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 camp fire, 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
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
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:
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
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
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.
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
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 soon 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.
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
The sky was develop into a dramatic show later in the afternoon and into the early evening.
Francis soon 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.