Tag Archives: Double-Crossing Pride

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 4 of 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the image I captured:

Leopard Gorge

Leopard Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

Rock Hyraxes

Rock Hyraxes

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

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

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

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

Eland and Friends

Eland and Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topi Tussle

Topi Tussle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peekaboo

Peekaboo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busy Boy at Rest

Busy Boy at Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the first time, we encountered the Five Musketeers.

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

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

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

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

One of the Five Musketeers

One of the Five Musketeers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is one of the images I captured:

Big Buffalo Bull

Big Buffalo Bull

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

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

Sundowner

Sundowner

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for our adventures on day five.

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 5 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/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/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 1 of 7

On the morning of the 5th of June, 2015, we awoke in our hotel room in Nairobi, and began preparing for a big day ahead: we were heading to the Mara North Conservancy, which is part of the larger Maasai Mara ecosystem in south-western Kenya.

Our seven-day photographic wildlife safari was soon to begin, but beforehand, we met Mario for breakfast in the restaurant, and soon afterwards, packed and prepared for pickup from the Boma Hotel.

Much of the morning’s discussion concerned the logistics of lugging large, bulky and heavy camera equipment, as we knew we were limited in the amount of weight we could carry, and that we would be flying on small aircraft.

Once we arrived at Wilson Airport, we passed through security screening and headed to the Airkenya lounge.  Fortunately we had no issues getting our gear through.  We were early, but soon enough we would take a 45-minute flight westward for the Mara North Conservancy.

Some time after 11am, we landed on Mara Shikar Airstrip, which is located close to the southern bank of the Mara River.  We were greeted by Francis, who would be our guide and driver for the next seven days.

We then began a 40-minute drive south to Elephant Pepper Camp, a luxurious, eco-friendly, semi-permanent and self-sufficient camp located in a secluded, X-shaped cluster of elephant pepper trees in the north part of the conservancy.

Along the way, we encountered Thomson’s gazelle, zebra, eland and giraffe.  I captured some images, but the light was harsh, which does not make for good wildlife photography.  Of these plains game, only the Thomson’s gazelle was new to us, as we had seen the others in  South Africa.

Forty minutes later we arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, where we were greeted by Patrick, one of the managers of the camp.  We were soon taken to our tent, which was one of the two large tents on either end of the camp, designated for families or honeymoons.

Here is a view of what became our home for the next six nights and seven days:

Elephant Pepper Camp's Honeymoon Tent

Elephant Pepper Camp’s Honeymoon Tent

What a tough time it would be.  We would have to tolerate a king-sized bed, flush toilet, running water, double basins, a hot, running-water shower, beautiful British colonial campaign furniture, views of the Mara plains, absolute serenity, and the sounds of Kenya‘s wildlife roaming about during the night.  I would appreciate some sympathy from readers.

After settling into our tent, we headed back to the lounge and dining area of the camp, where we were given a proper induction, and advised that after dark we would be escorted throughout the camp by Maasai tribesman to protect us from dangerous wildlife.

Other than the resident staff and four Kenyan medical students, we were the only guests at the camp on the first day.  The season had only commenced, but more guests would be coming and going in the following days.

Soon after the briefing and the ever-important paperwork, we sat down to a delicious lunch with Patrick and Sophie, followed by a short rest before we would head back out into the wilderness for an afternoon/evening game drive.

At about 3:30pm, after climbing into our open-sided, canopied 4WD, we headed out into the plains in search of wildlife.  It did not take long before we encountered an elephant bull grazing in the semi-long grass.  There had been a lot of rain in the Mara in the week prior to our arrival, so the plains were lush and green.

Minutes later, our first feeling of excitement hit us as we encountered a lioness and a cub.  We are lovers of the big cats of Africa, and to see a lioness and a cub on the first day was a pleasing start.  It was one of many “firsts” for us, as we had not seen a lion cub in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve when we first visited Africa.

This lioness and her cub are part of the Cheli Pride, a large, 23-member (give or take) dominant pride in the Mara North Conservancy, named after Stefano and Liz Cheli, the owners of Elephant Pepper Camp and other eco-lodges in Africa.

Here is a view of the Cheli lioness basking in the afternoon sun:

Lioness on the Savannah

Lioness on the Savannah

We would most likely see this particular lioness several more times during the trip, as little did we know at the time, but we would encounter lions on every single day of our time in the Mara. The Cheli Pride would appear on numerous occasions, and we would also encounter the River Pride and the Double Crossing Pride.

When I first reviewed this image, I was very happy with it, but Mario told me that in the days to come, I would have encounters and capture images which would surpass this.  Of course, he was right.  I still like this image, though, and it does contribute to the story, as it was our first lion encounter, and our first Cheli Pride encounter.

Here is one of the Cheli cubs, looking very cute:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

After spending a bit more time in the company of these fantastic Cheli Pride cats, we headed off, spotting a young topi adult along the way, before we arrived at a place which would bring me one of my most pleasing images of the trip.

As we drove along in search of whatever would find us, Mario spotted a pied kingfisher, repeatedly hovering up and down in a single spot.  We stopped, and I grabbed my lens to prepare to shoot.

I shot only two frames of the kingfisher in flight, and to my astonishment, I landed this image in the very first frame:

Suspended

Suspended

Photographing birds in flight — particularly small birds — takes a lot of skill and luck, and in my case, it was more luck than skill.  I still do not know how I managed to land a sharp shot with very little effort, but I am sure glad I had the opportunity, as the image has a surreal feel about it, and from a technical viewpoint, was not easy to achieve, particularly as I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which is not by any stretch of the imagination the most suitable choice of camera for action.

We then continued on our drive, encountering another elephant bull before stopping to view and photograph a lilac-breasted roller.  We had seen these birds in South Africa, but it was very fitting to see one in the Maasai Mara, as it is the national bird of Kenya.

The roller was close to us, was perched on a nice branch, and was bathed in beautiful afternoon sunlight, all of which made for excellent photography.

Here is one of the images I captured of our first Kenyan lilac-breasted roller:

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Lilac-Breasted Roller

After we were finished photographing the roller from different positions and at different focal lengths, we continued our drive, and shortly after, encountered more elephants in a breeding herd.

Plenty of photographic opportunities existed in the soft light of the early evening, and I captured quite a few images, including one of a somewhat isolated elephant in the distance, with the plains and clusters of trees in the distance.

Giant Grazer

Giant Grazer

As night was soon descending, we headed off for a sundowner and a landscape shot at sunset.

We jumped out of the vehicle after several hours of sitting, and Francis prepared for our sundowner, where some nero d’avola and crisps were enjoyed as we shot our first sunset, depicting a lone acacia tree on the plains of the Mara.

Mara Sunset

Mara Sunset

We then headed back to Elephant Pepper Camp, where a fantastic Northern Italian dinner awaited us, and where the night concluded with great food, great wine, great company, and great stories to tell about our first day in a truly magical place.

Stay tuned for the adventures of our second day in the Mara.