Tag Archives: Silhouette

Maasai Mara 2019: Observations and Comparisons

Introduction

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.

As I have chronicled in recent articles, we spent a fantastic seven days (which is too few!) in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya in June of 2019, photographing wildlife and landscapes.

This was the second time we have been to this particular location, with our first trip being in June of 2015.

This time, we stayed again at Elephant Pepper Camp in the Mara North Conservancy, a privately run conservancy north of the public Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Elephant Pepper Camp is now run by Tom and Alison, whereas during our first trip, it was run by Patrick and Sophie.

Having twice been to the same place, it was interesting for me to compare the two trips; for while a lot was familiar and similar this time, a lot was different.

 

Abundance of Wildlife

One thing I did subsequent to this most recent trip was compile a list of all of the species of wildlife we encountered.

We encountered 42 unique species of wildlife.  There may possibly have been more; but as best as I can recall, it was 42.  Here they are:

  1. Agama lizard
  2. Baboon
  3. Banded mongoose
  4. Cape buffalo
  5. Cheetah
  6. Dik-dik
  7. Dung beetle
  8. Eland
  9. Elephant
  10. Genet
  11. Giraffe
  12. Grant’s gazelle
  13. Grey crowned crane
  14. Hartebeest
  15. Helmeted guineafowl
  16. Hippopotamus
  17. Hyena
  18. Impala
  19. Jackal
  20. Lilac-breasted roller
  21. Lion
  22. Marabou stork
  23. Martial eagle
  24. Ostrich
  25. Oxpecker
  26. Red-necked francolin
  27. Reedbuck
  28. Rock hyrax
  29. Saddle-billed stork
  30. Secretarybird
  31. Short-tailed eagle
  32. Starling
  33. Thomson’s gazelle
  34. Topi
  35. Tree python
  36. Vulture
  37. Warthog
  38. Waterbuck
  39. Wildebeest
  40. Woodland kingfisher
  41. Yellow mongoose
  42. Zebra

For a seven-day trip, this is quite a large list of wildlife species.  This list documents unique encounters, but we had multiple encounters with numerous species, and sometimes we encountered the same unique animal on multiple occasions.

What this list also shows is just how abundant and varied is the wildlife inhabiting the Maasai Mara.

I wish I had compiled a list of the wildlife species we encountered during the first trip; but certainly, we did encounter quite a few species from this list.

 

Year of the Cheetah

Amongst the wildlife we encountered during this most recent trip, the stand-out was the cheetah.

During our first trip, we only had one cheetah sighting, down in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

This time, we had numerous cheetah sightings, most of which were in the Mara North Conservancy.

On our first day, we had not one, but two cheetah sightings.

Early into our first game drive shortly after landing at Mara North Airstrip, we first met Amani and her three cubs.

This is Amani:

Amani

Amani

Later that day, during the afternoon game drive, we encountered Amani and her cubs again, and landed some pleasing images as the cheetahs rested.

On day two, we encountered Amani and her cubs for a third time, and on this occasion, they had captured a juvenile Thomson’s gazelle, and were in the process of killing it and consuming it right in front of us.

Fast Food

Fast Food

This was a special sighting, and happened to be the final time we saw Amani and her cubs.  I have no doubt that other people in the conservancy had seen her again after we saw her for the last time.

A few days later, we spent most of the day in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.  While private conservancies offer more exclusive access, as well as the ability to go off-road and get close to wildlife, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is always worth visiting, as it is a much larger reserve and is home too some truly special characters.

On day four, we were treated to some special sightings, including one of the infamous Five Musketeers, a coalition of cheetahs which has been dominating the Maasai Mara National Reserve and causing a lot of trouble.

When we saw the Five Musketeers, the weather was warm, and the cheetahs were resting in the shade; but it was still special to see these legendary cheetahs.

One of the Five Musketeers

One of the Five Musketeers

Back in Mara North, we encountered two new-to-us cheetahs on day five.

We had our first and only encounter with brothers Mbili and Milele, who are the sons of Kiraposhe.  We never met Kiraposhe, but her sons had unfortunately lost their lunch to hyenas, which is unfortunately quite a common problem cheetahs encounter.

Defeated

Defeated

We spent quite a while with Mbili and Milele, tracking and following them as they headed east and into Lemek Conservancy, which was the end of the road for us.

The next cheetah we would encounter — and a very special cheetah at that — was Kisaru, a female.

Kisaru is a daughter of Amani, and at the time we saw her, she was heavily pregnant.  She produced a litter of six cubs subsequent to our departure.  That is special.

We had two fantastic sightings of Kisaru, and during one late afternoon and early evening game drive, we had her to ourselves.  Inexplicably, nobody else in the conservancy was aware of her presence until it was too late, as when we left her to return to camp on the evening we first met her, other vehicles were heading towards where we had been, by which time it may have been too late.

Typically, when a big cat is spotted (no pun intended!), vehicles from all over the conservancy descend upon the scene.  We had the Dream Team of Mario and Francis, so we might have got a piece of the action before anyone else!

Here is Kisaru in her spectacular glory:

Portrait of Kisaru

Portrait of Kisaru

Indeed, this was what I call the Year of the Cheetah, as we had experienced, across seven sightings, a total of 12 individual cheetahs, mostly in the Mara North Conservancy, but also in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Kisaru in Silhouette

Kisaru in Silhouette

We had met Amani and her cubs three times, encountered Kiraposhe’s males Mbili and Milele once, seen the Five Musketeers, and experienced two fantastic sightings with Kisaru.

Life is good.

 

King of the Jungle

The term ‘king of the jungle’ in reference to lions is a misnomer, as lions do not live in jungles; they live on the savannah.

Naturally, on this trip, we encountered many lions.  We encountered familiar prides, as well as new prides.

On the first day, we encountered a lioness from the resident, and familiar, Cheli Pride.  The Cheli Pride, named after Cheli & Peacock Safaris, was the first pride of lions we encountered during our first trip.

The Cheli Pride has significantly changed in the past four years.  There have been numerous off-shoots, which have become distinct prides, as well as newcomers and disruption to what was once a 27-strong pride.

Members of the old Cheli Pride are scattered around the Mara North Conservancy, and we encountered these lions on numerous occasions and in various places.

What occurred to me during this trip is that some of the now adult Cheli Pride lions we saw may have been cubs we saw during the last trip.  We have no way of knowing, but it is pleasant to think that we may have seen some of the exact same lions four years later, some of which may have themselves become parents to a new generation of cubs.

Here is one of the handsome males we encountered.

Handsome

Handsome

One of the more memorable lion encounters we experienced was the mating of a large male lion, called Lenkume, from the nearby Angama Pride, with a female from the Cheli Pride.

This was a truly special sighting, as it was the first, and so far, only, time we have seen lions mating in the wild.

Firstly, here is Lenkume:

Lenkume

Lenkume

I did shoot video of these lions mating, but have produced any videos yet from the extensive footage I shot.  That is a project still on my to-do list.

I did publish a straight-from-iPhone, close view of the Angama and Cheli mating session on Instagram.

It can be viewed at the following link:

https://www.instagram.com/p/ByXKk5NAos2

Yes, we were that close!  To top it off, we got to share the experience with famous zoologist and wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott of Big Cat Diary fame, who put the Maasai Mara region on the map.

On our second day, we headed south to the lush area near Offbeat Mara Camp, from the resident Offbeat Pride takes its name.  We first met this pride early into the trip, but our most special time with these lions occurred on day five.

In the wee hours of the morning, the Offbeat Pride had taken down a Cape buffalo, and in the company of a large and impressive pride male, were devouring their meal.

Table Manners

Table Manners

This was the third time we had witnessed lions devouring their meal.  During the first trip, we experienced two such sightings.  The first was the Cheli Pride devouring a zebra kill; and the second was the Double Crossing Pride consuming a deceased elephant.

Seeing lions on a kill is always a special experience.  We have yet to actually witness a kill taking place by lions, but there is always hope for next time.

During this sighting, our Dream Team, knowing lions well, hastily departed the kill site, as the large male was seeking water.

We had the unique and exclusive experience of watching the large male drinking from a stream and climbing the bank right in front of us.

Here he is in all his glory, climbing the bank and heading straight towards us:

Thirst Quenched

Thirst Quenched

During day four, which we spent mostly in the Maasai Mara National Reserve south of the Mara North Conservancy, we experienced two special sightings.

The first was the famous Marsh Pride, which is a long-established, dominant pride of lions which was featured extensively by Jonathan Scott and Simon King over the years in Big Cat Diary.

This was the first time we had seen the Marsh Pride with our own eyes, and it was almost like meeting a celebrity.  These lions are very famous in Kenya, and we were seeing them in close proximity.

Unfortunately, the conditions were not at all ideal for photography, as the lions were under thick cover of bushes and down in a stream, so it was an eyes-only experience.

There were plenty of cubs.  I did shoot numerous images, but typical for wildlife photography, far more images are shot than published.  I do have my own memories and images of the Marsh Pride, but unfortunately the images are not of a suitable standard for publication.

Later in the day, we encountered a pair of mating lions.

These lions are members of the Double Crossing Pride, which we had first met in the Maasai Mara National Reserve on 9th June, 2015.

Unfortunately on this occasion, we did not witness them mating, but we did capture some images as they rested under the shade of a large tree.

Busy Boy at Rest

Busy Boy at Rest

By the end of day five, we had seen two familiar prides (Cheli and Double Crossing) and three prides which were new to us: Angama, Marsh and Offbeat.

We had many lion sightings, spread across five prides, on every single day of this trip.

Mario had been keeping count of the number of individual lions we saw, but somewhere after about 40, he lost count.  Forty-something is about as accurate as we can be at this stage.  It was a treat all the same.

 

What About the Leopards?

Keen readers may have observed that two of the three largest species of African big cats had been seen in abundance, but so far, one is missing: the leopard.

There is not much to report.  We did not see a single leopard during this trip.  This was the first time Mario had not seen one during a visit to the Maasai Mara, and he has been travelling to the region for many years.

We knew that leopards are notoriously elusive, but they proved it to us this this time.  On both of our previous visits to Africa, we had seen numerous leopards; but that was not to be the case during this trip.

Francis did his absolute best to find one.  There had certainly been evidence of the presence of leopards in the region, but finding one proved impossible.  We went looking for them often, and spent a lot of time searching, but to no avail.

These big cats just did not want to be found.  While it was frustrating and disappointing, from discussions we had back at camp, nobody else was seeing any leopards either.

That is the nature of wildlife in Africa: the experience is always on their terms, not ours.  This time, we were not to be graced by the presence of a leopard.

 

Something is in the Water: Fighting and Mating

During this trip, there must have been something in the water, as we had numerous sightings of animals either fighting or mating.

As described earlier, we witnessed Angama Pride male Lenkume mating with a Cheli Pride female; but it did not end there.

On our second day, one randy wildebeest was desperately trying to herd ‘his’ females and mate with them.

Here he is, flying the ‘flag’:

Gimme Some Action

Gimme Some Action

A few days later in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we saw another revved migratory wildebeest trying to mate with the females.  I shot a few video sequences of this spectacle.

The jackals were getting into it, and even the pigs were going for it.

Bacon Factory

Bacon Factory

Other warthogs were not so much in the mood for mating, but for fighting.

Disagreement

Disagreement

Also in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we spotted a pair of topi fighting for dominance, so naturally I had to capture an image.

Topi Tussle

Topi Tussle

During our first trip, we had the enormous pleasure of seeing leopards mating; but this time, we saw other species of wildlife mating, including the impressive spectacle of lions mating.

This time, we also had the pleasure of witnessing a few animals fighting.

 

Where Were the Elephants?

There were elephants around, but not very many.

We counted on three sightings of elephants on this occasion, and two of those sightings were of the same unique elephant bulls.

We did have a very pleasant encounter, as this giant strolled right up to our vehicle.

Mighty Elephant Bull

Mighty Elephant Bull

There is nothing quite like having a six-tonne animal right outside your vehicle!

Other than these two sightings, we only spotted elephants on one other occasion, but they were in the distance, and we were heading elsewhere.

 

Very Dry Conditions

One thing we noticed during this trip was that the grass was much shorter and drier, and that there was far less water, with the Mara River being noticeably shallow.

The wet season had officially ended, but by all accounts, it was quite a dry wet season, and we could see evidence of that.  Even in the image of the elephant above, the grass is very brown and dry.

Without being too political, it must be conceded that our climate is changing.  Africa is becoming hotter, and the mighty Victoria Falls has reduced to something of a trickle.  The plains of the Mara were very visibly short and dry, and while there was plenty of wildlife around, there had to have been an impact.

We visited the Mara River on a number of occasions, and the water level was dangerously low.  The height of the banks, and the potential height of the water could be seen; but the water was not there.

Four years earlier, the Mara was more lush and more green.

 

Dawn Landscapes: Craptacular Skies

The term ‘craptacular’ is the only appropriate invented adjective to describe the terrible skies we had at dawn during this trip.

Every morning, our plan was to shoot landscape images at dawn, but on most days, the sun was obscured by clouds, and the clouds were not photogenic.

Our best landscape images were captured during the afternoon, during which time we were treated to moody skies and an intense golden hour on day five.  We shot away from the sun, towards a brooding sky.

Golden Acacia

Golden Acacia

What amazing light!

Another stand-out landscape image was this silhouette of an acacia tree I shot during a sundowner on day four.

Sundowner

Sundowner

During our first trip, we were treated to far more rewarding skies; but this time, we still managed to capture some pleasing landscape images.

 

Beginning of the Great Migration

Something very unique about this trip was the early onset of the Great Migration.  On the day we spent in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we got to witness the beginning of this amazing event.

As we discovered, many migratory wildebeest had already crossed the Sand River, which meanders across the border of Tanzania and Kenya.

The wildebeest were already around the Talek River further to the north, where were had seen them.  These early migrants would soon enough be joined by hundreds of thousands more as the season continued on.

While we did not see the spectacle of a river crossing, we did witness the beginning of the Great Migration, which in this part of the African continent had arrived earlier than usual.

 

Conclusion

We had been on two amazing trips to Kenya over a period of four years.  There were many experiences, many encounters, many familiar sights, sounds and smells, a re-visit to old friends, and the making of new friends.

They had been two similar trips, but two vastly different trips.

This article has highlighted the unique differences, as well as some similarities, we had observed during this most recent trip, in comparison to our first trip.

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 2019: Day 6 of 7

It was now our sixth day in the Maasai Mara during our epic trip in June of 2019, and the safari was drawing near to a close.

So far, in five days, we had not seen a single leopard.  Would today be the day?

As always, the plan was to start the day with some landscape photography at dawn, but true to form, the sky was terrible, so we abandoned the notion, initially making our way south of camp.

Within minutes, we encountered some of the lions from the Cheli Pride.  We did not stop to capture any images, heading further south-east, where we spotted a secretarybird in the distance.  This was the first time we had seen one, but the low light and distance made it a viewing experience only.

Soon enough, we changed direction, and made our way north into the northern region of the Mara North Conservancy.

A little while later, we encountered some banded mongooses out in the open, so we stopped to capture some quick images as these small creatures scurried about, occasionally stopping on a mound.

During this sighting, we also spotted a herd of impala in the distance, so I captured images of these.  I did not capture anything special, and even though many an impala can be found in the Maasai Mara, I still like to photograph these animals.  While they do not have the appeal and excitement of one of the big cats, they are still important players in the African story.

We headed further west, and encounter more banded mongooses, where we again captured images as they scurried around a dead tree branch.

A short time later, a little further south-west, not far north of the C13 road running through the conservancy, we encounter the same elephant bull we had seen on our first day.

Second Encounter with a Big Tusker

Second Encounter with a Big Tusker

We did not see many elephants at all during this trip, so spending some time with this impressive elephant bull in the warm morning light was a pleasure worth indulging.

I captured plenty of images, and some decent video footage, as he grazed on the open plain.

Even though the Maasai Mara is a very big place, it is still possible, and in my experience not uncommon, to encounter a specific animal on more than one occasion.  In the case of this seriously impressive six-tonne elephant, while we were not specifically looking for him, he was on this occasion not very far south of where we had first encountered him five days earlier.

We then headed a little west, where Mario spotted some strolling giraffes in the distance.  As we were in very open plains in the warmth of the morning sun, Mario wanted to capture images of the giraffes as they walked past us in the distance.

While we had seen a few giraffes during this trip, we had not really made any decent attempts to photograph them, so this opportunity was worth pursuing.

Francis stopped the vehicle, and we all disembarked, carefully making our way along the side of the vehicle so that we could position ourselves low on the ground.

I had a makeshift ‘tripod’, consisting of a foldable stool we use at breakfast, lunch and sundowners, plus a couple of sandbags on the top, on which to rest my lens.

Mario actually captured a photo of us shooting as the giraffes made their way across the plain.

Our presence did not go unnoticed, however, with the giraffes stopping and looking right at us, as can be seen in this image I captured:

This is Africa

This is Africa

This is Africa.  An image of a giraffe wandering across the open plains with acacia trees in the background is one of those iconic ‘only in Africa‘ images.

Getting a low angle of a subject or scene can sometimes make a dramatic difference.  Even though for most of the time we are only a few feet higher inside the 4WD and shooting with long lenses, sometimes even a slight decrease in altitude can make an image stronger, especially when the subject happens to be the tallest animal in not only Africa, but the entire world.

After we had finished photographing the giraffes and stretching the legs, we headed north towards the Mara River, where something special awaited us 25 minutes later.

My guess is that Francis already knew what was happening, but we, not unusually, did not.

It quickly became apparent what was awaiting us when we encountered two honeymooning lions.

This lush area, close to the Mara River, was a haven of activity for us during the trip, and it is deep within the territory of the Cheli Pride.  Not far from this area, but further north-east and closer to the river, is where we had encountered the River Pride four years earlier.

Our arrival on the scene was met by a male and female lion resting photogenically on top of a mound in the open.

Mating lions spend around four days in each other’s company, well away from the rest of the pride.  While there can be fierce and frequent bouts of mating, there is also a lot of not much, as the lions tend to laze around.

Being in the company of mating lions, which had happened for us twice on this trip, is always special, and there are massive photographic opportunities.

This magnificent male lion is Lenkume of the Angama Pride, born in February, 2013.

Lenkume

Lenkume

Lenkume had been mating with one of the females from the Cheli Pride.

I captured plenty of images of Lenkume, as well as the Cheli Pride female, as they rested in the morning sun.

Cheli and Angama

Cheli and Angama

Five minutes before I captured this image of the Cheli Pride female, the two big cats began mating right in front of us.  I did not capture any still images of this spectacular sighting, as I was recording video footage instead.

As the brief mating session concluded, there was a deep growl from the female before Lenkume dismounted.

This was yet another first-time experience for us.  We had never seen lions in the act of mating. During our first trip to the Maasai Mara four years earlier in 2015, we were treated to a rare and special encounter of leopards mating.  Just seeing a leopard is special enough, but to encounter not only one of these elusive and solitary big cats, but two together, takes it to another level; and to see them mating elevates the experience into the stratosphere.

Now we had seen lions mating, and it was awesome.

The day was starting to become one of surprises, and a few minutes later, another 4WD arrived on the scene.  In it was none other than zoologist and wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott of Big Cat Diary fame, who put the Maasai Mara region on the map, and brought the lives of the Mara‘s big cats into the homes of millions of people.

As a big fan of Big Cat Diary, Jonathan Scott is very familiar to us, and leading up to this trip, we had watched it again.

He had arrived at the right time, as a few minutes later, Lenkume and his companion became active, and wandered a short distance from the mound, where they mated again.  While I did capture images, they were further away, in harsh light, and facing away from us, so it did not make for compelling photography.

After this most recent mating session, the two lions moved a short distance north, and parked themselves under the shade of a tree for some rest.

Francis followed them, and Jonathan Scott‘s vehicle also moved to where the lions were resting.

We had a good position and some shade.  Now, it was a waiting game.  We simply sat there, quietly talking and wondering what Jonathan Scott and his companions were doing.  Was it work, or was it pleasure?

We more or less had the lions to ourselves, and a great opportunity to witness them mating again.

Alas, it did not happen.  They were done for the time being.  We must have stayed there for at least 30 or 40 minutes before eventually deciding we would start to make our way back to camp.  Usually we eat breakfast out in the field, but on this morning we had decided to have a cooked breakfast in the comfort of camp.

As we began two depart, we pulled up alongside Jonathan‘s vehicle and began to talk about the morning and our trip in general. Jonathan asked us where we were from, and when I told him, he related how he and wife Angie Scott had worked with fellow countryman Abraham Joffe on the Canon production Tales by Light, which we had also seen.

After chatting for ten or fifteen minutes, we departed the scene.  We never found out what Jonathan was doing, but he did have another photographer with him (not Angie) and some Canon super-telephoto lenses, so he may have been working.

What a morning it had been.  Spending time with a large-tusked elephant bull we had previously encountered, seeing  the mating of lions from two different prides, and meeting Jonathan Scott, all made for an adventure-filled morning.

Back at camp, it was time for some bacon, eggs, toast, coffee and some down time.

The afternoon and evening was going to be very exciting.

When on safari, time flies.  Before we knew it, we were heading back into the plains to see what the afternoon, sunset and early evening would bring.

A lot.

Given the exciting encounter we had experienced with the mating of Angama male Lenkume and a Cheli Pride lioness, we headed back to the same area where we had encountered them before breakfast.

The mating couple was still in the area, and we found Lenkume resting near a bush just south-east of where we had left them earlier.

We spotted the female heading north before veering north-east.  Suddenly, Lenkume began to follow her, and he picked up the pace, trotting in her general direction.

We figured that the female had cubs.  She headed to a thicket to seek cover.  We were increasingly becoming concerned, as this was a mating couple, and if the female had cubs, a male lion from another pride would unhesitatingly kill the cubs.  And now, the lioness was leading Lenkume straight towards them!

There were two other possibilities: the female either did not have cubs, or any cubs which were hidden away were sired by Lenkume.

It was a tense time.  We were following Lenkume, and made our way to where the female was likely to be.  She was in a very thick bush, making it difficult to see her.

Francis circled the cluster of bushes, looking for any signs of the lions.  After dwelling in the area for a little while, we decided to leave, and headed further north-east, towards Mara North Airstrip.

Mario had spotted an eagle flying around, so we decided to try and capture some images of the eagle in flight.  For me, it was an unsuccessful attempt.

After Mario was finished, we headed north towards a sharp bend in the Mara River, at which we had stopped for breakfast on our second day.

Sitting on a mound next to a croton bush was a lone female cheetah.

She is called Kisaru, and she is a daughter of Amani.

She was also heavily pregnant!

What a sighting.  It had already been established that the cheetah was a big part of this trip, but this latest sighting elevated the experience.

This was our first encounter with Kisaru, and we had her all to ourselves.  Inexplicably, there were no other vehicles around.  Usually when there is a sighting of a cheetah , other vehicles, both from our camp and other camps in Mara North Conservancy, quickly arrive at the scene.

We were blessed with an abundance of photographic opportunities, and I was able to capture my signature style of frame-filling portraits of Kisaru.

Portrait of Kisaru

Portrait of Kisaru

In this image, I was able to capture the beauty of Kisaru as she stood from her resting place to look at something in the distance which had attracted her attention.

Kisaru spent 40 minutes resting on the mound from the time at which I captured my first image, to the time at which she rose, stretched and headed a short distance into the open, where she found another mound and presented even better photographic opportunities.

She spent a further 10 minutes resting on the second mound, surveying her territory.  It was 5:31pm, and the light was decreasing.

When Kisaru stood to survey her territory, I was able to capture another pleasing image of her.

Kisaru on the Lookout

Kisaru on the Lookout

A cheetah is never really at rest, particularly when pregnant and alone.  Cheetahs are constantly looking and listening, and scanning their surroundings for threats or potential meals, and with eyesight able to see up to two kilometres, they are well equipped.

A minute after I captured that last image, Kisaru decided that she was moving on, so she stood and stretched before heading north-west, closer to the Mara River.

Evening Stretch

Evening Stretch

I had been shooting these images at ISO 4,000, so the light was quite low.

Naturally, we were not ready to call it a day, so we followed Kisaru as she continued on her journey.

During the two stops so far, I captured some decent video footage of Kisaru as she groomed and surveyed.  At one point, she was two or three metres from us, and walked right behind our 4WD.

Cheetahs can cover a lot of distance in a short time, even though they are not walking particularly quickly.  The distance between Kisaru and us had increased, and she was north-west of us.

With the sun edging towards the horizon, Mario wanted to capture some silhouette images of Kisaru.  This meant we needed to be positioned low, close to the ground.  In order to do that, we needed to climb out of the vehicle.

Normally when a predator is nearby, one does not exit the vehicle!  We had 46 metres of distance from Kisaru, so we decided to very carefully exit the vehicle and position ourselves for an image.

While Kisaru was undoubtedly aware of our presence, we carefully crept alongside the vehicle, never standing out and making our shapes visible.  We had to effectively blend in with the vehicle and avoid alarming the cheetah.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Year of the Cheetah

Year of the Cheetah

In order for a silhouette image to be effective, the subject needs to be distinctly separated from the background, and recognisable in shape.

There is no denying that this is an African cheetah!

I captured another image of Kisaru looking to the left of the frame.

Kisaru in Silhouette

Kisaru in Silhouette

After we had finished capturing our silhouette images, we carefully boarded the 4WD and again followed Kisaru.

We found her out in the open, and captured a few more images as she sat on a mound, surveying her territory.

Kisaru Surveying

Kisaru Surveying

Soon the light would be too low, and we would head back to camp.

I captured my final image of the day at 6:20pm, by which time the sun had set, and the darkness was increasing.

On our way south-east to camp, we saw some unfamiliar vehicles heading in the direction from which we had come.  The show was over, and with the light rapidly falling, there would not be much of a chance for those people to see much.  Hopefully they saw something, but at any rate, we had spent most of our final afternoon/evening game drive in the company of an amazing and very photogenic cheetah, and we had her all to ourselves.

Thursday, 6th June, 2019 had been a big day in the Mara, consisting of first-time sightings of banded mongooses and a secretarybird; quality time spent with an impressive elephant bull, who was one of only a few elephants we had seen; photography of an iconic giraffe on the plains; an unforgettable experience with mating lions; meeting the esteemed Jonathan Scott (who in person is exactly the same as he is on television), some tense moments as we feared for the fate of any cubs belonging to the Cheli Pride female; and the majority of our final afternoon/evening game drive spent with new-to-us and heavily pregnant cheetah Kisaru.

We still had not seen a leopard, but we had one more game drive to follow on what would be our final day in Kenya for this trip.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day seven.

Since returning, we learned that Kisaru had a litter of six cubs!  We hope they are doing well.

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 4 of 7

Our fourth day of this trip to the Maasai Mara was to be largely spent as an all-day trip to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, south of Mara North Conservancy, and north of the Kenya-Tanzania border.

A day or two earlier, Mario had decided that it would be worth visiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve, just as we had done last time, as it provided a change of scenery, a somewhat different environment, and plenty of opportunities which we may not have had if we had stayed in Mara North.

As the morning greeted us, we had no idea that the day would be another day of first-time experiences.

After our usual morning ritual of a hot drink by the camp fire in the darkness before dawn, we headed out, and ventured south-west towards a familiar location: Leopard Gorge.

We had visited Leopard Gorge a few times during our first trip to the Maasai Mara.  Leopard Gorge is a fantastic location, which was made famous as a result the BBC’s highly successful production Big Cat Diary.  Some of the series was shot at Leopard Gorge, particularly during the seasons which featured the female leopard Bella and her cubs, who inhabited this very area.

During our visits to Leopard Gorge in 2015, we encountered two large male lion siblings from the Cheli Pride, as well as a young male leopard perched in an elephant pepper tree.

When we returned during this visit, the residents were somewhat different.

We entered Leopard Gorge from the north-eastern side, and as there were apparently no predators around, we decided to disembark from the 4WD and shoot some landscape images.

The morning was grey and cloudy, which had become the norm for the trip so far.

From down in the centre of the gorge, I shot a few landscape images featuring the large fig tree to the north-east.  I found myself struggling with composition, as the altitude was just not right, the sky was uninteresting and the composition just was not working for me.  There was too much sky, and also a lack of foreground interest.

I usually find composition very easy, but on this occasion I was just not finding anything pleasing, so I decided to climb the embankment on the southern side for a different view.  Playing around with a few compositions, I finally landed something more interesting than what I had seen below, and this time the sky had improved, as moody cloud was drifting in from the west.

Here is the image I captured:

Leopard Gorge

Leopard Gorge

While the four of us were near the position from which I captured this image, Mario decided to publish a live broadcast on Instagram.

Given the fame this location had achieved as a result of Big Cat Diary, and the somewhat disappointing fact that there were no big cats in the immediate area during our visit, we humorously shot our first and only episode of No Cat Diary, featuring a non-existent leopard.

After we had finished shooting landscape images, we headed back down to the 4WD and continued south-west through the gorge, stopping to look at the elephant pepper tree in which I had captured a pleasing image of a young male leopard four years earlier.

We did not spot a leopard in the tree, but soon enough, we saw baboons on the top of the ridge, which was a sure sign that there was not likely to be a leopard nearby.  There were also some hyenas a little further away from the gorge, which was another sign that spotted felines would not be found.

Mario suggested that we shoot some silhouette images of the baboons against the moody sky.

It was a good call, as we landed some good images which were quite different to what we had shot so far.

Of the numerous images I shot, there were two which stood out.  This is the image I chose to process and publish:

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

When shooting a subject in silhouette, it is very important for the subject’s shape to be clearly defined, and not touching any other subject matter in the scene; and with wildlife in particular, this can be more challenging, as legs and tails can easily become obscured when they are intersecting with an other part of the animal.

In this image, the shape of the young baboon can clearly be seen.  While there are little patches of grass which make the image less clean than I would like, the image still turned out well.  In the other image I had short-listed, the shape of the baboon was more pleasing, but there was an annoying clump of grass between the two centre legs, which I found distracting and detracting.

Moving further south-west through the gorge, we turned our attention to the cliff face on our right, where we spotted a group of rock hyraxes (also known as dassies).

We had seen these cute mammals at Leopard Gorge during the last trip, but I had never photographed them.

This time I took the opportunity, and captured this image:

Rock Hyraxes

Rock Hyraxes

Apart from the cuteness of these rock hyraxes, what appeals to me about this image is that it is very different to the type of image I typically shoot in the Mara, and it depicts a subject not often featured in images.

After we had captured our images of the rock hyraxes, we continued further towards the south-western end of Leopard Gorge; but we were not done yet.

We spotted a common eland, which is one of Africa‘s largest largest plains game, and the second largest type of antelope in the world.

Continuing the silhouette theme, I captured some images of the eland.

Eland and Friends

Eland and Friends

Here, this male, who sports a damaged antler — probably the result of a dispute with another male eland — stands high on the south-western edge of Leopard Gorge, joined by three oxpeckers.

Again this made for an interesting image, and the damaged antler shows that in Africa, not everything is perfect.  Wild animals do fight, and they do suffer injury and death.

After five or six minutes photographing the eland, and also a hyena which had arrived, we exited Leopard Gorge and headed further south-west towards Figtree Ridge, another location made famous by Big Cat Diary.

Because we were going to spend most of the day in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we were heading towards Musiara Gate, which is positioned further south-west of Figtree Ridge.

Musiara Gate is one of the entrances to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and is the entrance one would use if entering from the Mara North Conservancy.

After arriving at Musiara Gate at 8:15am, we stopped to check the tyres.  The term “checking the tyres” was a euphemism Mario and Francis had used during our last trip, and again this time, to refer to the need to respond to nature’s call.

While we were refreshing and stretching our legs, the Maasai women who sell beadwork at the gate decided to descend upon us like vultures on a kill.  They sure like to haggle, but after some time, we managed to land the beadwork we wanted for the price we wanted to pay.

A short time later, we headed south, and spotted a pair of topi fighting.

When animals are fighting, it is a story to be told, and always makes for compelling wildlife images.

Topi Tussle

Topi Tussle

Here I captured the two topi engaging in a fight for dominance, locking horns as they battled to be the boss.

After we captured this event, we headed south, where a new ‘first’ was awaiting us.

Not far south of Musiara Airstrip was the famous lion pride which inhabits the Musiara area: the Marsh Pride.

The Marsh Pride, which has inhabited the Musiara marsh for decades, is the resident pride, made famous by the BBC’s Big Cat Diary.  This was the first time we had seen the Marsh Pride with our own eyes.

There were several lionesses and numerous cubs, all resting under the cover of a stream embankment.  Quite a few vehicles had arrived on the scene, with people taking delight in seeing this famous lion pride.

I captured a few images, but photographically it was not a good sighting, as the lions were difficult to see, and there was too much foliage.  It was great to at least see the Marsh Pride for ourselves.

After our time with the Marsh Pride, we departed in an easterly direction, and soon encountered a few hyenas.

We had quite an unusual sighting of a hyena taking cover inside the hollow trunk of a large tree, peeking out to look for danger or opportunities, while another hyena rested outside on the grass.

Peekaboo

Peekaboo

This was fantastic opportunity for a very different kind of image, and shows that hyenas, while fierce predators and enemies of big cats, can exhibit cuteness and vulnerability.

After some time with the hyenas, we headed south-east for breakfast, and then headed south-west, eventually encountering a very typical Mara scene of two topi standing on a mound, facing opposite directions, surveying their surroundings for signs of danger.  In the distance was a Cape buffalo.

Less than ten minutes later, further south-west, it was time for some big cat action.  We encountered a large male lion and a lioness from a familiar pride: the Double Crossing Pride.

We first encountered this pride during our first visit to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in 2015, further east towards Olare Orok Conservancy.

The Double Crossing Pride lions we found this time had apparently been mating, and shortly after our arrival, they made their way to the shade of a large tree for some rest.

Unfortunately the lions did not continue to mate in our presence, and were content simply resting in the shade.  It was late morning, and quite hot, so we may not have seen much action even if we had stayed for longer.

We did land a few portraits, such as this image depicting the male looking towards us:

Busy Boy at Rest

Busy Boy at Rest

Soon enough, we decided to leave the lions to rest, and headed south towards the Talek River.

A very short distance from the western bank of the Olare Orok River, Francis stopped the vehicle, as he had spotted something.  It turned out to be a dung beetle on the road.

We leaned out of the right side of the vehicle, and saw the beetle in action.  It scurried under the vehicle, emerging from underneath the left side of the vehicle, and made its way away.

This was another first-time sighting, and as great as it is to see Africa‘s larger animals, it is also special to see the smaller creatures which may not normally be seen or noticed.

Ironically, just ten metres ahead of where we had seen the dung beetle, a large Cape buffalo was resting in a thicket.

There, we had seen one of Africa‘s smallest animals, and one of its largest, within metres and minutes of each other.  Africa is a land of contrasts!

Francis continued south, and we crossed the Talek River, spotting an eland in the distance.

As we continued on, we found that we were in the midst of the beginnings of the Great Migration!  The plains were already populated by herds of wildebeest which had been early migrants from Tanzania to the south.

Being early June, it was quite unusual to see any signs of the Great Migration in Kenya, as it usually takes place in this area from July; but this year, the herds had already crossed the Sand River in a northerly direction, and had arrived in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

As we made our way further south from the Talek River, we saw plenty of wildebeest, and I captured some brief video footage of two males fighting before one fled.

Further along the way, we spotted a dead wildebeest calf hung over a branch in a balanites tree.  This was so far the only evidence of the presence of a leopard in the area, but of course, we did not see one.  So far, four days into the trip, leopards had not been seen.

Francis changed direction, heading south-west.  Fifteen minutes later, we experienced a special sighting.

For the first time, we encountered the Five Musketeers.

The Five Musketeers (also known as the Fast Five, and by various other names) is a coalition of five male cheetahs which has dominated the Mara plains and caused quite a stir.

Male cheetahs often form coalitions, and can often contain siblings.  To encounter a coalition of five is not very common, and these particular cheetahs have achieved infamy.

When we encountered these legendary cheetahs, it was early afternoon and quite hot, so they were resting under croton bushes and not doing very much, only occasionally standing alert to something in the distance.

Photographically, it was not a great sighting, but that did not stop me from capturing numerous images of the Five Musketeers as they rested.

One of the Five Musketeers

One of the Five Musketeers

Despite their lack of activity during our visit, it was great to see this rare and legendary coalition of cheetahs.

This was our fourth day, and our fourth sighting of cheetahs.  We were doing quite well in the cheetah department, and by now, had seen nine individuals.

After spending 30 minutes with the Five Musketeers, it was time for lunch, so we headed east, and Francis found a tree which we would use for a lunch stop.  Before we stopped, we saw numerous wildebeest congregating around the base of the tree.  As we approached, they ran away, but one of them decided to come back and challenge us!  He was apparently annoyed at being interrupted.

After lunch, we headed north-west and crossed the Talek River closer to Olkiombo Airstrip, further north-east of where we had crossed the river earlier in the day.

We then headed north-east, spotting a hartebeest along the way, before continuing further north in the general direction of camp.

Shortly before 4pm, we spotted a female impala in the distance, with a very young calf beside her.  The calf must have been only a day or two old.

As the afternoon was getting late, Francis continued north, exiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve and re-entering the Mara North Conservancy.

We drove through the lush Offbeat area, and further north, encountered two Cape buffalo bulls.

I am not impartial to photographing Cape buffalo, as the textures of hair and hides can look quite striking in an image.  Plus, we had a clean background and some nice afternoon light.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Big Buffalo Bull

Big Buffalo Bull

After photographing the large bull, we continued further north, and an hour later, stopped at a location not far south from camp, for a sundowner and a landscape photography session.

In the distance was a distinctive, lone acacia tree.  As the sun continued to descend towards the cloud-laden horizon, we shot numerous silhouette images of the acacia tree.

Sundowner

Sundowner

Within a few days of publishing this image on Flickr, it attracted a lot of attention, and as of the time of writing, it has been viewed over 17,000 times.   In over 13 years on Flickr, this image has been my most popular.

After our sundowner and photography session, we headed back to camp for drinks and dinner with the other guests.  By now, more guests had arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, so we had some new people to meet.

Tuesday, 4th June, 2019 had been another great day in the Mara, with most of it having been spent south in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we had enjoyed more first-time experiences, a variety of wildlife, and captured different images.

We had visited Leopard Gorge for some landscape photography, and had also photographed baboons, rock hyraxes and an eland in the process; we saw and photographed topi fighting; spent time with the Marsh Pride of lions for the first time; captured the cuteness and vulnerability of hyenas; encountered the Double Crossing Pride lions for the second time; saw a dung beetle; experienced our first sighting of the legendary Five Musketeers coalition of cheetahs; witnessed the early stages of the Great Migration of 2019; seen a newborn impala; captured a pleasing image of a Cape buffalo; and finished off the day with a pleasing silhouette images of an acacia tree.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day five.

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 2 of 7

On our second day in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya during our Africa trip of 2019, we rose early in preparation for a hot drink around the camp fire with Mario, Francis and the Elephant Pepper Camp crew, before setting out into the plains in the darkness.

Our plan for this morning, and indeed for every morning in the Mara, was to shoot some landscape images at dawn and sunrise.

As we chatted around the warmth of the camp fire in cool morning air, the increasingly lightening sky revealed a lot of cloud cover, which was not promising for landscape images, but we set out anyway, as conditions can change quickly, and there is no certain way of knowing what the sky will do.

We headed a short drive west of camp to a familiar location: Mario’s Tree.

Mario’s Tree is an iconic acacia tree in the Mara North Conservancy, named after Mario Moreno (he laid claim to this tree, as he photographs it during most visits), which is very photogenic, and well positioned in altitude and location for shooting landscape images against the rising sun.

We naturally had to return to photograph it again during our second visit to the Mara.

Mario's Tree Revisited

Mario’s Tree Revisited

The conditions this time were vastly different, and the sunrise on this particular morning was far from spectacular; but it was nice to return to a familiar landmark in the coolness and quiet of dawn before venturing out further into the plains for our morning game drive.

For images like this, I find that the best results come from using a telephoto lens from a distance to ‘flatten’ the apparent distance between the subject and the background. When the sun is rising, it looks bigger and more dramatic.

Here is a behind-the-scenes view of the session:

Behind the Scenes: Shooting Mario's Tree

Behind the Scenes: Shooting Mario’s Tree

In the foreground is my camera rig, and in the distance is the rest of the gang, talking near our 4WD while I photograph Mario’s Tree.  Some plains game can also be seen scattered around the horizon.

Soon after wrapping up the landscape shoot and heading in a north-westerly direction, we encountered a few hyenas, one of which was eating the head and leg from a zebra, which the hyenas had probably stolen from lions overnight.

We stayed to watch the hyenas eating, where I also captured a portrait of a spotted hyena in isolation.

Portrait of a Spotted Hyena

Portrait of a Spotted Hyena

Sometimes hyenas can be difficult to photograph, especially when there is food around, as they tend not to stay still for very long.

During our time with the hyenas, we also spotted a pair of jackals mating.  At one point, the male appeared to get ‘stuck’ whilst attached to the female, and it made for some very awkward and uncomfortable moments.

Eventually, the jackals managed to separate after the deed had been done.

After those amusing moments, we ventured further north-west in the direction of the Mara River, encountering a herd of giraffes feeding on tall acacia trees.

Very close to the giraffes was an excitable male wildebeest, who was very much interested in mating, and rounding up all of his females for his mating pleasure.

It was amusing and fascinating to watch as he constantly chased the females around, trying to herd them and occasionally mount them.

Some herds of wildebeest, such as this herd, are territorial and do not move between Kenya and Tanzania as part of the Great Migration.

These animals tend to stay in the same area, and with the grass being as short as it was, despite the recent wet season concluding, the conditions are ideal, and the wildebeest do not need to migrate.

Gimme Some Action

Gimme Some Action

The male was constantly grunting and trying to herd and mate with the females.

While we were there, he did not have much luck, as the females were not interested, with some of them running away.  Despite this, the male kept trying to round them up.

After spending some time watching the male wildebeest having a difficult morning, we headed sharply north, and further towards the northern part of the conservancy.

Along one of the Mara River tributaries, we encountered a pair of saddle-billed storks.

This was the first time we had encountered these large and colourful storks.

They tend to be wary and evasive, so getting close enough to capture a clean and pleasing head-and-shoulders shot was not an easy task, but we were able to capture such images using longer focal lengths.

Female Saddle-Billed Stork

Female Saddle-Billed Stork

Visually, the difference between the female and the male is the eyes.  The female has yellow irises, whereas the male as black irises.

I concentrated on photographing the more visually appealing female.

We spent a good 25 minutes with the saddle-billed storks, which were challenging at times to photograph, as they were more interested in keeping their distance and foraging for food than posing for photographers.  How rude.

A short distance north-west of the saddle-billed storks, we encountered a juvenile short-tailed eagle (also known as a bateleur) on the ground, feeding on a warthog leg which had probably been stolen from another predator such as a lion or a cheetah.

Soon enough, the eagle launched into the air and landed in a nearby tree.

Francis moved the vehicle and positioned us to capture a clean image of the eagle, which was posed very nicely on a branch with some dark foliage in the background.

Here is one of the images I captured as the juvenile short-tailed eagle perched regally on an exposed branch:

Juvenile Short-Tailed Eagle

Juvenile Short-Tailed Eagle

With the sightings we had enjoyed of both the saddle-billed storks and the juvenile short-tailed eagle, once again the Maasai Mara had presented us with great opportunities for capturing pleasing images of birds.

The morning was still young, so after spending ten to fifteen minutes photographing the juvenile short-tailed eagle, we continued on, this time in a north-easterly direction towards the Mara River.

We soon we arrived at a distinctively sharp bend in the Mara River, slightly south-west of Mara North Airstrip.

This V-shaped section of the river would be our breakfast stop for the morning.  Upon arrival, we hopped out of the vehicle to stretch our legs, while Francis prepared our breakfast of muffins, fruit, yoghurt, coffee and tea.

This particular location of the river afforded a nice view of the numerous hippos in the water below.  Despite the wet season having recently ended, the water level was surprisingly low.

After some food, a stretch and a break, we climbed back into the 4WD and headed south, spotting some more giraffes and grabbing a few images.

What we did not know is that a few minutes later, we were going to see something special.

Within five minutes, we had the pleasure of encountering Amani and her three cubs for the third time in two days.

They had successfully hunted and taken down a Thomson’s gazelle minutes before we arrived, and were in the process of killing it as we watched.

I captured frame after frame, and switched to video mode, recording footage of the gazelle meeting its end in order to provide the cheetahs with a much-needed meal.

Fast Food

Fast Food

We had missed the hunt, chase and capture by a matter of only a minute or two, but the tommie was still alive and struggling when we arrived, and while it is never easy to see an animal perish, it is a necessary part of nature, and for cheetahs, a success amongst a high rate of failures.

Cheetahs hunt, kill and feed out in the open, and very often lose their meals to hyenas and other predators.

For this reason, cheetahs must devour their meals as quickly as possible, as they are very vulnerable whilst feeding on the open savannah, and other predators very quickly discover the presence of a potential meal and will chase cheetahs away.

For us, this was the first time we had seen a kill taking place in Africa.  While the death of an animal is never a pleasure and can be quite distressing to witness, it is the law of the land, and cheetahs, the smallest and most vulnerable of Africa‘s big cats, need to feed in order to survive and keep the endangered species going.

This was a magnificent sighting, and numerous safari vehicles had descended upon the area.

We spent over 40 minutes with Amani and her cubs as they killed their prey, feasted quickly, cleaned and groomed, and then settled for a rest under the cover of a croton bush after their high-impact activity.

During the sighting, I was fortunate to photograph and video two of Amani’s sub-adult cheetah cubs cleaning each other after feasting on the Thomson’s gazelle Amani had caught for them.

Feline Tenderness

Feline Tenderness

Predatory cats can exhibit such fierceness and aggression, but also have an amazing capacity for tenderness as they groom and bond.

This was our third and final sighting of Amani and her cubs in the space of two days in the Mara North Conservancy, but from what I have seen since we last saw them, they are doing quite well, and I hope they continue to do well in the harsh environment that is Africa.

We left Amani and her cubs to rest, and headed north a short distance, where we countered one of the ‘Ugly Five’: a marabou stork.  This was another ‘first’ for us, as we had not seen one before.

Marabou Stork

Marabou Stork

I captured a few images of the stork before we turned around to head back towards camp.

Along the way we spotted a jackal resting, and then headed further south-east, coming across yet another ‘first’.

We had gone looking for a female leopard who had been spotted in the area.

Unfortunately we did not find the leopard, but unusually we did encounter this male reedbuck, who was highly alert and wary of our presence.

Reedbuck on Alert

Reedbuck on Alert

We saw him around the other side of this bush where he was taking cover, but fortunately by the time we moved around to the other side, he remained in place and posed nicely as we captured images.

Soon enough, we arrived back at camp where we had lunch.  Being the second day, we still had the camp to ourselves, so we enjoyed a nice lunch, and I took care of my usual post-drive housekeeping.

We had decided to head back out into the plains at around 3pm or so, and before too long, it was time to depart.  We met Francis, climbed into the 4WD and set off in a southerly direction towards the Offbeat part of the conservancy, named after Offbeat Mara Camp, which is located in this very lush area.

We spotted and photographed a common eland, which was nicely positioned in the open, before continuing south.

Somewhere along the way, Francis noticed something on the ground while we were driving around the Offbeat area.  He stopped the vehicle, got out, and retrieved an Apple iPhone!

Someone had unfortunately lost an expensive smartphone whilst in the area.  We were naturally worried, and figured that perhaps it belonged to someone from Offbeat Mara Camp, which was nearby.

We had seen a few other vehicles in the area, and thought that one of the guests had dropped the phone without realising it, perhaps while moving around in the vehicle or while putting on or taking off a jacket.  It can happen so easily.

We tried to make contact with the other vehicles in the area, and after some time had passed, we fortunately found the rightful owner in one of the other vehicles.

The owner was a girl from Australia, who, as we found out when returning her smartphone, did not even know she had lost it, as she thought it was back at camp.  I told her that she must be the luckiest person in Africa, as the chance of finding a lost smartphone in the Mara is very slim.

After that fortunate reunion, we continued on our way around the Offbeat area, soon enough encountering the Offbeat Pride of lions for the first time.

Having seen cheetahs during the morning and lions during afternoon drive, the day was still getting better, and the rest of our afternoon/evening game drive was spent in the company of the Offbeat Pride of lions.

A moody sky was the background, which made for some pleasing photography.

Here, after sunset and as the darkness of night increasingly set in, one of the lionesses rests, while nearby the cubs and other young pride lions were becoming more active.

Early Evening Leisure

Early Evening Leisure

During our time with the pride, the sky turned a magical pink and purple colour, so in between capturing images of the Offbeat Pride lions playing and becoming more active as the darkness of night approached, I captured an image of a distant cluster of trees set against the rich colours of the twilight sky.

Magical Offbeat

Magical Offbeat

The Offbeat area is beautiful, and spending it with lions and seeing some intense colour in the sky was a very pleasant way to finish the day.

A short time later, it was time to leave the lions to their business and return to camp for dinner, drinks and debriefing.

Sunday, 2nd June, 2019 had been a fantastic second day in the Mara, with a wide variety of wildlife, and numerous first-time experiences, including a fantastic sighting of a cheetah kill and subsequent feast, sightings of three new-to-us birds (a juvenile short-tailed eagle, saddle-billed storks and a marabou stork), a few animals who were feeling frisky and taking action, a reedbuck, and our first sighting of the Offbeat Pride of lions.

Additionally, we had been able to reunite a lost smartphone with its owner.

It was only our second day, and already we had seen and photographed so much.  The Mara did not disappoint, and we were still in the infancy of this trip.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day three.

2015 Retrospective: Intense and Focused

Now that we are well into the year 2016, it is time for a retrospective look at my photographic journey in 2015.

The year can be summarised as intense and focused, as the majority of images I captured during 2015 were in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, where we embarked upon an incredible seven-day safari with our friend and safari leader Mario Moreno.

Looking at my statistics, I shot more images in 2015 than I did in the years 2013 and 2014 combined.

Had the Kenya trip not happened, I suspect I would not have shot much.

Photographically, my year started quite late — near the end of April — with a macro/still life image of a new watch I had been given:

Certina 1888

Certina 1888

We had some family in town from overseas, so I took the opportunity to shoot some cityscape images from a location at which I had not shot before.

One afternoon we headed to the Glebe apartment and I waited for the right light to capture some views of the beautiful city skyline.

This was the result:

Dusk Descendence

Dusk Descendence

And a little later, during blue hour:

The View Sucks

The View Sucks

I also took the opportunity to capture this tight view of the Anzac Bridge as twilight fell:

Anzac Bridge

Anzac Bridge

In May, we all had an outing at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo in Darling Harbour.  I took a camera and a couple of lenses, but I did not shoot a great deal of images.

This image of a kangaroo was one of the more pleasing images I captured on the day:

One of Skippy's Mates

One of Skippy’s Mates

Later in the month, I felt compelled to head out and shoot another cityscape.

In the mid-to-late afternoon, I scouted for some vantage points along the western side of Circular Quay, and finally settled on the observation deck of the International Passenger Terminal, which affords a higher view, and additionally was empty and free from passers by.

I waited for the blue hour, and captured this view of Sydney which I have not seen (or photographed) before.

Circular Quay West

Circular Quay West

It had been a slow, but pleasing enough start to the year.

In June, the photography I had been eagerly anticipating since we booked the trip the previous year, would finally happen.

We headed to Kenya to spend seven days in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we would re-ignite our passion for wildlife and landscape photography.

So far I have published over 100 images from that trip, so I will not publish a great deal of those images in this article; but as the trip brought us a lot of first-time encounters, I will instead present some selected highlights from the trip.

We were based in the luxurious eco-lodge Elephant Pepper Camp, which afforded us total isolation and positioning right in the middle of where the action was.

This is a view of one of Elephant Pepper Camp‘s honeymoon/family tents:

Elephant Pepper Camp's Honeymoon Tent

Elephant Pepper Camp’s Honeymoon Tent

And this is a view of the camp at twilight, depicting the dining tent, lounge and camp fire:

Around the Camp Fire

Around the Camp Fire

Highlights of the trip included one of my finest bird images, which was my first frame of only two I snapped while this pied kingfisher was bobbing up and down in flight:

Suspended

Suspended

Just about every day, we were treated to lions — most prominently, the Cheli Pride.  One of the fantastic things about the Cheli Pride was its abundance of cubs, and on this trip, it was our first time seeing wild cubs, such as this cute little lion:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

On one afternoon, we were fortunate enough to spend some time, in pleasing, afternoon light, in very close proximity to a lilac-breasted roller, where I captured this and a number of other images of the national bird of South Africa:

Plumage

Plumage

Naturally, a safari in Africa encompasses more than just wildlife — there are amazing opportunities for stunning, iconic landscape shots, and we certainly took advantage of that, rolling out into the plains in the pre-dawn darkness before other safari-goers were even awake.

This was one of my earlier landscape shots, captured during a moody morning:

The Moody Mara Plains

The Moody Mara Plains

On another morning, we captured the ‘postcard shot’ of a rising sun behind a lone acacia tree:

Sunrise on the Mara

Sunrise on the Mara

This particular tree is known as Mario’s Tree, as Mario often photographs it.  We certainly did — several times — including one particular morning which greeted us with a colourful sky:

Lone Acacia

Lone Acacia

On only our second day on this trip, we were treated to a number of first-time encounters.  In the morning, we encountered our first Mara leopard, who was also also the first leopard we had seen in a tree; and in the evening we found our first male lion of the trip, again a member of the resident Cheli Pride.

We had gone back to Leopard Gorge to look for the young male cat, when we found a large, dominant male lion in the area instead.  If the leopard was around, he was hiding and would not be seen.

Here is the beautiful young male leopard perched high in an elephant pepper tree:

Leopard of the Day

Leopard of the Day

We not only encountered one male lion, but two!  His brother also emerged from the distance and joined him for some bonding and lazing before the night‘s hunting commenced.

Here is one of the stunning Cheli Pride males we encountered:

Surveying

Surveying

The day after we met the dominant males, we encountered numerous members of the pride, minus the males, feasting on a zebra kill the next afternoon.  This was another ‘first’ for us, as we had hitherto never seen lions feasting on a kill.  It was quite a sight, as this wider image shows:

Feast

Feast

The next day, we spent a dramatic afternoon with the Cheli Pride again, firstly as we encountered one of the mothers on her own, out in the open, calling for the pride.

Here is an image I captured of the lioness in the warm afternoon light:

Cheli Mother

Cheli Mother

Before long, a mighty rainstorm descended upon us, which made the big cat uncomfortable, as well as presenting challenges for us.  As the rain began to subside, camera shutters sounded like rapid gunfire as we captured action shots of the lioness shaking the water from her head.

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

Towards the end of the trip, we spent one day further south in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we experienced yet another first.

So far, the one species of African big cat we had never seen in the wild was the cheetah.  On that trip, we finally encountered wild cheetahs.  It was an exciting experience to firstly see them from a distance, and then drive to position ourselves optimally to be ahead of where they were headed.  It became more exciting as the cheetahs got closer, and I had a few opportunities to photograph the family, which consisted of a mother and four sub-adults.

Here is one of the nicer images I captured of these amazing big cats:

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

It had been a long wait, but finally we spent some time with wild cheetahs.

Our next morning in the Mara consisted of a portrait shoot with Maasai tribesman called Baba, with whom we travelled to Mario’s Tree, where we shot some dramatic silhouette portraits of him as the sun rose on one of our final days in the Mara.

Here is one of the more striking images I captured during the session:

Baba the Maasai

Baba the Maasai

Our final evening in the Mara brought something we could have never predicted, and something which is quite rare to see: mating leopards!

At first, we spotted a young female leopard high in a tree during the warm afternoon light, but within a short time, a large, amourous male emerged from the thicket, and the two leopards began (or continued with) their ritual of rapid, exposive mating sessions, which can last for days.

We spent the rest of the drive witnessing this amazing sight, and the following image captures an intense moment as the female expresses her displeasure at the male’s advances:

Growl of the Leopardess

Growl of the Leopardess

The next morning was our final, somewhat subdued game drive in the Mara before we would fly back to Nairobi for a night and another day before departing Kenya.  We were fortunate to encounter a small pod of hippos in a watering hole, where I had the opportunity to capture some relatively close-proximity images, such as this large hippo on the bank, less than 30 metres away:

Hippo on the Bank

Hippo on the Bank

Before too long, this amazing photographic journey came to its conclusion.

After the intensity of our Mara trip, and my generally low photographic output before the trip, it was not surprising that I did not shoot much afterwards.  In fact, I shot only one more image for the remaining six months of the year!

The one image I did capture was a macro image of some red and orange roses to commemmorate our anniversary.

Fifth

Fifth

And so concludes my photographic journey for 2015.  It indeed was an intense and focused year, with Kenya dominating my photographic output, but with a few other images here and there.

Maasai Mara: Day 6 of 7

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 camp fire 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

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

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

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.

The Maasai

The Maasai

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:

Contemplation

Contemplation

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.

Black-Bellied Bustard

Black-Bellied Bustard

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

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.

Grazing Elly

Grazing Elly

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

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

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:

Amourous Climber

Amourous Climber

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:

Resting Leopardess

Resting Leopardess

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:

Big Boy

Big Boy

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

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

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.

Maasai Mara: Day 5 of 7

Our plan for day five in the Kenyan wilderness was to depart the Mara North Conservancy and head south into the public Maasai Mara National Reserve.  We were in search of cheetahs, the only big cats we had not yet seen.

Rather than heading out for two drives (morning and afternoon) near camp, we made a single day trip further afield into the main reserve, which for us would mean more first-time experiences, as we would later discover.

5am rolled around pretty quickly, so we went through the morning routines, spent a very short time around the camp fire, and headed out, as the main reserve was a longer journey.

Again we wanted to capture the beauty of dawn and sunrise in Kenya, so we headed to Mario’s Tree, where a fantastic sky was to soon greet us.

The first frame was captured at 6:20am, by which time there was a sliver of intense red near the horizon under a bluish, cloud-laden sky.

Less than fifteen minutes later, I captured the first of a few images I would publish from this sunrise, and rather than composing my landscape images in the usual landscape orientation, I rotated the camera 90 degrees and captured a vertical composition of Mario’s Tree.

Mario's Tree

Mario’s Tree

What was also unusual about this approach was that I had decided to horizontally centre the subject, which I so rarely ever do.

In landscape photography, rule-of-thirds (RoT) composition, whereby one places both the horizon and the main subject at the imaginary horizontal and vertical lines which would appear if the frame was divided into a grid of nine sections, is usually the practice followed; but sometimes, even in landscape photography, breaking this ‘rule’ can work better than the predictability ensured by RoT composition.

I think it worked well here.

While I photographed this iconic acacia tree in portrait orientation, I naturally returned the camera to its default position and captured a composition in landscape orientation too.

Lone Acacia

Lone Acacia

Again I centred the subject horizontally, which I think works just as well here as it does in the vertically-composed image.

In this version, the negative space on either side of the tree conveys the vast expanse of land so typical in the Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecosystem.

What a fantastic sky this was, and a sight I rarely see at home these days.  My landscape images contained rich reds, blues and greens as the sun gradually rose over Kenya.

Now, I do not often like to include man-made objects in scenes depicting nature, but I decided upon a third approach to this morning’s session at Mario’s Tree.

Mario and I decided to shoot some video footage, so he asked Francis to drive the vehicle across the scene so we could capture the presence of the 4WD in the Mara wilderness as a storytelling device.

Upon Mario‘s commands, Francis obligingly drove the vehicle from left to right, and right to left, several times, and at different speeds, as we captured stock footage for later use in some video productions.

Side-note: At the time of writing, I have yet to produce a video from the many clips I shot throughout the trip.  I have enough footage for several distinct videos, but it is a larger project which requires an investment in time.  I will produce those videos eventually, but for now my story remains confined to words and images.

For my next image, I decided, also unusually, to place the 4WD in the scene, with the acacia tree taking a more subservient role in the image.  Here is the result:

Great Parking Spot

Great Parking Spot

I titled this image Great Parking Spot.  Great parking spot, indeed!

For my final image during this morning’s visit to Mario’s Tree, which is five or ten minutes almost due west of Elephant Pepper Camp, I decided upon another storytelling image, this time placing not only the vehicle, but our people, in the scene.

I shot a silhouette of Xenedette, Mario and Francis, standing on the savannah, cameras, lenses and monopod in hand, with the 4WD parked adjacent to them, and Mario’s Tree also prominent in the scene, all set against the intensely rich reds and blues of the magical dawn that had greeted us.

On Safari

On Safari

This scene really captures the essence of our trip specifically, and of an African wildlife photography safari in general, and it will always be a memorable image of a memorable trip.  The only thing missing is me, as I was naturally behind the camera.

In hindsight, I really should have included myself in the scene, too.  I shot it from a considerable distance, so it would have been a sprint across the wet grass to get into the scene on time.

Mario had brought a small, compact camera for Francis to use, and he made frequent use of it during the trip — at least, when he was not driving, setting up breakfasts and sundowners, or looking for lions, leopards et al.

On the left is Francis, presumably ‘chimping’ at the images he had captured that morning.  In the middle is Xenedette, wearing a poncho and holding her Canon EOS 60D and my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM.  On the right is Mario, with his Canon EOS-1D X and Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM mounted on my monopod.  Behind the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM which captured the image, is me!

After spending half an hour at Mario’s Tree, it was time to make tracks. Francis took us due south, further away from camp, but still within the Mara North Conservancy.

Mario loves capturing silhouettes of African wildlife, and one of his signature images, titled Rhino Sunrise, depicts a silhouette of a critically endangered rhino in Greater Kruger National Park, set against the low but rising sun.

This morning we were in the mood for silhouettes, and shortly after departing Mario’s Tree, we saw a few giraffes.  While there are lots of giraffes in the Mara, we did not see a great deal of them, and did not spend much time photographing them; but this morning we made more of an effort, which turned out to be worthwhile.

I grabbed quite a few frames of a distant giraffes.  Mario was snapping away.  We were both outside the vehicle, so I captured a few images of him in action.  I then returned to photographing the giraffes.

For a strong silhouette of an African plains animal in the open, you need a few ingredients:

  1. a photogenic animal;
  2. a photogenic animal in the right place;
  3. a low angle so the animal is not ‘sinking’ into the ground;
  4. a strongly coloured background; and
  5. a photogenic animal in the right place, high on the horizon, doing something interesting against a strongly coloured background.

Easy, right?  Well, yes!

Here is what I captured:

Wait for Me, Mum!

Wait for Me, Mum!

What a moment!  Not only had I captured a giraffe on the horizon, but the giraffe was on the move, her tail almost straight out, with her calf closely following.  Both animals were cleanly and sharply defined, which is essential in effective silhouette images.

This is one of those ‘story’ images, whereby something interesting is happening.  It is so easy to get caught up in ‘posed’ shots of African animals sitting or standing around doing not much; but better wildlife photography depicts interesting or uncommon moments — something to elicit an emotional response in the telling of a story.

Seeing a juvenile giraffe following its mother across the savannah early in the morning is one of those images which tells the story of the African wilderness, as indeed do many other moments.

Through Mario‘s encouragement and influence, and my increased experience with African wildlife photography, this trip would be more about capturing the story unfolding than just the actors in between takes.

Now, by this time the sky was a bit grungy; there was faint colour, but it was not the striking and dramatic sky we had captured earlier up north at Mario’s Tree.  It was that ‘meh’ time of the morning, which falls between dawn and sunrise, and golden hour.  The ‘meh’ time is the lull between two peak periods of intense colour and light in the morning (and again in the afternoon between golden hour and sunset and dusk).

I had to push the colour and the contrast in this image, as the colour was present, but rather subdued.  The trick was to avoid going overboard, and I think I succeeded.

What is also very appealing to me about this image is that the sun’s rays can be scene shining down on our giraffes.

Later in the day, when we were back at camp in the afternoon in the library tent we had commandeered for use as our office and charging station, Mario and I again engaged in strong debate about the merits of an image of mine.

It was similar to the leopard image I had shot early in the trip, whereby Mario and everyone else who saw it were raving about it, and I was dissatisfied, as my expectations were set pretty high.

The same general dissent transpired, this time in relation to my giraffe silhouette.  Mario and Xenedette had worked on similar images across the table from me, and I was working on mine.  I was not all that taken by the image at first, and insisted that it was nothing special; but again, Mario, far more experienced than I, countered.  Mario was happy with it, and both he and Xenedette had shot very pleasing images; I just was not quite convinced yet about my own images.

As I continued to work the image, I saw the merit of it, and certainly a few people who have seen the image consider it to be one of the more stand-out images from this trip.

Okay, so it worked.  I eventually realised it was better than I had initially thought.

Mario: 2; me: 0.

Meanwhile, back in the wilderness, many hours before the post-processing and image merit debate, we wrapped up photographing the giraffes.

Less than ten minutes from where we had captured silhouettes of the giraffes, we spotted a tawny eagle perched on a branch close to where we were passing, so we stopped, and again in silhouette mode, decided to capture the eagle in flight just as it launched from the branch.

The Eagle's Flight

The Eagle’s Flight

A few minutes later we continued southward for the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

It would be nearly an hour before we captured our next frames.  We probably spotted various plains game along the way, but we did not stop to photograph anything.

Where we were headed was about half-way between camp and the Kenya-Tanzania border.

After more driving and discussion, we entered the main reserve, which is quite different to the private conservancies.  In the main reserve, vehicles are not allowed to drive off-road, and must stick to the established tracks.  This makes photography challenging, as one cannot get into a good position, and if something very interesting is happening well away from the road, if your view is obstructed, or your lens is not long enough, the pickings are slim.

Our next sighting would be incredible.

At 8:41am, we encountered a large pride of lions called the Double Crossing Pride, which inhabits the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

This pride was the third pride we had encountered on the trip.

The lions were congregated around a deceased elephant, and many other vehicles from all parts of the reserve had descended upon the scene.

From what we could tell, the lions had not killed the elephant; it had probably passed from natural causes rather than predation, but it certainly provided a huge meal for the Double Crossing Pride.

We spent time capturing images of three large lionesses feasting on the elephant, but trouble was brewing.

A deceased animal rarely goes unnoticed in the Mara, as lions, hyenas, vultures and other predators are always on the lookout.

In this case, hyenas also began to arrive on the scene, and typical of these greedy carnivores, they wanted a piece of the action.

The lionesses were not in the mood for sharing, though.

More and more hyenas had also congregated nearby, and their behaviour and vocalisations were becoming increasingly aggressive.

The lions were not happy, and were roaring and hissing at the hyenas, who were becoming closer to mounting an attack.

Stay Away

Stay Away

In this image, I had isolated one of the Double Crossing Pride females as she exposed her teeth in anger at a nearby pack of hyenas, hissing and spitting at them in no uncertain terms to warn them to stay away.

Seeing a lion pride feasting on an elephant was another first-time experience on this trip, and seeing the aggression of lions, was also a real treat, as all other lions we had encountered in the Mara and the Kruger were placid.

In the following image, three of the large Double Crossing Pride lionesses all had their say and warned the hyenas to back off:

Snarlfest

Snarlfest

The atmosphere was growing more and more tense, and it seemed certain that there would be a showdown.

All of a sudden, one of the seven or eight other vehicles at the scene took off.

I figured there was only one reason to depart a lion pride feasting and an imminent fight with hyenas: a better sighting somewhere else.  It had to be cheetahs!

Seconds after the first vehicle departed, other vehicles departed, and so did we.

There was massive excitement, as there just had to be something amazing awaiting us — not that what we had just seen was not amazing enough.

As it turned out, it was not a sighting somewhere else, but a sudden need to depart from a place at which we were not supposed to be.  The rangers had spotted all of the vehicles, and they were off-road at the lion sighting, which was a no-no!

The 4WDs dispersed, and we headed south-east.  We stopped for a quick breakfast, and then jumped back into the 4WD to search for more wildlife.

A little over 30 minutes after we departed the Double Crossing Pride, we caught our first glimpse of wild cheetahs!  There were five: a female and four sub-adult cubs.  Wow!

There was considerable distance between us, as even with 1,120mm of focal length, the cheetahs were quite small in the frame.  We could see them, though: one or two were sitting up upon a mound, scouting around, while the others lingered nearby.

Gradually, the cheetahs moved closer and closer to us, to the point where they walked right past us on the left side of the 4WD.

I captured the following image of a cheetah looking straight at us:

Spotted by a Cheetah

Spotted by a Cheetah

The time was approaching 11am, and the light was very harsh and glary.  I was struggling to photograph the cheetahs, both due to the harsh light and focus issues.  I unknowingly had my focus distance limiter switch on the wrong setting for the distance, which meant that the lens’s AF was not as accurate, and at times was missing, particularly as the cheetahs were moving closer and closer, not often staying still for very long.

While previewing the images I had captured, I became increasingly frustrated as I realised that I was not landing the shots.  800mm is a challenging focal length to use, but add the extra complication of a moving subject, incorrect focus limiter setting and dreadful light, and the story was not looking good.

The images, for the most part, were soft, and it took some time before I came to discover that I had landed a few decent images.

Mario explained that there was something about cheetah coats which makes them look soft when they are captured.  I was sure that it was not the cheetahs‘ fault that my images were missing the mark.  I persevered, though.

We moved positions several times, often needing to get ahead of the cheetahs so we could wait for them to approach us.

Cheetah on Alert

Cheetah on Alert

Here, this young cheetah, while resting on the grass, remained alert in case the need to pursue food or safety arose.

During the time the cheetahs were close by, I managed to land a shot of typical cat behaviour, which very much reminded me of our own cat.

Here, the cheetah stretches after getting up from a resting position, while one of the other cats rests behind.

Cat Stretch

Cat Stretch

Soon enough, the cheetahs were on the move again, as they were in search of food, or at least, opportunities to secure a meal.

Cheetah on the Move

Cheetah on the Move

This cheetah is out on the open plains, where a cheetah feels comfortable in spite of ever-present danger, but where a leopard would seldom be seen.

African big cats share some similarities, but of the spotted varieties (leopards and cheetahs), the cheetah is distinctly different in behaviour to the leopard.  Cheetahs do not mind being in the open, and love expansive plains and termite mounds.  Leopards, on the other hand, are extremely elusive, difficult to find, prefer to hunt under the cover of darkness, and hide in trees.

Francis moved the vehicle as we continued to pursue the cheetah family.

I finally landed some clean portraits, which, despite the harsh light, turned out decently.

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

This is one of my favourite images from the few good shots I landed.  Despite the harsh light, which often plunges a cheetah‘s eyes into total darkness, I was able to bring out the details as the youngster surveys the surrounding territory.

Scouting

Scouting

In this image, two of the cheetahs are positioned quite close to us as we followed them.  There were some distant antelopes — possibly a meal — which they were slowly and distantly pursuing.

Looking at Lunch

Looking at Lunch

This cheetah was certainly aware of what was in the distance as he gazes towards his quarry.

The cheetahs continued moving in an eastward direction across the plains, moving closer and closer to the Thomson’s gazelles in the distance.

Other vehicles had also arrived in the general area, and at one point as we were parked on the road watching the cheetahs slowly stalking, I counted maybe ten other vehicles, some of which were in the distance, and some of which had driven down the plain on the other side of the location at which the cheetahs were now resting under the shade of a thicket.

We stayed there for quite a while, as both the cheetahs, and us in turn, did nothing much.

Wildlife photography can be a huge waiting game, whereby one sits in anticipation, waiting for something interesting to happen.  There was always the possibility that the cheetahs would have gone into full hunting mode and taken down a gazelle, but on the other hand, they may have sat there for a few hours as the heat of the midday sun continued to shine down.

After sitting there for a while swatting flies, hunger, boredom and irritation began to increase, so we decided to abandon our current pursuit and have a lunch break.

Francis headed a considerable distance west.

Eventually he stopped at a tree on a hill, as we needed some shade.  Of all the trees he could have picked, he picked the one that had the remains of a dead antelope hanging off a branch.  We were in a leopard‘s territory, as we would soon find out.

This kill had probably been made a few days ago, and there was little left, except for flies, which pestered us as we attempted to eat and drink in the persistent heat.

Just to the north of the tree was a watering hole which contained a hippo or two.

We finished lunch and climbed back into the 4WD, heading a little further west to a clump of trees on the south bank of the Olare Orok River, just north of the Ol Kiombo Airstrip.  A little further to the south is the Talek River, which the Olare Orok River joins.

We were definitely in leopard territory, and Francis found a stunning leopard high up in a tree.  I snapped a few frames as reference shots.  The light was terrible, there was dense foliage, and there were certainly no great opportunities for leopard photography.  This was one of those occasions on which it was enough just to see such an elusive cat.

After we had spent some time with the leopard, Francis headed a little further south, where we encountered a lone female elephant grazing in very open, long-grassed plains.  The sky was looking a little moody as mid-afternoon wore on.  We captured a few images of the elly as she grazed on the bountiful reeds.

By now, I was ready to head back to camp, as we were considerably south, and it would be more than an hour’s drive back.

Thus ended our photography in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.  We made our way north, worn from a long, hot day, and my mood not particularly great due to the frustrating time I had photographing the cheetahs earlier.

We arrived back at camp, and Mario and I proceeded straight to post-processing HQ.  My mood had gone from bad to worse as I vocalised my frustration at my ineptitude at capturing good cheetah images . Mario did his best to take the edge off, but seeing my increasing frustration and louder, less G-rated rants, he decided to take affirmative action to ease my frustrations.

He got up and headed over to one of the Maasai tribesman employed as a guard at the camp, and had a quiet word with him.  He came back and told me that I had an opportunity to photograph some portraits of a Maasai tribesman, so we headed a few metres away from HQ, where I set up for a shoot as the early eve descended upon us.

I later came to realise, as evidenced by the cheetah images I have published here, that I did not do as badly as I thought, and that there were some good images amongst the mediocrity.

As it turned out, this was our only sighting of cheetahs in the wild, and while I was not initially convinced I had any decent images, I was again proven wrong (fortunately), and not only did I land some decent images, but the sighting itself was a first, and a fantastic opportunity even if there were no images.

We had finally achieved our goal of seeing wild cheetahs on this trip.

Not only that, but we had seen and photographed all three species of African big cats in the one day: lion, cheetah and leopard.  How great it was to see and photograph all three in a single drive!

After photographing the Maasai tribesman, I headed back into the library tent to process images, check online happenings and run through my religious ritual of offloading Xenedette’s and my images to the laptop, as well as backing up everything onto an external drive.

About an hour after the portrait session, I realised that twilight had arrived, so I ran out of the library to grab a shot of Elephant Pepper Camp during the blue hour.  Here is the result:

Around the Camp Fire

Around the Camp Fire

What a fantastic eco-lodge!  Elephant Pepper Camp was our home for seven days, and this very inviting camp fire, with the dining tent (right) and lounge tent (left) was what greeted us and all of the other guests every night after many hours spent out in the Mara with the magnificent wildlife.  The library tent, which Mario and I had commandeered, is off frame to the right.  Behind me are the flat plains of the Mara North Conservancy.

It had been a day of highs and lows, where my mood and tolerance for failing to live up to my own expectations had taken its toll; but looking back, I can honestly say that the day brought more good than bad.

A photographically frustrating day in the Mara is still a lot better than a great day at the office.

It had been another day of firsts:

  1. a new (to us) lion pride;
  2. lions feasting on an elephant;
  3. wild cheetahs (including cubs);
  4. a new (to us) leopard; and
  5. all three African big cat varieties in one drive.

Stay tuned for day 6 of our Mara adventures, during which we will meet and photograph Maasai tribesman Baba against a stunning sunrise; encounter and photograph birds in action; and spend the afternoon and early evening in the presence of a pair of mating leopards.