On the morning of the 5th of June, 2015, we awoke in our hotel room in Nairobi, and began preparing for a big day ahead: we were heading to the Mara North Conservancy, which is part of the larger Maasai Mara ecosystem in south-western Kenya.
Much of the morning’s discussion concerned the logistics of lugging large, bulky and heavy camera equipment, as we knew we were limited in the amount of weight we could carry, and that we would be flying on small aircraft.
Once we arrived at Wilson Airport, we passed through security screening and headed to the Airkenya lounge. Fortunately we had no issues getting our gear through. We were early, but soon enough we would take a 45-minute flight westward for the Mara North Conservancy.
Some time after 11am, we landed on Mara Shikar Airstrip, which is located close to the southern bank of the Mara River. We were greeted by Francis, who would be our guide and driver for the next seven days.
We then began a 40-minute drive south to Elephant Pepper Camp, a luxurious, eco-friendly, semi-permanent and self-sufficient camp located in a secluded, X-shaped cluster of elephant pepper trees in the north part of the conservancy.
Along the way, we encountered Thomson’s gazelle, zebra, eland and giraffe. I captured some images, but the light was harsh, which does not make for good wildlife photography. Of these plains game, only the Thomson’s gazelle was new to us, as we had seen the others in South Africa.
Forty minutes later we arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, where we were greeted by Patrick, one of the managers of the camp. We were soon taken to our tent, which was one of the two large tents on either end of the camp, designated for families or honeymoons.
Here is a view of what became our home for the next six nights and seven days:
What a tough time it would be. We would have to tolerate a king-sized bed, flush toilet, running water, double basins, a hot, running-water shower, beautiful British colonial campaign furniture, views of the Mara plains, absolute serenity, and the sounds of Kenya‘s wildlife roaming about during the night. I would appreciate some sympathy from readers.
After settling into our tent, we headed back to the lounge and dining area of the camp, where we were given a proper induction, and advised that after dark we would be escorted throughout the camp by Maasai tribesman to protect us from dangerous wildlife.
Other than the resident staff and four Kenyan medical students, we were the only guests at the camp on the first day. The season had only commenced, but more guests would be coming and going in the following days.
Soon after the briefing and the ever-important paperwork, we sat down to a delicious lunch with Patrick and Sophie, followed by a short rest before we would head back out into the wilderness for an afternoon/evening game drive.
At about 3:30pm, after climbing into our open-sided, canopied 4WD, we headed out into the plains in search of wildlife. It did not take long before we encountered an elephant bull grazing in the semi-long grass. There had been a lot of rain in the Mara in the week prior to our arrival, so the plains were lush and green.
Minutes later, our first feeling of excitement hit us as we encountered a lioness and a cub. We are lovers of the big cats of Africa, and to see a lioness and a cub on the first day was a pleasing start. It was one of many “firsts” for us, as we had not seen a lion cub in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve when we first visited Africa.
This lioness and her cub are part of the Cheli Pride, a large, 23-member (give or take) dominant pride in the Mara North Conservancy, named after Stefano and Liz Cheli, the owners of Elephant Pepper Camp and other eco-lodges in Africa.
We would most likely see this particular lioness several more times during the trip, as little did we know at the time, but we would encounter lions on every single day of our time in the Mara. The Cheli Pride would appear on numerous occasions, and we would also encounter the River Pride and the Double Crossing Pride.
When I first reviewed this image, I was very happy with it, but Mario told me that in the days to come, I would have encounters and capture images which would surpass this. Of course, he was right. I still like this image, though, and it does contribute to the story, as it was our first lion encounter, and our first Cheli Pride encounter.
Here is one of the Cheli cubs, looking very cute:
After spending a bit more time in the company of these fantastic Cheli Pride cats, we headed off, spotting a young topi adult along the way, before we arrived at a place which would bring me one of my most pleasing images of the trip.
I shot only two frames of the kingfisher in flight, and to my astonishment, I landed this image in the very first frame:
Photographing birds in flight — particularly small birds — takes a lot of skill and luck, and in my case, it was more luck than skill. I still do not know how I managed to land a sharp shot with very little effort, but I am sure glad I had the opportunity, as the image has a surreal feel about it, and from a technical viewpoint, was not easy to achieve, particularly as I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which is not by any stretch of the imagination the most suitable choice of camera for action.
We then continued on our drive, encountering another elephant bull before stopping to view and photograph a lilac-breasted roller. We had seen these birds in South Africa, but it was very fitting to see one in the Maasai Mara, as it is the national bird of Kenya.
The roller was close to us, was perched on a nice branch, and was bathed in beautiful afternoon sunlight, all of which made for excellent photography.
Plenty of photographic opportunities existed in the soft light of the early evening, and I captured quite a few images, including one of a somewhat isolated elephant in the distance, with the plains and clusters of trees in the distance.
We jumped out of the vehicle after several hours of sitting, and Francis prepared for our sundowner, where some nero d’avola and crisps were enjoyed as we shot our first sunset, depicting a lone acacia tree on the plains of the Mara.
We then headed back to Elephant Pepper Camp, where a fantastic Northern Italian dinner awaited us, and where the night concluded with great food, great wine, great company, and great stories to tell about our first day in a truly magical place.
Stay tuned for the adventures of our second day in the Mara.