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
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
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.
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
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.
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.