Tag Archives: Giraffe

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 6 of 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Encounter with a Big Tusker

Second Encounter with a Big Tusker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Africa

This is Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenkume

Lenkume

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

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

Cheli and Angama

Cheli and Angama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The afternoon and evening was going to be very exciting.

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

A lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was also heavily pregnant!

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

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

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

Portrait of Kisaru

Portrait of Kisaru

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

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

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

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

Kisaru on the Lookout

Kisaru on the Lookout

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

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

Evening Stretch

Evening Stretch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is one of the images I captured:

Year of the Cheetah

Year of the Cheetah

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

There is no denying that this is an African cheetah!

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

Kisaru in Silhouette

Kisaru in Silhouette

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

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

Kisaru Surveying

Kisaru Surveying

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for our adventures on day seven.

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

Trip to Taronga Western Plains Zoo

In late October, we headed away with some good friends of ours for a three-day trip to Mudgee and Dubbo.

Our plan, apart from sampling and buying some fantastic wine in Mudgee, was to stay at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, in its exclusive Zoofari lodge, at which ten luxurious tents, complete with mod-cons, overlook the savannah, where African, Asian and even Australian animals roam.

You know you know you are in Australia when an eland — a large African antelope — chases kangaroos away!

On day one, we headed to Mudgee, where we stopped at my favourite winery and stocked up on premium shiraz.  A nice dinner in town, followed by an overnight stay nearby, concluded the day.

On the following morning we headed up to Dubbo and went straight to the zoo.  Our official check-in was at 2pm, but we had time to roam the zoo via our inclusive two-day zoo pass.

Having been to Africa twice and spent time with truly wild animals in their natural habitat, a zoo can never quite come close; but Zoofari is an experience designed to emulate, as closely as possible, the safari experience.

Upon arriving at the zoo, our first stop was naturally the lion enclosure.  Unfortunately the lions were not terribly active or welcoming, so photography was not a terribly successful pursuit.  Incidentally and somewhat ironically, it is easier to photograph lions in the wild than in captivity.

One pleasing image I did capture at the lion enclosure was not an image of a lion, but an Australian pied cormorant, which was perched on a log over the lion enclosure’s moat in the morning sun.

Australian Pied Cormorant

Australian Pied Cormorant

Being a fan of big cats, naturally, we needed to visit the cheetahs.  We fortunately timed our arrival to see the keepers feed the cheetahs, which consisted of a king cheetah mother and several sub-adult cubs.

Contrary to popular belief, the king cheetah is not a separate species of cheetah, but rather, is a cheetah which has a rare fur pattern mutation as a result of a recessive gene.

The light was quite harsh, and the cheetah were very active — particularly as food was being provided — so photography was quite challenging, but I did land this pleasing image of the king cheetah.

King Cheetah

King Cheetah

The king cheetah is quite rare, so it was a pleasure to see one, and capture pleasing images of her.

Following the big cats theme, high on the agenda was a visit to the Sumatran tiger.

Now, I do not have many images of tigers, so I was keen to capture some pleasing tiger portraits despite the difficulty of broad daylight.

Again, we timed our visit to co-incide with the keeper’s talk and a feeding session, so this Sumatran beauty was very alert and more often than not, looked in our general direction, which is always what a wildlife photographer wants.

Striped Beauty

Striped Beauty

As the biggest of the big cats, the tiger is a very impressive big cat.

After lunch, we roamed the zoo and found our way to the siamangs.  I had never seen one before, so we spent a bit of time watching them play, and I snapped away, trying to land a pleasing image of one of them.

Siamang Stare

Siamang Stare

Not long afterwards, we headed to Zoofari lodge and checked in.

With adjacent tents, we soon joined at our tent for some afternoon lounging.  It was a taxing experience to sit on the back deck, overlooking the savannah, whilst consuming premium shiraz and munching on potato chips.  It is a tough life, but someone has to do it.

These were the appalling, slum-like conditions we had to endure during our overnight stay:

Animal View Lodge

Animal View Lodge

It was tolerable.

What cannot be seen in this image is the open door overlooking the savannah.  We decided to keep the doors and windows open so that we could hear the incredible sounds of wildlife at night, just as we experienced in South Africa and Kenya.

In the late afternoon light, we had the pleasure of watcing the giraffes grazing on the savannah, while these two particular giraffes (of the four inhabiting the reserve) shared a sticky snack.

Sharing a Sticky Snack

Sharing a Sticky Snack

During our lazy afternoon on the deck, we were visited by a peacock, which was only too happy to munch on our snacks, and sit very close with us on the deck overlooking the savannah.

In the early evening we headed to the communal dining room, where some wine tasting, and later, dinner, were served.

After dinner, we got to experience a night tour of the zoo, whereby 4WD vehicles drove us around the zoo in complete darkness.  We visited the lions, hippos and rhinos in their night enclosures, which are not accessible to the general public.

As can be imagined, photography was just not going to happen, as it was pitch-black; but it was great to be close to these animals in the darkness.

After a good night‘s sleep, the following morning saw another early start, with a pre-breakfast tour of the zoo — again, behind the scenes — during which we got to visit the cheetahs and see them from a different location; feed a giraffe; spend some time with the meerkats; and partake in an exclusive visit to the elephant ‘maintenance’ shed, in which the keepers bathed and fed the elephants in preparation for their entrance into their exhibition enclosures for the day.

Here is an image of one of the meerkats on sentry duty.

Wide-Eyed Meerkat

Wide-Eyed Meerkat

After the tour, we returned for a communal breakfast, before making our way back to the lodge to pack and check out.

On our arrival at the zoo the previous day, we had booked ourselves onto a rhino encounter.  Once the tour guide arrived, we found out that we were the only people booked on the tour, so we got an even more exclusive tour of the rhinos and spent a great morning learning about the zoo and how it operates — a much more personal tour than would have been otherwise possible.

After the conclusion of our Zoofari experience, we made another round of the zoo, before embarking on the long trip home.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, and I did manage to land some pleasing images of the wildlife which inhabits Taronga Western Plains Zoo.

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 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.

More Photographic Highlights from Motswari

During our time in South Africa, and in the Motswari Private Game Reserve in particular, I shot so many images, and even now, barely over two months since we were there, I am still processing and uploading images.

While I have detailed our adventures in the Timbavati here on this blog, in some cases I have not had images ready, and as many photographers know, sometimes an image’s potential only becomes realised some time after having captured it.

Given that I have published a few more images since I verbally and pictorially recalled our adventures, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to provide a few photographic highlights that were previously missed.

So, here are ten photographic highlights, in order of capture.

 

1.  Eye of the Leopard

Eye of the Leopard

Eye of the Leopard

The title Eye of the Leopard is homage to the awesome National Geographic documentary of the same name, shot by Beverly and Dereck Joubert, featuring the life of Legadema, a young leopard in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

The leopard in my image is Makepisi (which means “hat” in Shangaan).  I captured this image of a leopard on the first game drive we took in the Motswari Private Game Reserve, which is located within the Timbavati region of greater Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga province, South Africa

 

Makepisi was the very first wild leopard we encountered.

We spent quite a nice time in close proximity to Makepisi, watching, photographing and videoing him.

I also shot video footage of Makepisi.

 

2.  Leopard of the Night

Leopard of the Night

Leopard of the Night

A magical sighting of Makepisi male leopard at night on our first night of our African safari adventure in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, greater Kruger National Park, South Africa.

As the light fell, Petros, our tracker, brought out the spotlight so we could continue to view and photograph Makepisi as the sun set over a beautiful African savannah landscape in Mpumalanga province.

We saw Makepisi twice during the trip, and he is a special leopard we will always remember.

 

3.  Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

One of the few hyena sightings we had during our stay in the Timbavati.

The spotted hyena is a predatory carnivore which inhabits the bushveld.  It loves to steal the kills made by lions and leopards, and will even terrorise leopards in order to steal their kills.

 

4.  I Spy with My Little Eye

I Spy with My Little Eye

I Spy with My Little Eye

Around 15 minutes after we encountered Rockfig Jr female during our second game drive in the Motswari Private Game Reserve, something caught her attention.

Rockfig Jr got up from the termite mound on which she was resting, and headed over to a thicket, where she keenly watched a bachelor warthog which we had also seen, and which was perhaps 50 to 100 metres away.

There was a possibility that Rockfig Jr would attack the warthog and provide herself a nice breakfast, but instead, she sat watching intently.

She soon returned and came extremely close to us.  At one point she was less than two metres behind our open-top Land Rover.  I was perched in the rear part of the vehicle, and it was the closest I had ever been to a leopard.

 

5.  Stare of the Wildebeest

Stare of the Wildebeest

Stare of the Wildebeest

This was one of the earliest sightings of wildebeest in the Motswari Private Game Reserve.

 

6.  Headbangers

Headbangers

Headbangers

Two male impala engaging in sparring.  These two were not at war, but were engaging in play-battle.  Were a dominant male to encounter an invading male, there would be a much more intense battle for dominance.

 

7.  Giraffe Grazing

Giraffe Grazing

Giraffe Grazing

Africa‘s tallest mammal, munching on some delicious leaves.

 

8.  Timbavati Queen

Timbavati Queen

Timbavati Queen

One of the two Jacaranda Pride lionesses we encountered on the morning of our third day of our safari in the Motswari Private Game Reserve.

 

9.  Ximpoko Yawn

Ximpoko Yawn

Ximpoko Yawn

It was early in the evening when we had encountered two large, dominant male lions of the Timbavati, who had of recent times been causing quite a stir in the region.

After a long, hot day resting, the Ximpoko and Mabande males were still somewhat tired and prone to sleeping.

At one stage, Ximpoko yawned, and I captured it.

A short time later, the two nomads got up, wandered over to another spot up the river bank and settled for a little more rest before the long night that lay ahead for them.

 

10.  Reaching

Reaching

Reaching

While we had a few elephant sightings during our time in the Timbavati, I have not published many images of elephants.

It can be hard to photograph them in clean surroundings, but this image had a cuteness factor which warranted publication.

On our final game drive in the Motswari Private Game Reserve on the morning of 7 October, 2012, we were in off-road in very thick, dry scrub, surrounded by a breeding herd of elephants.

I counted at least 11 elephants that I could see (although there were probably more); and amongst these, there were a few juveniles.

I was fortunate enough to capture this little guy reaching for some delicious leaves and twigs.

Africa: Day 4 – The Big Five in One Drive

By Day 4 of our time in Africa, and Day 3 of our safari in the Motswari Private Game Reserve in greater Kruger Park, the motions of waking before 5am, driving in the bushveld for three hours, coming back for breakfast, a rest, lunch and then going out for another game drive from 3:30pm until the darkness of night, had become normal — almost routine.

A rather fantastic routine, that is.

By Day 4 (Day 3 in Motswari), we had been for three game drives, which was half of our safari in terms of wildlife sightings and photography.  We had been out twice for afternoon/evening game drives, and once in the morning.  The 6th of October was a full day worth of game drives, and much awaited us.

Astute readers will have noticed that so far, we had not seen any lions.  We had seen and photographed two unique leopards (Makepisi male and Rockfig Jr female), but the King of the Jungle had been somewhat elusive, which is ironic when it is to be considered that leopards are very elusive, and we had seen two of those.

Lions were very much on the mind of Chad Cocking, our guide.  He was well aware that we had not seen any yet, but he was also aware that lion activity in the reserve had been somewhat subdued over the past few days.  There were some small signs of lion activity, but no guarantee we would encounter any.  Chad probably felt under pressure, but being the reserved professional he is, it did not show.

As we embarked upon our second morning drive at 5:30am before the rest of the guests at the lodge departed 30 minutes later, Xenedette and I were mentally resigned to the fact that we just may not see any lions at all.  However, we were only half-way through our game drives, so the situation was not as dire as it may have seemed.  Still, we were over the moon to have seen everything we had seen to this point, and not seeing lions was not going to otherwise diminish the awe of what we had seen and experienced.

A few minutes into the morning drive, before sunrise, we encountered a giraffe grazing near the Motswari airstrip.  We stopped for some silhouette images against the reddish glow of the pre-sunrise sky.  Here is one of the images I captured:

Standing Tall at Sunrise

Standing Tall at Sunrise

After a short visit with this lanky individual, we proceeded onwards.  Our next stop was Argyle Dam, home to hippos and crocs, and a popualar watering hole for much of the Motswari wildlife.

Chad took the Land Rover onto the muddy banks of Argyle Dam, where we disembarked, and in so doing entered the back yard of the most dangerous animal in Africa: no, not a predatory cat, but the hippopotamus.

Mario and I dashed off for a silhouette landscape we captured just after sunrise, while Chad followed us, and spent his downtime videoing and photographing Mario (our safari leader) and I in action, using one of Mario’s cameras, which he had brought to shoot video footage of the safari.

Throughout the trip he shot his stills with a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and used a Canon EOS 60D for video.  Meanwhile, Xenedette and Petros (our tracker) stood on the bank chatting.

Here is an image I captured of a sunrise over Argyle Dam:

Sunrise over Argyle Dam

Sunrise over Argyle Dam

A faint reflection of the rising sun in the water can be seen.  What was more interesting was what we would next see.

The sun continued to rise, and the light became very warm.  We could hear the distinctive grunts and snorts of hippos echoing throughout the morning silence of the Timbavati.  The hippos were only a little way in the distance in Argyle Dam.

Mario and I set about photographing the hippos, patiently waiting for a hippo to yawn, as it makes for much more interesting imagery than what otherwise looks like a submerged rock in the water rather than the hippo that it is.

Finally, our patience paid off.  Not only did we both land shots of a hippo yawning, but the angle and direction of the sunlight backlit the hairs on the hippo’s nose.

The Hippo's Yawn

The Hippo’s Yawn

Soon enough, it was time to make tracks for further wildlife viewing.

Well after sunrise, our next encounter was a pair of southern yellow-billed hornbills perched high atop a tree.  From where we were, even with a focal length of 600mm, it was not going to be possible to feature a hornbill prominently in the frame, so some liberal cropping would later be needed.

We sat for a few minutes, capturing these distinctive birds in their habitat.  Fortunately our vantage point was such that the warm morning light shone upon the hornbills.

Portrait of a Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill

Portrait of a Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill

As we continued on our morning drive, we had sightings and captured images of impala, a Wahlberg’s eagle, a solitary crocodile basking in the morning sun, and more impala.

Ten minutes after the most recent impala image I shot, we were laying our eyes upon something magical.

The Motswari trackers and guides had been hard at work, and all of sudden, in front of us, resting on a termite mound in the morning sunshine, were two Jacaranda pride lionesses.  Wow!  Finally, we had seen one of the species of majestic big cats we had longed to see.

Not only did we finally lay our eyes upon wild lionesses, but we were a matter of only a few metres away from them.

Jacaranda Pride Lioness

Jacaranda Pride Lioness

Just to be seeing these regal big cats was an awesome experience, but the photographic opportunities were also fantastic, with warm morning light in the right place, and a relatively clean background.

Even though we were quite close, I used long focal lengths to produce tightly framed portraits, isolating the Jacaranda pride lionesses from the bushveld surrounding them.

Pretty Kitty

Pretty Kitty

During the 25 minutes we spent with the lionesses, something rather unexpected happened.

One of the Jacaranda lionesses got up, climbed down off the mound and wandered about 20 metres away.  We followed her, and observed her doing something out of our direct sight.  Little did we realise at the time, but we had observed the most unexciting lion kill in history.  She had found a small tortoise and killed it!

She returned to the mound, where we shot stills and video of her with the small tortoise in her mouth!  I have not processed or published any images from that spectacle yet, but will eventually get to it.

Soon we departed, had a morning coffee and biscuit on the banks of the Nhlaralumi, and eventually made our way back to the lodge for breakfast.

As exciting as it was to see Jacaranda lionesses towards the end of the morning drive, we did not know that on our afternoon drive, we had see and photograph every African wildlife species in the ‘Big Five’: Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino.

Within a short time of embarking on our afternoon drive, we encountered six Cape buffalo bulls in the bush near the Sohebele River.  While we stopped to photograph them, I did not land any great images, as the light was still quite harsh and the buffalo were in thick bush, with points of contention being branches, foliage and messy backgrounds.

Our next sightings included kudu, elephants (again in thick scrub under harsh light), a large crocodile on the other side of Argyle Dam (where we had been that morning), and giraffes.  We also spotted baboons running through the scrub, which as it turned out, was to be the only baboon sighting we would have during our time in Africa.

That aside, it had been only 15 minutes, and we had seen and photographed two of the big five.

Our next sighting, merely an hour after embarking, was a familiar creature: Makepisi, the male leopard we had encountered on our first night.  We found him again, less than 48 hours after our first sighting; and looking at the GPS coordinates, he was in almost exactly the same spot.  On this occasion when we found Makepisi, he was sitting in the shade.  The sun was a little lower, but still quite hot, in the high thirties.

I captured a number of images of Makepisi, and have one ready to publish, but have not quite got to it yet; I will post that image on another day.

Our second encounter with Makepisi meant we had seen three members of the Big Five in the one drive.  So far, that is.

The next sighting was an elephant bull grazing in the scrub, and we spent a bit of time there watching, photographing and videoing him.

As the sun got lower in the sky, our next encounter was three white rhino grazing in the warm afternoon light.  They were heading for a drink, so we got ahead of them and parked down on the banks on the watering hole in anticipation of their arrival.  I kept my eyes on the bush up the banks, and spotted the tell-tale shape and movement the first rhino.  Sure enough, two of the rhino came down to the waterline for a drink, with the third following a short time later.

Fresh from a Mud Bath

Fresh from a Mud Bath

This rhino sighting clocked four of the Big Five.

The best, and last member of the Big Five was yet to come, only we did not know it.

Less than 20 minutes after watching white rhino drinking from a watering pan, we found ourselves in a dry river bed where two Ximpoko male lions were resting in the late afternoon light.  Another big wow!

Seeing male lions was a real highlight of  this drive, and of the whole day.  We were rapidly losing light, and the lions were quite sleepy, but we did manage to land a few shots and witness them moving around a little, with just a hint of a roar from one of them.

I managed to land a pleasing image of one of the Ximpoko males looking directly at us, and what a majestic lion he was.

The King's Face

The King’s Face

As darkness fell, Petros brought out the spotlight for some lion light painting!

The King of Timbavati

The King of Timbavati

The lions soon moved up the river bank and plonked themselves on the ground for more rest and sleep before the big night they had ahead of them.  We shortly thereafter departed and rushed back to the lodge.

A pleasant and unexpected surprise was a sighting of two porcupines in the bush along the road.  During the night drives, Petros waved his spotlight in an arc across our field of vision, looking for wildlife.  How he managed to see these two porcupines in the darkness and hindered by the speed at which we were travelling, I do not quite know; but he is a tracker, and his job is to find the wildlife that prefers not to be found!

Earlier that day, I had mentioned to our party that it was Xenedette’s birthday.  To have seen all members of the Big Five in one day, and even more incredibly, in one drive, was a magnificent birthday present.  Of seeing what we saw that day, Xenedette said it was the best birthday present she could ever have received.  There we were, in the African bushveld, seeing and photographing some amazing wildlife, right in the thick of nature’s finest.

We soon arrived back at the lodge, and headed to the boma (escorted, of course) for dinner and celebratory drinks.  It was Xenedette’s birthday, and she had experienced some amazing sightings that day.  A cause for celebration indeed, and there we were, having the experience of a lifetime.  What a day it had been.

Stay tuned for Day 5 of our African trip, which would be our final day in the Timbavati.

Africa: Day 3 – Wildlife Abundance and a Magical Sunset and Night Sky

Our third day in Africa was the second day of our photographic safari in the Motswari Private Game Reserve in greater Kruger Park.

It started with an early rise, some time before 5am.  We were heading out on our first morning game drive, during which we would encounter lots of wildlife, and another special surprise.

The morning was quite cloudy, which on the one hand was bleak and gloomy, but which on the other hand made photography much easier due to the lower contrast.

Chad and Petros whisked us off nice and early, first encountering a few zebra in the scrub, before stopping for a landscape shot a short while afterwards.  Unfortunately the zebra were not out in the open, so landing a clean shot was difficult if not impossible.  Photographic woes aside, just to see a bunch of zebra in the wilderness was pleasant in its own right.

Our next photographic stop was for a wildebeest and some impala, followed shortly after by a lone spotted hyena who was hot on the trail of… something.  A few minutes later we encountered another lone hyena who was lazing on the ground, unfussed by our appearance.

Some twenty minutes later, magic awaited us: another leopard!

Not only was it a leopard, but it was a different leopard.  The night before, we had encountered Makepisi, a male leopard; but this morning, we had the pleasure of the company of Rockfig Jr, a female leopard who inhabits the southern part of Motswari Private Game Reserve.

What a magnificent leopard she was.

Here she is in her glory:

The Leopard Rests

The Leopard Rests

I landed a very pleasing selection of high-quality images in very soft light, and Rockfig Jr was quite the model.

Here is a close view of her profile:

Profile of Rockfig Jr

Profile of Rockfig Jr

During the time we spent with Rockfig Jr, at one point she got up, walked right behind the vehicle, and headed over to a vantage point from which she keenly watched a warthog which was grazing in open sight in the not-too-far distance.  When Rockfig Jr passed behind the open-top vehicle, I was closest to her, and I estimated her to have been only three metres away from me.

Where else but Motswari can you find yourself three metres from a wild leopard?  It was spectacular.

Rockfig Jr kept her eyes on the potential prey she spotted a relatively short distance away, but evidently elected not to pursue it.

Way too soon, it was time for us to leave.  We had coffee and biscuits at Hide Dam, and then headed off, whereby we soon encountered a few wildebeest, followed by lots of impala.

Throughout the safari, we would encounter many impala; so common were they, that we did not bother to stop on each sighting; but early into the safari as this game drive was, we did stop and watch them for a while, during which time I captured this image of two males sparring:

Locking Horns

Locking Horns

Our next sightings included giraffes and more impala, before we headed back to the lodge for a well-earned breakfast.

We sat down to a fantastic buffet, and cooked-to-order eggs, with a variety of juices, fruits and other food available.

After breakfast, we had quite a few hours or recreation and lunch before our next game drive, which would commence at 3:30pm and see us returning for dinner after sunset.  Lunch was announced by the beating of drums and the African songs sung by the Motswari staff who brought the food.

Our afternoon drive commenced, and there were sightings aplenty, with lilac-breasted rollers, giraffes, kudus, more giraffes, our first hippo, more impala, and then finally, another surprise, and another member of the Big Five.

Chat and Petros had led us to three white rhinos: a male, a female and a calf.  Our timing was unfortunate, as the rhinos had just indulged in a mud bath, and decided to wander off.

The rhino mother and calf were heading to the river bed, which they would cross before heading up the bank and into the scrub.  We followed them and had some nice photo opportunities in the dry river bed before they soon meandered along.

Apologies for the lack of images; I have not yet published any of the shots I took during this particular rhino sighting; but they are coming in the near future.

As it was late in the afternoon, we headed off, and soon stopped for a quick sunset silhouette, and an image which captured the feel of Africa:

Sunset on the African Savannah

Sunset on the African Savannah

All this image needed was a leopard perched in the tree.  Not so lucky, I am afraid.

Shortly after capturing this beautiful sunset, we stopped for a sundowner before making our way onwards.

The next encounter was unexpected; the trackers had located yet another leopard.  This would be our third leopard sighting in barely more than 24 hours.  Not only was it our third leopard sighting, but it was the third unique leopard.  So far we had seen Makepisi and Rockfig Jr on consecutive drives.

This time we encountered Nthombi, a female leopard, who Chad had earlier heard roaring in the north of the reserve.  We found her in thick bush, and using the spotlight, our Land Rover plus two others trudged through the bush, relatively closely following her.  It soon became apparent that Nthombi was stalking a steenbuck, so we had to back off and leave her to do her thing in peace.

During our short time with Nthombi, I did snap one shot of her stalking her prey, but it was not a usable shot.  Not to worry; merely being in the presence of another leopard, and watching her on the hunt, was more than enough of a reward.  Alas, it was time to depart.

Early during our morning drive, I had told Chad that I was keen to photograph a silhouette image of a dead tree against the Milky Way after darkness had fallen.  Chad showed us a particular tree at Big Nigrescens, and said we would aim to head back there on one of our night drives.

After the excitement of chasing Nthombi through the bush, Chad drove us back to Big Nigrescens, where I exited the Land Rover and set up my gear for a long exposure.

Here was the winning image I landed:

Afrika se Nag Lug

Afrika se Nag Lug

After a few long exposures, we headed back to the lodge, where a pre-dinner drink and a delicious meal awaited us.

After dinner and discussion, we were escorted back to our rondavel and we prepared for bed, as an absolutely huge day awaited us, starting even earlier in the morning, as we had all agreed to depart at 5:30am rather than 6:00am, at which time all of the other safari parties would also be embarking on their morning drives.

Day two of our Motswari safari experience had been a fantastic experience, but the best was yet to come.

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which it will be revealed that Xenedette would receive an absolutely awesome birthday present.