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.
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.
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
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.
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:
- a photogenic animal;
- a photogenic animal in the right place;
- a low angle so the animal is not ‘sinking’ into the ground;
- a strongly coloured background; and
- 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!
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
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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:
- a new (to us) lion pride;
- lions feasting on an elephant;
- wild cheetahs (including cubs);
- a new (to us) leopard; and
- 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.