This safari marked our 30th year of doing safaris in Kenya, arguably the greatest show on earth with the widest variety of birds and mammals to photograph quite easily. Normally our safaris are mainly filled by 'veterans,' photographers who have either done a previous safari to Kenya with us or have traveled with us to some other destination. This safari was unique in that most of the participants had never been to Kenya, and thus were seeing the country and its wildlife with fresh, new eyes. For us this is particularly exciting -- it is great to share the excitement of seeing one's first elephant or lion, as we never get tired of doing so ourselves. As usual, our luck was superb and we had numerous dailly highlights, which will be noted in the report that follows. Here then is the trip report!
Day One. Nairobi to Samburu Game Reserve
Everyone arrived safely and with all luggage over the previous two or three nights, and this morning we left by 9 for our long drive to Samburu. Four days ago it had begun to rain in Nairobi and the surrounding highlands, and today was no exception as we headed north.
At Tree Trout, where we had lunch, the skies cleared and after lunch the Colobus Monkeys cooperated, with a mother and still silver-white baby sitting in the grass gathering the nuts one of the restaurant’s staff put out to lure the monkeys low. Several other Colobus gathered as well, some making prodigious leaps from surrounding trees to a small tree in the feeding area. One juvenile leaped and missed, or lost its grip as it hit a small branch, literally doing a 360 rotational spin, and still landing on its feet after snagging, and missing, the branch.
We arrived at Elephant Bedroom Camp by 5:15 or so, having seen a surprisingly few number of endemics that we normally pass en route to the camp. The camp itself is located on the floodplain and the road in was ominous, with huge puddles and still wet mud slicks extending to the river’s edge, still swollen from a flash flood the day before. That flood wiped out several tents of a camp further upstream and although water from that flood had moved beneath some of our camp’s tents, the lay of the bank and the current was such that any high waters would not pose a threat to us.
Day Two. Samburu
We loaded at 6 and hoped to leave by 6:15, and actually beat that time by two minutes as everyone had their beanbags and equipment squared away fairly quickly. Although yesterday afternoon was cloudy the morning dawned clear, although with the greater humidity of the early rainy season the golden light was soft. Kori Bustards were in display in the distance, with their necks fanned into huge white ruffs and their tails cocked sharply into a V, and several, not in display, were close enough for shots.
The morning was extremely productive, with all of the endemics – Reticulated Giraffes (necking for some), Beisa Oryx (fighting for some), Gerenuk standing, Somalia Ostriches with chicken-sized chicks, Desert Warthogs, and a lone Grevy’s Zebras – photographed by nearly everyone. Henry’s vehicle had a good series with Elephant, and Mary had a cooperative mating pair of Pigmy Falcons.
By 11 it was hot, and all but the Giraffes were seeking shade. Clouds were building, and by 2:30PM a big storm was looming to the west, towards Isiolo. The rains, I suspect, have been especially fierce, as the desert floor in many areas looks swept clean of any detritus, and piles of flotsam, carried by a current, are scattered around the base of many of the acacias. Some of the roads we’d normally drive along the river are impassable, as the entire plain is still wet and slick with a chocolaty later of mud.
PM. As expected, the afternoon was cloudy, with more storms in the west that carried south, treating us to a cool, breezy afternoon. I was with Felix, Henry and Cynthia, and we covered the foothills hoping for leopard. Gunther’s Dik-Diks were especially cooperative, with males and subadult males still with the adults marking their communal dung heaps, first urinating, then defecating in the pile. Two family groups faced off one-another at a road, with the crests of both males held stiffly erect, but after the confrontation, both groups backed off, marked territory via their preorbital glands, and resumed feeding, as if the pairs were hundreds of yards apart.
David’s vehicle spotted a leopard and a lion, and we headed in that direction, but we never got there as Henry’s vehicle was mired deeply in the mud. One vehicle wasn’t enough to pull it out, and it wasn’t until David arrived, after sunset, that we got two cables on, giving a two car tow to rip Henry’s ‘rover from the mud. We arrived back in camp after dark.
Day 3. Samburu
We left at 6:12, intending on driving across to the Buffalo Springs Reserve via the bridge upriver that connects these two sister parks. Instead we drove out on a different access road and turned right, heading downriver and in the opposite direction for the bridge. We stopped our drivers at that point and asked them where they were going, learning only then that the upriver bridge was out and the route we’d need to take to Buffalo Springs would take nearly an hour!
What was so annoying about this development was the evening before, while at dinner, we talked with our guides about the next day’s plans and none of our guides bothered to mention that the bridge was out, and that the alternate route would waste great morning light. We changed plans immediately, and Mary and my vehicle did a circuitous route around the mountains in what might be a short cut to the old Samburu Intrepids area, where we used to stay. There, nineteen African wild dogs have been regularly seen, and we hoped that covering some of the backcountry might uncover them. We didn’t have luck.
The backcountry, however, rises to a higher elevation than anywhere else in the park and from there we had good views and scenic shots of Mt. Kenya in the distance. From the river plain below we have only a few limited windows to the mountain but from here rolling foothills and distant ridges gave the scene some interest. Aside from some birds and Elephants and Giraffes the drive was fairly non-eventful and as we descended we learned that David had, once again, spotted a leopard. Henry, Cynthia, and Tom were treated to a real show, as David had spotted the leopard just after it had spooked a Gerenuk. As David looked back to where the gerenuk had started he saw the twitching tail of the cat, no doubt frustrated by a missed kill. Over the next number of minutes the leopard walked directly to their vehicle, and close by several times as they kept pace with the cat.
By the time we arrived in that area the leopard had disappeared, climbing back into the mountains. Our morning was mainly birds, with one of the best views of a reasonably close Orange-bellied Parrot, as well as weavers, starlings, and goshawks.
Gray-headed Kingfisher; Pigmy Falcon;
Rosy-patched Bush-Shrike; Reticulated Giraffe
Toward the end of the morning we encountered a Somalia Ostrich male with two females and about a dozen chicken-sized babies quite close to the road. We stayed with them for fifteen minutes or so until the chicks, overheated from the sun, clustered together in the late morning shade. As we drove back to camp we had our first good group of African Elephants that were working the short grasses along the access road. Two elephants visited a large mud puddle close by and a third did a mud bath, giving us a fairly decent show considering the availability of water everywhere and the scarcity of elephants.
PM. Again in the South black storm clouds and a wall of rain obscured the horizon but the rains passed to our west and our afternoon was relatively cool and, until just after 5, fairly bright. Mary’s vehicle headed back into the foothills where, this morning, they had just missed a cheetah with four cubs that were feeding upon a half-grown male gerenuk. By the afternoon the vultures had cleaned up most of the carcass, leaving just scattered leg bones and segments of the ribs.
We were hoping to see leopards and headed up one of the tree lined luggas where I spotted a large Plated Lizard, a thick-bodied, skink-like reptile resting at the edge of a termite hole. Normally this rare lizard is shy, but this one simply sat there as we photographed near frame-filling range. Earlier, Ben had spotted another lizard, a large Savannah Monitor in the tall grasses. The lizard raised its head repeatedly as it moved about, but I couldn’t be sure whether that was to investigate for food or to watch for danger. Since these lizards normally hunt by taste, flicking their tongues repeatedly, the food option didn’t seem likely, but perhaps with the lizard-high grasses it simply needed to be taller to see where it intended to go. Later, we photographed another lizard, a brightly colored Rock Agama stretched out on a boulder at eye-level.
By 6 the western clouds had so masked any light that it seemed well past sunset, and we drove back to camp in the dull gloom of a premature dusk with Nightjars flitting about before us.
Day 4. Samburu
Although we’ve had three leopards out of four game drives, only a few of us actually saw one. This morning my mission was to find a leopard for the group, a lofty goal considering it is contingent almost completely upon luck. We headed to the mountain foothills where, about a quarter mile away, David had a female yesterday morning. We were hoping to intercept the leopard as she returned from the night’s hunt on the flatlands, and we did. The Leopardess was crossing the track in front of us and continued uphill. We followed, getting ahead of her once as she walked on by, but instead of disappearing the leopardess paralleled the base of the mountain. At one point she climbed a tall acacia tree and posed nicely, but she didn’t stay and only our vehicle got that pose. Three of our other vehicles arrived soon after and had good but somewhat distant views of the leopard as she continued, slowly angling uphill until she disappeared.
We continued on, working on birds, including a spectacular Rosy-patched Bush Shrike that sang from atop an acacia. Just yards from our vehicle the female was squishing about inside a bush, shaping the inside contours of a nest. Against the backdrop of echoing rocks, and at our close distance, the shrike’s song was vibrant, clearer than I think I’ve ever heard that song.
Mary radioed that they had the leopard again. After we left the leopard moved back down hill and ended at a large kopje-like rock pile close to the road. We hurried to the spot where now about 25 vehicles were clustered, watching the leopard as she lay upon a rock in the open and in the shade. We kept our distance, figuring that she would move and we’d be free to position ourselves clear of the vehicles, and in that way got some nice shots when she left the rocks and walked into the salt brush. We ate breakfast nearby, hoping she’d appear again but she didn’t, either slipping away in the brush or, more likely, just sleeping somewhere in the shade.
Elephants dominated much of the rest of the morning, and we encountered several different herds of 12 to 30 as they drank at the river, walked towards our vehicle, bathed in the mud, and wallowed. Two days ago we’d seen only one herd, and yesterday I saw less than a half dozen, so today’s numbers, totaling well over 100, was in start contrast.
We arrived back at camp after 11, with skies dotted with cumulous clouds that, I suspect, will bring more afternoon rain.
PM. For the first time the afternoon weather pattern broke and the western skies were clear. Tim and Pansy hoped to work on filling in with some scenic and termite mounds, and with the clear, directional afternoon light we had perfect conditions for that subject matter. We drove up towards the pyramid mountain where we hoped to find some kudu and although unsuccessful there we spotted two different groups of Klipspringers on the rocks.
This antelope, vaguely resembling a larger version of the dik-dik, is noteworthy in its ability to negotiate rocks and cliffs, via its downward pointing hooves. Quite literally, the klipspringer stands on its tip-toes, as only the front portion of the hoof meets the ground. All antelope, of course, do stand on their toes or hooves, as the ‘hand’ bones are further up the legs and never reach the ground, a stance called digitgrade,. Most mammals walk similarly, including the cats whose thick pad is analogous to the pad on our palms at the base of our fingers. In contrast, bears, honeybadgers, skunks, and the primates, including ourselves, have a plantigrade step where the entire foot touches the ground.
No cats were seen this afternoon but various vehicles had good luck with babies, including two young Grant’s Gazelles, as well as herds of Grevy’s Zebras. Shortly after six we assembled at the river where our lodge hosted a sun-downer, and we returned to camp in the dark.
Day 5. Samburu to Lake Nakuru National Park
We left at 6:30 for the long drive to Nakuru. Although the roads from Samburu are now quite good the route still took the usual length of time, and with only short breaks we arrived around 1:30PM. The lake is almost unrecognizable from its past, as nearly continuous year-round rains have swelled the shoreline. Where, not many years ago, we’d see a thick ring of rosy pink, represented hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of Lesser Flamingos as we rounded the final rise overlooking the lake we were now looking on a vast lake, its shoreline reaching to the edge of the forest.
Lesser flamingos need shallow brackish water in which to feed, and with the increase volume the lake, I suspect, is now mostly fresh and the flamingos’ food is gone. Greater flamingos and African white pelicans are now the dominant species, but the spectacular concentration of lesser flamingos, and their show of color and cacophony of sound is gone.
PM. Although it sprinkled while we had lunch the weather cleared and we had an incredible afternoon around the lake. A huge-horned White Rhinoceros grazed towards the roadside, giving us great full body shots and tight portraits until it eventually crossed the road, with a pair of Cattle Egrets in tow.
Although the lake shore was now up to the grasses there was still an access road that led into the now submerged shoreline and from there we photographed African White Pelicans, Yellow-billed Storks, and Greater Flamingos. Because Mary and I anticipated rain, and therefore a boring game drive with the roof hatches closed, we stupidly left our backpacks and most of our lenses behind, and were limited to just our 500mm telephotos. We regretted it as the nearly blue-black northern storm clouds made a great , backdrop, especially when, towards sunset, the sun popped and bathed the entire flock of pelicans and flamingos in a beautiful gold light. There were a few Lesser Flamingos huddled in one small flock but the Greater Flamingos were close, and our lead vehicle, its tires almost in the water, had very close shooting opportunities, probably the best ever.
As many as nine White Rhinos grazed towards us at one point, we had at least four, if not seven lions – but no shots, and good Common Zebras, Anteater Chats, and Rollers, and my misgivings about Nakuru with the unexpected high water levels proved unnecessary. The evening shoot was spectacular, and as I write this, not far off a lion just gave its coughing roar.
Day 6. Lake Nakuru to the Masai Mara
We were loaded and ready for our game drive, and subsequent five hour drive to the Mara, by 7. The lake basin was enshrouded with thick fog, masking the opposite shoreline and creating a beautiful ethereal landscape where yellow-fever acacia tree forests melted away into the gray gloom. We did some nice shots of Yellow-billed Storks feeding close by in a bay with the water merging in the distance with the gray fog, and a few small herds of Common Zebras with ghostly silhouettes of solitary acacia trees. By 8AM the fog lifted and the magic was gone, and we continued on into the park under increasingly brightening skies.
We found a small group of Rothschild’s Giraffes, one of our target species here, and another group of eight White Rhinoceroses that grazed close to the road. At the point where, yesterday, we had had such good luck with pelicans and flamingos the area was relatively deserted, although rather close to the road we did have a huge flock of both Yellow-billed Storks and African White Pelicans that worked well for some scenics.
By 10:40 we were back to the park gate where we dissembled our gear in preparation for the long drive to the Mara. Although we didn’t arrive until 5:30, with a break for lunch and a quick break for gas, the road was not nearly as torturous as we’ve had in past years. Much of the dirt section had been graded or filled in with marum, a mix of red clay and stone, and those sections, although wash-boarding at times, was still pothole free and kept us at a decent pace.
The drive through the park to our lodge was surprisingly fruitful, with Elephant, Eland, herds of Gnu and Buffalo, Zebras, Thompson’s Gazelles, and some distant giraffes. The road was dusty and the Mara seems to have been rain-free for several days, and the evening sky served up a nice sunset.
Day 7. Lower Masia Mara
We left shortly after six under a cloudless dawn, traveling northwest towards the Kopjes. We had not gone far when David said he’d seen a cat cross the road, and right off the road we found a Cheetah hunkered down. She was a bit shy as she moved off, but from her uphill position she’d spotted distant Thompson’s Gazelles and, after skirting the road for a short distance she jogged across, parked at a termite mound, and carefully scanned the far off Thomies. Henry radioed that he had another Cheetah and, when our cat dropped down to a resting position, we moved on, finding the second cheetah lying atop a rocky kopje. We didn’t stay, however, as we had another radio call that Lions with cubs were spotted, and we headed there.
We got there while the action on the lions was still fairly good, with an eight month old cub playing with a gnu tail. Other cubs periodically wrestled, either each other or one of the lionesses. At one point, one cub picked up a leafy branch of a croton tree, carrying it down towards the main pride. The lioness with it picked up another branch and carried it as well, something I’ve rarely seen before. The pride eventually drifted down into the heavier vegetation along a lugga where we left them.
We soon had another radio call for another cheetah, this one with three cubs at a kill. By the time my vehicle arrived all of the good spots were taken. My driver/guide circled around, and then moved in close, just as I was saying ‘Be careful,’ he rounded a small rise, far too close for what turned out to be skittish cubs. They ran off, although the mother stayed. Mary got on the radio blasting out my driver – deservedly so – and since the cubs did not immediately return all of us moved out, leaving the area so that the cubs could return. My vehicle waited about 100 yards away to watch and wait for the cubs to return, and it took ten or fifteen minutes before the mother started chirping, and the cubs joined her at the kill. The cubs fed for only a few minutes and then left the kill and began to play, chasing one another. David wanted to move back in and I said no way – after disturbing the cats, and with everyone then leaving to give the cats room, there was no way that I was going to move in on the cats.
Cheetahs, of course, are the world’s fastest land animal, perhaps reaching a speed of 70mph, and certainly 55-60 is a near certainty. It surprises people to see that, when a cheetah is spotted by a herbivore herd, the potential prey animals often approach the cat. One would think that being even closer a cheetah would more easily make a kill but, in fact, if a cheetah is seen as it begins a run the prey animals can instantly respond and, nine times out of ten, can outrun the cheetah. The reason, although the cheetah runs faster than the prey animal it cannot sustain the speed long enough to make up the gap created by being spotted at the beginning of the charge.
Consider the math. If a cheetah ran 55mph the cat is traveling at 88 feet per second. Let’s say its running slightly faster, at a rate of 100 feet per second. The cheetah may take three seconds to reach that speed, and a typical full out charge generally lasts no longer than ten seconds. Assuming it is going flat out for 10 of those seconds, that’s 1,000 feet covered at full speed. Now, assume a Thompson Gazelle runs at half that speed, or 50 feet per second. In 12 seconds it is covering 600 feet, but if there is 100 yard between them at the start, which is a typical distance an antelope herd might approach, the cheetah has a 'catch zone' of about 100 feet (600 feet for the gazelle running full out plus 300 feet of a head start = 900 feet total) but the cat may run out of gas before it can close the gap. Antelope reach full speed almost instantly, so unlike the cheetah who gains acceleration over two or three seconds, the antelope is already flat out. Occasionally a cheetah runs longer and sometimes on these long chases it succeeds in capturing its prey, but most of the time, if the prey animal spots the cheetah, the cheetah loses the race and the prey escapes.
We continued on, and I was deflated somewhat as I was quite annoyed at my driver and also with myself for not recognizing his actions earlier and stopping him then. Still, we had a good morning, with huge herds of Common Zebras, and small stringy herds that ran across the grasses. Henry’s vehicle checked out the Sand River where they encountered a herd of Gnus just as they entered the shallow waters, and that pseudo-crossing took over 30 minutes to complete.
Jim did his balloon ride this morning, and in contrast to many previous balloon safaris under miserable cloudy skies, he had perfect light, and the balloon crossed over Gnu herds, allowing him to get action and shadow. Prior to lunch Debbie walked down to the lodge’s hippo pool where another cheetah had spent the morning, and she saw it unsuccessfully chase an impala from her vantage on the walkway. In all, we had six Cheetahs, although Deb’s may have been a 7th, and at least 10 lions in that pride.
PM. We left at 4 and had barely left the gate when we found the cheetah Deb had seen earlier. It was stalking a group of DeFassa Waterbuck who had at least two calves with them, one quite small. I betted that the Cheetah wouldn’t even make a charge, figuring that the Waterbuck would defend a baby from the cheetahs. I was half right, and half wrong. As the waterbuck moved off the cheetah did charge, but it adopted the peculiar, loping stiff strided gait they use when trying to intimidate larger prey. We’ve seen, and photographed, cheetahs doing this with zebras as they attempted to separate a mother from a foal. Within only a few yards – probably less than 50 – the cheetah gave up the chase. A short time later one of the female waterbuck approached the cheetah and, when it saw it, the doe charged after the cheetah. She chased the cheetah through the forest back and forth until, we guess, the cheetah lost her through the denseness of the vegetation.
We continued on towards Sopa, shooting Hartebeest and Warthogs and Elephants en route, and eventually had a radio call that there was a pair of mating African Lion. The mating was fresh, and in less than 30 minutes the pair mated three times, but they were in the middle of a field and too far for any quality images.
We found another cheetah, marking our 8th sighting of the day, and headed home. Along the western horizon a small herd of Elephants were silhouetted nicely against the sunset, and using LiveView, we framed the elephants against the fireball itself – at ISO 200, at 1/8000th sec at f32! We reached camp at dusk.
Day 8. Lower Mara
We headed back to the kopje area, deciding that with fewer vehicles we’d be more productive. This proved true. While my vehicle worked with a pride of lions feeding on both a male Reedbuck and a Gnu, Mary’s vehicle was on the main road where they’d found the Cheetah mother with three cubs. There, the four cats played chase with another across the road and grasses, where eventually they settled on a large rock outcropping – a nice kopje. Mary radioed all of us to join her, and fortunately the mother was still lying atop the rocks when the rest of us arrived. The cubs were on the rock as well, but stayed shyly hidden behind or close to some bushes, and we had only a few brief times with the mother and cubs together.
Eventually the cheetah jogged off the hill, settling at another rock outcropping for a short time, then moving off into the tall grasses where we left her. We continued on, arriving at a pair of African Lions that I believe were at the end of the mating cycle. The female moved off continually, followed by the patient male that began to show his displeasure at her lack of interest by giving snarling growls. Eventually the two moved off and we continued.
We had another Cheetah as well, probably one of the females from yesterday. She was nervously feeding upon a baby Impala, and although she was within sight of the lion pair at one time, the lions never bothered her and she finished her meal successfully. We followed her as she moved to a small pool for a quick drink, after which she moved into the high grasses to eventually settle, stretched out, upon another kopje.
After breakfast we headed to the Sand River where Angus spotted an immature Verreaux’s Eagle Owl perched in the open. The herds that had crossed the inch-deep Sand River were now gone, and although the drive was beautiful the shooting was limited. We continued our big circle back towards our lodge, stopping to photograph huge herds of Common Zebra and a pair of Masai Giraffe that were necking in mock battle amidst the zebra herd. We arrived back to the lodge around 11:33.
PM. The skies were clear and remained so throughout our afternoon game drive. Tim and Pansy still needed a good waterbuck and we hadn’t traveled far when we found a very cooperative male DeFassa Waterbuck in great light. A subadult male periodically came close, touching noses with the larger male, then losing its nerve and springing back to a safer distance.
We were headed towards the Talek Gate area when we received a radio call that a mother Lion with two small cubs were spotted. Although the actual distance was short – we could see the other vehicle – the drive was long as we skirted a lugga to find a crossing point. By the time we arrived the other vehicle had intercepted us, relaying that the lion had retreated into the bush. We drove on anyway.
We found the lioness as she walked through some croton bushes and we intercepted her. She stopped close by and lay down and the cubs moved up but stayed out of sight. A few minutes later the lioness moved a short distance and the cubs then joined her, rubbing beneath her chin and climbing across her back. As the afternoon progressed the lioness moved out into the open and the cubs followed, with the lioness finally settling upon a termite mound in beautiful light, completely in the open. We waited for the perfect shot as the cubs joined her and either slid beneath her chin or climbed onto her, but neither occurred. The cubs stayed on the shaded side, only occasionally showing their eyes above her back.
Eventually the mother moved off and took a drink beside the track, within just four or five feet from another vehicle that was parked along side. The cubs stayed near the mound, and as the mother finished drinking I was expecting her to call them to her but instead the cubs started chirping and she retraced her steps to join the cubs. There they had an enthusiastic reunion, but unfortunately much of it occurred with her back to us. We did manage some nice shots as she turned, and then sat down facing us with the cubs rambling around her, but the distance was further than I’d like and the grasses high enough that we missed some of the action.
We stayed until nearly sunset when the lioness left the cubs and headed out to a distant herd of zebras and gnus. Tim wondered about their safety and I explained that at this age, before the cubs are introduced to the pride where they may benefit from the presence of older siblings and an occasional aunt baby-sitter, mortality is high. Hyenas, Leopards, Rock Pythons, even birds of prey may take the young cubs at this age, and probably less than 50% reach their first birth day. Fewer than 20% will reach their second, and a female, with a reproductive life that may extend for six or eight years may easily have 18 or 20 cubs during that time (figuring on an average of 3 per litter, and perhaps 2 litters a year for 3 of those productive years) and she’ll be lucky to have two replace her. We left the lioness as she disappeared into the tall grasses on her hunt and we returned to the lodge as the sun set.
Day 9. Lower Mara to Mara Triangle
We headed back into the Sopa area where we’d had several lions in the previous few days. Although this was a camp-switching day, we were still out of our lodge by 6:15 and on our game drive. We spotted a Lioness that, two days earlier, appeared to be nursing cubs and today we confirmed it, as she had two very young cubs by her side. As we approached the lioness drifted into the thick cover of the lugga and we drove on.
Henry had spotted a Serval lying in fairly short grass and all of us gathered here. Unfortunately there was only one really close up view, which Henry had, and while the rest of us had a good view that shooting was somewhat distant. When one of our vehicles moved the serval got up and, belly low to the ground, slunk into cover and disappeared.
We headed back towards the lioness with cubs, hoping to catch her on the right side of the light. Two minivans were across the lugga and, right beside them, the lioness walked, cubs in tow. We were too far away to bother photographing, but the cubs seemed unfazed by the vans’ presence.
Shortly after we encountered the male Lion and Lioness that had been mating two days ago. There was a big contrast between the days. Earlier the female had been compliant, even apathetic as the male mounted her. Now she was aggressive, snarling and swatting, and while we watched the male successfully mated. Another lioness was coming into heat and occasionally circled and postured before the male, presenting herself tail-first for mating, but he was uninterested in her and she’d retreat, flopping on to her belly with her legs outstretched, seemingly offering the perfect invitation.
An eight month old cub was the sole young cat in this group of five females and an adult. The cub lioness would harass the others, biting their tails, in its effort to play. At one point one of the younger-looking adult lionesses responded, and wrestled for a few seconds, but soon it gave up and resumed its lazy posture.
The lioness of the mating couple got up at one point and the male inspected her spot, sniffing for a long time before raising his head in the typical flehmen pose. Cats, and many other animals, do this to deeply suck in the scent to the vomarine glands in the roof of their mouth, testing the urine by doing so.
We headed to a breakfast spot next, before continuing our drive to the Mara River and our next destination. At the Mara Bridge several hundred Gnus were piled up on the rocks, eddy-slowed shoreline, and bridge pylons, no doubt the victim of a very bad crossing.
PM. We left at 4 and headed to the Mara River where, as usual, we had our Hippos and Nile Crocodiles. We had a discussion about hippos, in that a bull or male will own a section of territory or river real estate. However, hippos graze as much as five or more miles from the river, and a harem bull who might control a section of river has no control over the female hippos once they leave and go off to graze. We suspect that a hippo territory is determined by a set of ideal conditions that make it attractive for other hippos to congregate there, and therefore cows would return to a particular section of river or pool because the conditions are good. However, should an alternate pool be available, closer to ideal grazing, I suspect that cows might desert their old home site for a new one. Alternatively, other cows might follow particular individuals and return to a new pool, occupied by a different male. I don’t know of any research on this, but it would be interesting to see the fluidity of a harem in terms of its composition, and the regularity of that composition – does it fluctuate or stay relatively the same?
A small herd of Gnus and Zebras teased us with a potential river crossing, moving back and forth and approaching, then retreating, from a crossing point. Several times we moved to drive off when the herd seemed to be ready to cross, only to turn back. Eventually we decided that nothing would occur and we moved on.
Around 6PM we found a decent Bat-eared Fox den with three adults sleeping nearby. Once, a swallow flew close overhead, spooking the foxes to an alert, standing pose. Determining the source of the alarm the foxes settled back down into their sleeping pose. We left at 6:25 for the lodge, arriving just at dusk.
Day 10. Mara Triangle
We left shortly after 6, heading downriver into what is usually good lion country. One of the vehicles found a Lion pride at a kill, and when the first vehicle arrived the cubs were wrestling vigorously. By the time I arrived most of the action was hidden by tall elephant grasses, but from the shadowed jumps we saw we could tell that even the lionesses were joining in on the play. We retreated from the thicket hoping that the cubs would come into the open area to play but instead they settled in to rest after their meal.
A large group of Gnus had gathered and were moving back and forth along the Mara River, teasing us with a crossing. Another group rounded the horizon and galloped down to join the others and we positioned ourselves for the herd to pass by. As the stragglers tried to catch up they’d put on speed, and at a roadside ditch many of them jumped, so the action was fast as I tried both fast and slow shutter speeds, panning with the latter. At this crossing area vehicles hold back far from the river’s edge until a crossing occurs, and the most likely area was a very poor one for visibility. I chose to move on and go to one of the upriver crossing points closer to the lodge. There we found a large herd of zebras gathered at or near the shoreline but nothing happened. Zebras moved towards the river edge (and out of sight for us) and then moved back. We spent almost two hours here waiting, while the rest of the group did the same at the downriver crossing. At one point an immature African Fish Eagle flew close by and we had time to draw our lenses and get the shots – frame fillers as the bird passed by. Everyone was back by 12:30, and several folks are planning on taking the afternoon off.
PM. The group had a total of 25 lions tonight, with some very nice activity with cubs playing, climbing a tree and wrestling. We started at 4, and with everyone fairly burned out after an unproductive vigil for a gnu crossing everyone headed inland looking for other subjects.
At a small flooded section of a lugga we spotted several Black-necked Herons and Banded Mongooses together, capturing frogs as they were flushed by one or another. Although both raced for the frogs I was surprised that the mongooses never tried stealing a captured frog from a heron, who always took longer to dispatch and swallow its prey.
We had a radio call about lions, and after one wrong turn we arrived, with two 9 month old male cubs playing on a slanted dead tree. They visited the tree repeatedly, sometimes jumping off or wrestling, before finally sprinting across the clearing to join the rest of the pride where a big, yellow-maned male lion presided over a circle of cubs and lionesses. Of the six cubs, five were males – the future of a powerful coalition if they all survive.
The ranger/warden for the Triangle was present and was reasonably lenient in their rule of 5 cars, max, for five minutes or so. There were seven vehicles scattered about while we were there, and we were with the lions about fifteen minutes or so, but Mary and my vehicles were the only two remaining when we were given the word that we were there long enough and had to move on. The silliness and stupidity of that rule! With no one else waiting to see the lions, and with our presence completely ignored by the cats, there was no reason we needed to leave. However, although this rule might help manage crowds, it also fosters a terrible ‘check ‘em off’ mentality where quality, long-term viewing is replaced by perfunctory looks with little time for any real appreciation of the subject. It’s almost a reason not to visit the Triangle if you are a serious photographer, or hoping to simply have quality time observing wildlife.
Three Spotted Hyenas were at a Common Zebra carcass we’d passed earlier. Then, the zebra was mostly intact although its body cavity had been opened, but now it was in the process of being scattered, as the hyenas and vultures were actively feeding. One subadult hyena was quite possessive and chased vultures repeatedly, and I did get one sequence as the hyena tried snatching one from the air.
As we drove back to camp we were surrounded on three sides by dark clouds or veils of rain, and we suspect that the hot and clear afternoons we’ve had will now be replaced by what we’d expect during the short rainy season.
Day 11. Mara Triangle to Upper Mara
We packed up for our next leg, leaving the lodge by 6:10 and long before sunrise. Almost immediately we had a good male Lion in the grasses, but as the male continued walking into a rocky area where, just as the sun crested the mountains in the east, we couldn’t follow. We continued on towards the Tanzania border passing huge herds of Gnus, either feeding or moving in sundry directions. At one point, near the border, a very large herd was racing single-file across a road and we spent nearly 30 minutes shooting panned shots as the gnus went by, at shutter speeds as slow as 1/60th, where leg blur was potentially a problem, to 1/250th to almost freeze the legs.
By mid-morning we met eight Lions at a gnu kill by a pool. Although there was almost nothing left to the carcass when they moved off, Henry’s vehicle stayed behind and several vultures flew in for the scraps. Later, they found a Little Bee-eater nest where they stayed, hoping to get shots as the adult flew out of the nest hole. Tim, Pansy, and Julie arrived in camp while the rest of us were half through the meal.
Clouds began building and by 2PM it was showering, cooling the area and, hopefully, making for a good game drive this afternoon.
PM. Our goal was leopards this afternoon and shortly after our start we were told of a leopard on the south side of our camp. We raced to the location only to find that the leopard had left the tree and had disappeared. Almost immediately we received a phone call telling us that one of our driver/guides was ‘arrested’ by officials from the Narok County Council who wanted to see our park tickets. Since my guide had all of the tickets we had to race back, retracing our steps, to clear up the problem. Once there, we had some heated arguments with the bureaucrat before getting things settled, but in doing so we lost 40 minutes of game driving, which also entailed a lot of racing about.
Henry’s vehicle did have two leopards – one quickly crossed the road, and another was in a very leafy tree, encircled by truly obnoxious tourists, some of whom were standing on the roof of their vehicles to see the leopard. It was so egregious that the shooters in Henry’s vehicle elected to drive off, the experience was so off-putting.
Our drive was fairly unproductive, salvaged as it was by a yawning hippo close and near water level at the end of the day. Mary’s vehicle had a variety of subjects, including stotting antelope, baby gnus and giraffes, and a big Hyena den with 16 individuals, with two females nursing cubs. They also had a Crowned Plover attacking a Thompson’s Gazelle baby as the bird successfully attempted to drive off the potential threat to its nest, as the bird actually flew up and pecked at the bewildered antelope baby.
As I write this at 9PM Lions are roaring not far from camp.
Day 12. Upper Mara
We were game-driving by 6:10AM and headed to the tree where, yesterday, there was such an obnoxious crowd of tourists. Paul put in a wish list, hoping to get a Malachite Kingfisher, one of the smallest of this group that we only occasionally see. As we headed to the leopard we found one perched upon some reeds, and it was extremely cooperative, allowing us to drive quite close. After it flew off to hunt we continued to the leopard. When we arrived three other vehicles were there but the leopard had left the tree. I spotted her standing beneath some croton bushes but shortly she moved to a grassy knoll where, after some maneuvering, we had some head shot portraits. Ben’s vehicle was one of the last to arrive and stayed behind after the rest of us got some shots and moved on for the next vehicle, and they were rewarded when the leopard got up and walked over, and sat, close to their vehicle.
We’d moved on downstream of the Talek River where we found several lionesses on a gnu kill. Downhill, along the bank of the Talek a herd of Gnus began streaming down the steep sided banks, crossing the river and barreling up on to our side. We raced to get into a position but the banks were too deep to see the actual crossing, and instead we shot the column of the herd as it raced up and passed close to us. The Lionesses we’d seen earlier were attracted to the commotion and began a hunt, with one lioness slinking forward as if to make a charge. Gnus further up the line spotted some of the lions and veered off, and a Hippo that was thrashing about in the shallows spooked the gnus, stopping the crossing and any chance of a hunt.
We headed to a breakfast spot along the river where we found a mother Hippo with a very tiny, almost newborn baby lying on a sand bar midstream. Eventually the mother got up and entered, then exited, the river, giving everyone a chance to photograph mother and baby standing. Ruppell’s Long-tailed Starlings gathered about our feet while we ate our breakfasts and Black-Headed Weavers, Robin-chats, and Gray-headed Sparrows flittered about in nearby bushes hoping for a handout.
After breakfast we continued to the base of Rhino Ridge where, along the track, we photographed a mother Warthog and three babies at a mud wallow. At one point the mother lay flat and two of her young moved up to nibble at her neck mane and ears, as if grooming her. I’d never seen this behavior before. Later they grazed within frame-filling distance of us before moving to the wrong side of the light.
PM. I spent much of the afternoon preparing for a Range IR camera trap setup for Bushbabies, using five flashes set up for wireless transmission. Ben’s vehicle needed repair and, when Mary and I went to our loading vehicle I was informed by our guides that we’d be substituting a camp vehicle instead. However, the guides did not tell the three people who had loaded their gear, transferred beanbags and attached them to the roof, and had settled in. The guides, instead, were waiting for me to tell them. I chewed them out, stating the obvious – that they should be using their heads and not inconveniencing the clients by something that trivial.
Their camp vehicle wasn’t ready when the rest left, but after driving just a short distance a thought struck me – what if the vehicle came late! Mary jumped in my vehicle, we switched Julie to her’s, and we headed back to camp, intending to put Ivan, Deb, and Elaine in my vehicle, and we’d wait for the camp vehicle – if it ever arrived. As we pulled into camp they were just loading up, so we kept the arrangement as it stood, with Mary riding with Jim and me.
After shooting a Saddle-billed Stork and a Gray-headed Kingfisher we had a call that a Rock Python had been spotted. When we arrived the snake was stretched out in long grass near a pool, and there was some disagreement about which end was the head! Mary and I thought we could make out the head – and we were correct – and eventually the snake crawled to cover, all 12 feet or so of it. As we drove off we had a call that a Cheetah had made a kill but by the time we arrived the cat was finished and vultures had taken over the carcass. The cheetah was drinking, then moved off to sit on a termite mound, and later, after grooming, to perform a few roll-overs before moving off into the brush where, we presumed, her cubs were hiding.
After shooting a small Elephant herd, with one teenage female with a badly crippled shoulder and also a very young baby in the group, we headed to the Talek River. In the fading gloom of a very overcast sky we found a mother Lioness with two young cubs at the river’s edge. One cub had a deformed foot, appearing almost to be a club foot, and the weirdness of the foot certainly impaired its stride. Our guide had seen the two cubs a few weeks before and so, thus far, the cub had survived. But, unfortunately at this point in time the lioness probably had not introduced the small cubs to the pride. When she does, the cubs will need to travel as the pride moves on, and if the crippled cub manages that, and is not left behind and abandoned if it fails to keep up, it has another challenge ahead. Once old enough to be eating meat, with a bad foot it might be the last to arrive at a kill and find little left to eat. Chances are, it won’t make it that long, but it will be interesting, next year, if the cub is still here. My bet is it will not.
Mary and I had a discussion about the reasons why so many of Kenya’s birds seem so colorful. In fact, Brazil has an even greater species diversity, but it is a far larger country. Africa, however, has a much greater avian diversity, with multiple species of vulture, ground-dwelling birds, water birds, and songbirds and there’s probably a simple reason for this. The equator practically splits Africa in half, and so both northern and southern Africa lie almost in temperate zones. In contrast, the equator cuts through the northern portion of South America and the continent extends far to the south, into much colder and drier areas. Further, Africa has two deserts separated by vast tracks of tropical forest – in the southwest, in Namibia, and in the entire north, in the Sahara. In contrast, South America only has one true desert, in the far west along northern Chile and Peru. While South America has only one mountain chain, extending the length of the continent, Africa has highlands in the south, in the northeast in Ethiopia, the far north – the Atlas Mountains, and the volcanic highlands of central Africa. All told, Africa’s habitat and climate is far more diverse, and consequently the species diversity – reflected to a degree even in the amount of colorful birds – is far greater.
Day 13. Upper Mara
I’m writing this a full day late – yesterday was so busy and hectic that I simply didn’t have time. It was a Cheetah day, with 10 different cheetahs, and 12 sightings in total for the entire day. We started with the two surviving brothers of the Three Brother group, walking in the early golden light straight to the camera and then scent-marking on a lone acacia tree. Eventually they flopped down in the high grasses where we left them.
We had another radio call for a mother cheetah with two 7 month old cubs but when we arrived they were simply lying beneath a bush and were not too promising. We headed to a breakfast spot where, from our lookout, we watched a Lioness belly-creeping towards a pair of buck Impala. The area was open, and eventually the impala spotted the lioness and she abandoned the hunt. Unknown to us, another camp’s vehicle was watching a leopard but they never alerted us.
En route to and from breakfast we stopped at a Black-backed Jackal den with an extremely cooperative subadult lying upon the termite mound den. We were within frame-filling distance and the young jackal ignored us completely, giving some great yawns as it faced us.
We headed to the cheetah mother and cub again and, shortly after we arrived, the mother started a hunt, walking toward a distant group of Thompson’s Gazelles. Mary spotted a very young baby that we thought the mother cheetah had
spotted, but as she moved closer and started her jog, then cranked up to full speed, she picked what we suspect was a pregnant female. From the time of the full charge until the take down 15 seconds elapsed, and from the knockdown to the grab of the throat it took three seconds. As she dragged off the kill her two babies joined her, with one repeatedly jumping to the throat to practice its own choke hold. We left her a few minutes after she began feeding, and returned to camp by 12:15. Sadly, three of our vehicles had taken a side trip to a Maasai village and missed the kill which, for those present, was the highlight of the trip. On the plus side, everyone enjoyed the village.
PM. Stormy skies surrounded us as we started the drive and the rains eventually caught us, requiring most vehicles to close their pop tops and, eventually, leading us to call an earlier end to a very wet and dark afternoon. We found the Lioness with the club-foot cub again, with both cubs actively playing as they hopped around on a Thompson’s Gazelle kill. Another kill, possibly a reedbuck, was also present. The action was across the river and too far away for good photos and we soon moved on.
We found the two brother Cheetahs again, and we worried that they had spotted the mother cheetah with cubs and were about to kill them. The cats were very active, jogging along and heading downhill, just as the skies opened in a real downpour. We lost the cats after they crossed the Talek and, with no break in the skies in sight, we headed back to camp.
Perhaps because of the rain the bushbabies did not arrive and, with dripping leaves, I didn’t bother setting up the camera traps. Nevertheless, later the Bushbaby did arrive at the bait sight and had some of the food, although when we replenished it the remaining food was untouched the following morning.
Day 14. Upper Mara to Nairobi
Our guides left at 5:30AM for Nairobi and we had a late, 8AM breakfast where we reviewed favorite shots of the shoot – they were quite diverse – and favorite camps and foods. Although the skies are bright and sunny there is a haze, and I suspect another rain will arrive this afternoon, but by then we’ll be back in Nairobi and, for some, packing for either going home or, for Mary and I, heading off to Rwanda for our 66th-70th Mountain Gorilla trek.
Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an even better idea of what our trips to the Pantanal are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.