A Familiar Face

We have a great start to the day, a soft warm breeze keeping the usual early morning chill at bay and a perfect sunrise, which we hadn’t seen for a few weeks now. So many animals greeted us as we entered the park, large herds of all different kinds of gazelle, too many to photograph together, zebra, giraffe, warthog, wildebeest, buffalo, elephant, just so many. We stopped to take the sunrise with the zebra and wildebesst in the foreground as these are the most accommodating when it comes to standing still for the camera.

Just next to the wildebeest, over the crest of a hill, a few Hyena were in dispute as to which one was the rightful owner of a bit of wildebeest skin, which is all that remains of an earlier kill. With a few Jackals on the sidelines just waiting for the chance to run in and get a piece, this wasn’t going to happen because the Hyena that had claimed the skin was holding on to it tightly, running with it into some nearby bushes, no-one was taking that away from him.

As we continued to drive there were many elephants on both sides of the main road, some by themselves, some in two’s and three’s and a few small families, but the strange thing was they all seemed to be moving quite fast, in some cases almost running. This to me, seemed unusual behavior and to Ken also as he commented on it.

As we turned off the main road onto one of the tracks, we came across even more elephants. There was an energy, a sense of anticipation in the air, that involved just elephants and we were not included, it felt like they were all going to an elephant convention or something. One of the larger groups were crossing the track in front of us, and one elephant stood his ground, facing us as if daring us to disturb him, we had no choice but to stop and wait for them to move on.

In fact there was so much activity out in the park this morning I didn’t know which way to direct my attention, on one side a line of ostriches moving in the opposite direction to the elephants, on the other a glimpse of movement in the long grass gave away the presence of a warthog, a large hawk in a dead tree ahead of us, and so many different kinds of small birds in nearly every tree and bush that we pass, constantly singing their own tunes making up a delightful background noise.

Since it was now time for breakfast we headed for our usual spot, our breakfast rock. When we arrived it was already taken, not by other tourists but by the blackrock females and their cubs. They were stretched out on the rock where we normally sit, resting and sleeping, occasionally looking up to see who was disturbing them. One of the mothers separated herself and her cub followed to suckle for a little while before placing her head next to her mother to sleep.

Needless to say, we had to find somewhere else. We stayed with them for a little while, took a few photos and took in the peaceful scene before us, before driving to another rock not too close to this one. We were joined for breakfast by a group of very noisy go away birds foraging in the treetops. They are named for their very loud call that sounds as if they are shouting ‘go away’.

Alson had heard that there was a leopard not too far away, close to the sand river, so we made our way over to it. On the way we saw three vehicles, minivans, at first, I thought they must be looking at something but then I noticed the drivers were out of their vehicles.

When they saw us, they started to frantically gesture to us to come over. One of the vans was well and truly stuck, to avoid the water on the road he had driven through the soft mud at the side, a bad mistake, and the other two had been trying to pull him out without success. Their own vehicles didn’t have enough power. Our driver had to get through the water first then reverse to pull him out, the water as you can see from the photo is quite deep, but the venture was successful, and the driver very thankful.

We continued on our way towards the Leopard, when we find him, not surprisingly he is in a tree. There are already a few other vehicles there watching him. This Leopard is very familiar face in this area, when you can find him, as he does tend to travel large distances. He is a large male named split nose. He got his name a good few years ago when he got into a fight with a warthog who managed to escape by attacking the Leopard with his tusks and splitting his nose as you can see from the photos.

At around 13 years he is also one of the oldest Leopards in the Mara, generally Leopards in the wild live to between 12 and 15 years. He is looking quite comfortable and relaxed in the tree, but it’s not long before he decides to come down. The powerful shoulders and strong claws help leopards become the best climbers of all the big cats. Apart from when stashing a kill in a tree to keep it safe from other predators they also like to rest in trees with a dense canopy in order to escape the heat of the day, this is why clear shots of a leopard in a tree is difficult to get.

Once he is down it is clear to see that he is looking quite thin, I don’t think he has eaten for a while, but he has lived a long time and so is well able to take care of himself. He starts walking and we all follow. As he walks and the vehicles move, the air is suddenly filled with swallows circling swooping and soaring above our heads, the reason for this is that as the leopard and the cars move through the long grass, the insects are disturbed and fly up out of the grass where they are promptly eaten by the swallows.

It has been a very hot day but now there is a cool breeze getting up, which is quite refreshing, signaling possible rain to come, dark clouds are gathering in the distance. He continues to walk, and we continue to follow, he stops occasionally to take a drink from some muddy water, or to take cover from the sun in a bush for a few minutes. Alison points to a large sausage tree down near the river, there is also a herd of Impala nearby and so he thinks that’s where the leopard is heading. The sausage tree doesn’t have any sausages on it, it is a sausageless, sausage tree, but it has thick cover.

We drove straight towards the tree and waited for split nose to catch up. Alison was right, he went directly to the tree, climbed up and settled on a large, lower branch. Yet another group of elephants came towards us, or maybe it was the same group from this morning, it looks to me like the same group. They passed right underneath the tree, but split nose just ignored them and closed his eyes. As I was taking a photo of the elephants one of them approached our car and pointed his trunk straight at me, I think he was smelling us, I believe they are very good at that, so maybe he recognized us from earlier as well. It looked like split nose was settling down for the evening but just then he saw a troop of baboons in a tree not too far away and in a flash, he was up and out of the tree, hiding himself in the long grass. Leopards don’t like to be near baboons they are mortal enemies, he may be old, but he still has good instincts.

We left him there as it was time to head home but I had to take photos of the Impala as we passed, they are such lovely, delicate animals. I wonder if split nose will try to hunt one of them when they go to drink from the river as the sun goes down.


In for the Kill

There was no crimson sky this morning, it had been raining most of the night, not heavy rain but continuous. Instead, we had low lying, thick, heavy mist that dampened all sounds. We could only catch a glimpse of the hills in front of us as the mist slowly rolls over them. Water droplets form on the windscreen as the mist condenses on the glass. There will be no sunrise to see this morning. We pass two scruffy looking secretary birds, feathers ruffled in the damp air.

For two hours we don’t even see another vehicle, but as the mist begins to lift Alison notices a large troup of baboons, so we take a short detour and head over to see them. This is a large troup indeed, around 40 to 50 members hanging out in a large healthy tree, a long dead fallen tree and all over the ground in between the two.

They were just doing everyday baboon things such as grooming and foraging, the young ones were playing games, chasing each other, play fighting, swinging out of the trees, hanging upside down and generally performing all sorts of acrobatics, they were very amusing especially when one of the dead branches gave way and fell to the ground, this caused panic and alarmed the young ones and they fled to the other side of the fallen tree.

In the other tree One of the large male baboons was chastising some of the smaller ones, keeping them in line by a lot of screeching and chasing them to the very tips of the branches where they held on only by their fingers, one young one didn’t hold on well enough and dropped to the floor like a stone.

After watching them for a while we head out across the vast plains, towards the Talek area to see if we can find the coalition of three male cheetahs known as tatu bora. They are just off the main road in the shade of a clump of bushes, two other vehicles were watching them when we arrived, not that they were doing anything much or even looked likely to do anything. Their bellies looked quite full, so I guess they had eaten something either yesterday evening or early this morning.

They were just relaxing, it was a very peaceful scene, that is until two hyenas crossed the road and headed over towards the cheetahs. As the Hyena approached them, they jumped up out of the bush hissing and spitting. Cheetahs are afraid of Hyena because Hyena have very strong jaws that can seriously injure or kill them, so the cheetah would prefer to run. However, since there was no kill involved the Hyena paid the cheetahs little attention and just settled down in the recently vacated bush leaving the cheetah to just look on in disgust.

After this we headed back across the plains to the blackrock area as we wanted to see how the blackrock females were doing with their cubs. The driver chose to use the small roads that are just tracks of thick black mud filled with water, snaking across the ground ahead of us. It is really difficult to drive on these tracks as the back wheels keep losing traction and sliding first one side and then the other when the driver tries to correct the steering.

We came across the cubs first, they were hiding in bushes that surround the rock where we generally take breakfast, I call it our breakfast rock. Well, we could only see three of them, one of the older cubs looking after two of the smaller cubs, but we knew the others wouldn’t be too far away, just more carefully concealed. Alison said that the mothers would be somewhere in the area looking for a meal for the babies, that’s why they are alone. So, we start our search.

We eventually found them not too far from where they had hidden their cubs. Six females resting in the small amount of shade offered by a couple of bushes, since it was close to mid-day and the sun was directly overhead there was not much shade to be had. After looking around we could see that there was nothing much for them to eat, Alison pointed to a large herd of buffalo in the far distance saying he thought they might head off in their direction, and sure enough it wasn’t long before one of the females starts to move.

I found it hard to believe that they would travel all that way for a meal. The other females started to get up one by one and follow her lead. There was no track where they were headed so we had to go back and find one that would bring us out close to where we thought they would come out. We reached the main road just before they did. They crossed the main road, still heading towards the buffalo and stopped to rest on a couple of mounds that were located not far from the road, giving them a good view of the buffalo. The buffalo were still some distance away but were slowly making their way towards us and so closer to the waiting lions.

The only way to see a lion kill is to be very lucky and turn up at the right moment or very patient. The driver places our car near the start of the track so that when the lions do go in for the kill, we can follow them quickly. The only question now is will they make their move before the park closes and what to do while we wait, so we take lunch, then a short nap. After three hours of waiting Ken is a little skeptical that the lions will go for the buffalo, but Alison insists that they will, as he explains, they must because they have to feed their many cubs, a smaller animal won’t satisfy them, they need a buffalo. The buffalo who had been making their way in a single line had now bunched up and were sitting in the long grass, still what I thought of as quite a distance from the lions.

Just then Alison noticed a lone buffalo that was following the others but was way behind and seemed to be limping a little which meant he was injured and an easy target. “That is the one he is going for” he stated. The lions had also seen him and had now moved from their vantage point and hid in the long grass, we could no longer see them but could guess their general position.

Meanwhile a few vehicles had approached us to find out what we were looking at, when they were told there are 6 lions out there that may be going to hunt, but since they couldn’t see anything they continued on their way. It wasn’t until around 5 o’clock that first one vehicle, then another one decided to wait with us. We were the patient ones, and they are what I have called the lucky ones because after just 10 minutes the lions made their move.


We saw one lion approach the injured buffalo, we raced down the track keeping pace with the other lions. I think lions are very smart, at least this group of females are. The first lion was keeping the buffalo’s attention while the other crept up alongside. A single lion is no match for a buffalo as they fight back and can cause serious damage, so at first, I think the buffalo wasn’t too concerned, but once the others arrived it was all over for him.

First one jumped on his back, then another from a different direction, very soon they were all over him, the buffalo didn’t know which way to turn. It was all over in a few minutes, they had him down and were already taking bites out of him before he stopped kicking and lay dead beneath them. These lions are savage killers.

Immediately he was dead two of the lions left the kill to go and get the cubs while the others continued to eat.


It was a long way back but there was enough meat on that buffalo for everyone. Considering the distance they had to travel they made it back surprisingly quickly, we had just got to the cubs in time to see the lions coming over the hill. The cubs had been waiting a long time but like us, their patience had now been rewarded.

They came out over the rock from all directions running straight to the sound of their mother’s call. They were so delighted, running and jumping all over the mothers. After much excitement the mothers then started to lead them towards the kill.

This is where we left them as we now had to rush to leave the park before it closed.


The Elusive Leopard

This morning before sunrise the sky is streaked crimson where the sun, just below the horizon highlights the thin clouds and Venus shines as big and bright as a small moon. The birds’ calls have a faint echo in the still air. I can hear the call of the male Impala close to camp as he brings together his female harem.

As we enter the park, we are joined by a herd of Zebra who are also entering the park, then we encounter a herd of cows who are just exiting the park after a night of grazing. The cows are quite frisky, especially the young ones who try to chase our vehicle, the fresh damp grass has given them a lot of energy, which has replaced the lethargic demeanor brought about by the recent drought.

It is nice to see that the long grass that has sprung up from the rains has brought many of the plains animals back to our area. Herds of tommis’ with their constantly swinging tails, impala, Jackals, warthog, a few wildebeest, and this morning so many herds of Topi. We see three Hyena possibly walking home from their night activities, although the Hyena never left, from the camp you can always hear the distinctive calls of several groups during the night and the early mornings.

Alison did it again, just off the main road he spotted a cheetah in the bush a little distance away. He pointed to where the cheetah was but neither me nor Ken could see it, even when we were told where to look! The driver took us in closer and there he was laying in front of one of the several bushes in the area. Ken asked, “how did you see that, from the road?” he replied, “well he just moved his head.”

This was Olodupo, the male cheetah who lost his brother a while ago, this area around our camp is part of his territory. He has a large territory and has been spotted as far as the Serengeti in Tanzania, it’s nice to see him back and doing so well. From his position he could see Topi grazing a little further up the hill and Tommi’s grazing below however neither could see him as he was well hidden from them. He did at one point get up and took a closer look at the Topi, in one of the photo’s you can just see them in the background, but he didn’t seem too interested. 

It may be that the Topi are quite large antelope, it would be difficult for a single cheetah to take down. After a while we left him relaxing and headed off. I love to spend time with this cheetah, I could have stayed with him all day.

Just five minutes later we come across part of the Sopa pride, just at the side of the main road, 5 sub adult males and one young female, chilling out. I wonder if these young males are preparing themselves for leaving the pride and going it alone. There was a very large herd of buffalo on the horizon, some distance away, much too far to interest them, but they were interested in 5 buffalo on the opposite side of the road who were occupied with drinking and rolling around in the river.

These buffalo were a considerable size and looked especially grumpy if not a little menacing. I’m sure they could smell the lions even if they didn’t see them but were not in least bit worried about the lions being so close and continued with their own activities. One of the lions got up to take a better look. When a male lion stares at you, even a young one it is time to be worried, this lion was staring intently, sniffing the air, and licking his lips, but it would have taken a coordinated attack from all six of them to bring down just one of these buffalo and the others didn’t seem interested, maybe they looked at the buffalo and didn’t like the odds.

It is amazing to think that all these animals, going about their daily business, is happening on our doorstep, living out their lives so close to, and intertwined with ours.

We head off the main road and onto the tracks that would normally take us to the blackrock females, we have not attempted these tracks since the rains, but they seem to have dried out enough now for us to attempt them. There are places still where the driver must stop to assess the possibility of getting through. This involves a lengthy discussion between the driver and the guide, in Maa, so we have no idea what they’re saying, then they get out of the vehicle to take a look, test the ground, and see how deep the water is. When they get back and start up the vehicle and we still don’t know what the decision is I have to ask, “is it bad?” the answer is generally “Yes, but not much bad” even when to me it looks very much bad. Only once this morning did we have to turn around and find an alternative route, so I have come to trust their judgement in these situations.

On our way to the blackrock territory we pass a herd of elephants, clearly an extended family as they are of all sizes and ages, including little ones that can only just be seen in the long grass. Also a family of waterbuck, a mother, father and young one, including a Giraffe in the background. I think the Waterbuck is the best looking of all the antelope. You can see how long the grass is, reaching the body of the Giraffe covering his long legs. In some parts the grass is taller than I am.

One surprise of the morning was the number of small white butterflies hovering above the long grass gently swaying in the soft, warm breeze, and the sweet-smelling bushes, putting on a lovely display. Hundreds of them, mostly white but on closer inspection have patterns on the tips of their wings in bright orange, yellow or black, the odd one or two completely orange or yellow. It was captivating.

The blackrock females are not around, after searching and making a few phone calls to see if anyone has seen them, we find out that they are in an area that is closed to all vehicles, so we are not able to see them today.


Instead, we go to find one of the Leopards. Alison is not sure which Leopard we will find as there are two females whose territory overlaps a little. When we find her, it turns out to be Kazuri, resting in a tree, the last time we saw Kazuri she was doing the exact same thing. She wasn’t doing anything, but she is so beautiful it is a pleasure to just sit and look at her. Leopards are so elusive that you need patience and a little luck to find them.

. Since Leopards don’t need to eat every day, especially if they live on their own, if they kill a mid-sized animal like an antelope, they can stash it in a tree, and it can last them up to seven days. So, to see a leopard hunting is very special and you need even more luck and of course time. Time is something we didn’t have today, and it is necessary for us to head back to camp.

Ken wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t mention some of the birds that we saw today, he loves to photograph the birds.

The first photo is the Grey Crowned Crane which is normally found on the ground, but this morning was perched at the very top of a tree, whose spindly branches didn’t look strong enough to hold him. The second photo is a Kite, the third a blue starling that was picking up crumbs from our breakfast, the fourth three beautiful bee-eaters and the final photos are of a saddle billed stork who has a very colourful and very long beak for catching his food in water and a heron who also feeds on insects and small mammals found in water.

Just before we reach camp, we see a family of Giraffe. There are always Giraffe in this area, this is another animal that never left, but what was unusual about this family was there were three young calves, Giraffes usually only give birth to one calf at a time, and only rarely do they have twins, two of these calves did look like twins and I’m not sure about the third one, whether he was older, or even belonged to someone else. Well that’s all for this week, I hope to be out again next week.


Blackrock Pride

So to continue, on our way to the lunch spot, which only Alison and the driver know as yet, we see a herd of Elephants on the plains to our right. One family is out in the open, grazing, they have a baby with them that is only just about visible in the long grass and another, slightly older but still young takes a long look at us as we stop to watch them. The rest of the herd are all together in the shade of a lone tree. Even though it is still a little misty and cloudy, when the sun does break through the heat is intense.

We continue on and as we ascend a hill, the only one around for 100’s of metres I just know this is our lunch spot, the views over the surrounding plains, the sand river and the hills of Tanzania are amazing. Even though it is warm and sunny at our lunchtime restaurant we can see the rain coming towards us from Tanzania to the south. When we reach the top and stop at a bush Alison points out a large depression in the grass around the tree, he tells us there has been a lion resting here recently and so he checks out the area to make sure there are none still around before we start to eat.

After lunch it was decided we would see what the tracks were like in the blackrock area, to see if we could get close to the Lions. On the way the driver stops the vehicle because Alison has seen something in the distance, a quick look through the binoculars confirms it’s a lion lying in the long grass next to a small rocky outcrop. How he managed to see this from the distance we were from it I don’t know, I guess that’s what makes him an excellent guide. The only problem is, we had just forded a deep water hole, all depressions at the moment are filled with water, even the tyre tracks, some shallow and some like this one deep. Quite a few larger holes had been waterlogged for so long that they had water lilies growing in them.

I thought we were lucky to get through it the first time, but now not only do we have to go back through it to see the lion, but we also then must do it again to get back to where we are now. The guys thought it would be okay so off we went. We found a single male sub-adult all by himself, this is unusual as you would normally find sub-adults as part of a pride or as part of a group of them. We searched the surrounding area to see if there were more, but he was definitely on his own. So back through the water hole.


We found the tracks to be fairly good, not as bad as the Talek area, and when we reached the blackrock females there were already a few other jeeps watching them, it felt like they were waiting for us because as soon as we arrived four females were just getting up and started to walk to the rocks in the distance. All four females were mothers, so we guessed they were going to where they had hidden their cubs.

As they moved towards the rocks, they walked very close to two elephants with a baby. The lions were not at all interested in the elephants, but the elephants didn’t appreciate the lions being so close to their baby, they showed their displeasure by flapping their large ears and making a loud trumping noise, charging at two of the lions and chasing them away, even the baby joined in. What they didn’t at first realize was that the other two lions were coming up behind them. When they did finally see them, they got the same treatment, the lions retreated to the rocks and the elephants went quietly on their way.

We made a detour around the rocks and just by chance we came across the cubs before the females got there, they were hiding, as sensible cubs should when they are by themselves. I just managed to capture the head of one cub before we heard the approaching females calling out to the cubs. As soon as the cubs heard the call, they all came out and ran over the rocks towards the sound. They were so happy and excited to see their mothers.

Altogether there were the four mothers, eight young cubs and two slightly older cubs. After they were all re-united and the cubs had been given lots of attention the mothers got up and started to lead the cubs away. They were not leading them to a kill so they must be taking them to a new den. Lionesses often move their cubs to a new den to keep them safe from predators.

So, we follow them for a while together with all the other photographers as they walk along the road, playing and jumping on each other and their mothers, the cubs are so cute you just can’t help taking lots of photos of them. I’m really going to enjoy following these cubs as they grow, watching all their ups and downs of life. Finally, it was time to leave them and head back to camp, they hadn’t yet settled on a new den so we will have to start looking the next time we are out.