

Francis was leading us north to Pui Pui, a lush woodland Mario particularly likes.  It is located north of the C13 road, not far from neighbouring Lemek Conservancy.

In this area, we were greeted by beautiful golden hour light, and we spotted a dik-dik on a mound, followed soon by an impressive male impala in the open.  Typical of an antelope, he looked in the opposite direction when I tried to photograph him.

I spotted a tree I wanted to photograph, so we climbed out of the 4WD and set up for some landscape photography.

I borrowed Mario‘s Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, within which the 170mm focal length provided an ideal focal length for capturing a pleasing landscape image of the tree, which was being bathed in rich, warm golden hour light.

Here is the resulting image I captured, with a brooding sky in the distance providing some excellent contrast and mood:

Morning at Pui Pui

Morning at Pui Pui

After this session, we boarded the 4WD again, and Mario wanted to shoot the rising sun over the canopy of the dense bushland, using a telephoto lens.

I could not get excited about the concept of the image, and did not take any shots myself; but Mario landed a very pleasing image which looked far better than I expected of the scene.

We soon headed west, and spotted a martial eagle in a tree.  We shot some images, but the good light had faded, and the martial eagle was too far away.

We then headed north-west towards the Mara River, finding a lilac-breasted roller on the ground.  The striking colours of this species of bird makes it appealing, both visually and photographically.

Unfortunately the conditions were not ideal, as the roller was on the ground, which made for a cluttered composition.  Additionally, photographing a bird from a higher altitude does not make for compelling images.

After spending a few more minutes with the lilac-breasted roller, we headed to the river and climbed out of the vehicle.  From high on the south bank, we could see hippos wallowing in the mud.  The water level in the Mara River was very low when we were there, so we were fortunate enough to see a mother and baby hippo standing on a mud bank.

Baby Hippo on the Mara River

Baby Hippo on the Mara River

By strange coincidence, the last time I photographed hippos happened to also be on our final game drive during our last trip to Kenya.

Fifteen minutes later, as we headed south-west of the river, we happened upon a pair of warthogs engaging in a battle.

We saw many warthogs during this trip, and while they are not the most attractive or interesting animals, they are part of the Mara story, and when one sees them engaging in behaviour such as fighting or mating, it is worth capturing the moment.

Disagreement

Disagreement

After leaving these pigs to it, Francis took us south-west, where we encountered female cheetah Kisaru!

We had first seen her during the previous afternoon, in the very same area where the warthogs were fighting.  Overnight, she had moved roughly in line with the river, in a south-westerly direction.

Naturally, we spent some time with her, capturing various images.  The sky by this time had turned grey, and the light was flat and uninspiring.  I did not land any ‘wow-factor’ images, but all the same, just being in the presence of a cheetah is a reward.

In the very same area, we spotted a Cape buffalo grazing.  By now, some light drizzle had started to fall, so in the lower-than-usual light, we set about photographing the buffalo at a sufficiently slow shutter speed to capture the rain drops as streaks.

Hitching a Ride

Hitching a Ride

These large, dangerous and grumpy bovines make for some great photography, particularly when an oxpecker is perched on the animal, hitching a ride.

After we had finished photographing the buffalo, we headed south to a dense, bushy area, and encountered one of the lionesses from the Cheli Pride.

I captured a portrait of the female as she rested, surrounded by the foliage of croton bushes.

At Rest

At Rest

A while later, on our way back to camp, we headed south-east, and encountered another lioness from the Cheli Pride.  This lioness had cubs!

Naturally we spent some pleasing time with the lions, photographing both the mother and the cubs as they played and foraged around in the thick scrub.  Photographically, it was not a productive sighting, but it was a nice way to conclude our final game drive, and it was our final sighting of the Cheli Pride for this trip.

We headed back to camp, and the three of us sat down to a cooked breakfast in the dining tent, enjoying the presence of zebras grazing a short distance away.

After breakfast came the unpleasantness of packing and preparing to depart.  Our flight back to Nairobi was not until later in the afternoon, so we had time to relax a little.  We also bought some things from the camp‘s gift shop.

A new initiative introduced to Elephant Pepper Camp under the management of Tom and Alison is the planting of trees around the camp.  Earlier in the week during a few hours of down time at camp in between game drives, Xenedette had planted a tree for both of us.  Naturally, we chose elephant pepper trees in honour of the name of the camp, which is nestled within a distinctive cross-shaped cluster of elephant pepper trees.

During the time we had between breakfast and departure, Xenedette took me to the location of our trees, which is just outside the entrance to the camp.

Mario also decided to plant a tree, so we went back with him and watched him plant his tree.

Francis had also planted a tree some time ago, so all four of us now have our own tree planted on the grounds of Elephant Pepper Camp.

Francis is under strict instructions to ensure that our trees are watered daily and grow larger and healthier than anyone else’s trees.

Beside each tree is a flat stone, upon which is painted the name of the person who planted the tree, and the date on which it was planted.  This initiative is a fantastic way to give back to Kenya, and leave a piece of ourselves at Elephant Pepper Camp.

Soon enough (too soon!), it was time to climb into the 4WD for the final time, and head to Mara North Airstrip to board our departing flight.

We said all of our goodbyes to Tom, Alison, Francis, James, Amos and the other wonderful staff, before hitting the road.

During the flight back to Nairobi, my mood was sombre, and even as I write this article now, it is not pleasant to recall the feeling of departing a truly special place, and one in which I could happily spent a lot more time if real life was not the obstacle it is.

And so ended an incredible second trip to the Maasai Mara, which had been filled with so many familiar faces, places and wildlife, but which had also been enriched with many first-time experiences.

In the African wilderness, every day is different.  Every game drive is different.  Every encounter and experience is different.  That is what makes it so amazing and exciting.

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 6 of 7

It was now our sixth day in the Maasai Mara during our epic trip in June of 2019, and the safari was drawing near to a close.

So far, in five days, we had not seen a single leopard.  Would today be the day?

As always, the plan was to start the day with some landscape photography at dawn, but true to form, the sky was terrible, so we abandoned the notion, initially making our way south of camp.

Within minutes, we encountered some of the lions from the Cheli Pride.  We did not stop to capture any images, heading further south-east, where we spotted a secretarybird in the distance.  This was the first time we had seen one, but the low light and distance made it a viewing experience only.

Soon enough, we changed direction, and made our way north into the northern region of the Mara North Conservancy.

A little while later, we encountered some banded mongooses out in the open, so we stopped to capture some quick images as these small creatures scurried about, occasionally stopping on a mound.

During this sighting, we also spotted a herd of impala in the distance, so I captured images of these.  I did not capture anything special, and even though many an impala can be found in the Maasai Mara, I still like to photograph these animals.  While they do not have the appeal and excitement of one of the big cats, they are still important players in the African story.

We headed further west, and encounter more banded mongooses, where we again captured images as they scurried around a dead tree branch.

A short time later, a little further south-west, not far north of the C13 road running through the conservancy, we encounter the same elephant bull we had seen on our first day.

Second Encounter with a Big Tusker

Second Encounter with a Big Tusker

We did not see many elephants at all during this trip, so spending some time with this impressive elephant bull in the warm morning light was a pleasure worth indulging.

I captured plenty of images, and some decent video footage, as he grazed on the open plain.

Even though the Maasai Mara is a very big place, it is still possible, and in my experience not uncommon, to encounter a specific animal on more than one occasion.  In the case of this seriously impressive six-tonne elephant, while we were not specifically looking for him, he was on this occasion not very far south of where we had first encountered him five days earlier.

We then headed a little west, where Mario spotted some strolling giraffes in the distance.  As we were in very open plains in the warmth of the morning sun, Mario wanted to capture images of the giraffes as they walked past us in the distance.

While we had seen a few giraffes during this trip, we had not really made any decent attempts to photograph them, so this opportunity was worth pursuing.

Francis stopped the vehicle, and we all disembarked, carefully making our way along the side of the vehicle so that we could position ourselves low on the ground.

I had a makeshift ‘tripod’, consisting of a foldable stool we use at breakfast, lunch and sundowners, plus a couple of sandbags on the top, on which to rest my lens.

Mario actually captured a photo of us shooting as the giraffes made their way across the plain.

Our presence did not go unnoticed, however, with the giraffes stopping and looking right at us, as can be seen in this image I captured:

This is Africa

This is Africa

This is Africa.  An image of a giraffe wandering across the open plains with acacia trees in the background is one of those iconic ‘only in Africa‘ images.

Getting a low angle of a subject or scene can sometimes make a dramatic difference.  Even though for most of the time we are only a few feet higher inside the 4WD and shooting with long lenses, sometimes even a slight decrease in altitude can make an image stronger, especially when the subject happens to be the tallest animal in not only Africa, but the entire world.

After we had finished photographing the giraffes and stretching the legs, we headed north towards the Mara River, where something special awaited us 25 minutes later.

My guess is that Francis already knew what was happening, but we, not unusually, did not.

It quickly became apparent what was awaiting us when we encountered two honeymooning lions.

This lush area, close to the Mara River, was a haven of activity for us during the trip, and it is deep within the territory of the Cheli Pride.  Not far from this area, but further north-east and closer to the river, is where we had encountered the River Pride four years earlier.

Our arrival on the scene was met by a male and female lion resting photogenically on top of a mound in the open.

Mating lions spend around four days in each other’s company, well away from the rest of the pride.  While there can be fierce and frequent bouts of mating, there is also a lot of not much, as the lions tend to laze around.

Being in the company of mating lions, which had happened for us twice on this trip, is always special, and there are massive photographic opportunities.

This magnificent male lion is Lenkume of the Angama Pride, born in February, 2013.

Lenkume

Lenkume

Lenkume had been mating with one of the females from the Cheli Pride.

I captured plenty of images of Lenkume, as well as the Cheli Pride female, as they rested in the morning sun.

Cheli and Angama

Cheli and Angama

Five minutes before I captured this image of the Cheli Pride female, the two big cats began mating right in front of us.  I did not capture any still images of this spectacular sighting, as I was recording video footage instead.

As the brief mating session concluded, there was a deep growl from the female before Lenkume dismounted.

This was yet another first-time experience for us.  We had never seen lions in the act of mating. During our first trip to the Maasai Mara four years earlier in 2015, we were treated to a rare and special encounter of leopards mating.  Just seeing a leopard is special enough, but to encounter not only one of these elusive and solitary big cats, but two together, takes it to another level; and to see them mating elevates the experience into the stratosphere.

Now we had seen lions mating, and it was awesome.

The day was starting to become one of surprises, and a few minutes later, another 4WD arrived on the scene.  In it was none other than zoologist and wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott of Big Cat Diary fame, who put the Maasai Mara region on the map, and brought the lives of the Mara‘s big cats into the homes of millions of people.

As a big fan of Big Cat Diary, Jonathan Scott is very familiar to us, and leading up to this trip, we had watched it again.

He had arrived at the right time, as a few minutes later, Lenkume and his companion became active, and wandered a short distance from the mound, where they mated again.  While I did capture images, they were further away, in harsh light, and facing away from us, so it did not make for compelling photography.

After this most recent mating session, the two lions moved a short distance north, and parked themselves under the shade of a tree for some rest.

Francis followed them, and Jonathan Scott‘s vehicle also moved to where the lions were resting.

We had a good position and some shade.  Now, it was a waiting game.  We simply sat there, quietly talking and wondering what Jonathan Scott and his companions were doing.  Was it work, or was it pleasure?

We more or less had the lions to ourselves, and a great opportunity to witness them mating again.

Alas, it did not happen.  They were done for the time being.  We must have stayed there for at least 30 or 40 minutes before eventually deciding we would start to make our way back to camp.  Usually we eat breakfast out in the field, but on this morning we had decided to have a cooked breakfast in the comfort of camp.

As we began two depart, we pulled up alongside Jonathan‘s vehicle and began to talk about the morning and our trip in general. Jonathan asked us where we were from, and when I told him, he related how he and wife Angie Scott had worked with fellow countryman Abraham Joffe on the Canon production Tales by Light, which we had also seen.

After chatting for ten or fifteen minutes, we departed the scene.  We never found out what Jonathan was doing, but he did have another photographer with him (not Angie) and some Canon super-telephoto lenses, so he may have been working.

What a morning it had been.  Spending time with a large-tusked elephant bull we had previously encountered, seeing  the mating of lions from two different prides, and meeting Jonathan Scott, all made for an adventure-filled morning.

Back at camp, it was time for some bacon, eggs, toast, coffee and some down time.

The afternoon and evening was going to be very exciting.

When on safari, time flies.  Before we knew it, we were heading back into the plains to see what the afternoon, sunset and early evening would bring.

A lot.

Given the exciting encounter we had experienced with the mating of Angama male Lenkume and a Cheli Pride lioness, we headed back to the same area where we had encountered them before breakfast.

The mating couple was still in the area, and we found Lenkume resting near a bush just south-east of where we had left them earlier.

We spotted the female heading north before veering north-east.  Suddenly, Lenkume began to follow her, and he picked up the pace, trotting in her general direction.

We figured that the female had cubs.  She headed to a thicket to seek cover.  We were increasingly becoming concerned, as this was a mating couple, and if the female had cubs, a male lion from another pride would unhesitatingly kill the cubs.  And now, the lioness was leading Lenkume straight towards them!

There were two other possibilities: the female either did not have cubs, or any cubs which were hidden away were sired by Lenkume.

It was a tense time.  We were following Lenkume, and made our way to where the female was likely to be.  She was in a very thick bush, making it difficult to see her.

Francis circled the cluster of bushes, looking for any signs of the lions.  After dwelling in the area for a little while, we decided to leave, and headed further north-east, towards Mara North Airstrip.

Mario had spotted an eagle flying around, so we decided to try and capture some images of the eagle in flight.  For me, it was an unsuccessful attempt.

After Mario was finished, we headed north towards a sharp bend in the Mara River, at which we had stopped for breakfast on our second day.

Sitting on a mound next to a croton bush was a lone female cheetah.

She is called Kisaru, and she is a daughter of Amani.

She was also heavily pregnant!

What a sighting.  It had already been established that the cheetah was a big part of this trip, but this latest sighting elevated the experience.

This was our first encounter with Kisaru, and we had her all to ourselves.  Inexplicably, there were no other vehicles around.  Usually when there is a sighting of a cheetah , other vehicles, both from our camp and other camps in Mara North Conservancy, quickly arrive at the scene.

We were blessed with an abundance of photographic opportunities, and I was able to capture my signature style of frame-filling portraits of Kisaru.

Portrait of Kisaru

Portrait of Kisaru

In this image, I was able to capture the beauty of Kisaru as she stood from her resting place to look at something in the distance which had attracted her attention.

Kisaru spent 40 minutes resting on the mound from the time at which I captured my first image, to the time at which she rose, stretched and headed a short distance into the open, where she found another mound and presented even better photographic opportunities.

She spent a further 10 minutes resting on the second mound, surveying her territory.  It was 5:31pm, and the light was decreasing.

When Kisaru stood to survey her territory, I was able to capture another pleasing image of her.

Kisaru on the Lookout

Kisaru on the Lookout

A cheetah is never really at rest, particularly when pregnant and alone.  Cheetahs are constantly looking and listening, and scanning their surroundings for threats or potential meals, and with eyesight able to see up to two kilometres, they are well equipped.

A minute after I captured that last image, Kisaru decided that she was moving on, so she stood and stretched before heading north-west, closer to the Mara River.

Evening Stretch

Evening Stretch

I had been shooting these images at ISO 4,000, so the light was quite low.

Naturally, we were not ready to call it a day, so we followed Kisaru as she continued on her journey.

During the two stops so far, I captured some decent video footage of Kisaru as she groomed and surveyed.  At one point, she was two or three metres from us, and walked right behind our 4WD.

Cheetahs can cover a lot of distance in a short time, even though they are not walking particularly quickly.  The distance between Kisaru and us had increased, and she was north-west of us.

With the sun edging towards the horizon, Mario wanted to capture some silhouette images of Kisaru.  This meant we needed to be positioned low, close to the ground.  In order to do that, we needed to climb out of the vehicle.

Normally when a predator is nearby, one does not exit the vehicle!  We had 46 metres of distance from Kisaru, so we decided to very carefully exit the vehicle and position ourselves for an image.

While Kisaru was undoubtedly aware of our presence, we carefully crept alongside the vehicle, never standing out and making our shapes visible.  We had to effectively blend in with the vehicle and avoid alarming the cheetah.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Year of the Cheetah

Year of the Cheetah

In order for a silhouette image to be effective, the subject needs to be distinctly separated from the background, and recognisable in shape.

There is no denying that this is an African cheetah!

I captured another image of Kisaru looking to the left of the frame.

Kisaru in Silhouette

Kisaru in Silhouette

After we had finished capturing our silhouette images, we carefully boarded the 4WD and again followed Kisaru.

We found her out in the open, and captured a few more images as she sat on a mound, surveying her territory.

Kisaru Surveying

Kisaru Surveying

Soon the light would be too low, and we would head back to camp.

I captured my final image of the day at 6:20pm, by which time the sun had set, and the darkness was increasing.

On our way south-east to camp, we saw some unfamiliar vehicles heading in the direction from which we had come.  The show was over, and with the light rapidly falling, there would not be much of a chance for those people to see much.  Hopefully they saw something, but at any rate, we had spent most of our final afternoon/evening game drive in the company of an amazing and very photogenic cheetah, and we had her all to ourselves.

Thursday, 6th June, 2019 had been a big day in the Mara, consisting of first-time sightings of banded mongooses and a secretarybird; quality time spent with an impressive elephant bull, who was one of only a few elephants we had seen; photography of an iconic giraffe on the plains; an unforgettable experience with mating lions; meeting the esteemed Jonathan Scott (who in person is exactly the same as he is on television), some tense moments as we feared for the fate of any cubs belonging to the Cheli Pride female; and the majority of our final afternoon/evening game drive spent with new-to-us and heavily pregnant cheetah Kisaru.

We still had not seen a leopard, but we had one more game drive to follow on what would be our final day in Kenya for this trip.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day seven.

Since returning, we learned that Kisaru had a litter of six cubs!  We hope they are doing well.

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 5 of 7

On the morning of our fifth day in the Maasai Mara during this most recent trip, we woke at 5am as usual to prepare for an early start, with the intention of engaging in some landscape photography at dawn.

Unfortunately, for the fifth day in a row, the sky was terrible, and was visibly hopeless even in the darkness as we huddled around the camp fire.  The notion was quickly aborted, and once we boarded the 4WD, we headed south towards the Offbeat area.

About half-way there, we spotted an elephant in the distance.  Unusually, we had seen very few elephants during this trip.  Unlike the last trip, these giants were just not around.  We did not stop for photography, instead continuing further south.

We did not know this at the time, but we were about to experience a special sighting.  I suspect Francis already knew ahead of time, but we were none the wiser.

Around 30 minutes later, we arrived at a dramatic scene of the Offbeat Pride of lions feasting on a buffalo!

Three or four other vehicles were also at the scene as the lions gorged themselves.  Much of the kill had been devoured, but there was still plenty of food for the pride.

While it is not highly unusual for experienced lions to take down buffalo, it is quite a dangerous task, as buffalo are large, aggressive and armed with horns which could seriously injure or kill a lion.  The two species are eternal enemies, and buffalo will launch attacks on vulnerable lions, particularly cubs.

Feasting on the carcass were a several lionesses, a large pride male and several cubs.

Here is one of the many images I captured as the feast played out in front of us:

Table Manners

Table Manners

Here, the large pride male feasts, while one of the females snarls as she contends to get her share.

Naturally, the lions were not alone, as a few jackals were also lurking nearby, hoping for a piece of the action.

We spent nearly 45 minutes watching, photographing and filming as the lions consumed their meal.  I captured a lot of video footage of the lions feasting, from which I will eventually produce a video (or maybe more than one) of this trip.

During the feast, the male lion was very patient and tolerant of the cubs, only snarling and snapping once as another lion got too close.

Soon enough, the the pride male finished, and stood up.  Mario, knowing lion behaviour well, knew that the male would wander off for a drink and a rest.

Our next step was clear: we had to hastily depart the scene, get ahead of the lion and place ourselves where he would be likely to find water so that we would be able to photograph him drinking.

Within a few seconds, Francis sped off in a westerly direction, where a short distance away, there was a creek.  It was a rush, both literally and metaphorically, as we had very little time to beat the lion to his destination so that we could capture images that nobody else would capture.

The other vehicles all stayed at the kill scene.  The inhabitants of the other vehicles were probably wondering why we would suddenly race away from the scene of a pride feasting on a kill, but they did not have the Dream Team of Mario and Francis, who knew what the male lion would do, and where he would go.

Only five or six minutes after the pride male departed the kill scene, we were positioned on the western side of the creek, which runs from the Olare Orok River to the south.

All of a sudden, we saw the impressive male lion arrive on the scene, and begin drinking from the creek.

After he had lapped up some water, he decided to cross. Francis had done an excellent job of positioning the vehicle so that we were looking straight down a slope the lion would climb.  He would be heading straight towards us.  And he did!

Here is a tight portrait I captured of the pride male as he ascended the bank, looking straight at us:

Thirst Quenched

Thirst Quenched

Very noticeable is an injury to his nose.  I am not sure if he was injured during the kill, or if this was an older injury and he happens to have some of his meal still on his face.  Either way, it was fantastic to have this large pride male heading straight towards us.

Xenedette captured a fantastic video of this lion crossing the water, climbing the bank, heading straight towards us and then veering off to his right, only one or two metres from the 4WD.

The pride male headed off to find a resting place, high on a ridge.  We then raced back to the kill scene, where a lioness and three cubs were still feasting.  We captured more images and video footage from a different angle.

Sure enough, it was time for the female and the cubs to depart in search for water, so again, Francis raced back towards the creek so that we could intercept the lions and photograph them drinking and crossing the creek.

Rather than attempting to cross the creek where the pride male had crossed a short time ago, the lioness and her cubs ventured a little further north, trying to find a suitable crossing point.

We had the opportunity to see the lions drinking, and caught a few glimpses as they were out in the open on a grassy bank.

Eventually they crossed, and the female headed further west, about half-way between the creek and the ridge, where she rested under an acacia bush.

Soon she was joined by a very handsome male cub, where I captured this image of the two lions planning their next move.

Planning the Next Move

Planning the Next Move

The lions had by now probably spotted the male high on the ridge to the west, and set off to join him.

The cute male cub ventured into the open, where I captured him in the warmth of the morning sun.

Heading Towards Mummy

Heading Towards Mummy

On this morning, I had decided that I needed some down time back at camp, so we had earlier arranged for a private breakfast back at camp.

After a wonderful morning spent with the Offbeat Pride of lions feasting on a buffalo, drinking and crossing the creek, we made our way north back to camp for a nice outdoor breakfast and some time to rest and take care of the image transfer and backup housekeeping I regularly do while on safari.

After some highly needed down time, we joined the other guests for lunch, and then had some afternoon drinks and spent some time processing images before it was time to head back out into the field.

For afternoon drive, we headed north towards Mara North Airstrip, and within a short period of time stumbled upon some action.

We encountered a clan of hyenas feasting on a topi.  Earlier, probably while we were back at camp, two sibling male cheetahs had killed a topi and quickly lost their kill to the hyenas.

Stolen Lunch

Stolen Lunch

Unfortunately, a high percentage of kills made by cheetahs, usually of antelopes such as Thomson’s gazelle, impala and less commonly, topi, are stolen by hyenas.

As hyenas are powerful and aggressive predators, cheetahs often flee rather than trying to defend their kills.  In this case, the hyenas had won.

In the distance, we spotted Mbili and Milele, who are two sons of a female cheetah called Kiraposhe.  They were heading east, away from their stolen lunch.

Mbili and Milele roam freely between the Mara North Conservancy, Lemek Conservancy and Olare Motorogi Conservancy.

As the brothers were heading eastward, we did the same, getting ahead of Mbili and Milele so that we could intercept them and photograph and video them coming towards us.

Here is an image I captured of one of the siblings.

Defeated

Defeated

The look on this cheetah‘s face says it all: defeated.

His head is down, his ears are flat, and his demeanour is forlorn.

With numerous hyenas on the kill scene, Mbili and Milele had no choice but to depart, and they moved quite quickly towards Lemek Conservancy.

For us, it was a matter of racing ahead, capturing images, and then moving off again to continually track them from the direction in which they were ultimately heading.

Further east, the cheetahs were out in the open, and I had the opportunity to capture this image of Mbili:

Mbili on a Mission

Mbili on a Mission

We continued tracking the cheetahs further eastward, until we landed at Mara North Conservancy Headquarters.  This marks the boundary between Mara North Conservancy and Lemek Conservancy.

We could not enter Lemek Conservancy, as no reciprocal entry agreement exists between the two conservancies; so we had no choice but to leave Mbili and Milele to continue on their journey into Lemek Conservancy.

We headed north-west, and in less than 20 minutes, encountered the Cheli Pride of lions.  As always, it was fantastic to see the Cheli Pride.

This time, the pride was located in and near a tributary running from the Mara River.  We first spotted a lioness resting on a mound out in the open.

Cheli Pride at Rest

Cheli Pride at Rest

We quickly discovered that there were other lions nearby, taking shelter down the ravine.  After venturing around to the other side of the tributary, we saw a wildebeest kill down the ravine.

Amongst the pride were some very young cubs, and as the late afternoon progressed, the cubs became more active, coming out from their hiding place to explore.

One of the cubs came right out into the open, and was soon joined by a sibling.  An opportunity to capture a clean image of two very cute lion cubs in the open is not one to be missed!

Cuteness Convention

Cuteness Convention

After spending some very pleasant time in the company of the Cheli Pride, we headed off to look for a landscape photography opportunity.

When we are on safari, we anticipate and look for landscape photography opportunities during every dawn/sunrise and sunset/dusk.

We headed south to look for some interesting acacia trees to capture in silhouette at sunset.  Along the way, Mario spotted some giraffes, and was keen to photograph those against the western sky; but I was determined that we continue our pursuit for some pleasing landscape photography images, as so far we had not been rewarded with favourable conditions.

Soon enough we spotted three acacia trees which looked viable.  I had my eye on one, but Mario had his eye on another, and we went with his choice.

Once again, the sky in the west was looking decidedly terrible, but as every keen landscape photographer knows, it always pays to look in every direction.

While the western sky was a non-event, to the north and east were some ominous clouds.  As the sun descended, we were greeted with an intense, brilliant golden hour.

Facing the acacia tree with our backs to the sun, we were able to capture rich golden colours on the Mara plains as a dark, brooding, rain-laden sky served as the backdrop.

Here is one of the earlier images I captured:

Golden Acacia

Golden Acacia

I love the richness of the beautiful light.  Late afternoon light looks most dramatic when the sun has a clear path towards a dark sky in the east.

While I was on the south-western side of this Mario was north of me, shooting a very different image of a ranger’s hut which was nearby.  He was excited about the hut, but I found it ugly and wanted to focus on the acacia tree instead.

The light was changing very rapidly, so we both scrambled around, changing positions and even lenses to capture some different views of the same subject.

I ran north-east, and borrowing Mario‘s Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, I opted for a vertical composition of the acacia tree from further back, positioned right near the ugly hut Mario had been photographing.

Here is the resulting image:

Quintessential

Quintessential

The light was falling, so I did something I was never intending to do, and photographed the ugly hut!

The Ugly Hut

The Ugly Hut

Africa is a land of contrasts.

This is a man-made shelter, used by rangers or farmers during the day.

It is an ugly, thrown-together, metal shed with nothing inside and no purpose other than to provide temporary shelter for people needing it when out on the expansive plains.

It looks wrong in such a land of beauty.  It completely contrasts with the natural beauty which exists in the form of the acacia tree, the plains and the dramatic sky to the east.

We photographed it anyway, if for nothing else than to show something different, and highlight the contrast that exists between man and nature in the Maasai Mara.

This was my final shot of the day before we headed back to camp for pre-dinner drinks and a communal dinner with the other guests.

What a day was Wednesday, 5th of June, 2019.  We experienced a fantastic sighting of the Offbeat Pride of lions feasting on a buffalo, photographed the large pride male drinking and crossing a creek (followed by a lioness and cubs a short while later); experienced a new cheetah encounter, during which we saw and followed Kiraposhe’s sons Mbili and Milele, who had lost their lunch to hyenas; enjoyed another encounter with the Cheli Pride in the late afternoon, and finished the day with some rewarding landscape photography in beautiful golden hour light.

The big cats had truly been the stars of the show on this day.  We still had not found a leopard, but we had a few more drives before the trip was to conclude, so there would be more opportunities.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day six.

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.

2015 Retrospective: Intense and Focused

Now that we are well into the year 2016, it is time for a retrospective look at my photographic journey in 2015.

The year can be summarised as intense and focused, as the majority of images I captured during 2015 were in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, where we embarked upon an incredible seven-day safari with our friend and safari leader Mario Moreno.

Looking at my statistics, I shot more images in 2015 than I did in the years 2013 and 2014 combined.

Had the Kenya trip not happened, I suspect I would not have shot much.

Photographically, my year started quite late — near the end of April — with a macro/still life image of a new watch I had been given:

Certina 1888

Certina 1888

We had some family in town from overseas, so I took the opportunity to shoot some cityscape images from a location at which I had not shot before.

One afternoon we headed to the Glebe apartment and I waited for the right light to capture some views of the beautiful city skyline.

This was the result:

Dusk Descendence

Dusk Descendence

And a little later, during blue hour:

The View Sucks

The View Sucks

I also took the opportunity to capture this tight view of the Anzac Bridge as twilight fell:

Anzac Bridge

Anzac Bridge

In May, we all had an outing at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo in Darling Harbour.  I took a camera and a couple of lenses, but I did not shoot a great deal of images.

This image of a kangaroo was one of the more pleasing images I captured on the day:

One of Skippy's Mates

One of Skippy’s Mates

Later in the month, I felt compelled to head out and shoot another cityscape.

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

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

Circular Quay West

Circular Quay West

It had been a slow, but pleasing enough start to the year.

In June, the photography I had been eagerly anticipating since we booked the trip the previous year, would finally happen.

We headed to Kenya to spend seven days in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we would re-ignite our passion for wildlife and landscape photography.

So far I have published over 100 images from that trip, so I will not publish a great deal of those images in this article; but as the trip brought us a lot of first-time encounters, I will instead present some selected highlights from the trip.

We were based in the luxurious eco-lodge Elephant Pepper Camp, which afforded us total isolation and positioning right in the middle of where the action was.

This is a view of one of Elephant Pepper Camp‘s honeymoon/family tents:

Elephant Pepper Camp's Honeymoon Tent

Elephant Pepper Camp’s Honeymoon Tent

And this is a view of the camp at twilight, depicting the dining tent, lounge and camp fire:

Around the Camp Fire

Around the Camp Fire

Highlights of the trip included one of my finest bird images, which was my first frame of only two I snapped while this pied kingfisher was bobbing up and down in flight:

Suspended

Suspended

Just about every day, we were treated to lions — most prominently, the Cheli Pride.  One of the fantastic things about the Cheli Pride was its abundance of cubs, and on this trip, it was our first time seeing wild cubs, such as this cute little lion:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

On one afternoon, we were fortunate enough to spend some time, in pleasing, afternoon light, in very close proximity to a lilac-breasted roller, where I captured this and a number of other images of the national bird of South Africa:

Plumage

Plumage

Naturally, a safari in Africa encompasses more than just wildlife — there are amazing opportunities for stunning, iconic landscape shots, and we certainly took advantage of that, rolling out into the plains in the pre-dawn darkness before other safari-goers were even awake.

This was one of my earlier landscape shots, captured during a moody morning:

The Moody Mara Plains

The Moody Mara Plains

On another morning, we captured the ‘postcard shot’ of a rising sun behind a lone acacia tree:

Sunrise on the Mara

Sunrise on the Mara

This particular tree is known as Mario’s Tree, as Mario often photographs it.  We certainly did — several times — including one particular morning which greeted us with a colourful sky:

Lone Acacia

Lone Acacia

On only our second day on this trip, we were treated to a number of first-time encounters.  In the morning, we encountered our first Mara leopard, who was also also the first leopard we had seen in a tree; and in the evening we found our first male lion of the trip, again a member of the resident Cheli Pride.

We had gone back to Leopard Gorge to look for the young male cat, when we found a large, dominant male lion in the area instead.  If the leopard was around, he was hiding and would not be seen.

Here is the beautiful young male leopard perched high in an elephant pepper tree:

Leopard of the Day

Leopard of the Day

We not only encountered one male lion, but two!  His brother also emerged from the distance and joined him for some bonding and lazing before the night‘s hunting commenced.

Here is one of the stunning Cheli Pride males we encountered:

Surveying

Surveying

The day after we met the dominant males, we encountered numerous members of the pride, minus the males, feasting on a zebra kill the next afternoon.  This was another ‘first’ for us, as we had hitherto never seen lions feasting on a kill.  It was quite a sight, as this wider image shows:

Feast

Feast

The next day, we spent a dramatic afternoon with the Cheli Pride again, firstly as we encountered one of the mothers on her own, out in the open, calling for the pride.

Here is an image I captured of the lioness in the warm afternoon light:

Cheli Mother

Cheli Mother

Before long, a mighty rainstorm descended upon us, which made the big cat uncomfortable, as well as presenting challenges for us.  As the rain began to subside, camera shutters sounded like rapid gunfire as we captured action shots of the lioness shaking the water from her head.

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

Towards the end of the trip, we spent one day further south in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we experienced yet another first.

So far, the one species of African big cat we had never seen in the wild was the cheetah.  On that trip, we finally encountered wild cheetahs.  It was an exciting experience to firstly see them from a distance, and then drive to position ourselves optimally to be ahead of where they were headed.  It became more exciting as the cheetahs got closer, and I had a few opportunities to photograph the family, which consisted of a mother and four sub-adults.

Here is one of the nicer images I captured of these amazing big cats:

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

It had been a long wait, but finally we spent some time with wild cheetahs.

Our next morning in the Mara consisted of a portrait shoot with Maasai tribesman called Baba, with whom we travelled to Mario’s Tree, where we shot some dramatic silhouette portraits of him as the sun rose on one of our final days in the Mara.

Here is one of the more striking images I captured during the session:

Baba the Maasai

Baba the Maasai

Our final evening in the Mara brought something we could have never predicted, and something which is quite rare to see: mating leopards!

At first, we spotted a young female leopard high in a tree during the warm afternoon light, but within a short time, a large, amourous male emerged from the thicket, and the two leopards began (or continued with) their ritual of rapid, exposive mating sessions, which can last for days.

We spent the rest of the drive witnessing this amazing sight, and the following image captures an intense moment as the female expresses her displeasure at the male’s advances:

Growl of the Leopardess

Growl of the Leopardess

The next morning was our final, somewhat subdued game drive in the Mara before we would fly back to Nairobi for a night and another day before departing Kenya.  We were fortunate to encounter a small pod of hippos in a watering hole, where I had the opportunity to capture some relatively close-proximity images, such as this large hippo on the bank, less than 30 metres away:

Hippo on the Bank

Hippo on the Bank

Before too long, this amazing photographic journey came to its conclusion.

After the intensity of our Mara trip, and my generally low photographic output before the trip, it was not surprising that I did not shoot much afterwards.  In fact, I shot only one more image for the remaining six months of the year!

The one image I did capture was a macro image of some red and orange roses to commemmorate our anniversary.

Fifth

Fifth

And so concludes my photographic journey for 2015.  It indeed was an intense and focused year, with Kenya dominating my photographic output, but with a few other images here and there.