Tag Archives: Elephant

Maasai Mara 2019: Observations and Comparisons

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Abundance of Wildlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Year of the Cheetah

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

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

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

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

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

This is Amani:

Amani

Amani

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

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

Fast Food

Fast Food

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

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

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

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

One of the Five Musketeers

One of the Five Musketeers

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

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

Defeated

Defeated

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Kisaru in her spectacular glory:

Portrait of Kisaru

Portrait of Kisaru

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

Kisaru in Silhouette

Kisaru in Silhouette

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

Life is good.

 

King of the Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is one of the handsome males we encountered.

Handsome

Handsome

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

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

Firstly, here is Lenkume:

Lenkume

Lenkume

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

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

It can be viewed at the following link:

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

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

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

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

Table Manners

Table Manners

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

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

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

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

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

Thirst Quenched

Thirst Quenched

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busy Boy at Rest

Busy Boy at Rest

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

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

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

 

What About the Leopards?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Something is in the Water: Fighting and Mating

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

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

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

Here he is, flying the ‘flag’:

Gimme Some Action

Gimme Some Action

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

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

Bacon Factory

Bacon Factory

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

Disagreement

Disagreement

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

Topi Tussle

Topi Tussle

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

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

 

Where Were the Elephants?

There were elephants around, but not very many.

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

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

Mighty Elephant Bull

Mighty Elephant Bull

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

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

 

Very Dry Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dawn Landscapes: Craptacular Skies

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

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

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

Golden Acacia

Golden Acacia

What amazing light!

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

Sundowner

Sundowner

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

 

Beginning of the Great Migration

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 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.

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 6 of 7

By the sixth day in the Mara North Conservancy in Kenya‘s south-west, our incredible safari was rapidly drawing to a conclusion; but despite the ticking clock, a lot can happen in two days, and day six would be an amazing day, as we would later discover.

In addition to the routine morning and afternoon game drives, we had a few other plans.  One of the highlights of the day would be a visit to a traditional Maasai village located in the conservancy, where we would experience the culture of the Maasai.

The other activity we had that day was a portrait shoot.

One of the experiences Mario of South Cape Images likes to provide, is a combined cultural and portraiture session, in which photographers get to meet a Maasai tribesman and photograph him out on the Mara plains during dawn and sunrise.

Mario and Francis had arranged for us to meet Baba a tall Maasai tribesman who lives in the Mara North Conservancy.  Contrary to popular opinion, not all indigenous Kenyans are tall, but Baba certainly was.

After our usual early start and brief morning camp fire routine, we again departed into the darkness before any other guests rose from their slumber.  This time we had Baba with us, and dressed in traditional Maasai costume, and armed with a spear, we headed out to a familiar location not far west of camp: Mario’s Tree.

As we had often experienced overnight or early morning rain during our time in the Mara in June, the sky, while still dark, was moody and contained some good cloud, which would soon enough contribute to the images we captured.

Once we arrived at Mario’s Tree, we began setting up for a portraiture session with Baba.

I started with my 16-35mm lens, as I wanted to capture the vast expanse, but with both Baba and the acacia tree being prominent.

It was still dawn, and the morning sky had a blue cast to it, with some distinct, but not yet intense, reds and oranges on the horizon.

I shot Baba in silhouette, but I was not finding the images all that pleasing, so I switched to the 70-200, and found that the composition was much more striking and pleasing.  This time I omitted the tree, and focused only on Baba, having him face to the north so that I could capture him in profile.

Mario also found that he was not happy with the wider angles.

The sky had not yet become intsense, but it was rapidly changing.  Five minutes later, there was rich orange and purple in the sky as I continued to capture images of Baba in silhouette.

Less than two minutes later the sun peeked over the horizon and I continued shooting. Mario and Xenedette had moved further back, and Mario had switched to his 300mm lens.  Meanwhile, I saw a pleasing composition, and was waiting for the sun to be positioned at the right place as it rapidly rose.

Mario was excited about the new composition he had found from further back with a longer lens, and was begging me to come over and shoot with him.  I was too committed to the shot I was anticipating, and yelled across the plains that I was working on a particular image.

Mario was becoming anxious, as he was afraid I would lose the opportunity he saw.

I stuck to my guns, though, and landed the image I wanted:

Maasai at Sunrise

Maasai at Sunrise

I had to wait for the sun to be in the right position for this image, as I wanted it positioned between Baba and his spear.

I shot a few more images, and then raced over to Mario, finally placating him.

He showed me the image he had landed with a longer lens, and it was stunning.

Mario had attached his 1.4x tele-converter to his 300mm lens, so he had a 420mm focal length. I had left my 400mm lens in the 4WD, so rather than losing time while I fetched the 400, I borrowed Mario‘s 300 and shot what became one of my signature images on this trip, and what is currently featured as the desktop wallpaper on one of my computers.

Baba the Maasai

Baba the Maasai

To me, this image is one of those images which captures the essence of the Mara.  It is a postcard-style image, which definitely makes it clear that the location is Africa.

Soon after shooting this image, I grabbed the big 400 and shot another image, this time capturing the silhouetted shape of Baba‘s earrings.

Staring at the Sun

Staring at the Sun

I love all three of these images, but what sets this apart, besides the earrings, is the tight composition, and the subtle light that can be seen shining through Baba‘s traditional Maasai robe as it drapes over his arm.

The sun continued to rise, and we decided to start shooting frontal portraits of Baba, with the sun behind us this time.

Firstly, I shot a full-length portrait of Baba in the golden hour light, with the Mara plains and scattered acacia trees behind him.

The Maasai

The Maasai

I played with a few compositions, and eventually decided on my signature style of a tight crop and a wide aperture.

I wanted to give Baba a sense of place, but focusing more on his face, so in the intensely warm morning light I carefully composed my images, and shot with a wide aperture, but also included the subtle shape of a distant acacia tree in the background.

This was the image I landed:

Contemplation

Contemplation

At about 7:15am, we wrapped up, and headed east towards camp to drop off Baba, as we were to continue on a game drive and see what we would find.

Unusually, we did not find any big cats on this particular morning, but we still enjoyed some good sightings of other African fauna.

After we dropped off Baba, we encountered a black-bellied bustard just a few minutes south of camp, so we stopped to photograph it, as the background and light were pleasing, and the bustard was calling.

Using a long, 800mm focal length, I opted for a very tight crop of the bustard, with the background all but obliterated.

Black-Bellied Bustard

Black-Bellied Bustard

We spent about ten minutes with the bird, and decided to try and capture it at full call, as it was periodcally calling, and we had quickly learned its routine of contracting its neck such that its head was close to its back, followed by a rapid neck extension, during the height of which it emitted its call.

We were all firing off shots rapidly, capturing the entire sequence.

The highlight, of course, was capturing the bustard at full neck extension, with its beak open during its call.

I fortunately landed such an image.

The Bustard Can Sing

The Bustard Can Sing

After we concluded photographing the bustard, Francis took us in a south-easterly direction towards the Olare Orok River.  We were looking for a nice spot to stop for some breakfast, but along the way we encountered some male impalas up on a ridge, so we stopped for a few photos.

Antelopes can be difficult animals to photograph, and like zebras, they look directly at you — until you have a camera trained on them, at which time they turn away or otherwise hide in scrub, all of which destroys the possibility of landing decent images.

We soon abandoned the uncooperative impala herd and headed a little further south-west before stopping for breakfast.

It was good to jump out of the vehicle and get some circulation happening.  When game driving in Africa, it is easy to lose track of time, and before you know it, you have been sitting with your legs at a 90-degree angle for hours at a time.

After breakfast we headed further south-west, where we encountered some grazing elephants.

Grazing Elly

Grazing Elly

After spending a bit more time with the ellies, we headed north, back towards camp.  Around ten minutes later, and not far east from camp, we spotted a juvenile martial eagle high in a tree, so we stopped to capture some images.  We had seen a juvenile martial eagle in South Africa, but it was nice to see one in Kenya too.

Juvenile Martial Eagle

Juvenile Martial Eagle

I needed 800mm of focal length for this image, but it still was not enough!

We headed back to camp for some lunch, rest and time to deal with images and online happenings.

After lunch, we had plans to visit a nearby Maasai village to experience the culture of the Maasai people.

Francis drove us north-east of camp to the village, which is not far south of the C13 road which runs to Mara Rianta and beyond to the west, and Lemek and beyond to the east.

We spent around an hour in the Maasai village, where the people sang and danced for us, exposing us to their beautiful music.  We also got to step inside one of the bomas, where a tribal elder explained how the Maasai live.

During the singing and dancing, Mario and I got on the ground in the middle of the circle, photographing the Maasai people from below as they performed.  Everyone had a great time, despite the heat and the constant flies.

We were fortunate enough to be able to photograph the Maasai people, and here is a portrait I captured of a young Maasai woman, who was one of the women who sang and danced for us upon our arrival in their village.

Portrait of a Young Maasai Woman

Portrait of a Young Maasai Woman

The Maasai people also sell various African souvenirs, which Xenedette was very interested in buying.  She would have bought everything if we had more cash on us (and could carry it home), but she got down to the serious business of haggling with the Maasai over prices, after trimming down the number of items in which we were interested.  We only had very limited cash on us, as we just did not need to carry a lot in the Mara.

We came away with some very nice Maasai souvenirs, and it was a fantastic experience to be surrounded by Maasai people in their traditional village.

After our visit with the Maasai people, we headed back out into the Mara plains surrounding them, where soon enough, something very special awaited us.

Francis lead us north-west of the Maasai village, to a dense cluster of trees.  We did not know it, but he had been looking for leopards.

Francis had spotted a beautiful young leopardess resting peacefully high up in a large tree, basking in the hot afternoon sun.

We were again very excited to be in the presence of a leopard.  Leopards are so elusive, that just seeing one is an experience of its own.

We captured plenty of images of the leopardess sleeping, but in the glary conditions and contending with dappled light, photography was not particularly easy.  I may go through those images at some stage and publish something.

We sat there for a while, watching the leopardess sleep, yawn and look around, continuing to snap away as she engaged in typical leopardess behaviour.

25 minutes later, something amazing happened: a male leopard emerged from the thick, long grasses, and began to climb the trees in which we found the leopardess.

Not only had we seen a leopard resting in a tree, but we had seen two leopards at the same sighting.  Double the excitement!

What we did not know, but quickly learned, was that these two leopards were mating!

Here is an image I captured of the larger and older male leopard commencing a tree climb:

Amourous Climber

Amourous Climber

He did not need to climb much higher than this, as the female descended and began walking into the scrub.

The female soon enough swished her tail and brushed against the male, signalling her readiness for mating.

Before we knew it, a ferocious, growling roar was to be heard as the male mounted the young female and engaged in only a few seconds of mating before he quickly jumped clear to avoid being attacked.

Here is the young leopardess resting in the grass after a number of intense mating sessions:

Resting Leopardess

Resting Leopardess

News of leopards — particularly mating leopards — travels fast in the Mara, and three or four other vehicles had descended upon the scene to watch a magnificent encounter between two elusive and territorial African big cats.

I cannot recall how many times the leopards mated, but every minute or two, they were at it again, and were constantly moving around the area as they engaged in the cycle.

Photography was challenging, particularly as there was rapid movement, constant movement, thick bush and falling light.

I did manage to land a few images of leopards during rare opportunities of rest in the open, including this image of the large male, whom I have called “Big Boy” owing to his huge build:

Big Boy

Big Boy

Is he not a stunning leopard?

Not even a minute after I captured this image of Big Boy in the grass, he approached the leopardess who was resting nearby.

Growl of the Leopardess

Growl of the Leopardess

I was fortunate enough to fire the camera shutter at the precise moment the leopardess told the male in no uncertain terms that she did not appreciate his advances; but she soon relented and let him know when she was ready to mate.

Some twenty seconds later, it was on again, as these two beautiful leopards played the mating game.

The Mating Game

The Mating Game

A minute or two after this explosive session, we all decided to depart, as the leopards had moved further into the dense bush by the water, and light was falling away.  We would return the next morning to see if we could find them again.

On that magical note, we headed back to camp for dinner, drinks, some great discussion and time to reflect on the incredible sightings we had just experienced with two of Africa‘s most elusive animals.

Our sixth day in the Mara had been intense, as had they all, and what a fantastic way to close off another day in Kenya.

Stay tuned for our seventh and final day in the Mara, during which we would embark upon our final game drive, but still have some new experiences for the first time.

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 camp fire, 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 tree, 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 tree 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 photo-bombed 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 Pride 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 Pride 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 Pride 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.

Maasai Mara: Day 3 of 7

A new day for us in the Mara had arrived.

While it was only the third day, the routine of the early rises, a Maasai escort to the camp fire, some quick online activity over a hot drink, and departure into the ever-fading darkness, had become very normal and comfortable.

We met Francis at the 4WD and climbed in, as we had planned to head out for another dawn and sunrise shoot at a tree Mario favours, which affectionately became known as “Mario’s Tree” throughout the trip.

We headed due west of camp for a short distance and jumped out into the wet plains for some dawn silhouette photography of Mario’s Tree, with the first frame shot at 6:38am.  It was not the world’s greatest sunrise, but there was some nice colour in the sky, and I captured a distant passing wildebeest in most of my images.

We ventured south-west to Leopard Gorge, where we hoped to see our young male leopard friend, or maybe one of the Cheli brothers again, but alas, the big cats were not to be found on this morning.  We spotted a few impala, and on our way back north-east, we spotted a topi, zebra and general plains game.

Less than an hour after the first frame was fired off for the day, we encountered a herd of Cape buffalo out in the open.  The herd was quite a decent size, and there were a few calves.  Typical of these large bovines, they did not do anything exciting, preferring to graze, rest and groom, fighting off the ever-present flies.

Francis moved the vehicle to a more appealing spot for photography, where I captured this mother buffalo grazing with her calf:

Mother and Calf

Mother and Calf

Trying to isolate a particular animal, as well as capturing interesting activity such as action or tender moments, can be quite challenging.

We continued shooting, and Francis moved the vehicle again to a better spot, where I captured this frame-filling portrait of one of the large members of the herd:

I Am Not Amused

I Am Not Amused

Typical for these types of animals, the look on this buffalo‘s face is decidedly grumpy and not at all amused at being constantly harassed by flies.

We continued shooting for a short time longer, and I did not realise it at the time, but I captured a far more pleasing image of a buffalo, in which, in a split second, I had also captured an oxpecker launching into flight from the top of the buffalo‘s head!  I did not discover I had captured it until a few days later when reviewing the many images I had shot.

Here is what I consider to be the finest buffalo image I have captured:

Lift Off

Lift Off

I managed, this time, to not only isolate one animal from the crowd (well, mostly), but I captured some interesting action too.

After we had finished photographing the buffalo, Francis and Mario took us in a north-westerly direction, where a surprise awaited us.

The staff of Elephant Pepper Camp had organised a bush breakfast, and all of the guests were being taken by their guides to a nice spot which had been set up, and where a hot breakfast and a chance to mingle with the other guests awaited us.

It was a really nice experience, and with the size of the Mara North Conservancy, most of the time one does not see any other vehicles or have any interaction with other guests, as the vehicles can be spread in terms of time and distance.  Usually when there is something very exciting, or some ever-appealing big cat activities happening (leopards and male lions in particular), all of the vehicles tend to descend upon a scene quickly.

We sat down to a fantastic breakfast with all of the other guests and exchanged stories, viewed photos, and tried to stop the flies swimming in our coffee and juice, to varying degrees of success.

As breakfast drew to a conclusion, some of the guests spotted fighting plains game way down on the distant plains, so they headed off to see what was going on.

Mario and Francis had other plans: we would instead head towards the Mara River.

On our way north to the river, we spotted a few jackals and grabbed some shots, and then continued along our way, spotting another topi grazing.

As it turned out, we never quite got to the river itself, as something distracted us.

We stumbled across the River Pride of lions, which inhabits the territory just south of the river, and within a very short distance of the Mara North Airstrip, from which we would depart the Mara four days later.

Not only had we encountered a different pride of lions, but a lioness was perched in a tree!

A Little Bit Stuck

A Little Bit Stuck

Lions are not great climbers, and this lioness seemed to be stuck in the bough, awkwardly repositioning herself every now and then, and seemingly attempting to descend.

Here, she looks rather uncomfortable, but in spite of her challenging predicament, seeing a lioness in a tree is rather uncommon indeed, and was a special, unexpected treat.

The look on her face certainly is not one of contentment.

Camera shutters were flapping furiously as this uncommon spectacle unfolded in front of us.  I also captured some frame-filling video footage as the lioness fumbled around trying to decide whether she wanted to be up or down.

Lioness in a Tree

Lioness in a Tree

This is not the Mara‘s happiest lioness at this point in time.

By now, one or two other vehicles had arrived, so the other guests were also enjoying the spectacle.

As luck would have it, she was not the only lion nearby, as two young River Pride males had also descended upon the scene to see what was happening.

Thus far, most of our lion sightings had been cubs and lionesses — always a treat — but after seeing the Cheli brothers, we were glad to see some more male lion activity.

One of the young males decided to park himself under the shade of a tree not far from where the female was awkwardly positioned.

Lion Around

Lion Around

This particular male still has some youth under his belt, as his mane is not yet fully developed; but I loved the pose here, as he ever-so-casually leaned on a rock under the shade and gazed in our general direction, as well as keeping an eye on the female in the tree.

Perhaps only 50-70 metres to the south-east of this male was another, younger male who was also resting, enjoying some sunshine as well as some shade.

Here he is, taking it all in:

River Pride Male

River Pride Male

Shortly after resting, this younger male wandered over to a tree to see what the lioness was doing.  She had previously descended from the tree in which we found her, but had then climbed into another tree nearby!

This time the young male was curious, and walked over to her tree.  Her dangling, swishing tail was a source of interest for the young male lion, who looked up at the lioness as she sat perched in the bough.

It was now quite late in the morning, and time to head south, back to camp.  Along the way we spotted a giraffe on the open plains, and even closer to camp, we spotted a Maasai farmer leading a herd of cattle.

We soon arrived back at camp, where we rested, worked on images and had a light lunch.

Little did we know, but the afternoon drive would bring us something truly special.

At around 3:45pm we ventured back out into the plains in a south-easterly direction, and soon encountered a pair of elephants drinking in the afternoon light.

Drinking Problem

Drinking Problem

We watched and photographed the elephants drinking and splashing water over themselves to cool down.

The sky was starting to become moody and threatening, with some high storm clouds lingering.  I reached for a wider lens and captured an image of two elephants grazing, with a thick cluster of trees in the background beneath an increasingly brooding sky.

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

The sky was develop into a dramatic show later in the afternoon and into the early evening.

Francis soon continued heading south, as we were hoping to see something more dramatic.  Along the way, while Francis was cornering, I spotted an intense patch of blue in the grass as I was spotting for lions.

It was a blue-headed tree agama, a small, brightly-coloured reptile.  I snapped a few images, but unfortuntely did not land anything good, and the scene itself was scrubby and busy anyway.

A minute later we continued on.  Less than ten minutes later, north-east of where I spotted the agama, we happened across an intensely amazing sight.

We had found the Cheli Pride.  Not only had we found the Cheli Pride lions again (they are everywhere!), but they were feasting on a zebra they had taken earlier in the day.

This was yet another first: a sighting of lions feasting on a kill.

It was quite a fresh kill, too, as there was no stench from the carcass; but it had been quite substantially devoured, and we figured it had been taken during the morning.

What an intense sighting.  We were glued to the drama as a three cubs gorged themselves on the kill under a bush, while other Cheli Pride lions rested in the thicket or were lurking and sunning themselves very close to the site where either the zebra had fallen, or more likely, where the pride had dragged it to keep it out of the open plains where other predators could have got in on the action.

I used a combination of wide focal lengths and short focal lengths to capture the drama.

Chowing Down

Chowing Down

Here, this cute little cub — one of the younger members of the pride — was very engaged in the business of chowing down, and kept feeding well after the other lions had all moved aside to rest and roll around.

A short time later, most of the pride members strolled a short distance north-east of the kill, and into the open grasses, where they bonded, groomed, rested and played.

Facepalm

Facepalm

Here, one of the well-fed cubs decided it was time to play, and in so doing, he gave one of the females a mighty good smack in the face.

It was enjoyable to watch the lions rolling around, stretching, playing and bonding with each other after a huge meal.

Here, one of the lionesses looks into the distance as other lions played around.

Cheli Pride Lioness

Cheli Pride Lioness

One of the cubs wandered over to a small watering hole in the grass, which we could not see, but which he certainly could.

He lapped up water, and even managed to let some of it drool out of his mouth as he looked back towards us as we furiously snapped away.

Cub Drool

Cub Drool

While we were immersed in the company and actvity of the Cheli Pride, a herd of nearby elephants entered the area, and they were obviously distressed.  There was trumpeting and running as the elephants, who realised they had stumbled across a pride of lions, ran further away to avoid any confrontation.

The elephants kept moving south, further away from the drama we had witnessed; so, we decided to follow them, as it was a breeding herd, which contained a few calves and some big tuskers.

In the relative safety of the distance the elephants had put between themselves and the Cheli Pride, they grazed more calmly as the sky continued to brood and become more intense.  I captured this image of a big tusker at fairly close proximity as he made his way through the thicket, grazing.

Big Tusker

Big Tusker

Early evening was rapidly approaching, and in the opposite direction, the sky became very menacing.

We headed north, back to the kill site, to see what was going on.  More cubs, and several larger lionesses, were now feasting on the zebra.

Feast

Feast

We stayed for three or four minutes before deciding to leave the lions and head off for a sundowner and some landscape photography under a dramatic sky.

Francis drove us south-west in search of a particular tree, which we reached in about 12 minutes.

We stopped here for a sundowner, and we jumped out of the 4WD and rigged up for some landscape photography under an intense sky, where I captured this image of a distant acacia tree under a dramatic sky:

Brewing Storm

Brewing Storm

It was at this location where we had our sundowner, but we decided to head another few hundred metres away, where we would capture the tail end of the rich colours of sunset on the Mara.

Drama on the Mara

Drama on the Mara

Here we resumed our sundowner as the evening rapidly descended upon us, while we stood only a few hundred metres from where the Cheli Pride was resting after a huge meal.

It was an intense afternoon/evening, and perhaps this landscape in the northern part of the Maasai Mara captures some of that sense of drama.

So concluded our third day in the Mara.  We headed back to camp where we met the other guests over dinner, and related the amazing sights we had seen that day.

In the morning we were treated to the River Pride, with its clumsy tree-clinging lioness and two young males nearby; and in the afternoon we were treated to the spoils of the Cheli Pride, as the lions feasted on a zebra kill, followed by a sundowner under a very moody sky.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day four of our trip to the Maasai Mara, during which more great sightings greeted us, and when the roar of a Cheli Pride lioness would be heard for the first time.