Tag Archives: Mario Moreno

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 1 of 7

We have recently returned from our second trip to the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, where we undertook an intense week-long wildlife photographic safari in June of 2019.

This is the first article in a series of articles, in which I will provide a day-by-day account of our sightings, images and experiences during this trip.

After two long flights to Kenya, we rested at our hotel in Nairobi during the day of our arrival, and in the evening, we met for the first time since 2015 our go-to photographic safari leader, Mario Moreno of South Cape Images, to discuss the exciting adventure ahead over a nice dinner of steak and an Argentinian malbec.

This was the beginning of our third trip to Africa, our second trip to Kenya, our fourth wildlife photographic safari, and our third wildlife photographic safari with Mario.

We were heading back to the Mara North Conservancy, nearly four years to the date on which we first visited the Mara.  It was very familiar, but it was also very new in some ways, as the trip would reveal over the next seven days.

After landing at Mara North Airstrip, we were met by our guide Francis of Elephant Pepper Camp, who was also our guide during our first trip.  It was great to see him again, and he had prepared brunch for us, which was soon followed by the commencement of our first game drive.

On that first game drive to camp, which can take 20 minutes or three hours, it did not take long before it became apparent that this was not going to be a short drive.  Nature, not us, is the shot caller, and nature had something it wanted to say.

Soon after boarding our private 4WD, a short distance south-west of the airstrip, we encountered cheetahs.  Not even ten to fifteen minutes into our first game drive, we had already encountered one of Africa‘s spectacular species of big cat, and not just one cheetah, but four: a mother with three cubs.

The mother cheetah is known as Amani, and she has three sub-adult cubs of around 12 months of age.

Here is an image I captured of one of Amani‘s cubs:

Amani's Cub

Amani’s Cub

While sub-adult cheetahs quickly grow to the size of an adult cheetah, the distinctive feature which identifies a cub (either very young, or sub-adult) is the mantle — the wild tuft of hair along the back of the head and neck.

The mantle serves two purposes: it assists in camouflage, and makes the cub resemble a honey badger, a species of animal most wildlife would happily avoid.

We spent most of this game drive with Amani and her cubs, but also encountered vultures nearby, and spotted a few baboons, a wildebeest, a topi, and some helmeted guineafowl (affectionately known as Maasai chickens) on the way to camp.

After a fantastic first drive with the cheetahs, we arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, an outstanding luxurious eco-lodge in the Mara North Conservancy.  It is nestled amongst a distinctive ‘X’ cluster of elephant pepper trees, just south of the C13 road between Mara Rianta and Lemek.

It was great to be back at the camp.  Since we were last there four years ago, its operation has been taken over by Elewana, and the camp is now run by Tom and Alison, who we got to know during the week.

We met Tom and Alison, and went through the formality of the briefing given to guests upon arrival.  Much of the camp was the same as it was when we were last there, but there have been some good changes and enhancements, too, such as AC power in all tents, and wireless Internet access throughout the entire camp.

Shortly afterwards, we sat down to lunch.  As it was the first week of the season, the camp had only just opened, and we were the first guests.  We had the camp to ourselves for the first two days and nights before other guests began to arrive on the third day.

Lunch at Elephant Pepper Camp was superb as always, and we were joined by either Tom or Alison, who attend all lunches and dinners with the guests.

Already we had a great story to relate, having spotted Amani and her cubs early into the trip.

After lunch, I set about my highly disciplined ritual of transferring the images and videos from the flash cards to my laptop and backing them up to an eternal hard disk.  It is very important to ensure that there are at least two, or preferably three, copies of one’s images and videos.

Fuelled by the obligatory glass or two (or three, perhaps) of Amarula, which was my habit at Elephant Pepper Camp last time (and a habit into which I easily and happily fell again this time), soon enough it was time to head back out into the plains to see what the afternoon and evening would bring.

Shortly into the afternoon game drive, we encountered two magnificent elephant bulls on the open plains north-west of camp, not far south of where we had first seen Amani and her cubs earlier in the day.

We had a brief look at the first elephant bull, before heading towards a second elephant bull not far away.

Mario is a big fan of capturing almost symmetrical, frontal images of approaching elephants, so Francis positioned the vehicle such that the elephant was heading straight towards us.  He kept walking, and we snapped away furiously as his imposing presence dominated our viewfinders.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Mighty Elephant Bull

Mighty Elephant Bull

Once he got close to our vehicle, he veered left and walked in front of us at a distance of only one or two metres.

This big tusker is a magnificent, healthy elephant who has the Mara plains at his disposal.

Less than ten minutes after I captured my final image of this elephant, we encountered Amani and her cubs for the second time!

They were in the same location where we had first encountered them four hours earlier.  As cheetahs can travel considerable distances in a short period of time, it was nice to find them again so soon.

My guess is that they spent the entire time resting.  There is no telling whether they hunted or not, but they had not recently eaten, so any attempts at hunting would have been unfortunately unsuccessful.

Here is an image I captured of Amani resting on a mound and surveying her territory for potential predators or prey:

Resting and Surveying

Resting and Surveying

We spent a around an hour with the cheetahs, during which time I had the opportunity to capture a clean image of Amani as she rested on a mound in the afternoon, soaking in the sun’s rays.

Amani

Amani

Eventually we decided to move on, heading west-north-west towards the Mara River, and soon encountered a banded mongoose.

After a few quick shots, we continued on, and spotted two male waterbuck and a small group of females in the open, just south of the Mara River.

Having photographed only female waterbuck in South Africa, we briefly stopped, where I was fortunate to see this impressive male standing out in the open, staring straight at me:

Male Waterbuck

Male Waterbuck

While many people visit Africa to see and photograph the big cats, there are many species of antelope to be seen and photographed, and these animals are just as important in the ecosystem as the predators, with their own stories to tell.

I am quite partial to a good antelope image, and as these animals are quite skittish and like the cover of thickets, capturing a pleasing image of such an animal is not always easy.

In this case, I was fortunate that the male waterbuck was out in the open, clear of distracting foliage, and that he was staring straight down the barrel of the lens.

The resulting image is pleasing to me, as it places this waterbuck in his environment, and his impressive stature stands out.

Late in the afternoon, we slowly began making our way in a south-easterly direction back to camp.  Less than ten minutes later, we experienced our first lion sighting of the trip, and again, it was during the first day of this trip.

We encountered some members of a familiar pride: the Cheli Pride.

The Cheli Pride is a dominant pride of lions which inhabits the area near camp in the Mara North Conservancy.

We had seen lions from the Cheli Pride four years earlier, when it was quite a large pride, consisting of 27 members or thereabouts.

Things have changed somewhat, with the pride being apparently smaller, and quite a lot of disruption having taken place.  The pride still exists, but rather than being one large pride as it was four years ago, there appear to be various off-shoots from the main pride.

On this drive, we encountered a female who was resting out in the open during the late afternoon.

Cheli Pride Lioness at Rest

Cheli Pride Lioness at Rest

Very close to where she was resting, a large male lion was taking shelter in a thicket.

While I did photograph the male, the busy setting was not great for photography, and even though nightfall had not yet arrived, it did not look like these lions were going to become active, so we moved a little further south-east towards camp, and encountered another female and a very young cub in a thicket.  The cub looked to be around six to eight weeks of age, and was the youngest lion cub we had seen in the wild.

Some 40 minutes later, we were further south toward camp, when we encountered a young hyena sleeping on a mound.  After spending a few minutes there, and determining that the sky was unfortunately not ideal for any landscape photography, we headed back to camp for dinner, drinks and a debrief before bedding down for the night, as an early start the next morning awaited us.

Saturday, 1st June, 2019 had been a fantastic first day in the Mara, with not one but two sightings of the same family of cheetahs, an impressive big-tusker elephant bull, a great photographic opportunity with a male waterbuck, and our first encounter with the Cheli Pride lions, including a tiny cub.

It was fantastic to be back in Mara, a familiar place with new stories to tell.  This trip had taken some time to materialise, but finally we had returned to a place we love to be — one with many more great sightings ahead of us.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day two.

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Returning to Kenya and Israel

I am pleased to announce that we will be heading abroad later this year, with visits to Kenya and Israel in the same big trip.

It has been a few years since we have been to either country (2015 and 2016 respectively), but a return to Africa was something high on the agenda for some time.

Because we need to return to Israel for some family events, it made sense to combine the two destinations into one trip.

The original plan was to visit South Africa again, as it seemed to be the logistically simplest option, whereby we would fly directly to Johannesburg, photograph wildlife in the Timbavati, and then fly to Tel Aviv.

Unfortunately, a combination of circumstances meant that South Africa was not a viable option for this trip.

Firstly, the cost of accommodation at safari lodges has considerably risen since our visit in 2012.

Secondly, we could not easily obtain a private 4WD vehicle, as the lodges either no longer offer them due to low-impact regulations in the Timbavati, or as was the case with one lodge, we would have had to pay for an extra tent/rondeval, which made the cost prohibitively expensive.

Thus, South Africa was off the agenda.

Enter Plan B: Kenya.

The initial thinking was that Kenya would be more logistically difficult than South Africa, but it is actually not much more difficult in terms of logistics.  Plus, we were able to secure outstanding accommodation and a private vehicle at a lower cost.

After a FaceTime conversation with our friend and safari leader Mario Moreno one night, we worked out a plan, and booked a safari with Mario — our third.

We are heading back to the Mara North Conservancy with Mario for a fantastic time of being in the African savannah and twice daily pursuing amazing sightings and images of the wildlife in the Mara.

After our African part of the trip concludes, we head north to visit family in Israel for some celebratory occasions.

I am not sure what kind of photographic opportunities I will have in Israel this time (I did not engage in any photography on the last trip), as it is more of a social visit than a photographic visit; but I am sure I will have the chance or two to capture some images I did not capture during previous visits.

Our schedule is going to be quite full, but I am sure I will land an image or two.

The countdown begins!

Maasai Mara: Day 7 of 7

Our final day in the Mara had arrived, and we had one morning game drive before we would need to depart Elephant Pepper Camp and the fantastic people, animals, places and experiences that had made up the previous week.

The day was quite subdued, and there was that ever-persistent feeling we had experienced before on our final day in a magical part of Africa: the feeling that we had little time left, and that the peak of our adventure had well and truly passed.

We would be flying back to Nairobi later that day, and the pace of life was going to change.

Like every other day, we started early, heading out into the Mara plains in darkness.  We did not stop anywhere for a landscape shoot on this particular morning, as the sky was not promising, and we had achieved some very pleasing images on previous mornings.

Francis took us in a northerly direction, across the C13 and to the region half-way between camp and the Mara River.

We found a solitary River Pride lioness in the scrub.  She was resting in a clump of bushes, and while I had my lens trained on her, the photography was not looking likely to eventuate, and as it turned out, I did not fire a single shot.

The lioness did not seem to be in the mood for modelling, and she stayed in the thick clump of bushes, offering us only fleeting sightings as we circled around the bushes to gain a better view.

Usually when one sees a solitary lioness, it indicates the presence of cubs that are being kept away from the pride until they are older; but we did not see any signs of other lions in the area, although almost certainly other River Pride members would have been not too far away.

It is always a pleasure to see lions in the wild, and we had lion sightings on every day we spent in the Mara, except perhaps for day six.  I can find no reference to lion sightings in my records for that day, so if we did see one, it was fleeting.

We had seen big cats on every single day, however, and being cat fans, that was enormously pleasing.

We soon left the River Pride lioness, and headed back east to the spot along a Mara River tributary at which we had witnessed mating leopards on the previous evening.  We wanted to see if we could find them again, as mating leopards can spend time together in the same general area for several days.  There was a chance we would find them.

Unfortunately, we did not.  If they were in the immediate area, they were well hidden; or perhaps they had moved further north or south along the tributary.  We certainly did not see them, and our last sighting was on the previous night when they had crossed the water into thicker scrub.

While Francis was slowly navigating around the area in search for the leopards, we saw something we did not expect.

To the left of the vehicle, just over eight metres away, a dik-dik emerged from the scrub.

The dik-dik is a very small, rapidly-moving antelope.  We had not seen one before, so naturally we readied ourselves for some photography.

I was fortunate enough to land one image of the dik-dik as it paused momentarily under the cover of the thicket.

Dik-Dik

Dik-Dik

The dik-dik stayed for perhaps a minute before darting off into the distance.

It was an unexpected but pleasant sighting, and I landed just the one pleasing image of the antelope looking straight at me.

Once the dik-dik had exited the scene, we soon did the same, and crossed the river, heading in an easterly direction.

Still in the same general area where we had seen the two leopards the night before, a lone hyena emerged from the distance, making his way closer to us in the fairly open grasses.

Hyenas and leopards are eternal enemies, and a leopard will flee if the presence of a hyena is detected. Hyenas are certainly known for stealing leopard kills, and in fact, stealing anything they find; but more critically, hyenas will kill leopard cubs.

If the leopards were anywhere nearby, we had little chance of seeing them, particularly due to the presence of the hyena.  We did not capture any images of the hyena, but it was pleasant enough just to see him scouting around during the quiet part of the morning, with us being the only other evidence of life in the immediate area.

Soon enough, we headed north-west, to a spot along the Mara River trib, north of where we had seen the leopards.

Within a short time we had found a pod of hippos wallowing in the muddy waters.

We were very close, and it was the closest distance to a hippo at which we had ever been.  We had seen hippos in Mpumalanga snd KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, but they were much further away, and more submerged than the animals we had just encountered.

It seemed that the hippos were somewhat uncomfortable by our presence, as there was grunting, sizing up and restlessness apparent.

I captured an image of a large hippo in his element.

Master of My Domain

Master of My Domain

This hippo was definitely the master of his domain.

During the time we spent with the hippos, the warmth of the early morning light descended upon the landscape, and with the sun behind us on the eastern bank of the trib, the nice pink and brown colours of the hippos stood out.

As we slowly moved around, the hippos were becoming agitated, and it looked like there was going to be a fight for dominance between two of the larger males.  The mood was icy, and we were expecting and hoping to see something exciting; but alas, it never eventuated, and the hippos calmed down somewhat.

We continued to watch and photograph, and eventually, one of the hippos exited the water and began grazing on the western side of the trib.  It was our first time seeing a hippo out of water.

Hippo on the Bank

Hippo on the Bank

He certainly was impressive, and it was nice to see him out in the open, grazing on the short grasses 28 metres away from us.

The light became warmer as we watched the hippos, so towards the end of our time with them, I captured a few images of the richly-coloured animals semi-submerged in the muddy water.

I'm Watching You

I’m Watching You

This hippo was definitely keeping an eye on us!

Soon enough, we headed back to camp.

It was a quiet morning game drive, which could come nowhere near the excitement we had experienced with such sightings as male lion brothers bonding, mating leopards, the Cheli Pride feasting on a zebra, and a magnificent leopard in an elephant pepper tree; but we had experienced some new sights and sounds on this quiet morning.

We headed south, back to camp without stopping for any further images.

Back at camp, we had breakfast, and began the unpleasantness of packing and getting ready to depart.

We still had a few hours before our flight, so we spent time at camp in the lounge.  We had met a few other guests over the previous few days: a mother and daughter from Florida, who were travelling in different parts of Kenya and Tanzania, staying only for a few days at different lodges; and a Hong Kong Chinese couple, for whom this was their first trip to Africa.

Both pairs of guests were also due to depart that day, so we said our goodbyes and set about the uncomfortable business of lingering, knowing that we had little time and that there was little we could do but wait until it was time to head to the airstrip.

The mood at that stage was somewhat sombre.

Eventually, it was our time to leave.  We were the last to leave, and this was not the first time we had experienced the loneliness and flat, empty feeling as everything and everyone around us had departed.

Time was running short, and we had to depart, as there was only one flight out of the Mara, and if we missed it, well, we would have to stay another night.  What a shame that would be!

We had a few group photos with Mario and Francis, Patrick and Sophie (the resident managers of Elephant Pepper Camp) and the other staff.  Then it was time to climb into the 4WD for the last time, and head north to Mara Shikar Airstrip, which was very close to where we had been with the hippos earlier that morning.

When we arrived at the airstrip, there were no signs of life, and the plane was not on the ground, or anywhere in the air nearby.  We started to become concerned, as we were the only people there.

Francis got on the radio, and it turned out that our flight was leaving from Mara North Airstrip, which is only a few hundred metres west, perpendicular to Shikar; but it takes a good five to eight minutes to get there.

We scrambled back into the 4WD and Francis gunned it, as we had only a few minutes to head the long way around in order to get to a place that was a few hundred metres due west of where we had just been.

Francis drove very quickly, and I felt like he was going at 80-90km/h; but I looked at the speedometer, and we were travelling at 40km/h.  In the Mara, that is fast.  We were so used to edging our way around at a very slow speed — probably barely more than 10km/h most of the time — that 40km/h felt like motorway speeds.

A few minutes later, we arrived at Mara North Airstrip and boarded the plane just in time.  Shortly thereafter, we were in the air, departing a place we did not want to depart.  Barely a word was spoken on the 45-minute flight, as we looked down over the plains, still emotionally immersed in what had been a magical week.

Mario had originally planned to stay overnight in Nairobi, but during the morning he had been in contact back home, and he needed to return to Spain to sort out some paperwork; so he changed his flights, and rather than spending a night at the Boma Hotel with us and travelling around Karen and Langata with us on the following day, he flew out of Nairobi that night.

We had one more day in Kenya the next day, but our time in the Mara had concluded.

It had been a magical trip, and here and now, writing about it over three months after, I still long to be there, and cannot get the place out of my head.

It feels so familiar now, and writing about these adventures, though a long process, has kept the memories very much alive in both of our minds.  Watching the BBC series Big Cat Diary, which was shot in the Mara, and which made Leopard Gorge famous, also keeps the place fresh and familiar.

Life is so fast-paced, that despite being in a completely different environment, experiencing things that are far from routine, it really did not take long before the pervasive strength and persistence of real life dragged me, kicking and screaming, from a world in which I would rather be; so keeping the Mara alive and fresh in my mind is not only desirable, but altogether necessary.

From that trip, I still have more images, and a lot of videos, to process; so there will be more from our trip to publish; but just as our trip to the Maasai Mara concluded, so too has this series of articles.

I hope readers have enjoyed hearing about our time in the Mara, and that those who have not been there before will be inspired to go there.

It really is a special place.

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 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.

Here is a view of the Cheli 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 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.

Welcome to Kenya

Today we arrived in Kenya, a trip which has been in the making since last August.

It was a long journey to get here, with two long flights and a ten-hour stop-over in Bangkok in between flights.

We arrived in Nairobi early this morning, where our friend and safari leader (for the second time now) Mario Moreno met us.

We headed to the Boma Hotel in Nairobi, which will be our lodgings for tonight.

Here is a view of the beautiful African architecture which greeted us in our room at the Boma Hotel:

Boma Hotel, Nairobi

Boma Hotel, Nairobi

Today we are heading into Nairobi to do some sightseeing and grab some lunch, and tomorrow our big wildlife photography adventure begins in the Maasai Mara.

Stay tuned for more updates, and accompanied by some images of the stunning landscapes and wildlife which await us.

It is Official: Kenya African Wildlife Photography Trip

A few months ago we booked another trip to Africa.

It has been something we have wanted to do again since our first life-changing visit in October of 2012.

This time we are heading to the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, for some incredible wildlife encounters on an eight-day private photographic safari.

We are again going into the wilderness with our friend and guide Mario Moreno.

Also a few months ago, I bought a 400mm f/2.8 lens for wildlife photography — actually, for this trip.  On the last trip, I took my 300/2.8, which was comfortably accommodated by my Lowepro Mini Trekker AW backpack.

Unfortunately, the 400/2.8 is a much larger lens, and the Mini Trekker AW cannot accommodate it.  Well, it can (barely), but there is insufficient room for everything else I need.

In researching camera bags, I had two criteria:

  1. it had to accommodate the gear I need and want to take; and
  2. it had to be airline cabin-friendly.

I was pointed in the direction of the Lowepro Vertex 200 AW, and looked into this bag.  When I contacted Lowepro to enquire into whether it would accommodate a 400/2.8, I was told it would not.

Fortunately, that answer was wrong, as it very comfortably accommodates such a lens.

Today I headed into town with the lens and tried it out.  It was a perfect bag for my needs.

I brought it home and packed it with the gear I am taking to Kenya:

  1. Canon EOS 5D Mark II;
  2. Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM;
  3. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM;
  4. Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM;
  5. Canon Extender EF 1.4x II; and
  6. Canon Extender EF 2x II.

It all fits!

My 17″ MacBook Pro even fits into the laptop compartment, albeit somewhat snugly.  This means I will only need one bag, whereas last time I had a camera backpack and a laptop bag, which is not ideal when travelling internationally.

I am very pleased with the Lowepro Vertex 200 AW.  The build quality is excellent, as indeed it is with all Lowepro bags/cases I have owned; and the padding and straps in the waist area really make the fully-packed bag seem much lighter.

Here is a photo of the bag, packed with the bulk of the gear I am taking to Kenya:

Lowepro Vertex 200 AW Packed for Africa

Lowepro Vertex 200 AW Packed for Africa

This bag will certainly make travelling internationally with bulky and heavy camera gear a much more pleasant experience.  It will also serve me well locally and on domestic trips, as since having the 400/2.8, I have not had a suitable method of carrying it.

I cannot wait for the Kenya trip, and to being in the wilderness for some incredible wildlife experiences.

Africa: Day 5 – Final Game Drive in Timbavati and Departure to Jo’burg

After an intense fourth day in Africa, during which we saw all five members of the ‘Big Five’ (which, for those who do not know, is a hunting term, not a relative descriptor of animal size) and a decent sleep, we rose before 5am for our final day in Motswari.

We knew that we had only one game drive left, and that later that day, we would be back in Johannesburg.

We headed out before 5:30am, and quickly encountered three elephant bulls which were grazing in a thicket.  The plan for the morning was to head to a termite mound which a pack of hyenas had hijacked and turned into a den.  We would later go looking for a breeding herd of elephants.

After spending a few minutes with the elephant bulls, we departed for the hyena den, and encountered a few zebras along the way.  I shot a few images, but the zebras were in the scrub, which was not good for photography.

A short time later, we arrived at the hyena den hoping to see some cubs.  We spotted only one older hyena cub, which looked at us for perhaps a minute before disappearing into the den, never to be seen (by us) again.

We then headed to Hide Dam, where we were fortunate enough to spot a hyena cub and two adults on the muddy banks.  Here is an image I shot of the hyena cub:

Hyena Cub at Hide Dam

Hyena Cub at Hide Dam

After we left the hyenas, we spotted an African fisheagle high in the tree tops, before Petros soon discovered leopard tracks.  We dropped him in the middle of the Timbavati to see if he could track the leopard, while Chad took Mario, Xenedette and myself in search of more wildlife while Petros was scouting.

Soon enough we encountered a stunning nyala bull walking to our right.  It crossed the dirt track some distance in front of us and then continued on its way through the savannah to our left.

Here is an image of that lone nyala I captured in the warmth of the morning light:

Nyala of Timbavati

Nyala of Timbavati

We continued on, and encountered a herd of zebras.  The herd decided to walk down the road on which we were travelling, and as we continued to follow, the zebras became more skittish and ran further along the road.  We followed them for a few minutes before they continued into the bush, at which we point we headed off.

Chad’s plan was to take us to a breeding herd of elephants.  Before too long, we found ourselves literally surrounded by these gigantic African creatures.  We were slowly navigating the thick bush as we continued to immerse ourselves in the herd.  There were elephants all around us.  I counted at least eleven that I could visually identify from where we were at one point.

The Old Giant

The Old Giant

We spent around 30 minutes following the herd from within it, before heading back to see collect Petros and see how had fared in his quest to find a leopard.  Unfortunately he had no luck funding the elusive leopard.

On our way back to camp, we spotted a few white-backed vultures, more zebras, and a herd of impala drinking at a watering hole.

Soon we arrived back at the lodge.  Alas, our final game drive had ended.

We soon had breakfast and relaxed for a little before it was time to pack our gear.  We had some time to sit for a while, and during our down time, a nyala had come up to the banks of the camp, and was grazing a very short distance from where we had eaten breakfast.  We returned to the communal area where I found Mario photograping the nyala.

A little while later, two warthogs walked right through the tracks on the property, in broad daylight, completely nonplussed by the presence of ourselves and the other guests.

Our flight back to Jo’burg would be departing at around 1pm or 1:30, so we had to start making final preparations for departure, including the very difficult part of saying goodbye to Chad and Petros, knowing it would be a long time before we would see them again, and still on a high from the magic of the past four days.

Chad drove us to the Motswari airstrip, and soon we were boarding the Cessna (incidentally, the exact Cessna 208B Grand Caravan that brought us to Motswari) for the ninety-minute flight back to Jo’burg.  Soon enough we were in the air, departing the place that had changed us; the place that even as I write this article six weeks later, still affects me.

After a short stop to collect passengers from another airstrip nearby, we were in the air again, on the final trip back to Jo’burg.

During the game drive that morning, I had badly injured my ankle as I was repositioning myself inside the Landrover.  While it hurt at the time, as the day wore on, the pain became more intense.

As I was sitting next to Mario in the Cessna, looking down over the landscape I hated to be leaving, the pain became more noticeable.  By the time we got back to OR Tambo airport, I was struggling to walk.

Back at the airport, Xenedette and I had to say our goodbyes to Mario, who was heading off to Egypt later that day to collect a tripod he had left there, before venturing to Spain.  We thanked him for the magical experience we had just had, and promised to keep in touch, which we have done.

That night we were staying again at the Protea Hotel OR Tambo.  We arrived and checked in.  After settling into our room, walking became more difficult.  We headed down to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner, but apart from my physical pain, I felt a sense of emotional pain.  The magic we had experienced over the past four days was over.  We were no longer in the company of Chad and Petros and the amazing Timbavati wildlife, and we were two again.  We felt Mario’s absence as we had dinner, as the last time we sat in that restaurant, he was there with us as we discussed the trip ahead.

By now, walking was extremely difficult, and I was starting to worry, as we had a whole new adventure ahead of us the next day.  After dinner, we retired to our room, where I continued to think about what we had just experienced.  I wrote about it at the time, expressing the feelings I felt at the time.  Some of those feelings still exist now as I recall that night.

The 7th of October, 2012, was the end of an incredible experience that even now I miss.  I continue to read the Motswari Ranger’s Diary, which is a blog written mostly by Chad, as he chronicles the daily game drives he and the other rangers take.  Reading that blog and seeing the images keeps me connected to a place that affected me strongly, as I recall our own experiences, and long for our next trip there.

The 8th of October would introduce a new chapter in our African trip, during which we would fly to Cape Town and experience people, places and adventures that were far removed from Motswari, Chad, Petros, Makepisi, Rockfig Jr, the Jacaranda pride lionesses and the Ximpoko lions that had dominated our existence for the first part of the trip.

Stay tuned for Day 6 of our African trip, and the beginning of our adventures in and around Cape Town.