By the sixth day in the Mara North Conservancy in Kenya‘s south-west, our incredible safari was rapidly drawing to a conclusion; but despite the ticking clock, a lot can happen in two days, and day six would be an amazing day, as we would later discover.
In addition to the routine morning and afternoon game drives, we had a few other plans. One of the highlights of the day would be a visit to a traditional Maasai village located in the conservancy, where we would experience the culture of the Maasai.
The other activity we had that day was a portrait shoot.
One of the experiences Mario of South Cape Images likes to provide, is a combined cultural and portraiture session, in which photographers get to meet a Maasai tribesman and photograph him out on the Mara plains during dawn and sunrise.
Mario and Francis had arranged for us to meet Baba, a tall Maasai tribesman who lives in the Mara North Conservancy. Contrary to popular opinion, not all indigenous Kenyans are tall, but Baba certainly was.
After our usual early start and brief morning campfire routine, we again departed into the darkness before any other guests rose from their slumber. This time we had Baba with us, and dressed in traditional Maasai costume, and armed with a spear, we headed out to a familiar location not far west of camp: Mario‘s Tree.
As we had often experienced overnight or early morning rain during our time in the Mara in June, the sky, while still dark, was moody and contained some good cloud, which would soon enough contribute to the images we captured.
Once we arrived at Mario‘s Tree, we began setting up for a portraiture session with Baba.
I started with my 16-35mm lens, as I wanted to capture the vast expanse, but with both Baba and the acacia tree being prominent.
It was still dawn, and the morning sky had a blue cast to it, with some distinct, but not yet intense, reds and oranges on the horizon.
I shot Baba in silhouette, but I was not finding the images all that pleasing, so I switched to the 70-200, and found that the composition was much more striking and pleasing. This time I omitted the tree, and focused only on Baba, having him face to the north so that I could capture him in profile.
Mario also found that he was not happy with the wider angles.
The sky had not yet become intsense, but it was rapidly changing. Five minutes later, there was rich orange and purple in the sky as I continued to capture images of Baba in silhouette.
Less than two minutes later the sun peeked over the horizon and I continued shooting. Mario and Xenedette had moved further back, and Mario had switched to his 300mm lens. Meanwhile, I saw a pleasing composition, and was waiting for the sun to be positioned at the right place as it rapidly rose.
Mario was excited about the new composition he had found from further back with a longer lens, and was begging me to come over and shoot with him. I was too committed to the shot I was anticipating, and yelled across the plains that I was working on a particular image.
Mario was becoming anxious, as he was afraid I would lose the opportunity he saw.
I stuck to my guns, though, and landed the image I wanted:
Maasai at Sunrise
I had to wait for the sun to be in the right position for this image, as I wanted it positioned between Baba and his spear.
I shot a few more images, and then raced over to Mario, finally placating him.
He showed me the image he had landed with a longer lens, and it was stunning.
Mario had attached his 1.4x tele-converter to his 300mm lens, so he had a 420mm focal length. I had left my 400mm lens in the 4WD, so rather than losing time while I fetched the 400, I borrowed Mario‘s 300 and shot what became one of my signature images on this trip, and what is currently featured as the desktop wallpaper on one of my computers.
Baba the Maasai
To me, this image is one of those images which captures the essence of the Mara. It is a postcard-style image, which definitely makes it clear that the location is Africa.
Soon after shooting this image, I grabbed the big 400 and shot another image, this time capturing the silhouetted shape of Baba‘s earrings.
Staring at the Sun
I love all three of these images, but what sets this apart, besides the earrings, is the tight composition, and the subtle light that can be seen shining through Baba‘s traditional Maasai robe as it drapes over his arm.
The sun continued to rise, and we decided to start shooting frontal portraits of Baba, with the sun behind us this time.
Firstly, I shot a full-length portrait of Baba in the golden hour light, with the Mara plains and scattered acacia trees behind him.
I played with a few compositions, and eventually decided on my signature style of a tight crop and a wide aperture.
I wanted to give Baba a sense of place, but focusing more on his face, so in the intensely warm morning light I carefully composed my images, and shot with a wide aperture, but also included the subtle shape of a distant acacia tree in the background.
This was the image I landed:
At about 7:15am, we wrapped up, and headed east towards camp to drop off Baba, as we were to continue on a game drive and see what we would find.
Unusually, we did not find any big cats on this particular morning, but we still enjoyed some good sightings of other African fauna.
After we dropped off Baba, we encountered a black-bellied bustard just a few minutes south of camp, so we stopped to photograph it, as the background and light were pleasing, and the bustard was calling.
Using a long, 800mm focal length, I opted for a very tight crop of the bustard, with the background all but obliterated.
We spent about ten minutes with the bird, and decided to try and capture it at full call, as it was periodcally calling, and we had quickly learned its routine of contracting its neck such that its head was close to its back, followed by a rapid neck extension, during the height of which it emitted its call.
We were all firing off shots rapidly, capturing the entire sequence.
The highlight, of course, was capturing the bustard at full neck extension, with its beak open during its call.
I fortunately landed such an image.
The Bustard Can Sing
After we concluded photographing the bustard, Francis took us in a south-easterly direction towards the Olare Orok River. We were looking for a nice spot to stop for some breakfast, but along the way we encountered some male impalas up on a ridge, so we stopped for a few photos.
Antelopes can be difficult animals to photograph, and like zebras, they look directly at you — until you have a camera trained on them, at which time they turn away or otherwise hide in scrub, all of which destroys the possibility of landing decent images.
We soon abandoned the uncooperative impala herd and headed a little further south-west before stopping for breakfast.
It was good to jump out of the vehicle and get some circulation happening. When game driving in Africa, it is easy to lose track of time, and before you know it, you have been sitting with your legs at a 90-degree angle for hours at a time.
After breakfast we headed further south-west, where we encountered some grazing elephants.
After spending a bit more time with the ellies, we headed north, back towards camp. Around ten minutes later, and not far east from camp, we spotted a juvenile martial eagle high in a tree, so we stopped to capture some images. We had seen a juvenile martial eagle in South Africa, but it was nice to see one in Kenya too.
Juvenile Martial Eagle
I needed 800mm of focal length for this image, but it still was not enough!
We headed back to camp for some lunch, rest and time to deal with images and online happenings.
After lunch, we had plans to visit a nearby Maasai village to experience the culture of the Maasai people.
Francis drove us north-east of camp to the village, which is not far south of the C13 road which runs to Mara Rianta and beyond to the west, and Lemek and beyond to the east.
We spent around an hour in the Maasai village, where the people sang and danced for us, exposing us to their beautiful music. We also got to step inside one of the bomas, where a tribal elder explained how the Maasai live.
During the singing and dancing, Mario and I got on the ground in the middle of the circle, photographing the Maasai people from below as they performed. Everyone had a great time, despite the heat and the constant flies.
We were fortunate enough to be able to photograph the Maasai people, and here is a portrait I captured of a young Maasai woman, who was one of the women who sang and danced for us upon our arrival in their village.
Portrait of a Young Maasai Woman
The Maasai people also sell various African souvenirs, which Xenedette was very interested in buying. She would have bought everything if we had more cash on us (and could carry it home), but she got down to the serious business of haggling with the Maasai over prices, after trimming down the number of items in which we were interested. We only had very limited cash on us, as we just did not need to carry a lot in the Mara.
We came away with some very nice Maasai souvenirs, and it was a fantastic experience to be surrounded by Maasai people in their traditional village.
After our visit with the Maasai people, we headed back out into the Mara plains surrounding them, where soon enough, something very special awaited us.
Francis lead us north-west of the Maasai village, to a dense cluster of trees. We did not know it, but he had been looking for leopards.
Francis had spotted a beautiful young leopardess resting peacefully high up in a large tree, basking in the hot afternoon sun.
We were again very excited to be in the presence of a leopard. Leopards are so elusive, that just seeing one is an experience of its own.
We captured plenty of images of the leopardess sleeping, but in the glary conditions and contending with dappled light, photography was not particularly easy. I may go through those images at some stage and publish something.
We sat there for a while, watching the leopardess sleep, yawn and look around, continuing to snap away as she engaged in typical leopardess behaviour.
25 minutes later, something amazing happened: a male leopard emerged from the thick, long grasses, and began to climb the trees in which we found the leopardess.
Not only had we seen a leopard resting in a tree, but we had seen two leopards at the same sighting. Double the excitement!
What we did not know, but quickly learned, was that these two leopards were mating!
Here is an image I captured of the larger and older male leopard commencing a tree climb:
He did not need to climb much higher than this, as the female descended and began walking into the scrub.
The female soon enough swished her tail and brushed against the male, signalling her readiness for mating.
Before we knew it, a ferocious, growling roar was to be heard as the male mounted the young female and engaged in only a few seconds of mating before he quickly jumped clear to avoid being attacked.
Here is the young leopardess resting in the grass after a number of intense mating sessions:
News of leopards — particularly mating leopards — travels fast in the Mara, and three or four other vehicles had descended upon the scene to watch a magnificent encounter between two elusive and territorial African big cats.
I cannot recall how many times the leopards mated, but every minute or two, they were at it again, and were constantly moving around the area as they engaged in the cycle.
Photography was challenging, particularly as there was rapid movement, constant movement, thick bush and falling light.
I did manage to land a few images of leopards during rare opportunities of rest in the open, including this image of the large male, whom I have called “Big Boy” owing to his huge build:
Is he not a stunning leopard?
Not even a minute after I captured this image of Big Boy in the grass, he approached the leopardess who was resting nearby.
Growl of the Leopardess
I was fortunate enough to fire the camera shutter at the precise moment the leopardess told the male in no uncertain terms that she did not appreciate his advances; but she soon relented and let him know when she was ready to mate.
Some twenty seconds later, it was on again, as these two beautiful leopards played the mating game.
The Mating Game
A minute or two after this explosive session, we all decided to depart, as the leopards had moved further into the dense bush by the water, and light was falling away. We would return the next morning to see if we could find them again.
On that magical note, we headed back to camp for dinner, drinks, some great discussion and time to reflect on the incredible sightings we had just experienced with two of Africa‘s most elusive animals.
Our sixth day in the Mara had been intense, as had they all, and what a fantastic way to close off another day in Kenya.
Stay tuned for our seventh and final day in the Mara, during which we would embark upon our final game drive, but still have some new experiences for the first time.