Mara Magic (2017)

“The Greatest Show on Earth”

Singapore / Thursday 7 September 2017

This trip was probably one of the ‘most prepared for’ trips I’d made in recent years. It began with Shobs’ Mongolia trip (which I’m still annoyed at having to miss, by the way) and Marius (boss man at Oryx Photographic Expeditions) telling her that the Mara migration is the ‘greatest show on earth’ (which conjured up images of Barnum & Bailey in my head) and one that we shouldn’t miss. We were sold and signed up for this expedition with Oryx almost a year before the trip. There were some moments of trepidation when there initially weren’t the minimum number of participants, and then sighs of relief when the trip was confirmed with just four participants, and no additional supplement.

Marius had also suggested an extension post-Mara to Stone Town in Zanzibar – which we decided to do as well, since we were in the ‘vicinity’ (it’s all relative…). Planning then started with a vengeance.

The question of flights….There were many evenings spent ‘refreshing’ the Lifemiles page to book our flights – we eventually got lucky and managed to get the seats we wanted on Ethiopian Airlines. Then we discovered that the flight wasn’t showing up on the airlines booking page and had to email the airlines  – Joyce at the Singapore office was very helpful and everything was quickly sorted out.

The question of gear… the longest lens I had was 300mm, and the recommendations in the pre-trip pack said a 400mm would be useful. I looked at renting – here in Singapore, or via Oryx – by this time I was in touch with Penny Robartes who would be leading this trip and who said renting would be possible. However, looking at the cost, the weight of a prime lens and gazillions of reviews, I decided to bite the bullet and get a Nikkor 200-500mm. It was surprisingly not that heavy for a bazooka.

The question of weight – and how to carry all this – onto the plane, as well as while in the field. More online researching and a few more gazillion YouTube reviews, and I quickly became a regular at TK Foto in Plaza Singapura. With the assistance of the super-helpful Nan Xin I got the very versatile ThinkTank Shapeshifter Naked with various pouches. On yet another trip to TK Foto, Nan Xin introduced me to Philip, who kitted me out with the Steroid Speed Belt; I had to laugh at the name…but it’s entirely appropriate. With the belt firmly in place, I had no problems walking (fairly normally) with 2 DSLRs (with long lenses attached), one on either hip.

While the international flights would probably be fine, the internal flight to the Mara had a weight limit of 15KG – in total! Shobs (packer extraordinare) was confident she could stay within the 15KG limit while I was confident (supremely so) that I couldn’t. And so we decided to go for the freight seat option on the internal flights which would allow us 75KG (!) between us.

The question of tripods, laptops and hard drives – to take or not to take. Once again, more emails to Nicolette of Oryx to ask about tripods. It was optional – Shobs opted to take hers (as I said, packer extraordinaire), and I opted not to. Laptops – I opted to take mine, Shobs didn’t. Hard drives and memory cards – we’d each got our new wifi enabled portable hard drive, and I spent a good few evenings making sure all the old images on my memory cards were backed up in at least two places before reformatting the cards.

The question of other stuff –  there was a visit to Campers’ Corner for one more suitably coloured shirt (nothing too bright, as instructed), and a trip to Decathlon (the new place to shop for inexpensive camping-type gear); we got our supplies of anti-malarials, and checked three times that we didn’t need a visa for either Kenya or Tanzania (we didn’t) and finally our packing was done. I was patting myself on the back for my rather compact packing – till I saw Shobs’ bag…how did she manage to get her boots in the bag too (on top of the tripod??). Packing self-esteem (mine) took a bit of a hit…but we had paid for a freight seat – that was my defence.

The inauguration of the secret weapon – my birthday pressie from Shobs this year – the ScottE Vest with its 17 concealed pockets. I managed another 1KG at least with this magic vest. The point-n-shoot, the Kindle, the iPad, iPhone with charger, glasses, medicines for the flight, wallet, and passport all disappeared neatly into the various pockets.

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What went into the Shapeshifter Naked (that wasn’t Naked anymore) – and onto my back

And so the planning – and packing – was finally DONE, and it was time to leave. It wasn’t a frantic rush for a change – I got home from work by 7PM, visited M to say bye and have dinner, and had time to watch Photo Face-Off (and wait for the credits to see Vin’s name in lights) before getting a Grab to the airport.

The check-in was smooth, and no one asked to weigh the cabin baggage, fortunately. Needless to say, the backpack was HEAVY and I was slightly concerned about the transit at Addis Ababa – from what I remember, it was a long walk to the gate, and no trolleys. But there’d be plenty of time to worry about that. For now, we amused ourselves with the LG Steam Closet ad in the lounge (the closet promises to iron out all wrinkles, not just the ones in your clothes) and one of us at least, dozed.

Next Stop – Nairobi!

Singapore – Addis Ababa – Nairobi / 8 September 2017

By the time we boarded, we were ready to sleep – but I first had to figure how to get my backpack into the overhead compartment. Along comes a lovely stewardess who said she’ll help, and amidst my ‘It’s heavy, it’s heavy’, she (almost effortlessly) heaved it into the compartment without the slightest sound of protest. Wah!

IMG_7573And then we slept, after politely declining dinner, and hoping we wouldn’t have to return the blanket in the middle of the night (see pic). We woke up only when the lights came on for breakfast. The very concerned stewardess said we “must have breakfast” as we “didn’t even have dinner.” This is my third trip on Ethiopian Airlines and the service has continued to be excellent.

Other than a good coffee, breakfast was largely forgettable, and it was soon time for a very smooth landing at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport. A kind man helped me get the backpack down, thankfully. It was a bit of a walk to the transit lounge but we got there before my back gave out.

It was a couple of hours’ transit and fortunately we decided to leave early to go through security for the next flight – even the express queue was quite long, or maybe it just felt long as I tried to find angles to make the load feel lighter. Here, it was off with the shoes and would’ve been ‘out with the cameras’ too but for some reason I was let off with just the shoe removal. The security officer did peek into the bag and with a big smile asked, “Are you a lady photographer?” I wasn’t sure if this was a trick question (in case my gear got confiscated like Dale’s was at the start of the Omo Valley trip) so replied with an equally big smile – and was allowed through.

IMG_7578We were quite ready for lunch on this flight and were hoping there would be injera but this was only available on the flights into Addis so we settled for some lamb curry thing which was not bad.

It was another smooth landing at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Immigration was quick and it wasn’t a long wait for the bags. Our pick-up was waiting and we soon were on our way to the hotel. There were several statues of animals by the road…then suddenly one of the zebras moved. As I rubbernecked, our driver laughed and said, in that immediately familiar accent that I just love, “That was a real zebra…in Nairobi, the safari starts at the airport.”

It was an interesting conversation with the chaps – they took pains to assure us that it was safe in Nairobi, despite the international news reporting unrest after the recent elections, allegations of fraud, hacking and other intrigues. In an impressive show of judicial independence, the Kenyan Supreme Court had annulled the results and ordered a re-election. Equally impressive was that the re-elected President Kenyatta accepted the annulment. Our driver said most people are happy about the re-election – he was, for sure – he was thrilled that he’ll be able to go to the polls twice in the space of just a few months.

It was about 45 minutes to our hotel. We were lucky – on their earlier pick-up, the guest took hours to clear immigration, and they were stuck in a jam to the hotel for almost 2 hours.

One of the guards who checked the car as we drove into the hotel grounds peered in with a huge smile – I swore I’d met him before but where?? The Ole Sereni is situated between a national park and a highway – unfortunately our room faced the highway. Otherwise, it was a comfortable room for a night’s stay. After freshening up, we wandered down for lunch, sitting at a table on the balcony overlooking the park. No animals to be seen though. Lunch was a substantial buffet – the seafood soup was delicious, as was the lamb curry. We had a lazy afternoon and a snooze-ette.

Over dinner we met Penny and the other two guests – Jon and Greg, both of whom have been doing wildlife photography far longer than Shobs and I. All the vibes were positive and I was sure this was going to be a fab trip. Penny is one of those immediately likeable people, one who quickly becomes the focal point – a good trait to have as group leader! She asked what our goals were for this trip – for one of the group, it was seeing a cheetah (preferably with – or on – a kill); for Shobs and me, it was to see lions since we missed seeing them in Kruger. This was cause for much incredulity as, apparently, lions are the easiest of the big cats to see. We, on the other hand, had seen the elusive leopard three times on three drives in Kruger (cause for more incredulity).  And, of course, all of us were looking forward to some dramatic wildebeest crossings. If Penny was under pressure to make sure we all got what we wanted, she hid it well.

There were several things that Penny mentioned this evening that stuck in my head – that however well prepared you are, the Mara is often overwhelming the first time you’re there; that we shouldn’t be ‘too hard’ on ourselves – especially on the first couple of drives when excitement will probably take over; that we should take the time to experience the Mara without the camera too…

The other things that were stuck in my head since arriving here were :

  1. Meryl Streep’s voice saying “I had a farm in Ahfrica, at the foot of the Ngong Hills..”
  2. Toto’s Africa – in particular the line about the Serengeti…

It was with some relief to hear that the ‘early start’ tomorrow meant 8AM…we were bracing ourselves for 4 or 5AM. It was an early night for everyone – tomorrow the real adventure begins.

#Goals!

Nairobi – Alex Serian’s Nkorombo Camp, Masai Mara / 9 September 2017

We left the Ole Sereni just after 8AM for Wilson Airport and our flight to the Masai Mara. Ours was a 12-seater Safarilink Cessna – and fortunately our stop was the first (of 8 airstrips on the Mara), and so it was a short-ish flight of about 1 hour. The pilot started taking attendance school-style by calling out names, after the first two names (a couple who weren’t in our group), he probably decided that we were the ‘party of five’ and stopped at the first name, saying “I guess you’re all here.” And with that, I felt like the holiday had truly begun, and the big city rules were being left behind…to be replaced with the rules of the Mara.

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The spotted land

It was a thrill to be on the tiny aircraft, seeing the homes and buildings of Nairobi slowly disappear, giving way to little villages, campsites and eventually the vast spotted plains that gave this area its name, Mara – spotted land of the Masai people – spotted with shrubs, trees, animals. I saw plenty of shrubs and trees but no aerial view of animals. The inflight magazine Travel Africa had an article on the Danakil Depression by none other than Dale Morris, which was cause for some excitement.

It was a surprisingly smooth landing at the airstrip and I managed to get off the plane without falling down the stairs – the ‘rails’ on the stairs are actually rubber tubing-like things, so they are quite flexible, to say the least. Our guides and drivers were on hand to help with all the bags which was a relief. Everyone was obviously very happy to see Penny again, as she was to see them. Nice!

Jon, Shobs and I got into one vehicle, with Penny and Greg in the other. We will have two vehicles for our use throughout our stay, with Penny alternating between vehicles. Today our driver was Shadrack and the spotter, Mark. Both in Masai gear and at pains to make sure we all were comfortable. It was to be a ‘game drive’ to our camp – i.e. stopping for photos if any opportunities presented themselves. I certainly didn’t think there’d be many ‘opportunities’ and settled in to enjoy the scenery, and the occasional hyena and zebra. In my head, the “I had a farm in Ahfrica, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…” refrain continued relentlessly – as if on cue, Mark asked if we’d seen the movie Out of Africa and heard of Karen Blixen. He then pointed out the Oloololo Escarpment where much of the movie was filmed. (#mini-goals!)

My reverie was broken when Shadrack said “We’re going to see lions.” Whaaattt??? Just like that? Lions?? And literally, just like that, a few minutes later, we were metres from a pride of lions, lolling lazily under a tree. For at least the first few minutes, Penny’s words of wisdom were forgotten and the excitement of seeing these cats up close consumed the moment. What an amazing start to the trip. (#Goals – check)

At some point I did remember to enjoy the moment sans camera – it was quite something,  sitting in our vehicles watching these beautiful big cats lounging and pretty much ignoring us (fortunately). One lion had different coloured eyes – much like David Bowie as my DB-mad six-year old niece later said.

We set off, all very happy and with big smiles…then Shadrack got a message on his radio; he swings around and speeds off in the opposite direction, saying “Cheetahs”. Wait, what?? I was sitting right at the back, holding on, trying not to get jolted out of the vehicle, and couldn’t quite hear – till Shobs repeated “We’re going to see cheetahs”. Seriously?? (#Goals – check check)

It wasn’t ‘just cheetahs’, it was ‘cheetahs with a kill’. How madly lucky is that? It was a fresh kill – a hapless impala, glazed eyes wide open as the pair of cheetah sisters took turns digging in. As one ate, the other sat, keeping a watchful eye out – then they switched places, both with mouths and faces bright red with the fresh blood. Just unreal to watch this at close quarters. Both cheetahs were breathing really hard – I later read that their respiratory rates go up to 150 per minute and that they can sustain their high speeds of up to 120km per hour only for 400 to 800 metres before they have to stop or risk overheating. I wondered if we would actually see a cheetah on a kill…that may be asking for too much?

[But obviously that thought wasn’t just mine – later at the camp, as Penny heaved a sigh of relief that she’d so quickly delivered on two things on the ‘to see’ list, Greg said that was good, but now he’d like to see a cheetah (or two) on a kill, and not after 🙂 ]

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Many photos of cheetahs-with-kill later, we continued to our camp, past topis on their mount, Cape buffalos, Thomson’s gazelles, Egyptian geese – just a small taste of what’s to come.

Alex Walker’s Serian Nkorombo Camp

About four hours after we landed, we finally got to the camp, our home for the next week. We were welcomed by the friendliest of smiles, cold towels and cold drinks. The camp had started as a mobile camp but eventually set up roots at this spot, right on the Mara River. We were in Tent 3 (the Secretary Bird one…each tent had an animal accompanying its number). It was lovely, exactly as how it looked in the photos I’d looked up before the trip. There was no running water but there was (more importantly) a flushing toilet. Water for drinking and for brushing our teeth was provided in bottles, and there was a bucket by the sink for washing hands etc. Showers were ‘bucket showers’ – a large bucket outside and above the tent is filled with hot water on request – usually in the evenings after a dusty day out on game drives.

The dining tent was lovely, with its adjacent lounge area. The camp’s head honcho, Moses, explained how everything worked – in particular how we weren’t to walk out of our tents unaccompanied after nightfall but needed to shine our torches (each tent had one) in front of our tents and someone would come get us. As important as the safety rules was the introduction to the extremely well stocked bar (which even had Pimms’) – I started with a rum ‘n coke – a very generous serving – almost Cuban!

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Very civilised!

Lunch was delicious, and very healthy – lots of fresh vegetables, fruit, grilled fish and brown rice. Might this be the one holiday on which I don’t put on weight??

Tea followed hot on the heels of lunch (as lunch was so late) – we fast learnt that it’s a tradition for tea before we set off on the afternoon game drive. And for tea, there’s always a ‘good luck’ cake. According to John (the food man at the camp) if it’s a Cheetah Cake, we’ll see cheetahs, if it’s a Lion Cake, we’ll see lions…you get the picture…the catch being we HAVE to eat some for its magic to work. Today was Cheetah Cake – I was so full but I had to have some – it was delish. Since we’d already seen lions and cheetahs, we requested a Crossing Cake for tomorrow.

“Too Much Ground”

Penny rode with Shobs and me on our first afternoon drive today. We were now in the other vehicle – which we’d stick with for the rest of our time here – with Steve driving and George, spotting. Both these young men are Masai and obviously know this land – their land – like the back of their hands.

A few minutes from camp, we came across a giraffe – and so began the lessons – on getting that giraffe in silhouette. ‘Too much ground’ was today’s mantra, as was ‘getting low’ (I was practically on the floor of the vehicle), and waiting to get some light coming through the legs (else they look like ‘a blob’), or waiting for a swish of the tail…then there was the incentivisation model (‘No dinner till you get this right’…we were still full from lunch and tea though so that wasn’t too much of an incentive – or threat)…Shobs and I were soon talking to ourselves, “Too much ground…” and “That looks like a blob.”

On this drive, we were also treated to lionesses and their cubs having dinner – zebra was on the menu – though all that was left of its stripes was its tail. There was one particularly bratty cub who kept shoving his brother (or may have been sister) away and cuddling up with mum. Very ‘manja‘. Really fascinating to just sit there and watch.

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That first evening brought another unexpected sighting – the legendary Scar (aka the Cecil of the Mara). Dusk was falling and we were on our way back to camp when suddenly, Steve exclaimed, “Scar!” I have no idea how he spotted him – but when he pointed him out, he was easy to see – there was Scar walking slowly down Lookout Hill. He was majestic. His dark mane was clear even in the fading light, and he might’ve been injured as he seemed to limp, but majestic nevertheless. It was surreal…the disappearing light, the purple sky and this proud lion, head high, walking down that slope. Unfortunately, it was too dark for photos but that image of Scar is etched in my mind.

What a magnificent end to an impossibly rich day – and we’d only been here half a day!

I checked out the ‘bucket shower’ before falling into bed. The water was nice and hot – which was very welcome as the night was cool. My well-honed shower technique from hostel days came in handy…start with a mere trickle, turn off the water, soap and shampoo, then turn water on again, and once soap and shampoo are all gone, the water can be turned on ‘full’ – it was a good 13 to 15 minutes before the water trickled to a complete stop – not bad at all for a bucket of water. [Now, there’s a thought – maybe we should start promoting one-bucket baths back home – like what we grew up with. It would save a whole lot of water I’m sure, compared to long showers.]

Picture Perfect Moments, A Grumpy Old Man & Other Stories

Masai Mara / 10 – 14 September 2017

I was up at about 5AM today. I’d gone to sleep last night listening to the sound of the rapids. The roar (it was loud!) of the rapids had eventually transformed to white noise and I had the best sleep I’ve had in a long time. Our wake up call came at 5.15AM when one of the camp staff said ‘Hello’ and left a tray of coffee and biscuits outside our tent. At about the same time, someone else unzipped the back of the tent to leave a container of hot water next to the sink for our morning ablutions – which was very welcome, as by now the water in the bucket was icy cold.

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The shuka

We started off this morning at 6AM, Penny riding with the guys today. It was cold, and I had a couple of layers on plus one of the very warm Masai shukas that were in the vehicles. On some of the colder mornings, sitting on the shuka plus wrapping myself in another one kept me perfectly warm.  I also quickly discovered that sitting right at the back of the vehicle meant a super bumpy ride – but it also meant many many steps on the Fitbit – even more than the Cuban bus-rides. As this trip progressed, I was averaging more than 20,000 steps each day, just sitting in the vehicle; more importantly I actually felt I was getting a good workout with all that jolting around (the toning table effect?).

First on the agenda today – looking for a leopard. There was news that there was a leopard sighting not far from camp – so we joined several other vehicles which had parked near some undergrowth (which we would soon recognise as ‘typical leopard country’). One of the vehicles was kitted out with some pretty serious camera and video equipment, and an off-road license; before I left Singapore, Vin had said there was going to be a NatGeo crew at the Mara around the time we were there – I wondered if this was them.

If there was a leopard or two in the undergrowth, they were well camouflaged and eluded even our eagle-eyed spotters. We decided to move on – and so we came across what I’m sure will remain for me one of the most beautiful ‘typical Mara’ scenes…a lion sitting languidly in the sun-speckled Mara grass, its head up, eyes shut, mane gently being blown by the breeze – he looked like he was thoroughly enjoying the beautiful morning. In the distance, there were elephants and a couple of hot air balloons floated across the horizon. A bit closer, zebra and gazelle grazed, keeping a watchful eye on His Majesty, especially each time he moved or shifted position. But this morning, there was to be no killing – the various creatures – and us humans in our vehicles and balloons – seemed to be in perfect harmony, each in our own space…enjoying that magical golden light, the gentle breeze and the silence – as one.

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Eventually the sun rose higher in the sky, and that magical moment passed – it felt like a spell being broken – and more pragmatic considerations (breakfast) took precedence. It was barely eight in the morning – I felt like we’d been out for ages. Breakfast was set up at the top of Lookout Hill – coffee, hardboiled eggs, sausages, cereal, yoghurt, bread..delicious!

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Breakfast on Lookout Hill
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Rules of the Mara – Lesson 1

There was a surfeit of lions today – we watched two sisters play for a good half hour – and then got our first lesson in one of the rules of the Mara. The rule that says ‘no getting out of the vehicle in lion country’. No, no – none of us got out of the vehicle anywhere near the lions. Our vehicle had stopped next to another vehicle –  that vehicle had stalled and the driver was out tinkering with the engine. I thought we’d stopped for the guides to chat – but it was far more strategic – our vehicle was between the other driver and the lionesses, blocking their view of the ‘human out of his vehicle’. Steve said most of the animals ‘see’ just the shape of the vehicle and can’t really separate the occupants inside. Once we hop out of the vehicle, however, we’re seen as prey. Yikes. A good lesson to learn early on.

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The sisters at play

If I’d thought leopards three times on three drives in Kruger was pretty awesome, this _0ST4437trip had to go one better (it was an Oryx trip after all – taking their tagline ‘it’s all about you’ to a different level!). Today it was lions tds – three times a day. The third sighting for today was lionesses and their cubs with a fresh kill – buffalo this time. Here too we watched for ages – it was quite something, seeing them rip chunks of flesh off.

Today was also the start of our ‘bush breaks’ aka ‘checking tyre pressure’ (the first time I heard this, I thought there was actually something wrong with the tyre pressure…sigh) or ‘enjoying the view in private’ – there was an SOP for this. We would say we needed a bush break (or use any of the other creative euphemisms) – one of the guides/drivers would go do a recce (often clapping their hands to scare any animals away), then show us to the chosen site (or point out the chosen bush) and leave us to it. I have to say I had more frequent ‘breaks’ on this trip than I normally do at a day at work or at home – mainly because we didn’t know when the next bush break opportunity would present itself; especially as in many areas, getting out of the vehicle is an absolute no-no.

Leopard instead of rhino, and elephants on show

At some point that morning we got news that there was a black rhino nearby. Off we raced, but the rhino was nowhere in sight. In no time at all, hordes of safari vehicles were speeding across the plains from various directions – all in search of the rhino. This went on for some time – and I was actually hoping that we wouldn’t find the rhino. Someone radio-ed that the rhino was ‘on the run’ – and that sealed it for me. I definitely didn’t want it to be found. It wasn’t.

But as we drove through the undergrowth – lo and behold – a leopard posing on a mound. We stopped just metres from this beauty – who pretty much ignored us, as it posed for ages. Wow, wow, wow!

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Up close

We were driving along that first day – I remember I was just enjoying the calm after all the excitement of the day, when we went over a slight hillock – and were greeted by the wide open plain and this family of elephants walking together. It was, for me, a heart-skip-a-beat kind of moment – it was a documentary-come-alive moment – these huge animals moving at elephant pace, a slow motion grace. Engines off, we watched – mother elephant occasionally looking back, waiting for a straggling baby or two; the families making their way across these vast plains…I could hear the background music in my head (it is also entirely possible that the sun had got to my head by now – but it truly was perfect…I suspect there are going to be many of these on this trip). The elephant family finally ambled past right in front of our vehicles. Pretty amazing.

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Prelude to a Crossing 

There were no signs that there’d be any wildebeest crossing today. We did, however, drive down to one of the ‘potential crossing’ areas on the Mara river. There was a herd of wildebeest on the other bank but, even to my untrained eye, they didn’t look like they were going to cross anytime soon – most were grazing, some were sitting under trees, and there was a small group that looked like they were discussing the crossing.

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This was a good time to get some lessons in preparation of When the Crossing Happens. We all were completely certain that we would see a crossing during our stay here – after all, if Oryx could arrange for lions and a cheetah kill on our drive from the airstrip, what’s a routine wildebeest crossing?? And when it happened, we had better be ready – so we learnt about pushing our ISO, over rather than under-exposing, compensating for the dark wildebeest and the bright reflections off the river etc etc. Much fun was had.

Animal Attraction

Could there be anything else that might top the morning’s sightings? I was by now very happy to sit back and relax as we drove back to camp for lunch (ok, not quite ‘relax’ – still had to hold on as we jolted along). We drove past a sitting giraffe, and not far from camp we saw a lone Cape buffalo, standing maybe 20 or 30 feet away, bits of grass hanging from it’s mouth, looking a bit silly. Steve said that this is the ‘Retired General’ and I took a few photos – nothing terribly exciting. I had put my camera down and we were just ‘lolling’ for a bit. Steve said he’s a grumpy fellow.

The next thing I knew, the general charged, head down and at top speed (very fast for a retired general). Fortunately, Steve hadn’t turned the engine off  this time, and he stepped on the gas – everything happened very quickly – the huge buffalo with the huge-er horns was charging towards us (more like charging at me actually as I was sitting on the side of the charge and he seemed to be gunning for me), I leaned over to Shobs’ side (though rather ineffectually as there was a whole lot of gear between us), and braced for impact (hoping the impact didn’t involve me directly); I might’ve closed my eyes. There was an almighty clang of horn making contact with the side of the vehicle, and a perceptible jolt as Steve continued to accelerate, not slowing down till we were a safe distance away – how the safe distance was determined, I have no idea – I didn’t look back.

We were all intact – there was some hysterical laughter as we recovered – and I was kicking myself for not keeping the camera to my eye. I hoped Shobs got the charge on film (or rather, sensor) – she was, after all, ‘far away’ on the other side of the vehicle…but I only got a glare in reply to my question. Oh well.

We certainly had a story to tell when we got back. There also was a dent in the steel step on the side of the vehicle. Gulp! An extra large rum and coke was definitely in order.

Scar Search

This evening we thought we might go look for Scar. Steve and the other guides thought he wouldn’t be far from where we’d seen him yesterday, given his injured foot. We drove around Lookout Hill for bit – then Steve pointed up to the top of the hill and said, “He’s there.”  For the life of me, I couldn’t see anything vaguely resembling Scar or any other animal for that matter. Then Steve clarified that what he was seeing was Scar’s paw. Scar’s paw?? Where?? Just to put things in perspective we were in our vehicle at the foot of Lookout Hill. The rock that Steve was pointing to was the equivalent of about 5 to 6 storeys above us. He and George had spotted Scar’s paw on the rock! I had to take a photo with the bazooka before I could see it! I’m sure the vision capabilities of these Masai guides have evolved in some sort of superhuman manner.

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Spot the paw

We watched for a while but the paw remained still and it was obvious the King wasn’t coming down from his hill today – despite the buffalo kill that the lionesses and cubs were feasting on not far from here. We moved a little distance away, to a spot by the river and had our sundowners there – another slightly surreal moment…casually standing around with our drinks, the sun slowly getting lower, casting some lovely light on the river…and Scar not that far away, probably looking down at us.

We started making our way back before it got too dark, and before the 7PM curfew (all vehicles had to be back in camp by 7PM). By the time we got back to the campfire after our most welcome bucket showers, even the other guests (who were not in our group) had heard about our encounter with the retired general – and there was much ribbing about the eye contact I must’ve made with the aforementioned general that must’ve inspired the charge. Sigh. Our vehicle was now The Vehicle to be in, for anyone wanting an adrenaline rush.

Mara Days – and Nights

I quite quickly got used to the ‘routine’ – up at 5.15AM, coffee, in the vehicles with all our gear by 6AM (as we were in the vehicles all day, the Steroid Belt remained unused on this trip), sunrise shots, pre-breakfast surprise (as I never knew what we might be seeing each day), picnic breakfast at about 8AM, more driving around, layers slowly coming off as the sun got higher, reminders to hydrate, regular bush breaks, lunch (picnic lunches after the first couple of days when we had gone all the way back to camp for lunch – we decided to stay out instead and see more), more ‘following leads’, sunsets and sundowners.

Then back to camp by 7PM, being greeted by Moses who would ask ‘Shower now?’ ‘Yes, please’ ‘Cold water?’ ‘Er…no, hot water please.’ (this was a standard greeting that happened every single evening).

Shower, downloading of photos, charging of batteries. Drinks by the fire, dinner (always delish – and always with Moses, John and the other guys trying to get Penny in particular to eat more. One night there was chocolate mousse – exactly how my mum used to make it!), lots of good wine, good conversations, post-mortems of the day, post-dinner Lightroom tutorials with Penny ( ‘ADD’ not ‘Copy as DNG’ – this was news to most of us!) – and how to convert photos to ‘fine art’.

One evening, probably our second last night here, Penny was showing me the Lightroom process she uses. There was a point where we had to give a folder a name and she suggested ‘Mara Migration 2017’ – at this point, we still hadn’t seen any crossings, and Penny was in for some good-natured ragging… “I don’t think you should name it that. Better to call it ‘Mara Migration – Maybe‘ or ‘Mara Migration – Maybe Not‘.” We were all duly reminded that we had seen the migration – we just hadn’t seen a crossing 🙂

Animal in the Tent!!

I’d wondered if any creepy crawlies would get into the tent. When we left in the mornings at 6AM, we’d leave the tent unzipped. When we got back in the evenings, the tents would’ve been cleaned, our laundry done (complimentary!), a hot water bottle placed in our beds, the tent zipped up and a lamp placed outside the tent. Each night we’d hear hippos which sounded like they were right outside our tent; one morning there was fresh buffalo dung outside the dining tent, and on another morning we could see a huge croc – on the opposite bank of the river, thankfully, but still…

One night there was some drama in our tent. I was particularly tired and fell asleep while Shobs was talking (not sure if to me or to herself – she was saying something about not being able to see her photos on my laptop). Anyway, I fell asleep the minute my head hit the pillow – and woke up only when our human wake-up call said ‘hello’ at 5.15AM. And so, I heard about the middle-of-the-night drama only in the morning.

At some time in the middle of the night, Shobs had felt something crawl up her leg. She had thrown off her blanket (and I suppose the hot water bottle), jumped out of bed and grabbed her headlamp. She eventually found the intruder, grabbed it and fearlessly flung it across the room. She was not amused that I had slept through the whole ruckus – and rather petulantly said that the beetle (yes, that’s what it was) was last seen in the vicinity of my camera bag.

Later, when I thought it was safe, I casually mentioned that the previous night, a beetle had crawled into my shirt when we were having our post-dinner tutorial. I thought I’d shaken it out in the dining room tent but it was still in my shirt when we got back to our tent. This time I’d definitely shaken it out and pushed it to the tent entrance (omitting to unzip the tent and push it out completely). One and the same beetle must’ve crawled over to Shobs’ bed. Have I already said – she really wasn’t amused…

Lion(ess) Mums

There were several chapters to our education on lions on this trip. One of the classes was with several lionesses and their cubs – and the buffalo they had killed. It was just fascinating to watch the lionesses rip through the buffalo’s thick hide, getting to the pink meat and tearing off chunks. The cubs got into the fray, burying their little faces right into the abdominal cavity of the buffalo, emerging with their mouths and noses a bright red.

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Two or three lionesses eventually reached the stomach and dragged the white sac out. Three of them pulled in different directions and the stomach split open spilling a whole lot of green stuff – partially digested grass I guess…it gave new meaning to the term ‘spilling your guts’.  We were downwind from this and the stench was quite unforgettable. It got worse when the cats got to the intestines and started ‘milking’ it.

_STR6791The lionesses and cubs that had had their fill sauntered off to loll and recover from their exertions with the buffalo. Nearby a vulture waited. A couple of cubs wandered off – their mother was immediately alert; she sat up and with a low growl called her cubs back – they obediently tripped back and proceeded to sit or lie in her shadow. It was really amazing to watch the various interactions. On occasion, when we had our cameras glued to our eyes, Penny would call out to let us know if a cub was moving in and if there was potentially going to be some interaction with their mother – we might’ve missed a fair bit if not for her very generous ‘call-outs’.

The lionesses here seemed very relaxed, sauntering right next to our vehicles, not quite within touching distance, but almost. At times, they were definitely too close for me to use the zoom. What an amazing morning – and again, it wasn’t even 8AM yet. Just another Monday morning on the Mara?

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Rediscovering Patience

But what about the wildebeest crossing? I was seriously beginning to doubt we were going to see one – but strangely it wasn’t as devastating a thought as I’d imagined. We had already spent a good many hours waiting. We parked some distance from the river bank, watching the herds of wildebeest on the opposite bank. Getting too close too early would just spook them – they obviously wouldn’t cross with vehicles blocking their ‘exit’ routes.

Sitting in the vehicles, engines off, the sound of silence – very very Zen. When it got too hot, Steve and George put the cover on and the heat became bearable.  The covers helped too when one afternoon the rains came down. It was quite an adventure, sitting in a jeep by the banks of the Mara, the pitter patter of rain on the canvas – waiting. On one particularly long wait which was close to lunchtime, the boys became bartenders and we whiled the time away sipping gin and tonics and eating crisps.

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These waits were also times for conversations, on a wide range of topics – from getting to know Penny, Steve and George better, learning Swahili (I now can count 1 to 10 in Swahili, woohoo!), learning the Masai signs for numbers (10 is particularly cool) to the challenges of eating healthily. Penny and Steve’s stories were particularly fascinating – about the little boy who spent 4 nights alone in the Serengeti, looking for his cows, not daring to go home till he found them. Penny and a friend found him tens of kilometres from his village, dehydrated and unable to say where he was from. How he survived alone in the wild is a miracle. Then there was Steve’s discourse on black mambas, how he killed one when he was 12, and his pronouncement that if there were a mamba in the vehicle, all four of us would be dead in seconds. Aiyo.

I noticed that the guides here don’t carry rifles – unlike the guides in Kruger. The only weapon in sight was a (very blunt) machete carried by George – which he used to flatten branches and undergrowth when we went on bush breaks. I doubt it would’ve done any damage to a predator. I also couldn’t figure why we were told to not wear ‘bright’ colours – as the Masai are always clad in brightly coloured shukas. Some things shall remain unexplained.

The other thing that shall remain unexplained is the mystery of the disappearing lens caps. These disappeared on a regular basis. On a particularly long wait by the river, we were kept busy with the ‘let’s see who can find the lens cap’ game – this time, the cap was somewhere in Shobs’ ScottE Vest (yes, the one with 17 pockets – hers not mine). We could feel it but just couldn’t figure how to get it out. Shobs tried, Penny tried, Steve tried, George tried (I didn’t try – I just caught some of the hysterics on video) – eventually it was retrieved quite a distance from the pocket in which it had been kept. This shall remain a ‘cold case’.

While we waited, the wildebeest debated. They would peer down at the river, take a couple of tentative steps forward and then would retreat. This dance happened innumerable times. Once some zebras came down to the water’s edge and one actually got its front hooves wet – then they saw the croc and beat a hasty retreat. If we were patient, the crocs were even more so – they were so still, they looked like pieces of wood in the river. We, at least, could occupy ourselves with ‘test shots’, experimenting with settings, conversation and alcohol.

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Will today be the day?

When the wildebeest looked close to crossing, we willed them to cross, “Come on over…see how green the grass is on this side..”. But it was not to happen. It was our last full day at the Mara. We all agreed that we would devote this day to A Crossing. We’d eaten the Crossing Cake the previous evening and were set to wait – all day if necessary.

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Stupid tourists

We were waiting some distance away, cursing at tourist buses on the other bank who seemed to be getting too close to the herd. On our side of the river, some clowns had actually gotten out of their vehicles right on the bank (a surefire way of ensuring that the wildebeest don’t cross) and were even setting up a picnic lunch! Our incensed George and Steve drove up to them and in no uncertain terms told them to get in and move off. With a ‘sawa sawa’ (ok, ok), the slightly sheepish driver decided against the picnic lunch and moved off.

A bush break later, we continued to wait. Suddenly, with no warning, we were lurching towards the river bank – as were all the other vehicles. Steve quickly got us in position – the crossing had begun! One brave (or foolish) wildebeest had taken the plunge, and the rest followed. It wasn’t a huge herd but a crossing nevertheless. We scrambled to get the bean bags in position, and went into continuous shooting mode – fortunately, we had our settings ready (Penny’s ‘test shot’ lesson was by now ingrained and we had taken these test shots earlier). The crossing was over before we knew it and I hoped like hell I’d got some decent images. In the other vehicle, Penny breathed a sigh of relief. Wildebeest crossing – check.

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Finally!

‘Never Trust the Mara’

Steve said this on our second or third day on the Mara – it might’ve been after the general’s charge. Never trust the Mara. This was brought home to us again on one of those ‘waiting days’. Moses and team had delivered lunch to us while we waited. There was an area of undergrowth and some trees nearby and the boys set up a picnic lunch there. Today, a shuka was laid on the ground, the foldable chairs were brought out (a change – we usually ate standing up or sitting on tree stumps) and we had a nice relaxed time over lunch. A bush break was had, and as Shobs and I walked slowly back to the vehicles, Steve said, “Let’s go. There’s a lion in the area.” We were like “Ya, right.” – Steve has a penchant for pulling our legs and we assumed this was another of those times. But he quite seriously replied, “No, I’m not joking, let’s go.” This time we detected a slight edge in his voice and we hurried along and climbed into our vehicles in double quick time.

Penny was with us in our vehicle and the two vehicles took slightly different routes back to the river bank to continue our wait for the crossing. We went through some undergrowth and there (once again on my side of the vehicle), some 4 or 5 metres away was this lion. This one almost immediately struck fear in me – there was something about his eyes – they seemed to ‘see’ me. In most of the other encounters with the big cats, they looked but didn’t seem to see. This one was looking directly at me, unblinking, pupils pinpoint. Even as I thought all this, Steve said, “This one looks mad”. Shobs, in the back seat with Penny, was saying we should leave. I thought so too but that face and those eyes filling the entire frame was strangely addictive.

Steve later said that this lion may have been disturbed when we got out of our vehicles for lunch – and might’ve been spooked as it had ‘seen’ us separately from the vehicles. Was it there during our rather casual bush break?? I certainly could relate to the notion that this lion ‘saw’ me, even as I sat in the jeep.

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Rogue One

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As we sat there, unprotected pretty much, we were all careful not to make any sudden moves or noises. After a few minutes, he seemed to relax ever so slightly. But we had probably pushed our luck to the limit, and so, said to Steve ‘sawa sawa’ – ok, let’s go. A little way away lay the rotting carcass of a buffalo – covered with flies and maggots. The stench was gag-worthy. The next day when we went this way again, the crazed looking lion was feeding on this decaying carcass. It looked up as we drove by, the wheels of our vehicle slipping in the mud from the earlier rain – I prayed we wouldn’t get stuck here – fortunately the treads gripped and we were out of there – the smell today was even more gag inspiring and there was some retching in the vehicle.

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Just looking at this evokes that Stench for me

We got back to camp with yet another story to tell. There was a lovely couple from Hull also at the Nkorombo. He’s a GP and when he saw the images of the crazed cat, his immediate reaction was that he’s seen patients – usually drug addicts – with that same look. We wondered if the lion had some sort of encephalitis. Eating decayed meat was also very unusual behaviour.

As Steve said, ‘Never trust the Mara.’ – yet another rule we’d do well to follow.

And So It Ends

On our last evening on the Mara, as we drove back to camp, we found ourselves driving through a huge herd of wildebeest. As far as the eye could see, and in every direction we looked, the plains were dotted with black. There were several calves – Steve pointed out some newborns. Wildebeest calves have to be on their feet and moving almost immediately if they are to survive. It seemed strangely ‘significant’ (in a way I can’t quite pinpoint) that we didn’t see a huge crossing but did, on our last evening, see this huge herd. It somehow completed our trip.

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How did this week go by so quickly! It truly was magical. This is my fourth visit to this wonderful continent and yet again it has been breathtaking, exciting and soul-soothing all at the same time.

The drive back to the airstrip was another ‘game drive’ – we saw the cheetah sisters once more – no kill this time.

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So many things are etched in my memory – that morning with the lion, zebras, gazelles, and us, sitting in silence; the elephants; the mini-crossing; the busybody warthogs, tails straight in the air or on their knees scrabbling for food; the heart-stopping moments with the general and Crazy Eyes…

It goes without saying, but bears mentioning, that I feel so very fortunate to have made this trip – even more so, that it was with Shobs.

Our new friends, Jon and Greg, with their dry wit, kept us laughing – which is always a good thing.

The lovely folks at Nkorombo – Moses, John and team, and our drivers and spotters, Steve, George, Shadrack and Mark – they kept our days running like clockwork, and made sure we were well hydrated and (perhaps too well) fed. Asante sana!

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Oryx Photographic Expeditions have outdone themselves once more. Every bit of the organisation was perfect – down to organising all the sightings as if on cue. Penny Robartes was amazing – so very generous with her knowledge – we learnt and laughed in equal measure.

If it’s a photography expedition you’re after, I can’t recommend Oryx highly enough – you can find out more about their expeditions and their fab photographer tour leaders at http://www.oryxphotography.com or email them at info@oryxphotography.com

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The Magic Continues

I’m back on the 12-seater Safarilink Cessna, looking out of the window at the spotted plains. As I look, I see shapes of animals and birds in the landscape – much like how you sometimes see shapes in clouds. Here a lion, there a cub, and there an elephant. Even the clouds were looking like animals…there definitely was an eagle-shaped cloud. I blinked but the animals continued popping up in the landscape. A smudge in the window morphed into a little jackal.

I guess I’ve been bitten by the oft mentioned safari bug.

For more photos from this trip, please go to The-Magical-Mara

5 thoughts on “Mara Magic (2017)

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