Magical Mara with Shobha Gopinath
We landed on the dusty airstrip of the Maasai Mara, on a small propeller plane, a 45 minute flight from Nairobi. As we made our way to the Serian Nkorombo Camp for our Kenya photography tour, we saw baboons and spotted hyenas. But nothing quite got me sitting bolt upright than hearing our driver say “lions have been sighted, we are heading that way”. How amazing is that? I could barely contain my excitement. Lions were the only ones of the Big Five that I hadn’t seen in the wild. And all within 20 minutes of landing! We saw lions lounging lazily under a tree. Yawning, sleeping and just generally doing what lions do – lions sleep almost 14 hours a day. One lion in particular stood out as he had different coloured eyes. (My astute 6 year old niece, an ardent David Bowie fan, said “David Bowie lion” when she saw its photo. For non-David Bowie fans – Bowie’s pupils were of unequal size that made his eyes appear different colours).
Our drive to the Camp was to be diverted once again when Shadrak, (our driver), next announced “cheetahs have been spotted”! I couldn’t believe it! Yet another animal I have not seen in the wild on a African photo safari ! The cheetah sisters were eating their impala lunch as we approached, their mouths a reddish-pink from the blood of their kill. We sat photographing them for a while and once again made our way to the Camp – this time with no diversions.
We were warmly greeted by the staff of the Serian Nkorombo Camp with refreshing cold towels and even colder drinks. We were shown to our tents, dumped our duffels and met for lunch in the main tent. There were five of us on this Masai Mara Photo Safari: Shyam (my usual travel partner), Jon from Norway, Greg from the U.S., our photography leader, Penny Robartes and myself. Our group met the night before in Nairobi. Over dinner, Penny had asked what we were looking forward to the most. We said we would like to see lions as they eluded us on our trip to Kruger (and of course the wildebeest crossing) and Greg said he would like to see a cheetah, hopefully on a hunt. As we met for lunch in the main tent, the excitement bubbled over as we just couldn’t believe our luck that we saw both almost straightaway! Nature is so unpredictable that this seemed unbelievable almost.
This trip was long in the planning. Who hasn’t watched on TV the life and death struggle of the wildebeests and zebra as they try to cross the Mara River to the plains of the Maasai Mara.? It is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. As I stepped off the plane onto the airstrip, all I could think of was “I’m here at last”.
The Maasai Mara National Reserve of Kenya is the ancestral land of the Maasai. The landscape is a vast expanse of golden grass dotted with occasional trees and termite mounds and so the Maasai call it ‘the Mara’ which means “spotted” in the Mara language.
From July to October every year the wildebeest, topi, zebra, Thomson’s gazelles migrate from the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania to make the treacherous journey to the Masaai Mara chasing the rain and green pastures. Following them closely on this circular route are the lions, cheetahs and hyenas. It is the single greatest mass movement of land mammals on the planet, often referred to as Nature’s Greatest Journey.
The next 6 days of our Masai Mara Photo Safari were simply thrilling and here are some of the highlights.
A Typical Day
Our days began at 5.15am. No alarms were needed, the grunts of the hippo were enough to wake you up. But if the hippo didn’t do the job, a wonderful staff of the Camp would come over with a tray of coffee and biscuits and shout out a happy “Hello”.
Our tents were beside the river and the sound of rushing water was deafening initially and then you gradually got used to it. Hippos and crocs were common in the river. I was pleased not to have seen any crocs nearby except on the last day when one was spotted on the other bank!
We would get up, wash up (a jug of hot water would be provided for us to wash our faces), get dressed, have our coffee, haul our gear and stand outside our tent and wave our torchlight in the direction of the main tent. As it is unwise to walk in the dark lest there are animals about, this was the method used to attract someone’s attention. We would then be escorted to our jeeps. In the diffused light of the beautiful Mara dawn, our daily photography expeditions would set us off on long and bumpy game drives.Like sitting on a bus in Cuba, here too we clocked 15,000 steps on our fitbits just sitting in the jeep! That’s how bumpy it was. We crossed rivers and climbed steep banks and took in the scenery wrapped in our Maasai shukas (the cloth/blanket worn by the Maasai).
Breakfast was packed and we always found good spots to set up a table and have our bread, sausages, boiled eggs etc standing around, eating and chatting. On a couple of days we came back all the way to Camp for lunch and a bit of rest from the searing heat and quite frankly it was a relief to be able to use the loos in the Camp than furtively use the bush, looking out for snakes and other creepy crawlies. In the evenings we would gather for drinks around the fire and have a lovely dinner with other guests. The camaraderie was excellent and there was much hilarity and laughter as we exchanged stories. On some nights, our group would peal away after dinner for our Lightroom ‘tips and tricks’ session with Penny. She is a whiz. We learnt so much in such a short space of time. Penny was so instructive, shared with us her approach and artistic views. She would critique our images in a constructive and kind manner. Even when we were out on our game drives, she would look at the back of our screens and comment in to our ears – too much ground, still too much ground, higher ISO, don’t forget to exposure compensate, take a test shot, are you ready with your settings? … we loved it.
On our first couple days of our Masai Mara Photo Safari, our driver and spotter would occasionally jump out of the jeep and say “Just checking tyre pressure”. We took it literally. Duh. It was only later that we realised that it was a euphemism! And there were others – “bush break”, “take in the view privately” etc.
We were well fed and well taken care of in the Camp. Food was excellent. A sense of humour abounded. Every afternoon a ‘good luck’ cake would be baked and named according to what we set out to do – so if we said we hoped to see a cheetah, the cake would become the “Cheetah cake” and eating it would ensure we see a cheetah. So for a couple of days, it was the “Crossing cake”.
One of the lasting images from this Kenya photography tour for me will be that of a pride of lions devouring a pretty sizeable buffalo. We were not fortunate enough to actually witness the kill, but seeing the cubs, lionesses and lions eating and pulling chunks off the dead buffalo was stunning. A documentary was playing right before our eyes. We spent a considerable amount of time watching them. The young of any (except maybe crocodiles) are cute. Watching the cubs play and clamber over the adults was entertaining.
Of course we were always mindful of our surroundings and made sure not to make any sudden movements or talk loudly. Our proximity to the lion family was incredibly close, about 10 -15 feet. Ours were not the only jeeps there witnessing this amazing sight. I have been asked many times by family and friends and I myself have asked many times why the lions don’t charge or attack the open jeeps that we were in. The answer it seems lies in how lions perceive a vehicle. They see it as a whole and don’t actually make out the individuals in it, unless of course you stupidly get out and try to pet them. To a predator, a vehicle looks like a large animal that smells of diesel and is not a potential prey. They do track movements however, and you have to be careful not to move around too much in the jeep. Unlike the Kruger National Park, in South Africa there are no rangers with guns in the jeep in the Mara. Only our Maasai driver and spotter with no weapons (except for one who had a blunt knife. Not sure what good that would have done!) So our safety and wellbeing depended on our following instructions and not being too adventurous. We were very obedient.
Lions and cheetahs weren’t the only cats we were fortunate enough to see during our Masai Mara Photo Safari. To complete the picture, we also saw a leopard. One of the most elusive of creatures. We had actually set out to look for a black rhino that was spotted. We drove here there everywhere looking for him and he remained firmly hidden. To be honest, after a while I was rooting for the rhino. If he didn’t want to be seen, let’s leave him be was my thought. In our pursuit we quite literally stumbled upon a beautiful magnificent leopard. If it weren’t for our sharp-eyed spotters we would have missed her completely – she was so well camouflaged. She allowed us to get close and watch her for a while then got bored and walked further into the bush. We followed her and once again sat quietly observing her and capturing images of this great feline.
The Main Event
The Crossing. When would these herds ford the river? All through the 6 days we were on our Maasai Mara photo safari, there was never a dull moment as we drove far and wide, sometimes as long as an hour or more to get to a particular place or sighting. There is such an enormous diversity of mammal, reptile and bird life, there was just so much to take in. We had our fill of lions, it seemed like we lived a chapter out of Big Cat’s Diary. Our guides were so knowledgeable and we learnt more than we could meaningfully absorb. It was truly a rich experience. The main event, however, was still the migration of the wildebeest and zebra and the crossing of the Mara River. It was our fourth day and the gathered herds across the bank still showed no sign of getting to the water. Was it because we didn’t eat the crossing cake?
And so we waited for most of the day, watching the wildebeest and zebra, sending telepathic signals willing them to cross. There were giant Nile crocodiles in the river that understandably kept them away and they stayed grazing on the other side. The heat in the jeep was unbearable at times and we sat roasting in it. But there were crisps and plenty of beverages to aid it along. Never imagined I would be having G&Ts in a jeep in the middle of the Mara! If you are going to be stuck in a jeep for hours there is no better person to be stuck with (other than your sister or best friend) than Penny Robartes. We received useful instructions about settings and did test shots and generally had good conversations about everything and nothing.
We spent many hours waiting the next day. We decided we need to be dedicated and wait patiently. We formed a herd of jeeps ourselves. Everyone was there for the same thing. There are always idiots among humans and there was no exception here. In order not to spook the animals the jeeps have to be parked much further away, only getting close to the bank of the river once the animals are committed to crossing. There were infuriating folks who would not abide by these unwritten rules. There was one group that actually got out of their vehicle (strictly a no no) and our drivers were not pleased and we drove alongside them and our driver Steve, told off the drivers of those vehicles. Their reply was a sheepish “sawa sawa, sawa sawa” (ok, ok).
There were many false starts when the herd would venture close to the water then spot a crocodile lurking and turn away hurriedly. This happened several times. It wasn’t until our last day that a small group, sensing that the coast was clear, made the leap. It just takes one to jump in for the rest follow – the herd mentality. The jeeps rushed down from the hill we were on and then the camera shutters went off rapidly. Thanks to Penny, we were ready and wasted no time fiddling with settings. The crossing wasn’t in the dramatic numbers we hoped for, but at least we got to witness what it is like. Nature is unpredictable and not a scheduled performance.
The other main highlight was our sighting of Scar – the legendary celebrity lion king of the Mara. (He is named thus because of the scars on him – he suffered serious injury to his right eye in a territorial fight). When we first spotted him, he was casually and regally walking along the base of Lookout Hill. Unfortunately, it was twilight and we couldn’t get a very good or closer look at him. But see him we did! We went in search of him the following day and our eagle-eyed spotters saw him on a large boulder on Lookout Hill but he chose to remain hidden except for one seriously large paw that was visible through the binoculars. We stopped for a sundowner not far from him, knowing all the time that he was watching us. An indescribable feeling.
While not wishing to alarm anyone especially my family, it would not be a true account if I did not also mention that the adrenalin flow was not only with excitement but for un-nerving moments as well. The first incident occurred as we were driving back to Camp and we saw a large buffalo grazing not far from Camp. As we approached him, we slowed down and Steve introduced him “Oh this is our Retired General – a grumpy fellow” … no sooner had he said that when, the “retired general” made a full charge, no warning whatsoever, head down and straight onto our jeep to the side close to where Shyam was seated. We braced ourselves as she leaned towards me and I pulled her nearer (Shyam not the buffalo). Steve wasn’t able to pull away fast enough and the general butted the lower step of the jeep in his attempt to tip the jeep over. We managed to get away unscathed but our nerves were jangled. The dent was apparent and shown to all back at Camp. Our fellow travellers thought ours was the more exciting jeep and wanted to jump in with us! My dear friend Shyam’s comment to me was “Did you take a photo of the charge??” Sigh.
The second incident (if I can even call it that) in many ways was more un-nerving for me. It was one of the days when we were waiting for the crossing. Packed lunch was delivered to us by the Camp and a nice safe spot was found for us to take a break. Lunch was a relaxing affair, this time a shuka was thrown on the ground picnic-style and foldable stools were also set up. We ladies were found a safe and private spot for our “bush break” and as we sauntered back leisurely, Steve told us in a very calm manner to please let’s hurry along as there is a lion in the vicinity. We thought he was joking. he assured us he wasn’t. (He had joked about something else earlier that led us to think he might be joking again). As we drove out – there he was! Alone. We stopped. I was in the back row with Penny and Shyam was in the front with a clearer angle of view. She got some excellent shots of him. I wasn’t about to make any sudden movement to get a better view. The only good image of him I got of him was of his teeth through the leaves. Something was not right with him. We felt it from being around lions the previous few days and our Maasai guides knew it. There was a crazed look about him and Steve said he may be mad! To say I was very uncomfortable is an understatement. It wasn’t until we were well clear that I breathed normally again. A deranged lion. Oh.My.God. We saw him again the next day eating a decaying carcass (the stench was unbearable!) and that confirmed it. Lions usually feed on fresh meat, never decaying meat.
On our first morning in the Mara, we came upon a field, the sun’s rays visible, beaming onto the plains. There were lions lying in the grass eyeing zebras and impalas in the distance (but not hungry enough to make a meal of them) and hot air balloons gliding over the horizon. It was surreal. It was an unbelievably beautiful sight.
On our last evening on our Kenya photo safari tour in the Mara, as we drove back home (yes, the Camp was home by the end of it) taking in the beautiful evening sky, we drove past and then through herds of wildebeests. These were the ones who made the treacherous journey to safely reach the grass-rich plains of the Mara. As we stood up in the jeep all we could see were wildebeests – 360 degrees as far as the eye could see. It made us happy. It was a fitting way to end this adventure.
To view my photo gallery of this trip, click onhttps://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/2017-Maasai-Mara
The experience of an African photo safari is incredible. Would the moments of fear deter me from going on another safari? No way. “Everything bites in Africa but the safari bug is worst of all” (Brian Jackman) and there are no better people to go on a photography expedition with than Oryx. I have said this before in my other blogs, and I will say it again. The folks at Oryx are wonderful and their organisation and arrangements impeccable and I happily add a plug for them. If any of you are interested to find out more, do contact them.
ORYX – Worldwide Photographic Expeditions is based in South Africa.They are a professional photographic safari company specialising in wildlife, landscape and cultural photographic tours. Their tour leaders are all award-winning photographers who genuinely love sharing their expertise with others and are great fun to travel with. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a professional photographer to travel with them!
To Moses, John, Steve, George, Shadrak, Mark and all the staff of Nkorombo Camp –Asante Sana. You made our trip truly memorable.
And to Penny Robartes, how do I thank you? You’re a star! Stay essentially who you are. I hope to travel with you again!
Jon and Greg – it was wonderful meeting you and sharing this adventure with much shared humour and laughter. I hope to meet you again on other Oryx trips.
Shyam – my best friend and fellow intrepid traveller … I hope we make many many more memorable journeys together. Sawa sawa?
Asante Sana. (Thank you very much).