Tag Archives: Landscape

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 7 of 7

Our final day in the Maasai Mara had arrived, and our trip was soon to be over.

We had just the one morning game drive, before the unpleasant familiarity of packing and returning to Mara North Airstrip for the undesirable but necessary flight back to Nairobi.

After grabbing our gear and signalling for the Maasai tribesman to escort us through the darkness from our tent to the camp fire, we met Mario and Francis for a final morning drink around the fire before heading out into the plains to see what awaited us.

We headed into the north part of the conservancy.

For the seventh day in a row, the sky was not suited to compelling dawn landscape photography, so we got straight to the business of looking for wildlife.  In the Mara, one does not necessarily need to look for the wildlife; it is just there, sometimes in abundance.  The exception, and a challenging one at that, is to find an elusive cat such as a leopard, serval or caracal.

Not far north-east of camp, we encountered a red-necked francolin on the ground.  This was another first-time experience, having never seen one before.  The sighting was not ideal for photography, so it was an eyes-only sighting.

Francis was leading us north to Pui Pui, a lush woodland Mario particularly likes.  It is located north of the C13 road, not far from neighbouring Lemek Conservancy.

In this area, we were greeted by beautiful golden hour light, and we spotted a dik-dik on a mound, followed soon by an impressive male impala in the open.  Typical of an antelope, he looked in the opposite direction when I tried to photograph him.

I spotted a tree I wanted to photograph, so we climbed out of the 4WD and set up for some landscape photography.

I borrowed Mario‘s Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, within which the 170mm focal length provided an ideal focal length for capturing a pleasing landscape image of the tree, which was being bathed in rich, warm golden hour light.

Here is the resulting image I captured, with a brooding sky in the distance providing some excellent contrast and mood:

Morning at Pui Pui

Morning at Pui Pui

After this session, we boarded the 4WD again, and Mario wanted to shoot the rising sun over the canopy of the dense bushland, using a telephoto lens.

I could not get excited about the concept of the image, and did not take any shots myself; but Mario landed a very pleasing image which looked far better than I expected of the scene.

We soon headed west, and spotted a martial eagle in a tree.  We shot some images, but the good light had faded, and the martial eagle was too far away.

We then headed north-west towards the Mara River, finding a lilac-breasted roller on the ground.  The striking colours of this species of bird makes it appealing, both visually and photographically.

Unfortunately the conditions were not ideal, as the roller was on the ground, which made for a cluttered composition.  Additionally, photographing a bird from a higher altitude does not make for compelling images.

After spending a few more minutes with the lilac-breasted roller, we headed to the river and climbed out of the vehicle.  From high on the south bank, we could see hippos wallowing in the mud.  The water level in the Mara River was very low when we were there, so we were fortunate enough to see a mother and baby hippo standing on a mud bank.

Baby Hippo on the Mara River

Baby Hippo on the Mara River

By strange coincidence, the last time I photographed hippos happened to also be on our final game drive during our last trip to Kenya.

Fifteen minutes later, as we headed south-west of the river, we happened upon a pair of warthogs engaging in a battle.

We saw many warthogs during this trip, and while they are not the most attractive or interesting animals, they are part of the Mara story, and when one sees them engaging in behaviour such as fighting or mating, it is worth capturing the moment.

Disagreement

Disagreement

After leaving these pigs to it, Francis took us south-west, where we encountered female cheetah Kisaru!

We had first seen her during the previous afternoon, in the very same area where the warthogs were fighting.  Overnight, she had moved roughly in line with the river, in a south-westerly direction.

Naturally, we spent some time with her, capturing various images.  The sky by this time had turned grey, and the light was flat and uninspiring.  I did not land any ‘wow-factor’ images, but all the same, just being in the presence of a cheetah is a reward.

In the very same area, we spotted a Cape buffalo grazing.  By now, some light drizzle had started to fall, so in the lower-than-usual light, we set about photographing the buffalo at a sufficiently slow shutter speed to capture the rain drops as streaks.

Hitching a Ride

Hitching a Ride

These large, dangerous and grumpy bovines make for some great photography, particularly when an oxpecker is perched on the animal, hitching a ride.

After we had finished photographing the buffalo, we headed south to a dense, bushy area, and encountered one of the lionesses from the Cheli Pride.

I captured a portrait of the female as she rested, surrounded by the foliage of croton bushes.

At Rest

At Rest

A while later, on our way back to camp, we headed south-east, and encountered another lioness from the Cheli Pride.  This lioness had cubs!

Naturally we spent some pleasing time with the lions, photographing both the mother and the cubs as they played and foraged around in the thick scrub.  Photographically, it was not a productive sighting, but it was a nice way to conclude our final game drive, and it was our final sighting of the Cheli Pride for this trip.

We headed back to camp, and the three of us sat down to a cooked breakfast in the dining tent, enjoying the presence of zebras grazing a short distance away.

After breakfast came the unpleasantness of packing and preparing to depart.  Our flight back to Nairobi was not until later in the afternoon, so we had time to relax a little.  We also bought some things from the camp‘s gift shop.

A new initiative introduced to Elephant Pepper Camp under the management of Tom and Alison is the planting of trees around the camp.  Earlier in the week during a few hours of down time at camp in between game drives, Xenedette had planted a tree for both of us.  Naturally, we chose elephant pepper trees in honour of the name of the camp, which is nestled within a distinctive cross-shaped cluster of elephant pepper trees.

During the time we had between breakfast and departure, Xenedette took me to the location of our trees, which is just outside the entrance to the camp.

Mario also decided to plant a tree, so we went back with him and watched him plant his tree.

Francis had also planted a tree some time ago, so all four of us now have our own tree planted on the grounds of Elephant Pepper Camp.

Francis is under strict instructions to ensure that our trees are watered daily and grow larger and healthier than anyone else’s trees.

Beside each tree is a flat stone, upon which is painted the name of the person who planted the tree, and the date on which it was planted.  This initiative is a fantastic way to give back to Kenya, and leave a piece of ourselves at Elephant Pepper Camp.

Soon enough (too soon!), it was time to climb into the 4WD for the final time, and head to Mara North Airstrip to board our departing flight.

We said all of our goodbyes to Tom, Alison, Francis, James, Amos and the other wonderful staff, before hitting the road.

During the flight back to Nairobi, my mood was sombre, and even as I write this article now, it is not pleasant to recall the feeling of departing a truly special place, and one in which I could happily spent a lot more time if real life was not the obstacle it is.

And so ended an incredible second trip to the Maasai Mara, which had been filled with so many familiar faces, places and wildlife, but which had also been enriched with many first-time experiences.

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 5 of 7

On the morning of our fifth day in the Maasai Mara during this most recent trip, we woke at 5am as usual to prepare for an early start, with the intention of engaging in some landscape photography at dawn.

Unfortunately, for the fifth day in a row, the sky was terrible, and was visibly hopeless even in the darkness as we huddled around the camp fire.  The notion was quickly aborted, and once we boarded the 4WD, we headed south towards the Offbeat area.

About half-way there, we spotted an elephant in the distance.  Unusually, we had seen very few elephants during this trip.  Unlike the last trip, these giants were just not around.  We did not stop for photography, instead continuing further south.

We did not know this at the time, but we were about to experience a special sighting.  I suspect Francis already knew ahead of time, but we were none the wiser.

Around 30 minutes later, we arrived at a dramatic scene of the Offbeat Pride of lions feasting on a buffalo!

Three or four other vehicles were also at the scene as the lions gorged themselves.  Much of the kill had been devoured, but there was still plenty of food for the pride.

While it is not highly unusual for experienced lions to take down buffalo, it is quite a dangerous task, as buffalo are large, aggressive and armed with horns which could seriously injure or kill a lion.  The two species are eternal enemies, and buffalo will launch attacks on vulnerable lions, particularly cubs.

Feasting on the carcass were a several lionesses, a large pride male and several cubs.

Here is one of the many images I captured as the feast played out in front of us:

Table Manners

Table Manners

Here, the large pride male feasts, while one of the females snarls as she contends to get her share.

Naturally, the lions were not alone, as a few jackals were also lurking nearby, hoping for a piece of the action.

We spent nearly 45 minutes watching, photographing and filming as the lions consumed their meal.  I captured a lot of video footage of the lions feasting, from which I will eventually produce a video (or maybe more than one) of this trip.

During the feast, the male lion was very patient and tolerant of the cubs, only snarling and snapping once as another lion got too close.

Soon enough, the the pride male finished, and stood up.  Mario, knowing lion behaviour well, knew that the male would wander off for a drink and a rest.

Our next step was clear: we had to hastily depart the scene, get ahead of the lion and place ourselves where he would be likely to find water so that we would be able to photograph him drinking.

Within a few seconds, Francis sped off in a westerly direction, where a short distance away, there was a creek.  It was a rush, both literally and metaphorically, as we had very little time to beat the lion to his destination so that we could capture images that nobody else would capture.

The other vehicles all stayed at the kill scene.  The inhabitants of the other vehicles were probably wondering why we would suddenly race away from the scene of a pride feasting on a kill, but they did not have the Dream Team of Mario and Francis, who knew what the male lion would do, and where he would go.

Only five or six minutes after the pride male departed the kill scene, we were positioned on the western side of the creek, which runs from the Olare Orok River to the south.

All of a sudden, we saw the impressive male lion arrive on the scene, and begin drinking from the creek.

After he had lapped up some water, he decided to cross. Francis had done an excellent job of positioning the vehicle so that we were looking straight down a slope the lion would climb.  He would be heading straight towards us.  And he did!

Here is a tight portrait I captured of the pride male as he ascended the bank, looking straight at us:

Thirst Quenched

Thirst Quenched

Very noticeable is an injury to his nose.  I am not sure if he was injured during the kill, or if this was an older injury and he happens to have some of his meal still on his face.  Either way, it was fantastic to have this large pride male heading straight towards us.

Xenedette captured a fantastic video of this lion crossing the water, climbing the bank, heading straight towards us and then veering off to his right, only one or two metres from the 4WD.

The pride male headed off to find a resting place, high on a ridge.  We then raced back to the kill scene, where a lioness and three cubs were still feasting.  We captured more images and video footage from a different angle.

Sure enough, it was time for the female and the cubs to depart in search for water, so again, Francis raced back towards the creek so that we could intercept the lions and photograph them drinking and crossing the creek.

Rather than attempting to cross the creek where the pride male had crossed a short time ago, the lioness and her cubs ventured a little further north, trying to find a suitable crossing point.

We had the opportunity to see the lions drinking, and caught a few glimpses as they were out in the open on a grassy bank.

Eventually they crossed, and the female headed further west, about half-way between the creek and the ridge, where she rested under an acacia bush.

Soon she was joined by a very handsome male cub, where I captured this image of the two lions planning their next move.

Planning the Next Move

Planning the Next Move

The lions had by now probably spotted the male high on the ridge to the west, and set off to join him.

The cute male cub ventured into the open, where I captured him in the warmth of the morning sun.

Heading Towards Mummy

Heading Towards Mummy

On this morning, I had decided that I needed some down time back at camp, so we had earlier arranged for a private breakfast back at camp.

After a wonderful morning spent with the Offbeat Pride of lions feasting on a buffalo, drinking and crossing the creek, we made our way north back to camp for a nice outdoor breakfast and some time to rest and take care of the image transfer and backup housekeeping I regularly do while on safari.

After some highly needed down time, we joined the other guests for lunch, and then had some afternoon drinks and spent some time processing images before it was time to head back out into the field.

For afternoon drive, we headed north towards Mara North Airstrip, and within a short period of time stumbled upon some action.

We encountered a clan of hyenas feasting on a topi.  Earlier, probably while we were back at camp, two sibling male cheetahs had killed a topi and quickly lost their kill to the hyenas.

Stolen Lunch

Stolen Lunch

Unfortunately, a high percentage of kills made by cheetahs, usually of antelopes such as Thomson’s gazelle, impala and less commonly, topi, are stolen by hyenas.

As hyenas are powerful and aggressive predators, cheetahs often flee rather than trying to defend their kills.  In this case, the hyenas had won.

In the distance, we spotted Mbili and Milele, who are two sons of a female cheetah called Kiraposhe.  They were heading east, away from their stolen lunch.

Mbili and Milele roam freely between the Mara North Conservancy, Lemek Conservancy and Olare Motorogi Conservancy.

As the brothers were heading eastward, we did the same, getting ahead of Mbili and Milele so that we could intercept them and photograph and video them coming towards us.

Here is an image I captured of one of the siblings.

Defeated

Defeated

The look on this cheetah‘s face says it all: defeated.

His head is down, his ears are flat, and his demeanour is forlorn.

With numerous hyenas on the kill scene, Mbili and Milele had no choice but to depart, and they moved quite quickly towards Lemek Conservancy.

For us, it was a matter of racing ahead, capturing images, and then moving off again to continually track them from the direction in which they were ultimately heading.

Further east, the cheetahs were out in the open, and I had the opportunity to capture this image of Mbili:

Mbili on a Mission

Mbili on a Mission

We continued tracking the cheetahs further eastward, until we landed at Mara North Conservancy Headquarters.  This marks the boundary between Mara North Conservancy and Lemek Conservancy.

We could not enter Lemek Conservancy, as no reciprocal entry agreement exists between the two conservancies; so we had no choice but to leave Mbili and Milele to continue on their journey into Lemek Conservancy.

We headed north-west, and in less than 20 minutes, encountered the Cheli Pride of lions.  As always, it was fantastic to see the Cheli Pride.

This time, the pride was located in and near a tributary running from the Mara River.  We first spotted a lioness resting on a mound out in the open.

Cheli Pride at Rest

Cheli Pride at Rest

We quickly discovered that there were other lions nearby, taking shelter down the ravine.  After venturing around to the other side of the tributary, we saw a wildebeest kill down the ravine.

Amongst the pride were some very young cubs, and as the late afternoon progressed, the cubs became more active, coming out from their hiding place to explore.

One of the cubs came right out into the open, and was soon joined by a sibling.  An opportunity to capture a clean image of two very cute lion cubs in the open is not one to be missed!

Cuteness Convention

Cuteness Convention

After spending some very pleasant time in the company of the Cheli Pride, we headed off to look for a landscape photography opportunity.

When we are on safari, we anticipate and look for landscape photography opportunities during every dawn/sunrise and sunset/dusk.

We headed south to look for some interesting acacia trees to capture in silhouette at sunset.  Along the way, Mario spotted some giraffes, and was keen to photograph those against the western sky; but I was determined that we continue our pursuit for some pleasing landscape photography images, as so far we had not been rewarded with favourable conditions.

Soon enough we spotted three acacia trees which looked viable.  I had my eye on one, but Mario had his eye on another, and we went with his choice.

Once again, the sky in the west was looking decidedly terrible, but as every keen landscape photographer knows, it always pays to look in every direction.

While the western sky was a non-event, to the north and east were some ominous clouds.  As the sun descended, we were greeted with an intense, brilliant golden hour.

Facing the acacia tree with our backs to the sun, we were able to capture rich golden colours on the Mara plains as a dark, brooding, rain-laden sky served as the backdrop.

Here is one of the earlier images I captured:

Golden Acacia

Golden Acacia

I love the richness of the beautiful light.  Late afternoon light looks most dramatic when the sun has a clear path towards a dark sky in the east.

While I was on the south-western side of this Mario was north of me, shooting a very different image of a ranger’s hut which was nearby.  He was excited about the hut, but I found it ugly and wanted to focus on the acacia tree instead.

The light was changing very rapidly, so we both scrambled around, changing positions and even lenses to capture some different views of the same subject.

I ran north-east, and borrowing Mario‘s Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, I opted for a vertical composition of the acacia tree from further back, positioned right near the ugly hut Mario had been photographing.

Here is the resulting image:

Quintessential

Quintessential

The light was falling, so I did something I was never intending to do, and photographed the ugly hut!

The Ugly Hut

The Ugly Hut

Africa is a land of contrasts.

This is a man-made shelter, used by rangers or farmers during the day.

It is an ugly, thrown-together, metal shed with nothing inside and no purpose other than to provide temporary shelter for people needing it when out on the expansive plains.

It looks wrong in such a land of beauty.  It completely contrasts with the natural beauty which exists in the form of the acacia tree, the plains and the dramatic sky to the east.

We photographed it anyway, if for nothing else than to show something different, and highlight the contrast that exists between man and nature in the Maasai Mara.

This was my final shot of the day before we headed back to camp for pre-dinner drinks and a communal dinner with the other guests.

What a day was Wednesday, 5th of June, 2019.  We experienced a fantastic sighting of the Offbeat Pride of lions feasting on a buffalo, photographed the large pride male drinking and crossing a creek (followed by a lioness and cubs a short while later); experienced a new cheetah encounter, during which we saw and followed Kiraposhe’s sons Mbili and Milele, who had lost their lunch to hyenas; enjoyed another encounter with the Cheli Pride in the late afternoon, and finished the day with some rewarding landscape photography in beautiful golden hour light.

The big cats had truly been the stars of the show on this day.  We still had not found a leopard, but we had a few more drives before the trip was to conclude, so there would be more opportunities.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day six.

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 4 of 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the image I captured:

Leopard Gorge

Leopard Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

Rock Hyraxes

Rock Hyraxes

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

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

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

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

Eland and Friends

Eland and Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topi Tussle

Topi Tussle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peekaboo

Peekaboo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busy Boy at Rest

Busy Boy at Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the first time, we encountered the Five Musketeers.

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

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

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

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

One of the Five Musketeers

One of the Five Musketeers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is one of the images I captured:

Big Buffalo Bull

Big Buffalo Bull

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

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

Sundowner

Sundowner

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for our adventures on day five.

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 2 of 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mario's Tree Revisited

Mario’s Tree Revisited

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes: Shooting Mario's Tree

Behind the Scenes: Shooting Mario’s Tree

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

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

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

Portrait of a Spotted Hyena

Portrait of a Spotted Hyena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimme Some Action

Gimme Some Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female Saddle-Billed Stork

Female Saddle-Billed Stork

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

I concentrated on photographing the more visually appealing female.

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

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

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

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

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

Juvenile Short-Tailed Eagle

Juvenile Short-Tailed Eagle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast Food

Fast Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feline Tenderness

Feline Tenderness

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

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

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

Marabou Stork

Marabou Stork

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

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

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

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

Reedbuck on Alert

Reedbuck on Alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Evening Leisure

Early Evening Leisure

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

Magical Offbeat

Magical Offbeat

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for our adventures on day three.

Autumn Adventures in Mount Wilson

Mount Wilson, in the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney, is a wonderful location for landscape photography.  Its specific appeal is the rich colours of the leaves during autumn, and many photographers venture to Mount Wilson to capture these colours.

The quiet little mountain township had been on my never-ending list of photography locations/subjects, and it was a place which required autumn weather for the kind of images I wanted to capture.

I missed the opportunity in 2017, so I was determined not to miss the opportunity in 2018.

I had been following and participating in an online discussion about locations in Sydney at which to photograph the autumn colours, and naturally locations such as Mount Wilson and other parts of the Blue Mountains entered the discussion.

There was a specific image I wanted to create.

A few years ago on Instagram, I had seen a fantastic image of a stone staircase in Breenhold Gardens, captured by landscape photographer Kalan Robb, whom I follow on various sites.  The image was rich with colour and atmosphere, and I wanted to create that kind of image.

Through following the online discussion, in which a few people who lived in the mountains (or had visited) reported on conditions, I had a good idea about when would be a good time to visit.

In the autumn of 2018, the cool change came quite late, as there had been unusually warm temperatures.  Usually mid-to-late April is a good time to capture the autumn colours, but the temperatures did not drop until early-to-mid May, resulting in late development of the colour of the leaves.

We happened to be going away to the Blue Mountains on the weekend of 12-13 May, 2018, and as the time for photographing Mount Wilson‘s autumn colours is very limited, a visit to this location was a must.

We departed early in the morning to get to Mount Wilson for two reasons: to capture the location in good light; and to avoid the crowds of day-trippers who would descend upon the area as the morning wore on.

We entered Breenhold Gardens, and wandered around.  I photographed a few locations, with one of my earlier images capturing Socrates Garden.

Socrates Garden

Socrates Garden

Socrates Garden is a tranquil enclosure within Breenhold Gardens.

High on my agenda was a visit to Laburnum Steps, which was the feature I specifically wanted to photograph.  We procured a map and made our way to the steps.

Armed with my tripod, camera and 14mm lens, I went about my particular routine of setting up my gear and composition.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Laburnum Steps

Laburnum Steps

I was fortunate to see some stunning autumnal colours, but based on other images I have seen, it did not look like it had reached the intensity exhibited during colder years.

The rich red colour of the Japanese maples was present, and there were leaves scattered around on the steps and the dirt path perpendicular to the steps.

In the distance was a mix of greens, oranges and yellows, so it was a smörgåsbord of colour.

I was quite happy with this image, but I felt that I had not captured this location at its best.

In an earlier shot, I moved closer to the steps and shot an image in portrait orientation. Here is the result:

Mount Wilson in Autumn

Mount Wilson in Autumn

Here, the orange and red colours of the the fallen Japanese maple leaves can be seen more prominently, and the viewer’s eye is led up the winding staircase into the distance.

Incidentally, I have never actually climbed that staircase, or even set foot on it!

From that brief visit, I came away with at least two pleasing images, plus a number of other images I captured at different locations within Breenhold Gardens.  I should re-visit those images and see if there is something worth publishing.

However, my work was not complete.  I did not feel that the autumnal weather conditions had peaked, and with Kalan’s image in my mind, I knew I had to return.

On our way out of Breenhold Gardens, we met one of the managers of the gardens, who lives on site, and often stands at the entrance, meeting and greeting visitors.

I spoke with her for a few minutes, telling her of my interest in the colours, and of being there early in the morning.  She said that she could allow me earlier access.  Normally the opening time is 10am, which is too late for moody photography, and too late if peace and quiet is what one seeks.

She told me that the following weekend would be the best time to visit, as the conditions would very soon deteriorate.  Heeding her advice, I contacted her later that weekend and made arrangements to gain access at dawn.

So, on the following weekend, we headed back to Breenhold Gardens, even earlier, arriving just before dawn.  I wanted to be ready to capture Laburnum Steps in great conditions.

Through the darkness, we took the short walk to the steps, where I again went through my fussy ritual of setting up my composition and waiting for the right light.

This time, I opted to shoot with my 24mm lens.  I felt that 14mm was too wide to feature the steps prominently enough, and I wanted a different image of the same subject.

On this morning, I found that the light was flatter and more subdued.  We were there earlier, and due to the mountainous location, the warm morning light falls upon the scene much later, by which time it is too late for serious photography, as all of the day-trippers have crowded the scene.

We were there for the better part of an hour, waiting for the light to change.  I realised that the sun would not hit the steps and foliage until much later, and continued shooting.

Here is one of the earlier images I captured during that morning:

Laburnum Steps Revisited

Laburnum Steps Revisited

The flatter nature of the light can be seen in this image.  This image was captured at 6:45am, whereas my image from the previous weekend had been captured at 9:37am — nearly three hours later.

What was also noticeable is that the colours had not dramatically intensified, and the number of leaves on the steps and surrounding areas had not really increased.

I was somewhat disappointed that the conditions had not improved much within a week.

As was the case during the previous visit, I also shot a vertical composition.

Enchanting

Enchanting

I shot a few more compositions of Laburnum Steps before I decided to wrap up and head off to find some other locations in Mount Wilson.

Only a few metres away from Laburnum Steps is another set of steps called Acer Steps. In fact, descending this staircase is one of three ways of accessing Laburnum Steps, and it was the route we took on both visits.

Heading back up Acer Steps, I noticed that the backlighting of the scene worked very well with the Japanese maple whose canopy shelters the steps.  The light and the intense colour instantly attracted me, so I scrambled to set up for another shot.

I struggled to compose (which is not a problem I usually have), and moved the tripod a matter of inches here and there (and sometimes even greater distances) to try to get the best composition from a tricky scene.  I was trying to avoid some distracting elements being positioned too close to the edges, while also prominently featuring the backlit red leaves, and avoiding any direct light from the still-rising sun.

After much fussing around and making of micro-adjustments, here is the image I eventually captured:

Acer Steps

Acer Steps

After this shot, we headed to Church Lane, where I found this charming entrance to a property containing the Koonawarra guest house, located in Dennarque Estate.

Entrance to Dennarque Estate

Entrance to Dennarque Estate

The rich reds and oranges in the distant trees looked radiant in the warmth of the morning light.

Church Lane itself can look fantastic in autumn, but it needs the right conditions, and there is the problem of power poles, power lines and parked cars polluting an otherwise quaint scene.

After shooting this image, we went looking for the chestnut picking farms, for which we had seen signs the week before.  Unfortunately there was no sign of any chestnut picking opportunities in the area, so I found one more spot to photograph before we headed home.

Along Waterfall Road, there are some picnic tables, and I focused my lens on one of them while a group of tourists/photographers engaged in some frivolity and portraiture not far from where I was shooting.

Breakfast Stop

Breakfast Stop

This spot would make a great location for breakfast in the crisp, autumn air.

Having captured what I decided was my final image for this visit and for this year, we headed back home.

It was an interesting couple of visits to Mount Wilson.  There is a lot to photograph, and I came away with some key learnings.

Firstly, it really is a location best photographed in autumn.  The conditions can make or break an image.  While I had some nice conditions, there was still something lacking.

Mount Wilson contains many locations to photograph, but some can be deceptive in photographic appearance.  For example, the quaint Church Lane actually contains ugly power poles along it, which detracts from the look and feel of the street.

Some locations simply look better when viewed with one’s own eyes, and producing a pleasing image which captures the essence of the place is not a simple matter of plonking down a tripod and pointing the camera at what looks good without a camera.

A location such as Mount Wilson really warrants planning, in terms of the specific location, time of day, and weather.  Of course, not everything is necessarily controllable. Sometimes it is a matter of luck, particularly when coming from a place where the weather can be quite different.

Mount Wilson is a location which needs more than one visit (or even several visits) to do it justice.  I am sure I will head back there again next autumn, but unless the conditions I seek all align serendipitously, I do not think I can achieve a better image of Laburnum Steps. What I captured is as good as I can get unless a specific set of conditions exists.

On that note, Kalan Robb happened to be a member of the site on which the online discussion about autumn photography was taking place, and joined in the discussion.  I suspect it came to his attention because I had mentioned him there and provided a link to his excellent article on photography in Mount Wilson.

About his image of Laburnum Steps — the image which was my source of inspiration — he provided some insight into it.

Firstly, he does process his images quite differently to the way I process mine, which I suspected, and which he confirmed.  His processing is more intense, but effective.

What was more important was the conditions, which he said made up for 70% of the result.

He shot his images in 2015, during whose autumn it got colder much faster than what I had experienced.  Crucially, it was wet at the time.  On that morning, he explained, it had been raining steadily, which produced the misty glow.

What my images lacked was wetness and mist.  It simply had not rained and was not cold enough to produce those highly atmospheric conditions I wanted.

Kalan explained that the abundance of leaves on the ground was due to heavy rain and wind the day before.  My deduction is that while many of the leaves had fallen from the trees, they had not been blown away; and that the rain-soaked ground may have played a significant part in keeping them in place.

So, there is some insight into the conditions. These conditions would have been perfect for my desires, but on both visits, it was not to be. It could take me years to encounter conditions like that, and it may simply never happen.

What I do have is a chance, so I will return next autumn and see what I encounter.  There is more work to be done at Mount Wilson.

Brisbane and South-East Queensland Visit – 2017

Late in 2017, we headed to Brisbane and south-east Queensland for the first time since 2013.

It was high time to visit Dave and Lea, and engage in some photography, tomfoolery and shiraz consumption.

On our first full day, we decided to head south-west to Queen Mary Falls, as there had been some recent rain in the Gold Coast area, and there was predicted cloud cover, which made waterfall photography ideal.

Our first stop was at Daggs Falls, where an observation platform provided a great view.  Unfortunately, the platform was very prone to vibrations, which made shooting long exposures with a 200mm lens and ten-stop ND filter somewhat impossible.

We drove up the road for a few minutes and got to Queen Mary Falls, which had a much more stable observation platform.  This time, I used my 14mm lens to capture the vast expanse of the scenery and the high view.

Long Way Down

Long Way Down

After we had finished shooting, we decided it was time for a late lunch.  Heading north-east for around five minutes, we happened across the Spring Creek Mountain Café, which offers a very pleasant view of the Scenic Rim.

While waiting for our lunch at an outside table, I took advantage of the light and cloud conditions over the valley, and captured this view.

Spring Creek Mountain

Spring Creek Mountain

The plan for the same day was to visit Brisbane‘s iconic Story Bridge for a twilight shoot.  The last time I photographed the Story Bridge was in 2008, and it was time for a new look at it, applying the experience and gear I have acquired since I last shot it.

The bridge is often photographed from Wilson Outlook Reserve, high up on the cliffs to the east.

This time, we decided to venture down onto the Brisbane River Walk below and try a different vantage point, which gave us a lower angle, allowing the reflections of the lights in the water to appear much more prominently.

During the session, the bridge put on an ever-changing show of multi-coloured lights, which created a nice contrast to the blue and cloudy night sky.

Story of Colour

Story of Colour

On the topic of the sky, the clouds were somewhat annoying and detracted from the image I had pictured, but it was what it was, and I had to make the best of the conditions at the time we were there.

After our shoot concluded, we walked to New Farm and stopped in an Italian restaurant for a late dinner before making the drive north-west to Cedar Creek.

The next day, the plan was to head out for an afternoon landscape shoot during golden hour.  This time, Dave and I headed out on our own.

We decided, given all the driving the day before, to remain in the local vicinity, and we threw around a few ideas.  We figured we would look for a view of the mountains in the area such that the sun would be behind us.

Driving around, we ended up at Mount Pleasant, but the scenes we visited just were not right, so we continued on, and this time headed up Mount Mee.

While driving north along Mount Mee Road, Dave spotted an interesting tree on the right at the junction with Sellin Road.

We stopped and headed over to the eastern side of the road to photograph the tree, which also had some grazing cows lingering nearby.

The light was warm, as it was quite late in the afternoon, but not quite warm enough for what we had in mind.  However, the light was still decent enough, so we snapped away as the cows grazed.

Here is what I captured:

High Steaks

High Steaks

For this image, and the image I was to shoot later in the day, I used my Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM lens.  Now, this lens was not one I bought to shoot landscapes, and I rarely ever use a telephoto lens for landscapes, much preferring the wide vista provided by an ultra-wide lens; however, from where we were standing, the 200mm focal length was just right, and provided a nice amount of compression.

After we had finished shooting at this spot, we headed west along Sellin Road, and spotted a lone tree we had photographed at dawn back in 2010.  To our surprise, there was now a large house now on the property, close to Sellin Road.  We could still see the tree further up the paddock in the distance.

Here are the stand-out images I captured of the ‘ Mount Mee Tree‘ in 2010:

Dawn on Mount Mee

Dawn on Mount Mee

Tree on Mee

Tree on Mee

We continued westward, and found some lovely side-lighting htting the lush green grasses down the ravine, but compositionally, there was not much on offer; so, we turned around and headed east.

I was beginning to think that we may not find much at all, and I pointed out that one really needs to scout and plan a location, which, we clearly had not done.

However, heading further east to where we had photographed the cows, I spotted a lovely, large tree down a valley to our left.  After driving past it, we swung back around and pulled up, with this location to be our final location for the day, in which we would photograph this beautiful tree in the rich and warm golden hour light which would greet us a little later.

I quickly found my composition, again using my Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM lens.  The view I found from the spot where I perched myself also contained some lush, long green grasses in the foreground, which I purposefully kept in the frame.  I liked the extra interest, as well as the framing device, it provided.

From then, it was a waiting game.

Once the light became even warmer, we snapped away.  Dave was capturing all sorts of images of different subjects in the area, from varying positions.  I remain focused on the tree.  That was my image, and I was not interested in anything else.

After waiting for the right light, here is the image I shot:

Glowing Tree

Glowing Tree

After the lovely light had disappeared, we headed back to Samford to collect some cows (of the non-grazing variety) and fermented grape juice for dinner at the house.

Thus, my photography for this trip was completed.

During our stay, Dave and I decided to compare our 200mm lenses.  He owns a Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM (a legendary and relatively rare lens, with only 8,000 having been built), and I own a Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM, which effectively replaced the 200/1.8L some 20 years after it was introduced.

We lined them up for a ‘family portrait’, and Dave captured an image of the two lenses side-by-side.  Later during the visit, we also staged a semi-scientific shoot, with a foam rubber dinosaur as the subject.  We photographed the dinosaur with both lenses, using the widest apertures available on both, as well as the widest aperture common to both.

Upon inspecting the resulting images, there is not a great deal of difference in sharpness between the two lenses.  Both deliver outstanding results.

All in all, it was a fun trip, and while photographically the conditions were not super exciting, I did manage to capture a few pleasing images along the way.