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.
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.
When we returned during this visit, the residents were somewhat different.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Despite their lack of activity during our visit, it was great to see this rare and legendary coalition of cheetahs.
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.
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:
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.
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.