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Kenya Trip Two 2010

Trip Report

Day 1, November 1. Everyone arrived into Nairobi on time, with some getting in several days earlier to avoid jet-lag. After a productive early-morning orientation, we headed north to Samburu Game Reserve, arriving at Elephant Bedroom Camp by 5PM. It rained frequently en route, and to the north, towards Samburu, periodic blue-gray walls of rain masked the mountain landscape. As we drove in we saw most of the endemics, although the land was not as green as we’d expected, with the rain. Nonetheless, knowing what to expect in Samburu and our Camp, we were even more excited about the visit, and the camp staff met us warmly as we arrived.
Day 2. Samburu
Everyone had the gear organized and beanbags set fairly quickly for the day morning of the safari, and we were in the field shortly after 6:30AM. We hadn’t gone far when a pair of Kori Bustards stopped us, as they fed near to the dirt track. The morning was productive for everyone, with sparring Reticulated Giraffe, herds of Grevy’s Zebras, Beisa Oryx, Gerenuk, and a large group of elephants that paraded silently to and passed our vehicles. The animals marched by almost silently in the straw-dry grass, with just a whisper of rustled grass as the herd went by.
PM. The eastern sky brought clouds that increased in intensity throughout the afternoon, making for cool temperatures and soft, uniform light that, unfortunately, grew dimmer as the hours progressed. My vehicle worked on birds, with the first-ever Rufous-crowned Roller here in Samburu, a large roller that we’ve seen, rarely, in the Masai Mara. We worked a Crested Bustard for several minutes, where, at times, it disappeared into the background with its cryptic coloration. When it came as close to the vehicle as it ever had, another, in the distance, began to call, and our bird responded, blasting out its almost whistle-like cry before launching itself into the air in a spectacular courtship flight, returning to earth on an earthen mound where we’d first spotted the bird. Apparently it used this mound as a type of lek or courtship platform, and I suspect it landed there frequently in its display flights.
Approaching 6PM David’s vehicle spotted a young female leopard, one of the two cubs we’d seen on the last trip, stretched out on a rock at too great a distance for anything but a very nice ‘animal in habitat’ type shot. We stayed with the cat until it grew just too dark for any shots, and headed home, with our first leopard on our first day.
Day 3. Samburu.
We loaded quickly and were out before 6:15AM, as the sun was just clearing the acacia-lined river course. We headed to the hills where we’d seen the leopard cub yesterday, but the rocks and trees were empty, and eventually we reached the rocks where, on the last trip, one of the cubs had entertained us. Christian spotted a pair of Striped Hyenas that were retreating into the hills, but one of the pair stopped and posed fairly well long enough that one of our other vehicles arrived in time to see it too.
We eventually headed to the river to look for Gray-headed Kingfishers (and as I write this one was perched within frame-filling distance, in the open, by my tent!) and here David spied a Leopard as it shyly slipped from a tree. We looked for it for several minutes, then, as one of the vehicles stopped for a breakfast break beneath another fig tree, the leopard reappeared, resting in the shade behind them. Once spotted, it took off again, and later when another vehicle drove in close the cat got up and moved quickly towards the vehicle, looking as if it were about to charge. It probably was a half-hearted charge, but fortunately it didn’t follow through.
Everyone was having a great day, with a pair of Pigmy Falcons feeding upon a lizard – the male not sharing the lizard but, upon completion, preening his mate; a Savannah Monitor Lizard that dug for fat grubs in the earth, and more.
We were headed towards the Martial Eagle’s nest, stopping for a Tawny Eagle with a white-headed chick in its nest on top of an acacia tree, when Mary’s vehicle radioed that they had a pair of male Impala seriously fighting. They were still engaged when we arrived, literally, as for the previous ten minutes their horns had been locked, stuck by the force of their attacks. Where were the leopards?
The Impalas eventually broke free, and for the next ten minutes continued fighting until, without a visual clue we could see, one gave up the fight, turned, and bolted off, with the other male in serious pursuit. With that, we headed back to camp as a breeze and gathering clouds promised a cooler, more clement afternoon game drive.
We left at 3:36PM, correctly anticipating that the afternoon would be cloudy. It was an eventful afternoon, with mating Grant’s Gazelles, Oryx chasing a Cheetah, great Gunther’s Dik-Dik, Elephants, and birds for the various vehicles. We stopped at the ‘leopard tree’ and the male Leopard was back, but like this morning, it was irritable and as we pulled up it snarled. Obviously, it didn’t want vehicles near it and rather than disturb it, or risk injury if it had enough, we drove off.
Mary radioed that she had a great Cheetah, and although it took some time for us  to reach her, we did manage great shots as the cat moved through the grasses and, at the end, walked directly towards our cameras. We ended the day with Grevy’s Zebra and Beisa Oryx, concluding around 6PM in time for the Samburu Cultural talk this evening.
Day 4. Samburu.
We had a medical emergency, evacuating one participant via Flying Doctors this morning. A probable case of heat-stroke due to complications with medication, and Mary accompanied the person on the hot, two-hour long circuitous route to the air strip. Normally, this is a 20 minute drive, but with a flood washing out the bridge that connects Samburu with Buffalo Springs, as well as virtually all of the camps and lodges lining the river, the longer journey through both entrance gates was required.
That unfortunate circumstance aside, the last morning game drive in Samburu was very rewarding. My vehicle’s photographers jokingly told Felix their wish list that they hoped to shoot this morning, which included standing Gerenuk, Reticulated Giraffe, Somalian Ostrich, an African Hare, and another Leopard, and amazingly we found all of these and more. Our drive started with a cooperative Gerenuk, followed by a very tame Red-billed Hornbill, but before we could go further a radio call told us that another Leopard had been sighted. It was the female we’d seen on the last trip, now at a Grant’s gazelle fawn’s carcass she had stored in a tree yesterday. When we arrived the cat was well-hidden, but eventually she, and one of her cubs, another female, came into the open.
As is typical of leopards, eventually the cub wandered off, heading back towards the mountains, leaving the mother behind. Thirty minutes later the female rose, and instead of following the cub she headed towards water, giving us some great shooting opportunities as she walked directly to our vehicles. We followed her until she eventually disappeared into a thickly foliaged tree.
By then, however, we’d already been distracted as a huge herd of African Elephants had descended upon the salt plains, visiting fresh mud-holes and water-holes where they splashed and drank. We followed this huge for over an hour, framing it against the mountains and doum palms, until they reached the river where they drank, and finally crossed.
By then, we’d fulfilled the wish list ‘cept for giraffes, and Felix suggested we do some exploring, going deep into little-visited areas of Samburu as we circled one of the mountains, eventually returning to familiar territory along a dry river bed. Here we found over 30 Reticulated Giraffes, but before we could set up to shoot a road-side tree several yards away suddenly, inexplicably cracked, and the tree toppled to the ground, fortunately falling off the road and not over it. The giraffes, alarmed by the loud crack, bolted, and galloped through the acacias. Later, a half mile further along, we encountered another, more relaxed group, and after shooting multiple portraits we headed back to camp, under a very hot noon day sun.
PM. We left at 3:30, hoping to get in a good game drive before the afternoon clouds built too thickly. Within minutes, Steve and I had a nice size herd of 20 African Elephants to ourselves along the road, with a 6 month old flaring its ears and extending its trunk comically, close enough for wide-angle work. Several times the elephants moved quite close, but Felix held fast and the elephants passed without incident.
We searched for the leopard cubs, without success, and passed by the Martial Eagle nest, where one of the adults perched conspicuously, but within camera range the angle was wrong and, with cloudy, bright backgrounds, we passed on the shot and headed towards some rock-dwelling Klipspringers that had been spotted.
We took the wrong route, and as we tried getting to where we needed to be we unexpectedly encountered two bull Greater Kudu, spectacular, spiraling-horned gray antelope with thin white stripping down their flanks. Finding males alone, together, is rare, and they performed wonderfully, posing classically and framed by a large herd of Impala, and, for a short time, head butting in a half-hearted sparring display of dominance. We radioed the vehicles and everyone had a good series with the bulls before they crossed the track and headed deeper into a trackless acacia stand.
We had a surprise planned, and headed to the river, stopping en route for a nice  brilliantly colored pair of Red and Yellow Barbets hopping about a termite mound. We continued, reaching our surprise ‘Sundowner’ that the Elephant Camp staff had put together for us, where we did our ‘good luck’ toast, drank, and enjoyed a rain-free evening as darkness settled and bats swooped over the Usaso Nyiro River.
Day 5. To Nakuru.
We left early, but before we left camp I had a tour of the Elephant Camp kitchen, consisting of a few metal food preparation areas, four gas burners, and, out of sight, a charcoal oven. From this, their wonderful chef, David, had provided us with some of the best meals we’ve ever had in Kenya.
We arrived at Lake Nakuru National Park by 1, with a cloudy bright sky that held the promise of no rain. Nakuru, over the last several months, has had a lot of rain, and the lake was higher than we’d ever seen it, approaching the levels it had in the 60’s when President Kenyatta had a home here and a long dock that reached out into the lake. In all the years I’ve been here that dock was mere cement blocks lying oddly along the mudflats and grassy swales, but this year, had it still been operable, the dock would surely have reached the water. As we drove in, and decended the almost crater-like depression, a few bands of Greater Flamingos were visible, huddled en masse along a distant shore, but the typical ring of pink Lesser Flamingos was almost gone, apparently due to the high water level.
PM. Rain threatened, but it appeared that Cormorant Point would be clear and we headed there for an afternoon of shooting flying African White Pelicans. Mary’s vehicle was one of the last to leave, and she spotted a group of Colobus Monkeys that we either missed, or had not yet descended from the trees. These, she and John shot in the rain, risking John’s 7D in the downpour (the next day his lens was fogged, and the camera was not working for a period), but they got some nice shots as the monkeys leaped from branch to branch.
We continued to the Point, but few birds were present and while we assessed the situation the rain enveloped us. We closed our roof hatches just in time, and as we backed out three Impala does and two fawns stood motionless in the downpour. I was with Steve, who, coincidentally, had shot zebras and gnus with me in a torrential downpour in the Serengeti, and we recognized the image potential and starting shooting. One doe stood stoically as water cascaded down her chin and one fawn repeatedly shook its fur free of water, where, with our motor drives we could see how the impala’s shake started at the shoulder and literally rolled down its body, ending at the hips, and in so doing, the water was channeled down the body and off.
By 5:30 the light was shot and we headed back to the lodge, and en route Mary’s vehicle spotted a shy leopard, when they were alerted by the intense stares of Defassa Waterbuck and the alarm barks of Vervet Monkeys. As more vehicles arrived, and their roof hatches opened, the disturbance spooked the cat and it slipped back into the undergrowth.
Day 6. Nakuru
We had a cooked, 6:30 breakfast before heading out into the still-shaded lowlands of Nakuru, where a thin veil of fog made for some eery images of back-lighted candelabra trees. A huge group of Rothschild’s Giraffes sailed across the grasslands, framed by the distant yellow-fever acacias, providing the best opportunity we’d had this year for this endangered subspecies. Donna and Ron’s vehicle noticed that two of the giraffes had huge tumors on their side, perhaps a product of in-breeding as this species had been introduced here.
The lake is even higher than it was last trip, and certainly higher than we’d ever seen it before, and perhaps because of the decreased alkalinity due to the abundance of fresh water the brine shrimp may be down, as Lesser Flamingos were very few. Greater Flamingos were almost as numerous, and both fed in a small bay where all of our vehicles spent at least an hour shooting reflections, flight shots, and groups of birds.
The vehicles scattered from here, and my vehicle headed into the acacia woods to look for birds and leopards, where we found a cooperative group of Vervet Monkeys that sat upon a downed acacia tree near the road. One mother nursed, and her baby held two stretched nipples in its mouth as he suckled.
PM. Mary and I took our one break of the trip, birding the grounds and seeing a new bird, a rare Hemrich’s Hornbill that is normally found in more arid areas north, around Lake Baringo. The group went out, and the over-all highlight were sun tree-climbing lions that were treed by a couple of African Buffalos.
Day 7. Nakuru to Lower Mara.
We packed early and were on the road, seeking, in Nakuru, the two species we still needed here – the rhinos. We had just crossed the cross-dike leading over a wetland when David spotted a good Black Rhino that appeared to be close to the road. We hurried there, and indeed it was, feeding upon low shrubs and repeatedly scent-marking, spraying urine in fire-hydrant sized streams as it walked nearly a half mile parallel to the road. It was one of the better Black Rhino opportunities in Nakuru that we’ve had in years.
We hadn’t traveled much further before we encountered four White Rhinos, a female with a large calf, a shy male, and another, beautifully grostesque mud-covered male that lumbered towards us, and crossed the trail feet from one of our vehicles. Mary’s vehicle had been searching for a leopard they’d heard about, and they found the carcass, but the leopard was gone. Unfortunate, since the view would have been close and spectacular.
The ride to the Mara was fairly uneventful, and we arrived at our lodge by 5:30, everyone exhausted from the drive.
Day 8. We headed towards the Sopa area, finding a Serval in the grasses not long after sunrise. The cat hunkered down shyly for a short time, then sat up, stood, and walked off. The cat moved to a copse of low shrubs where it leaped high to catch something in the grass, jumping an arch that reminds one of a coyote mousing.
Later, we were called to a pride of 14 African Lions that were close to the main track, where the one-year-old cubs were playing, running, and wrestling. After nearly an hour the cats settled down to sleep and we left them, but when we returned a few hours later one of the lionesses was stalking a zebra herd that had moved in to the area. Another lioness walked up the road to flank them, but the first lioness was spotted and the herd ran off. The lioness returned where, upon meeting up with the cubs, she promptly flopped flat on top of one of them, triggering a short spat of wrestling.
Between the lion encounters we had followed a mother Cheetah and her two nearly full-grown male cubs. The cats were a bit shy, and we suspect they had emigrated from nearby northern Tanzania. At one point the two juveniles went jogging after a potential prey and the mother walked on, separating the group by a quarter mile. The female stopped and began calling, and soon, through the brush, the two juveniles came running. As they entered the opening they too started calling, their assembly calls sounding like two birds, with the high-pitched, far-carrying cry. We followed the cats until they entered a thicket of croton bushes where they eventually settled upon a partially concealed termite mound.
It was a diverse first morning, with Dark-chanting Goshawks, Long-crested Eagles, a great Lilac-breasted Roller, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, and a too-brief view of some shy Bat-eared Foxes. After lunch Mary and I did an exercise walk around the grounds where, from the elevated boardwalk, we heard what sounded like an odd alarm bark. Looking down we discovered the source, a male Leopard Tortoise that was mating, or attempting to mate, with a much larger female. Each thrust was accompanied by this hissing, bark-like grunt, reminding us of the almost roaring notes a mating Galapagos Tortoise emits when this tortoise, four times the size of the Leopard, does its mating.
PM. It rained during lunch, but by the time of our game drive the sun shone bright and hot, and both Mary and I lathered up with sunscreen, wasting it, as we discovered within an hour as the storms that surrounded us closed in. We drove with the roof hatches down, seeing nothing, until one vehicle spotted a Cheetah with a 9 month old cub. We had to shoot from the window, and use very high ISOs, but the show was good. At one point, frustratingly, the cub pounced upon its mother’s back, then her head, and at shutter speeds between 1/125 and  1/500th, it’s a worry if anything will be sharp. Finally, the cheetah and cub crossed the track and, in increasing dullness, we headed for home. Mary’s vehicle stayed a few minutes later and saw the cheetah go for a Thompson’s Gazelle but others spotted her before she could gather speed and the hunt failed.
Day 9. Lower Mara
Five of our crew were absent, doing a Balloon Safari from the Talek Gate. While nearly every afternoon has clouds or rain somewhere in the Mara, mornings are usually clear, but not today. There was a small break in the clouds along the eastern horizon but as we watched balloons from other parts of the Mara rise the skies looked rather dismal. For us on the ground, the weather stayed cool and the light soft until nearly 11AM.
We headed out looking for the cheetah and cub from yesterday, and while scanning the area with binocs I heard a Lion roaring. We headed in that direction but we couldn’t find the lions amidst the boulders and small kopjis of the area. While we scanned, I heard a Black-backed Jackal barking, usually a sure sign that a leopard was about. Henry’s vehicle and our’s went searching, and eventually we found two belly-engorged Male African Lions and three females that were still in possession of a Gnu kill. Eventually all the cats finished eating, and we followed one female to where a male had been lying next to a water-filled depression in the rocks, where she drank. Another lioness kept moving, and this one, bagged up with milk and a full belly, we surmised was heading back to hidden cubs. Mary’s vehicle followed and found them, with one very tiny, days-old cub visible amongst the vegetation of the lugga.
We had breakfast on another kopji, a welcome break from our vehicle-bound breakfasts, and continued searching for the cheetahs. For more than an hour all of the vehicles circled the areas, and eventually one was found, having just made a baby Thompson’s Gazelle kill that she was carrying to a shady spot. With some difficulty we eventually joined up, after skirting a long lugga that seemed about to take us in to Tanzania. The other vehicles followed.
The baby was about two-weeks old, with the tawny color of the adult. Over the next hour the cheetah completely consumed the carcass, starting at the hind quarters and continuing until, as we left it, only the tip of the lower jaw and nose were visible. At one point the cheetah, which periodically interrupted its meal to scan for danger, exploded into flight, running several lengths when something triggered its alarm reflex. There was no danger, but that move illustrated why, or how, a lone cheetah can survive on a savannah where either its prey, or life, can be taken at the first moment of inattention.
PM. Skies were cloudy, with a threat of rain and we hadn’t traveled far from camp before the leading edge of a thunderstorm sprinkled us, eventually intensifying until we had to close the roof hatches. A leopard had treed itself some time during the day, evidenced by the off-track tracks we saw through the grass, but by the time we arrived everyone was behaving and staying on the track, within 70 yards of the still sleeping leopard.
When it began yawning, I had Joshua move us to a position where, I hoped, the cat would be visible as it climbed down from the tree, picking a limb as an obvious choice on its descent. The cat yawned some more, then, distracted by a bird, clambered about the tree for a few minutes before starting down. At first, it didn’t follow my program, and descended the tree tail first before losing its nerve, climbing back up to the limb, and starting over, giving us plenty of chances for a variety of shots. The cat eventually climbed down tail-first again, as the trunk was much taller than I’d thought, and too far for it to jump. We left it there, grooming near another fallen tree but out of range.
As we continued a young bull elephant charged a mini-van, and then Mary’s vehicle. We followed, and eventually it charged us as well, and Joshua bolted off, although the elephant’s ears were forward and I’m sure it was just bluffing. From there we filmed more elephants against a picturesque stormy sky, followed by a viewing of two lionesses contemplating a herd of zebras that they will probably hunt in darkness. By 5 :45 it was very dark, and with the promise of a sunset fading we headed back to camp, arriving shortly after 6.
Day 10. Lower Mara.
We headed to the Sopa area, on a report that an orphaned baby elephant had been stalked by a lioness the previous evening, but darkness precluded seeking the outcome. We couldn’t find the lions, or an elephant carcass, so we’re guessing, hoping, that the baby reunited with the herd. While in that area we found three Hippopotamuses along the roadside that were skittish, but eventually we got them near the Oasis, where they were framed nicely against the palm trees lining that stream.
While there we looked for the Malachite Kingfisher that often fishes there, and eventually saw it, far away, perched behind two Little Bee-eaters that sat, tightly side-by-side, along a reed, a pose they often adopt at night when roosting. The other vehicles had headed towards the mother Cheetah with six cubs that had moved south of the Talek River. As we headed north, we encountered the most cooperative Brown Snake Eagle that we’ve ever filmed, allowing us to change positions three times before, as we tried to sneak out, the bird flew, landing on a different perch where we repeated the routine.
We headed north, passing a leopard kill of a fresh Reedbuck, but the leopard had left. Further on, eight African Lions, with a pair mating. As we arrived, the female got up and starting trotting, with the male close behind, then stopping, and in a quick mating, the female reacted violently. We waited, hoping for a repeat, but the next mating, ten minutes later, was tame, so we headed on to the cheetahs.
When we arrived, the mother and cubs were lying beneath a bush, and we almost headed to a group of lions with young cubs when the cubs began playing. Minutes later, the mother went on a stalk of Grant’s Gazelles, with five of the six cubs trotting behind, no doubt alerting the gazelles which ran off. One cub stayed behind, sleeping, as the mother and cubs continued on, traveling at least a quarter mile before the cub woke up. The cub began chirping its bird-voice call, and whether the mother heard that call or simply noticed a missing cub she, and the cubs, turned around and returned, with the mother adopting an angry, or intense, hunting-like stare as she approached the cub. We expected her to administer some punishment but instead the greeting was gentle, joined in seconds by the other cubs. Afterwards, they played, running about the Gardenia Tree and clambering among the branches, creating taxing shooting conditions as they moved from shade to sun and back. Eventually they settled and, without any game in sight for them to hunt, we drove on to the lions, summoned by Mary’s vehicle who radioed that the cubs were up.
By the time we arrived the two Lionesses had already crossed the track and settled into some brush, but two cubs remained, sacked out in the shade of another Gardenia. While we watched the cubs awoke and, with snarls directed to the vehicles, the cubs slunk through the grass and disappeared across the track into the croton bushes. Near noon, we headed back, passing and then shooting a large herd of Common Zebras that had moved north from Tanzania. Polarized, with cumulous clouds building for the almost inevitable afternoon rains, the herd made a great shot.
PM. My vehicle headed, somewhat directly, towards the cheetah and cubs, although a fairly good Ground Hornbill distracted us. Mary’s vehicle lingered, and she was rewarded with an adult returning to the nesting area with a frog in its mouth, which the adult dropped, and may have lost, when it flew up and tried depositing it in the nest hole.
We were fairly close to the area where the cheetahs had been when we spotted four half-sized Black-backed Jackal pups at a roadside den. An adult was nearby but promptly ran off, but we stayed with the pups for at least a half hour, until mini-van drivers, filled with Indians as it turned out, drove past, sometimes screaming past and almost running over the den! We headed to the cheetahs, but they had left, so we continued, following a few min-vans to the lion cubs.
As we arrived, a cub was straddling the belly of one on the Lionesses, and although that action was never repeated we did get great shots of cubs playing, clambering around mom’s head, and various cute poses. Tourist behavior was fairly good, except for a group of European students who drove off-track to visit a now spent mating couple, where one of the girls actually knelt on the roof of the vehicle as they drove around the cats. Had she slipped off … Three of the cubs lay hidden in some croton bushes further uphill, and several vans, filled with tourists that could barely give a hoot, went crashing through the brush for an obnoxious look-see.
Eventually, the cubs moved up hill towards the location where the other cubs had hidden, and one of the lionesses followed. From there she began to bring them back into the open but stopped in high grass, where several mini-vans went off track to virtually surround the cats. We headed out, stopping a final time at the jackal den before arriving back at the lodge at 6:35.
Three of our vans headed in a different direction, and encountered our mating lions and that pride, where they spent most of their afternoon. I tried, repeatedly, to get the others to our cubs, as they were the best we’ve had in years, in short grass, good light, and in the open, but apparently the distance was too far, and the shooting too good, for the others to be tempted.
Day 11. Lower Mara to Mara Triangle.
We loaded up for our transit and game drive to the next lodge, doing so extremely efficiently and being on the road at 6:05, a head of schedule for most days. A brilliant orange sunrise greeted us, and we headed to the bottom of the hill to frame an acacia tree against the rapidly intensifying light. On towards Sopa, where we shot two different Black-bellied Bustards as they did their courtship display song, a whooping yelp followed by a hiccup, where the bird first raises its neck high in a crowing fashion, then drops its neck into a tight fold where it gives its distinctive, and funny, hiccup that finishes the performance.
We spotted two lionesses from afar, and one sat nicely upon a low termite mound where, with wide-angles, we did a nice early morning scenic/cloudscape with the lion. One of the lionesses had her back end pocked by claw marks and bites, but she walked fine, and for thirty minutes the two stalked a trio of Common Zebras that eventually spied the cats and ran off.
In an accessible flat-topped acacia a pair of Secretarybirds were building a nest, and we had two good chances for birds flying into, and out of, the budding nest in wonderful light. Later, we filmed 22 baby Masai Ostriches, accompanied by two pairs of adults. Last trip, there were 26 in this flock, but still the survival rate was good. Last evening, from a distance we saw one male ostrich with two hens and 42 chicks of various ages in tow.
By the Agama Rocks the pride of lions we had on our first morning now occupied the crest of these low, kopji-like formations. The cats merely lounged, but from the bottom of the cliff we could frame the lions against a brilliant blue sky.
All of this activity took us to nearly 10AM, when we finally stopped for breakfast – or brunch, before continuing to the Mara River where, at the bridge, a fresh contingent of Wildebeest carcasses bobbed in the strong current. There were scores of bodies, no more than three days old, so the promise of a good crossing in the next few days runs high.
PM. In the afternoon most of the vehicles headed to the river edge, while my vehicle, inexplicably, stayed inland, and so missed some incredible Nile Crocodile feeding activity, as seven adult crocs torn pieces from a Common Zebra. Our vehicle, instead, stopped at a Cape Hare, too close, as it turned out, and as we backed up for a better position our vehicle’s left rear wheel went over a culvert, almost flipping our land-rover over. We were stuck, with one wheel deep in a ditch, while the opposite front wheel hung high above the road. We radioed for assistance, but the crocs were too good to leave and we waited, while an advancing storm loomed ever closer. Eventually I was forced to call in help, as I worried that with heavy rains our ‘rescue’ vehicles would not have the traction to get us out. When they arrived, the fix was pretty easy, with one vehicle simply pulling the front edge down, allowing our driver to put the vehicle in gear and get out.
We headed to the river, waiting out the rain until we could open our hatches and finish up with the crocs, which spun and rolled, tearing off chunks and eventually dislodging the carcass, which floated free downriver. The other vehicles headed up river where they had an African Elephant river crossing which proved to be pretty spectacular.
Day 12. Mara Triangle
We had just left the lodge when we encountered a Lioness and two half-grown cubs feeding upon a freshly killed gnu. Back-lighted, with a clear sky, an otherwise grisly scene was striking. While we watched, a herd of Common Zebras stood watching, and a Hippopotamus crossed the road, nearly a mile from the river. Later, as it turned out, we passed a dead hippo, killed yesterday by lions.
My vehicle left, and a while later two male African Lions passed by, and those still at the kill were treated to some great portraits and head-butting interaction. We searched, in vain, for cheetahs, before heading off to find the dead hippo and a late breakfast at the hippo corner. After breakfast, as we headed upriver again, a large herd of gnus began to gather at the river and while we watched hundreds more joined them, many running parallel to the road and close by. The herds moved back and forth along the river to several likely crossing points, but eventually the momentum was lost and the herds began grazing away from the river.
While the morning had been slow, the afternoon action never stopped. Early on, we had a pair of Crowned Cranes feeding close to the road, near enough that I only bothered with tight head/neck portraits, and the birds performed beautifully. On several occasions one or both of the birds would flare its crown broadly, making striking images. Later, after we filmed a couple of Topis and their calves, the group approached the road and leaped across a ditch, on my prediction! Unfortunately, my short lens/camera combo was wrapped up with another camera’s strap in the backpack, and by the time I got that free, without shaking the vehicle, and had the lens out the action was about to occur. Then, the 7D’s mode dial was flipped, and by the time I got the camera reset to manual I had time for four fast shots, without metering. I underexposed.
We headed to a pair of African Lions, a female on a termite mound and a beautiful male lying nearby. Eventually the lioness got up and greeted the male with a head-butt, and then continued on, where she met four cubs lying on the edge of a thicket. We were too far away for decent shots, but eventually we were given the OK by one of the Rangers to move in closer, where we filmed the lioness lying atop a mound with babies nearby. Unfortunately, after 5 minutes or so we were told to move on – preserving what I see as a terrible ‘zoo mentality – tourist’ attitude where serious shooting or wildlife appreciation is lost.
We finished the day with a beautiful stormy sunset, with rain sheets in the distance, framed with a Masai Giraffe that walked nearby.
Day 13. Mara Triangle.
A three Cat morning. Henry  noted that several zebras were looking in one direction and, following their gaze, spotted a Leopard in the grass. As he approached the cat scooted up an acacia, climbing to a high, leafy perch where it stayed as our other vehicles converged. Although we occasionally see kills in this area, and the scattered trees scream leopard! for the opportunities, we’ve rarely had luck, and never have we had a cat in one of the trees. This one, unfortunately, was shy.
We headed to the lions of yesterday, and quickly found the Lioness that was actively stalking a small herd of Gnu and Topi. Topi are alert antelope, and it didn’t take long before the lion was spotted and the stalk aborted. The lioness headed towards the river, and in a large field she stalked an oblivious Warthog. Although too far away for any photos, the show would have been a great one had she completed her hunt. Inexplicably, although the warthog passed close by – or appeared to be from our vantage – she didn’t charge, but instead followed some distance behind the warthog, which then spotted her and ran off. The lioness continued, eventually coming upon a small herd of Masai Giraffe with a week-old baby. Prior to this, we were treated to some wonder portraits of the mother, and perhaps an older sister to the baby, nuzzling neck and ears.
We came upon another Cheetah, one that apparently had missed on a hunt a bit earlier, but after some snaps we moved on, as we were off the track and the light was harsh. En route, we passed a spectacular Lizard Buzzard, a stout, gray, banded goshawk-like raptor that posed atop a dead snag, giving us great shots.
PM. The afternoon proceeded uneventfully as we covered some beautiful country near the Tanzania border, skirting around the vegetated ‘inselbergs,’ the precursors of kopjis but still covered with slopes of rocks and soil. One of the vehicles found a Lioness with two cubs near the dead Hippo we’d seen yesterday, and we had some of our best ever shots of a cub sinuously weaving between mom’s chin.
Day 14. Mara Triangle to Upper Mara.
We barely left our lodge when we passed a Spotted Hyena den where, in contrast to our previous drive-bys, two black hyena pups were out and playing. Hyena pups are fairly precocial, and are coal black for their first six weeks of life. Afterwards, they begin to adopt a spotted pattern, and while still small, they begin to resemble an adult. In their first weeks, however, they more closely resemble round-eared Labrador pups than a hyena.
These two, in conjunction with a mother that was very patient, put on a real show, and for two hours, from the dim predawn hours when an ISO of 4000 was required, until they finally fell asleep after an hour of great light, the cubs played about. At one point, both cubs went into a small hole or depression that the mother didn’t like, and after numerous attempts she finally grasped one by the neck and carried it to the den. Over that hour this happened repeatedly, with both cubs, or pups, providing us with an opportunity that we’ve only had a few times in all the years, and all of those were generally a once-and-done action. Not repeated, not drawn out, as this series was. It was truly a trip highlight.
Later, we had another, when we met up with Mary’s vehicle which had staked out a Pied Kingfisher where they had waited 45 minutes for it to leave its perch, as they sat, aimed and ready, to get a flight shot. We asked if we could move in closer, which would give them the flight shot if the bird flew, but it didn’t. And it didn’t, again, when we repositioned ourselves (and Mary’s vehicle) a second time, but instead the bird posed, preened, and looked about. At one point it did fly, landing on the opposite bank of the small pond it had claimed, where it caught a dragonfly. Doing so, it immediately flew back to our perch where it resumed its original position – its back to us – as it worked on, and swallowed the dragonfly. Having stayed with the bird over an hour, and having our breakfast while we did so, we felt there was little left that we could do and we slowly backed off and drove off.
We arrived at our last camp by noon, as clouds gathered.
PM. Upper Mara
The area around Serena, in the Mara Triangle, was shrouded by rain clouds, but our afternoon stayed dry, and sunny, too, for the most part. We headed out to look for a leopard that was reported at a kill, but en route we came upon a Martial Eagle that had swooped down to snatch a Banded Mongoose. We came upon the scene at that moment, when the band of Mongoose came charging across the grasslands, presumably to drive off the eagle. We watched as the eagle flapped off the ground, with two streaking bodies flashing upward, mongooses leaping more than their body length high as they grabbed at the eagle. They missed, fortunately, for had one bitten the eagle’s leg, the other hugely taloned foot could easily have snatched the offending mongoose.
The eagle landed upon a termite mound, and was tame, allowing us to get full-frame side and front views before it eventually flew off. We continued to the Leopard, which lay in a tree with only its head visible. It wasn’t much of a shot so we backed off, waiting for it to descend. It did, sneaking down without our seeing it, and went to the Talek River to drink. Mary’s vehicle and another got down in time to get a position, where they had a clear view of the back end of the leopard as it drank. While it did so, a Lioness approached, but neither saw the other until they were about 15 feet away, when the leopard twisted and darted back to its tree, with the lioness in pursuit. She made it, and the lioness continued on, stopping at a dead Gnu calf that we assume the leopard had killed earlier.
We continued on, with one vehicle finding a Bat-eared Fox den with very tame, but rather unresponsive foxes lying outside. We worked on a good Goliath Heron, the largest heron in Africa, that ignored us. As quitting time neared, we were heading towards a Cattle Egret when David spotted another Leopard, a young male, sitting nearby on a bank. The cat was oblivious, and drifted off to sleep. We got a few shots in the growing darkness and headed back to camp, and a few minutes later the leopard got up and walked directly towards our remaining vehicles, giving a good show in very, very dim light.
Day 15. Upper Mara.
We headed out into the area where we’d seen leopards yesterday, but no cats were seen and we continued onto the plains where the mother cheetah with six cubs, and the three brother cheetahs had been reported. In the light of sunrise we had a very large family of Spotted Hyenas with at least six juveniles of 3 months or so, and several adults and subadults. They were playing vigorously, and at one point three juveniles ran in single file, colliding with another that rounded a bend and hit it head on.
As we headed across the plains I spotted the ears of a resting Bat-eared Fox and, as we approached, we discovered that it had two pups, and a shy mate that darted inside the den. We parked and waited, and several times the shy mate would stick its (her) head above the ground and, seeing us, duck quickly back inside. Eventually, the pups wanted out, and after two false-starts they finally clambered up to the male and snuggled in. Unfortunately, our guide had radioed that we had foxes, and despite my saying tell them to stay away, that they were shy, the message was, ‘foxes,’ and the vehicles came. As they approached, the foxes darted back inside, and as four of our vehicles arrived so too did five other safari vehicles, driving in fast and loud, as the tourists inside talked loudly, no doubt puzzled as to why we were staring at an empty space. In fact, as they drove off, some drove right over the den! During lunch, I reiterated for more than the third time that it’s better for one vehicle to get something than for all the vehicles to get nothing, and to waste time while they did so. Donna and Ron’s vehicle, for example, spent another 25 patient minutes waiting at the den, but of course the damage had been done, the foxes were frightened and were not going to reappear. This is sad, because the time we’d put in with the foxes was time where the animals were becoming habituated, and the pups, first untrusting, were now unafraid of our vehicle. Then, with the explosion of vehicles congregating at their den, all of this positive learning was lost. And, the time the other vehicles could have been spent looking for valid subjects was lost in a fruitless endeavor.
We spent the rest of our morning searching the luggas, and we found Judy her Pigmy Kingfisher and a variety of other birds. Mary’s vehicle spent an easy hour attempting to catch a Little Bee-eater pair as they swooped into a track-side nest hole, as they tried getting the bird on the wing, in focus, as one darted into the hole. They’re hoping that one shot out of 8 gigs will work!
The group had some good luck with a large male African Lion that walked across the plains towards them, a Lioness that surveyed a herd for weak prey, and three Cheetahs, as well as a variety of birds.
PM. We headed out on this side of the Talek, hoping to find the three Cheetah brothers and, perhaps, lion cubs. Eventually, we did find the Cheetahs, but they had killed, and with hugely swollen bellies, did not off a shot.
However, within fifteen minutes of leaving camp we came upon the female Leopard, from yesterday’s near death experience (for her), lying beneath a tree in mixed light. Nearby, a mostly-eaten baby Warthog lay in the open, and beneath another tree a barely eaten baby Defassa Waterbuck. There were no good shots of the resting leopard so we positioned ourselves for a view of the kill, and, after a twenty minute wait, she went to the kill and proceeded to feed. Over time, she moved the kill several feet, making a bit of a better viewing window, which we were about to trade with another vehicle when she carried the kill up the tree and, essentially, out of shooting range.
From there we went to, and by, the cheetahs, and ended our shoot with some wonderful back-lighted Thompson’s Gazelles that we worked against the sun.
Day 16. Upper Mara.
We headed back to the leopard but she wasn’t in the tree, so we headed towards the plains. We hadn’t traveled more than a few hundred yards when we were called back, as the Leopard was spotted along the river, about a quarter-mile upstream. We returned quickly, and got some great shots as she walked towards us on the way back to the waterbuck kill. After a short rest below the tree the leopard scooted back up the tree, where we left her. Later, just before returning for lunch we drove by again, and the leopard was in the perfect position, in very short grass, in open shade, but, unfortunately, blocked from a shooting view by some branches. All we could do was watch and enjoy.
We headed up, after the morning leopard, to where young lion cubs had been spotted, and although we saw the pride, 4, and another lone lioness, the cubs stayed hidden. We continued on to Topi Plains where we found a displaying Kori Bustard. In display, the male erects his tail, revealing a fluffy white backside, while puffing up his neck to, sometimes, almost three times its normal diameter. The sun was still low enough that we could do effective back-lighted shots, and the bird performed wonderfully, several times walking so close to the vehicle that we were unable to properly frame the bird.
Mary’s vehicle went to a hippo pool, where they had some fighting and good portraits, while, after breakfast, two of the vans went with Henry and Joshua to the Masai Village for a shoot.
PM. We checked out the Leopard, which had returned to the kill tree and where it lay, fully exposed, with its head turned away. We left it, and headed to the low Secretary Bird nest where we filmed some courtship and one return-to-nest with sticks. John was hoping for Bat-eared Fox, so we headed across the river to the den we’d seen yesterday, but the foxes darted into the hole as soon as we arrived. In 20 minutes, only one adult showed its ears for a few seconds, and I felt waiting would be unproductive so we moved on. Almost immediately, we encountered a pair of Thompson’s Gazelles that were, somewhat, in the process of mating, with the male repeatedly attempting to mount, and with the female continually darting from beneath him. This courtship dance took the gazelles away from us, and then back, until they made a good-sized image in the frame.
Other vehicles went to the tame Fox den where they had brief glimpses of a pup, and portraits of the oblivious adults.
Day 17.  Upper Mara, our last morning Game Drive.
We headed towards Musiara Marsh where the largest pride of lions reside, pausing en route at the Secretary Bird nest to film the awakening birds against the sunrise. One of our vehicles took a different route and encountered six African Lions that were hunting a Topi, which ran between all six and escaped. Shortly after, we were called to a Cheetah that had just killed a pregnant Thompson’s Gazelle and who was being harassed by three Black-backed Jackals. One or two of the adult Jackals would snap at the Cheetah’s tail, causing the cheetah to spin and the jackal to run off. One of our vehicles was too close, I felt, which not only obstructed the view but, for them, caused those photographers to shoot almost straight down, which had to compromise their depths-of-field. Via radio, I suggested they back off, but they were happy with their position and stayed.
A short time later a Spotted Hyena wandered on to the scene, and although one of the vehicles blocked the view of the kill for the hyena, the scavenger did see the kill when it passed by, and immediately ran at the kill. The cheetah backed off, snarling, and that was it – the hyena grabbed the carcass and ran off, with the jackals now in tow. Later, dismembering the carcass the nearly-full-term fetus popped out, and this the jackals scavenged and ran off with. The cheetah moved to a termite mound and sat, no doubt looking for new prey.
We found the marsh Lions, 15 of the 25 or so that make up the pride, as they were finishing up a Defassa Waterbuck carcass. The shots were rather uninspiring, except, perhaps, one older cub who climbed up an inclined, fallen log. Eating a group breakfast along the Mara River we attracted a couple of Masai women who laid out their wares, and one of our party bought an item, thereby encouraging more of this behavior. Unfortunately, such purchases promote other Masai to show up at vehicles and we’ve had too many shooting opportunities, and disturbed animals, and gnu river crossings, blown by the approaching Masai. Good intentions on the tourist’s part, no doubt, but unintended, awful consequences.
PM. Our last game drive. Mary joined me, for our traditional ‘last drive together,’ and we were joined by Tom. There were massive storms to our north, but despite this David and the other guides headed in that direction, despite the relatively clear skies south of the Talek. Eventually, as we neared the storm, I strongly suggested that we head in a different direction! Still, we drove slowly, as did all the guides, probably thinking we’d have an early turn-in. We decided to head back to check on the Leopard again, and sure enough, she was back up in the tree. We arrived a minute or two late, as another tourist vehicle moved in to the near-perfect spot, but from our angle we could shoot over their roof, and thus obtain full-frame shots. Eventually, they kindly vacated their position to allow us to move in, where we shot the leopard quite close and with a good opening. We had radioed the other vehicles, and one, with keen Christian and Peter, got there in time, whereupon we gave up our spot and headed home.
Day 18. We flew back to Nairobi in two planes, with Mary, Tom, and Steve and I taking a small six-seater, and the rest in the larger Caravan. The flight was spectacular, as we passed through towering cumulous clouds that were building at a surprisingly low height.

At 6PM, we did our group slide show with fewer images than normal, as most folks simply didn’t have time to do any editing. Still, it was a great show, evoking wonderful memories from the trip. At 7PM, we said good-bye to the group, with most heading home, others taking a flight tomorrow.