My Travels: A visit to a Masai Village – Part 2

The village is poor beyond the comprehension of someone from places they call developed. The village children wore western clothes, shorts and shirts, dirty and faded. The woman wore bright blankets, barefoot with dream catcher ear rings. The higher the status of the woman, the more fancy was the dream catcher hanging from her ear.

Measures of poverty are unseen on a single visit: Health, or ill health, can be measured by poor dentition, but the infant mortality rate is unknown. AIDS has marked Kenya as well, with most Safari vehicles brandishing an AIDS education bumper sticker proudly. The skin of the villagers is dry, scarred, and some of the children had open sores.

The woman collect water in 25 litre plastic barrels and carry these from the water point. This might be a hand pump or a flowing river in season. There is no obvious filtration system, and I did not smell any chlorine or bleach. They boiled the water for tea, but this was winter. What about in summer when you wanted a cold draft of clear water to slake your thirst? There were no fridges, stoves or any other modern electrical appliance we might think we could not live without.

The Masai moved in to Southern Kenya 300 years ago. They established themselves as successful cattle herders and warriors. Slowly their life was infiltrated by a cancer that included colonisation and then globalisation. They still live in houses that resemble their original dwellings. They still barricade their villages with thorns. They still occasionally kill lions with their bare hands and spears. But even if their children wanted to become great warriors as in the past, it will not be possible. Things have changed so much. If the same children want to dream of becoming anything else it must be to be a city man, dressed in smart clothes with a car and mobile phone. What measures have they left of success, when the old system is dying and the new system is corrupt?

As the young men came home with the cattle, they offered to show us how they drain blood for their blood milk mix. The placed a belt around the cows neck as a tourniquet to bulge the external jugular vein.  One of the men stood back with a bow and arrow and shot from point blank. The arrow bounced off the thick hide. He repeated the shot, over and over, until in the darkness we abandoned the village, sick off the pain in the cow’s eyes and the ineffectual blunt arrow.

Soon they will not  kill a lion anymore. One day they will not even be able to see a lion anymore.


My Travels: A visit to a Masai Village –Part 1

The interesting thing about wildlife viewing in East Africa is that the Masai are an integral part of the scenery. These tall and regal cattle herders work in the reserves as guides (like Wilson), askaris and managers. They live in the adjoining conservancies, where cattle still graze.

We visited a small village in the Naboisho Conservancy. It was late in the afternoon and storm clouds had built up, threatened to rain and withdrew as we drove along the almost impassable track, rutted so badly from vehicles crossing it when the clay was wet. The road looked like some piece of modern art, rutted, ridged, wet and dry.

“Wilson”, I said, “We don’t want to go to a tourist village. Show us the real thing.”

“Yes, we are going to a small village like mine. You will like it.” He was very proud that we were visiting. His conservancy was only two years old and they were all super keen to make it work. We arrived at the village which had a brush and thorny barrier encircling it. The diameter was about seventy meters.

The clouds closed in as we arrived. We walked through the narrow entrance that was closed at night using thorn branches. There was an inner stockade which was covered in cow dung, and as the rain came down the wetness cleared the strong animal smell. This stockade was where they kept their cattle at night. The poles were over two and a half metres tall, closely placed and formed an impenetrable barrier. There is a program to facilitate the Masai buying mesh and barbed wire at reduced rates to further reinforce the stockade. If a lion takes an animal from a secure stockade then the government pays out the owner. The Kenyan constitution is being modified at the moment: they are debating the monetary value to be paid out if the lion takes a human life…

The adult women all greeted us with a handshake. The children all lined up, inclined their heads and waiting for a greeting which left me feeling like the Pope blessing the masses: each one had to be touched on the head in greeting. It was quite moving. The men were out, some working at lodges and some just chatting. The older boys were out with the cattle. As we looked around we saw a herd of thousands of wildebeest moving south on the horizon, a reminder of the reason I was in the Mara.

Wildebeest passing on the horison

The village was poor. There was no running water or latrine facility. The mud houses were low, with small doors and tiny ventilations slits as windows.  The buildings were laid out in the outer circle, between the stockade and the outer thorn barrier. We went inside and sat with one of the woman, asking questions through Wilson who acted as an interpreter. There was no natural light coming through the slit in the wall. The slit was smaller than a shoe box on its side, and it was dark and overcast outside anyway. Each house had a solar rechargeable lantern donated by an American benefactor. At least this did not add smoke to the small fire which burnt in the hearth.

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 2

At that Marius jumped out of our Landcruiser and spoke fast. “Mr Shah, hello, I’m Marius Coetzee. I’m a huge fan of your work. It’s an honour to meet you. I would be honoured to shake your hand.”

The Guru looked humble and stunned. “You know who I am?”

“Yes, yes. I have been inspired by your work.”

“Thank you. It is nice to meet you.  What are you doing here?”

“I own a company called Oryx. We run worldwide photographic expeditions.” He moved back to our vehicle, pulled a card from his wallet and handed it to Anup reverently with both hands.”

I watched carefully. Anup made to drop the card in the storage space between the front seats. We waved goodbye. He did not drop the card. He held it up and studied both sides, as if composing a photograph. “Oh, Marius, my new book is out in September. You should keep an eye out for it.”

“Thank you. I’ll buy it and post it to you, if you don’t mind signing it? I’ll pay for postage.”

“Not at all. My pleasure.”

“Thank you. You don’t have any books on you now? I’ll buy them now and you could sign them?”

“Sorry, I don’t have any with me”

“No problem. Thank you. It has been an honour.”

We drove off. I was caught up in the carriage of this great photographer. Marius told me then he collects sign wildlife photography books. We were both excited.

We drove to the upstream crossing. The wildebeest moved down to the water, then away and downstream. Onesmus had warned us that it was a coy waiting game. We drove back and saw that Anup Shah had parked on the rocks of the main crossing.  I thought we should stay with him. The wildebeest were moving and he has spent three months a year over the last twenty years following the migration. He should know.  We debated, moved next to him and waited. We waved hello in acknowledgement. He raised his hand, and continued shelling peanuts, nonchalant and happy in his own world.

We saw cars moving upstream and we followed. An hour later we saw a crossing right in front of Anoop Shah. We were just too far, and the only thing we saw was the tails of wildebeest exiting in single file after they had crossed. We raced back to the crossing, and then followed another herd further downstream, to an area we had had breakfast on two occasions, overlooking two pods of playful hippo and numerous gigantic crocodile. We stood in our Landcruiser, cameras ready on sandbags at the viewing hatch.  At that time, the Magical Memsahib, Ines, arrived in another vehicle with cold drinks and lunch. Martin edged his vehicle close to ours and we did a mid air transfer of cool boxes and passenger. As Ines settled, we saw two wildebeest swimming from our side to the main herd opposite us, against the impending crossing. The first made it. The second was overtaken by a crocodile swimming smoothly and with purpose. Just before the bank the wildebeest disappeared with the crocodile , surfaced once in a desperate bid for air and was dragged down. The waters settled. The herd moved back, upstream to the main crossing. Anup was gone when we arrived, and the vehicle numbers had thinned, so that when we broke for lunch in the bushes two hundred meters away from the river there was only one car left on the banks. As we finished lunch Onesmus sounded the crossing alarm and we raced back. The first wildebeest were swimming onto our shore and the herd was pushing into the bank opposite us. Ironically, we parked exactly where we were next to Anup Shah four hours earlier.  Patience is indeed a virtue!

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: Brothers and Sisters in the Mara

Cats are my favourite animals. Their behaviour is similar across the spectrum, from domestic cats to lions. Well, similar except in mating.

The first lioness we saw in Naboisho was well hidden on a rocky slope covered with bush. She groomed herself and then moved on, out of sight. The buffalo grazing below the slope in the lush green of the wetland was more impressive. Their bovine eyes gazed peacefully out at the car, chewing cud. Yet they were more feared by hunters.

The next viewing was more impressive. In the Masai Mara Reserve we got excited.

“There’s a lion” we all shouted in unison. He was walking through the tall grass towards a rocky outcrop.

“There’s another lying on the granite cap. Get ready for a head rub”, said Marius. It’s easy now that I know these two are brothers, and when I think of my cats when they meet after a day out, they also rub heads. But I did not expect these two lions, the one who still had to walk one hundred meters to the hill, and climb it, to rub heads.

The one lying down roared. It was solid sound in our ears we were so close. You could touch the vibration. The first lion was now in the scrub to the right. He disappeared. We waited. The crest was covered in scrub for about thirty meters, and the granite opening was just big enough for two lions to lie. “Get ready for the head rub”, repeated Marius, checking his camera settings. In a flash the brother came out of the bush into the warm soft morning light, and they rubbed heads then lay down. Just like cats.

Brothers in the early morning sun

The next impressive sighting started with a lioness that seemed to be hunting a herd of wildebeest in Paradise Plains.  We watched her for a while but moved off because there were too many vehicles. Onesmus was looking the other way and spotted the same male leopard on a slope we had seen him on a few days before.  “Leopard” was all he whispered, and we drove off.

We lost the leopard but found two more lionesses walking in a nearby valley. They stopped, one on a termite mound, to roar. They were walking towards the lioness that was hunting. They tackled each other like kittens playing, and then called again. The hunting lioness answered and one of the two lay down, paws stretched out in front of her. “She’s waiting for the hunting lioness”, said Marius. “Get ready for a jump.” I had seen this before in my cats so I knew what to expect but the lens I had trained on the lioness was too big and I missed the action. The three turned around to walk up the valley, and were joined by the two brothers in the early darkness of evening. The females continued playing with each other as they made their way up the valley to crest. The males roared gently every now and then.

As I said, cat behaviour is similar across the spectrum except when lions mate. More about that tomorrow.

Sisters playing