Tag Archives: Sunset

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.

Magical Light in Perth

Looking back, I have unfortunately neglected to write much here for the second half of 2018. Photographically, 2018 was not a big year.

However, 2019 started off very nicely with a trip to Western Australia, in which we were based in Perth.

This was a first-time experience, and naturally, I had a list of subjects and places I wanted to photograph.

In our short time, I did not capture all of the images I wanted to captured, but I did tick a few off the list, and came away with some rare images.

On our second day, we did some tourist activities in the city, one of which was a visit to Kings Park.  It was one of the locations on my list.  In fact, for that day, I had planned to shoot Elizabeth Quay at twilight; but I also wanted to shoot the war memorial in Kings Park at golden hour, followed by a cityscape at twilight.

Kings Park offers sublime elevated views of Perth, and may just be the only major Australian city which offers an elevated view from a publicly accessible place.

After our first visit of that day to Kings Park, I changed my mind about the plan, and decided that we should return and execute the photography plan there on that day.

As the afternoon wore on, the cloud increased, and the light became very glary, flat and dull.  My hopes for golden hour were fading, but I figured we would stick around anyway, as there was still the potential for a moody twilight.

Late in the afternoon — actually, technically evening — some golden light started to appear on the buildings across the water.

I set up my rig and played the waiting game.

Within a matter of minutes, the light started getting interesting, and before too long, there was an amazing glow of golden light on buildings.

This is what I saw:

Gold Rush

Gold Rush

Despite the horrible cloudy sky, the cloud in the west had not completely obscured the sun, and as a result, some intense light struck the city.

The combination of a darker, cloud-laden sky in the east as the intense warmth of the sun shone through from the west, made for an amazing sight.

The next image I captured showed a blend of golden light, plus the beginning of the more intense warm colours as the sun inched its way closer to the horizon.

Picture-Perfect Perth

Picture-Perfect Perth

Later, just after sunset, the light became really interesting.  A glow of pinks, purples and reds immersed the entire city in intensely rich light.

I was in paradise.  This was the spectacle which had unfolded:

Best of the West

Best of the West

Light like this is so rare.  It really is the stuff of postcards.  I have only seen conditions like this on a few occasions, and rarely am I in the right place at the right time.

On this day, I was, and I captured the magnificence of light which is not only amazing in a photographic image, but exceedingly pleasant to watch with one’s own eyes.

A little while later, this magical pink glow gave way to the onset of twilight, and I completed the sequence of images.

Here is the result:

Perth by Night

Perth by Night

What a magical afternoon for photography.

Earlier in the afternoon, the conditions looked decidedly atrocious, and if we were somewhere else and not already committed to the shoot, I would have likely decided not to bother, because the light was terrible.

What I did not know was that it was a blessing in disguise.  The conditions were ideal; I just did not know it at the time, as we had restricted visibility of the western sky from where we were positioned.

In one session, the sky went from dull grey to intensely golden, and then to intensely pink and red, followed by gold and blue as evening fell.

What a shoot.  Conditions like this are rare, but this was the one occasion on which the big fish did not get away.

My New Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM: Ideal for Cityscapes

Last week, I decided to buy a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens.

It was a lens I had entertained — but not seriously — adding to my rig.

Until the addition of this lens, my two wide lenses consisted of my Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM  and Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM.

While I love a wide vista, sometimes 14mm is just too wide.  I never thought I would say so, but alas, it is true.

On the other hand, 35mm can sometimes be too long.

Twice in the past 12 months I have needed a focal length in between 14mm and 35mm, but did not have a lens of that focal length.

I have barely owned my Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM for a week, and I have used it on two separate twilight cityscape shoots.

So far, the 24mm focal length is proving to be very useful for cityscapes — particularly when shooting skylines across the water from a distance.  With a wider lens, the skyline can shrink into a vast expanse of sky and water; and with a longer lens, the framing can be just a bit too tight, whereby there is not quite enough sky.

My first shoot, on the same day I bought the lens, resulted in the following image:

Lavender Bay on a Summer Night

Lavender Bay on a Summer Night

This particular location does not seem to be hugely popular for cityscapes, but it was something different, and the 24mm focal length was absolutely perfect for this composition.

My second shoot with the new lens was last night.

After a few lazy days at home, I felt the need to get out for a photoshoot.

I decided to re-visit Mrs Macquarie’s Point.  The last time I photographed Sydney from this location was just over eight years ago.

Mrs Macquarie's View

Mrs Macquarie’s View

From this view, the skyline has not changed a great deal, but there are some buildings which did not exist in my previous image.

For this image, I opted for a wider focal length, and waited for the rich blue light of twilight to emerge after sunset.

I am enjoying the field of view this new lens provides.  Not having used the 24mm focal length for quite a while, it made for a nice change, and has been quite suitable so far for the images I have captured with it.

I am hoping to use it more next week, but I really need to invest in the NiSi filter holder which will fit this lens, as I need to be able to use my grads and ND filters with it.

Maasai Mara: Day 3 of 7

A new day for us in the Mara had arrived.

While it was only the third day, the routine of the early rises, a Maasai escort to the campfire, some quick online activity over a hot drink, and departure into the ever-fading darkness, had become very normal and comfortable.

We met Francis at the 4WD and climbed in, as we had planned to head out for another dawn and sunrise shoot at a tree Mario favours, which affectionately became known as “Mario‘s Tree” throughout the trip.

We headed due west of camp for a short distance and jumped out into the wet plains for some dawn silhouette photography of Mario‘s Tree, with the first frame shot at 6:38am.  It was not the world’s greatest sunrise, but there was some nice colour in the sky, and I captured a distant passing wildebeest in most of my images.

We ventured south-west to Leopard Gorge, where we hoped to see our young male leopard friend, or maybe one of the Cheli brothers again, but alas, the big cats were not to be found on this morning.  We spotted a few impala, and on our way back north-east, we spotted a topi, zebra and general plains game.

Less than an hour after the first frame was fired off for the day, we encountered a herd of Cape buffalo out in the open.  The herd was quite a decent size, and there were a few calves.  Typical of these large bovines, they did not do anything exciting, preferring to graze, rest and groom, fighting off the ever-present flies.

Francis moved the vehicle to a more appealing spot for photography, where I captured this mother buffalo grazing with her calf:

Mother and Calf

Mother and Calf

Trying to isolate a particular animal, as well as capturing interesting activity such as action or tender moments, can be quite challenging.

We continued shooting, and Francis moved the vehicle again to a better spot, where I captured this frame-filling portrait of one of the large members of the herd:

I Am Not Amused

I Am Not Amused

Typical for these types of animals, the look on this buffalo‘s face is decidedly grumpy and not at all amused at being constantly harassed by flies.

We continued shooting for a short time longer, and I did not realise it at the time, but I captured a far more pleasing image of a buffalo, in which, in a split second, I had also captured an oxpecker launching into flight from the top of the buffalo‘s head!  I did not discover I had captured it until a few days later when reviewing the many images I had shot.

Here is what I consider to be the finest buffalo image I have captured:

Lift Off

Lift Off

I managed, this time, to not only isolate one animal from the crowd (well, mostly), but I captured some interesting action too.

After we had finished photographing the buffalo, Francis and Mario took us in a north-westerly direction, where a surprise awaited us.

The staff of Elephant Pepper Camp had organised a bush breakfast, and all of the guests were being taken by their guides to a nice spot which had been set up, and where a hot breakfast and a chance to mingle with the other guests awaited us.

It was a really nice experience, and with the size of the Mara North Conservancy, most of the time one does not see any other vehicles or have any interaction with other guests, as the vehicles can be spread in terms of time and distance.  Usually when there is something very exciting, or some ever-appealing big cat activities happening (leopards and male lions in particular), all of the vehicles tend to descend upon a scene quickly.

We sat down to a fantastic breakfast with all of the other guests and exchanged stories, viewed photos, and tried to stop the flies swimming in our coffee and juice, to varying degrees of success.

As breakfast drew to a conclusion, some of the guests spotted fighting plains game way down on the distant plains, so they headed off to see what was going on.

Mario and Francis had other plans: we would instead head towards the Mara River.

On our way north to the river, we spotted a few jackals and grabbed some shots, and then continued along our way, spotting another topi grazing.

As it turned out, we never quite got to the river itself, as something distracted us.

We stumbled across the River Pride of lions, which inhabits the territory just south of the river, and within a very short distance of the Mara North Airstrip, from which we would depart the Mara four days later.

Not only had we encountered a different pride of lions, but a lioness was perched in a tree!

A Little Bit Stuck

A Little Bit Stuck

Lions are not great climbers, and this lioness seemed to be stuck in the bough, awkwardly repositioning herself every now and then, and seemingly attempting to descend.

Here, she looks rather uncomfortable, but in spite of her challenging predicament, seeing a lioness in a tree is rather uncommon indeed, and was a special, unexpected treat.

The look on her face certainly is not one of contentment.

Camera shutters were flapping furiously as this uncommon spectacle unfolded in front of us.  I also captured some frame-filling video footage as the lioness fumbled around trying to decide whether she wanted to be up or down.

Lioness in a Tree

Lioness in a Tree

This is not the Mara’s happiest lioness at this point in time.

By now, one or two other vehicles had arrived, so the other guests were also enjoying the spectacle.

As luck would have it, she was not the only lion nearby, as two young River Pride males had also descended upon the scene to see what was happening.

Thus far, most of our lion sightings had been cubs and lionesses — always a treat — but after seeing the Cheli brothers, we were glad to see some more male lion activity.

One of the young males decided to park himself under the shade of a tree not far from where the female was awkwardly positioned.

Lion Around

Lion Around

This particular male still has some youth under his belt, as his mane is not yet fully developed; but I loved the pose here, as he ever-so-casually leaned on a rock under the shade and gazed in our general direction, as well as keeping an eye on the female in the tree.

Perhaps only 50-70 metres to the south-east of this male was another, younger male who was also resting, enjoying some sunshine as well as some shade.

Here he is, taking it all in:

River Pride Male

River Pride Male

Shortly after resting, this younger male wandered over to a tree to see what the lioness was doing.  She had previously descended from the tree in which we found her, but had then climbed into another tree nearby!

This time the young male was curious, and walked over to her tree.  Her dangling, swishing tail was a source of interest for the young male lion, who looked up at the lioness as she sat perched in the bough.

It was now quite late in the morning, and time to head south, back to camp.  Along the way we spotted a giraffe on the open plains, and even closer to camp, we spotted a Maasai farmer leading a herd of cattle.

We soonafter arrived back at camp, where we rested, worked on images and had a light lunch.

Little did we know, but the afternoon drive would bring us something truly special.

At around 3:45pm we ventured back out into the plains in a south-easterly direction, and soon encountered a pair of elephants drinking in the afternoon light.

Drinking Problem

Drinking Problem

We watched and photographed the elephants drinking and splashing water over themselves to cool down.

The sky was starting to become moody and threatening, with some high storm clouds lingering.  I reached for a wider lens and captured an image of two elephants grazing, with a thick cluster of trees in the background beneath an increasingly brooding sky.

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

The sky was develop into a dramatic show later in the afternoon and into the early evening.

Francis soonafter continued heading south, as we were hoping to see something more dramatic.  Along the way, while Francis was cornering, I spotted an intense patch of blue in the grass as I was spotting for lions.

It was a blue-headed tree agama, a small, brightly-coloured reptile.  I snapped a few images, but unfortuntely did not land anything good, and the scene itself was scrubby and busy anyway.

A minute later we continued on.  Less than ten minutes later, north-east of where I spotted the agama, we happened across an intensely amazing sight.

We had found the Cheli Pride.  Not only had we found the Cheli Pride lions again (they are everywhere!), but they were feasting on a zebra they had taken earlier in the day.

This was yet another first: a sighting of lions feasting on a kill.

It was quite a fresh kill, too, as there was no stench from the carcass; but it had been quite substantially devoured, and we figured it had been taken during the morning.

What an intense sighting.  We were glued to the drama as a three cubs gorged themselves on the kill under a bush, while other Cheli Pride lions rested in the thicket or were lurking and sunning themselves very close to the site where either the zebra had fallen, or more likely, where the pride had dragged it to keep it out of the open plains where other predators could have got in on the action.

I used a combination of wide focal lengths and short focal lengths to capture the drama.

Chowing Down

Chowing Down

Here, this cute little cub — one of the younger members of the pride — was very engaged in the business of chowing down, and kept feeding well after the other lions had all moved aside to rest and roll around.

A short time later, most of the pride members strolled a short distance north-east of the kill, and into the open grasses, where they bonded, groomed, rested and played.

Facepalm

Facepalm

Here, one of the well-fed cubs decided it was time to play, and in so doing, he gave one of the females a mighty good smack in the face.

It was enjoyable to watch the lions rolling around, stretching, playing and bonding with each other after a huge meal.

Here, one of the lionesses looks into the distance as other lions played around.

Cheli Pride Lioness

Cheli Pride Lioness

One of the cubs wandered over to a small watering hole in the grass, which we could not see, but which he certainly could.

He lapped up water, and even managed to let some of it drool out of his mouth as he looked back towards us as we furiously snapped away.

Cub Drool

Cub Drool

While we were immersed in the company and actvity of the Cheli Pride, a herd of nearby elephants entered the area, and they were obviously distressed.  There was trumpeting and running as the elephants, who realised they had stumbled across a pride of lions, ran further away to avoid any confrontation.

The elephants kept moving south, further away from the drama we had witnessed; so, we decided to follow them, as it was a breeding herd, which contained a few calves and some big tuskers.

In the relative safety of the distance the elephants had put between themselves and the Cheli Pride, they grazed more calmly as the sky continued to brood and become more intense.  I captured this image of a big tusker at fairly close proximity as he made his way through the thicket, grazing.

Big Tusker

Big Tusker

Early evening was rapidly approaching, and in the opposite direction, the sky became very menacing.

We headed north, back to the kill site, to see what was going on.  More cubs, and several larger lionesses, were now feasting on the zebra.

Feast

Feast

We stayed for three or four minutes before deciding to leave the lions and head off for a sundowner and some landscape photography under a dramatic sky.

Francis drove us south-west in search of a particular tree, which we reached in about 12 minutes.

We stopped here for a sundowner, and we jumped out of the 4WD and rigged up for some landscape photography under an intense sky, where I captured this image of a distant acacia tree under a dramatic sky:

Brewing Storm

Brewing Storm

It was at this location where we had our sundowner, but we decided to head another few hundred metres away, where we would capture the tail end of the rich colours of sunset on the Mara.

Drama on the Mara

Drama on the Mara

Here we resumed our sundowner as the evening rapidly descended upon us, while we stood only a few hundred metres from where the Cheli Pride was resting after a huge meal.

It was an intense afternoon/evening, and perhaps this landscape in the northern part of the Maasai Mara captures some of that sense of drama.

So concluded our third day in the Mara.  We headed back to camp where we met the other guests over dinner, and related the amazing sights we had seen that day.

In the morning we were treated to the River Pride, with its clumsy tree-clinging lioness and two young males nearby; and in the afternoon we were treated to the spoils of the Cheli Pride, as the lions feasted on a zebra kill, followed by a sundowner under a very moody sky.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day four of our trip to the Maasai Mara, during which more great sightings greeted us, and when the roar of a Cheli Pride lioness would be heard for the first time.

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.

Africa: Day 3 – Wildlife Abundance and a Magical Sunset and Night Sky

Our third day in Africa was the second day of our photographic safari in the Motswari Private Game Reserve in greater Kruger Park.

It started with an early rise, some time before 5am.  We were heading out on our first morning game drive, during which we would encounter lots of wildlife, and another special surprise.

The morning was quite cloudy, which on the one hand was bleak and gloomy, but which on the other hand made photography much easier due to the lower contrast.

Chad and Petros whisked us off nice and early, first encountering a few zebra in the scrub, before stopping for a landscape shot a short while afterwards.  Unfortunately the zebra were not out in the open, so landing a clean shot was difficult if not impossible.  Photographic woes aside, just to see a bunch of zebra in the wilderness was pleasant in its own right.

Our next photographic stop was for a wildebeest and some impala, followed shortly after by a lone spotted hyena who was hot on the trail of… something.  A few minutes later we encountered another lone hyena who was lazing on the ground, unfussed by our appearance.

Some twenty minutes later, magic awaited us: another leopard!

Not only was it a leopard, but it was a different leopard.  The night before, we had encountered Makepisi, a male leopard; but this morning, we had the pleasure of the company of Rockfig Jr, a female leopard who inhabits the southern part of Motswari Private Game Reserve.

What a magnificent leopard she was.

Here she is in her glory:

The Leopard Rests

The Leopard Rests

I landed a very pleasing selection of high-quality images in very soft light, and Rockfig Jr was quite the model.

Here is a close view of her profile:

Profile of Rockfig Jr

Profile of Rockfig Jr

During the time we spent with Rockfig Jr, at one point she got up, walked right behind the vehicle, and headed over to a vantage point from which she keenly watched a warthog which was grazing in open sight in the not-too-far distance.  When Rockfig Jr passed behind the open-top vehicle, I was closest to her, and I estimated her to have been only three metres away from me.

Where else but Motswari can you find yourself three metres from a wild leopard?  It was spectacular.

Rockfig Jr kept her eyes on the potential prey she spotted a relatively short distance away, but evidently elected not to pursue it.

Way too soon, it was time for us to leave.  We had coffee and biscuits at Hide Dam, and then headed off, whereby we soon encountered a few wildebeest, followed by lots of impala.

Throughout the safari, we would encounter many impala; so common were they, that we did not bother to stop on each sighting; but early into the safari as this game drive was, we did stop and watch them for a while, during which time I captured this image of two males sparring:

Locking Horns

Locking Horns

Our next sightings included giraffes and more impala, before we headed back to the lodge for a well-earned breakfast.

We sat down to a fantastic buffet, and cooked-to-order eggs, with a variety of juices, fruits and other food available.

After breakfast, we had quite a few hours or recreation and lunch before our next game drive, which would commence at 3:30pm and see us returning for dinner after sunset.  Lunch was announced by the beating of drums and the African songs sung by the Motswari staff who brought the food.

Our afternoon drive commenced, and there were sightings aplenty, with lilac-breasted rollers, giraffes, kudus, more giraffes, our first hippo, more impala, and then finally, another surprise, and another member of the Big Five.

Chat and Petros had led us to three white rhinos: a male, a female and a calf.  Our timing was unfortunate, as the rhinos had just indulged in a mud bath, and decided to wander off.

The rhino mother and calf were heading to the river bed, which they would cross before heading up the bank and into the scrub.  We followed them and had some nice photo opportunities in the dry river bed before they soon meandered along.

Apologies for the lack of images; I have not yet published any of the shots I took during this particular rhino sighting; but they are coming in the near future.

As it was late in the afternoon, we headed off, and soon stopped for a quick sunset silhouette, and an image which captured the feel of Africa:

Sunset on the African Savannah

Sunset on the African Savannah

All this image needed was a leopard perched in the tree.  Not so lucky, I am afraid.

Shortly after capturing this beautiful sunset, we stopped for a sundowner before making our way onwards.

The next encounter was unexpected; the trackers had located yet another leopard.  This would be our third leopard sighting in barely more than 24 hours.  Not only was it our third leopard sighting, but it was the third unique leopard.  So far we had seen Makepisi and Rockfig Jr on consecutive drives.

This time we encountered Nthombi, a female leopard, who Chad had earlier heard roaring in the north of the reserve.  We found her in thick bush, and using the spotlight, our Land Rover plus two others trudged through the bush, relatively closely following her.  It soon became apparent that Nthombi was stalking a steenbuck, so we had to back off and leave her to do her thing in peace.

During our short time with Nthombi, I did snap one shot of her stalking her prey, but it was not a usable shot.  Not to worry; merely being in the presence of another leopard, and watching her on the hunt, was more than enough of a reward.  Alas, it was time to depart.

Early during our morning drive, I had told Chad that I was keen to photograph a silhouette image of a dead tree against the Milky Way after darkness had fallen.  Chad showed us a particular tree at Big Nigrescens, and said we would aim to head back there on one of our night drives.

After the excitement of chasing Nthombi through the bush, Chad drove us back to Big Nigrescens, where I exited the Land Rover and set up my gear for a long exposure.

Here was the winning image I landed:

Afrika se Nag Lug

Afrika se Nag Lug

After a few long exposures, we headed back to the lodge, where a pre-dinner drink and a delicious meal awaited us.

After dinner and discussion, we were escorted back to our rondavel and we prepared for bed, as an absolutely huge day awaited us, starting even earlier in the morning, as we had all agreed to depart at 5:30am rather than 6:00am, at which time all of the other safari parties would also be embarking on their morning drives.

Day two of our Motswari safari experience had been a fantastic experience, but the best was yet to come.

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which it will be revealed that Xenedette would receive an absolutely awesome birthday present.

Africa: Day 2 – Motswari and Our First Leopard Sighting

We have been back from Africa for nearly a week now, and it has been several days since I wrote about our first day in Africa, so as I sit here on my time off work, it is a good time to start relating the details of our big adventure in the African wilderness.

4 October, 2012, was the day our safari in Kruger Park was to begin.  After a very long first day in Africa and a good night’s sleep at the Protea Hotel OR Tambo, we awoke and prepared for the big day ahead of us, commencing with breakfast with Mario.

We had a charter flight to catch from Jo’burg airport to Motswari’s private air strip.  Within a matter of hours, we were boarding a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan for a ninety-minute flight north-east to the Timbavati region of Kruger Park.

The views over the landscape were spectacular, especially when we reached the meeting point between the highveld and the lowveld, where a long ridge of flat, craggy mountains descends quite sharply to the lowveld.

As we approached Moswari and began to descend, I was eaglerly looking out the window at the ground below, looking for signs of wildlife.  At one point I saw an animal running along the savannah, but from our elevation, I had no idea what it was.

Soon enough we landed on a private dirt airstrip, and emerged from the plane to 40-degree sunny weather, where some of the rangers from Motswari greeted us, and drove us in one of the open-top 4×4 safari vehicles to the lodge in Motswari Private Game Reserve, where we would be based for the next few days.

Here is a snapshot of Mario boarding the 4×4, with our charter plane in the background:

Mario Boarding the Motswari 4x4

Mario Boarding the Motswari 4×4

After arriving at the lodge, we met our hosts, checked in, and were led through the aesthetically appealing, quaint African lodge village to the Duiker Bungalow, which was our home in Kruger Park.

This was our lodging at Motswari:

Duiker Bungalow at Motswari Private Game Reserve

Duiker Bungalow at Motswari Private Game Reserve

What an awesome place this was.  We felt from the very beginning, as soon as we landed, that we were in the real Africa, far away from urbanisation, and deeply engrossed in the African spirit, nature and the incredible wildlife that was all around us.

Just outside the second door (off to the left in this image) is bush and a watering hole.  There were two elephants grazing outside, wandering along past the lodges.  Ten minutes into our time at Motswari, and we had already seen one of the amazing creatures we would be seeing over the next few days.

The plan for the rest of the day was to settle into Duiker, meet at the lunch bungalow at 2:30pm for a communal lunch, head for our very first game drive at 3:30pm, and then return for a communal dinner after dark.

Soon enough after arriving for lunch, drums started beating, and a parade of Motswari’s African lodge stuff proceeded into the lunch area, singing an incredible African song and bringing the freshly-prepared food.  It was a sensory overload; all of a sudden we were in the thick of the ultimate African experience.

After lunch, it was time to get our gear ready and meet at the reception for our first game drive.  I had brought my long lenses, but also an ultra-wide lens for landscape shots.  Armed with my Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 300/2.8 on a monopod, my 1.4x and 2x tele-converters, a 70-200/2.8 and 16-35/2.8 in the bag, a tripod, plus plenty of memory card capacity, we headed to reception, where we met Chad Cocking, an excellent wildlife photographer and one of Motswari’s rangers.

In the lead-up to our trip, we had been looking at the Motswari Ranger’s Diary, a blog verbally and visually detailing each day’s game drives and wildlife sightings.  Chad is the main author of the blog, and took many of the photos displayed on the blog.  In preparing for the trip, we were very eager to have Chad as our ranger, and Mario was able to secure him for the duration of our stay!  To say we were pleased was an understatement.

We met Chad and were also introduced to Petros, our tracker.  Petros would come with us on each game drive, looking for tracks and other signs of wildlife as we travelled throughout the reserve.

The party consisted of Xenedette and I; Mario, our safari leader; Chad, our ranger and driver; and Petros, our tracker.  We had the luxury of a private vehicle, whereas all of the other Motswari 4x4s we encountered had up to ten people on tour.  The amount of photography gear we hadwith us was a nice substitute for eight other people!

Our first game drive shortly began.  For the next three and a half hours, we were in the wilderness, seeing and photographing amazing animals, some of which we had seen at zoos, and many of which we had never seen at all.

The first wildlife we saw was an elephant bull, who was strolling through the scrub, munching on leaves and twigs.  Shortly after, we encountered another elephant bull, who meandered down to a watering hole for a drink.  We watched him drink and spray himself with water to cool himself in the intense afternoon heat, and then continued on.

The next stop was Argyle Dam, where we saw a crocodile and several storks.  We soon moved on, and spotted plenty of impala and a few waterbucks on the way to our next destination, and the incredible surprise — and highlight of the drive — that was awaiting us.

At around 5:15pm, we turned up at a large termite mound, where two other safari vehicles were parked, clearly allowing their occupants to view something exciting.

Our own excitement grew, as we moved close to the mound and laid our eyes, for the very first time, on a wild leopard!

This is Makepisi, a male leopard who inhabits the Timbavati region of Kruger Park.

Portrait of Makepisi

Portrait of Makepisi

Makepisi (roughly pronounced “Muh-keh-peez”) means “hat” in the Tsonga language.

Makepisi was sitting on the termite mound for quite a while, and as the light fell, we continued to observe and photograph him, while he sat only several metres away from us.

A little while later, Petros turned on the spotlight, which allowed us to continue to view and photograph Makepisi as the light fell and night rapidly approached.

Here is an image I captured of Makepisi in the glow of Petros’s spotlight:

Makepisi by Night

Makepisi by Night

Seeing a leopard in the wild was an amazing experience.  He was only metres from us, but completely unfazed by our presence.  He had been resting on the mound, and his long night of hunting for food had not yet begun.

From the time I shot my first image to the time I shot my last, we had spent 48 minutes in Makepisi’s presence.  When we were there, keeping track of time was the last thing on my mind.

Unfortunately, it was time to move on.  Chad drove a short distance, where we stopped for a sundowner.  The sun had very recently set, and I grabbed my tripod and 16-35mm lens to shoot a landscape image of our first real African sunset.

Timbavati Sunset

Timbavati Sunset

As I was shooting this image, Mario was shooting me, while Chad and Petros prepared the snacks and drinks for our sundowner as Xenedette simply soaked in the atmosphere, glad to be where we were, doing what we were doing.

As I finished my landscape images, Mario and I joined the party and debriefed while we sipped pinotage and recalled the experience of our first leopard sighting and our first game drive.

It was an intense day, and to see a leopard — one of the so-called Big Five — on our very first game drive, was a very exciting experience.

Soon after, we all packed up and headed back to the lodge for a communal dinner, further discussion over wine, and a good night’s sleep, as the next day would start with a game drive at 5:30am.

Chad also blogged about the day’s activities, and his recollection can be read at the Motswari Ranger’s Diary for the 4th of October.

Stay tuned for Day 3.