The group of five photographers plus myself, John Wright, and my wife Nadine (joint tour leader) met at Costa Coffee in the airport at London Heathrow before boarding for an overnight flight to Nairobi. Some of the group had met previously on other UK workshops, but most were complete strangers to each other. All soon became acquainted over coffees and cakes.
We arrived in Nairobi just after 6.30 am. Some of the group had purchased visas in the UK. My advice was to purchase them in Nairobi. That is exactly what just over half the group did. The ones with visas were quite miffed that those of us purchasing visas in Kenya cleared immigration first. We met up with our two remaining companions, who had flown directly from Amsterdam, and we then transferred to Wilson Airport, approximately 45 minutes drive across Nairobi. The plane departed Wilson at 10.00 and about an hour later we had landed at Ngerende airstrip in the Masai Mara. As our plane descended in preparation to land, a number of giraffe and a herd of elephants were spotted. Two safari vehicles awaited us there and transferred us and our belongings to Kicheche Mara Camp. After about bout 20 minutes’ driving we were enjoying cocktails and being welcomed by our charming hosts, Phil and Charley Mason. We showered, had lunch and at 3.30 left camp for our first safari. We had two purpose built safari vehicles, with a bean bag and a bolt-on camera “platform” at elbow height for each photographer. Our first major encounter was with a large solitary bull elephant. The lighting was excellent and he approached to within 3 or 4 metres of the vehicles, spending almost 20 minutes with us before disappearing into the bush. We then spent time with Giraffe, Zebra and a solitary hyena before finding a large herd of buffalo. We spent some time with these. Of particular interest on these, were the yellow billed tick birds. They were on the backs and heads of the buffalo, but also often finding food from inside the nostrils and in the corners of their eyes. The buffalos became quite irritated by the more persistent birds. We then found topi, wildebeest, Thomson’s gazelles and a black backed jackal before enjoying sundowners in front of a vivid sunset. We returned to camp where we were treated to a welcome dance from the local Maasai during a well deserved dinner.
Today we took with us a packed breakfast and lunch having decided to attempt to see a crossing. On our way we came across five lions, part of the 26 strong Kicheche pride. We photographed these for over two hours in the golden light as the sun rose. They attempted to hunt but without success. We then found a large herd of elephants with some calves small enough to walk beneath their mothers bellies. On the way to the crossing point we found three cheetahs – they were brothers and one was suffering very badly from mange. It appeared that this one cheetah would not live for much longer. The crossing point produced three gigantic crocodiles and many smaller ones, obviously all waiting for lunch. The three gigantic ones looked capable of swallowing a wildebeest whole. i had never seen any as large as these before. There was also a pod of hippos happily co-habiting with them. Mutual respect was obviously a factor here. We witnessed a small crossing of both zebra and wildebeest. One of the large crocodiles took a young zebra as it crossed. This was captured in dramatic fashion by one of the group. We then saw hyenas, Coke’s hartebeest and topi before coming across a large group of vultures feeding on a wildebeest carcass. There were all three types of vultures here, and we photographed them both in flight and landing, as well as on the ground. We then found a cheetah with two cubs. We photographed these amongst rocks on termite mounds, and walking only a metre from our parked vehicles. On our way home, we photographed a fish eagle, a lilac breasted roller in flight, and a bat-eared foxed before enjoying another sunset.
This morning we found six lions, part of the same pride we had seen the day before, and again photographed them as the sun rose. Next we photographed a tawny eagle perched on a tree and in flight before finding a warthog, a single cheetah and some Grant’s gazelle. Our next subject was a leopard which had been chased up a tree by a lioness. The lioness was trying to climb the same tree but without success. A while later the lion appeared to have lost interest and the leopard came down. The lion was obviously hiding and the leopard again had to take refuge at the top of another tree. Lions see other predators as competition and would have undoubtedly have killed the leopard, given the opportunity. As we made our way slowly back to the camp for lunch, we came across impala, waterbuck, Coke’s hartebeest and dikdik. After lunch, cards were downloaded and a critique done on participants photos. Constructive advice was given where necessary. Our afternoon safari took us to Leopards Gorge where we found three lionesses with nine tiny cubs between them. They were all nursing and we sat totally spellbound by their antics for almost three hours. The mothers were taking it in turns to feed the cubs and also to eat from a wildebeest that they had stored in the gorge. One mother regularly carried a baby in her mouth just feet from the vehicles. We stayed until the light became poor. On our way back we we practised panning whilst photographing wildebeest as the sun went down. Our headlights picked out white tailed mongooses, a grass owl and two spring hares on our drive back to camp.
We spent a considerable time with a herd of elephants and their babies before once again finding a single cheetah. We then found a large herd of buffalo and witnessed thousands of wildebeest forming snake-like lines as they headed to and from crossing points. There was also a sizable migration of zebras, some half a mile long and three to five deep. This gave us a great opportunity to photograph some interesting patterns formed by the larger groups of zebras. We had a packed breakfast and again headed for the crossing area. We were fortunate to see another crossing today of some thirty zebras and approximately 70 wildebeest. The zebras crossed first, closely followed by the wildebeest. We didn’t realise until after most of the zebras had successfully crossed that two lionesses were hiding on the far bank. One of the lionesses caught and killed one of the last two zebras to cross. The wildebeest panicked and turned back, returning to the bank from which they had departed. We then stopped for our packed lunch on the banks of the river whilst watching a pod of hippos and more crocodiles. In the afternoon we photographed bee-eaters, goshawks, a yellow billed crane and guinea fowl before coming across a lion, lioness and two baby cubs on a the bank of a stream. Shortly afterwards we found a leopard and two cubs devouring a Thomson’s gazelle. We photographed these for an hour and a half before the light started to fade, and we had to leave them and return to camp. On our way back we again photographed a line of wildebeest against the setting sun.
Yet again we found lions as the sun rose – there were two lionesses devouring a freshly killed impala. There were also five hyenas trying unsuccessfully to grab some morsels, but the lionesses were having none of it. We didn’t stay too long, as our main objective was to try and relocate the leopard and cubs from the day before. Fortune smiled on us. We found the mother in the process of moving her cubs to a safer place. At one stage they were all right out in the open. We followed her for some considerable distance until she found a safe refuge on a rocky crag. Next we found another large elephant herd with young, before returning to Leopard’s Gorge hoping to see more of the lion cubs. We spent some time with them but they were much more concealed than on our previous visit. We photographed a Malibu stork, crowned cranes and later some vultures on a wildebeest calf before retuning to camp for lunch, more downloading and another critique session. In the afternoon we shot buffalo, eland, hartebeest, dikdik, Thomson’s gazelles, Grant’s gazelles, bee-eaters, zebras and giraffes, before ending the day with the final piece in the jigsaw, three white rhinos. We had seen and photographed all the BIG FIVE from close quarters in just one day! FANTASTIC. For many of the group, this was one of their “dreams come true”.
This morning six of us got up an extra half hour early to take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. It was quite spectacular watching the balloon being inflated and I was allowed inside the balloon to take photographs whilst this was being done. Whilst flying we passed over bat-eared foxes, zebras, giraffes, topi, Thomson’s gazelles, wildebeest and impala. We did not fly over the masses of wildebeest we had anticipated, and in that respect we were somewhat disappointed. When we landed we were driven to a site where we were treated to an excellent freshly cooked breakfast complete with champagne. We met up with the rest of our party and continued our day together. They had once again spent quality time with the Kicheche pride of lions whilst we were flying. We then found two sizeable herds of elephants both with very small babies as we made our way to the crossing area. A considerable number of wildebeest and zebra went right down to the waters edge several times, but none dared to cross as there were huge crocodiles waiting on the opposite bank. Some quite spectacular shots were taken as a sand storm whipped through the retreating wildebeest. We then made our way to the marsh area. On our way we spotted a serval with kittens, a cheetah, hippos, ground hornbills, waterbuck, and several topis standing on the tops of termite mounds. After our picnic lunch we spent the afternoon in the marsh area where we saw incredible numbers of wildebeest. We photographed reedbuck, waterbuck, warthogs, herons, kingfishers, jacana, egrets, ibis, literally hundreds of baboons -many with tiny babies, hippos, and a hyena with cubs On our return home the headlights revealed a spring hare, a nightjar and bats.
Guess what was the first thing we saw this morning? Lions of course! The whole Kicheche pride of 26 lions, some on prey, some playing, some hunting, some drinking in pools – a fantastic couple of hours were spent with them. After leaving them we came across a huge herd of buffalo. There were a number of egrets performing on the backs of some of these. We then went to a pre-arranged spot with everybody expecting the normal packed breakfast. But this morning they were astounded when we arrived on the banks of the river overlooking a huge pod of hippos. Just a few yards from the bank was the most sumptuous breakfast feast imaginable. They had certainly outdone the balloon feast. Crepes, bacon, eggs, omelettes, bread, jams, cereals, cheese, honey, fresh fruit, nuts etc etc. Having eaten our fill we headed for the Maasai village. On the way we photographed a lilac breasted roller in flight, a saddle billed stork and more vultures. The Maasai village produced some amazing portrait and candid shots. The colours of their head-dresses, beads and clothing were so rich and vibrant. We returned to camp for lunch, although nobody was hungry. This afternoon the majority of the group were weakening and decided that they would have an “afternoon off” and take the opportunity to spend an hour each with myself assessing their photographic skills. It actually proved very beneficial and was definitely not time wasted. The remaining three (the intrepid girls!!!) opted for an afternoon safari and were rewarded with bat eared foxes, a jackal and cubs, and a large herd of impala. This was topped by them seeing a rarely witnessed event – a pair of leopards mating. Jonathan Scott later informed us all that he had only witnessed this event twice in his life. To cap it all they took an amazing sunset complete with zebra silhouettes in exactly the right place in the picture..
Today we headed out once again towards the crossing. On route we found five lions. Two males, one female and two half-grown cubs on a very freshly killed wildebeest. The light was quite incredible and it made them look quite scary. They ate virtually the entire wildebeest as we watched. It was most interesting to watch the mother take the most pungent part of the intestines a few yards away and bury it. This was to prevent the odour carrying in the wind and alerting hyenas to their kill. We got excellent shots of a another lilac breasted roller and a pied kingfisher just before we stopped for breakfast. There were no wildebeest or zebras even close to the crossing points today. We spent time with a pod of hippos, some with really tiny babies, and then returned to the plains where we found a cheetah with two cubs. She soon left the cubs under a tree and was obviously intent on hunting. The plains here contained a lot of game and there was every chance of her catching something. She was slowly making her way down a dry river-bed, hoping not to be noticed by her potential prey. Suddenly there was loud squealing and to our amazement it was not the cheetah in pursuit of another animal. The cheetah was being angrily chased by a large warthog. A cheetah will not tackle an adult warthog as they are likely to receive serious injury in any ensuing battle. The cheetah soon outstripped the warthog and amazingly while actually running away from the warthog, she startled an immature hartebeest. She chased this down and grabbed it under the throat no more than 20 feet from our vehicle. She lay there with it for almost a minute before the hartebeest’s mother and a companion came charging towards the cheetah. The cheetah spotted them coming, let go of the young hartebeest and charged towards the approaching pair. Just before they met she leapt sideways into the air whilst snapping and snarling. The hartebeest both turned and ran. The cheetah started to make her way back towards the young hartebeest. As she did so, the youngster suddenly regained consciousness, got up and ran. She was at top speed in an instant, chased it down and again grasped it under the throat. This time there was no escape. She soon called over her cubs who had remained motionless throughout the entire episode. She dragged her prey under the shade of a nearby bush and left her cubs to enjoy her prize. She was absolutely exhausted from her efforts and it was amazing to see her struggle for breath uncontrollably for almost 3/4 hour before regaining the composure to feed herself. Her lungs were pumping so hard that we thought they would burst. We had witnessed a very rare event and were told that it is extremely rare for a cheetah to attack a hartebeest. The cubs were extremely entertaining while mum was recovering. They took it in turns to keep grabbing the dead animal under the throat, just as mother had done, and to hang on for dear life as if they were killing it themselves. After a couple of hours or so we decided to have a late lunch and slowly make our way home. We photographed eland, crested cranes, baboons, mongooses, reedbuck and bee-eaters in flight. We took some great landscapes of some spectacularly illuminated trees surrounded by wildebeest as the sun set.
Today the group split into two. Some felt that they wanted an easier day whilst others desperately wanted to see another crossing. The beauty of having two vehicles and drivers throughout the holiday is that varied requests like this can easily be catered for. Six of the group decided on the crossing whilst three opted tostay more locally, returning to the camp for lunch and a couple of hours rest at mid-day. The larger group came across the Ridge Pride of lions on the way to the crossing. This was the first time we had encountered these particular animals. This was a sizeable pride and they were generally a younger pride. It was a very active group and obviously thriving. We spent an hour or so on the edge of a coppice area with them before they retreated into the shade as the sun got hotter. We then had our packed breakfast before finding a herd of elephants and babies. We found these on the edge of a wooded area on a hillside. They soon came out into the open and headed for the marshy area. We sat and watched the babies and younger elephants playing in a mud pool, rolling over and covering themselves and each other with the muddy water. We then moved on to a crossing point where we watched some 200 plus wildebeest, and 70-80 zebra cross without mishap. It was a real nice contrast to see a successful crossing with no casualties. We adjourned for lunch and then headed back for a return visit to the marsh area. On the way we saw buffalo, white tailed mongooses, and an immature bateleur eagle. In the marsh area itself we saw waterbuck, reedbuck, a tawny eagle, hippos, endless wildebeest, a huge troop of baboons, blue herons, grey herons, little herons, jacanas, ibis, cattle egrets and great egrets. We then saw Jonathon and Angela Scott!! We were struggling with a puncture and Jonathan kindly gave us some WD40 and helped us to change the wheel. Much photographing and autographing then ensued.!! On our way home we came across a sizeable herd of impala near a stream. We stopped and photographed these and were extremely fortunate in that they all decided to jump the stream right next to our vehicle. Some superb mid-air shots were taken. We then found a pool full of hippos. It was completely covered with water hyacinths to such an extent that no water was visible, just green plants. The hippos looked quite comical when they raised their heads out of the water complete with a green leafy hat. The final thing we came across was a new born topi calf with it’s mother. It had literally been born only seconds before. It was covered in slime and was just shaking it’s head for the first time. Amazingly it got to its feet after about 90 seconds, wobbled and stumbled for another 90 seconds, and then ran at least half a mile behind it’s mother before disappearing over the horizon. An incredible feat for something so young. The second group decided to re-visit Leopards Gorge and were rewarded with a long display on open ground by the cubs and their mothers. All three lionesses suckled all nine cubs, quite randomly it seemed. Then they were lucky enough to find a serval, before later coming across a huge herd of elephants. They spent almost two hours with these the highlight of which was being mock charged by the big bull elephant. After lunch they found the Kicheche pride of lions, a bat-eared fox and a new-born giraffe with its mother. Once again this was still wet and had not yet stood up. They stayed with this for an hour or so watching it take its first tentative steps.
Today we split the group just as the day before but with different people doing different things. Again six opted to return to the crossing and three to stay locally. Amazingly the main group today did not see a lion. I must say,it seemed quite strange not to be spending part of the morning with lions. We headed straight for the river without stopping, as we had been informed that masses of wildebeest were converging there. We were the first vehicle to arrive there and we took this opportunity to have our breakfast, while staying in view of the river. There were some four to five hundred wildebeest and fifty or so zebra within half a mile of the river. We had prime position and waited expectantly ,and waited, and waited, and waited The wildebeest and zebra went down to the waters edge, and some even just into the water, no less than 19 times during the day. Each time something spooked them and they retreated. At 4pm it began to rain on our side of the river so the wildebeest decided not to cross and to wait for the grass to grow. We headed back to camp somewhat frustrated but quite satisfied because we had also enjoyed the day. Whilst waiting we had photographed a paid of bateleur eagles in flight, a Ross’s turaco, crocodiles and hippos. Also on the waters edge, just down from our vehicle, we had a ringside view of Malibu storks, sacred ibis and vultures feeding on the carcass of a drowned wildebeest. On our way home we photographed buffalos, topi and finally a pair of male cheetahs hunting. Darkness fell before they were successful. The second group again opted for Leopards Gorge, and they stayed there the entire morning again watching the lions with their cubs. At one stage the mothers left the cubs alone. Quite shockingly, three young males from the Kicheche pride arrived and found smells of this family. They caught and killed one of the cubs and left as quickly as they came. According to the guides, the mothers would have to quickly find a new home for their cubs to avoid a massacre. After lunch the highlights were spending time with a family of bat eared foxes and yet another serval.
Our final morning . Just one game-drive remains. We had decided as a group that we wanted to spend time with the lesser animals, which tend to get overlooked normally. Having said that, our first find was a herd of elephants. These were wandering up and down a lugger (dried out riverbed) and made contrasting pictures to what we had taken before. Some bee-eaters posed nicely for us and then we spent time with a large herd of Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles. The dominant male Grant’s gazelle was constantly trying to mate, and put on quite a show. We then found a sizeable group of impala in a thicket – the dominant male here was working very hard to try and keep his females under his control. We then stopped for breakfast before finding a herd of topi. These were very interesting to watch as quite a number of the young males were vying to be the ‘top dog’. We then found the two cheetah brothers that we had left the previous dusk – they were lying under a tree with full bellies, obviously having been successful the previous night. Our final significant spot was five young black backed jackal cubs. We spent considerable time with these before very reluctantly wishing the Mara “goodbye for now”. We returned to camp, showered, had lunch and caught the afternoon flight to Nairobi. Before leaving Nairobi we stopped at the world-renowned restaurant, Carnivore. It was recently voted one of the top 50 places to eat in the world. For a set price you are treated to an absolute orgy of a huge selection of meats and side dishes. More meat is brought every few minutes until you raise a flag to say no more. We went to the airport, said our farewells, and boarded our planes home.
We arrived back in the UK at 6.30 am, cleared customs, and said our goodbyes. We reflected on what a fantastic time we had spent together in the Masai Mara. All that was left to do, and a considerable job it would be, was to download and sort all the images and then to put together our own permanent pictorial record of an unforgettable trip.