Tag Archives: Cub

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 2 of 7

On our second day in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya during our Africa trip of 2019, we rose early in preparation for a hot drink around the camp fire with Mario, Francis and the Elephant Pepper Camp crew, before setting out into the plains in the darkness.

Our plan for this morning, and indeed for every morning in the Mara, was to shoot some landscape images at dawn and sunrise.

As we chatted around the warmth of the camp fire in cool morning air, the increasingly lightening sky revealed a lot of cloud cover, which was not promising for landscape images, but we set out anyway, as conditions can change quickly, and there is no certain way of knowing what the sky will do.

We headed a short drive west of camp to a familiar location: Mario’s Tree.

Mario’s Tree is an iconic acacia tree in the Mara North Conservancy, named after Mario Moreno (he laid claim to this tree, as he photographs it during most visits), which is very photogenic, and well positioned in altitude and location for shooting landscape images against the rising sun.

We naturally had to return to photograph it again during our second visit to the Mara.

Mario's Tree Revisited

Mario’s Tree Revisited

The conditions this time were vastly different, and the sunrise on this particular morning was far from spectacular; but it was nice to return to a familiar landmark in the coolness and quiet of dawn before venturing out further into the plains for our morning game drive.

For images like this, I find that the best results come from using a telephoto lens from a distance to ‘flatten’ the apparent distance between the subject and the background. When the sun is rising, it looks bigger and more dramatic.

Here is a behind-the-scenes view of the session:

Behind the Scenes: Shooting Mario's Tree

Behind the Scenes: Shooting Mario’s Tree

In the foreground is my camera rig, and in the distance is the rest of the gang, talking near our 4WD while I photograph Mario’s Tree.  Some plains game can also be seen scattered around the horizon.

Soon after wrapping up the landscape shoot and heading in a north-westerly direction, we encountered a few hyenas, one of which was eating the head and leg from a zebra, which the hyenas had probably stolen from lions overnight.

We stayed to watch the hyenas eating, where I also captured a portrait of a spotted hyena in isolation.

Portrait of a Spotted Hyena

Portrait of a Spotted Hyena

Sometimes hyenas can be difficult to photograph, especially when there is food around, as they tend not to stay still for very long.

During our time with the hyenas, we also spotted a pair of jackals mating.  At one point, the male appeared to get ‘stuck’ whilst attached to the female, and it made for some very awkward and uncomfortable moments.

Eventually, the jackals managed to separate after the deed had been done.

After those amusing moments, we ventured further north-west in the direction of the Mara River, encountering a herd of giraffes feeding on tall acacia trees.

Very close to the giraffes was an excitable male wildebeest, who was very much interested in mating, and rounding up all of his females for his mating pleasure.

It was amusing and fascinating to watch as he constantly chased the females around, trying to herd them and occasionally mount them.

Some herds of wildebeest, such as this herd, are territorial and do not move between Kenya and Tanzania as part of the Great Migration.

These animals tend to stay in the same area, and with the grass being as short as it was, despite the recent wet season concluding, the conditions are ideal, and the wildebeest do not need to migrate.

Gimme Some Action

Gimme Some Action

The male was constantly grunting and trying to herd and mate with the females.

While we were there, he did not have much luck, as the females were not interested, with some of them running away.  Despite this, the male kept trying to round them up.

After spending some time watching the male wildebeest having a difficult morning, we headed sharply north, and further towards the northern part of the conservancy.

Along one of the Mara River tributaries, we encountered a pair of saddle-billed storks.

This was the first time we had encountered these large and colourful storks.

They tend to be wary and evasive, so getting close enough to capture a clean and pleasing head-and-shoulders shot was not an easy task, but we were able to capture such images using longer focal lengths.

Female Saddle-Billed Stork

Female Saddle-Billed Stork

Visually, the difference between the female and the male is the eyes.  The female has yellow irises, whereas the male as black irises.

I concentrated on photographing the more visually appealing female.

We spent a good 25 minutes with the saddle-billed storks, which were challenging at times to photograph, as they were more interested in keeping their distance and foraging for food than posing for photographers.  How rude.

A short distance north-west of the saddle-billed storks, we encountered a juvenile short-tailed eagle (also known as a bateleur) on the ground, feeding on a warthog leg which had probably been stolen from another predator such as a lion or a cheetah.

Soon enough, the eagle launched into the air and landed in a nearby tree.

Francis moved the vehicle and positioned us to capture a clean image of the eagle, which was posed very nicely on a branch with some dark foliage in the background.

Here is one of the images I captured as the juvenile short-tailed eagle perched regally on an exposed branch:

Juvenile Short-Tailed Eagle

Juvenile Short-Tailed Eagle

With the sightings we had enjoyed of both the saddle-billed storks and the juvenile short-tailed eagle, once again the Maasai Mara had presented us with great opportunities for capturing pleasing images of birds.

The morning was still young, so after spending ten to fifteen minutes photographing the juvenile short-tailed eagle, we continued on, this time in a north-easterly direction towards the Mara River.

We soon we arrived at a distinctively sharp bend in the Mara River, slightly south-west of Mara North Airstrip.

This V-shaped section of the river would be our breakfast stop for the morning.  Upon arrival, we hopped out of the vehicle to stretch our legs, while Francis prepared our breakfast of muffins, fruit, yoghurt, coffee and tea.

This particular location of the river afforded a nice view of the numerous hippos in the water below.  Despite the wet season having recently ended, the water level was surprisingly low.

After some food, a stretch and a break, we climbed back into the 4WD and headed south, spotting some more giraffes and grabbing a few images.

What we did not know is that a few minutes later, we were going to see something special.

Within five minutes, we had the pleasure of encountering Amani and her three cubs for the third time in two days.

They had successfully hunted and taken down a Thomson’s gazelle minutes before we arrived, and were in the process of killing it as we watched.

I captured frame after frame, and switched to video mode, recording footage of the gazelle meeting its end in order to provide the cheetahs with a much-needed meal.

Fast Food

Fast Food

We had missed the hunt, chase and capture by a matter of only a minute or two, but the tommie was still alive and struggling when we arrived, and while it is never easy to see an animal perish, it is a necessary part of nature, and for cheetahs, a success amongst a high rate of failures.

Cheetahs hunt, kill and feed out in the open, and very often lose their meals to hyenas and other predators.

For this reason, cheetahs must devour their meals as quickly as possible, as they are very vulnerable whilst feeding on the open savannah, and other predators very quickly discover the presence of a potential meal and will chase cheetahs away.

For us, this was the first time we had seen a kill taking place in Africa.  While the death of an animal is never a pleasure and can be quite distressing to witness, it is the law of the land, and cheetahs, the smallest and most vulnerable of Africa‘s big cats, need to feed in order to survive and keep the endangered species going.

This was a magnificent sighting, and numerous safari vehicles had descended upon the area.

We spent over 40 minutes with Amani and her cubs as they killed their prey, feasted quickly, cleaned and groomed, and then settled for a rest under the cover of a croton bush after their high-impact activity.

During the sighting, I was fortunate to photograph and video two of Amani’s sub-adult cheetah cubs cleaning each other after feasting on the Thomson’s gazelle Amani had caught for them.

Feline Tenderness

Feline Tenderness

Predatory cats can exhibit such fierceness and aggression, but also have an amazing capacity for tenderness as they groom and bond.

This was our third and final sighting of Amani and her cubs in the space of two days in the Mara North Conservancy, but from what I have seen since we last saw them, they are doing quite well, and I hope they continue to do well in the harsh environment that is Africa.

We left Amani and her cubs to rest, and headed north a short distance, where we countered one of the ‘Ugly Five’: a marabou stork.  This was another ‘first’ for us, as we had not seen one before.

Marabou Stork

Marabou Stork

I captured a few images of the stork before we turned around to head back towards camp.

Along the way we spotted a jackal resting, and then headed further south-east, coming across yet another ‘first’.

We had gone looking for a female leopard who had been spotted in the area.

Unfortunately we did not find the leopard, but unusually we did encounter this male reedbuck, who was highly alert and wary of our presence.

Reedbuck on Alert

Reedbuck on Alert

We saw him around the other side of this bush where he was taking cover, but fortunately by the time we moved around to the other side, he remained in place and posed nicely as we captured images.

Soon enough, we arrived back at camp where we had lunch.  Being the second day, we still had the camp to ourselves, so we enjoyed a nice lunch, and I took care of my usual post-drive housekeeping.

We had decided to head back out into the plains at around 3pm or so, and before too long, it was time to depart.  We met Francis, climbed into the 4WD and set off in a southerly direction towards the Offbeat part of the conservancy, named after Offbeat Mara Camp, which is located in this very lush area.

We spotted and photographed a common eland, which was nicely positioned in the open, before continuing south.

Somewhere along the way, Francis noticed something on the ground while we were driving around the Offbeat area.  He stopped the vehicle, got out, and retrieved an Apple iPhone!

Someone had unfortunately lost an expensive smartphone whilst in the area.  We were naturally worried, and figured that perhaps it belonged to someone from Offbeat Mara Camp, which was nearby.

We had seen a few other vehicles in the area, and thought that one of the guests had dropped the phone without realising it, perhaps while moving around in the vehicle or while putting on or taking off a jacket.  It can happen so easily.

We tried to make contact with the other vehicles in the area, and after some time had passed, we fortunately found the rightful owner in one of the other vehicles.

The owner was a girl from Australia, who, as we found out when returning her smartphone, did not even know she had lost it, as she thought it was back at camp.  I told her that she must be the luckiest person in Africa, as the chance of finding a lost smartphone in the Mara is very slim.

After that fortunate reunion, we continued on our way around the Offbeat area, soon enough encountering the Offbeat Pride of lions for the first time.

Having seen cheetahs during the morning and lions during afternoon drive, the day was still getting better, and the rest of our afternoon/evening game drive was spent in the company of the Offbeat Pride of lions.

A moody sky was the background, which made for some pleasing photography.

Here, after sunset and as the darkness of night increasingly set in, one of the lionesses rests, while nearby the cubs and other young pride lions were becoming more active.

Early Evening Leisure

Early Evening Leisure

During our time with the pride, the sky turned a magical pink and purple colour, so in between capturing images of the Offbeat Pride lions playing and becoming more active as the darkness of night approached, I captured an image of a distant cluster of trees set against the rich colours of the twilight sky.

Magical Offbeat

Magical Offbeat

The Offbeat area is beautiful, and spending it with lions and seeing some intense colour in the sky was a very pleasant way to finish the day.

A short time later, it was time to leave the lions to their business and return to camp for dinner, drinks and debriefing.

Sunday, 2nd June, 2019 had been a fantastic second day in the Mara, with a wide variety of wildlife, and numerous first-time experiences, including a fantastic sighting of a cheetah kill and subsequent feast, sightings of three new-to-us birds (a juvenile short-tailed eagle, saddle-billed storks and a marabou stork), a few animals who were feeling frisky and taking action, a reedbuck, and our first sighting of the Offbeat Pride of lions.

Additionally, we had been able to reunite a lost smartphone with its owner.

It was only our second day, and already we had seen and photographed so much.  The Mara did not disappoint, and we were still in the infancy of this trip.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day three.

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.

Video: Lions of the Mara

The year 2015 is drawing to a close, and it is hard to believe that it has been over six months since our epic trip to the Maasai Mara region of Kenya.

While I shot many images during that trip, I also captured a very decent amount of video footage; but it has taken me six months to find the motivation to produce a video from the footage I shot.

While I shot footage of various wildlife, I mostly focused on the lions, and this afternoon decided to spend a few hours to produce a video dedicated to the lions of the Mara.

My new video, Lions of the Mara, was recorded in the Mara North Conservancy and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in June of 2015, and features three different lion prides: the Cheli Pride, which is the resident pride in the Mara North Conservancy; the River Pride, which occupies the territory near the Mara River; and the Double Crossing Pride, which resides in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Running for four minutes and 30 seconds, Lions of the Mara provides a highlight of the fantastic lion sightings we had during the trip, including two of the three prides feasting.

I hope people enjoy it.

Maasai Mara: Day 5 of 7

Our plan for day five in the Kenyan wilderness was to depart the Mara North Conservancy and head south into the public Maasai Mara National Reserve.  We were in search of cheetahs, the only big cats we had not yet seen.

Rather than heading out for two drives (morning and afternoon) near camp, we made a single day trip further afield into the main reserve, which for us would mean more first-time experiences, as we would later discover.

5am rolled around pretty quickly, so we went through the morning routines, spent a very short time around the camp fire, and headed out, as the main reserve was a longer journey.

Again we wanted to capture the beauty of dawn and sunrise in Kenya, so we headed to Mario’s Tree, where a fantastic sky was to soon greet us.

The first frame was captured at 6:20am, by which time there was a sliver of intense red near the horizon under a bluish, cloud-laden sky.

Less than fifteen minutes later, I captured the first of a few images I would publish from this sunrise, and rather than composing my landscape images in the usual landscape orientation, I rotated the camera 90 degrees and captured a vertical composition of Mario’s Tree.

Mario's Tree

Mario’s Tree

What was also unusual about this approach was that I had decided to horizontally centre the subject, which I so rarely ever do.

In landscape photography, rule-of-thirds (RoT) composition, whereby one places both the horizon and the main subject at the imaginary horizontal and vertical lines which would appear if the frame was divided into a grid of nine sections, is usually the practice followed; but sometimes, even in landscape photography, breaking this ‘rule’ can work better than the predictability ensured by RoT composition.

I think it worked well here.

While I photographed this iconic acacia tree in portrait orientation, I naturally returned the camera to its default position and captured a composition in landscape orientation too.

Lone Acacia

Lone Acacia

Again I centred the subject horizontally, which I think works just as well here as it does in the vertically-composed image.

In this version, the negative space on either side of the tree conveys the vast expanse of land so typical in the Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecosystem.

What a fantastic sky this was, and a sight I rarely see at home these days.  My landscape images contained rich reds, blues and greens as the sun gradually rose over Kenya.

Now, I do not often like to include man-made objects in scenes depicting nature, but I decided upon a third approach to this morning’s session at Mario’s Tree.

Mario and I decided to shoot some video footage, so he asked Francis to drive the vehicle across the scene so we could capture the presence of the 4WD in the Mara wilderness as a storytelling device.

Upon Mario‘s commands, Francis obligingly drove the vehicle from left to right, and right to left, several times, and at different speeds, as we captured stock footage for later use in some video productions.

Side-note: At the time of writing, I have yet to produce a video from the many clips I shot throughout the trip.  I have enough footage for several distinct videos, but it is a larger project which requires an investment in time.  I will produce those videos eventually, but for now my story remains confined to words and images.

For my next image, I decided, also unusually, to place the 4WD in the scene, with the acacia tree taking a more subservient role in the image.  Here is the result:

Great Parking Spot

Great Parking Spot

I titled this image Great Parking Spot.  Great parking spot, indeed!

For my final image during this morning’s visit to Mario’s Tree, which is five or ten minutes almost due west of Elephant Pepper Camp, I decided upon another storytelling image, this time placing not only the vehicle, but our people, in the scene.

I shot a silhouette of Xenedette, Mario and Francis, standing on the savannah, cameras, lenses and monopod in hand, with the 4WD parked adjacent to them, and Mario’s Tree also prominent in the scene, all set against the intensely rich reds and blues of the magical dawn that had greeted us.

On Safari

On Safari

This scene really captures the essence of our trip specifically, and of an African wildlife photography safari in general, and it will always be a memorable image of a memorable trip.  The only thing missing is me, as I was naturally behind the camera.

In hindsight, I really should have included myself in the scene, too.  I shot it from a considerable distance, so it would have been a sprint across the wet grass to get into the scene on time.

Mario had brought a small, compact camera for Francis to use, and he made frequent use of it during the trip — at least, when he was not driving, setting up breakfasts and sundowners, or looking for lions, leopards et al.

On the left is Francis, presumably ‘chimping’ at the images he had captured that morning.  In the middle is Xenedette, wearing a poncho and holding her Canon EOS 60D and my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM.  On the right is Mario, with his Canon EOS-1D X and Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM mounted on my monopod.  Behind the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM which captured the image, is me!

After spending half an hour at Mario’s Tree, it was time to make tracks. Francis took us due south, further away from camp, but still within the Mara North Conservancy.

Mario loves capturing silhouettes of African wildlife, and one of his signature images, titled Rhino Sunrise, depicts a silhouette of a critically endangered rhino in Greater Kruger National Park, set against the low but rising sun.

This morning we were in the mood for silhouettes, and shortly after departing Mario’s Tree, we saw a few giraffes.  While there are lots of giraffes in the Mara, we did not see a great deal of them, and did not spend much time photographing them; but this morning we made more of an effort, which turned out to be worthwhile.

I grabbed quite a few frames of a distant giraffes.  Mario was snapping away.  We were both outside the vehicle, so I captured a few images of him in action.  I then returned to photographing the giraffes.

For a strong silhouette of an African plains animal in the open, you need a few ingredients:

  1. a photogenic animal;
  2. a photogenic animal in the right place;
  3. a low angle so the animal is not ‘sinking’ into the ground;
  4. a strongly coloured background; and
  5. a photogenic animal in the right place, high on the horizon, doing something interesting against a strongly coloured background.

Easy, right?  Well, yes!

Here is what I captured:

Wait for Me, Mum!

Wait for Me, Mum!

What a moment!  Not only had I captured a giraffe on the horizon, but the giraffe was on the move, her tail almost straight out, with her calf closely following.  Both animals were cleanly and sharply defined, which is essential in effective silhouette images.

This is one of those ‘story’ images, whereby something interesting is happening.  It is so easy to get caught up in ‘posed’ shots of African animals sitting or standing around doing not much; but better wildlife photography depicts interesting or uncommon moments — something to elicit an emotional response in the telling of a story.

Seeing a juvenile giraffe following its mother across the savannah early in the morning is one of those images which tells the story of the African wilderness, as indeed do many other moments.

Through Mario‘s encouragement and influence, and my increased experience with African wildlife photography, this trip would be more about capturing the story unfolding than just the actors in between takes.

Now, by this time the sky was a bit grungy; there was faint colour, but it was not the striking and dramatic sky we had captured earlier up north at Mario’s Tree.  It was that ‘meh’ time of the morning, which falls between dawn and sunrise, and golden hour.  The ‘meh’ time is the lull between two peak periods of intense colour and light in the morning (and again in the afternoon between golden hour and sunset and dusk).

I had to push the colour and the contrast in this image, as the colour was present, but rather subdued.  The trick was to avoid going overboard, and I think I succeeded.

What is also very appealing to me about this image is that the sun’s rays can be scene shining down on our giraffes.

Later in the day, when we were back at camp in the afternoon in the library tent we had commandeered for use as our office and charging station, Mario and I again engaged in strong debate about the merits of an image of mine.

It was similar to the leopard image I had shot early in the trip, whereby Mario and everyone else who saw it were raving about it, and I was dissatisfied, as my expectations were set pretty high.

The same general dissent transpired, this time in relation to my giraffe silhouette.  Mario and Xenedette had worked on similar images across the table from me, and I was working on mine.  I was not all that taken by the image at first, and insisted that it was nothing special; but again, Mario, far more experienced than I, countered.  Mario was happy with it, and both he and Xenedette had shot very pleasing images; I just was not quite convinced yet about my own images.

As I continued to work the image, I saw the merit of it, and certainly a few people who have seen the image consider it to be one of the more stand-out images from this trip.

Okay, so it worked.  I eventually realised it was better than I had initially thought.

Mario: 2; me: 0.

Meanwhile, back in the wilderness, many hours before the post-processing and image merit debate, we wrapped up photographing the giraffes.

Less than ten minutes from where we had captured silhouettes of the giraffes, we spotted a tawny eagle perched on a branch close to where we were passing, so we stopped, and again in silhouette mode, decided to capture the eagle in flight just as it launched from the branch.

The Eagle's Flight

The Eagle’s Flight

A few minutes later we continued southward for the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

It would be nearly an hour before we captured our next frames.  We probably spotted various plains game along the way, but we did not stop to photograph anything.

Where we were headed was about half-way between camp and the Kenya-Tanzania border.

After more driving and discussion, we entered the main reserve, which is quite different to the private conservancies.  In the main reserve, vehicles are not allowed to drive off-road, and must stick to the established tracks.  This makes photography challenging, as one cannot get into a good position, and if something very interesting is happening well away from the road, if your view is obstructed, or your lens is not long enough, the pickings are slim.

Our next sighting would be incredible.

At 8:41am, we encountered a large pride of lions called the Double Crossing Pride, which inhabits the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

This pride was the third pride we had encountered on the trip.

The lions were congregated around a deceased elephant, and many other vehicles from all parts of the reserve had descended upon the scene.

From what we could tell, the lions had not killed the elephant; it had probably passed from natural causes rather than predation, but it certainly provided a huge meal for the Double Crossing Pride.

We spent time capturing images of three large lionesses feasting on the elephant, but trouble was brewing.

A deceased animal rarely goes unnoticed in the Mara, as lions, hyenas, vultures and other predators are always on the lookout.

In this case, hyenas also began to arrive on the scene, and typical of these greedy carnivores, they wanted a piece of the action.

The lionesses were not in the mood for sharing, though.

More and more hyenas had also congregated nearby, and their behaviour and vocalisations were becoming increasingly aggressive.

The lions were not happy, and were roaring and hissing at the hyenas, who were becoming closer to mounting an attack.

Stay Away

Stay Away

In this image, I had isolated one of the Double Crossing Pride females as she exposed her teeth in anger at a nearby pack of hyenas, hissing and spitting at them in no uncertain terms to warn them to stay away.

Seeing a lion pride feasting on an elephant was another first-time experience on this trip, and seeing the aggression of lions, was also a real treat, as all other lions we had encountered in the Mara and the Kruger were placid.

In the following image, three of the large Double Crossing Pride lionesses all had their say and warned the hyenas to back off:

Snarlfest

Snarlfest

The atmosphere was growing more and more tense, and it seemed certain that there would be a showdown.

All of a sudden, one of the seven or eight other vehicles at the scene took off.

I figured there was only one reason to depart a lion pride feasting and an imminent fight with hyenas: a better sighting somewhere else.  It had to be cheetahs!

Seconds after the first vehicle departed, other vehicles departed, and so did we.

There was massive excitement, as there just had to be something amazing awaiting us — not that what we had just seen was not amazing enough.

As it turned out, it was not a sighting somewhere else, but a sudden need to depart from a place at which we were not supposed to be.  The rangers had spotted all of the vehicles, and they were off-road at the lion sighting, which was a no-no!

The 4WDs dispersed, and we headed south-east.  We stopped for a quick breakfast, and then jumped back into the 4WD to search for more wildlife.

A little over 30 minutes after we departed the Double Crossing Pride, we caught our first glimpse of wild cheetahs!  There were five: a female and four sub-adult cubs.  Wow!

There was considerable distance between us, as even with 1,120mm of focal length, the cheetahs were quite small in the frame.  We could see them, though: one or two were sitting up upon a mound, scouting around, while the others lingered nearby.

Gradually, the cheetahs moved closer and closer to us, to the point where they walked right past us on the left side of the 4WD.

I captured the following image of a cheetah looking straight at us:

Spotted by a Cheetah

Spotted by a Cheetah

The time was approaching 11am, and the light was very harsh and glary.  I was struggling to photograph the cheetahs, both due to the harsh light and focus issues.  I unknowingly had my focus distance limiter switch on the wrong setting for the distance, which meant that the lens’s AF was not as accurate, and at times was missing, particularly as the cheetahs were moving closer and closer, not often staying still for very long.

While previewing the images I had captured, I became increasingly frustrated as I realised that I was not landing the shots.  800mm is a challenging focal length to use, but add the extra complication of a moving subject, incorrect focus limiter setting and dreadful light, and the story was not looking good.

The images, for the most part, were soft, and it took some time before I came to discover that I had landed a few decent images.

Mario explained that there was something about cheetah coats which makes them look soft when they are captured.  I was sure that it was not the cheetahs‘ fault that my images were missing the mark.  I persevered, though.

We moved positions several times, often needing to get ahead of the cheetahs so we could wait for them to approach us.

Cheetah on Alert

Cheetah on Alert

Here, this young cheetah, while resting on the grass, remained alert in case the need to pursue food or safety arose.

During the time the cheetahs were close by, I managed to land a shot of typical cat behaviour, which very much reminded me of our own cat.

Here, the cheetah stretches after getting up from a resting position, while one of the other cats rests behind.

Cat Stretch

Cat Stretch

Soon enough, the cheetahs were on the move again, as they were in search of food, or at least, opportunities to secure a meal.

Cheetah on the Move

Cheetah on the Move

This cheetah is out on the open plains, where a cheetah feels comfortable in spite of ever-present danger, but where a leopard would seldom be seen.

African big cats share some similarities, but of the spotted varieties (leopards and cheetahs), the cheetah is distinctly different in behaviour to the leopard.  Cheetahs do not mind being in the open, and love expansive plains and termite mounds.  Leopards, on the other hand, are extremely elusive, difficult to find, prefer to hunt under the cover of darkness, and hide in trees.

Francis moved the vehicle as we continued to pursue the cheetah family.

I finally landed some clean portraits, which, despite the harsh light, turned out decently.

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

This is one of my favourite images from the few good shots I landed.  Despite the harsh light, which often plunges a cheetah‘s eyes into total darkness, I was able to bring out the details as the youngster surveys the surrounding territory.

Scouting

Scouting

In this image, two of the cheetahs are positioned quite close to us as we followed them.  There were some distant antelopes — possibly a meal — which they were slowly and distantly pursuing.

Looking at Lunch

Looking at Lunch

This cheetah was certainly aware of what was in the distance as he gazes towards his quarry.

The cheetahs continued moving in an eastward direction across the plains, moving closer and closer to the Thomson’s gazelles in the distance.

Other vehicles had also arrived in the general area, and at one point as we were parked on the road watching the cheetahs slowly stalking, I counted maybe ten other vehicles, some of which were in the distance, and some of which had driven down the plain on the other side of the location at which the cheetahs were now resting under the shade of a thicket.

We stayed there for quite a while, as both the cheetahs, and us in turn, did nothing much.

Wildlife photography can be a huge waiting game, whereby one sits in anticipation, waiting for something interesting to happen.  There was always the possibility that the cheetahs would have gone into full hunting mode and taken down a gazelle, but on the other hand, they may have sat there for a few hours as the heat of the midday sun continued to shine down.

After sitting there for a while swatting flies, hunger, boredom and irritation began to increase, so we decided to abandon our current pursuit and have a lunch break.

Francis headed a considerable distance west.

Eventually he stopped at a tree on a hill, as we needed some shade.  Of all the trees he could have picked, he picked the one that had the remains of a dead antelope hanging off a branch.  We were in a leopard‘s territory, as we would soon find out.

This kill had probably been made a few days ago, and there was little left, except for flies, which pestered us as we attempted to eat and drink in the persistent heat.

Just to the north of the tree was a watering hole which contained a hippo or two.

We finished lunch and climbed back into the 4WD, heading a little further west to a clump of trees on the south bank of the Olare Orok River, just north of the Ol Kiombo Airstrip.  A little further to the south is the Talek River, which the Olare Orok River joins.

We were definitely in leopard territory, and Francis found a stunning leopard high up in a tree.  I snapped a few frames as reference shots.  The light was terrible, there was dense foliage, and there were certainly no great opportunities for leopard photography.  This was one of those occasions on which it was enough just to see such an elusive cat.

After we had spent some time with the leopard, Francis headed a little further south, where we encountered a lone female elephant grazing in very open, long-grassed plains.  The sky was looking a little moody as mid-afternoon wore on.  We captured a few images of the elly as she grazed on the bountiful reeds.

By now, I was ready to head back to camp, as we were considerably south, and it would be more than an hour’s drive back.

Thus ended our photography in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.  We made our way north, worn from a long, hot day, and my mood not particularly great due to the frustrating time I had photographing the cheetahs earlier.

We arrived back at camp, and Mario and I proceeded straight to post-processing HQ.  My mood had gone from bad to worse as I vocalised my frustration at my ineptitude at capturing good cheetah images . Mario did his best to take the edge off, but seeing my increasing frustration and louder, less G-rated rants, he decided to take affirmative action to ease my frustrations.

He got up and headed over to one of the Maasai tribesman employed as a guard at the camp, and had a quiet word with him.  He came back and told me that I had an opportunity to photograph some portraits of a Maasai tribesman, so we headed a few metres away from HQ, where I set up for a shoot as the early eve descended upon us.

I later came to realise, as evidenced by the cheetah images I have published here, that I did not do as badly as I thought, and that there were some good images amongst the mediocrity.

As it turned out, this was our only sighting of cheetahs in the wild, and while I was not initially convinced I had any decent images, I was again proven wrong (fortunately), and not only did I land some decent images, but the sighting itself was a first, and a fantastic opportunity even if there were no images.

We had finally achieved our goal of seeing wild cheetahs on this trip.

Not only that, but we had seen and photographed all three species of African big cats in the one day: lion, cheetah and leopard.  How great it was to see and photograph all three in a single drive!

After photographing the Maasai tribesman, I headed back into the library tent to process images, check online happenings and run through my religious ritual of offloading Xenedette’s and my images to the laptop, as well as backing up everything onto an external drive.

About an hour after the portrait session, I realised that twilight had arrived, so I ran out of the library to grab a shot of Elephant Pepper Camp during the blue hour.  Here is the result:

Around the Camp Fire

Around the Camp Fire

What a fantastic eco-lodge!  Elephant Pepper Camp was our home for seven days, and this very inviting camp fire, with the dining tent (right) and lounge tent (left) was what greeted us and all of the other guests every night after many hours spent out in the Mara with the magnificent wildlife.  The library tent, which Mario and I had commandeered, is off frame to the right.  Behind me are the flat plains of the Mara North Conservancy.

It had been a day of highs and lows, where my mood and tolerance for failing to live up to my own expectations had taken its toll; but looking back, I can honestly say that the day brought more good than bad.

A photographically frustrating day in the Mara is still a lot better than a great day at the office.

It had been another day of firsts:

  1. a new (to us) lion pride;
  2. lions feasting on an elephant;
  3. wild cheetahs (including cubs);
  4. a new (to us) leopard; and
  5. all three African big cat varieties in one drive.

Stay tuned for day 6 of our Mara adventures, during which we will meet and photograph Maasai tribesman Baba against a stunning sunrise; encounter and photograph birds in action; and spend the afternoon and early evening in the presence of a pair of mating leopards.

Maasai Mara: Day 4 of 7

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

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

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

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

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

Crimson Mara

Crimson Mara

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

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

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

Sunrise on the Mara

Sunrise on the Mara

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

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

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

The Jackal

The Jackal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trunk Wrestling

Trunk Wrestling

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

Elephant Embrace

Elephant Embrace

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

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

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

Hyena on the Lookout

Hyena on the Lookout

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

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

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

After breakfast, we headed back to camp.

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

Grassland Pipit

Grassland Pipit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheli Mother

Cheli Mother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roaring in the Rain

Roaring in the Rain

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

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

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

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

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

Anticipation

Anticipation

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

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

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

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

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

Reunited

Reunited

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

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