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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
It was amusing and fascinating to watch as he constantly chased the females around, trying to herd them and occasionally mount them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is one of the images I captured as the juvenile short-tailed eagle perched regally on an exposed branch:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stay tuned for our adventures on day three.