Up at 5:30 and on the road by 6 aiming for the area of the marsh where we had seen the lionesses fighting for the submerged water buffalo the previous afternoon. On the road is a term used very loosely, since there are no roads, as there are no fences, across the wide Mara plains. There are suggestions of tracks and trails, some clearly visible marked by distinctive tracks of car tires where they are frequently used, and others barely visible. In places where the ground is soft after a rain the tracks can be very heavily rutted and everywhere there are rocks and bumps, the natural terrain after all. There are also periodic watercourses, dry at this time of the year, which require nosing the vehicle over the edge and down the rock strewn embankment, across the dry stream bottom and then back up the other side, all of this accompanied by bone shaking bouncing and tossing particularly when at speed. In a day we can cover between 60 and 80 kilometres over 8 hours of bouncing over the plains in search of animals and by the end of a day you are covered with dust over the dirt and bruised and muscle tired from constantly tensing to keep your seat and anticipate the bumps. But then when sitting down to look at the pictures, all worth it when there some good ones.
Before we left the lionesses yesterday we had also heard that there was a lioness with three very young cubs, part of the same pride as the two fighting lionesses, not far away and in the same marshy area. Arrived on the site, we could see that the mother had created a hollow in some dense bushes right next to the water. Because of the way that she had built and oriented the den there was only one small spot for a vehicle that gave any possibility of viewing the cubs and it was already occupied. We then left and headed back to the camp. We were therefore in a hurry this morning to be the first car on the scene so that we could claim the prime viewing spot. On arrival we were the first, but the lioness had moved the cubs in the night and after scouting we found them about a hundred metres further along the marsh shore. She had found a spot next to the water at the bottom of the bank, and under a large fallen tree so that they were impossible to be seen from above and behind but could only be seen from across about 50 metres of marsh water. We found a wonderful vantage point and spent an hour and a half just watching the mother try and deal with 3 high-octane babes, fat little legs trundling off to seek adventure and tumbling and rolling down the slope and over the fallen tree. They were only a couple of weeks old and still very unsteady on their pins but full of adventure and clearly a handful for a tired mother who had to be on the alert, particularly for danger from above because there are lots of eagles and prey birds in the trees around the marsh and any one of the little guys would have been a tasty breakfast.
To put the icing on it, there were suddenly cries from the sky and a troop of Crowned Cranes, my favourites, were flying in and attempting to land at their usual morning breakfast spot and on discovering a lion on the bank were wheeling in confusion, deciding whether or not they should land. Got some wonderful shots!
Then off after cheetah. We were told by a guide we came across in another vehicle that the 5 boys who we were hoping to try had left in the night and were moving south toward the Tanzania border, the Masai Mara in Kenya is the northern triangle of the Tanzanian Serengeti Plain, and were being tracked and followed by the BBC cinema crew. It would have been too far for us to go, spend time and return in one day so reluctantly we decided to look for a couple of cheetah who were hunting in an area about 3/4 of an hour’s drive away. Off we went and on reaching the area, scouted around, driving and looking across the sweep of wide plains through binoculars to see if we could spot any activity. Nothing to be seen but we did come across an &Beyond film crew shooting some promo film for the &Beyond lodges. One of their trucks was stuck, its back wheels lodged in a small cleft in ground, and they were hitching up a tow from the other truck to pull it out. They very politely asked us to get out their shot as they were going to film the recovery effort and didn’t need our help but they did tell us that they had been following a pair of hunting cheetah but had lost them. They had heard however that there was another cheetah about 20 minutes drive away. Off we bounced again and much like the terrain in which we had waited for the 5 cheetah boys the previous day, we found a wide open valley with sloping hills bordering it and under a tree on a mound in the middle the valley was a solitary female cheetah. She was sitting up and keeping an eye on what was happening and it was clear that she was interested in lunch if the opportunity presented. We were able to drive up to within about 20 yards and get a couple of shots but then we retreated up the hill to get out the way as our presence was going to be a problem for her if she decided to hunt and in any event by park regulation you can be fined if you go off trail and we were definitely off trail at that point. There was not much game around and what game there was was fairly high up the hill grazing and too far for her to catch since they all had a huge head start but she was positioned so that the only access to the water hole was past her spot. It was a hot day but she would have to be very patient.
After watching for an hour and eating our lunch sandwiches in the car, a warthog, a pumba, wandered into the area with a youngster alongside. Her interest was immediately taken up with this and it was clear that given the opportunity she would make an attempt. The pumba wandered up the hillside sometimes approaching the cheetah and then wandering further away, but never close enough for her to act. After another 1/2 hour we decided to move on; nothing was within range of the cheetah and it would likely be later in the day before anyone attempted to use the water hole, we needed to leave the park by 4, it was an hours drive to the park gates and it was now 2. So drove off but deciding to stop by the area where we had encountered the leopard yesterday.
The area where we had seen the leopard is a piece of land in the s curve of a small and now partly dry river. The area is surrounded on 3 sides by the trees which flank the river and open only on one side to the larger plains. It is probably 8 or 9 hundred metres in length and 6 or 7 hundred metres wide and is dry hard pan and scrub grass. When we entered the area we found 2 film trucks, one a Japanese film crew and the other an African film crew. The Japanese were the only ones around when we had found the leopard the previous day and were too far away then to be able to film it. Today both trucks were positioned in roughly the spot where the cubs were hidden yesterday and their cameras were pointed at that belt of trees. They told us that the female leopard had not hunted for two days and they were sure that she would be hungry and would need to hunt. They were standing by to film when she did.
In the centre of the area was a family of pumba, a large male, two females and 6 piglets, a couple of whom were a good sized 20 or 30 kilos. They were grazing on the patchy grass and I was fascinated watching them. They feed in a very curious way, their necks being constructed so they cannot bend, presumably to serve as a better support for their massive and very heavy heads, so that they are forced to kneel on their front knees to bring their mouths close enough to the ground to graze. They look like they are praying as they eat and I watched as the older male went up to each of the kneeling and feeding youngsters and spent a little time grazing companionably with each one in turn. I thought that they had a very poor reputation amongst most people who see them as ugly and shy and they don’t make a very good first, or even second, impression and yet a happy family group, dad spending to time with each of the youngsters, being friendly and supportive.
At this point, our guide John told us that he thought that the leopardess was going to come out of the far side of the trees and not here where we were, instinct I guess. He immediately started the Land Rover and yelled to the film crews to turn their cameras. At that moment, a movement could be seen on the far side of the area and streaking out of the trees on the far side and angling towards the pumba family, the leopardess charged so quickly that although I ripped off my hat and glasses and grabbed for my camera I could not get the camera to my eye before she charged at one of the youngsters that she had selected. The pumba family scattered, racing for their burrow and a couple managed to get down the hole but the chase, across our front and parallel to where were, was almost over. In the space of 50 or 60 metres the leopardess had caught a youngster, leapt on his back, dragged him to the ground and picking him up in his mouth, notwithstanding that he weighed 20 plus kilos, raced back to the shelter of the trees. Literally in the blink of an eye it began and ended. Not slow, John had us racing over the ground towards where the leopardess had entered the trees just preceded by the male pumba, who I guess was going to take on the leopardess if the issue was still in doubt. We reached the spot in the trees seconds after the leopardess where she stood in an open patch a couple of metres from us with the pumba in her mouth, her sides heaving; the pumba who while still twitching, was clearly finished. The brave male watched for a moment and seeing that it was pointless scurried back to his family. The film trucks had just begun to move over to us from the other side so lost their filming opportunity and because of the speed of the moment and the bouncy race over the ground, shooting was also impossible for me. Nevertheless, a terrifyingly intense primal moment; being somewhat of a sentimentalist I felt for the pumba family, a little crutch at the the side of the fire who has lost its owner, while at the same time being pleased that the leopard cubs were not going to bed with empty bellies.
We watched the female carry the young piglet into the trees and haul it up into a tree and secure it on a branch above the reach of hyenas who had already had word of what had happened and one of whom was already sitting outside the belt of trees waiting. The tree cover was much too dense for us to get the iconic shot of a leopard next to its kill draped over a tree branch but we did not need it, it was enough to have been there.
Very tired and sore we made our way back to camp and have given ourselves permission to take tomorrow morning off and sleep in. We’ll begin the process again tomorrow afternoon but we need the morning to rest our bruises and get caught up with more mundane chores.