Kenya Saturday and Sunday 25/02/2018
On Saturday afternoon, a hot sunny day, we drove into the Masai Mara Park to engage in the other side of our wildlife experience. For our morning drive John, our Masai guide and driver, Virginia and me, all in our Land Rover had the whole conservancy to ourselves. In the afternoon we expected that the situation would be much different and it was, both from the game on view as well as the number of vehicles sharing the view.
Entering the park at 3pm we paid US$80 each for a 24 hour pass. Our plan is to go to the park in the afternoon and stay until sunset and then return the following morning at sunrise and stay until our pass runs out in the later afternoon. That way we can maximize our viewing time and then spend time in our conservancy to slow the pace periodically and enjoy the more peaceful side of our wildlife experience. We don’t have a bucket list, we are not trying to tick boxes and we have lots of time to be patient and get the shots we want.
Because we did not have the time to drive great distances through the park before sunset John, our guide, suggested that we spend the afternoon around a large marsh area which would have lots of elephants and because of the time of year, lots of baby elephants. Additionally there were sure to be lots of birds and I’m particularly interested in seeing and getting some shots of Crowned Cranes, one of my favourites, which would likely be nesting in the area.
Arriving at the marsh we spotted a group of vehicles clustered around a section of the marsh which had an area of open water. On getting closer we saw a large male lion doing what they do best, dozing in the shade, while 3 lionesses took turns trying to haul a half-eaten buffalo carcass out of the water. They had clearly taken the buffalo down while it was in the water and had eaten as much as they could of the portions that were above the surface but they were determined to haul the rest out onto dry land so that they could finish consuming it. It was most of the hind quarters and a good portion of the underlying half of the body and the weight must have been massive but they were determined to get it out while gnawing off chunks in the process. Thir power and strength was extraordinary to be able to lift and haul the massive carcass with very little purchase for their claws on the marshy ground. And they were not combining to haul the carcass out of the water but only one lioness at a time was allowed to have access to it. To have killed the beast would have required the combined efforts of all of them, but once killed they ate it individually in their turns hauling it out as they ate, their eating order determined by their seniority and status. The male had already eaten, hence the siesta under the trees to sleep it off and the females were now taking their turns. One of the females decided to eat out of order and the standoff, roaring and battling took at least 1/2 hour to sort out, tense, noisy, close and slightly terrifying.
Leaving the lions, we found a nesting Crowned Crane on a little 2 metre square island close to the shore, wonderful to see and we then turned our attention to elephants who were scattered throughout the marshy region in family groups with lots of elephant babes. One group, about 10 metres away from our vehicle, contained a mixed assortment of older males and a couple of mothers with very small kids, only a couple of months old at a guess. The kids, like kids everywhere, were behaving as kids do. One of them a little older than the other was determined to rough house it with the other one. He, pardon the stereotyping but it could only have been a boy, kept butting and pushing the other one and when the younger tired of this and lay down to rest, Dennis the Menace would stand on the other one and force it to get up so the process could start again. Periodically the younger one’s mother would wave her trunk at the transgressor and shoo him away until her back was turned when he would start again. He was like a little high-energy 2 year old, buzzing and bumbling and chasing his way around and butting into anything that got in his way. Tiring of the game he then decided to try and eat the marsh grass as his elders were. He was still nursing but precocious as he was, he was determined to eat the grass like the grownups. Unfortunately it takes practice to learn how to use your trunk and he couldn’t figure out how to grasp the grass and pull it out and then when he did he couldn’t find his mouth and there was grass all over his face and on top of his head. Wonderful to watch!
Out of the park and back to Kandili in the dark.
Sunday morning off at 6:30 and back to the park by early light. Staying at our camp is an Israeli family, mother, father and their 18 year old daughter whose birthday present was a balloon ride over the Masai Mara which they had taken the previous morning. They were charming and their daughter delightful but as is always the case, we did not have much time to get to know them, ships passing in the night, but we enjoyed our brief acquaintance. They were on their way back to Nairobi driving their own Land Cruiser, and it was arranged by mutual agreement that they would join forces with John and our vehicle for a couple of hours and then leave us for their drive back to Nairobi through the park and on to the city.
The day started well, once within the park we came across a lion pride surrounded by a ring of hyenas who were trying to steal the remains of a kill which the senior male was carrying in his mouth to another location, don’t know why but he was. The hyenas were determined to get a share and the rest of the pride trailed along behind. We spent a brief time watching; the light was beautiful, early morning and golden across the grasslands, and even the hyenas looking handsome in the golden wash, and then we were off to try for a leopard before the Israelis left us.
We drove to area where a female leopard and her two cubs had reportedy been seen to find a Picadilly Circus of cars clustered around a grove of trees; it was a useful reminder of why why we had chosen our conservancy camp. Angling for a spot where we could see, we could just discern through the undergrowth, the female and her two cubs. She was trying to get them to climb a tree whose branches began at ground level so easy for them to begin their climb, but they couldn’t quite master the technique and their balance and they would get 2 or 3 metres up and then tumble back down to the ground. Slow process but she finally had them hidden up in the tree and could safely leave them while she went hunting. Had the undergrowth not been as thick we would have had some glorious pictures. As it was it was great fun watching this all happen and then the female drifted into the belt of trees along the sides of a small watercourse and disappeared. We stayed for a 1/2 hour to see if she came back but she was busy hunting and the cubs were too well hidden to be spotted.
It was now 9:30 and time for the Israeli family to leave and we accompanied them to their right track which would eventually lead to the road back to Nairobi. Even though we only had a couple of hours together, a lucky morning.
On our way again John received a phone call to tell him that there were some BBC film trucks tracking a family of cheetah. That seemed too good to miss so we spent 1/2 hour driving over to where they were to be found. We came across them in a wide sweeping valley surrounded by low ridges on either side of an open vale about a kilometre wide with a stream running along it. There were three camera trucks positioned in an open line the length of the valley, one at each end and one in the middle all positioned well up the sides of the ridges and all pointing their equipment at a small clump of trees next to the stream and about halfway along the valley. We pulled up alongside the vehicle in the middle peopled by the driver and the camera operator, Sophie Darlington one of the UK’s and the world’s best wildlife cinematographers. She has shot many of the BBC’s wildlife series narrated by David Attenborough and was there to follow a collective of 5 cheetahs, brothers all, who hunt together, a very rare circumstance. Sophie and the BBC team believed that the 5 brothers would come out of the trees at some point and begin their hunt. The valley was filled with zebra, hartebeest and Thompson’s gazelle and the team wanted to be there to capture the hunt if and when the cheetah came out of hiding and went to their work. Sophie was very helpful and knowledgeable having been doing this for over 30 years so we decided to stay with her vehicle and hope that the hunt took place because these would truly be lifetime shots.
Vey hot and still on the hillside as we watched the grove of trees about 600 metres away. The cheetah would either chase up towards us or along the valley to our front and whatever happened we would be perfectly positioned to watch what would be a remarkable event. Unfortunately the cheetah were not given the BBC script so did not take their cue and enter stage right, hunting. We stayed with the BBC truck for 3 1/2 hours watching the trees but no one emerged and we reluctantly had to leave as we were coming up to the time when our 24 hour pass ran out and we had to leave the park.
Long drive home but along the way managed to stalk a leopard and get some good shots. As we were driving near the belt of trees where we had seen the mother leopard earlier in the day we saw that a troop of zebra had suddenly frozen and had all turned in one direction. We drove the couple of hundred metres to the patch of trees that they were intently watching. We poked the vehicle’s nose into the underbrush but could see nothing but turning off the engine we could hear somewhere in the bushes not very far away a very, very deep rumble and then an occasional bark. We moved over to an open patch where we could see better and then I began to search the brush with my binoculars. There was nothing to be seen deep shadows and undergrowth, and where nothing had been there was suddenly a face and slowly a male leopard moved out of the shadows and dropped down on the ground about 5 or 6 metres away from the vehicle. He continued to growl and bark, clearly calling his mate who must have been the mother of the morning’s cubs, and after looking at us with his deadly green eyes and giving us some wonderful leopard portraits, he picked himself up and drifted back into the undergrowth. This was particularly satisfying as no other cars had picked up the zebra signals and we were the only vehicle on the scene when the leopard emerged. So petty, sigh.....
Fabulous end to a fabulous day. We will be back in the park tomorrow and we will not be hunting for animals but for the BBC truck, going to be sticking close whenever we can.