Tag Archives: Leopard

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.

2015 Retrospective: Intense and Focused

Now that we are well into the year 2016, it is time for a retrospective look at my photographic journey in 2015.

The year can be summarised as intense and focused, as the majority of images I captured during 2015 were in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, where we embarked upon an incredible seven-day safari with our friend and safari leader Mario Moreno.

Looking at my statistics, I shot more images in 2015 than I did in the years 2013 and 2014 combined.

Had the Kenya trip not happened, I suspect I would not have shot much.

Photographically, my year started quite late — near the end of April — with a macro/still life image of a new watch I had been given:

Certina 1888

Certina 1888

We had some family in town from overseas, so I took the opportunity to shoot some cityscape images from a location at which I had not shot before.

One afternoon we headed to the Glebe apartment and I waited for the right light to capture some views of the beautiful city skyline.

This was the result:

Dusk Descendence

Dusk Descendence

And a little later, during blue hour:

The View Sucks

The View Sucks

I also took the opportunity to capture this tight view of the Anzac Bridge as twilight fell:

Anzac Bridge

Anzac Bridge

In May, we all had an outing at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo in Darling Harbour.  I took a camera and a couple of lenses, but I did not shoot a great deal of images.

This image of a kangaroo was one of the more pleasing images I captured on the day:

One of Skippy's Mates

One of Skippy’s Mates

Later in the month, I felt compelled to head out and shoot another cityscape.

In the mid-to-late afternoon, I scouted for some vantage points along the western side of Circular Quay, and finally settled on the observation deck of the International Passenger Terminal, which affords a higher view, and additionally was empty and free from passers by.

I waited for the blue hour, and captured this view of Sydney which I have not seen (or photographed) before.

Circular Quay West

Circular Quay West

It had been a slow, but pleasing enough start to the year.

In June, the photography I had been eagerly anticipating since we booked the trip the previous year, would finally happen.

We headed to Kenya to spend seven days in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we would re-ignite our passion for wildlife and landscape photography.

So far I have published over 100 images from that trip, so I will not publish a great deal of those images in this article; but as the trip brought us a lot of first-time encounters, I will instead present some selected highlights from the trip.

We were based in the luxurious eco-lodge Elephant Pepper Camp, which afforded us total isolation and positioning right in the middle of where the action was.

This is a view of one of Elephant Pepper Camp‘s honeymoon/family tents:

Elephant Pepper Camp's Honeymoon Tent

Elephant Pepper Camp’s Honeymoon Tent

And this is a view of the camp at twilight, depicting the dining tent, lounge and camp fire:

Around the Camp Fire

Around the Camp Fire

Highlights of the trip included one of my finest bird images, which was my first frame of only two I snapped while this pied kingfisher was bobbing up and down in flight:

Suspended

Suspended

Just about every day, we were treated to lions — most prominently, the Cheli Pride.  One of the fantastic things about the Cheli Pride was its abundance of cubs, and on this trip, it was our first time seeing wild cubs, such as this cute little lion:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

On one afternoon, we were fortunate enough to spend some time, in pleasing, afternoon light, in very close proximity to a lilac-breasted roller, where I captured this and a number of other images of the national bird of South Africa:

Plumage

Plumage

Naturally, a safari in Africa encompasses more than just wildlife — there are amazing opportunities for stunning, iconic landscape shots, and we certainly took advantage of that, rolling out into the plains in the pre-dawn darkness before other safari-goers were even awake.

This was one of my earlier landscape shots, captured during a moody morning:

The Moody Mara Plains

The Moody Mara Plains

On another morning, we captured the ‘postcard shot’ of a rising sun behind a lone acacia tree:

Sunrise on the Mara

Sunrise on the Mara

This particular tree is known as Mario’s Tree, as Mario often photographs it.  We certainly did — several times — including one particular morning which greeted us with a colourful sky:

Lone Acacia

Lone Acacia

On only our second day on this trip, we were treated to a number of first-time encounters.  In the morning, we encountered our first Mara leopard, who was also also the first leopard we had seen in a tree; and in the evening we found our first male lion of the trip, again a member of the resident Cheli Pride.

We had gone back to Leopard Gorge to look for the young male cat, when we found a large, dominant male lion in the area instead.  If the leopard was around, he was hiding and would not be seen.

Here is the beautiful young male leopard perched high in an elephant pepper tree:

Leopard of the Day

Leopard of the Day

We not only encountered one male lion, but two!  His brother also emerged from the distance and joined him for some bonding and lazing before the night‘s hunting commenced.

Here is one of the stunning Cheli Pride males we encountered:

Surveying

Surveying

The day after we met the dominant males, we encountered numerous members of the pride, minus the males, feasting on a zebra kill the next afternoon.  This was another ‘first’ for us, as we had hitherto never seen lions feasting on a kill.  It was quite a sight, as this wider image shows:

Feast

Feast

The next day, we spent a dramatic afternoon with the Cheli Pride again, firstly as we encountered one of the mothers on her own, out in the open, calling for the pride.

Here is an image I captured of the lioness in the warm afternoon light:

Cheli Mother

Cheli Mother

Before long, a mighty rainstorm descended upon us, which made the big cat uncomfortable, as well as presenting challenges for us.  As the rain began to subside, camera shutters sounded like rapid gunfire as we captured action shots of the lioness shaking the water from her head.

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

Towards the end of the trip, we spent one day further south in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we experienced yet another first.

So far, the one species of African big cat we had never seen in the wild was the cheetah.  On that trip, we finally encountered wild cheetahs.  It was an exciting experience to firstly see them from a distance, and then drive to position ourselves optimally to be ahead of where they were headed.  It became more exciting as the cheetahs got closer, and I had a few opportunities to photograph the family, which consisted of a mother and four sub-adults.

Here is one of the nicer images I captured of these amazing big cats:

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

It had been a long wait, but finally we spent some time with wild cheetahs.

Our next morning in the Mara consisted of a portrait shoot with Maasai tribesman called Baba, with whom we travelled to Mario’s Tree, where we shot some dramatic silhouette portraits of him as the sun rose on one of our final days in the Mara.

Here is one of the more striking images I captured during the session:

Baba the Maasai

Baba the Maasai

Our final evening in the Mara brought something we could have never predicted, and something which is quite rare to see: mating leopards!

At first, we spotted a young female leopard high in a tree during the warm afternoon light, but within a short time, a large, amourous male emerged from the thicket, and the two leopards began (or continued with) their ritual of rapid, exposive mating sessions, which can last for days.

We spent the rest of the drive witnessing this amazing sight, and the following image captures an intense moment as the female expresses her displeasure at the male’s advances:

Growl of the Leopardess

Growl of the Leopardess

The next morning was our final, somewhat subdued game drive in the Mara before we would fly back to Nairobi for a night and another day before departing Kenya.  We were fortunate to encounter a small pod of hippos in a watering hole, where I had the opportunity to capture some relatively close-proximity images, such as this large hippo on the bank, less than 30 metres away:

Hippo on the Bank

Hippo on the Bank

Before too long, this amazing photographic journey came to its conclusion.

After the intensity of our Mara trip, and my generally low photographic output before the trip, it was not surprising that I did not shoot much afterwards.  In fact, I shot only one more image for the remaining six months of the year!

The one image I did capture was a macro image of some red and orange roses to commemmorate our anniversary.

Fifth

Fifth

And so concludes my photographic journey for 2015.  It indeed was an intense and focused year, with Kenya dominating my photographic output, but with a few other images here and there.

Kenya: So Where Exactly Were We?

For the past few months I have chronicled our adventures in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya on a day-by-day basis, detailing in words and pictures the incredible experiences we had.

For those who have not been to the Mara, it can be difficult to picture the geography and understand how vast it is, and just how scattered were our various sightings.

When I travel, I like to record the precise details of every place we visit.  I use a smartphone app which does not require cellular network connectivity (but will use it if present), but uses the phone’s GPS receiver to record the coordinates of wherever I am.

At each place we visited, and at each wildlife sighting or other stop we made, I recorded our position and the details about what took place there.

When we returned, I plotted all of the details onto a Google map, breaking down the locations by days, game drives and other activities and places of interest.

We were based in the Mara North Conservancy (MNC), which is a privately-managed, 28,000 hectare region of the greater Mara ecosystem, located close to the Mara River which forms its northern-most border.

The neighbouring conservancies (also known as private concessions) and reserves are Lemek Conservancy to the north, Motorogi Conservancy to the east, Olare Orok Conservancy to the south-east, and the Maasai Mara National Reserve to the south.

We stayed at the magnificent Elephant Pepper Camp, a luxurious semi-permanent eco-lodge, which is positioned to the south of the C13 road, with Mara Rianta to the west and Aitong to the east.

To the south of MNC lies the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which itself is over 1,500 square kilometres in size, and which forms part of the greater Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, spanning both Kenya and Tanzania to the south.  On one of our days, we departed from the Mara North Conservancy and headed into the main reserve, where we encountered wild cheetahs for the first time.

The Mara is 270km west of Nairobi, and takes 45 minutes to reach by light plane, with numerous airstrips being spread around the Mara, two of which we used being within a few hundred metres of each other.

The  Mara North Conservancy and the Maasai Mara National Reserve are both quite famous, and were extensively featured in the superb BBC series Big Cat Diary.  One particular leopard was filmed at a spot called Leopard Gorge, which lies to the south-west of Elephant Pepper Camp, and, incidentally, was the location of our first leopard sighting in the Mara.

So, here is a map which shows where exactly we were, with images captured at many of the places.

Before and after our Mara visit, we were based in Nairobi, and predominantly travelled to various places of interest in Karen and Langata to the south-west.

I hope readers find interest in seeing where we were, and gain a greater understanding of an undeniably fantastic part of the world.

Maasai Mara: Day 7 of 7

Our final day in the Mara had arrived, and we had one morning game drive before we would need to depart Elephant Pepper Camp and the fantastic people, animals, places and experiences that had made up the previous week.

The day was quite subdued, and there was that ever-persistent feeling we had experienced before on our final day in a magical part of Africa: the feeling that we had little time left, and that the peak of our adventure had well and truly passed.

We would be flying back to Nairobi later that day, and the pace of life was going to change.

Like every other day, we started early, heading out into the Mara plains in darkness.  We did not stop anywhere for a landscape shoot on this particular morning, as the sky was not promising, and we had achieved some very pleasing images on previous mornings.

Francis took us in a northerly direction, across the C13 and to the region half-way between camp and the Mara River.

We found a solitary River Pride lioness in the scrub.  She was resting in a clump of bushes, and while I had my lens trained on her, the photography was not looking likely to eventuate, and as it turned out, I did not fire a single shot.

The lioness did not seem to be in the mood for modelling, and she stayed in the thick clump of bushes, offering us only fleeting sightings as we circled around the bushes to gain a better view.

Usually when one sees a solitary lioness, it indicates the presence of cubs that are being kept away from the pride until they are older; but we did not see any signs of other lions in the area, although almost certainly other River Pride members would have been not too far away.

It is always a pleasure to see lions in the wild, and we had lion sightings on every day we spent in the Mara, except perhaps for day six.  I can find no reference to lion sightings in my records for that day, so if we did see one, it was fleeting.

We had seen big cats on every single day, however, and being cat fans, that was enormously pleasing.

We soon left the River Pride lioness, and headed back east to the spot along a Mara River tributary at which we had witnessed mating leopards on the previous evening.  We wanted to see if we could find them again, as mating leopards can spend time together in the same general area for several days.  There was a chance we would find them.

Unfortunately, we did not.  If they were in the immediate area, they were well hidden; or perhaps they had moved further north or south along the tributary.  We certainly did not see them, and our last sighting was on the previous night when they had crossed the water into thicker scrub.

While Francis was slowly navigating around the area in search for the leopards, we saw something we did not expect.

To the left of the vehicle, just over eight metres away, a dik-dik emerged from the scrub.

The dik-dik is a very small, rapidly-moving antelope.  We had not seen one before, so naturally we readied ourselves for some photography.

I was fortunate enough to land one image of the dik-dik as it paused momentarily under the cover of the thicket.

Dik-Dik

Dik-Dik

The dik-dik stayed for perhaps a minute before darting off into the distance.

It was an unexpected but pleasant sighting, and I landed just the one pleasing image of the antelope looking straight at me.

Once the dik-dik had exited the scene, we soon did the same, and crossed the river, heading in an easterly direction.

Still in the same general area where we had seen the two leopards the night before, a lone hyena emerged from the distance, making his way closer to us in the fairly open grasses.

Hyenas and leopards are eternal enemies, and a leopard will flee if the presence of a hyena is detected.  Hyenas are certainly known for stealing leopard kills, and in fact, stealing anything they find; but more critically, hyenas will kill leopard cubs.

If the leopards were anywhere nearby, we had little chance of seeing them, particularly due to the presence of the hyena.  We did not capture any images of the hyena, but it was pleasant enough just to see him scouting around during the quiet part of the morning, with us being the only other evidence of life in the immediate area.

Soon enough, we headed north-west, to a spot along the Mara River trib, north of where we had seen the leopards.

Within a short time we had found a pod of hippos wallowing in the muddy waters.

We were very close, and it was the closest distance to a hippo at which we had ever been.  We had seen hippos in Mpumalanga snd KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, but they were much further away, and more submerged than the animals we had just encountered.

It seemed that the hippos were somewhat uncomfortable by our presence, as there was grunting, sizing up and restlessness apparent.

I captured an image of a large hippo in his element.

Master of My Domain

Master of My Domain

This hippo was definitely the master of his domain.

During the time we spent with the hippos, the warmth of the early morning light descended upon the landscape, and with the sun behind us on the eastern bank of the trib, the nice pink and brown colours of the hippos stood out.

As we slowly moved around, the hippos were becoming agitated, and it looked like there was going to be a fight for dominance between two of the larger males.  The mood was icy, and we were expecting and hoping to see something exciting; but alas, it never eventuated, and the hippos calmed down somewhat.

We continued to watch and photograph, and eventually, one of the hippos exited the water and began grazing on the western side of the trib.  It was our first time seeing a hippo out of water.

Hippo on the Bank

Hippo on the Bank

He certainly was impressive, and it was nice to see him out in the open, grazing on the short grasses 28 metres away from us.

The light became warmer as we watched the hippos, so towards the end of our time with them, I captured a few images of the richly-coloured animals semi-submerged in the muddy water.

I'm Watching You

I’m Watching You

This hippo was definitely keeping an eye on us!

Soon enough, we headed back to camp.

It was a quiet morning game drive, which could come nowhere near the excitement we had experienced with such sightings as male lion brothers bonding, mating leopards, the Cheli Pride feasting on a zebra, and a magnificent leopard in an elephant pepper tree; but we had experienced some new sights and sounds on this quiet morning.

We headed south, back to camp without stopping for any further images.

Back at camp, we had breakfast, and began the unpleasantness of packing and getting ready to depart.

We still had a few hours before our flight, so we spent time at camp in the lounge.  We had met a few other guests over the previous few days: a mother and daughter from Florida, who were travelling in different parts of Kenya and Tanzania, staying only for a few days at different lodges; and a Hong Kong Chinese couple, for whom this was their first trip to Africa.

Both pairs of guests were also due to depart that day, so we said our goodbyes and set about the uncomfortable business of lingering, knowing that we had little time and that there was little we could do but wait until it was time to head to the airstrip.

The mood at that stage was somewhat sombre.

Eventually, it was our time to leave.  We were the last to leave, and this was not the first time we had experienced the loneliness and flat, empty feeling as everything and everyone around us had departed.

Time was running short, and we had to depart, as there was only one flight out of the Mara, and if we missed it, well, we would have to stay another night.  What a shame that would be!

We had a few group photos with Mario and Francis, Patrick and Sophie (the resident managers of Elephant Pepper Camp) and the other staff.  Then it was time to climb into the 4WD for the last time, and head north to Mara Shikar Airstrip, which was very close to where we had been with the hippos earlier that morning.

When we arrived at the airstrip, there were no signs of life, and the plane was not on the ground, or anywhere in the air nearby.  We started to become concerned, as we were the only people there.

Francis got on the radio, and it turned out that our flight was leaving from Mara North Airstrip, which is only a few hundred metres west, perpendicular to Mara Shikar; but it takes a good five to eight minutes to get there.

We scrambled back into the 4WD and Francis gunned it, as we had only a few minutes to head the long way around in order to get to a place that was a few hundred metres due west of where we had just been.

Francis drove very quickly, and I felt like he was going at 80-90km/h; but I looked at the speedometer, and we were travelling at 40km/h.  In the Mara, that is fast.  We were so used to edging our way around at a very slow speed — probably barely more than 10km/h most of the time — that 40km/h felt like motorway speeds.

A few minutes later, we arrived at Mara North Airstrip and boarded the plane just in time.  Shortly thereafter, we were in the air, departing a place we did not want to depart.  Barely a word was spoken on the 45-minute flight, as we looked down over the plains, still emotionally immersed in what had been a magical week.

Mario had originally planned to stay overnight in Nairobi, but during the morning he had been in contact back home, and he needed to return to Spain to sort out some paperwork; so he changed his flights, and rather than spending a night at the Boma Hotel with us and travelling around Karen and Langata with us on the following day, he flew out of Nairobi that night.

We had one more day in Kenya the next day, but our time in the Mara had concluded.

It had been a magical trip, and here and now, writing about it over three months after, I still long to be there, and cannot get the place out of my head.

It feels so familiar now, and writing about these adventures, though a long process, has kept the memories very much alive in both of our minds.  Watching the BBC series Big Cat Diary, which was shot in the Mara, and which made Leopard Gorge famous, also keeps the place fresh and familiar.

Life is so fast-paced, that despite being in a completely different environment, experiencing things that are far from routine, it really did not take long before the pervasive strength and persistence of real life dragged me, kicking and screaming, from a world in which I would rather be; so keeping the Mara alive and fresh in my mind is not only desirable, but altogether necessary.

From that trip, I still have more images, and a lot of videos, to process; so there will be more from our trip to publish; but just as our trip to the Maasai Mara concluded, so too has this series of articles.

I hope readers have enjoyed hearing about our time in the Mara, and that those who have not been there before will be inspired to go there.

It really is a special place.

Maasai Mara: Day 6 of 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maasai at Sunrise

Maasai at Sunrise

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

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

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

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

Baba the Maasai

Baba the Maasai

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

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

Staring at the Sun

Staring at the Sun

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

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

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

The Maasai

The Maasai

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

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

This was the image I landed:

Contemplation

Contemplation

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

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

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

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

Black-Bellied Bustard

Black-Bellied Bustard

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

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

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

I fortunately landed such an image.

The Bustard Can Sing

The Bustard Can Sing

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

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

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

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

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

Grazing Elly

Grazing Elly

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

Juvenile Martial Eagle

Juvenile Martial Eagle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of a Young Maasai Woman

Portrait of a Young Maasai Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amourous Climber

Amourous Climber

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

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

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

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

Resting Leopardess

Resting Leopardess

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

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

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

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

Big Boy

Big Boy

Is he not a stunning leopard?

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

Growl of the Leopardess

Growl of the Leopardess

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

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

The Mating Game

The Mating Game

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

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

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

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

Maasai Mara: Day 5 of 7

Our plan for day five in the Kenyan wilderness was to depart the Mara North Conservancy and head south into the public Maasai Mara National Reserve.  We were in search of cheetahs, the only big cats we had not yet seen.

Rather than heading out for two drives (morning and afternoon) near camp, we made a single day trip further afield into the main reserve, which for us would mean more first-time experiences, as we would later discover.

5am rolled around pretty quickly, so we went through the morning routines, spent a very short time around the camp fire, and headed out, as the main reserve was a longer journey.

Again we wanted to capture the beauty of dawn and sunrise in Kenya, so we headed to Mario’s Tree, where a fantastic sky was to soon greet us.

The first frame was captured at 6:20am, by which time there was a sliver of intense red near the horizon under a bluish, cloud-laden sky.

Less than fifteen minutes later, I captured the first of a few images I would publish from this sunrise, and rather than composing my landscape images in the usual landscape orientation, I rotated the camera 90 degrees and captured a vertical composition of Mario’s Tree.

Mario's Tree

Mario’s Tree

What was also unusual about this approach was that I had decided to horizontally centre the subject, which I so rarely ever do.

In landscape photography, rule-of-thirds (RoT) composition, whereby one places both the horizon and the main subject at the imaginary horizontal and vertical lines which would appear if the frame was divided into a grid of nine sections, is usually the practice followed; but sometimes, even in landscape photography, breaking this ‘rule’ can work better than the predictability ensured by RoT composition.

I think it worked well here.

While I photographed this iconic acacia tree in portrait orientation, I naturally returned the camera to its default position and captured a composition in landscape orientation too.

Lone Acacia

Lone Acacia

Again I centred the subject horizontally, which I think works just as well here as it does in the vertically-composed image.

In this version, the negative space on either side of the tree conveys the vast expanse of land so typical in the Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecosystem.

What a fantastic sky this was, and a sight I rarely see at home these days.  My landscape images contained rich reds, blues and greens as the sun gradually rose over Kenya.

Now, I do not often like to include man-made objects in scenes depicting nature, but I decided upon a third approach to this morning’s session at Mario’s Tree.

Mario and I decided to shoot some video footage, so he asked Francis to drive the vehicle across the scene so we could capture the presence of the 4WD in the Mara wilderness as a storytelling device.

Upon Mario‘s commands, Francis obligingly drove the vehicle from left to right, and right to left, several times, and at different speeds, as we captured stock footage for later use in some video productions.

Side-note: At the time of writing, I have yet to produce a video from the many clips I shot throughout the trip.  I have enough footage for several distinct videos, but it is a larger project which requires an investment in time.  I will produce those videos eventually, but for now my story remains confined to words and images.

For my next image, I decided, also unusually, to place the 4WD in the scene, with the acacia tree taking a more subservient role in the image.  Here is the result:

Great Parking Spot

Great Parking Spot

I titled this image Great Parking Spot.  Great parking spot, indeed!

For my final image during this morning’s visit to Mario’s Tree, which is five or ten minutes almost due west of Elephant Pepper Camp, I decided upon another storytelling image, this time placing not only the vehicle, but our people, in the scene.

I shot a silhouette of Xenedette, Mario and Francis, standing on the savannah, cameras, lenses and monopod in hand, with the 4WD parked adjacent to them, and Mario’s Tree also prominent in the scene, all set against the intensely rich reds and blues of the magical dawn that had greeted us.

On Safari

On Safari

This scene really captures the essence of our trip specifically, and of an African wildlife photography safari in general, and it will always be a memorable image of a memorable trip.  The only thing missing is me, as I was naturally behind the camera.

In hindsight, I really should have included myself in the scene, too.  I shot it from a considerable distance, so it would have been a sprint across the wet grass to get into the scene on time.

Mario had brought a small, compact camera for Francis to use, and he made frequent use of it during the trip — at least, when he was not driving, setting up breakfasts and sundowners, or looking for lions, leopards et al.

On the left is Francis, presumably ‘chimping’ at the images he had captured that morning.  In the middle is Xenedette, wearing a poncho and holding her Canon EOS 60D and my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM.  On the right is Mario, with his Canon EOS-1D X and Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM mounted on my monopod.  Behind the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM which captured the image, is me!

After spending half an hour at Mario’s Tree, it was time to make tracks. Francis took us due south, further away from camp, but still within the Mara North Conservancy.

Mario loves capturing silhouettes of African wildlife, and one of his signature images, titled Rhino Sunrise, depicts a silhouette of a critically endangered rhino in Greater Kruger National Park, set against the low but rising sun.

This morning we were in the mood for silhouettes, and shortly after departing Mario’s Tree, we saw a few giraffes.  While there are lots of giraffes in the Mara, we did not see a great deal of them, and did not spend much time photographing them; but this morning we made more of an effort, which turned out to be worthwhile.

I grabbed quite a few frames of a distant giraffes.  Mario was snapping away.  We were both outside the vehicle, so I captured a few images of him in action.  I then returned to photographing the giraffes.

For a strong silhouette of an African plains animal in the open, you need a few ingredients:

  1. a photogenic animal;
  2. a photogenic animal in the right place;
  3. a low angle so the animal is not ‘sinking’ into the ground;
  4. a strongly coloured background; and
  5. a photogenic animal in the right place, high on the horizon, doing something interesting against a strongly coloured background.

Easy, right?  Well, yes!

Here is what I captured:

Wait for Me, Mum!

Wait for Me, Mum!

What a moment!  Not only had I captured a giraffe on the horizon, but the giraffe was on the move, her tail almost straight out, with her calf closely following.  Both animals were cleanly and sharply defined, which is essential in effective silhouette images.

This is one of those ‘story’ images, whereby something interesting is happening.  It is so easy to get caught up in ‘posed’ shots of African animals sitting or standing around doing not much; but better wildlife photography depicts interesting or uncommon moments — something to elicit an emotional response in the telling of a story.

Seeing a juvenile giraffe following its mother across the savannah early in the morning is one of those images which tells the story of the African wilderness, as indeed do many other moments.

Through Mario‘s encouragement and influence, and my increased experience with African wildlife photography, this trip would be more about capturing the story unfolding than just the actors in between takes.

Now, by this time the sky was a bit grungy; there was faint colour, but it was not the striking and dramatic sky we had captured earlier up north at Mario’s Tree.  It was that ‘meh’ time of the morning, which falls between dawn and sunrise, and golden hour.  The ‘meh’ time is the lull between two peak periods of intense colour and light in the morning (and again in the afternoon between golden hour and sunset and dusk).

I had to push the colour and the contrast in this image, as the colour was present, but rather subdued.  The trick was to avoid going overboard, and I think I succeeded.

What is also very appealing to me about this image is that the sun’s rays can be scene shining down on our giraffes.

Later in the day, when we were back at camp in the afternoon in the library tent we had commandeered for use as our office and charging station, Mario and I again engaged in strong debate about the merits of an image of mine.

It was similar to the leopard image I had shot early in the trip, whereby Mario and everyone else who saw it were raving about it, and I was dissatisfied, as my expectations were set pretty high.

The same general dissent transpired, this time in relation to my giraffe silhouette.  Mario and Xenedette had worked on similar images across the table from me, and I was working on mine.  I was not all that taken by the image at first, and insisted that it was nothing special; but again, Mario, far more experienced than I, countered.  Mario was happy with it, and both he and Xenedette had shot very pleasing images; I just was not quite convinced yet about my own images.

As I continued to work the image, I saw the merit of it, and certainly a few people who have seen the image consider it to be one of the more stand-out images from this trip.

Okay, so it worked.  I eventually realised it was better than I had initially thought.

Mario: 2; me: 0.

Meanwhile, back in the wilderness, many hours before the post-processing and image merit debate, we wrapped up photographing the giraffes.

Less than ten minutes from where we had captured silhouettes of the giraffes, we spotted a tawny eagle perched on a branch close to where we were passing, so we stopped, and again in silhouette mode, decided to capture the eagle in flight just as it launched from the branch.

The Eagle's Flight

The Eagle’s Flight

A few minutes later we continued southward for the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

It would be nearly an hour before we captured our next frames.  We probably spotted various plains game along the way, but we did not stop to photograph anything.

Where we were headed was about half-way between camp and the Kenya-Tanzania border.

After more driving and discussion, we entered the main reserve, which is quite different to the private conservancies.  In the main reserve, vehicles are not allowed to drive off-road, and must stick to the established tracks.  This makes photography challenging, as one cannot get into a good position, and if something very interesting is happening well away from the road, if your view is obstructed, or your lens is not long enough, the pickings are slim.

Our next sighting would be incredible.

At 8:41am, we encountered a large pride of lions called the Double Crossing Pride, which inhabits the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

This pride was the third pride we had encountered on the trip.

The lions were congregated around a deceased elephant, and many other vehicles from all parts of the reserve had descended upon the scene.

From what we could tell, the lions had not killed the elephant; it had probably passed from natural causes rather than predation, but it certainly provided a huge meal for the Double Crossing Pride.

We spent time capturing images of three large lionesses feasting on the elephant, but trouble was brewing.

A deceased animal rarely goes unnoticed in the Mara, as lions, hyenas, vultures and other predators are always on the lookout.

In this case, hyenas also began to arrive on the scene, and typical of these greedy carnivores, they wanted a piece of the action.

The lionesses were not in the mood for sharing, though.

More and more hyenas had also congregated nearby, and their behaviour and vocalisations were becoming increasingly aggressive.

The lions were not happy, and were roaring and hissing at the hyenas, who were becoming closer to mounting an attack.

Stay Away

Stay Away

In this image, I had isolated one of the Double Crossing Pride females as she exposed her teeth in anger at a nearby pack of hyenas, hissing and spitting at them in no uncertain terms to warn them to stay away.

Seeing a lion pride feasting on an elephant was another first-time experience on this trip, and seeing the aggression of lions, was also a real treat, as all other lions we had encountered in the Mara and the Kruger were placid.

In the following image, three of the large Double Crossing Pride lionesses all had their say and warned the hyenas to back off:

Snarlfest

Snarlfest

The atmosphere was growing more and more tense, and it seemed certain that there would be a showdown.

All of a sudden, one of the seven or eight other vehicles at the scene took off.

I figured there was only one reason to depart a lion pride feasting and an imminent fight with hyenas: a better sighting somewhere else.  It had to be cheetahs!

Seconds after the first vehicle departed, other vehicles departed, and so did we.

There was massive excitement, as there just had to be something amazing awaiting us — not that what we had just seen was not amazing enough.

As it turned out, it was not a sighting somewhere else, but a sudden need to depart from a place at which we were not supposed to be.  The rangers had spotted all of the vehicles, and they were off-road at the lion sighting, which was a no-no!

The 4WDs dispersed, and we headed south-east.  We stopped for a quick breakfast, and then jumped back into the 4WD to search for more wildlife.

A little over 30 minutes after we departed the Double Crossing Pride, we caught our first glimpse of wild cheetahs!  There were five: a female and four sub-adult cubs.  Wow!

There was considerable distance between us, as even with 1,120mm of focal length, the cheetahs were quite small in the frame.  We could see them, though: one or two were sitting up upon a mound, scouting around, while the others lingered nearby.

Gradually, the cheetahs moved closer and closer to us, to the point where they walked right past us on the left side of the 4WD.

I captured the following image of a cheetah looking straight at us:

Spotted by a Cheetah

Spotted by a Cheetah

The time was approaching 11am, and the light was very harsh and glary.  I was struggling to photograph the cheetahs, both due to the harsh light and focus issues.  I unknowingly had my focus distance limiter switch on the wrong setting for the distance, which meant that the lens’s AF was not as accurate, and at times was missing, particularly as the cheetahs were moving closer and closer, not often staying still for very long.

While previewing the images I had captured, I became increasingly frustrated as I realised that I was not landing the shots.  800mm is a challenging focal length to use, but add the extra complication of a moving subject, incorrect focus limiter setting and dreadful light, and the story was not looking good.

The images, for the most part, were soft, and it took some time before I came to discover that I had landed a few decent images.

Mario explained that there was something about cheetah coats which makes them look soft when they are captured.  I was sure that it was not the cheetahs‘ fault that my images were missing the mark.  I persevered, though.

We moved positions several times, often needing to get ahead of the cheetahs so we could wait for them to approach us.

Cheetah on Alert

Cheetah on Alert

Here, this young cheetah, while resting on the grass, remained alert in case the need to pursue food or safety arose.

During the time the cheetahs were close by, I managed to land a shot of typical cat behaviour, which very much reminded me of our own cat.

Here, the cheetah stretches after getting up from a resting position, while one of the other cats rests behind.

Cat Stretch

Cat Stretch

Soon enough, the cheetahs were on the move again, as they were in search of food, or at least, opportunities to secure a meal.

Cheetah on the Move

Cheetah on the Move

This cheetah is out on the open plains, where a cheetah feels comfortable in spite of ever-present danger, but where a leopard would seldom be seen.

African big cats share some similarities, but of the spotted varieties (leopards and cheetahs), the cheetah is distinctly different in behaviour to the leopard.  Cheetahs do not mind being in the open, and love expansive plains and termite mounds.  Leopards, on the other hand, are extremely elusive, difficult to find, prefer to hunt under the cover of darkness, and hide in trees.

Francis moved the vehicle as we continued to pursue the cheetah family.

I finally landed some clean portraits, which, despite the harsh light, turned out decently.

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

This is one of my favourite images from the few good shots I landed.  Despite the harsh light, which often plunges a cheetah‘s eyes into total darkness, I was able to bring out the details as the youngster surveys the surrounding territory.

Scouting

Scouting

In this image, two of the cheetahs are positioned quite close to us as we followed them.  There were some distant antelopes — possibly a meal — which they were slowly and distantly pursuing.

Looking at Lunch

Looking at Lunch

This cheetah was certainly aware of what was in the distance as he gazes towards his quarry.

The cheetahs continued moving in an eastward direction across the plains, moving closer and closer to the Thomson’s gazelles in the distance.

Other vehicles had also arrived in the general area, and at one point as we were parked on the road watching the cheetahs slowly stalking, I counted maybe ten other vehicles, some of which were in the distance, and some of which had driven down the plain on the other side of the location at which the cheetahs were now resting under the shade of a thicket.

We stayed there for quite a while, as both the cheetahs, and us in turn, did nothing much.

Wildlife photography can be a huge waiting game, whereby one sits in anticipation, waiting for something interesting to happen.  There was always the possibility that the cheetahs would have gone into full hunting mode and taken down a gazelle, but on the other hand, they may have sat there for a few hours as the heat of the midday sun continued to shine down.

After sitting there for a while swatting flies, hunger, boredom and irritation began to increase, so we decided to abandon our current pursuit and have a lunch break.

Francis headed a considerable distance west.

Eventually he stopped at a tree on a hill, as we needed some shade.  Of all the trees he could have picked, he picked the one that had the remains of a dead antelope hanging off a branch.  We were in a leopard‘s territory, as we would soon find out.

This kill had probably been made a few days ago, and there was little left, except for flies, which pestered us as we attempted to eat and drink in the persistent heat.

Just to the north of the tree was a watering hole which contained a hippo or two.

We finished lunch and climbed back into the 4WD, heading a little further west to a clump of trees on the south bank of the Olare Orok River, just north of the Ol Kiombo Airstrip.  A little further to the south is the Talek River, which the Olare Orok River joins.

We were definitely in leopard territory, and Francis found a stunning leopard high up in a tree.  I snapped a few frames as reference shots.  The light was terrible, there was dense foliage, and there were certainly no great opportunities for leopard photography.  This was one of those occasions on which it was enough just to see such an elusive cat.

After we had spent some time with the leopard, Francis headed a little further south, where we encountered a lone female elephant grazing in very open, long-grassed plains.  The sky was looking a little moody as mid-afternoon wore on.  We captured a few images of the elly as she grazed on the bountiful reeds.

By now, I was ready to head back to camp, as we were considerably south, and it would be more than an hour’s drive back.

Thus ended our photography in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.  We made our way north, worn from a long, hot day, and my mood not particularly great due to the frustrating time I had photographing the cheetahs earlier.

We arrived back at camp, and Mario and I proceeded straight to post-processing HQ.  My mood had gone from bad to worse as I vocalised my frustration at my ineptitude at capturing good cheetah images . Mario did his best to take the edge off, but seeing my increasing frustration and louder, less G-rated rants, he decided to take affirmative action to ease my frustrations.

He got up and headed over to one of the Maasai tribesman employed as a guard at the camp, and had a quiet word with him.  He came back and told me that I had an opportunity to photograph some portraits of a Maasai tribesman, so we headed a few metres away from HQ, where I set up for a shoot as the early eve descended upon us.

I later came to realise, as evidenced by the cheetah images I have published here, that I did not do as badly as I thought, and that there were some good images amongst the mediocrity.

As it turned out, this was our only sighting of cheetahs in the wild, and while I was not initially convinced I had any decent images, I was again proven wrong (fortunately), and not only did I land some decent images, but the sighting itself was a first, and a fantastic opportunity even if there were no images.

We had finally achieved our goal of seeing wild cheetahs on this trip.

Not only that, but we had seen and photographed all three species of African big cats in the one day: lion, cheetah and leopard.  How great it was to see and photograph all three in a single drive!

After photographing the Maasai tribesman, I headed back into the library tent to process images, check online happenings and run through my religious ritual of offloading Xenedette’s and my images to the laptop, as well as backing up everything onto an external drive.

About an hour after the portrait session, I realised that twilight had arrived, so I ran out of the library to grab a shot of Elephant Pepper Camp during the blue hour.  Here is the result:

Around the Camp Fire

Around the Camp Fire

What a fantastic eco-lodge!  Elephant Pepper Camp was our home for seven days, and this very inviting camp fire, with the dining tent (right) and lounge tent (left) was what greeted us and all of the other guests every night after many hours spent out in the Mara with the magnificent wildlife.  The library tent, which Mario and I had commandeered, is off frame to the right.  Behind me are the flat plains of the Mara North Conservancy.

It had been a day of highs and lows, where my mood and tolerance for failing to live up to my own expectations had taken its toll; but looking back, I can honestly say that the day brought more good than bad.

A photographically frustrating day in the Mara is still a lot better than a great day at the office.

It had been another day of firsts:

  1. a new (to us) lion pride;
  2. lions feasting on an elephant;
  3. wild cheetahs (including cubs);
  4. a new (to us) leopard; and
  5. all three African big cat varieties in one drive.

Stay tuned for day 6 of our Mara adventures, during which we will meet and photograph Maasai tribesman Baba against a stunning sunrise; encounter and photograph birds in action; and spend the afternoon and early evening in the presence of a pair of mating leopards.

Maasai Mara: Day 3 of 7

A new day for us in the Mara had arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother and Calf

Mother and Calf

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

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

I Am Not Amused

I Am Not Amused

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

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

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

Lift Off

Lift Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Bit Stuck

A Little Bit Stuck

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

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

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

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

Lioness in a Tree

Lioness in a Tree

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

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

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

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

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

Lion Around

Lion Around

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

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

Here he is, taking it all in:

River Pride Male

River Pride Male

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking Problem

Drinking Problem

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

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

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chowing Down

Chowing Down

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

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

Facepalm

Facepalm

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

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

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

Cheli Pride Lioness

Cheli Pride Lioness

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

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

Cub Drool

Cub Drool

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

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

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

Big Tusker

Big Tusker

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

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

Feast

Feast

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

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

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

Brewing Storm

Brewing Storm

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

Drama on the Mara

Drama on the Mara

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

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

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

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

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