Tag Archives: Maasai Mara National Reserve

Maasai Mara 2019: Where Exactly Were We?

Subsequent to our first trip to Kenya in 2015, I produced a detailed map showing a daily breakdown of the locations of our various sightings, visits and other activities, by plotting on a Google map the GPS coordinates I had captured during our travels.

During our most recent trip to Kenya in 2019, I also produced an extensive map showing just about every location at which we spent time.

The map I produced as a result of this trip is even more detailed, as I had not only the smartphone app I used last time, but I also had a much newer camera — the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV — with an in-built GPS receiver, which I had enabled to record to the EXIF data the GPS coordinates of every image and video I captured.

The map from this trip is much more extensively detailed, as I spent considerable time plotting the location of just about every sighting.

I found that I needed my smartphone app less, as any time I captured an image or video with my camera, I had the GPS location automatically recorded; but I did use the app on quite a few occasions, typically when we were at a specific location or doing something which did not involve photography at the time.

Here is my map of our locations during this most recent trip to Kenya:

As can be seen, we were all over the Mara North Conservancy, in which we were based.  We spent quite a lot of our time in the north towards the Mara River; but also spent time south of camp.

We also spent time much further south in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, going south of the Talek River, to a point at which we were closer to the Kenya-Tanzania border than we were to camp.

I always find it interesting to know the geography of a place I visit, and to see where we have been.  There was certainly a lot of overlap with the general areas in which we had sightings during the first trip (and even specific locations such as Leopard Gorge and Mario’s Tree), but we also spent time in other areas which were new to us.

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 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.

Video: Lions of the Mara

The year 2015 is drawing to a close, and it is hard to believe that it has been over six months since our epic trip to the Maasai Mara region of Kenya.

While I shot many images during that trip, I also captured a very decent amount of video footage; but it has taken me six months to find the motivation to produce a video from the footage I shot.

While I shot footage of various wildlife, I mostly focused on the lions, and this afternoon decided to spend a few hours to produce a video dedicated to the lions of the Mara.

My new video, Lions of the Mara, was recorded in the Mara North Conservancy and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in June of 2015, and features three different lion prides: the Cheli Pride, which is the resident pride in the Mara North Conservancy; the River Pride, which occupies the territory near the Mara River; and the Double Crossing Pride, which resides in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Running for four minutes and 30 seconds, Lions of the Mara provides a highlight of the fantastic lion sightings we had during the trip, including two of the three prides feasting.

I hope people enjoy it.

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 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.