Tag Archives: Mara River

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: Day 7 of 7

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

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

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

We headed into the north part of the conservancy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning at Pui Pui

Morning at Pui Pui

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby Hippo on the Mara River

Baby Hippo on the Mara River

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

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

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

Disagreement

Disagreement

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

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

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

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

Hitching a Ride

Hitching a Ride

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

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

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

At Rest

At Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the African wilderness, every day is different.  Every game drive is different.  Every encounter and experience is different.  That is what makes it so amazing and exciting.

Maasai Mara: Day 1 of 7

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.

Our seven-day photographic wildlife safari was soon to begin, but beforehand, we met Mario for breakfast in the restaurant, and soon afterwards, packed and prepared for pickup from the Boma Hotel.

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:

Elephant Pepper Camp's Honeymoon Tent

Elephant Pepper Camp’s Honeymoon Tent

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 tribesmen 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.

Here is a view of the Cheli Pride lioness basking in the afternoon sun:

Lioness on the Savannah

Lioness on the Savannah

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 Pride cubs, looking very cute:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

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.

As we drove along in search of whatever would find us, Mario spotted a pied kingfisher, repeatedly hovering up and down in a single spot.  We stopped, and I grabbed my lens to prepare to shoot.

I shot only two frames of the kingfisher in flight, and to my astonishment, I landed this image in the very first frame:

Suspended

Suspended

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.

Here is one of the images I captured of our first Kenyan lilac-breasted roller:

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Lilac-Breasted Roller

After we were finished photographing the roller from different positions and at different focal lengths, we continued our drive, and shortly after, encountered more elephants in a breeding herd.

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.

Giant Grazer

Giant Grazer

As night was soon descending, we headed off for a sundowner and a landscape shot at sunset.

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.

Mara Sunset

Mara Sunset

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.