Mystery of the 'clicking' Eland solved!
A dominance battle amongst hippos.
Two lionesses fight just yards from our vehicle.
My new Canon 1DX LCD Monitor fails, and I shoot 'blind' for an entire safari, and love it!
These were just a few of the highlights of our second 2012 safari marking our 30th year of doing safaris in Kenya. We had spectacular luck, with over 200 lion sightings, 15 leopard, 3 servals, several good cheetahs, and more. Here is the entire trip report, including two extra days that Mary and I and three others spent in the Masai Mara.
Day One. Nairobi to Samburu Game Reserve
After our orientation we left for the long drive to Samburu, stopping at Tree Trout for lunch and, this time, a rather disappointing show with the Colobus Monkeys. Purple-banded Sunbirds, however, performed well along the trailside flowers and we did get some monkey shots as well. I had just started shooting a close Colobus when, in checking my LCD screen in typical ‘chimping,’ I discovered that my LCD monitor was not working! When I hit the playback button nothing but a static screen appeared and, perhaps even worse, the menu had disappeared. I stopped shooting as I tried to figure out what was wrong, which ended up that the LCD monitor is, in fact, finished. I checked the CF card on a different camera and found that everything else was working, and so I could still shoot but without checking the screen, and was then faced with the dilemma – do I shoot ‘blind’ with the new DX camera or do I just use my Mark IVs? I decided to shoot blind, as if I was still shooting film.
We hadn’t traveled far from lunch when Joshua’s vehicle broke down and we were forced to double everyone up in the other four vehicles. With the amount of camera gear everyone packs it made for a bit of juggling and a somewhat tight fit, but we arrived at Samburu by 6 without any other incident. Joshua, we hoped, would arrive that evening or first thing the next day.
Day 2. Samburu
Joshua didn’t arrive, but we had a call from him and he was only fifteen minutes out from camp and so we decided to wait. Twenty minutes went by without Joshua, who as it turns out broke down a second time at the entrance road to our lodge. Don, Judy, and Caroline switched to the camp’s vehicle and a local Samburu staff guide, Julius, and they loved the morning and the vehicle. Nonetheless, we wasted nearly a half hour of sunrise light before we started our game drive and, although game can be literally outside camp, I was not happy. The rest of the morning perhaps made up for this poor start as it was spectacular.
Samburu is now green, with all of the barren, dusty expanses from our last trip now covered in grasses and low leafy vegetation. All of the bushes are in leaf, and puddles dot the flats and low spots on the road. We started with a pair of Olive Baboons grooming by the river’s edge, nothing unusually noteworthy except this time the female looked sick. As the male groomed her, or when she was alone, the female hung her head down in a pose that, if human, would appear quite dejected. She had a few wounds and her nipple and head was covered with splats of mucus. Mary thought she was pregnant, and I thought she had been in a bad fight and lost her baby, as she appeared to have been nursing. The male would periodically try to mount her but each time she darted off and we eventually left them, sitting apart on the river bank.
One of our guides spotted a cheetah and we headed there but the cat was lying down, in the shade about 70 yards off the track. Chuck and Tricia shot some record shots but the cat appeared parked and we moved on, as a herd of Elephants were moving down into the flats. The herd ended up to be huge, at least 60 animals, and they were, all anthropomorphism aside, obviously happy. Elephants ran for the joy of it, with babies moving almost like mechanical toys in short, choppy steps, truly comic to watch. Several subadults jousted, sometimes clacking their ivory tusks loudly as they met and entwined trunks. Several times three baby elephants and one or two subadults would play together, mock charging, or gather together in a huge pile up of flesh. The herd slowly worked its way towards the river and we hoped that they’d pause at some of the mud holes to play or bathe but we only had luck with one subadult elephant. At the river three or four elephants were gathered beneath a palm, then moved off further downstream only to return and carefully slide, forelegs first, into the river where the youngest, the two year old baby, and its mother rolled and submerged themselves in the brown water, with the baby, trying to lie on its side like mom, continually getting pushed downstream by the current. Eventually about a dozen other elephants joined them, with some getting down on their knees, forelegs first, to carefully slide into the water.
We headed back inland to look for the cheetahs again, without success, but a small group of Reticulated Giraffes was feeding near to the track and we worked these. Several had Red-billed Oxpeckers working their necks, and two young males eventually started a half-hearted sparring match, ‘necking,’ as they swung their heads into each other’s shoulders. In the distance a raptor continually called, and while we watched the giraffes a Pale-chanting Goshawk flew to a nearby tree. Seconds later another, the male, appeared, carrying a lizard which it promptly gave to the female. He then mounted her for a quick copulation, then flew off, leaving the goshawk to feed on the skink in clear view of our cameras. We soon learned the identity of the calling raptor, as a juvenile goshawk flew in and the female relinguished the remaining portions of the lizard.
Clouds were building for possible storms in the afternoon, creating beautiful landscapes, but the sky around us was clear and the heat ratcheted up by 11:30, and we headed back to camp, arriving by noon. For many of the newcomers the morning’s highlight was simply the variety of birds and animals – John and Judy saw at least 20 different birds (certainly an underestimate) and 10 mammals. For many the elephants were the highlight, as we didn’t expect this many with the rains potentially leading the herds into the high country.
PM. A massive thunderstorm to our east threatened the afternoon game drive but the storm moved past, dumping rain and verga on the distant mountains and producing spectacular sky scapes for our afternoon game drive. Shortly after starting our drive we had a pair of Oryx in courtship display, where the male and female follow one another in a tight circle. Although I suspected the male initiated this ‘dance,’ several times it appeared as if the female lead the way, so it was not a case where the circle was simply the female’s way of avoiding a mating. She urinated once and the male sampled the fluid, then did the distinctive Flehmen behavior, where he curls up his lip in a comical pose as he deeply sniffs her scent.
Several vehicles had good luck with Gunther’s Dik-dik, including a sequence where several adults visited a communal dung heap, marking their territory, where they did the ‘spud’ behavior, sniffing, pawing, urinating, and defecating.
Mary spotted a Leopard on the track before her, providing a great full-frame view of the cat at eye-level perched in a low acacia tree. All of our vehicles rushed to the scene, as did the other 14 vehicles inside the park, creating a huge traffic jam or congestion at the leopard. We were one of the last vehicles to arrive and unfortunately we were out of position for the two times when the cat performed well, walking by vehicles twice and, towards the end of day, climbing on to a low, fallen tree trunk where it perched for several minutes. When it finally climbed down we attempted to follow but the cat moved back uphill and away from any track, and in the failing light of evening we headed back to camp.
That evening, we celebrated Caroline’s birthday, which was marked by our group, and her having a good leopard sighting. Years ago, in Nakuru on her birthday, we had another great leopard, one perched in a tree that in all the years since we’ve never seen a cat in, and that one then walked down the slanted tree trunk directly to her vehicle.
Day 3. Samburu
Today, Wednesday, one day after the US general election for president and as we anxiously awaited the results Obama terrorized our camp, standing in the middle of the car park and prevented all of us from loading into the vehicles at dawn. This huge male elephant frequents our camp but today was the first time that he parked himself amongst our vehicles, although after a few minutes wait he wandered off and we were able to resume our loading of the ‘rovers.
We headed in the general direction where we’d seen the leopard yesterday, and all of our vehicles had passed by when a minivan signaled one of our drivers by flashing his headlights that he had discovered the leopard. She was perched in a tree again, and although her belly was a bit fuller than yesterday she was still hungry and actively searching the area before her for food. After about ten minutes she dropped from the tree, started and aborted a hunt, and then headed back up hill. Along the way she paused, and through the lens it appeared as if she was calling – perhaps to a cub, a sibling, or her mother (although this leopard is big enough to have cubs of her own) – before continuing uphill where she was eventually lost in the brush.
Several vehicles did well with birds today, which was the highlight for some. My vehicle did encounter a small troop of Vervet Monkeys with small babies, and one mother sat in the open shade for nice portraits. As we headed back towards camp on an increasingly hot late morning we found the Elephants that had, essentially, eluded us all morning. Several different groups had moved down to the river, including a large group where I’d photographed them yesterday morning. As the last elephants left the river and we prepared to leave a young bull elephant came up from behind and visited the back of our landrover, touching the back, spare tire with his trunk, then turning to the main track where our other vehicles were about to pass. The elephant stood its ground, face-to-hood with the vehicle, and eventually the landrover backed up and the elephant walked past, winning this contest of wills or dominance.
By 2PM the first big thunderstorm of the afternoon looms over the east, rolling thunder in our direction and masking the far horizon in a slate gray wall of water. Samburu has had several days without rain and some of the tracks are now beginning to be dusty, so a good rain will be welcomed if it comes.
PM. Although it rained during the afternoon the storm hit just to our west, dampening the roads we traveled but not affecting us in any way. The skies were striking, dramatic, beautiful, and John, Judy, and I did numerous scenics with acacias or the more distant landscape and the wonderful stormy skies. A mother Elephant and quite young baby walked by for one of these scenes, and later, as we headed towards a Klipspringer, we had the pair again, quite close and unconcerned as they walked by.
The shooting was diverse, from one of the best African hares – ears translucent and erect – we’ve ever had, to baby Beisa Oryx that play-mounted each other in mating or dominance behavior. Mary’s vehicle had the Klipspringers in a dream spot, on a large boulder quite separate from the rocky mountain behind them.
By the time we arrived they were much further away but for John and Judy it was their first, and still quite exciting.
Elephants were moving across the grasslands back into the mountains to feed in the forest during the night and one subadult pair played repeatedly. When we attempted to get close another young one mock-charged us and stopped just inches from the front of our vehicle, forcing Ben to turn on the ‘rover and go into reverse. The same elephant earlier had grabbed a long vine and swung it repeatedly and violently, actually inadvertently whipping the other elephants nearby.
As the western sky darkened with the broken remains of the various afternoon storms we had an immature Martial Eagle perched on a dead snag which obligingly took off against a bright patch of sky as our last shots of the day, as we then raced back to camp to beat the darkness.
Day 4. Samburu
Our departure this morning went uneventfully without pesky elephants and with clear skies, but for most the first half of the morning the game drive was rather slow, with few mammals but a lot of birds. My group spent some quality time at a Black-capped Social Weaver and Chestnut Weaver nest tree where both species were building and contesting nests. Both species took time displaying at the same nests, and although two different designs were visible, one ball-like the other bell-like, the birds seemed to go for either.
After breakfast we headed down to the river for more elephants, as Pat and Sherry had missed river action on the other two days. Along the way we met a large group that had already crossed the river and were heading back into the high country, but these stopped at a mud puddle at the airfield where they wallowed and enlarged the puddle to a dangerously deep and wide pothole. The young elephants, especially one small baby, exulted in the mud and rolled and played for minutes.
There were more elephants at the river where there was more bathing, wrestling, and drinking. Several elephants climbed into the water feet first from the steep, five foot high sand banks, carefully getting down upon their belly, resting on their elbows and slowly sliding forward until they entered the water. This time we were the first at the river and so we had a good view, while providing plenty of space for our other vehicles since we parked some distance from the water’s edge.
Prior to lunch, Samburu, the rogue twin elephant to Obama, visited several tents, leaning against the platform of one before being chased off, which resulted in the elephant visiting our alfresco dining tables, which he proceeded to try to tip over. When we arrived at lunch the staff was still in the process of cleaning up the shattered glass left behind from the elephant’s efforts. A black storm kicked up while we ate, but it missed us and although much of the sky is ringed by thunderheads our area is dry and sunny.
PM. The weather continued to cooperate and we were treated with some of the most spectacular skies and landscapes I’ve seen in Samburu. In the area around camp the rains have sparked a rich parkland of grasses and in the late afternoon light seed heads glowed brightly and the grasses were electric in their intensity. We headed up into the hills where we hoped to find the female leopard but without success, although we had a great White-bellied Go-Away Bird perched near the road and some nice landscapes overlooking the river valley and flood plain. A pair of shy Striped Hyenas caused a bit of excitement as we thought we had found the African wild dogs, but the hyenas were shy and moved off almost immediately after we spotted them.
David did spot a Leopard and we headed to the area we call the Pyramid where we often have breakfast. Leaving the shadow of the hills we were back in the angular, rain-pure light of late afternoon and, as luck would have it as we sped towards the leopard we passed innumerable potentially great shots. A Somalia Bee-eater perched in the sunlight right next to the track, a Yellow-billed Hornbill pair sat in the open on a nearby tree, a herd of Gerenuk stood close to the road with direct light hitting them, and as we neared the leopard area three different herds of Elephants were framed by sharp, angular light, mountains, and spectacular skies as we drove by.
The leopard was a shy male and was hidden when we arrived, but a small herd of Oryx pointed to its approximate position. While we waited the leopard moved, spooking the oryx into a run as the leopard jogged back up hill. We were in a great position for the leopard to continue down a game trail right to us and I’d flipped to vertical to be ready but, unfortunately, the leopard broke to the left and as I flipped back to horizontal and recomposed and attempted focus I managed just two, well-framed but out-of-focus shots as the leopard ran by. Judy was a bit luckier, and although the image size was small she managed two nice shots as the leopard ran by and to her.
The leopard moved into the bushes surrounding a lugga where it remained hidden. We waited, as the sun dropped behind the mountain and our light level fell, and with a Sundowner hosted by our lodge set and ready by the river we abandoned the shy leopard and drove on. Our evening concluded with a very pleasant session at the river where we toasted our present and future success on this safari and enjoyed some complimentary drinks.
Day 5. Samburu to Nakuru
Our sleep was interrupted several times by the flapping of our tent as unexpected high winds heralded a change in weather. Shortly before dawn it began to rain, hard, although we loaded the vehicles for our long ride to Nakuru in a light rain. Still, in carrying and moving and packing camera gear my windbreaker was soaked and the road to Nakuru, at one point climbing to nearly 9,000 feet, was a cold one.
For the last several days Nakuru has had rain and so we were surprised to enter the Rift Valley and have the skies begin to clear as we drove towards Nakuru. By the time of our game drive at 4 the skies were clear, although the eastern horizon was covered in a mix of stormy, photogenic clouds.
Game was surprisingly scare until we reached the cross dike where a flock of Yellow-billed Storks flew in to feed and bathe close to the road. The White Rhino that we had last trip was in the same general area, marked by the hole in his head which we assume came from another rhino in a fight. Oxpeckers were still pecking away at the open wound, hopefully keeping it clean of maggots but more likely stripping off whatever attempts at healing the rhino’s system mustered.
Several Rothschild’s Giraffes were relatively close to the road, and backlighted against the distant acacias they were striking. Three young lions lounged in short grasses nearby, catching the attention of one giraffe separated from the herd. That one eventually galloped off, nervous of the lions, and deserted his companions.
A worrisome band of dark clouds crept up the western sky and we hurried to the flamingo point to take advantage of the light while it was still present. Greater and Lesser Flamingos were present, as well as more distant African White Pelicans. I was hoping that they’d do the same flying show that we had last week but the birds, perhaps because of the still air, stayed put and only a few glided by on stiff, set wings.
We headed back to the lodge hoping to encounter something interesting along the way, and just missed a mother White Rhino with a very young calf that crossed the road in front of one of our vehicles. The storks at the dike were now quite close and our last shots of the day were wide-views of the flock in the shallows nearby.
Day 6. Nakuru
There was no fog in the lake valley but a light overcast softened, or reduced, the morning light as we started our game drive at 7:10 after our first cooked breakfast since starting the safari. A troop of Olive Baboons, with a solitary Colobus Monkey perched nearby, lined both sides of the road with a good number playing and wrestling upon a fallen log. A big male sat triumphantly upon a rock with a female solicitously grooming him but the distance was too short for an effective portrait. A baby riding its mother’s back like a jockey came into view and, when the female settled upon a half-hidden rock to be groomed, the baby started exploring, jumping to a stout reed several times and climbing upwards, almost banging into its mother’s head as the reed arched down.
A very cooperative Common Zebra grazed by the roadside, close enough that I could shoot a tight striped pattern shot where the hair swirls from a cowlick-like starting point. We had a radio call of a mating Lion pair which ended up at the same location where we had the three cubs yesterday. The honeymoon must be on the wane as the second mating occurred 45 minutes after the first, and the mating itself was not dramatic and was facing the wrong way. We soon moved on and took a track that passed through flooded forests on both sides, where I hoped to find John and Judy a long-crested eagle.
A pair of Yellow-billed ducks swam close by in the duckweed but the male seemed nervous and after swimming back and forth for a few minutes it appeared ready to fly. I tried anticipating the flight but it exploded too quickly, creating a fast-shutter-speed-frozen moment of flying water, duck tail and legs, although by my third shot I managed to swing the camera and get the less dramatic flying duck into my frame. A family of Egyptian Geese fed in the duckweed as well, and while we watched Hadada Ibis, Red-billed Teal, and several shorebirds came into view.
A DeFassa Waterbuck male shyly ran across the road and splashed across the shallows, then paused long enough for us to shoot a portrait before running off again, this time giving us enough warning to get some shots. We were driving through wetlands that seemed perfect for either a pied or malachite kingfisher, and as we neared the end of the swamp Joshua spotted a Malachite Kingfisher perched on the opposite shoreline. While we watched the bird flew to a closer perch, where we had a chance to photograph this striking bird before it dove, grabbed a tiny fish, and flew off into the forest.
As we headed back to camp huge thunderheads were building and with it thermals that attracted large flocks of African White Pelicans that swirled in tight circles overhead. With a telephoto the birds, sometimes framed against blue sky and building round cloud tops, appeared to be shot from the birds’ level in the sky, making for dramatic images, especially when parts of the flock criss-crossed each other as they flew in opposing directions.
After lunch a thunderstorm blew in but by 4 the skies overhead were clear although the western sky looked soupy and unpromising. Mary and I, and several others sat out the afternoon, catching up on either downloading or business, as Mary worked upon correspondence for our upcoming trips. By 5 the skies were still bright to the east but the light was fading in the west as the cloud band remained. Only four vehicles made the game drive, with two/per, as one was being repaired in Nakuru.
Day 7. Nakuru to the lower Mara
We packed and headed out on our game drive by 7:15 under a light cloud cover that quickly burned off for a sunny day. The shooting today was fairly uneventful, with a mother impala and young baby being harassed by red-billed oxpeckers being the highlight for some, and several very good opportunities with Rothschild’s Giraffes for most everyone else. Henry’s vehicle went to the lake for more birds and did quite well.
By 10AM it was obvious that nothing extraordinary would happen and we headed to the park gate where, after a shopping spree for some, we did the long drive to the lower Masai Mara. Along the way we had another vehicle break down but fortunately our outfitter had a spare vehicle trailing us and, aside from the minor inconvenience of moving gear and luggage, the incident was not maddening.
As we drove into the park we passed almost all of the species we’d expect to see over the next few days, except the cats. The road itself was dusty and we were coated with a layer of grime by the time we reached the lodge, doing so by 6PM.
Day 8. Lower Mara
The skies were clear and the air cold from the nightly radiation of heat back into the atmosphere as we started the game drive. A small flock of Abdim’s Storks were feeding along the roadside, a new bird for some, and we spent a bit of time shooting in the gathering light. Two different Lions were spotted, with my vehicle trying to get shots of a nice male that was purposefully walking in north, while Mary located an entire pride sitting upon one of the kopje-like rock outcroppings. The sighting was from at least a half mile away and her driver/guide didn’t believe her, thinking it was just rocks. When her lions were confirmed everyone got a radio call to get to the lions, quick!
Including the male I’d been following, which eventually reached the pride, we had a total of 12, with three mature males ‘owning’ the pride. All were well-fed but the cubs were playful, chasing and wrestling one another, chasing after a flock of Egyptian Geese, and greeting the male. My vehicle was a bit out of position for some of the best cub/male lion interaction, but the cubs cooperated in other ways, wrestling and running before us. After too short a time, about a half hour, all of the lions either flopped down to rest on the rocks or disappeared in the bushes, and we left them.
David spotted a group of Masai Ostriches courting, with the male a vivid pinkish red and all, males and females alike, tilting forward and fanning their wings in display. One of the females seemed especially interested but the male was not, running off whenever she approached. Surrounded by all three females the male began an elaborate display, inflating his neck and growling/roaring his booming display while weaving his neck from side to side, his wings flapping continuously. Seconds later he ran towards one of the females, his wings now held stiff and high over his back, as the female crouched, letting the male mount and mate. As he finished his very obvious penis was visible, the only bird in Africa with a true copulatory organ. I suspect the ostrich’s cousins, Rheas from South America and Emus from Australia, also have penises, but these Ratities are the only birds that do. All other birds mate in what is often described as a cloacal kiss, where the two birds’ cloacas briefly touch and a sperm exchange takes place. With the exception of these Ratities all other birds possess this cloaca, a common opening for urine, feces, eggs, or sperm. This trait is shared with all the other vertebrates except mammals, although male reptiles, like ostriches, do possess penises and fertilize internally. Amphibians and fish do not, but in both cases both eggs and sperm are fertilized externally in some fashion.
The rest of the morning was mainly featured by birds. Two vehicles did well with as many as 50 vultures that replaced a lone Black-backed Jackal at a gnu carcass. Others did well with Lilac-breasted Rollers, with one eating a locust, and my group had luck with two different Striped Kingfishers, as well as seeing a few new birds including the vividly pattern Magpie Shrike.
PM. We left at 4PM and had just reached the main road when we found a female Leopard lying beneath a tree. As we approached she rose and began to climb a tree but, in an instant, was back on the ground and in pursuit of an African Hare. She missed, and returned to the tree where we got some quick photos of her lying relaxed in the shade before moving off, where we left her.
Back on the drive we encountered a lone 2 year old Elephant, with tusks just 6 inches or so in length, and completely alone, with not another elephant in sight. Somehow she was abandoned or lost and, at her size, she was now perfect lion food should she encounter a pride.
We received a radio call that the Lioness with cubs was spotted and as we approached the area it was clear we were near, as about twenty vehicles were scattered across the grasslands and amongst the bushes. Lions dotted the grasses in several directions and the cubs were in the open, sitting upon a grass-covered termite mound with the lioness lying nearby. Our four other vehicles were ahead of us and closer, and in better position for the cubs, but eventually the cubs climbed down from the mound and began to approach us.
Meanwhile, another lioness had come up from behind us and began to approach the lioness with cubs. She paused, then lay down, facing the lionesses and cubs and watching. The cubs moved closer and the mother lioness moved out into the grasses, snarling and grimacing in a show of anger. She did this several times, then false charged. The other lioness, who was closer to our vehicle, about forty yards, didn’t move. The mother lioness charged again, gathering steam from a fast step to a full blown charge, with her ears laid back, her eyes wide and focused intently, coming directly at the lionesses and, fortunately, straight towards my camera.
I’d just changed my exposure for the lioness and cubs, stopping down to a smaller aperture at the expense of my shutter speed, when the lioness charged and I only had time to fire. Fortunately the shutter was still fast, at 1/640th and the images were sharp. This charge wasn’t a fake and the mother closed with the other, face-on, driving her back until she was literally about 2 meters or less. I’d followed the charge in with my 500mm, and quickly grabbed my 70-300, zooming to 70 to try catching the action as the mother grabbed the paw of the other in her jaws. That lioness gaped but didn’t bare her fangs, and within seconds flopped to her side, then slunk around our vehicle to escape, ending up on the opposite side of our ‘rover. She had a limp, no doubt from the bite, and a cut above her nose, while the mother lioness had a cut or bite on her front left foot. She retreated back into the brush where she’d left the cubs.
We’d never seen anything like this, and neither did most of our driver/guides. We had various guesses why, wondering if the mother was defensive because she hadn’t yet introduced the cubs to the pride, or she was defending the remains of her kill (she was fat bellied and the others were not), or she simply had a grudge or dislike against the female.
Other lionesses now congregated at the site of the fight, sniffing and doing flehmen at the spot, then settling down around the area nearby. Two great black-maned males walked down the hill, drank for a long time, and then one leaped over the stream, giving me little warning to change to a smaller lens. I misframed slightly, and over-exposed, but I suspect I’ll recover and correct that in the RAW converter. That male lion walked towards us in wonderful late afternoon light, then laid down in the grasses close enough for spectacular frame-filling portraits. Later two lionesses, obviously beginning to be in heat, approached and solicited the male, but he only yawned, and the two lionesses laid down nearby. A cub came up but didn’t greet the male, much to our disappointment.
A herd of Elephants moved through the brush where some of the cats had been, displacing the lions. As it was close to sunset we left, but one of our vehicles stayed a bit later and watched as the elephants and lions came close, with the lions, all of them, roaring in protest and the elephants trumpeting in annoyance or alarm. On the way back Mary’s vehicle had a mother Serval with two kittens, but it was nearly dark and too dim for any real photographs.
Day 9. Lower Mara
Tricia and Paulet did a balloon safari this morning and were fortunate to have, one, great weather with clear skies and little winds and, two, not much activity on the game drive to have missed. The rest of us headed to the kopje rocks where we again found the pride of lions, sitting on the flat bowl of the granite rocks, on termite mounds, or playing in the high grasses. Again, one of the males was with the group, and he sat upon one of the high points where a young male cub eventually joined him, to climb atop his head and bat his face while the big male gave a bared teeth half snarl in response. Three cubs visited a large water hole in the basin where one purposefully walked into the water, then turned and batted and wrestled another still on the shoreline. This may be one of the few times I’ve seen a lion of any age voluntarily get its feet wet.
By 7:30 all of the lions had retreated into the bush, with the last to go the male that perched once more on a high point, surveying his kingdom through sun-filled squinty eyes in a face dotted unattractively by hundreds of flies. The rest of our game drive was extremely slow, with the best for our vehicle being a male Flat-headed Agama Lizard that eventually scurried and push-upped his way to be within frame-filling distance of our lenses.
We returned back to the lodge by 11, with almost all of the vehicles arriving within several minutes of one another.
PM. Almost no clouds in the sky and it appears as if the short rainy season was indeed short, and over. The Leopard was back in the same tree it used yesterday afternoon but today it was high and all we managed to see was a belly, hind leg, and black tail. We moved on quickly.
The afternoon was slow, with vehicles checking the Kissinger Tree area and towards Hammerkob, but we found virtually nothing to photograph for long stretches. The herds were gone and the plains seemed empty and dead, although we know lions live here and in this vacuum still must find enough food to survive. We stopped for a few birds and checked out several Lions that were not worth photographing, before hearing of a Cheetah where nearly 30 vehicles descended upon. It was a huge female feeding upon a baby Grant’s Gazelle, off track and too risky to stay and shoot. We moved on but the other vehicles stayed, and did manage some nice low-light portraits when she finally finished eating and sat up to look around.
We continued our search, almost getting a short lived but serious-looking fight between two African Buffalo, but as we neared they stopped and wandered off, their spate finished. We were heading towards two parked vehicles where we suspected more lions were sitting when David spotted a Cheetah’s head poking from the grass just off the track. I was looking ahead, trying to discern what the other vehicles were watching and completely missed the cat, and I was quite impressed that David caught that glimpse.
The cheetah was a male and a bit shy and after a few minutes he got up and walked or trotted east. We followed, and several times he sat or laid down for some stress-free portraits (the stress being on our part getting focus and composition when he was moving) and, in the last golden light of the day the cheetah paused in one of his walks and looked back, filling the frame nicely in the outstanding light. What started as a rather slow afternoon ended with a true highlight and exciting shoot.
Day 10. Lower Mara
As luck would have it what was a slow morning could have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience had we traveled down a different road. We headed back to the Sopa area where, two nights ago, we had the lionesses fighting, the cubs, and several other lions, as well as a variety of plains game. Today, with a cold wind that grounded almost all of the hot air balloons, these same grasslands were empty and after exploring the area thoroughly we headed back to the Sand River and the kopjes. En route we did see five lions, perched on a termite mound, but the prospects of action were slim.
Through the course of the morning we had 29 lions but few if any worthwhile photos. Had it been the first day I’m sure we’d have spent hours with many of these but now, with great lions previously photographed, most were dismissed. A male ostrich, at 9AM, was still sitting on the eggs at a nest, long-past the normal relief time when the hen takes over. Other ostriches were courting, and one mating followed the exact same behavior that we’d seen the other day where, after the male sat down and fanned his wings, he rushed at the female with his wings cocked overhead, then mounted the female as she dropped at his approach.
Several vehicles had good luck with Black-backed Jackals, including my group where we had a pair of juveniles waiting the return of their parents. They were frame-filling portraits, and tame. Our morning started with five Spotted Hyenas that were jogging across the predawn grasslands, stopping often to peer back over their shoulders as if being pursued.
For my vehicle the morning’s highlight was a Leopard. We’d discovered a fresh wildebeest kill hauled up a tree near one of the stream courses. Through binoculars the half-grown gnu, easily 150 pounds or more, looked untouched, but when we half-circled the tree for a closer inspection we saw that the entire body cavity was empty. As we watched, the male Leopard, hiding in the brush in front of us, gave a roaring growl and exploded from its cover, fortunately bounding further down the lugga and disappearing into the brush. Hearing this explosive, primal sound up close and so unexpectedly provokes a visceral reaction – your gut, and other parts, do literally tighten.
When we returned to the lodge we learned that just 10 minutes or so from camp six lionesses spent three hours or so attempting to kill a buffalo. The two tourists who told us this watched, they said, for three hours and finally got bored and left. We didn’t ask for any further details – whether the lions had been actually hanging on or simply worrying the buffalo and if it appeared that they would ultimately be successful. Our game drive, in comparison, was quite tame … but you simply never know what treasure, what incredibly exciting opportunity, may present itself or where!
PM. Shortly after starting our game drive we met a large group of Banded Mongoose that were remarkably tame, foraging in the open and drinking at a roadside ditch. Normally these mongooses bolt when approached, sometimes dashing into a termite mound or a warthog burrow, then, sometimes, slowly reappearing. These seemed oblivious until they captured something in the grass when the whole mob clustered together excitedly, then moved off into the croton bushes.
We drove almost directly to the site of the morning’s buffalo kill where all six Lionesses were around the kill. The buffalo hide was opened in two spots – the rump and the underbelly, and the lionesses spent most of their time at the latter point. Although the kill occurred before noon the lionesses had barely fed and their bellies were still tucked and tight. I suspect that after a three hour battle with this bull buffalo they were exhausted and may have spent the next few hours simply recovering. The bull was fully horned and I was surprised that the lionesses persevered for that length of time and simply did not give up. We were sorry we missed it – the kill lay completely in the open, and the only redemption here might be, based on the number of vehicles tonight, that the background may have been a disaster, with vehicles in every picture. That would have been maddening.
There was a report of two cheetahs and we hurried to that spot, finding a mother and nearly independent young cheetah moving through the grass. Several vehicles went off track (none of our’s) and within minutes park rangers descended, nabbing at least one driver as one of the rangers got out and climbed into his car. Another ranger walked across the grasses to confront a different vehicle, but his presence on foot was certainly far more upsetting to the cheetahs than was a vehicle off-road. The cats disappeared into the brush and we moved on. Henry’s vehicle came later and the cheetahs reappeared, walking down the road and taking a drink at a puddle, presenting nice reflections by doing so.
We hoped to find a serval in the gold light of early evening but we were unsuccessful, with our final shots of three elephants framed against a vivid late light sky.
Day 11. Lower Mara to Mara Triangle
This morning started badly! Two people were missing, having overslept, but fortunately with packing the vehicles for our game drive/commute to the next lodge nothing was really lost. Next, our usual picnic breakfast was not delivered this morning, as the lodge’s cooks forgot. Instead we went to the dining room for a quick ‘cooked’ breakfast, passing on anything that needed any time and instead gorging ourselves (most of us, anyway) on donuts, cakes, etc. as if we’d never eat again. For most, this only left an upset stomach. Last, one of our vehicles had a broken front seat, which I just learned about, so that vehicle needed a quick make-shift repair to keep the seat back upright and not in the lap or space of the person behind it.
All together we left nearly twenty minutes later than usual, and we were worried that the lions we’d planned on visiting would already be in cover. Fortunately they were not, and the rest of the morning game drive actually went quite well.
The lion pride at the kopje rocks were lounging near the road, with two 9 month old cubs repeatedly wrestling. Later, at an elephant carcass, Pat and Sherry’s vehicle had a male Lion circle the stinking corpse several times. When I visited, a short time earlier, a lioness was feeding upon the carcass but the images were not too dramatic, and all I could think was I’d have liked to have been there two evenings ago, just after the carcass was discovered by the lion pride.
Other vehicles had lionesses in a tree, perhaps as high as 30 feet off the ground, another had some older lion cubs playing and harassing a Savannah Monitor lizard, and Mary’s vehicle almost had a lion hunt when several gnus trotted in close.
The plains are strangely empty with most of the wildebeests gone, but a string of about 100 Common Zebras snaked down through the grasses to a lugga where, nervous at the water and close confines of the lugga’s banks, the zebras sprinted across the shallows, kicking up wonderful clouds of spray.
Fresh gnu carcasses lined the rocks at the Mara River, an indication of more river crossings and disasters, and the smell was just building to its peak. We didn’t stay long, and reached the lodge around 12:15 as the first cumulous clouds build up for the first afternoon rains in several days.
PM. A three cat afternoon – lion, leopard, and cheetah.
Although large puddles dot the road and landscape the tracks are dusty and dry. Further north and upriver it must still be raining heavily as the Mara River is at least a foot higher than it was on the last trip and the rapids run fast. Although we saw hippos and crocs none were shootable, although Mary’s vehicle did have a large Nile Crocodile eating a baby zebra, mostly with its back facing the camera.
We found a hungry pride of 14 Lions, with two lionesses, three 4 month old cubs, and some 1.5 years or so rounding out the group. The cubs tried to be playful but they looked hungry and after desultory attempts at play the cubs would simply lie down and wait. Two older cubs licked a younger brother with such enthusiasm that I was afraid they’d lift hair, find flesh, and discover there was a meal beneath all that fur! There were some nice shots of two mutually licking each other’s faces.
One of the rangers informed us that there were two cheetahs beneath a tree, males, and well-fed. We found them fairly easily but they were apathetic photo subjects, only lifting their heads when a vehicle drove near.
Mary’s vehicle discovered a leopard in a tree that climbed down, crossed the road, and climbed another tree, but the cat was shy and they only managed a few images. Our last shots of the day, in filtered golden light, was a small herd of elephants framed against the escarpment and the evening clouds.
Day 12. Mara Triangle
Under crystal clear skies we headed out towards the plains hoping for some cat activity. Chuck’s vehicle had a foraging Bat-eared Fox, moving about and digging for insects, but when we arrived the pair had already settled into the typical fox-huddle, and too far away for any shots. A few of the vehicles followed the river for a time and there had a pair of Hippos fighting, both in the water and on land, and although there was little if any actual biting there was a lot of open mouth yawls, and loud snapping of jaws. I’ve only seen this one time but the sounds emitted were unforgettable, primal roars that seemed more appropriate for the Jurassic and dinosaurs than a modern mammal.
We found the lion pride at a new location, now full from an overnight gnu kill. The last to feed was the Lioness with the four small cubs who were now gnawing at leftovers – the lioness the skull, the cubs on parts of the disjointed vertebrae.
After breakfast I spotted a Serval about 60 yards out in the grass but the cat was shy, and when Henry’s vehicle approached closer the cat sprang from cover and ran off. We managed a few snaps – all toss outs, I’m sure. Later we found the two male Cheetahs from yesterday evening. They were perched and watchful on a grassy termite mound, obviously hunting. When they finally climbed down the rangers that were monitoring the cheetahs made us drive off, as we had ‘too much time’ and by doing so we missed it when the cheetahs charged a warthog family, singling out the adult. Both cats took chase and eventually gave up, but the warthog turned back and charged the cats, probably as she was defending her babies from a possible attack. In fleeing, one cheetah leaped over a termite mound.
Another shy Leopard was spotted, and this one climbed and virtually disappeared in the top of a tree. Several safari vehicles drove by, stopping and looking into the wrong tree, as the cat was that well concealed, with only its long tail visible.
Mary caught the cold that one of the participants may have brought on to the trip, catching her’s from me, as I was the next to get sick. Mary, however, was so wiped out that she missed the morning game drive, and as I write this another person is reporting feeling poorly.
PM. A thunderstorm passed through the early afternoon and an enormous cumulous cloud dominated the western horizon through much of the afternoon. We headed down to the Mara River where a small group of Common Zebras toyed with us and the idea of crossing, and at one point one zebra determinedly stepped into the river amongst the rapids but panicked and ran back a short time later. Some massive Nile Crocodiles waited at each of the crossing points and at one, where the herd approached, we were hopeful for some action. Wisely, the zebras turned and headed back.
We spotted one large male Nile Crocodile lying in the shade on our side of the river, and from its snout I estimated it must have been 15 feet or longer. With American Alligators one can get a fairly good idea of the overall length by measuring, or estimating, the number of inches between the nostrils and eyes, with each inch representing a foot. If the same holds true for crocs, and I suspect it does, I am sure that there was at least 15 inches, and perhaps as many as 18, in that span. The body of the croc was huge, and I suspect measured eight feet in diameter. Truly a living dinosaur.
We spent most of the afternoon at a Spotted Hyena den where one black pup, probably only five weeks old, and several 3 month old pups played around the den. A subordinate male arrived at the den while we watched and the cubs spent much of their time playing with him. Young hyenas are impossible to sex as both appear to have penises, as the testosterone level is high in females and produces male secondary sexual characteristics. Hyena society is dominated by females, with one being truly dominant, but it is interesting that to do so the female must not only be big but must superficially resemble a male.
Leaving the den we spent the last light of the day looking for servals in the high grass. En route we stopped for what I thought was a Coqui Francolin but ended up to be a new species for David and for me, a Red-winged Francolin, that was actually a bit out of its range. We photographed it and compared the shots with the field guides, it was a perfect match.
At dinner this evening we discovered that lions three vehicles had up in a tree in the lower Mara also had a leopard in the tree! Tricia spotted it first with her images, and when Judy checked her’s she saw that it wasn’t a lion cub, as was thought, but a Leopard that was calmly sitting in a fork of the tree less than ten feet from the lion. No one saw it! Everyone’s attention was on the lions and the still leopard went unnoticed. We had a very good laugh over that!
Day 13. Mara Triangle
We headed south and west under a clear sky into areas a bit less visited by tourists. All morning only two other vehicles joined us at a subject.
We started the morning with Spotted Hyenas at a gnu kill, probably their own, which was mostly consumed by the time we arrived. There was a bit of dominance posturing but the feeding and behavior was fairly tame. Mary’s vehicle had a group of Lions finishing off a zebra meal.
We continued, and I spotted the two brother Cheetahs that were once again full but now an easy two or three miles from where we’d seen them yesterday morning. The cats were resting in the shade of an acacia but eventually shifted to another tree, giving us some opportunities for walking towards us, but they did not scent mark as I had expected them to. I suspect they were out of their usual home range and were not marking territory.
A pair of Lions were at the same water hole that, three weeks earlier, a pride had killed a gnu. The male looked full-bellied, as if they had completed the several days of mating and had shared what the guides often call a honeymoon kill. Oddly, however, the male was still quite attentive of the female and where ever she went he was close behind. The lioness often sat as if she was posturing for a mating, but if she were, and this was the beginning of the mating cycle, she did not do any of the usual trampy slinky posturing typical of a solicited mating. She was, though, very intent and appeared shy, and she looked a bit agitated and dangerous and so we kept our distance when the pair wandered to some distant outcroppings via the open plain.
After breakfast we found 7 more lions in two groups, with one being a Lioness with three cubs at a freshly killed gnu nine month old. As we approached she was dragging the remains of the carcass to some thicker brush where the cubs lay.
The late morning was very windy and the guides predict rain this afternoon. By 1:30 the northern horizon is lined by stacking cumulous clouds and the wind has continued, although the area around us is still in full sunshine.
PM. Although we expected rain the storms passed far to our northwest and the afternoon game drive had great weather and luck. Several vehicles finally had the Black Rhino and baby, in the open, for several minutes. Three of our vehicles also had a very cooperative Serval that walked out into the open, moving from tall grasses into the short grasses where it paused for spectacular portraits in soft, shadowless light. Truly one of the best servals in a long time.
My vehicle stayed along the Mara River and so we missed both the rhino and the serval but we had a great afternoon. Two huge Nile Crocodiles were sunning on the bank with one, we suspect the larger and dominant croc, in company with five large females. Although the crocs did nothing we were so close that appreciating their size was a given.
We took a track through a riverine forest that led to a little visited hippo corner where about 50 hippos floated or soaked, offering nothing exceptional. In the forest, however, we could see the smooth shiny back of another hippo, and I wondered aloud whether it was a male that might move in to the hippo corner. Indeed, it did, slowly moving out of cover and then skirting the forest edge as it slowly walked towards the river.
The resident bull hippo saw this interloper and slowly climbed out of the water, then with very deliberate slow steps advanced towards this new bull, which retreated back into the forest. At the trail where it emerged the harem bull paused, roared, and did a lengthy wide-open mouth gaping display, establishing its territory and dominance. After doing so it walked back into the brush and the new bull confronted it, resulting in a jaw-gaping fight where both appeared to be seriously fighting. The interloper gave in first and turned, with the harem bull in close pursuit visibly biting the side of the retreating bull. They disappeared into the brush then but after about ten minutes another fight must have started as the howls and bellows characteristic of a fight started again.
Two juveniles, attracted by all the noise, climbed out of the water and after a few seconds began to play fight, with one actually lifting his forelegs off the ground as he enthusiastically sparred with the other. It appeared that they were motivated to fight, or play fight, in mimicry, just as young kids might engage in a football game while attending the real event of a high school game.
Another harem bull from further down river was attracted by the commotion and climbed out onto the sand bank. It moved to higher ground and, within a few minutes, the first harem bull appeared. I expected another fight but instead the new bull simply gave a big yawn and head toss, and then charged back into the stream, his mouth widely agape as he did so. Once in the water all of the cows and young nearby gathered about, ‘kissing his ass’ or so it seemed, but seemingly reasserting connections.
Meanwhile, the first harem bull slowly walked along the upper beach, pausing for a great dung/urine spray display on a small bush, with the hippo’s flat, paddle-like tail flinging the dung everywhere. It continued to the water where, like the other bull, it was greeted by the others. One juvenile seemed to go out of its way to greet and nuzzle around the head of the bull, as if saying, ‘you did great, dad,’ despite how antropormorphic that may seem.
I think what happened between the two resident harem bulls was this: The second resident bull knew a territorial fight was going on. That was obvious even to us humans! When the first resident bull reappeared and the two met, the second bull recognized the first, and knew that they had their established territories and hierarchies, and so, after a yawning display he retreated back to the water, fast, and headed back downriver to his territory. The first bull, his original territory and harem not challenged, did not pursue, and instead simply reaffirmed his position by the dung/scent marking behavior.
At any rate, it was one of the most interesting afternoons I’ve ever spent with hippos and if their behavior has any correlation with how other animals (like humans) behave, it all makes sense.
Day 14. Mara Triangle to Upper Mara
At 3AM a smoke alarm siren sounded throughout the lodge and I got up to check out the area, but there was no smoke and a guard, when he eventually showed up, said it was just a false alarm. By 4 I was back in bed for a 5AM wake-up. This made for a tiring day.
We left the lodge without further incident, having packed our luggage, and in the predawn light one of the vehicles spotted a very good black-maned African Lion. When we arrived it was simply sitting overlooking the valley and his kingdom, but just as the sun rose he stood, faced the sun, and began roaring. He moved uphill and our vehicles kept pace, getting ahead and letting the lion walk into us. It was a good start.
We searched unsuccessfully for the black rhino and did various birds and mammals. Two vehicles saw a Leopard trot towards both a Warthog and Impala – leopards cannot make a kill this way – but a male Waterbuck saw the leopard and gave chase.
We continued north, crossing the Mara River at the north bridge, and in doing so revisited areas that we knew from our days at the Mara River Camp. Mara Rianta, the village that eventually killed game driving in that area, is bigger than ever, and as Don said, it is like a little city now, although a sprawling village is a more accurate description.
To reach our camp our driver/guides took a river route, avoiding the Musiara Gate where they may have wasted time checking in. To no avail. The rangers saw the vehicles and assumed that we were trying to avoid paying the fees (we do this at the airstrip at our lodge) and raced to intercept us. They held Henry’s vehicle, and mine, with David and the park tickets, had to turn around and drive back, a 10 minute drive. He had suggested to take us to camp and then go back, but luckily I knew where we were and knew the impracticality of that suggestion. Had we done so, it would have been over an hour before Mary and the others in Henry’s vehicle would have been relieved. No one would have been happy!
PM. It was almost abnormally hot as we started the game drive but within 30 minutes the looming thunderheads in the west blocked the sun, bringing a pleasant relief. We started with a herd of Common Zebras that moved down to the ‘Stinky Waters,’ a ford where rocks back up the hippo dung-filled river, forming a fetid green soup. We were surprised to see the zebras drink there but the entire herd did so and moved on.
A pride of seven Lions lulled about in the grasses, their bellies just the right size to suggest that the juvenile males might start playing. They did not, and the only activity was one lioness that stared intently at the distant zebra herd slowly moving their way. At the end of the day this herd had moved in close enough that we thought a hunt was imminent, but the zebras, less than 100 yards away, moved uphill rather than across the grade and the lions were not tempted.
We spent the bulk of our afternoon drive at a Hippo pool where several hippos yawned, while an African Common Sandpiper hopped around from one hippo back to another. Everyone searched for leopards without success, although one vehicle had a 20 minute session with Zebras fighting, where the pair reared on their hind legs at least four times.
Day 15. Upper Mara
We spent the first 45 minutes of the morning looking for a leopard around the Talek River and, having no success, we headed to the plains where we had the lion pride in the late afternoon. They were gone, as were the zebra herds that were in the area. We continued up to the crest of Rhino Ridge, one of the few times I’ve been there, and from this elevation, almost at the same height as the Mara Serena lodge on the opposite side of the river, one could see much of the Mara.
We descended into the Topi Plains, quite aptly named as there were Topi everywhere. A newborn Thompson’s Gazelle showed its energy, racing around its mother and periodically flipping to the pogo-stick like jumps called ‘pronking’ which, in adults, often is a way for an adult to demonstrate fitness and to alert other animals of the presence of a predator. By showing fitness via this pronking, a predator may realize that one, it’s been seen, and two, it is fit and healthy enough to waste energy by jumping about rather than simply running away, as if to say ‘you’re wasting your time trying to catch me, I’m strong and fit.’
We found a Common Zebra with several terrible gashes in its hindquarters from the raking, truly saber-like claws of a lion, and a hefty bite out of the haunch as well. The zebra was lame, too, perhaps from a broken leg. We wondered if, with a severe wound like this, the zebra was lucky enough to get off a good kick, hitting the lion square in the face and in doing so making its escape. Otherwise, it just doesn’t seem possible that with both a savage raking from the claws and a good bite as well, and a lame leg, it would not have escaped. Any lion now seeing this limping, disabled zebra would go for it, however, so the reprieve, we’re sure, will be a short one.
After breakfast we found three extremely tame Eland, the largest of the true African antelopes. One carried a thatch of vegetation between its horns while another had oxpeckers hitching up its legs. Eland make a noticeable ‘clicking’ noise when they walk, and the exact cause of this is not certain. Some believe that it is the joints or the tendons snapping over bone as it walks, but I’d think that would cause deterioration over time. A better theory, I believe, is that this heavy animal’s hooves splay when the eland’s full weight is placed on them, and when lifted, with the weight removed, the two halves of the hoof snap together, causing the audible click.
Henry had a Leopard and we crossed the Talek and raced to the spot but by the time our other vehicles arrived the leopard had left the shade of the bushes and had dropped into a lugga. It did,however, perform wonderfully for Paulette, Caroline, and Jeff, as the cat walked in to the open and stood or sat beside their vehicle for several minutes, then walked directly towards them as it moved towards the lugga.
After lunch I spent nearly two hours getting a Range IR and flash setup for the Genet, setting up five flashes at a spot where I hope the animal will pass. As I write this, everything is covered with plastic and a sprinkle threatens the evening shoot.
PM. We had headed out into the area where the leopard had been spotted but she remained hidden, and so we continued to the plains where, earlier in the day, a cheetah and mother had been seen. We didn’t find her either, but the afternoon was quite productive.
The skies lent themselves to great backgrounds for herds of zebra and topi and, late in the day, strong silhouettes of African Buffalo against the orange sky. Mary had a classic acacia/sunset image, and others had, at other times, 50 ostrich chicks, hippos with oxpeckers, and a variety of birds.
We’d stopped for a Spotted Hyena that ended up walking straight to our vehicle, giving great vertical portraits as it neared, until eventually it was merely a headshot.
Three African Buffalo with
Yellow-billed Oxpeckers caught our attention, and we had headshots of the buffalo with the birds annoying their ears and noses.
Throughout the afternoon, black storm clouds covered the northern horizon and tall cumulus thunderheads dominated the western sky, making for both dramatic skyscapes and landscapes. At sunset the entire sky was alight with splashes of red and orange, against a backdrop of roiling blacks and grays and blues, a visual spectacle that was perhaps impossible to convey with an image but breathtaking to behold.
We got in late and I rushed to get my flashes set up for the Bushbaby, and began that shoot actually behind the camera where I experienced unexpected frustrations by forgetting an off-camera bracket and then having the camera refuse to fire without a cause I could discern. Eventually the camera functioned correctly, I calmed down, and, as we went to dinner, I managed some Range IR shots of a Spotted Genet crossing a vine.
Day 16. Upper Mara
Today was a slow day, as can be expected towards the end when we’re looking for the final gems to complete the safari. We spent the first hour looking unsuccessfully for the leopard or, in my case, birding along the Talek River with John and Judy where we found a Woodland Kingfisher and Brown Snake Eagle, among others. Two different Lionesses had cubs, one with babies probably just one month old and teetering along on unsteady legs, the other lioness being the one with the cub with the club foot, who is still surviving. We did find the two brother Cheetahs, which Henry found and followed nearly a mile as they scent-marked every termite mound, eventually settling down in the shade of a small shrub. They had eaten, and both cats’ bellies were distended to huge proportions.
After breakfast most of the group continued to the Maasai Village where they did a cultural tour, while my vehicle and another continued a game drive. At 10AM the sky was virtually cloud free and the air was hot, but an hour later cumulus clouds dotted the sky everywhere, giving some relief when a cloud passed across the sun. We were in by 11:30, with the Maasai village people returning by 1.
PM. The leopard with the cub was spotted this morning and we went for a thorough search, but again we were unsuccessful. At the Stinky Waters crossing a bull hippo moved in to challenge the resident that uses the stagnant pool beside the ford, but after one gaping mouth display the new bull moved on upstream. The skies stayed overcast from an earlier afternoon shower and it was pleasantly cool, but the game was scarce. At the end of the day Mary’s vehicle and another found a truly unexpected find, a Black Rhino that emerged from the brush. We’ve never had a rhino from this camp and it was tame, and an unexpected treat, although the light was quite low and shutter speeds slow, but the viewing was wonderful.
I worked on another Ranger IR setup tonight after fine-tuning last night’s shoot, adding a backlight via a make-shift light stand and disguising an objectionable guy rope that appeared in the frame. Bushbabies of both color phases and another Spotted Genet came in, and the images using backlighting certainly were an improvement.
Day 17. Upper Mara
Our last full day of the safari and the morning began cold and damp, with a light skein of clouds that burned off as the morning progressed and the temperature slowly increased. We looked for the black rhino that was seen last evening but without luck, and continued into the southern plains where we hoped to find the cheetah and cub, the mother often climbing atop vehicles.
En route the various vehicles had diverse luck, from mating Hippos at the stinky waters to a pair of Black-backed Jackals that played tug-of-war with a carcass, eventually ripping it apart. I encountered the pair later, with the jackal walking right to our vehicle carrying a portion of the carcass nearly as large as itself. When it passed our vehicle it stopped and buried the carcass, using its snout to cover the meat, not its feet as I’d have expected.
We continued, and when David noticed a Hyena moving by he looked back and spotted the Cheetahs on the horizon. We drove near and the mother Cheetah did what we hoped she’d do, jumping on to our rear tire and then up to the back hatch of our landrover. She sat there, posing regally while Don, Bill, David, and I stood beside her, posing for pictures. The cheetah never looked our way, yet we were just 18 inches away. Eventually she hopped down and began a long, careful stalk of a herd of Impala and we positioned ourselves for the hunt. A lugga, a dry gulch or ravine, separated the impala from the cheetah and instead of the cat slipping into the gulch and using it as cover to get closer she, instead, simply began her run, charging across the field and into and over the lugga and continuing across the plains. The impala, of course, saw her and ran off and after a long run she gave up the chase. Her cub had remained behind and the cub began to call, chirping to attract her mother’s attention. Eventually they met up, settled beneath a bush and, in the complete absence of any game near by, we headed back to camp.
Along the way back Henry spotted the Black Rhino, which walked across the track in front of them, and then, quite close to camp, he spotted the female Leopard which posed and walked right to their vehicle before continuing into the bush.
PM. We did a search for that leopard without success before crossing the Talek River to search for the black rhino. We found it, completely in the open in the grassland, where it was feeding upon acacia seedlings. The rhino was off track and somewhat distant, and we took only a few images before moving on.
Since this was the last official game drive of our safari season Mary joined me and Carolyn for the drive. We’d just finished shooting a Pied Kingfisher when we received a call that Ben had spotted the young Leopard female in a tree. She was still there when we arrived and all of our vehicles got shots of the cat in the tree. She was full, and we were quite surprised when she climbed down and began walking towards the open fields. Several vehicles were present and all jockeyed about trying to get into a good position as the cat walked by, completely nonchalant beside the vehicles where, twice, she stopped and sat right next to one.
The cat began another walk, fortunately moving towards us when she paused and we stopped for some portraits. She sat, almost too close for a properly framed image, and then moved to a small rock pile quite close to us where she lay, posing beautifully and facing our way. We were the only vehicle close, and when she finally got up and began moving again, towards cover, we happily left her, and the other vehicles still attempting to get some last images, and we headed for home.
That evening we did a 650 plus slide show of all of our participants’ work, and the show was wonderful – really illustrating everything we’d seen. We had our farewell dinner and thanked the guides, concluding the evening after 10PM. The group leaves tomorrow on the plane while Mary and I, and Don, Judy, and Larry remain for another two days in the Mara before heading off to Rwanda for our 71st – 75th mountain gorilla trek.
Day 18. Upper Mara Extension
The majority of the group was flying out this morning and had a chance to sleep in, but Judy, Don, Larry, Mary and I were out at 6 for another game drive. Henry’s vehicle crossed the Talek and soon found the Leopard from last evening. She was lying and sitting beneath a croton bush up close, and later went for a stalk of an Impala herd, but she unexpectedly gave up, flopped on her side, and rolled over. She never resumed her hunt.
Henry’s vehicle found the mother Cheetah and cub, and like yesterday she again climbed atop the vehicle, giving all three shooters a chance for some images. Judy did a GoPro video, and the entire sequence lasted about 2.5 minutes, although the cheetah did get up and rotate, facing the opposite direction, for a short time before it dropped back to the ground.
Our vehicle looked around the croton bushes on the camp-side of the river where the mother leopard and cub were seen playing yesterday evening. She had vanished, but we did have a roaring Lioness who walked down the dawn track with a herd of nervous Impala behind her, keeping tabs on her travels.
We headed upriver hoping to find the lioness with the newborn cubs but, not finding her at her lair, we headed away from the river and north. Mary spotted a Lioness just below the horizon and we suspect that she had been feeding at what little remains of the hippo carcass. She was still hungry and very fly-covered, but she walked with purpose and we suspect she was heading back to her cubs. While following her we found her pride.
This pride of Lions has five large males in the group, including at least two that are among the best manes and biggest we’ve ever seen. The males were still in possession of an Eland carcass, probably from a kill in the predawn. This was just the third eland I’ve ever seen killed by predators – once, in the lower Mara we came upon a pride that had killed one eland, and the other time when two big male cheetahs brought down an eland calf.
The mother Lioness with the two cubs that we’d seen last trip was there, and her one cub, who we thought had a malformed club foot, appears to be better, walking on the foot in an almost normal fashion. We suspect that the cub may have had an injury or infection in the paw that swelled it to a large size, and the swelling is finally going down. Both cubs investigated the male lions and one of the largest, Notch, licked and groomed the cub.
We had a chance to investigate the clicking that we hear when an eland walks. We found a severed foreleg which we picked up and I held the two halves of the hoof apart, then released them, and we heard the distinctive click. The theory I always thought - that the hooves spread apart when weight is upon them and snap closed when lifted - appears true.
We eventually left the lions and looked for the mother cheetah with two cubs or the two brothers, but found neither. We did come upon a still-born Zebra that vultures were in the process of demolishing, and when a Spotted Hyena finally came in and grabbed the last two bones, nothing remained. A Marabou Stork had swallowed a leg whole, and the leg wouldn’t go down, and instead stuck in the bird’s crop so sharply that the crop jutted out nearly as far as the beak. Finally she got the hoof in, too, and the leg disappeared
PM. Henry headed out for the leopard and caracal while we headed back for the lions. Soon after leaving camp Henry’s plans were changed as a storm enveloped that section of the Mara. By the time we reached the lions the storm had moved from the west and covered us as well, and for most of the game drive we were under roof. The male Lions sat patiently enduring the rain, their huge manes now flattened and slick to their bodies. When the rains slowed or nearly stopped we expected the lions to immediately shake and although they eventually did, we waited! Meanwhile, on the other bank of the Talek the two cubs played vigorously with the mother, but too far away to tempt us from leaving the lions. As the light faded the cubs and lioness crossed the river and rejoined the males.
The male physically blocked the lioness from feeding and although he snarled and growled at the cubs, which cowered the mother, the cubs completely ignored his threats. Instead they greeted him, then ducked around him, and fed beside him. Slowly the female inched in and fed at the head end of the carcass while the cubs chewed on whatever meat remained on the ribs and the male worked at the remains of the hips. We left them at 5:45 as the light had virtually disappeared.
It was raining again when we returned to camp and although I tried another session with the bushbabies nothing appeared in the rain. Batteries failed on some gear and rather than fighting the rain to change them I took down everything, too worried that the dampness might ruin the gear for our upcoming bat shoot in Tanzania.
Day 19. Upper Mara Extension
Although it rained or drizzled throughout the evening it was clear, and cold, at dawn this morning. Our last day, and I suggested we check on the lion pride. Mary and David wanted to do one last check of the Leopard that has been seen near camp and within ten minutes of our game drive Mary spotted the Leopard, and her cub. Both were lying in the middle of a track and as we watched the six month old cub walked up the road and butt-butted her mother. They disappeared into the brush and we raced ahead, where the two reappeared again. For the next several minutes the mother leopard would walk up or down the game tracks with the cub hiding in the brush nearby and then rushing out to pounce on her mother. Several times both broke into a loping run, sometimes right towards us. David radioed Henry and the camp guides and soon we had eight other vehicles about, all jockeying for a good position. Incredibly, I felt we were always exactly where we needed to be, despite the crowd.
At one point the two walked towards our vehicle, which was parked straddling the track, and both walked to and underneath our vehicle. The mother paused on the other side and stood while her cub began a very mature and professional-looking stalk of an Impala. The baby crept forward, low and rapid, an absolute miniature of an adult. The mother watched, then laid down on the track just a few feet in front of my window. Mary and I continued shooting, both of us so close that Don, Judy, and Larry in a vehicle a bit distant and opposite us could get the three of us into the frame quite easily. David climbed out of his driver’s seat and stood out of the hatch so he, too, could be included in the shot.
A couple of Defassa Waterbuck spotted the mother as she was sitting and may have alerted the impala, as the cub stalked back, circled the vehicles, and returned to her mother, making their greeting in frame-filling distance of our window. Both then reversed direction, slithered beneath our vehicle, and continued down the track. We followed.
The leopards disappeared in the croton thickets but they appeared to be still on the move and so we circled, catching the cats again as they emerged and crossed a sparkling back-lighted meadow, walking almost straight to us. Half way across the mother spotted another impala and she began a hunt, first raising her head high to check positioning, then trotting forward, head still high to watch the game. The impala disappeared in the crotons and the leopards passed us, slipping into the thickets as well. The female reemerged as we rounded a game trail in search, and we had probably the best portrait sequence of the morning as she walked towards us, then sat erect in the early morning light. After hundreds of shots she disappeared into the brush and after a bit more searching we left her to look for other game.
We had a sane breakfast hour stop, and afterwards our two vehicles headed into cheetah country. Someone reported a cheetah, and we found her, and her two cubs, quite close to where we’d seen these same three cats on our first safari. Henry’s vehicle reached them first, just in time to see the mother charge a Thompson’s Gazelle, but she missed. When we found her she and her cubs were approaching a shaded termite mound, where we photographed her until we had to leave.
On the return to camp Don, Judy, and Larry almost had a Lion kill. They did a long stalk, repeatedly crossing the streams at the double crossing fords, as they hunted a herd of Eland. Something spooked the antelope and they charged ahead, crossing a lugga and almost running into one of the lionesses. She did nothing and the elands escaped. Henry thought the lioness was a young one and intimidated by the size of the eland. It’s possible that the lions also knew the chase was one-sided, since they were already in a run and it may have been too easy to shift from ‘third gear’ to ‘fifth gear’ and to sprint away. Nonetheless, the cats didn’t strike, although it was an exciting conclusion to the morning game drive.
Although the day had started clear, I noted that at 9:30 there were three tiny cumulus cloud puffs over the escarpment. By 11:30 the sky was filled with cumulous clouds, especially thick to the south and west where yesterday’s storms arose. By 2PM we could hear thunder, and by 2:45 it was raining, lightly and sporadically, but the skies to the south were now completely covered in clouds.
PM. Most of the western horizon was covered in storms and thunderheads when I started our game drive at 4, the two diehards, Judy with Henry, and me with David. Mary stayed back, busy packing. Although I expected the storms to overtake us they did not, instead drifting even further west and the afternoon stayed cool and bright, with patches of sunlight throughout the afternoon.
I went looking for lions, finding the 10 that had hunted the eland this morning, the mating pair, and two others, before reaching the pride where all five male Lions were stretched out asleep and in the open. The two cubs were nearby, as was their mother. For 40 minutes I waited for some activity but eventually the cubs awoke and began to play. One was thirsty and moved down, unescorted, to the river, and the other soon followed. The lioness was asleep and when she awoke her cubs were gone. She looked about, and followed down the track where she did flehmen at a spot where one of the cubs had urinated. Then she began a lull call, and soon the two cubs reappeared and joined their mother. From there they went to one of the males, and played with him, but another tourist vehicle was almost directly behind the male and the shots were compromised.
We were almost ready to go when the cubs began playing again, wrestling, then playing with the lioness’s tail, then playing again. We stayed until they tired, and started back at 6:20, arriving back at camp at 6:40 with the sun just setting. I had taken down all of my lights and setup material for the bushbabies earlier in the day and I wondered if I’d regret doing so as the evening was clear. However, I got back into camp so late that shooting would have been impractical and, quite surprisingly, no bushbaby showed up tonight.
We had dinner with our guides, delivered our final tip, and said our goodbyes, to the guides and to the Mara for another year.
Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an even better idea of what our trips are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.