My Travels: Crossing the Rivers – Part 3

A crossing is a photographers dream. There is complete chaos with an overriding goal to make the crossing. This was the fourth crossing I had witnessed in the Masai Mara in five days. I was truly privileged.

The first was before lunch under the trees at Rekero Camp on the Talek River. We were having a drink as someone shouted “they’re crossing!’. The river was low and the wildebeest streamed over the steep banks, over the rocky river bed, slashing in the pool that was home for a hippo that was not impressed.

After lunch and some work on pictures, we saw the animals gathering again on the south slope of the Talek. We forced Ines to down her afternoon tea and rushed her to where Onesmus thought they would cross. As we waited they seemed hesitant. We were shooting against the light as they crossed, and once the advance group had set the pace, we drove straight through the turmoil to shoot with the sun on our backs. The dust was everywhere and made for brilliant eerie pictures  as the wildebeest streamed over the steep bank , into the water and across. Thick clouds of dust rose and covered us. On each side of the crossing, which was shallow and had rapids, was a deep pool. A lone hippopotamus moved slowly from our left with the flow of the water to the crossing. It hesitated then burst through the moving mass of wildebeest. It was knocked over, stumbled and forced its way to the downstream pool on our right. The crossing continued for ten minutes or so. It was absolutely incredible.

Two days later we finished a balloon ride over the plains, flying over lookout hill and another herd of a million wildebeest. We were stunned by this gathering. We had seen the same amount when we landed at the Mara airstrip a few days before. This was the next group to come up from the Serengeti and join the Mara group that was gathered in the north of the reserve on the Marsh plains. After the balloon ride and a sighting of a cheetah mother with four playful cubs we were exhausted. Onesmus asked us if we wanted to drive to the Serengeti before returning to camp. I was exhausted from the 4 a.m. wake up call for the balloon trip. But I wanted to touch the Serengeti, to tell the endless plains I would be back. So we left the choice up to  the Memsahib.

“Let’s go to the Serengeti” she said, and off we drove. As we approached the Sand River, which divides the Serengeti from the Mara, we saw dust and wildebeest moving towards us. Onesmus shouted “they’re crossing the Sand River’ hold on!”  We raced over gullies and anthill mounds to reach the banks to see a massive heard banked on the south, crossing the gentle slopes and shallow water. They trotted over the sand without the energy of the first crossing I saw at the Talek. There was a gentle flow with a tinkling sound as they splashed through the water. We watched for about ten minutes before other cars came racing up to the banks and sacred the wildebeest off. We drove away glowing with satisfaction and fulfilment.

But the crossing at the Mara River was impressive. We had waited patiently for over four hours for it to happen. We saw huge crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank. We saw the lone wildebeest get taken in the river. The sun beat down through the open hatches where our cameras rested on sandbags on the roof of the Landcruiser. We sipped warm beer and the moved off to have a  fresh spicy lunch of chicken and salads before returning  to the theatre of the crossing. I saw young wildebeest launch themselves into the water in three meter arches, slashing the muddy water as if to chase the crocodiles away. There was dust opposite us, and then water spray in front.

The crossings had become like a drug for us, an adrenaline rush. To be there and capture it on film was such a privilege.

My Travels: Crossing the Rivers – Part 1

“Onesmus, can you call for lunch? Ask them if the Memsahib wants to come with the driver.”


“What do you think, O? The wildebeest are coming down to the river on our side. Should we wait here, or move further downstream.  There’s big pressure there with lots of zebra. The pressure should force a crossing.”

“Better to wait, Basil. The animals are funny when it comes to a crossing. Too many cars, or one car in the wrong place, can scare them off.” I had lost count of the cars: Landcruisers, Landrovers, 4X4 Toyota Hiace buses filled with Chinese and Indians. Sixty or seventy vehicles at a crossing, both sides of the bank, the Mara Triangle on the west and the Masai Mara National Reserve on the east bank of the Mara River, are not unusual.

It was before 10 a.m. in the morning. We had just left a million wildebeest and one hundred thousand zebra in the Marsh Plains, about seven kilometres to the north.  We had left Rekero camp, further south on the Talek River, at 6 a.m.. In the plains we had seen a lioness hunting, then mating with Scarface, an old lion with bright pink keloid over where his right eye should be. Then we passed two lionesses with three cubs looking towards Governor’s Camp. We drove from there to the main crossing point on the Mara River, hoping against hope that there would be a crossing. The heavy rains in the evening of the last two afternoons seemed to have dispersed the wildebeest from the Paradise plains along the Mara River and the crossing points. They were grazing peacefully far away from the river on the lush Marsh Plains.

Opposite us at the river, on the Mara Triangle were three small herds of wildebeest, each between five and ten thousand. On our side were the same number of zebra and wildebeest. The herds on our side were streaming towards the more upstream crossing, and the Triangle herds were gathering at the main crossing. The cars mimicked the wildebeest. As the animals neared the bank, so would the cars on the opposite bank squeeze together for a view. Before they got close to the water, invariably one wildebeest would move up or down stream and start a movement in the herd. The group of cars would do the same. Engines would race, passengers bounce through the veld along the river to the crossing in the direction of the wildebeest movement. The three crossings are within two kilometres of each other.

One dark green Toyota Landcruiser stuck out.  It was parked about one hundred and fifty metres from the eastern bank,  a strong camera bracket mounted on the left passenger door, and a calm Guru sitting watching. Onesmus, our guide, greeted him. “ Jambo”, he continued in Swahili. “How are you? How is the game viewing? Do you think  there will be a crossing today?”

Alone in the cruiser the Guru answered back politely and we all waved goodbye.

Marius moved excitedly, I thought because of the possible crossing. He was agitated. “O, do you know who that is?”

“No, why?”

“I am sure it is Anup Shah. He is the world’s best wildlife photographer. Can we go back and ask him?

We had just driven off from his passenger side, and made a big circle around him, like vultures at a kill. We stopped again in the same place. Onesmus asked his name. “Jina lako nani?”

“Anup” was all he answered.

My Travels: Feeling Two Million Wildebeest

Ever since I could remember I wanted to see the wildebeest migration from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara. From the endless plains to the lone spotted trees on the Kenyan side, for that is what each name means respectively.  If Africa could be afforded a single place for its heart, then surely the aorta must be the Sand River that divides the Serengeti from the Masai Mara.

I had been to the Mara many years before at the tail end of the migration (we could not get married earlier!) and missed the spectacle. This time as we landed at the Mara airstrip it was difficult to believe that all the black dots from the air were not bushes. As we approached the ground the patterns of the land, the interspersed plains and wetlands, the snaking rivers with forest, all changed to textures. As the textures developed we felt seething masses of black moving, some in waves, some with sharp edges and some as dots. The wildebeest had crossed into the Mara just three days before, and I was looking at over one million animals.

We drove north to Naboisho , a conservancy adjoining the Mara Reserve after we landed. Benjamin, our guide, was erudite and well spoken. We were soon engaged in the politics of Africa, Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Services. All the while, for a good twenty kilometres we drove through this great herd of wildebeest. It was like walking along a shallow beach where the water ebbs and flows at your ankles, except here it was not the water: it was wildebeest.


When we returned to the Mara Reserve five days later the wildebeest had dispersed. Some had crossed the Mara River to take up temporary residence in the Mara Triangle, and some had moved north to the marsh Plains. Two days later we noticed a huge herd blackening the horizon south of the Talek River. The herd extended from the hills in the east to Lookout Hill, a lone koppie in the plains. The next day we were lucky enough to be in a hot air balloon flying along this great herd. I think I stopped breathing as we drifted silently at low level. It was early in the morning and they were still, but some young teenagers were playing and all of them were grunting. The low “gnu’s” resonated in the veld, drifting up to our heaven.

We returned to the north side of the Talek River and saw that some of this group had crossed overnight into the Paradise plains, but they were dispersed. A group of five or ten thousand wildebeest hardly warrants being called a herd. They were impressive groups, but nothing like the mass of millions. We found this mass again on our second to last afternoon. They stretched out in the marsh plains as far as the eye could see. We spent hours trying to capture this emotion on film, trying everything we knew about composition and movement and light. In the end we would just sit and look. Feeling it worked mush better.

The migration was amazing. The crossings were unbelievable.

My Travels: Birds and Bees in Flight

Although the Masai Mara is all about cats, the real reason we were there was to see two million or so white bearded wildebeest. I kept on losing count when I got to three hundred and fifty, which was when I opened the first Tuskers for the day. So sometimes it was easier to take pictures of birds.

The day after we took abstracts of patterns in dry mud instead of the leopard in the nearby bush, we returned to look for the leopard in earnest at the same spot.  The Mara is like the Highveld, but nearer the equator. There are huge plateaus of grassland with rivers gently woven into the fabric. Where the leopard was, it was a particularly beautiful piece of mature Acacia woodland. The woodland lies in a basin below two huge plains filled with long Red Grass. The basin had shorter grass, for it was well grazed, and you could easily imagine bumping into Hemingway sitting below a tree with Pops in canvas chairs, with mosquito boots on, talking about the day over a whisky. It’s just that kind of place.

We found some a pair of Little Bee Eaters playing in the low clear branches of the trees. We were quite close and started taking pictures. They would stay still for a while, then fly off, catch a bee and return. I shot off countless pictures and when I was processing later that day I saw a winner: open beak with a bee the little bird had caught and tossed into the air before biting into it again.

After the meal, the bird moved to another branch and was backlit against the bright morning sun. It started preening itself, allowing the light to filter through its feathers creating beautiful patterns and textures. I took a lot more pictures. Come to think of it, at the end of my trip I had taken eleven thousand pictures with two cameras. But I got a great one against the light of Merops pusillus.The genus Merops is specific to Bee eaters, while pusillus is Latin for “tiny”, which it is.

After this bird shoot we sat with Sand Grouse drinking water in a pan. They were further off, and moved much faster than one expected.

We saw squadrons of eagles and many groups of judicial vultures, roosting in trees or fighting over kills. The most impressive sight was when we were flying in a hot air balloon and saw hyena chase lion off a kill and vultures flew off. The resultant lucky shot was well composed and quite abstract:

My Travels: The Fast Cats of the Mara

We had just witnessed our first crossing: a few thousand wildebeest pouring over steep dusty riverbanks, splashing through the water and climbing to the north bank of the Talek. We followed them north after the last had crossed.

“There’s a cheetah!” said Onesmus, pointing ahead to another herd of wildebeest.

Marius turned to Ines and I in the back row: “do you watch ‘The Big Cat Diaries’ on BBC?” I did last night, but had not seen an episode before I visited the Mara. “There’s a cheetah that jumps on the roofs of the cars and uses it as a lookout point.”

“Yeah, tell me another one”, I thought to myself.

But there she was, on the canvas roof of an open Landrover. Malaika is a pretty cheetah, sleek and playful. She moved from one side of the roof to the other, and then sat regally surveying the wildebeest before dismounting. At the same time Ines spotted her cub nearby in the long grass. She dismounted from one roof, using the rear wheel as a step, walked to another car closer to the wildebeest, stretched onto the spare tyre and bounded onto the roof. This one was solid with game viewing hatches that were open. The faces on the tourists were too funny!

Malaika game viewing in the Mara

The cub followed her in the grass. “She’s going to hunt” said Marius, as she dismounted again and started stalking. Suddenly she was off, the fastest sprinter on earth; back arching, tail balancing and pelvis splitting to increase her speed. She missed. She came back to find her cub and rested a bit.

“She’s going again!” said Onesmus. He was driving over the veld, following her. She ran along the line of wildebeest as they tried to escape, and then cut through the line and seemed to take a small wildebeest. The mother chased her off. She had missed again.

She came back to find her cub. He was hungry. He had attitude: he was growling.

Malaika’s cub

The next day we found Malaika on a termite mound with her cub, who was chewing on the hind leg of a Thompson’s gazelle. His stomach was low and full, but still he ate. After a while they moved higher up under the shade of a tree. The cub started to play with mom, who was exhausted and all but ignored him.

Two days later we saw her again. This time she had hunted a wildebeest and was suffocating it. The left horn of the wildebeest had been injured in the hunt and the stump was bleeding. Once the animal was dead Malaika moved to the soft skin near the rear to tear her way through to the meat.

The cub put on a display of mock charges and attacking jumps on the lone exposed silky black ear of the best. Once his mother had torn the skin she allowed him to eat first.

Last night on ‘The Big Cat Diaries’ they said there were fifty cheetahs in the Mara. They are very threatened by the dominant lion and hyena, and are probably only fifteen in total. We saw seven of them that week.

Cub playing, mom resting

My Travels: Husbands and Wives in the Mara

My best picture of the trip. Taken into the light from a moving vehicle!

One afternoon we were driving along the Mara River and heard a lion roar. I lifted my head and looked in the general direction and spotted a lioness about two hundered meters away, in the grassland just off the riverine bush. We followed her along the river, lost her and had to backtrack. She had found a dead foetus, probably a Thompsons, and was devouring it as a cat would a mouse.

As evening fell we made our way back to Rekero Camp. We found a lion and lioness just over a small outcrop in the Paradise Plains and watched them mate once. The female was quite coy. They walked together, with him following her. Her head was up; his was down and near her hind legs. They lay down, her head facing his torso. She slapped him and snarled. Then he mounted her.

“Wait for the snarl as he dismounts. Get ready!” Marius focused his camera in the dying light, ISO pushed up high to cope with the low light. Fifteen seconds later the lion lifted his body away and snarled as the lioness turned in pain to snap at him. Then they lay down again.

“They can go for forty hours, every twenty minutes like this. Must be exhausting”, I said.

“Absolutely. You know the male has barbs on his penis, which is why the withdrawal is so dramatic”, said Marius. “Ouch!” I thought. I found out that in fact all felines have barbs and that the withdrawal stimulates ovulation.  Nevertheless, the lion mating ritual is different, especially when viewed as a primate.

The snarl at the end says it all!

We left, but the next day saw well over fifteen cars at the same couple. We just drove on. The next morning we drove to the Marsh Plains in the north of the reserve. We left camp at 6 a.m. and were the only vehicle amongst one million wildebeest and one hundred thousand zebra for two hours. These massive herds are difficult to capture on image. We tried different angles and depths of field, and stood in awe of the second herd of a million we had seen.

We then spotted a lioness walking ahead of a lion. Not sure if she was hunting or mating, we followed her. The ritual started and the snarl on dismount was quite vicious. A few Landrovers from Governor’s Camp arrived, and we left, having followed the lions for a while. Also, realising that she was not hunting, and that he was hunting her rather than the wildebeest, we left them to the group. There would be no kill. Ironically, we had spotted an injured wildebeest less than one hundred meters away in the long grass.

We drove on towards the river and sat with some vultures and Maribou Storks. They had a carcass they were fighting over and were very entertaining. Onesmus listened in on his radio. “The Marsh Pride cubs are nearby. Let’s go see.”

We drove off and sat with the cubs for a few minutes. What cute offspring of such a vicious mating ritual.

The Marsh Pride Cubs

My Travels: Leopard Spotting

Wilson was our Masai Guide in the Naboisho conservancy of the Mara. He had heard of a leopard kill that had occurred on the conservancy in a wooded area before the great plain of Naboisho. That afternoon we set off to find the leopard.

We were driving along when Marius shouted “stop, I see a leopard”. All I saw was an impala. “Look, she’s focused on something. She’s alert”. We scanned under the umbrellas of the acacias. “There it is. Sorry, not a leopard, but a hyena. It’s moving. Quick, Wilson, follow it.” Wilson turned off the track into the bush and we drove after the hyena. We lost and found it twice, and then as we lost it a third time Marius jumped up through the viewing hatch and pointed at a young male leopard running from where we last saw the hyena. The leopard slipped gracefully over a steep gully into the opposite side of a gentle valley that mirrored where we were.

“Shh, what’s that noise?”  I listened as Wilson cut the motor. I heard crunching from a clump of bushes to our right. Quick as a flash the hyena loped off with the hind leg of the kill that his mother had made the day before. He was no match for an adult hyena, and his mother would be back with more meat soon. There was just so much game around. “Quick, follow it”. Marius was shaking his finger to hurry up, both of us up through the viewing hatch with cameras ready on sandbags.

We found the hyena under a tree in a clump of grass, thick shoulders standing over the hind leg of a small wildebeest. He looked up, then bent down and devoured most of the leg in a crunching flash. Bone splintered and gristle was chewed two or three times before swallowing. We were with him for five minutes before he moved off and we both said “let’s go find the leopard” and gave high fives.

We drove uphill along the gully looking for a place to pass. We scanned the opposite slope to no avail. We passed a small pan with cake dried mud. We had been searching for over thirty minutes now and Marius piped up: “Look at the patterns on the mud. Let’s shoot some abstracts.” I did, half heartedly, as I would rather be looking at leopard rosettes. We drove on, found a crossing and moved down again to where we found the leopard. We spotted him again, darting into some bush.

We gave up when we lost him again, and in the twilight started for camp. We stopped for sundowners at the dried pan again. It was yet another beautiful African sunset and we were well satisfied. Wilson was stills scanning.  “There it is, under the tree.” The leopard was lying facing us across the gully not even 10 metres away from where I had taken some abstract pictures of mud.

“Geez, Marius. Here you are telling me to take abstracts of mud and there’s a leopard under the bush ten meters away. Some guide you are,” I winked.

Naboisho Hyena