It was now our sixth day in the Maasai Mara during our epic trip in June of 2019, and the safari was drawing near to a close.
So far, in five days, we had not seen a single leopard. Would today be the day?
As always, the plan was to start the day with some landscape photography at dawn, but true to form, the sky was terrible, so we abandoned the notion, initially making our way south of camp.
Within minutes, we encountered some of the lions from the Cheli Pride. We did not stop to capture any images, heading further south-east, where we spotted a secretarybird in the distance. This was the first time we had seen one, but the low light and distance made it a viewing experience only.
Soon enough, we changed direction, and made our way north into the northern region of the Mara North Conservancy.
A little while later, we encountered some banded mongooses out in the open, so we stopped to capture some quick images as these small creatures scurried about, occasionally stopping on a mound.
During this sighting, we also spotted a herd of impala in the distance, so I captured images of these. I did not capture anything special, and even though many an impala can be found in the Maasai Mara, I still like to photograph these animals. While they do not have the appeal and excitement of one of the big cats, they are still important players in the African story.
We headed further west, and encounter more banded mongooses, where we again captured images as they scurried around a dead tree branch.
A short time later, a little further south-west, not far north of the C13 road running through the conservancy, we encounter the same elephant bull we had seen on our first day.
Second Encounter with a Big Tusker
We did not see many elephants at all during this trip, so spending some time with this impressive elephant bull in the warm morning light was a pleasure worth indulging.
I captured plenty of images, and some decent video footage, as he grazed on the open plain.
Even though the Maasai Mara is a very big place, it is still possible, and in my experience not uncommon, to encounter a specific animal on more than one occasion. In the case of this seriously impressive six-tonne elephant, while we were not specifically looking for him, he was on this occasion not very far south of where we had first encountered him five days earlier.
We then headed a little west, where Mario spotted some strolling giraffes in the distance. As we were in very open plains in the warmth of the morning sun, Mario wanted to capture images of the giraffes as they walked past us in the distance.
While we had seen a few giraffes during this trip, we had not really made any decent attempts to photograph them, so this opportunity was worth pursuing.
Francis stopped the vehicle, and we all disembarked, carefully making our way along the side of the vehicle so that we could position ourselves low on the ground.
I had a makeshift ‘tripod’, consisting of a foldable stool we use at breakfast, lunch and sundowners, plus a couple of sandbags on the top, on which to rest my lens.
Mario actually captured a photo of us shooting as the giraffes made their way across the plain.
Our presence did not go unnoticed, however, with the giraffes stopping and looking right at us, as can be seen in this image I captured:
This is Africa
This is Africa. An image of a giraffe wandering across the open plains with acacia trees in the background is one of those iconic ‘only in Africa‘ images.
Getting a low angle of a subject or scene can sometimes make a dramatic difference. Even though for most of the time we are only a few feet higher inside the 4WD and shooting with long lenses, sometimes even a slight decrease in altitude can make an image stronger, especially when the subject happens to be the tallest animal in not only Africa, but the entire world.
After we had finished photographing the giraffes and stretching the legs, we headed north towards the Mara River, where something special awaited us 25 minutes later.
My guess is that Francis already knew what was happening, but we, not unusually, did not.
It quickly became apparent what was awaiting us when we encountered two honeymooning lions.
This lush area, close to the Mara River, was a haven of activity for us during the trip, and it is deep within the territory of the Cheli Pride. Not far from this area, but further north-east and closer to the river, is where we had encountered the River Pride four years earlier.
Our arrival on the scene was met by a male and female lion resting photogenically on top of a mound in the open.
Mating lions spend around four days in each other’s company, well away from the rest of the pride. While there can be fierce and frequent bouts of mating, there is also a lot of not much, as the lions tend to laze around.
Being in the company of mating lions, which had happened for us twice on this trip, is always special, and there are massive photographic opportunities.
This magnificent male lion is Lenkume of the Angama Pride, born in February, 2013.
Lenkume had been mating with one of the females from the Cheli Pride.
I captured plenty of images of Lenkume, as well as the Cheli Pride female, as they rested in the morning sun.
Cheli and Angama
Five minutes before I captured this image of the Cheli Pride female, the two big cats began mating right in front of us. I did not capture any still images of this spectacular sighting, as I was recording video footage instead.
As the brief mating session concluded, there was a deep growl from the female before Lenkume dismounted.
This was yet another first-time experience for us. We had never seen lions in the act of mating. During our first trip to the Maasai Mara four years earlier in 2015, we were treated to a rare and special encounter of leopards mating. Just seeing a leopard is special enough, but to encounter not only one of these elusive and solitary big cats, but two together, takes it to another level; and to see them mating elevates the experience into the stratosphere.
Now we had seen lions mating, and it was awesome.
The day was starting to become one of surprises, and a few minutes later, another 4WD arrived on the scene. In it was none other than zoologist and wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott of Big Cat Diary fame, who put the Maasai Mara region on the map, and brought the lives of the Mara‘s big cats into the homes of millions of people.
As a big fan of Big Cat Diary, Jonathan Scott is very familiar to us, and leading up to this trip, we had watched it again.
He had arrived at the right time, as a few minutes later, Lenkume and his companion became active, and wandered a short distance from the mound, where they mated again. While I did capture images, they were further away, in harsh light, and facing away from us, so it did not make for compelling photography.
After this most recent mating session, the two lions moved a short distance north, and parked themselves under the shade of a tree for some rest.
Francis followed them, and Jonathan Scott‘s vehicle also moved to where the lions were resting.
We had a good position and some shade. Now, it was a waiting game. We simply sat there, quietly talking and wondering what Jonathan Scott and his companions were doing. Was it work, or was it pleasure?
We more or less had the lions to ourselves, and a great opportunity to witness them mating again.
Alas, it did not happen. They were done for the time being. We must have stayed there for at least 30 or 40 minutes before eventually deciding we would start to make our way back to camp. Usually we eat breakfast out in the field, but on this morning we had decided to have a cooked breakfast in the comfort of camp.
As we began two depart, we pulled up alongside Jonathan‘s vehicle and began to talk about the morning and our trip in general. Jonathan asked us where we were from, and when I told him, he related how he and wife Angie Scott had worked with fellow countryman Abraham Joffe on the Canon production Tales by Light, which we had also seen.
After chatting for ten or fifteen minutes, we departed the scene. We never found out what Jonathan was doing, but he did have another photographer with him (not Angie) and some Canon super-telephoto lenses, so he may have been working.
What a morning it had been. Spending time with a large-tusked elephant bull we had previously encountered, seeing the mating of lions from two different prides, and meeting Jonathan Scott, all made for an adventure-filled morning.
Back at camp, it was time for some bacon, eggs, toast, coffee and some down time.
The afternoon and evening was going to be very exciting.
When on safari, time flies. Before we knew it, we were heading back into the plains to see what the afternoon, sunset and early evening would bring.
Given the exciting encounter we had experienced with the mating of Angama male Lenkume and a Cheli Pride lioness, we headed back to the same area where we had encountered them before breakfast.
The mating couple was still in the area, and we found Lenkume resting near a bush just south-east of where we had left them earlier.
We spotted the female heading north before veering north-east. Suddenly, Lenkume began to follow her, and he picked up the pace, trotting in her general direction.
We figured that the female had cubs. She headed to a thicket to seek cover. We were increasingly becoming concerned, as this was a mating couple, and if the female had cubs, a male lion from another pride would unhesitatingly kill the cubs. And now, the lioness was leading Lenkume straight towards them!
There were two other possibilities: the female either did not have cubs, or any cubs which were hidden away were sired by Lenkume.
It was a tense time. We were following Lenkume, and made our way to where the female was likely to be. She was in a very thick bush, making it difficult to see her.
Francis circled the cluster of bushes, looking for any signs of the lions. After dwelling in the area for a little while, we decided to leave, and headed further north-east, towards Mara North Airstrip.
Mario had spotted an eagle flying around, so we decided to try and capture some images of the eagle in flight. For me, it was an unsuccessful attempt.
After Mario was finished, we headed north towards a sharp bend in the Mara River, at which we had stopped for breakfast on our second day.
Sitting on a mound next to a croton bush was a lone female cheetah.
She is called Kisaru, and she is a daughter of Amani.
She was also heavily pregnant!
What a sighting. It had already been established that the cheetah was a big part of this trip, but this latest sighting elevated the experience.
This was our first encounter with Kisaru, and we had her all to ourselves. Inexplicably, there were no other vehicles around. Usually when there is a sighting of a cheetah , other vehicles, both from our camp and other camps in Mara North Conservancy, quickly arrive at the scene.
We were blessed with an abundance of photographic opportunities, and I was able to capture my signature style of frame-filling portraits of Kisaru.
Portrait of Kisaru
In this image, I was able to capture the beauty of Kisaru as she stood from her resting place to look at something in the distance which had attracted her attention.
Kisaru spent 40 minutes resting on the mound from the time at which I captured my first image, to the time at which she rose, stretched and headed a short distance into the open, where she found another mound and presented even better photographic opportunities.
She spent a further 10 minutes resting on the second mound, surveying her territory. It was 5:31pm, and the light was decreasing.
When Kisaru stood to survey her territory, I was able to capture another pleasing image of her.
Kisaru on the Lookout
A cheetah is never really at rest, particularly when pregnant and alone. Cheetahs are constantly looking and listening, and scanning their surroundings for threats or potential meals, and with eyesight able to see up to two kilometres, they are well equipped.
A minute after I captured that last image, Kisaru decided that she was moving on, so she stood and stretched before heading north-west, closer to the Mara River.
I had been shooting these images at ISO 4,000, so the light was quite low.
Naturally, we were not ready to call it a day, so we followed Kisaru as she continued on her journey.
During the two stops so far, I captured some decent video footage of Kisaru as she groomed and surveyed. At one point, she was two or three metres from us, and walked right behind our 4WD.
Cheetahs can cover a lot of distance in a short time, even though they are not walking particularly quickly. The distance between Kisaru and us had increased, and she was north-west of us.
With the sun edging towards the horizon, Mario wanted to capture some silhouette images of Kisaru. This meant we needed to be positioned low, close to the ground. In order to do that, we needed to climb out of the vehicle.
Normally when a predator is nearby, one does not exit the vehicle! We had 46 metres of distance from Kisaru, so we decided to very carefully exit the vehicle and position ourselves for an image.
While Kisaru was undoubtedly aware of our presence, we carefully crept alongside the vehicle, never standing out and making our shapes visible. We had to effectively blend in with the vehicle and avoid alarming the cheetah.
Here is one of the images I captured:
Year of the Cheetah
In order for a silhouette image to be effective, the subject needs to be distinctly separated from the background, and recognisable in shape.
There is no denying that this is an African cheetah!
I captured another image of Kisaru looking to the left of the frame.
Kisaru in Silhouette
After we had finished capturing our silhouette images, we carefully boarded the 4WD and again followed Kisaru.
We found her out in the open, and captured a few more images as she sat on a mound, surveying her territory.
Soon the light would be too low, and we would head back to camp.
I captured my final image of the day at 6:20pm, by which time the sun had set, and the darkness was increasing.
On our way south-east to camp, we saw some unfamiliar vehicles heading in the direction from which we had come. The show was over, and with the light rapidly falling, there would not be much of a chance for those people to see much. Hopefully they saw something, but at any rate, we had spent most of our final afternoon/evening game drive in the company of an amazing and very photogenic cheetah, and we had her all to ourselves.
Thursday, 6th June, 2019 had been a big day in the Mara, consisting of first-time sightings of banded mongooses and a secretarybird; quality time spent with an impressive elephant bull, who was one of only a few elephants we had seen; photography of an iconic giraffe on the plains; an unforgettable experience with mating lions; meeting the esteemed Jonathan Scott (who in person is exactly the same as he is on television), some tense moments as we feared for the fate of any cubs belonging to the Cheli Pride female; and the majority of our final afternoon/evening game drive spent with new-to-us and heavily pregnant cheetah Kisaru.
We still had not seen a leopard, but we had one more game drive to follow on what would be our final day in Kenya for this trip.
Stay tuned for our adventures on day seven.
Since returning, we learned that Kisaru had a litter of six cubs! We hope they are doing well.