Tag Archives: Sophie

Maasai Mara: Day 7 of 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dik-Dik

Dik-Dik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master of My Domain

Master of My Domain

This hippo was definitely the master of his domain.

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

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

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

Hippo on the Bank

Hippo on the Bank

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

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

I'm Watching You

I’m Watching You

This hippo was definitely keeping an eye on us!

Soon enough, we headed back to camp.

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

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

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

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

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

The mood at that stage was somewhat sombre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really is a special place.

Advertisements

Maasai Mara: Day 1 of 7

On the morning of the 5th of June, 2015, we awoke in our hotel room in Nairobi, and began preparing for a big day ahead: we were heading to the Mara North Conservancy, which is part of the larger Maasai Mara ecosystem in south-western Kenya.

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

Much of the morning’s discussion concerned the logistics of lugging large, bulky and heavy camera equipment, as we knew we were limited in the amount of weight we could carry, and that we would be flying on small aircraft.

Once we arrived at Wilson Airport, we passed through security screening and headed to the Airkenya lounge.  Fortunately we had no issues getting our gear through.  We were early, but soon enough we would take a 45-minute flight westward for the Mara North Conservancy.

Some time after 11am, we landed on Mara Shikar Airstrip, which is located close to the southern bank of the Mara River.  We were greeted by Francis, who would be our guide and driver for the next seven days.

We then began a 40-minute drive south to Elephant Pepper Camp, a luxurious, eco-friendly, semi-permanent and self-sufficient camp located in a secluded, X-shaped cluster of elephant pepper trees in the north part of the conservancy.

Along the way, we encountered Thomson’s gazelle, zebra, eland and giraffe.  I captured some images, but the light was harsh, which does not make for good wildlife photography.  Of these plains game, only the Thomson’s gazelle was new to us, as we had seen the others in  South Africa.

Forty minutes later we arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, where we were greeted by Patrick, one of the managers of the camp.  We were soon taken to our tent, which was one of the two large tents on either end of the camp, designated for families or honeymoons.

Here is a view of what became our home for the next six nights and seven days:

Elephant Pepper Camp's Honeymoon Tent

Elephant Pepper Camp’s Honeymoon Tent

What a tough time it would be.  We would have to tolerate a king-sized bed, flush toilet, running water, double basins, a hot, running-water shower, beautiful British colonial campaign furniture, views of the Mara plains, absolute serenity, and the sounds of Kenya‘s wildlife roaming about during the night.  I would appreciate some sympathy from readers.

After settling into our tent, we headed back to the lounge and dining area of the camp, where we were given a proper induction, and advised that after dark we would be escorted throughout the camp by Maasai tribesman to protect us from dangerous wildlife.

Other than the resident staff and four Kenyan medical students, we were the only guests at the camp on the first day.  The season had only commenced, but more guests would be coming and going in the following days.

Soon after the briefing and the ever-important paperwork, we sat down to a delicious lunch with Patrick and Sophie, followed by a short rest before we would head back out into the wilderness for an afternoon/evening game drive.

At about 3:30pm, after climbing into our open-sided, canopied 4WD, we headed out into the plains in search of wildlife.  It did not take long before we encountered an elephant bull grazing in the semi-long grass.  There had been a lot of rain in the Mara in the week prior to our arrival, so the plains were lush and green.

Minutes later, our first feeling of excitement hit us as we encountered a lioness and a cub.  We are lovers of the big cats of Africa, and to see a lioness and a cub on the first day was a pleasing start.  It was one of many “firsts” for us, as we had not seen a lion cub in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve when we first visited Africa.

This lioness and her cub are part of the Cheli Pride, a large, 23-member (give or take) dominant pride in the Mara North Conservancy, named after Stefano and Liz Cheli, the owners of Elephant Pepper Camp and other eco-lodges in Africa.

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

Lioness on the Savannah

Lioness on the Savannah

We would most likely see this particular lioness several more times during the trip, as little did we know at the time, but we would encounter lions on every single day of our time in the Mara. The Cheli Pride would appear on numerous occasions, and we would also encounter the River Pride and the Double Crossing Pride.

When I first reviewed this image, I was very happy with it, but Mario told me that in the days to come, I would have encounters and capture images which would surpass this.  Of course, he was right.  I still like this image, though, and it does contribute to the story, as it was our first lion encounter, and our first Cheli Pride encounter.

Here is one of the Cheli cubs, looking very cute:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

After spending a bit more time in the company of these fantastic Cheli Pride cats, we headed off, spotting a young topi adult along the way, before we arrived at a place which would bring me one of my most pleasing images of the trip.

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

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

Suspended

Suspended

Photographing birds in flight — particularly small birds — takes a lot of skill and luck, and in my case, it was more luck than skill.  I still do not know how I managed to land a sharp shot with very little effort, but I am sure glad I had the opportunity, as the image has a surreal feel about it, and from a technical viewpoint, was not easy to achieve, particularly as I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which is not by any stretch of the imagination the most suitable choice of camera for action.

We then continued on our drive, encountering another elephant bull before stopping to view and photograph a lilac-breasted roller.  We had seen these birds in South Africa, but it was very fitting to see one in the Maasai Mara, as it is the national bird of Kenya.

The roller was close to us, was perched on a nice branch, and was bathed in beautiful afternoon sunlight, all of which made for excellent photography.

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

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Lilac-Breasted Roller

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

Plenty of photographic opportunities existed in the soft light of the early evening, and I captured quite a few images, including one of a somewhat isolated elephant in the distance, with the plains and clusters of trees in the distance.

Giant Grazer

Giant Grazer

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

We jumped out of the vehicle after several hours of sitting, and Francis prepared for our sundowner, where some nero d’avola and crisps were enjoyed as we shot our first sunset, depicting a lone acacia tree on the plains of the Mara.

Mara Sunset

Mara Sunset

We then headed back to Elephant Pepper Camp, where a fantastic Northern Italian dinner awaited us, and where the night concluded with great food, great wine, great company, and great stories to tell about our first day in a truly magical place.

Stay tuned for the adventures of our second day in the Mara.