Life is a safari we never know where it will lead. My heart however always leads me back to the Maasai Mara, the wide open plains stretch before me as I fly in. It is dry season, before the much needed great rains of April and May and large herds of Zebra, Elephants, Impala and Wildebeest roam the plains. It is surprisingly green and luscious as there were unseasonal rains two weeks ago giving just enough moisture for the grasses and small white tissue flowers to grow. It is breathtakingly beautiful, serene and calm. As the airplane doors open I breath in the intoxicating scent of this blessed land, it is a heady mix of moist soil, croton bushes and wild mint. Happiness floods my heart and soul, I am home. I love the quote “keep close to nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean”. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a wilderness forest”. This is my “break away” haven, where I can draw close to nature. Dominic my wonderful old friend and guide greets me, it is so good to Safari with him once more, and so our Safari begins…
The Mara Triangle where my airplane landed is stunningly green and beautiful. The grasses are unseasonably tall as the Wildebeest migration did not reach here last August to graze on them. The terrain still looks wild and bountiful; the copses of trees are dense and cool. It is early morning but the heat is already rising, you can see the heat haze rising above the plains, it shimmers and gives the plains an ethereal glow. There are great herds of Zebra and Buffalo grazing on the long grasses intermingled with Thompson Gazelle, Impala and Pumba.
Crossing the rocky hills of the Mara North Conservancy we see here is to green and luscious, a testament to how such a small amount of rain can change the scenery here so quickly. Large herds of Buffalo led by the matriarchs roam freely; they do not migrate and are a good source of food for the Lions. There are also large herds of resident Zebra, they gaze near the available watering holes but with their excellent eye sight can detect threats from predators quite easily. Marching past Elephants also head to the Lagas to drink and bath.
The Marsh pride has split into two groups and we find the Kichwa Tembo pride with a Hippo kill. Lions are the very image of majesty and the very image of Africa itself. Their strength lies in the power of the pride, their tight knit bond which protects and provides for each other. Lion identification is unmistakable. Males have a large mane; the noticeable growth is around 18 months old with the mane thick and full by five to six years old. The females whilst strong and powerful like the males do not have a mane. Lions have a claw-like horny spine in their tail-tuft. Lions use a variety of sounds in threatening situations from deep rumbling growls to explosive grunts and hisses. Nocturnal and diurnal, Lions hunt mainly at night and sunrise and sunset. Lions are gregarious social cats which is unusual in the cat family. They live together in prides made up of anywhere between two and twelve closely related bonded females and their cubs which they tend to give birth to around the same time so they can breast feed each other’s young whilst others go hunting. These females and cubs live with usually an unrelated coalition of two to six males who are often brothers or cousins. The males are unrelated to the females to stop interbreeding and it protects the strength of the genes. Lionesses usually stay in their natal pride for the whole of their lives whereas the young males are ejected from the pride at around two to three years old to prevent interbreeding. These males become nomadic until they are around five to six years old and they can challenge the males of another pride or form their own. If the pride becomes very large sometimes the Lionesses will become nomadic and will join another pride in their natal territory. The pride depends on matriarchal continuity that can last many generations. Lions mark their territory by roaring and scent marking their territory using their anal glands, squirting urine and anal secretions on trees and bushes. Male Lions live up to around 12 years; death is mainly due to fighting over territory, whereas Lionesses can live up to 15-20 years.
The Hippo kill is a couple of days old and is pungent, we are careful not to position ourselves downwind of it as the putrid decaying smell is over powering and quite dreadful. It is fascinating to see the grassy contents of the Hippos last meal spilling out of its stomach cast aside on the earth. The large grey cavernous body is laid prone on its side, the soft fleshy parts such as the penis, anus, nose and eyes would have been the first to been eaten as it is difficult for predators to pierce its tough hide. The stomach is now ripped open and the flesh and organs inside have been mainly eaten, you can see how tough, thick and impregnable the skin is.
This pride is unusual there are eight sub adult males, brothers and cousins of similar ages who may well form a large powerful coalition one day. They are sitting in the long grasses next to the Hippo kill jealously guarding the remains from advancing scavengers. A pack of Jackals circle around the carcass looking for small scraps to snatch and run away with. They give low moans and barks to indicate to the others the coast is clear, they are no so afraid of the inexperienced sub adult males. The sub adult male Lions have large rotund bellies from their huge feast but intermittently they get up and crawl inside the cavernous carcass and tear at the soft flesh inside and chew the sinew. Further away one of the dominant males of the pride has sort shade in some fragrant croton bushes, their leaves are not only sweet smelling but an excellent mosquito repellent.
The scavengers are growing bolder with the dominant male not being present at the kill, the sub adults although as large and muscular as some of the Lionesses in the pride fail to impress them with their experience. Hyaenas start to move in, they see the Jackal eating parts of the kill that has been scattered around and grow confident. They hunch their shoulders and peer over the tops of the long grass looking for the threat of the dominant male Lion but cannot detect his presence. They groan, cackle and laugh, they have a large vocal range, they are communicating to each other to close in and chase the sub adults away from the kill. They have a distinctive lopping gait, they move swiftly through the grass and reach the carcass and snarl at the sub adult Lions who are startled and move away. The Hyaenas think they have won the kill.
Across the plain like heavy thunder the dominant male Lion detects the threat to his prize and his sons and mightily charges towards the petrified Hyaenas. Even though there are five Hyaenas with strong powerful bone crushing jaws and teeth they are no match for this majestic powerful male Lion, one of his mighty paws in a single blow could kill a Hyaenas. They panic and flee back into the safety and the long grasses and the dominant male Lion reclaims his prize and his sons seek him out and bow low in reverence and respect in front of him, they seek his approval and protection. This is the wild though and when you think the drama is over, the story just begins. For out of the long grasses unnoticed by all a lone old retired general emerges, the powerful and might have a Buffalo is a formidable threat. He charges the Lion, Buffalos and Lions are mortal enemies for them it is kill or be killed. The Buffalo is bad tempered and angry and the Lion swiftly runs away closely followed by his sons. The Buffalo satisfied he has seen off his enemy snorts and walks off to once more graze silently but ever watchful.
The Vultures, Jackals and Hyaenas having witnessed the predators being chased from the Hippo carcass descend swiftly to eat the remains; it is feast time for them. Or is it? The Lions are used to this age old fight with Buffalo and are watching from a safe distance from the protection of the bushes. They can see the Buffalo has wandered back off so they swiftly return to retrieve their kill and chase with menacing the scavengers who dare to eat their meal. Vultures squawk and panic, they stretch their impressive wings and fly into the air, Jackals yap and bark and scurry off whilst the Hyaenas laugh and give low moans, they are quite used to being low in the food chain. They dare not challenge the power and dominance of the male Lion.
The Spotted Hyaenas is the most common seen in the Masai Mara; it is the largest and the most powerful. It is an unusual animal, at a glance a cross between a small bear and a dog. They have large powerful jaws for crushing bones and a slopping back, their gait is very ungainly. They have large rounded eyes and ears and are reddish brown in colour with black spots. Their short bushy tail is often erect in aggressive situations. They have blunt, non-retractile claws like Cheetah for long distance chasing. They live for around 10-12 years and he females are larger than the males weighing in at around 165lb and 2ft 11 in height. For many years Hyaenas were thought to be hermaphroditic (possessing both male and female organs) due to the fact that the external labia of the female is swollen in the form of a false scrotum, and the clitoris is long and erectile, making it indistinguishable from the male’s penis. Copulation takes place by the male inserting his penis into an enlarged opening in the females clitoris, which connects with the merged urino-genital duct. The cubs are well developed at birth with their eyes open and their canines and incisor teeth already cut. Siblings of the same sex fight for dominance, and the death of one of the cubs is common. Hyaenas are well known for their high pitch maniacal laugh when gathered at a kill. When calling each other it sounds like a whooping wail. They are highly opportunistic and scavenge kills but they are also very effective hunters. Hyaenas live in clans of between 5-30, you often see them lying by their dens resting during the day or cooling in shallow pools of water. Females will remain with their clan for life whereas as males will become nomadic until they join another clan to prevent interbreeding. Females lead the clan in hunting and are the dominant in the group. They recognise each other by scent, secreting liquid from their anal glands on blades of grass. Their faeces are white due to the high level of calcium they consume from crunching bones. Hyaenas can kill and eat each other during clan battles and they will often be killed by male Lions when scavenging a kill.
The interaction between the predators and scavengers is incredibly interesting. It is an age old dance of daring, power and courage. At most kill sightings it is the big cats dominating the carcass but it is usually the smallest scavenger the Jackal who seems to be the most brave to approach the site to dive in and steal discarded scraps. They are quick, cunning and daring like a fox, they stealth is fascinating. The Hyaenas seem to hang back much further in the distance until the carcass has been completely abandoned before being brave enough to take part of the kill. The Vultures are the cleaners, they pick the bones clean, ensuring nothing is left; they keep the savannah free of disease and rotting flesh.
At camp I am greeted by the wonderful team at Sentinel camp. Mini the manager makes me feel so at home as we sit with a drink in front of the camp fire chatting about my incredible first afternoon. The camp is beautiful and perfectly positioned on the river. The sun sets in front of us casting its fiery glow over the savannah. I feel the heat of the setting sun on my face, this is replaced by the heat of the camp fire, and its flames dance and lick the cool evening air. The team here are so friendly and helpful, after an incredible but tiring day it is wonderful to be taken such good care of. As we sit and eat we hear the sound of the wild all around us. The maniacal whoop of the Hyaenas carries through the air as they prepare to follow the awaking prides of Lions who will shortly hunt. The Lions give their low throaty roar to gather the pride to walk across the plains in search of food. The dominant males roar, whose land is this? It is mine, it is mine! The wild belongs to these mighty animals.
Day 2 –
It is still dark as I leave my tent, the Hippo is wallowing in the Mara River below me, and I can hear the splashing of the shallow waters and the distinctive honking of these mighty grey boulder mammals. The breeze carries the familiar scent of croton bushes and wild mint mixed with the slight pungent aroma of Hippo faeces. In the trees Baboons begin to stir from the branches and their screeches mingle with the calls of the birds flying overhead. The air is cool and crisp and I breathe in and fill my lunges with the purity. This is nature wild and free, my feet are routed in the earth, connected and at one with the environment.
Sentinel camp is in the heart of the famous Marsh area on the banks of the Mara River, a glorious setting. As we drive out in our open Land cruiser bundled in Maasai blankets I wonder what nature will give us today. The sun begins to rise above the wide open savannah, it first spreads a technicolour of vibrant red, orange and yellow light across the sky, it is an impressionist artistic watercolour, natures beautiful morning painting. The trees are perfectly silhouetted against this stunning show. The sunrise brings hope, life and energy; it is a true life force. The Impalas, Topi and Thompson Gazelle stretch their cold muscles and start prancing, ready for a new day of survival.
The sun lights the red oat tips of the grasses, dew drops hang like diamonds from each blade. They sway like gold in the gentle breeze, a field of gold and green. Through these grasses high steps a beautiful Serval cat, her golden body covered in black spots. Her large ears with their distinctive white spots on the back flicker to hear the sound of rodents scurrying through the undergrowth. Her eyes are golden and alert picking up any movement. We stop a way back from her as she is beautifully backlit by the sunrise; it is fascinating seeing her early morning hunt for it will not be long before she disappears into the undergrowth to sleep for the day.
The Serval is a very unique cat; it is sleek, long and elegant like the ancient Egyptian Goddess Bastet. It is only 1ft 10 – 2ft in height but 2ft 2 – 3ft 2 in length. It has a long, lean, lithe body golden in colour with black spots across the body and black spots and streaks across its shoulders and neck. What makes it also beautifully unique is its long legs and huge bat like ears. It is mainly nocturnal but it is often seen in the early mornings high-stepping through the long grasses looking for scrub hares and mice. Long grass areas are their preferred habitat. Servals are solitary cats and mark their territory by secreting urine onto bushes. Also like all cats they rub secretions from the corners of their mouths onto grass stems. Their large ears serve to detect movement in the long grasses, when detected they leap into the air and pounce on the unsuspecting rodent or bird. They will also leap into the air and stretch their long forearm to grab a bird by its wing. When sitting in the long grasses they are almost undetectable as they curl their long limbs under them and their coat is camouflaged against the grasses. The Servals gestation is around 2 months they only give birth once a year and the cubs will stay with them for a year. The Serval can live up to 10 years old, it main threat is the large cats and Hyaenas.
The Marsh plains are now bathed in a glow of golden light; two of the Marsh Lionesses are nursing two cubs of around 3 months old. The cub’s faces have a look of pure joy and contentment; they look up at us their golden eyes aglow, safely rested on their mothers stomachs. It was only a few days ago tragedy struck this pride, three of the cubs were killed by Buffalo. There has long been a feud between Lions and Buffalo. Lions kill many Buffalo for food and Buffalo kill Lion cubs to prevent future generations of predators. The Lionesses are therefore on full alert for further attacks. The Marsh area is moist and luscious and is a popular grazing place for prey including Buffalo so it is a constant source of food for the Lions but also brings many threats. In bushes nearby another two of the Lionesses suckle younger cubs. These are the future of the pride and Lionesses are fierce protective mothers.
On top of a nearby termite mound three more Marsh Lionesses sit with two older cubs of around six months old. The cubs are inquisitive and playful, they are playing their mothers ears and tail, mum is hunting practice. The Lionesses are scanning the plains for prey to hunt so bat the playful cubs away, the cubs then start chewing and playing with sticks, they gnaw on the fleshy green stems showing us their sharp canines. The Lionesses golden coats are perfectly back lit by the early morning sun, they are the Queens of the savannah, they rule with heart and strength. Their bodies are muscular and strong, they are the hunters, their powerful shoulders can pull down the largest of prey. Their sheer beauty is mesmerising, when sat like this they are serene and majestic.
The riverine forest is the perfect place for them to observe their surroundings. We suddenly hear the cracking and crashing of branches. A herd of Elephants led by their mighty matriarch walk through the cool glade behind. They are using their long trunks to pull down fronds of leaves to deposit into their waiting mouths. The young Lion cubs are fascinated by these giants walking so close to them, they stop their games and sit close to the reassuring presence of their mothers and watch the march of the plains gentle giants. The Elephants are unperturbed by the close proximity of the Lions as they do not present any threat. It is a beautiful moment watching the Lions watching the Elephants.
The African Elephant, impressive, mammoth, the giants of the savannah. It is the largest land mammal weighing up to 13,200lb and soaring to 13ft 2in. There is no mistaking their colossal size and impressive tusks which are upper incisors which become visible at 2-3 years of age and continue to grow throughout an Elephants life. The largest recorded Elephant tusk is 11ft 6incs. Elephants are gregarious, highly sociable animals which live in family groups of related females, their calves and a male. The leader of the family will be an old female, the matriarch. It is lovely watching Elephants greet, they insert the tip of their trunk into the mouth of the other Elephant. They also use sound to communicate; the low throaty rumbling which is most common indicates a greeting. Trumpeting, bellowing and loud screams are very recognisable as aggression, agitation and alarm. Elephants are both nocturnal and diurnal, they mainly sleep standing up but younger calves will sleep lying down. Elephants can spend up to 16 hours a day feeding and can consume 300-400lb of grasses and leaves and 30-60 gallons of water. Their faeces are eaten by dung beetles and Baboons as they contain pure seeds as an Elephant does not digest its food well. Elephants often wallow and shower themselves in water, after which they roll in mud and scratch themselves up against trees to remove ticks and clean their skin. The water and mud provides a sun protection layer. In the heat of the sun Elephants will seek sanctuary in the shade of riverine forests. All Elephants secrete a thick, pungent watery substance called temporin from their temporal glands which is located on each side of its face. The cows (female Elephant) secrete this all times of the year and the scent is individual to each Elephant, possibly to help them recognise each other. The bulls (male Elephant) only secrete this at certain times of the year when it is in “musth”, they dribble pungent urine down their legs often turning their penis green. This musth signals high levels of testosterone which in turn makes the bull more aggressive and sexually active. The gestation period for a cow is 22 months and she will give birth on average every 4-5 years. An Elephant on average can live up to 60 years. Due to their size they have no predators but young or sick Elephants can be killed by Lions, Hyaenas or Crocodiles.
After the Elephants disappear once more into the trees the cubs grow sleepy in the early morning sun and nuzzle their mothers. The cubs are almost too old now to suckle, they will be fully weaned by around seven months old but for now they seek the comfort and reassurance of their mothers warm milk. The Lioness lies on her side and the cubs nudge her belly with their heads and start ending with their large paws so prompt the flow of milk. Their small mouths engage with their mother’s nipple and they suckle, eyes closed in utter contentment.
The sun has fully risen and the heat rises, the sky is a cloudless expanse of azure blue. The escarpment surrounding the plains are green and covered in small bushes, water flows down from the hills providing much needs water to the plains. The forest is dense at Kaboso Lagga Ya Mawe (stony crossing) and we are rewarded by the sight of Queen Kaboso, the famous, certainly not elusive female Leopard that lives in his beautiful area. She is small and graceful but muscular and powerful. She strides confidently out of the bushes and scans the open plains for opportunities to hunt. The plains in this area have abundant prey, herds of Zebra and Impala graze nearby intermingled with families of Pumba. She tends to hunt early morning or late afternoon whilst the Lions sleep. Her deep bronze black rosette covered coat gleams in the sun light. She has a small beautiful face; her goddess green eyes are dazzling as she focuses. She is suspected to be pregnant as she recently lost a cub to Hyaenas. We watch her steady confident walk towards the prey but she is distracted by a troupe of Baboons who she is always in conflict with, upon seeing them she disappears back into the riverine forest. High in the trees you can hear Baboons screeching their warning call, a predator has been spotted.
Crossing the Lagga Ya Ngombe (where cows cross) a small herd of Zebra stand knee deep in me refreshing water. The sun is now hot even though it is before breakfast. They lap the cool waters constantly aware they are vulnerable to predator attack when their heads are bent. Their black and white distinctive stripped bodies are perfectly reflected in the rippling waters. Each Zebras strips are distinguishable to them, in a herd it helps them to identify each other. The stripes are also camouflage and they confuse predators. The stripes also allow the Zebra to regulate their temperature; the black strip absorbs heat whereas as the white stripe detracts light and heat. The herd in the distance brays loudly communicating to the rest of the herd. Within these large herds are smaller family groups, the male will have a harem of females and fouls and will fight with other males to defend his females.
The heat is now intense so we stop for breakfast under the broad bows of a Gardenia tree, Dominic says to me Chakula hapa, food here. We unpack our delicious breakfast and sit and chat about our morning. Above us beautiful Standard Starling with vibrant midnight blue iridescent feathers twitters and sings in the branches. They fly down and hop around our feet picking up crumbs. The Topi and Zebra who graze around us are unperturbed by our presence, it is so peaceful and calm sitting out on the open plains.
No two safaris are the same, back down at the Lagga Ya Ngombe there are Zebra neck deep in the water cooling off and drinking. Are eyes are drawn to a limping Zebra, its right front leg and shoulder is bleeding and torn to shreds although amazingly it is still for now still alive. From the way the skin hangs it looks like it was attacked by a crocodile whilst standing in the water drinking. It is was lucky to escape the serrated jaws of the crocodile but the reality is the smell of blood will now attract predators such as Hyaenas, Lion or Leopard, it is limping so badly it will only have the strength of its vicious back kick to defend itself but the likelihood is it will not survive the day. This is nature though, raw, unyielding and survival of the fittest.
Queen Kaboso now sleeps in a peaceful everglade, her bronze black rosette spotted coat is in beautiful contrast to the carpet of luscious green grass beneath her. Unusually she is sleeping in full sun. It does not take long for the heat to disturb her and she yawns affording us a wonderful view of her sharp lethal canines. She gets up and stretches her powerful muscles in a very cat like forward stretch. She is very agile and turns round to lick her coat, her long pink barbed tongue cleaning away the dirt from the ground. She surveys her surroundings and walks down to the river and elegantly and soundlessly crosses the large grey boulders rising like sleeping giants above the now shallow waters, she is not keen to get her paws wet. She climbs the banks of the river, the rocks at the top are rich in mineral and shine in the sun like silver, they are smooth and warn from the rain, wind and sun. Zebras see her and bray loudly warning the others, they race away. Kaboso settles to hide in a low Acacia tree until animal come down to drink from the river from where she can ambush them.
On the branch of a low bush two Cinnamon chested bee eater birds with their beautiful iridescent green plumage sit twittering to each other. In the presence of one of Africa’s big five this small pair could be easily overlooked but their sweet singing catches our attention. Another comes flying down but the other birds refuse to allow it to land on the branch next to them. The Maasai Mara has some unique birds, not far away a mating pair of Ground Hornbill with their black plumage and bright red beaks search through the grasses for bugs to peck. Then three Crown Cranes walk past their heads topped with their crown of feathers.
A tower of Giraffe dips their necks to graze on the tops of bushes. One finds a convenient branch to scratch its bottom on; it wiggles its back end enjoying the relief from ticks and flies. Others sit on the plains happily ruminating, their mouths chewing around and around, their long eye lashed eyes curiously watching us. A small herd of Zebra cross the Lagga further down river, the water is shallow but they cross quickly, afraid of being ambushed. This area is a rich utopia of prey, a large mating herd of Impala graze out in the heat, the dominant male jealously guards his harem from a nearby bachelor herd. Intermingled are a small herd of Hartebeest with their beautiful heart shaped horns and beige bodies.
The pungent stench hits you before you see it, overhead Vultures soar on the vortex their eyes fixed on the prize, and Hyaenas with their ungainly lop hover in the background. A rotting, stinking carcass lies next to a bush. This is no kill though this is the carcass of a young Elephant apparently having died from natural causes. The trunk and soft facial tissue has been completely eaten as well as most of the body. The legs lay prone to one side probably still in the position where the Elephant collapsed. This body has been eaten by Lions over a few days; it is large enough to satisfy them for three or four even rotting and stinking. We are by buffalo ridge they territory of the infamous Musketeer male Lions, Morani, Sikio, Hunter and the dominant male Scarface. In the bushes on the mound above the carcass we can hear the distinctive heavy panting of one of the males jealously guarding the Elephant, and another two are heavily panting in nearby bushes. Male Lions gorge themselves until they literally cannot walk. They walk with their heavy rotund bellies almost swinging to the ground. These overfed males are lying on their sides too full to move and as they struggle to regulate their temperature they pant heavily and noisily to cool themselves down. Morani gets up with a struggle and scent marks a tree by squirting urine. He then settles back down to rest. Yellow hippoboscid flies swarm around the Lions blood covered mussels.
On the branches of an architectural low twisted Acacia tree Marabout Stalk and Hooded Vultures sit like macabre christmas decorations. They sit patiently, watching and waiting for the Lions to move off so they can pick the carcass clean. The pungent aroma is sweet to them. Marabou stalks are one of the ugly five; they have a malevolent air about them with their bold red heads and sparse feathers. Vultures however are quite ugly beautiful, when they fly they could almost be Eagles, the underside of their wings are a stunning array of bronzes, greens and browns. Watching a Vulture soar in the skies is quite breath-taking. Both birds fulfil an important role in cleaning up carcasses, ensuring the plains are kept clean and disease free.
Down by the Mara River Hippo wallow in the shallow waters, one yawns showing us its impressive rows of teeth capable of crushing a man. The river flows here so there is no putrid smell of faeces. When a Hippo defecates it uses it tail to swish the faeces around it, they wallow in pools of their own excrement. On this beautiful note we set up our lunch and enjoy the ambiance. Starlings fly down to twitter at us, they are more confident here, coming right up to us to ask for bread. It is so relaxing just stopping still and enjoying the wild plains around us.
A Lioness has come out of the bushes and defecates near to the Elephant carcass, the smell is repulsive she clearly has been eating the rotting carcass. Once finished she scratches at the ground to cover ineffectively her faeces and walks over to the carcass. In the heat of the afternoon it is even more pungent and decaying. The Vultures look jealously down from the bows of the Acacia tree as she selects which part to carry on eating. It reminds of that phrase, how do you eat any Elephant? One piece at time. There is little meat left so she half climbs inside of the carcass and eats the soft tissue inside. We are overcome by the rancid smell so we go and see what the males are doing. Of course they are still fast asleep, lying on their backs, legs wide with turgid belly in the air. They are so hot and full they do not even notice the teaming Yellow hippoboscid flies on their nose and belly. Nearby a sub adult male around two years old comes out to investigate the carcass, he is beyond beautiful, all blonde with the start of a small fluffy mane but still with his cub rosettes on his belly.
All of a sudden the wind picks up and the air cools, there is a crack of thunder and rain drops thick and heavy. Within seconds the rain is steadily falling and the plains become a flowing river, the dry earth unable to absorb such large quantities of water in such a short space of time. We drive through the rain, the tyres slipping on the sticky mud. It is thrilling and exhilarating to be driving through a storm. The rains are localised so within a short space of time it ends and the sun appears, the water is quickly absorbed into the ground. The great herds of Buffalo and Impala we drive through seem unperturbed by the wet interruption.
As the rain eases Queen Kaboso walks out of the bushes, she is in hunting mood but the Zebra and Impala are not near the water. She does not want to be seen so she crouches as she runs to a thicket by the Laga. She disappears into the undergrowth all we can see is her beautiful face surrounded by a crown of Acacia leaves. She is focused on the prey, her beautiful green eyes alert, focused and shining in anticipation of a hunt. She looks quite relaxed as she knows she has a wait for the prey to be in ambush range. I sit patiently too absorbed by her beauty but also drawn in by the strength, confidence and determination she radiates.
The Marsh area is now moist and luscious after the rains; it has drawn the Lionesses out into the open. Two Lionesses are sat with two cubs around six months old. The cubs are confident, bright and alert. They are warming themselves in the last rays of the afternoon sun. They lay their beautiful heads on their paws, their eyes closed in utter contentment. Occasionally they look up; there golden eyes viewing me curiously then they go back to resting. Close by in a natural dip two more Lionesses are laid out their heads resting on the side. One is laying on her back her head tilted back in contentment for three; two month old cubs are snuggled into her belly suckling from her. Their small paws prod her belly encouraging the flow of milk; their tiny mouths suckle on her teats. It is a beautiful picture of motherly bliss. Next to her another Lioness is nursing two more young cubs, one cub is laying on top of her and reaching down to reach her teat whilst its sibling reaches from below. They make such sweet mewing noises. At this age the cubs are still so vulnerable but the Lionesses are strong, fierce but gentle mothers.
The sun is setting on this beautiful scene, the sky is awash with bright streaks of red, yellow and orange, the Acacia trees are perfectly silhouetted. At camp I sit by the fire outside and look up at the stars, it is a stunning night. I am sat on the banks of the Mara River and the Hippo honk and splash below me. The night belongs to the wild. Across the bank Lions start to roar calling the pride to hunt. Baboons screech telling the prey the predators are awake and in hunting mood. As the air cools and the fire warms my face I give thanks for all I have seen and experienced today.
Day 3 –
It is cooler this morning before sunrise; there are no clouds in the sky. As I leave my tent I stop to look at the river below. There is a Hippo with a new born baby, she slowly glides in the shallows with the baby close to her, it then climbs onto her back for safety. Baby Hippos are often attacked and eaten by Crocodiles so the mother is extra wary. As we drive out the sun begins to rise, with a cloudless sky the colours are splashed wide, deep vibrant reds, oranges, purples and yellows merge together in wild abandonment. It is a perfect Monet painting, nature’s perfect masterpiece. The air is cool and I breathe in the scent of the croton bushes and wild mint mingled with the moist earth. The Marsh plains are wide and open, the sun appears over the high escarpment, a perfect round fireball. I feel the life giving heat on my face. As the sun rises the sky becomes a soft candy floss of pinks over a pale blue sky.
High stepping through the long grasses a stunning, lithe, long limbed Serval cat is on its early morning hunt. When it sees us its stops and peers at us, they are skittish cats and very nocturnal. It stares wide eyed giving us a beautiful view of its sleek long lined body covered in black spots over a gleaming bronze coat. Its large bat like ears twitch, we see the distinctive white dot on the back of each ear as it listens for movement in the long grasses. Sensing no threat from us it diverts its beautiful golden eyes to its original focus of hunting. We see its retreating back leaping through the tall grass.
In contrast back at the chinese hill Morani one of the Musketeer male Lions is gorging himself on the rotting, decaying, pungent Elephant carcass. There is very little left now. As he tries to tear off chunks the carcass moves as it is just a shell of ribs now, even the legs have been detached from the body, a femur lays abandoned just feet away. The Lion steadies it by putting one arm on top of it whilst he rips sinew from bone. Hooded Vulture and African White Back Vultures hop around the carcass hoping to pick up some tasty morsels but they irritate Morani and he gives chase sending them flying in all directions. He returns to the kill and the Vultures gingerly return only to be roared at sending them scurrying away again. Morani is irritated by this intrusion on his feasting time and even growls at a young Lioness laying close by. A sub adult male Lion is also lying near the carcass but sensibly keeps his distance. Male Lions are very aggressive when they are eating and can easily kill any animal that disturbs him, even another Lion. After he has eaten Morani heads to the bushes to sleep and the sub adult male takes his turn to eat.
Hyaenas and Jackal are only afraid of the adult male Lions so when Morani leaves the carcass they start to come closer, their heads just visible through the long grasses. A cheeky little Black backed Jackal is the most brave even though he is smaller than the Vultures. He cautiously edges towards the discarded femur bone and starts gnawing at the remaining flesh on the bones. A Hooded Vulture and African White Back Vulture start eating alongside him but he snaps at them sending them flying back. The sub adult male eating the main carcass is unperturbed by the Jackal. Hyaenas are more cautious and stay in the grass; they fear the return of Morani as he would kill them. The sub adult sneezes and the Hyaenas jump in fright and retreat back into the grasses. Behind the kill the Acacia tree is still pregnant with the weight of Vultures and Marabou Stalks waiting for their turn to pick clean the carcass.
The plains are bathed in golden light as the sun rises high in the sky, the dew drops hang like diamonds on each blade of grass and the lagas gleam as the sun reflects off of their surfaces. The great herds of Buffalo, Impala and Zebra enjoy the moist grasses from last night’s heavy rains. They look up as we pass but are mainly undistracted from their main activity of grazing. Down in the Hammerkop area the beautiful graceful female Leopard Fig is walking by some bushes clearly in hunting mode.
Leopards have for a long time been deemed to be elusive. This was mainly to the aggressive hunting of them until the last 1970s. They are actually the most numerous of the world’s big cats. They have also over the last thirty years become more confident and less skittish making them much easier to see in the wilds of Africa. They have the most stunning markings. Their head, chest and legs are covered in a distinctive series of black spots with a black collar of bars around its neck. The rest of its body a gleaming coat of golden bronze is covered in rosettes. Its tail is two thirds the length of its body with a pure white mark of the underside of its tip. This tail is designed for perfect balance when climbing trees. Its voice is a deep, rasping like cough almost like a wood being sawn. Their habitat is mainly riverine forests and wooded areas. Leopards are terrestrial and arboreal; it is a privilege seeing them sunning themselves on rocks at sunrise and sunset. Leopards are solitary cats and only come together to mate aggressively. They hunt using their impressive powerful strength by stealth and ambush. They are capable of dragging a 100lb kill up a tree clamped between their teeth. Leopards live up to around 12-15 years.
The female Leopard Fig is around six years old and has a cub around 3 months old which she has hidden in the bushes whilst she hunts. There are herds of Impala grazing on the plains but they need to come closer if she is going to ambush them. She decides the best course is to retreat into the bushes to wait for them. It is lovely seeing her beautiful dark bronze face covered in black spots in perfect contrast to the dark green leaves encasing her. The dark green sets of the illuminance of her vivid green eyes. It is no wonder people find Leopards so captivating; they are the epitome of beauty, grace and strength. Their rosette covered bodies as individual as a fingerprint and their shy elusive behaviour both endearing and intriguing. Fig is calm and relaxed; she is conserving her strength for hunting. Unfortunately the Impala move off and the early morning is growing hot already so Fig stands, stretches her powerful muscles and walks down the ravine to find a shaded cool place to rest for the morning.
The Mara has become famous for its coalition of five male Cheetah. They are believed to be related by blood, a mixture of cousins and brothers. This is rare as it is usually only brothers who stay together. The beauty of this coalition is a lone Cheetah can only hunt small prey such as Thompson Gazelle or young Topi or Impala but a large coalition such as this has the strength to bring down adult Impala, Wildebeest and Zebra. They have been seen together now for eighteen months so it looks like they will stay permanently together. When you witness their interactions it is clear they have a close bond. They are at the Talek river area.
Cheetahs are quite different to the powerhouse physique of Leopards and Lions. They are lithe and athletic with blunt claws that do not retract which aids them when running at speed. They have distinct black “tear marks” running from the inner corners of their black rimmed amber eyes down to the edges of their mouth. They have a beautiful golden coat littered with black spots. Cheetahs coats vary is hue, some can be quite blonde. If you sit and study Cheetah you will hear their beautiful high pitch chirrup voice, when happy they purr very loudly like a domestic cat. Interestingly Cheetahs cannot roar but will growl and hiss when threatened. They are not a threat to people; in fact they can be quite sociable, sadly making them quite desirable as pets in some parts of the world. Cheetahs are diurnal and terrestrial; they tend to hunt during the day when Lions sleep. Males are known for staying together after leaving their mother or forming coalitions of up to five males so they can hunt larger prey. It also makes it easier for defending their territory; coalitions have been known to kill solitary males who come into their territory. Females are solitary except when mating or when rearing cubs. Cheetahs have a huge range of up to 400 Sq miles which makes it difficult to track them, they follow prey. Cheetahs have a very different hunting style to the other big cats, they generally favour small gazelle and will pick out an individual, stalk it within 45-55 metres before chasing it down. Cheetahs are the fastest land mammal running up to speeds of 70 mph with an impressive stride of 7 metres. Watching them run is breath-taking and exhilarating. They cannot maintain that speed however for more than few hundred yards as they will overheat. The catch their prey by tripping it with its dew claw, when the animal falls the Cheetah will clasp its impressive jaws around its neck and strangle it. They will drag the kill to cover to avoid detection and eat fast as scavengers will smell blood as soon as it is ripped open and will try and steal it. A female Cheetah can give birth to up to six cubs but mortality it high in the first six months, as much as 50-60% will be killed by Hyenas or Lions. Gestation is 3 months the same as the other cats as they must hunt often so a long gestation would impede that. Cheetah cubs have a grey mantle of hair along their backs to make them look like a honey badger one of the most ferocious animals to deter predators. It also helps to conceal them in the long dry grasses. Cheetahs leave their mother around 18 months old. Cheetahs’ biggest threat is Lions and Leopards who will kill them as they are competition for food as they hunt the same prey. Cheetahs live up to around 10 years.
This coalition of five male Cheetahs is very healthy and well fed, you can see by their rotund bellies swinging underneath their lithe frames built for speed they have hunted recently. They are hot and pant heavily as they walk in a line in the baking heat of the early morning. Ahead is a large Acacia tree and their head towards the relief of its shade. As they reach the tree they sniff it to see if any other cat has scent marked it as their territory, they then spray urine on it, marking their territory. They each collapse in the shade, panting heavily and rolling over to remove ticks and clean their fur. They seem quite contented, all of them.
The heat is getting intense; the sky is cloudless and beautifully pale blue. Down by the laga we set out our breakfast under the shade of an impressive Fig Tree. The branches are pregnant with the weight of large fronds of almost ripe figs. This is a stunning architectural tree, its trunk is thick and grey with twisted carved patterns ending it thick strong branches that bear the weight of the luscious fruit and dark green leaves. The bottom of the tree is hollow; there is an opening like a door into a magical world. It is the tree of fairy tales, home in folklore to mythological creatures. It fuels the imagination. It is the perfect place to stop to rest and a favourite for Leopards to drag their kills up. The thick branches provide the perfect resting place and the open canopy affords a great view of the plains.
A lone female Cheetah sits nearby in thick Acacia bushes, she looks hungry and eagerly scans the plains for hunting opportunities. There is a large herd of Impala grazing nearby but they are too large for her to bring down unless there are babies in the herd. The heat is intense so it looks like she will conserve her energy until the afternoon. It takes so much energy to hunt she must be such of her potential success. A large herd of Zebra walk past the bushes she is resting but she only gives them a cursory glance as they are too large a prey for her.
There is a dramatic turn of events we have heard one of the five male Cheetahs has a damaged testicle from most likely fighting, it is hanging bloodily down. This was not obvious when we saw them an hour ago as cats have a high pain threshold. The wildlife vets have been called and we see them arrive to tranquilliser dart the Cheetah so they can take it away to operate on it. This they do successfully but surprisingly the other four Cheetahs are not scared by this activity, they calmly walk away and sit under a nearby Acacia tree to watch their brother being taken away. What also surprises me they do not move whilst he is taken away, they wait for their brother. Their bond is clearly strong and they will not move off without him.
Within an hour unbelievably the vets come back with the rather groggy Cheetah. They have had to remove his testicle as it was too badly damaged, his rear end is covered in blue iodine and he is wobbly on his feet but the vets know he must be reunited with his brothers as quickly as possible. Sedating a wild animal is extremely dangerous, too much tranquilliser can kill it or it may not survive the anaesthetic. Fortunately this boy has pulled through. As soon as he is released near the other four boys he starts calling for them. They are alerted and sit up and watch him walking wobbly towards them. They get up, wary as he smells of anaesthetic; they sniff his back end and hiss as it is an unfamiliar smell. Cats recognise each other prominently by smell so his scent confuses them. He cowers down and squeaks in subservience so they will accept him back. There is no conflict but the four Cheetah sit apart from him under the shade of the tree. It will take a few hours for the Cheetah to recover and the others to accept him fully back. It is a testament to the wildlife services for their prompt response in saving him otherwise the wound would have become infected no doubt resulting in death. Sometimes human intervention is necessary in the wild.
Sometimes when you are enjoying a great safari, rest and food comes second. We take a quick lunch under the shade of an Acacia tree, then back to the Cheetahs to see how the boy is getting on. We meet with Elena from the Cheetah Project who informs us the injured male is actually the dominant male in the group so his injury has upset the social order in the group. We did notice two of the males were concerned about him but two were not. It is possible one of the other males will now seek to be the dominant male. It is now late afternoon so the Cheetahs will seek to move to another area, it is a concern whether he will be rested enough to join them. How this story unfolds will be very interesting.
Fig the beautiful female Leopard has now come out of the ravine and has climbed a Fever Tree. It is a beautiful tree with iridescent green/yellow bark and umbrella shaped branches covered in thick foliage and fronds of yellow flowers. She is sat in the v of the tree looking out over the plains looking for an opportunity to hunt. Her bright alert green eyes are scanning, the afternoon wears on and even though she is diurnal and nocturnal she prefers to hunt during the day to avoid conflict with the Lions. In the distance Zebras bray noisily it attracts her attention but they are not her focus. The tree is tall with a long straight trunk, as she turns to jump down she gingerly navigates the trunk easing herself down. She jumps into the thickets and completely disappears as only Leopards can do. We scour the bushes to find her and come across two DikDik deer, which mate for life, they are nervous and stare into the bushes, they have clearly seen her, so we wait.
The beautiful Leopard Fig emerges from the bushes she is resplendent in the late afternoon sun, she is still in hunting mood but it will soon be time for her Lions to wake which is competition. She sits on a termite mound and surveys the terrain; you can see her alert eyes picking up every movement. She has hidden her cub close by so she will want to go back to it soon, with or without a kill. Fig is around six years old and her cub around three months. She is a successful mother she has raised many cubs which is not easy as she has to hide them when she goes off hunting. The cubs are mainly attacked by Hyaenas and Lions. For now she is relaxed and as the sun sets low it sets her gleaming bronze fur alight with golden rays, her green eyes are startling shining green in contrast.
The sun is setting low, the last vestige of warmth and light is being enjoyed by the prey. The sky burns with the fiery rays of red, orange and golden light, the distinctive Acacia trees with their umbrella shaped canopy are silhouetted against the skyline. The herds huddle together aware the predators will wake soon, they wait for the scent of danger. It is though a calm, peaceful time, the sun sets on another incredible day on the great Mara plains.
At camp the flames from the fire crackle in the cool night sky, they leap and blaze warming the faces of the tired but happy guests around it. Below the river is still alive with the Hippos splashing, wallowing and fighting. Across the river Baboons leap in the trees and Giraffe steadily and quietly walk through the bushes. We are out in the wild, untamed, unfenced and free. The night once again is alive with the sounds of the wild.
Day 4 –
The air is warm even though it is before sunrise, the scent of herbs and the river carries on the wind. As we drive out the sun is rising a perfect sphere of fire lighting up everything it touches, the sky is aglow with vibrant light. The light and the heat are life giving, it is the hope of a new day, life affirming and soul touching. The animals are warming up by cantering and stretching, overhead birds come out of their nests calling as they fly overhead. Baboons bark their morning call and head out into the open plains to forage for the day. This is a rich utopia of animals living wild and free.
The Marsh area is moist and luscious; the animals are attracted to the rich grasses and abundance of water. The Bills Shaka (without doubt) is without our doubt teaming with prey. Two of the Marsh Lionesses are suckling the cubs, they would have finished eating whatever prey was killed in the night and now tend the future of their pride. Both mothers and cubs are a picture of blissful contentment. But the harsh reality is nearby Spotted Hyaenas menacing lop about sniffing the air, checking where the cubs are in case they get the opportunity to attack them. The Lionesses are always alert to the dangers. Not far away the dominant Lioness Yaya is walking across the plains with two of her older female cubs of around two years. They all look well fed and one has blood from the prey they have eaten smeared on her mussel, legs and body. They stop and sit on a termite mound, one by one as each approaches they rub faces together in greeting, the bond between Lionesses is very strong as they will stay together for life, raise their young together and hunt together. The golden morning sun lights up their dark blonde fur, they are the Queens if the Mara, they exude strength, beauty and power.
On the edge of Olara Motorogi Conservancy area we find one of the Leopard Fig’s older female cubs, she is around 2-3 years old. She is independent now and can hunt for herself; she is small with really large round green eyes. She really is quite stunning, but what makes the scene so spectacular is she is resting on one of the thick branches of the Fig Tree we had breakfast under yesterday. She is beautifully laid on a bed on figs, leaves surround her, here she is not at all camouflaged but stunningly offset by the luscious green fruit. The green fruit also highlights the deep emerald green of her eyes. It is a breath-taking scene. She clearly wants to hunt and not just escape the growing heat of the early morning, she has her legs and tail dangling down either side of the branch but her head is up, alert and scanning the plains for an opportunity to hunt. After a while satisfied that there are no opportunities yet she settles her beautiful head on her impressive paws and cat naps.
Still in the same riverine forest as yesterday her mother Fig is in the bushes, she tried to hunt Impala then Pumba but she failed but instead killed a Jackal. Obviously Jackal is not a preferred meal for a Leopard but she may just be keeping it in reserve just in case she does not kill anything else, after all she has a growing cub to feed. The little body of the Jackal lays prone at her feet, eyes staring up blank in death. Fig does not seem keen to eat it and picks it up in her sharp jaws and deposits it into a bush. Then there is movement … her young cub of just three months old, little Figlet leaps out of the bushes, small, fluffy with large round midnight blue eyes. The cub is playful and eagerly rubs against its mother, it wants to play. It sees the Jackal carcass and starts playing with it. Even though the cub is small it picks the limp body of the Jackal up and carries it off into another bush to play with it. Leopards do have very strong jaws and clearly this is a unique ability right from a young age. Fig watches her cub wander off, content to let it have its independence. She sits and licks her paws and uses them to gracefully wash her ears. She then rolls over backward and forward playfully, she in fact cleaning her coat of ticks. We sit for hours watching the mother and cub so breakfast in the vehicle.
Black backed Jackal are small dog or fox like animals only reaching around a foot in height and weighing just 6-13kg. Like dogs they live to around ten years old and have 3-4 young in a litter. They are very vocal and you can often hear them giving a high pitch yelping bark, they do this when they are excited or alarmed. They tend to follow the big cats as they scavenge the kills, but they are good hunters in their own right, unfortunately they will eat their own prey alive. They have dens in the open savannah. Jackals pair for life and they work as a team defending their territory and raising their young. When the pups are young it is often the male that goes out scavenging for food, he will then come back to the den and regurgitate it. Like dogs and foxes, Jackals are known for their intelligence and cunning. As I have seen Jackals are often killed by Leopards, they are an easy targets. When the pups are small they are easily taken off by large Eagles.
The plains are teaming with prey; a large herd of common Zebra, Topi and Impala are near a Laga wanting to drink. They are nervous as the bank is steep on the other side and covered in bushes, the perfect place for predators to ambush them. Several brave large Zebra approach the water and wade in to gulp down litres of refreshing water. They keep looking up to see if they are being watched. By the water’s edge the rest of the Zebra herd bray, communicating to their family in the water to be careful. One Zebra will become skittish and leap out of the water causing the rest to follow. Once they are sure there was no threat they go back to the water.
The Common Zebra is an impressive muscular animal with a deadly kick. The males can be as much as 725lb in weight and 4ft7 tall. They have broad stripes ranging from brown to dark black, each pattern is unique. They are also very vocal, they sound cross between braying and barking. When alarmed they give a sharp snort like a horse. You will find them in large herds on the open plains. They are diurnal and nocturnal but are more active during the day. They are gregarious animals, you often see them grooming each other and putting their necks over each other’s in bonding and protection. Within the herd you will see the family groups made up of the dominant male, several females and fouls. There are also bachelor herds that will fight with other males to form their own harem. Zebras regularly dust bath, rolling around in the dry earth to keep their coat in good condition. They are a challenge even for the coalition of five Cheetahs as they can gallop at top speeds of 65kph. Zebras are grazers but they do not ruminate, they also drink water daily. Their main threats are predators such as Lions, Leopards and Cheetahs. The Zebras defence is a vicious bone breaking kick. They also have strong jaws they can break an arm or leg.
Zebra are clever they can smell Lions but they cannot see them. For up on the bank in the cover of bushes we can see through our binoculars two Lionesses are indeed waiting to ambush. All is calm, the Zebra nervously wade in the shallows drinking water then all of a sudden one of the Lionesses leaps down the bank and starts chasing the Zebra, panic ensues, there is honking and braying, hooves pound the dry earth kicking up dust. The Lioness is in hot pursuit but she is built for power not speed and endurance so after a few hundred yards she slows frustrated she missed. She looks around checking whether there are any other hunting opportunities before returning to the banks and sitting with the other Lioness. They will now wait for another herd to come to the water.
It is late afternoon and the temperature rises we lunch under the shade of an Acacia tree watching the utopia of prey grazing around us, it is incredibly tranquil. We discuss the five Cheetah coalition and the events of yesterday. It is not really known if the Cheetahs are brothers or cousins but chances are they are certainly from the same blood line. The reason for this is Cheetahs are so few in number that much interbreeding is happening weakening the gene pool. In a coalition like the five there has to be a dominant male to lead the group but over the last few months his dominance has been waning and two of the boys have been fighting with the dominant male, during these fights the males attack the most vulnerable part, the genitals. It is no doubt the dominant males testacies were damaged yesterday during one of these fights. It is fortunate the vets were called to save him but it does bring into question the moral conflict of human intervention with wildlife.
On a wide stretch of the plains a large herd of Zebra and very keen eyed Topi are all stood still facing in one direction, this can only mean one thing…predators are close. In the shade of a group of croton bushes two Lionesses and one of the dominant males Lolpapit (very hairy) of the Enkoyanai pride are resting from the heat of the sun. They clearly want to hunt but the prey will have to come much closer until they do. Otherwise they will conserve their energy in the heat of the afternoon and hunt after sunset when it is cooler and they can make a surprise attack under the cover of darkness.
Topi are dark brown Antelope with patches of almost dark blue on their thighs; hence in Kenya they are called “blue jeans”. They have elongated faces and both sexes have backward curving horns. Topi herd together and are always watchful for predators and have keen eyesight, when they spot one they snort loudly. You will find them in open grassland, they are both diurnal and nocturnal, they mainly graze in the cool of the night. Males with establish territories with around fifteen females and young. They will fight with other males to defend their territory. It is very common to see a Topi standing on top of a termite mound to attract a female, when the females come into oestrus they will mate with the males with the best territory. Males mark their territory with urine and piles of dung and also by rubbing their facial (pre-orbital) and foot (inter-digital) glands on the ground. They will challenge rival males by dropping to their knees on the ground and butting horns. This is particularly prevalent in February and March in Kenya. There main threat is Lions who as a pride can hunt a fully grown adult, whereas Leopard and Cheetah will hunt the calves mainly. Hyaenas and Jackals too can kill a newly born calf.
Nearby watching the large herd of Topi the stunning Leopard Fig has climbed up a Fever tree and is sitting on a branch with her legs hanging down in a seated position, her tail counter balancing and her front paws over a branch in front of her. Her head is rested on her paws as she sleeps in the heat of the day. Her little cub will be hidden in the ravine away from the potential attack of predators. She occasionally looks up and surveys around he looking for hunting opportunities and threats. Satisfied there is neither she goes back to sleep. The Topi know where she is they stand shoulder to shoulder looking in her direction, occasionally snorting.
It is late in the afternoon and the Marsh cubs will be waking up, we find them in a clearing, three Lionesses and five cubs. The cubs are suckling from the mothers, it is clear that they were born a few weeks apart from the difference in size. The mothers will let all the cubs suckle from her, this way if one goes hunting the cubs are fed and taken care of. Whilst they are sucking the older cub’s growl at the younger cubs, even at this age it is survival of the fittest as they compete for milk. After they finish the mothers start grooming them, the cubs sit between their large front paws as they use their long barbed tongues to lick them clean. The cubs wiggle free and start playing with each other; they play fight and chew each other’s paws and ears. Even at this tender age the cubs learn valuable hunting and fighting skills.
The sun is now setting on this beautiful day the sky is awash with vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. The escarpment is silhouetted against this vibrant painting and a lone umbrella Acacia tree is striking in the foreground. Herds of Zebra, Impala, Topi and Thompson Gazelle prepare for the coolness of the evening, they draw close for protection. Zebra put their heads on each other’s backs in opposite directions for bonding and protection so they can see in both directions. The moon is appearing it is full and bright in the darkening sky and the constellations appear a celestial light show.
Many of the wonderful staff in Sentinel camp is Maasai and this evening they are kindly singing traditional songs for us. They are dressed in their red shukas (traditional Maasai dress) and beaded jewellery carrying their spears. They walk around the burning fire which lights up their colourful attire. Their dance is a head and body jerking movement in rhyme in the songs. One of my Maasai friends takes my hand and I join in this wonderful rhymes. After they finish the night is given over to the wild, the Hippos honk and laugh in the water and birds screech overhead as they fly to roost for the night. Lions roar their deep throaty call “Whose land is this? It is mine, it is mine! Let us hunt!”
Day 5 –
Even in the pre-dawn morning the air is warm, the temperatures rise before the great rains of April. The earth and grasses are growing dry, the rivers are very low, they all thirst for the rain. The sun is rising spread vast across the cloudless sky; the colours this morning are soft and pastel, a beautiful impressionist painting. It is so peaceful being out on the plains this early, the air is cool and scented with herds, you can really connect with nature and the animals on these beautiful plains. Towers of Giraffe sit ruminating staring curiously at us as we pass them.
The Masai Giraffe is an impressive animal; a male can reach 18 foot in height and 8 foot in length and weigh up to 4,000lb. They can live around 20-28 years and usually give birth to just one baby at a time, twins are rare. Giraffes give birth standing up so the babies are quite large when born to survive the drop. Interestingly even though they are the tallest mammal in the world they only have seven neck vertebrae. There are several species of Giraffe, each have a distinctive pattern. The Masai Giraffe has a jagged-edged pattern starting small on their legs and growing larger across their body and up their impressive long necks. The males and females have skin covered small horns which are actually bony outgrowths from the skull unlike other animal’s horns. The female’s horns end with fluffy tufts. Other distinctive features are they have elegant long eyelashes and long 18-20 inch prehensile tongues which aid them in reaching vegetation. Giraffes are very graceful and silent, very occasionally they may emit a rumble or grunt. But as I have witnessed on my last Safari when their offspring is in real danger from predator attack that rumble is more of a frightening roar. When Giraffes are sub adults they need to establish their dominance in the group. This is done by necking with other males. They slam their neck against each other until one concedes; unfortunately on occasion this can lead to serious injury and death as they become vulnerable to predator attack. They are diurnal and nocturnal and can be seen in towers of around 5-100. When they are roaming this group is known as a journey or safari of Giraffes. They are gregarious animals but rarely form bonds with each other. They instead spend their days browsing on trees and bushes, they are ruminants. When they drink they spread their legs apart in order to dip their long necks, they cannot sustain this position for long as they will become light headed as the Giraffes head is 7-10 foot from their heart. The main threat to Giraffes is large pride of Lions who can encircle and bring it down. The young calves are however vulnerable to attack by all the predators but the mother can give a mighty kick.
Giraffes seem to enjoy just sitting or standing and watching other animals around them. As they sit ruminating in the grass many birds enjoy high stepping through the tall grasses in the early morning, as the expression goes, it is the early bird that catches the worm. A beautiful Southern Ground Hornbill with its impressive black plumage and bright red beak is beady eyed looking for insects. A pair of Grey Crowned Crane with their halo of golden feathers on top of their head are long legged also eagerly look for tasty bugs and seeds. Up in a spindly Acacia tree a Tawny Eagle surveys the plains for rodents and lizards scurrying in the undergrowth. It has a ruffled plumage of feather atop its head.
In the Marsh area on top of a termite mound we surprisingly find two of the older cubs of around three months old huddled together alone. The other cubs must be hidden in the undergrowth or bushes not far away. The Lionesses are not in sight, they are most likely out hunting. Only a few days ago several of the cubs were killed by Hyaenas, seeing this pair alone and vulnerable you can see how this happened. What is lovely about seeing these siblings sitting together is the dramatic contrast in them and how Lions can easily be identified from each other. One of the cubs is dark golden with its dark cub rosettes which helps to camouflage it when it is young. The other cub is very blonde and pale, stunningly beautiful. They sit closely together touching and rubbing heads for reassurance, bonding and comfort. They also softly play; they know they cannot draw attention to themselves. They are alert for danger and if they did feel threatened they would retreat to the bushes to hide.
Across the plains we find part of the Enkoyanai pride, an older Lioness sits by a bush scanning the plains. Right out in the open the other dominant male Lion Orbanoti (younger one) is sat warming in the early morning heat. He is large, powerful, majestic and handsome. He sits proud, he is the King of all he surveys, and he exudes an aura of might and dominance. He gets up and stretches his muscular frame then walks across the plains to some bushes to rest for the day. We drive ahead of him so we can observe him, he is so confident and self-assured, he also looks satisfied, his large belly swings low below him. Over at the bushes two of his young male cubs of around two years old bow down to greet him, they are respectful and subservient to him. These young princes are pale blonde with the start of a small mane; on their bellies is the lightest trace of the rosettes indicating they are still young.
As we drive through a Laga in the Kaboso area we see lying on a thick branch hanging over the water a young Zebra, its coat is still dark brown and white and fluffy compare to the stark black and white of the adults. Its body is twisted at an odd mangled angle in order to fit on it. It is an incongruous sight, but the eyes are blank in death, it must be a Leopard kill. It is not long before a large male Leopard ascends the tree and takes hold of the kill. He is strong and would have killed it in the early hours and used his powerful jaws, claws and shoulder muscles to drag it up the tree. He starts to tear at its flesh; the Zebra swings precariously its legs hanging down so he shifts it into another position. Below in the shallow waters a lone Hyaena wades and looks up smelling the blood and hoping the kill will drop down. The Leopard snarls at it, jumps down and runs off into the undergrowth leavings his prize safely in the tree for later.
Four Zebra come down to the Laga and peer around, they are obviously the young Zebras family and they are trying to locate it. Within a large herd of Zebras there are smaller family groups and they take care of each other so when one disappears they will look for it. The Laga is a good place for Zebras to come down to drink especially in dry season as it is cool, the water has a thick canopy of bushes and trees hanging over it. Of course this also makes it the perfect ambush area for large hunters such as Leopards, hence how this big male Leopard managed to make this kill. It is fascinating to see the interaction of the animals even a difficult scene like this, young Zebra are very beautiful but Leopards have to eat too. We decide to sit and eat our breakfast in our vehicle and wait for the return of the Leopard.
Literally across this part of the plain on the edge of a riverine forest dangling lifelessly on the branch of a Euclea Divenoram tree is a large male Impala, we are not sure which Leopard made this kill but after exerting so much energy chasing, killing and dragging the Impala up the tree the Leopard will be laying somewhere nearby to rest. Once rested in the heat of the morning it will come back to eat its kill.
A family of Pumba run in front of us. Warthogs (Pumba, Swahili for stupid) are short, stout beige grey skinned pigs with a course mane of hair running from the top of its head down its back. Both males and females have short curved canine tusks which they use for defence. They have three wart-like growths of their face which is there for protection when fighting. Like all pigs they squeal and grunt. They are very skittish as they have many predators; they are speedy reaching up to 56kph. You will often see they grazing with other animals such as Impala, Topi or Wildebeest, it affords them added protection. They are diurnal and sleep in old termite mounds in the earth at night. They are usually seen in family groups and are very gregarious. In the heat of the day you will often see them wallowing in shallow water holes. When they feed they bend their front legs and crawl forward grazing through the grasses. They are clever animals they enter their burrows backwards so when Lions try and dig them out from them they can shoot out quickly, the Lion is often not quick enough to catch them.
Finally the large male has come back to the Impala kill. It is easy to distinguish a male Leopard from a female from a distance; the male is significantly larger, usually with a thick neck and large powerful head. Unlike the females they do not have an attractive face; their face is usually battered and bruised from mating which is a violent affair or fighting with other males over territory or mating rights. This male is no exception, he is quite battered. He climbs the tree quite easily and grabs the half eaten Impala carcass in his large jaws and drags it up the branch. As he is tearing off chunks of flesh the Impala swings wildly and nearly drops to the ground. He tugs it up the branch and tries to steady it in his paws. The branches of this tree are quite thin and need to support his powerful frame as well as the large Impala. As he tries to pull up the Impala its large horns get stuck in the branches stopping the movement. After he has finished he jumps down and climbs a tree with thicker branches in order to balance on three legs and wash himself by licking his great paws and wiping them over his mussel. After he has licked himself clean he jumps back down and heads for the cool of the bushes to sleep. It is now early afternoon so we eat our lunch in our vehicle.
It is an afternoon of Leopards, just a few hundred yards away across the Kaboso plain above the Laga another male Leopard is returning to his kill. This male is displaying typical Leopard behaviour and being shy and elusive. He easily navigates the slopping trunk of the tree and walks along the thick branch to his young Zebra kill he left earlier this morning. The Zebras head is lodged in the branches of the tree steadied for him to eat, he holds down the rest of the body with his paws. We can hear him tearing at the flesh, sinew rips from bone. He is contented gorging on the body, he occasionally looks up at us, he is not so content being watched like other cats. Once he has eaten his fill he descends the tree and slops off into the bushes.
The Maasai Mara over the last few years has enjoyed an upsurge in its Leopard population. The reserve has many rangers patrolling to ensure the animals can live wild and free but safe from hunters or poachers. As a result the Leopards are less elusive and thrive here. One of the most successful Leopards is Queen Kaboso who has raised many cubs to adulthood. Confidently walking across the Kaboso plains we see the stunningly beautiful but small compared to the large males we have seen one of Kaboso’s daughters who is around two years old and has recently become independent. She clearly wants to hunt and is eagerly viewing a herd of Impala but they have seen her and snort a warning call to the other prey. Even though we stop a respectful distance away from her you cannot predict a cat’s behaviour. She walks straight towards us, self-assured, happy and quite content with our presence. We are in an open vehicle and she stops right next to me just five feet from my face, her bright green round eyes stare straight into my green eyes, both sets of eyes do not flinch and feel quite at ease. What a privilege, I feel honoured by her attention. She sits by our vehicle for a short while before deciding on the route she will take.
We try and anticipate where she will head and drive around and see a Scrub Hare just sitting in the bushes. We hope she will see it but she has decided to walk in a different direction, the Hare has had a lucky escape. The Leopard seems undecided on what prey she wants to hunt and walks down into a ditch to escape the afternoon heat. It gives us chance to take in her beauty, she sits and starts licking her paws and runs them over her stunningly pretty small face. Her large green eyes are set in a face of golden fur covered in black spots. Across her chest is a row of black spots and over her shoulders, her body has a unique array of rosettes. She decides the sun is still too warm and lays her pretty head on her paws and sleeps for a while.
A herd of Impala graze nearby are fully aware of her presence. Impala are very common and are a great source of food for the predators and scavengers. They are medium sized Antelope with reddish brown short course fur and large dark eyes set in the side of their head for greater peripheral vision. The males have stunning lyre-shaped horns between 1-2 feet long. They also have a tuft of hair on the lower part of their hind leg above the hooves where their scent gland is. Interesting the males’ larynx and skull act to amplify sound, you can often here their snorts and guttural trumpeting noises especially when fighting other males. Impala in Kenya breed throughout the year; they hide their calves in the first few days away from predators. You will often see them grassing need Acacia forests; they eat both grasses and shrubs and drink water daily. They are diurnal and often seen in herds of hundreds. Breeding herds graze together with Bachelor herds on the periphery. When the territorial male is ousted from the breeding herd he will re-join the bachelors and another male will take over the breeding herd for just a few weeks. They are hunted by all the big cats and the calves by Hyaenas, Jackal and even Baboons even the opportunity arises.
In the Marsh area we are excited to find two of the coalition of six male Lions who are the dominant male Lions in the Marsh pride. They are lying next to six of the Lionesses who do not have cubs. The sun is beginning to set and the light is golden and reflecting off of the red bronze fur of the Lions it is quite stunning. One of the younger Lionesses looks up at me and she is breath-taking her eyes in the sunset gleam a golden amber. The Lionesses awake and start grooming each other, the Lionesses are all related and form a tight bond. They sit and lick each other’s fur so affectionately; you can feel the strength of their love for each other. As they stand they rub heads reaffirming their bond of sisterhood that protects each other. The males stand too and the Lionesses are respectful and subservient to them, this relationship between Lion and Lioness is of mutual understanding. The Lionesses need the Lions to patrol and protect the pride against intruders who would take over and kill the cubs. The Lions are their mates to provide cubs for the future generations. The Lionesses are the hunters and mothers of the future generations of the pride. The pride mutually appreciates the role of each other. As the pride walks across the plains they are bathed in the glow of sunset, they have an almost ethereal glow around them.
On the drive back to camp Elephants march across the plains pulling up small bushes with their trunks and depositing them into their mouths. Many here have impressive tusks, some almost reach the ground. The moon appears in the sky behind them it is full and round and will light the plains tonight affording the prey and predators a greater view. The sun sets over the escarpment setting the sky aglow with vibrant reds, oranges, pinks and purples, the prey and lone Ballanite trees are now silhouetted against the sky.
In camp the fire by the river is burning bright, it is welcoming and warm. It is so relaxing after a full day of observing these incredible animals in their natural environment. What a privilege to be able to spend time in their company observing their behaviour and the environment around them. The sky is lit with a million stars and the night air is warm and caresses the skin. The night belongs to the wild and I sit back and enjoy the sound of the wild all around me.
Day 6 –
It very warm in the pre-dawn, the sky is cloudless, it will be a beautiful day but very hot. On my right as we drive out the moon is still round and bright, lighting the sky with its glow. Then on my left the sun begins to raise shooting beams of vibrant light through the sky. It is a magical time when it is darkest before the dawn, then the dawn gives way to nature’s light show. The sky is an artistic blank canvas of creativity, from dawn to dusk its gets repainted with the most beautiful colours from vibrant reds and oranges to dark blue and purples. It is so peaceful and still, we stop and watch the sunrise and the animals enjoying the warmth on their fur as they stretch and prance.
We nearly miss a beautiful Serval cat as it is sat very still in the long grass. The sun rise is setting the grasses aglow with red warm light and the warm golds of the Serval are perfectly camouflaged. Its large round golden amber eyes are searching the grasses for crickets and rodents to eat whilst its bat like fluffy ears are constantly moving like radars picking up sounds. The guides call the Serval Mkia Nusu which is Swahili for short tail as its tail is half the size of most cats. The Serval high steps through the long grasses, its long limbs perfectly adapted to its environment. It comes out of the long grasses onto the track affording us a wonderful view of it. It is a privilege to observe its behaviour, it is unusually not shy, most Servals avoid detection. It walks along flicking its ears tuning into its environment then all of a sudden it leaps back into the grass and pounces on its prey, we cannot see it as it is hidden in the grass but it does not take long to eat it. Small birds nesting me in the ground fly up with surprise.
A small herd of Elephants are grazing on the plains; many of them have long tusks almost reaching the ground. The Elephants are very protected here from poachers especially the ones with long tusks. Rangers patrol the reserves; there is a zero tolerance to hunting and poaching. Elephants when grazing are quite calm and peaceful, given the quantity of food they need to consume throughout the day they are quite focused in their task. The new shoots of bushes which they kick up with their mighty feet and tear from the ground with the end of their trunks are a good source. All around them small herds of Hartebeest, Topi and Eland also enjoy the new grasses from the recent rains.
The Common Eland is the largest of the Antelope in Kenya; it stands at a staggering 5ft 11 inches and can weigh up to 1,980lb. It lives for 15-20 years on the wide open plains. Its huge beige short haired frame has thin white stripes and a fatty dewlap hangs from its throat where it ends in a ridge of long fur. It has small twisted horns and the tendons of the older males’ forelegs make a distinct clicking sound when it walks. It is a peaceful, silent animal that will occasionally grunt like a cow. They are diurnal and nocturnal and tend to graze in small herds of only 10-40 with just one or two bull males. They are quite nomadic; they wander in search of food and water. They are browsers and grazers feeding on grass and bushes. When threatened they can jump as high as six foot in the air, over another or bushes. Due to their sheer size their main threat is prides of Lions, it would take several big cats to bring one down. The calves however are hunted by all the large cats.
Down in the Laga, the sun is now stronger; the Zebra have sought to cool themselves in the refreshing waters. They dip their heads to lap up the waters whilst looking up aware of threats. A mating herd of Impala is being guarded by the dominant male; it is an exhausting job mating and keeping rivals at bay. They get little time to graze so it is not surprising they may only be the dominant male for a few months. For next to the mating herd is bachelor herd of Impala, each individual looking for his opportunity to challenge the dominant male.
Breakfast is down at the main crossing, the water is really low as it is the end of dry season. It is such a contrast to last May after the great rains when the Mara River nearly burst its banks, the water thundered down. It is in threat now of drying up completely if the rains do not fall soon. The Hippos huddle together in the shallow waters, they are gently quite bad tempered as it is but this overcrowding is making their tempers even shorter. We sit and watch them try and dip their colossal bodies under the water so cool off, they honk and thrash about trying me find the best position.
Enkoyanai pride seek shade under a group of croton bushes the sun is so hot and intense. We notice one of the sub adult male Lions have just one eye; the other is cloudy and blind. The most common reason for this when we started to eat meat with the rest of the pride one of his siblings caught his eye with its claw as they fight over feeding rights with the youngest often injured when competing against older siblings. He of course will be able to hunt and function quite normally with one eye; cats are very adaptable and resilient. He is watching the prey on the plains, he is still too young to hunt but their behaviour fascinates him.
It is not surprising as I spot a Secretary bird being chased by Thompson Gazelles. I am not sure of the reason for this behaviour but clearly the Gazelles are not likely the intrusion of the bird. The Secretary Bird is a diurnal raptor and is mainly found on the open savannah pecking at the ground. The secretary bird is instantly recognizable as a very large bird with an eagle-like body on like legs which increases the bird’s height to as much as 1.3 m (4.3 ft) tall. This bird has a like head with a hooked bill, but has rounded wings. Its common name is popularly thought to derive from the crest of long quill-like feathers, lending the bird the appearance of a secretary with quill pens tucked behind their ear, as was once common practice. A more recent hypothesis is that “secretary” is borrowed from a French corruption of the Arabicsaqr-et-tairor “hunter-bird”. It is a very striking bird.
Not far away a majestic male Waterbuck stands near riverine woodlands, it is a beautiful antelope with thick dark beige course fur, a distinctive horse-shoe shaped white ring on the rump and large ringed horns (males only). It stands at around 4feet tall and can weigh up to 580lb. They are quite shy animals and when alarmed will snort very loudly. As its name implies it does need to stay in the vicinity of water. They are gregarious animals living in herds of up to 50. Males hold a territory whilst the females and calves tend to herd together. They have a musky oily secretion which helps to keep their coat waterproof. They tend to breed throughout the year and the calves that are hidden in the long grasses tend to be preyed upon by Leopards and Lions. The large males use their large horns to protect themselves whereas the females are often preyed upon by large prides of Lions.
Near this beautiful male Waterbuck we stop to lunch under an architectural Acacia tree. We are surrounded by large herds of prey who take no notice of our presence. It is very peaceful to be out in the wild. We discuss the eco system of the Masai Mara, how each plant, tree and animal works together in creating a natural balance. Also how the Masai have learned to use the plants and trees for medicine and healing. It is a shame in the modern world we have lost our connection with nature and the ability to harness the natural healing remedies.
The afternoon is so hot on the plains, the ground is dry and cracked and the dust is forming a cloud along the earth. The heat is creating a shimmering haze that gives the savannah a magical glow. The prey is the only animals able to stand the heat, there are great herds of Zebra, Topi, Impala roaming the plains. Two Topi stand gazing intently in the distance; we follow their gaze and see three Lionesses and one of the six dominant males of the Ridge pride relaxing in the shade of two small Wild Gardenia bushes with their beautiful twisted gnarly trunks. The Lionesses are all laid together but the Lion sleeps close but separate. We can see by their bellies they are well fed and healthy. One of the Lionesses is sleeping on the paw of her sister who is laid close behind her it is very touching. The strength of bond between the Lionesses is tangible in the way they sleep together. They are a tangle of bodies, limbs flung across bodies, heads laid on another’s belly and legs rested on another’s shoulders. They breathe heavily and sigh deeply, the heat is intense but they are conserving their energy for night-time when they will hunt again. As a Lioness rolls over you can see Yellow hippoboscid flies on her belly, she lays on her back her legs stretched wide trying to cool herself. The Lioness nearest me just twenty feet away looks straight up at me, her golden eyes glimmer in the bright sun; she lets me know I am in the presence of the Queen.
As the pride sleeps a herd of Zebra wander past, they start snorting, they stand and stare at the Lionesses making them aware they have seen them and they are ready to defend themselves. The Lionesses are very hot, sleepy and well fed so have little interest in hunting them as they know the Zebra will have a head start in the chase. The Lionesses fix them with a lazy stare and lay back down to sleep. All the while the Lion sleeps on; his golden mane looking burnished bronze in the sun, his nose is still very pink indicating even though he is fully grown he is still only young, around five to six years old. His mane surrounds his like a halo as he sleeps on his side, extending over his broad muscular shoulders and down his chest. It is thick and impressive, its purpose is to intimidate other males and impress females. It is though difficult for him to camouflage himself hence why the Lionesses are the main hunters. The Lions mainly rely on ambush, chance or even scavenging when they are away from the Lionesses.
In the Kaboso area the large male Leopard has gone back to his Impala kill. He is being elusive and hiding in the thick canopy of the Euclea Divenoram, it is a very large beautiful tree with dark green foliage, the perfect hiding place from prying eyes. He sits on a branch peering out at us, this is the usual case with Leopards they will see you even if you do not see them. They are the ghosts of the plains, disappearing into trees or thickets, never to be seen. Their dark spots and rosettes on bronze fur are the perfect camouflage against dark brown tree trunks and branches.
Then the wind picks up, there is a crack of lighting and the rain begins to fall heavy and hard. It has been so very hot and dusty the black cotton soil has been begging to be quenched. The rain falls in heavy splatters on the cracked earth, it is so hard the rain just bounces off creating instant rivers. We drive through the tracks splashing through muddy water, the vehicle is built for this kind of weather, Dominic spins the steering wheel into each skid, it is thrilling driving. The prey are unperturbed by this deluge they are used to this sudden change in weather. They stand still as the water beats against their waterproof skins.
In the Marsh area the Lionesses are sat out on a termite mound, the rain has eased off but they also are not concerned as their coats are waterproof. As the rain stops they get up and lick the water from their fur and quick surprisingly start rolling in the muddy earth, they are coated in mud and look quite comical. They have the older cubs of three months with them and they seem invigorated by the rain, they are playful like children, splashing about in newly formed pools of water and chasing each other around. As the Lionesses start walking through the plains the cubs use them as hunting practice leaping up to grab their necks and bite them, the Lionesses are used to their antics and encourage them. One cub gets so excited he slips over in the mud. A flock of Guinea foul are fluttering around and one of the Lionesses seems intent on catching one, she is clearly hungry but they are out in the open and have seen her.
The Marsh pride are roaring very close to camp, the rain is easing and they will join together to hunt. It is the most beautiful sound hearing their deep throaty roar; it is difficult to tell exactly how far away they are so the roar can carry up to around 5km. The crickets are violining and the Hippos are grunting and honking in the river. From my tent I enjoy the sounds of the wild all around me; it is so primal yet relaxing. To live in such close proximity to these incredible animals is such a privilege and one I never take for granted or even gets used to. Every moment with them in unique and interesting. This is one of the last truly wild reserves and I hope it always stays that way.
Day 7 –
This morning I say goodbye my wonderful friends at Sentinel camp. This really is the perfect camp on the Mara, it is set on the banks of the river with wonderful views and when the famous Marsh pride are active at sunrise and sunset you are so close to them you can see them when they are most active. I came as a guest and left as a friend. Mini the camp manager was so welcoming and friendly she instantly made me feel at home. She has the great skill of being able to introduce guests to each other and create an atmosphere of family. The staff were helpful, friendly and efficient; nothing was ever too much trouble. I was really taken care of here and look forward to my next stay.
The Marsh Lionesses are active this morning, Yaya is alert she is hunting Zebra. Her golden eyes are focused on her prey and she assesses her chances of a kill. Zebras defence is a lethal kick so Yaya knows she will have to be quick enough to attack from the front strangulating the Zebra. Zebra are strong but she is a muscular strong female, once her sharp canines are attached to the Zebras neck and her sharp claws dug into its flank she can use her weight to pull it down. She hunches low, her shoulders down, her back flattened, her soft golden fur camouflaged by the swaying golden grass. She is patient but…the cubs are not. One of the cubs’ bounds up to her using her as hunting practice, the cub gives a high pitch growl and chews on her ear. She sits up knowing hunting is futile with the cubs with her so she plays with it. She allows it to jump on her as she bats it gently with her large padded paws. She is a good successful mother and knows play is how her cubs will learn to hunt for themselves one day.
Yaya joins the rest of the Lionesses; she rubs heads with them strengthening their bond. They lay on the soft dewy grasses to wash their cubs. They take each cub between their large paws and use their long pink raspy tongues to wash the soft downy fur of their cubs. I love the look of love of the Lionesses faces and the look of happiness and contentment on the cubs. This is love, family and bonding that makes prides so successful. The Marsh prides have been studied for decades and are well loved. They like all prides have had a difficult history of loses and periods of successful mating and pride growth. They live in a coveted area of the Mara with its Marsh waters that promote healthy grass growth and hence prey. The Billashaka area is a utopia of prey. It looks like once again the pride will recover its numbers as they have new males to protect the pride and the females have given birth to new cubs.
Elephants roam past the pride; they are not a threat to them. The herds of Elephants come to the Billashaka to browse and graze of the moist long grasses and suck up litres of the fresh water. The Elephants are often seen wandering through the tree line pulling at the branches with their sensitive long trunks. They trumpet to each other communicating, it is such a wonderful sound, it is wild and free.
We breakfast under the shade of an Acacia tree, the sun is now high in the sky and it is beginning to grow warm. All around us prey graze peacefully, herds of Impala, Thompson Gazelle, Topi and Zebra are unperturbed by our presence. Here we are connected and at one with nature. Dominic and I enjoy our last meal together for this safari. He is knowledgeable guide and a good friend; the last few days have been just incredible. It is never about just seeing animals in their natural habitat but it is about learning their behaviour. Life is more interesting when you stop and observe and really open your eyes to the beauty around you, taking in every detail, every moment, every decision. Animals are fascinating; their social, family and bonding behaviours are so varied. From animals were can learn so much and it is our role to protect them.
For me there is no more interesting cat to observe than my Queen Kaboso, she is a small but a beautifully strong female Leopard, a successful huntress and mother. She is in hunting mode, for several hours we watch from a short distance away her hunting prey. Now it is late morning and the Lions have retreated to the bushes to sleep she is safe to hunt without fear of being attacked or having her kill stolen. She is an unusually confident Leopard, not at all shy and elusive like the males. She is aware of our presence but she knows we are no threat. She slinks through the bushes using her keen eyesight and strong sense of smell to detect hares and small antelope that may be grazing in the bushes, she hunches her shoulders low and steps carefully nit to make a sound. Occasionally she leaps on a small bush or clump of grass in case it contains a hare crouching inside. She is almost playful in her movements.
Kaboso still has cubs to feed so hunting daily is important as she must keep herself strong and feed her all of them. She detects movement and she hides behind a bush and sits very still to observe. She is very patient, her bright round green eyes sharp and watchful. She is an ambush predator she must get close to her prey to hunt it. Then as quick as a bullet she darts out of the bushes and pounces on an unsuspecting Bush Hare. She grabs it by the throat and suffocates it. Its head is bent awkwardly to one side and its legs kick until its last breathe leaves its body. All the while Kaboso sits still waiting so we can eat it. She tears apart the soft fur to get to the moist flesh underneath. It is a small meal but it will energise her for a large hunt later.
We arrive at the beautiful Zebra Plains camp and I am greeted by Alfred the wonderful hospitable camp owner. It is a stunning camp with hills on one side and wide open plains on the other. The whole camp area is planted with indigenous flowering plants and shrubs, a colourful oasis in the dry plains. Here I greet my wonderful guide and friend Titimet, he is a silver guide and extremely experienced and knowledgeable. We enjoy a wonderful lunch here viewing the game grazing on the plains in front of us. The camp is open to the wild, even the tent en-suite shower is open, you can look up at the sky and enjoy the peace of nature.
Refreshed and ready for our safari, Titimet and I head out of camp and towards the Talek area. This is a busier area of the Mara reserve as it is near one of the main gates. Here we find the five Cheetah coalition or Tano Bora as they are known. The Meru Cheetah Project have been following and documenting them since they arrived. “All cheetahs have different characters and phenotypic traits that allow them to be distinguished from one another. The largest male coalition in the Mara became famous immediately after it appeared at the end of December 2016. To optimize reproduction, group members split for a few days, and then we meet one of them or a couple / trio away from each other. It is time to facilitate the process of recognition of each member of these five. For our database, we use individual numbers, and below are the characteristics of each member of the five with their names suggested by the local community. The main thing is that these names are easy to pronounce and have a positive meaning;
Great hunter, he was a leader of a group for almost one and a half years. Often, he displays a reverse aggression by attacking the male with the dark tip of a tail. During last few months, he had been often attacked by his coalition-mates and recently, one of his testicles was removed due to a serious injury. It is proposed to name him Olpadan, meaning “Sharp Shooter” in Maa.
Second male who always plays a role of a peacemaker, protecting the attacked coalition-mates, especially a male with the dark tail. He is a decision maker, good hunter and successful in mating. It is proposed to name him “Olarishani” meaning “Judge” in Maa.
Third male with the dark tip of a tail, was in the lowest position in the group, often attached by a leader of a group and protected by a “peacemaker”. He was working hard to gain respect of the coalition-mates, and now raised his rank. He is a good hunter and successful in mating. It is proposed to name him Olonyok meaning “The One who puts efforts to achieve better results” in Maa.
Fourth male, always follows the others, does not initiate activities but readily participate in all – from hunting to fighting. It is proposed to name him “Leboo” meaning “The one who is always within a group” in Maa.
Fifth male, always together with the leader until recently, when started challenging the leader’s right to supremacy in the group by attacking him. He became a decision maker, good hunter and often leads the group. It is proposed to name him “Olaretoni” meaning “Supporter, assistant” in Maa.”
The Tano Bora are successful hunters and being a coalition of five they can bring down larger prey. But hunting for the big cats does not always go to plan. We see the Cheetahs hunting a family of Pumbas, the mother and father run across the plains with their tails in the air with four piglets running in fear behind them. It seems like an easy kill for the Cheetahs, they run after the Pumba quite casually, they do not need to run at top speed. The five Cheetahs encircle the family of Pumbas ready to make the kill but… the parents fight back. Pumbas have tempers and large elongated tusks to defend themselves. The Cheetah are put on the back foot, they are surprised by the Pumbas now charging at them. They do not want to be hurt so the Cheetahs retreat. But they then try again to hunt them thinking the Pumbas will not defend themselves again but they do more ferociously. This is nature; never underestimate the strength of parents to protect their babies even if they appear to be weaker than the predator.
Over ninety percent of animals that once roamed our earth freely are now extinct. In just the last fifty years humans have destroyed the environments of wild animals. People have hunted animals to extinction for personal gain. The Black Rhino is now critically endangered; it is hunted for his horn. Rhinos used to freely roam the wide open plains but there are so few and they are so distrusting of humans they are rarely seen. This afternoon we are blessed one comes into view, he is a large male but very shy and runs from one set of bushes to another. We literally just see him for minutes; he is rightly afraid of people and disappears from sight. The rangers who patrol the Maasai Mara have a full time job guarding these last few wild Rhino from poachers.
Black Rhinoceros are only around 5ft 8 in height but they are over 10ft in length and can weigh up to 3,080lb. The gestation period is 16 months and they only give birth to one calf. It is one of the last prehistoric animals and lives up to around 40 years old if protected from poachers which is its biggest threat. The Black Rhino has two horns on its head, the front horn measures 20-30inc and the rear horn around 20inc. The coveted Rhino horn is actually made up of a densely packed fibrous protein called keratin which is also found in hair and skin. The horn grows like nails do from the heat underside of the skin but is unattached to the skull. A distinguishing characteristic of the Black Rhino is its pointed prehensile upper lip which it uses for browsing, hence why it is seen in the cover of bushes. It has three hoofed toes on each foot and can run at speed of up to 30mph when feeling threatened or when it is charging. Rhinos are known for their short temper. Over 65,000 were roaming free fifty years ago now only 2,500 are left in the wild. They are solitary shy animals despite their size and they have poor eyesight, because of this they have a keen sense of smell and hearing. Rhinos due to their size and thick skin are not at threat from most predators, sadly just humans.
Whether true or not a nearby Bull Elephant starts showing off trying to get the attention away from the Rhino by displaying his enormous appendage. Maybe he is threatened by the Rhinos presence but the effect is very comical. He is a large solitary male and marches across the plains towards the forest to plunder the branches for succulent leaves. In dry season they can smell water, they will often strip bark from trees or roots to suck up the moisture, one of their favourite being the Baobab tree. Elephants are extremely intelligent and have the reputation of never forgetting. In times of drought it has seen them survive as they will travel miles to known water sources. It is probably why along with the Rhino and Crocodile they are one of the last ancestors of pre historic animals. All three of these animals are resourceful with thick armour plates or hides.
As we drive back to camp the sun sets on an exciting afternoon. It is fascinating seeing unusual animal behaviour. It is never just about seeing animals in their natural wild environment but observing them interact with each other and other species. Every safari I learn more about these incredible animals, just sitting and watching them and understanding them. Back at camp the fire is lit and I sit on the horse shoe shaped seating area around it warming my tired but happy body. The dying embers of the sun set sets the plains alight with its fiery glow. The spikes of Aloe Vera plants rising from the soil are beautifully silhouetted against the darkening night sky. The first stars appear, a million burning lights of the blue black night sky. I sit with my glass of wine listening to the call of the wild. The predators awaken and call to each other, the low throaty roar of the Lions fills the air.
Day 8 –
The view from camp is beautiful this morning, the sun is rising and the plains before us are bathed in a golden red light. It is a perfect field of gold, dewdrops shine like diamonds, the water reflects the suns multi coloured light like a crystal prism. The grasses have oat red tops and are vibrant greens and purples that sway in the breeze. The open plains beckon us into the rich display of golden light. The moon is still high in the sky and a bright white sphere lighting our way.
There is a large herd of Buffalo grazing on the plains; they along with the Zebras and Impalas are the main source of food for the Lions now the Wildebeest have migrated back to Tanzania. The resident smaller herds of Wildebeest have also left the reserve and moved up to the conservancies where the grass is greener and richer. A lone Wildebeest has been left behind and grazes within the safety of a Topi and Impala herd, it will join with the other Wildebeest when they return.
The Lippia Javanica is a beautiful bush with a strong heady herb scent, Maasai use it to clear blocked noses. I breathe it in deeply, combined with the gentle warmth of the morning air it makes me feel alive and connected with this beautiful land. The bushes are surrounding a stunning Shepherd Tree which is in fruit. Superb Starling, Oxpeckers and African Grey Hornbill are eagerly flying around the tree landing on the outside branches and pecking at the fruit. They are chattering away being quite vocal and clearly annoying the resident of the tree, we hear a hiss. The gleaming sharp canines belong to the beautiful young female Leopard, daughter of the famous Baharti, Bella II. Her stunning green eyes are round and alert as she contemplates chasing this annoying intrusion but she is beautifully resting on a thick branch, her limbs hanging down each side in a perfect Leopard pose. She is scanning the plains looking for hunting opportunities. She gets up stretches and yawns and climbs higher up the tree, she has a baby Impala kill wedged in the branches.
Bella tugs at the carcass and starts to tear at the flesh, it is tender but she licks it to break the skin. It is a small meal so she will devour the whole carcass, we can hear her crunching on the bones even from a small distance away. Her face is covered in the blood of her kill, her long pink tongue darts out to lick a morsel that clings to her cheek. She will even crush the small skull so nothing is wasted. The only part left of the kill will be some of the soft fur. When she finishes eating she sits up and starts licking her paws with her long raspy barbed tongue and rubs them over her face to clean it. She then steadily walks down the branch and leaps with perfect grace and agility onto a thicker lower branch to lie comfortably. She continues her intent gaze across the plains, we see what she is looking at, the mother Impala of her kill is looking for her baby, Bella considers whether the Impala is worth hunting too. Bella is a beautiful successful Leopard and a powerful hunter. She is like most of the female Leopards now not elusive and quite confident; this may be part of their success.
Across the plains in the Rekero area the pride are sleeping under a Gardenia tree. The twisted knotted dark brown bark is the perfect backdrop to their stunning golden fur. They are laying in the shade mainly on their backs, their white bellies detracting the hot sun. They are a tangle of limbs, they sleep so close together bonding and protecting each other. They roll over flinging limbs over the next warm body. There are Lionesses and three sub adults, two male and a female around two years old, the young boys have started growing their blonde manes. One Lioness sits up and a young male lays his head between her front paws whilst she grooms his face. Even though he is as big as his mother now he still enjoys her attention and motherly affection. Within a year he will leave the pride and become a nomadic male looking to join others to possibly make a coalition and form another pride. The sub adult females will stay with the pride helping their mothers to raise future cubs until they too will have cubs of their own. We spend several hours just sitting observing her, we breakfast where we are.
One of the Lionesses gets up and walks through the long golden green grasses that gently sway in the breeze; they are the perfect camouflage for her. She stops and surveys the plains for any hunting opportunities. She is clearly the dominant female and leads the hunts. The other females sit up alert awaiting her signal, which is sometimes just a flick of the ear. There is a lone Buffalo nearby, the pride could bring it down but she clearly has decided this cantankerous bad tempered dangerous old male is not worth the risk. When Buffalos grow old they leave the herd and head out alone to die, they are often seen lurking in bushes and are incredibly dangerous to humans and wildlife. The Lioness instead averts her gaze and looks for other prey to hunt. The sub adults are still sleeping under the Gardenia tree but if the Lioness hunts later they will join her to hone their skills and learn from her.
As the Lioness returns to the pride we see she is lactating. When Lionesses give birth they hide their cubs for a few weeks in the bushes before introducing them to the pride. It is possible she has some cubs hidden somewhere and she is ensuring the old Buffalo is nowhere near the cubs because if he comes across them he will trample them to death. To an angry Buffalo a cub is a Lion in the making who will kill him or one his herd one day. They want to literally stamp out future predators and protect themselves. It is a very harsh reality out here, kill or be killed. In the last few days alone we have heard of Buffalos killing Lion cubs and Lions killing Leopard cubs. A rather unique situation happened a few days ago, two Lionesses were trying to kill a Leopard cub but a Cheetah arrived on the scene and defended it. This is extremely unique but that is what draws people to Safari often, you never know what nature will give you.
We lunch down by the main Mara river crossing, as we stop a large male Baboon is startled and jumps down from the tree next to us and scurries down the bank and sits on a clump of grass. I walk to the edge and observe him, as I chat to him he looks at me intently and starts playing with his genitals as monkeys have a habit of doing. He is sat like he is doing yoga, his large muscular hairy frame relaxed. He walks back up the bank and settles in a bush near us watching us sitting on our blanket eating. He occasionally comically pulls down a branch covering him to get a better look.
Olive Baboons are interesting monkeys; they are very muscular with dark olive hairy coats, dog like faces and large sharp canines. A large male will grow a thick mane of hair which like the Lion protects its face when fighting. A male can grow up to 2 foot in height and weigh up to 100lb. So it is quite formidable and intimidating. Baboons have excellent eyesight and can distinguish colours. They are very vocal and endlessly squabble and fight. You can often hear them barking and squealing at each other. When they see a predator such a Lion or Leopard they will climb up the nearest tree and give a loud barking alarm call. They seem to favour Acacia woodlands and riverine forests. Baboons like most monkeys are diurnal and very gregarious; they live in large troupes’ of anywhere up to 200 individuals. They will move to where food is plentiful depending on the season. Within the troupe there are smaller family groups made up of related females and their babies. There is very much a dominance hierarchy within the troupe. Within the family group it is the mother who dominates. They form alliances through bonding rather than aggression, grooming is an important part of this. The males do not lead the troupe their role is more for protection. Baboons are very much opportunistic omnivores, they mainly feed on grass, seeds, roots and fruit but they will scavenge meat. They have even been known to steal a newly born antelope to eat; they eat it alive, tearing off the flesh. Not a sight I particularly enjoy watching. They themselves are preyed upon by all the large predators but their defence mechanism is to mob a predator.
A Hippopotamus is walking across the plains slowly, he looks uncomfortable we can see he has many fresh bloody wounds on his side from fighting. He is out of the water so they can dry out and also to get away from the fish in the water painfully nibbling at them. They need to heal so he does not get an infection, he looks a sorrowful sight. He walks along the river bank clearly wanting to go back into the river but he is very reluctant. Two Secretary birds with their long black legs, black plumage on their lower body and white on top and black pointed crown of feathers on their head walk nearby looking for bugs to eat.
Out of the tree line a herd of Elephants emerges, they have been feeding on the leaves; it is a riverine forest so they have also been drinking water in the river and splashing themselves with their long trunks to keep cool. When they emerge they also pick up dusk with the sensitive finger like end of their trunk and spray it over them as a sun screen, it sticks to the water. The matriarch has a beautifully stripped face from her sand bath, it is most interesting. She leads her herd over the plains to find fresh shoots and grasses.
The Elephants walk straight past the Enkoyanai pride that are sleeping in the heat of the day in the bushes, the heat does get very intense in the afternoon with no breezes, the seven sub adult males are all under the shade of a bush, they are sleeping together, bonding. The sub adult female sits away from them, she is next to a small bush snapping at Yellow hippoboscid flies that are irritating her, she lays on her side and opens her back legs to wash and you can see the swam on her body, she licks them away and continues to snap at them. She is a beautiful female and will stay with the pride when her brothers and male cousins leave in around eighteen months. Lolpapit (meaning hairy) comes out of the bushes, he is one of the two dominant males with the pride. His impressive large dark bronze and dark gold name gleams in the late afternoon light. He decides he is still tired so he literally falls back down onto a bed of grass; his mane is so long it falls resplendent behind him, parting beautifully. He sighs deeply, the sound is like thunder, he then rolls over to get a more comfortable position. He briefly looks up at me with his deep gold eyes, he is the undisputed King he magnanimously affords me the honour of his gaze.
There is a resident herd of Wildebeest grazing on the plains, not all migrate to the Serengeti. They keep the grasses short and provide much needed prey for the big cats to hunt next in this season. For the big cats it is very much feast or famine, when the Wildebeest migration from the Serengeti in July/August the cats have plentiful easy prey to hunt, many of the Wildebeest are exhausted or injured from the long journey making hunting easy. But when they leave at the end of October the big cats have to work hard to hunt as the resident herds are strong and healthy after the plentiful grasses and can run quicker.
Eland are running across the plains, it is not clear what from but you can hear the click of their joints. The dewlap the fatty deposit under their chins swings wildly as they run. They are the largest Antelope but are rarely hunted by the big cats as they emit a stench when frightened which if killed would make their meat undesirable to eat. They stop near a herd of Zebras, with prey it is safety in numbers. There are also a Topi standing on sentry duty on termite mounds, they have great eyesight and will alert the other prey if predators approach.
The camp fire is lit as we arrive back, it is so inviting. The breeze is warm as the sun is about to set, the low sun lights up the plains spread before us with an ethereal red glow. We sit by the fire watching the sun set over the hills, as it descends the red fireball spreads its vibrant light across all it touches. You feel yourself both energised and relaxed by the intensity of the light. As the sky darkens the stars appear, you can see all the constellations clearly as the night sky is a perfectly clear tonight. Zebras are grazing out in the plains before us they move closer together for safety. Hyaenas whoop as they seek out the prides to follow, they know this time of night the prides are awakening and will hunt, the Hyaenas will hang back and wait for their time to scavenge. The night belongs to the hunters, under the cover of darkness the action starts. In the morning we may be fortunate to see the remains of the night’s action.
Day 9 –
The sun is rising over Zebra plains, it spreads its fiery glow over the oat topped grasses setting alight their red tips. The grass sways in the cool morning breeze; it is a stunning mixture of golds, greens and purples. The escarpment is silhouetted with the red and orange beams spreading behind it. The air is cool and is scented with Wild mint and Lippia Javanica, it is enticing and invigorating. Zebra plains is a great camp in the perfect location for prey viewing and beautiful sunsets. We head out now to the Lemek Conservancy. On route we pass through Aitong, as we progress we start to see greater herds of Wildebeest in the Conservancy as it is greener and there is more for them to graze on.
In the middle of the open plains of the Lemek Conservancy, Dere (meaning ginger) one of the dominant male Lions (the other is Barikoi, meaning blonde) is mating with one of the pride Lionesses. They have only just started mating so they do so every fifteen minutes or so. They will mate for around five days or however long they decide it takes for her to conceive. The mating is aggressive and over in seconds. The Lioness generally decides when they will mate but Dere is quite dominant and seems to be dictating their mating. He gets up, stretches, growls and the Lioness takes his lead. They walk for a short distance and she crouches before him so he can mount her. He licks her neck and bites before entering her. His penis is barbed which is painful for both of them but the pain encourages her oestrus. They both growl and snarl as they mate. When done they continue snarling at each other, she rolls away from him encouraging the flow of the sperm. He seems to continue to snarl and admit low grumbles for a while after. He seems agitated and does not relax. It is assumed he is worried his brother Barikoi will try and mate with her to.
Lions mainly sit apart after mating but Dere keeps his Lioness close, he does not want her mating with Barikoi, he wants the cubs and the future of the pride to be his offspring. As the wind gently blows its warm breeze his mane ruffles, it is perfect blend of rich ginger emerging into a copper brown. They get up again and walk across the plain, she is still snarling at him and him her, she wants space after mating but he keeps invading her personal space and she is agitated. As they walk Dere keeps trying to mount her but she growls at him. He growls back at her trying to control her. They eventually come to a lone Ballanite tree, she walks behind it obviously trying to avoid him but he stops the other side and looks round at her. She loses her temper and growls aggressively at him; she wants him to leave her alone. She rests her head on the trunk one side of the trunk and he the other in a truce and they both sit down. The mating between these two is the perfect example that the bond between Lion and Lioness is just about the future of the pride, a mutual commitment to ensure the strength of it. There is no love, affection or romantic bond between the two but a biological need to reproduce. It has been an interesting story so intriguing we sit and have breakfast with them.
We almost miss the beautiful female Cheetah Kisaru (meaning to rescue) sleeping in the shade by some bushes, she is Amani’s daughter. When Cheetah lay flat they are camouflaged, their black spotted golden bodies blend with the leaf strewn ground. Kisaru has only just arrived in the Lemek Conservancy; she is around four years old. She has not had her first litter yet and she had been followed by the five Cheetah coalition but she has been successful at avoiding them. She is most likely in oestrus but will want to choose her mate carefully; the most important consideration for her is strong genes. She is lying grooming herself and looking for hunting opportunities. She is quite a light blonde and small, her lithe body is stretched out beautifully.
Two DikDik are hiding in the bushes near the Cheetah, she spots them and gets up. It is clear when she stands she is hungry and needs to hunt. The DikDik spot her and run off into the forest. She scans the plains for further hunting opportunities but there is no prey around. She does a cat stretch her body forward her back arched. She licks her lips and yawns, it is hot in the midday heat and she may relax by the bushes to conserve her energy for the afternoon hunt. She cannot afford to overheat and burn her energy; she must reserve it for good hunting opportunities. The wind picks up and she uses her good sense of smell to detect prey. She will also use this to her advantage as she is down wind and the prey will not be able to smell her. She starts walking across the plains. Cheetahs have claws that do not retract into sheaths but remain extended at all times. Longitudinal riches beneath these high speed predators’ intermediate pads act like tyre-treads to prevent skidding.
The Thompson Gazelle spot her from across the plains, she starts sprinting but they have the advantage. She slows her pace knowing she cannot catch them. When she reaches where they were she starts sniffing the ground looking for babies left behind. When a predator is chasing the babies cannot keep up with the rest of the herd so they lie in ditches or clumps of grass to conceal themselves. The Cheetah of course knows this hence her thorough investigation. Sadly she is out of luck this time. She heads through the bushes and down the Laga to where the Thompson Gazelle have retreated to. Here there are wide open plains teaming with Thompson Gazelle, Wildebeest and Zebra. She sits in the bushes planning her attack.
Thompson Gazelle or Tommy as affectionately known is small and beige with a black stripe down the side of its body and a white belly, rump and legs. Both sexes have small horns to defend themselves against predators. When the see a predator they give a loud nasal snort as an alarm call. In the Mara you see herds of hundreds grazing on the open plains, at migration you often see them crossing the river with the Zebra and Wildebeest herds. They are both diurnal and nocturnal as well as migratory. Males and females do not bond but just come together to mate. The males joust head to head with their horns to compete over territory and mating rights. They are interesting antelopes you often seeing them prancing especially if there are present, it is thought to indicate their fitness to the predator. Tommies are very fast they can reach speeds up to 50mph. They are mainly hunted by Cheetah who can run up to 60mph. Leopards and a Lions will ambush them when they graze close to forests. Sadly their fawns are prone to attack by all predators even Baboons and Jackals.
House in the wild camp is a beautiful camp situated on the Mara River in Enonkishu. The Mara River is also very dry up here but the view with the escarpment behind is just stunning. It is good to relax after some incredible full days on safari being privileged to see some amazing sightings.
The beautiful female Cheetah Kisaru has made a kill, a baby Grant Gazelle no doubt hidden in the grasses when she hunted the herd. She has only just killed it as it is laid prone between her feet, its eyes blank in death. Its small body looks vulnerable and small next to her muscular frame. She is panting heavily it is hot and she is tired, she looks around for threats from Lions and Hyaenas who would steal her kill. Satisfied there is not she starts to lick the flesh to tenderise it then uses her sharp canines to rip into the flesh. We are so close we can hear her tearing and chewing on sinew. Her face becomes blooded from her kill; she occasionally looks up to make sure there are no threats. The baby is a small snack for her so she enjoys every morsel except the skin and head. Occasionally she lifts it up and repositions it.
Four Jackals have picked up the scent of the kill and are now lurking in the background, the smell is so tantalising. They bark at her trying to distract her but she is focused on her food. White backed Vultures flies in to try and scavenge any morsels but the Jackals even though smaller than the Vultures chase them off.it is clear the Cheetah will eat most of the kill so they start barking at her to distract her but it does not work. They decide to be direct and start creeping up behind her and nip her bottom to irritate her, this works, she chases the Jackals which gives one enough time to steal a leg. Kisaru goes back to eating but the Jackals constantly plague her and she runs after them. She in retribution eats the entire kill apart from flesh. She walks off and the Jackal hungrily fight over the left overs. A Hyaena arrives on the scene and wants a piece of the action. It stars chasing the Jackal with the largest part of the kill; the Jackal tries to escape with its prize but drops it and loses it to the Hyaenas.
Kisaru finds a termite mound to sit on to preen; her face is covered in blood. She delicately licks her paws and wipes them over her face. Cats are very fastidious and clean themselves thoroughly. A Jackal follows her hoping she will hunt again, he barks annoyingly at her but she ignores him. Her belly is full and rotund and satisfied. She walks across the plains to find shade from the hot afternoon sun.
Across the plains by a watering hole we find seven of the twenty Lemek pride, they have just woken from their afternoon sleep. There are three Lionesses and four sub adults. They are affectionately washing each other; this is a wonderful form of bonding. The cubs are only around eighteen months old and rely on their mothers to teach them hunting and survival skills. The Lionesses are good mothers; they are protective and fierce as well as incredibly affectionate and loving with their cubs. A small herd of Buffalo approach the watering hole they have not seen the Lionesses. They graze on the grass within twenty feet of them. The Lionesses keep their heads low observing them, there is a young Buffalo with them, an easy target but the rest of the Buffalos will defend it fiercely.
The young Buffalo breaks away from the rest of the herd. One brave Lioness springs into action, she chases the young Buffalo with the rest of the Lions in hot pursuit. Some of the Lionesses try and separate and distract the rest of the Buffalos. The Buffalos are quick to act they turn and charge the Lions. Panic ensues there is not enough Lions to fight the Buffalos and kill the young Buffalo so the Lions disperse with the Buffalo angrily and malevolently charging them. Some Lionesses escape to the plains whilst the sub adult Lions are forced to climb trees with angry Buffalo snorting below them determined to kill them. Eventually the Buffalos walk away and the sub adult Lions clumsily descent from the trees. They regroup and lick their wounded pride and head to the bushes. They will hunt in the dark of the night when they will have any advantage.
In camp the fire pit by the river is burning bright; the flames lick the cold air. The warmth of the fire is inviting as the sky takes on a stunning inky black covered with a million stars. Hyaenas whoop and laugh in the forests and the birds call overhead. The air is warm and fragranced with Lippia Javanica and Wild mint mixed with the wood smoke from the fire, it is intoxicating and relaxing. I feel so connected to nature here; you can stop breath and find yourself. It reminds me of that expression sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself. In the depth of the night I briefly wake and hear the roar of Lions, I fall straight back to sleep listening to nature’s perfect lullaby.
Day 10 –
The sun rises over the Mara River outside of my tent; the deep red of the fiery glow is perfectly reflected in the water below. The sky is perfectly clear; the day will be hot and dry again. The Mara river is low, Hippo compete for the little water left, they honk and splash competing for space. The banks of the river are steep and covered in bushes; it is a breath-taking view to wake to.
Out on the plains the Lemek pride have killed a Zebra in the early hours of the morning, the dominant male Barikoi would have eaten first and he is sat up on the rich emerald grasses looking rotund and satisfied. Most of the twenty strong pride is here so the Zebra has been completely devoured, all is left is the rib case lying stripped bare. Three little Jackals are gnawing on the thin ribs trying to extract morsels of meat. The sub adult Lions have each taken away parts of the Zebra to gnaw on or play with. One is cheekily running around with a leg, the hoof swinging gayfully beneath the Lion. Another has the skull with tufts of hair still attached; the sub adult is chewing on it and then tossing it around with its mouth. Another sub adult has a femur and guards it jealously, his sister comes up to take a bite and he bites her aggressively on the leg. She limps off; her mother comforts her and licks her wound. The young males like the adult males do not share.
Barikoi shifts his mighty frame, his golden blonde mane perfectly lit in the early morning sunlight, he is majestic. He is full and growing too hot so seeks to find shade in the bushes. As he enters he sniffs the rear end of the one of the Lionesses, she turns and swipes at him with her large powerful paws, she is not in oestrus so does not care for his attention the sub adult cubs are still under her care and she is not ready to mate again. The sub adults are around two years old, two go down to the small watering hole and lap up large quantities of water after their salty meal. When they finish they jump over the water and into the cool shade of the bushes. Two other sub adults head back to the Zebra carcass to see what remains, they chase off the poor little Jackals who are gnawing the small scraps left. When the sub adults are satisfied there is no meat left they leave the carcass to the Jackal, but not before they chase them again clearly just for fun. Most of the pride now disappears into the bushes to rest for the day, the sun is growing hot.
We breakfast under a beautiful twisted gnarly Gardenia tree; its trunk is an architectural masterpiece, a natural sculpture. A Giraffe grazes right in front of us as we enjoy our food. It stands still ruminating and staring silently at us, they are very curious animals. It then strides, long legged across the plain to seek shade from a lone Ballanite tree. More Giraffes also seek relief from the heat, one is sitting out in the open also quietly ruminating whilst three behind it cluster under the shade of a tall Ballanite tree, they are reaching their long necks up and using their impressive 18 inch tongues to pull down fronds of leaves. The Giraffes are the gardeners of the plains; they give the Ballanite Tree its distinctive umbrella shape by eating the lower leaves.
Further along the plains we find two more Lionesses from the pride they have four cubs of around three months old so they are not fully weaned and so are being raised away from the main pride for now. The four cubs, two female, two male are sat in a group of bushes and the Lionesses are sat fifty metres away in another looking for hunting opportunities. The cubs waken and decide to seek out their mothers; all four brave little cubs set off across the grass the fifty metres. They find them and rub heads, they want the security and bonding, the heat is rising and the Lionesses take them deeper into the shade of the bushes.
Back in camp we enjoy the cool of the shade, it is incredibly hot before the big rains, every day we see the Mara River become drier and drier. The scenery though is still so breathtakingly beautiful, the Lemek and Olchorro Conservancies are surrounded by beautiful mountains which rain water runs down from keeping the plains green. The prey here is plentiful hence why the Lemek pride is so healthy and successful. Near camp there is a herd of Hartebeest grazing, they have beautiful heart shaped horns.
Coke’s Hartebeest are stunning buff beige Antelope with magnificent curved and twisted inverted heart shaped horns. Just like the Topi they have high shoulders and sloping backs and enjoy standing on top of termite mounds to protect their territory. They snort loudly when they see predators approaching. They are both diurnal and nocturnal, favouring open grasslands. They are gregarious animals, tending to stay in small herds of females with their calves. The female herds roam over a large territory but most likely keep near the male. The male marks his territory by urinating and depositing droppings around. Like other antelope they also horn the ground rubbing their facial glands on the earth. Young males join bachelor herds around two years old until they are ready to mate with the females. Hartebeest are grazers; they prefer the longer fresher grasses so they can eat the succulent tender ends. They will try to drink water daily but can do days, it is whilst at these watering holes they are prone to ambush attacks by their main threat which is Lions and Leopards. The calves I’ll be preyed upon by Cheetah and Leopards.
Through the bushes as we drive we see several DikDik quietly walking through the bushes. DikDik mate for life and when one dies the other will become so distressed it will die too. The mainly live in the bushes, they are very shy and cannot be easily be observed. They scurry away as a family of Pumbas snuffle through the undergrowth seeking bugs and seeds. Like the DikDik as soon as they are observed they run away their tails held high so their young piglets can easily follow them through the long grasses.
DikDik are the smallest Antelope on the Masai Mara and likely most people’s favourite given their diminutive size, large doe eyes and the fact they mate in pairs for life. It is only marginally large than a hare at just one foot small and weighing 9-11 lb. Their coat looks orangey bronze underneath with a softer grey top coat, their eyes like most antelope are situated on the side of their head to give good peripheral vision. Situated at the front of the eye is a pre-orbital gland, very distinctive and black in colour. The males have small spiky horns and a small tuft of hair between them. Interestingly the females are slightly larger than the males. They prefer to browse in Acacia thorn bushes and thickets near water. They are nocturnal and crepuscular which means you will see them mainly at dusk and dawn quietly stepping through the bushes. They are always seen in pairs and often with their calves. They have an unusual elongated almost trunk like nose which helps them pant rapidly in the heat of the day and stay cool. They are preyed upon by Leopards who can easily ambush them in the bushes. It is said that is one of the pair is killed the other will die from grief as they lose their life partner.
Even though it is still warm in the early afternoon the Lemek pride has decided to come out of the bushes early and lay on the soft rich grasses. Barikoi is lying out in the middle of the pride, his golden powerful body stretched out and gleaming gold in the sun. His dark golden mane spreads over his shoulders and down his chest, he is a magnificent male. He is also a good pride leader and father he seems to spend time protecting the pride and giving his cubs attention. As he is laid out one of his young male cubs comes up to him and rubs his head against his, Barikoi snarls but only gently as the cub is disturbing his sleep. Then one of his female cubs comes over, walks over his face and rubs against him, he is more patient with her as she is a female.
The pride is still full from their feast this morning and lay mainly on their backs with their bellies bloated and rotund in the air. There legs are spread wide allowing air to cool them. Yellow hippoboscid flies swarm around their bellies making the Lions bat them away with their mighty paws or lifting their heads to snap at them. The sub adult male cub goes to sleep next to Barikoi he rolls over right into his arms, it is emotional seeing such a beautiful bond between father and son. The boy cuddles into his father, chest to chest, face to face. On the other side of Barikoi the sub adult female rolls over and spoons her father, she places an arm over his thick luscious mane. Barikoi now is the sandwich filling between two loving cubs.
The Lionesses are more attracted to male Lions with a darker manes; this is because the colour of the mane is dictated by the level of testosterone. Higher levels testosterone means darker mane and greater strength and aggression and so the Lion is more able to protect his territory. The mane also serves to attract females by its sheer size. For the males it is great protection when it is fighting or mating as it protects his face from sharp blows from claws. When Barikoi wakens he stretches and yawns and follows one of the Lionesses, as she squats to urinate he sniffs behind her to see if she is in oestrus. He draws her scent to the back of his mouth this is called flehmen grimace as he opens his mouth, draws back his gums over his teeth and looks like he is grimacing. He tries to mount her but she rejects him and walks off.
We sit by the fire in camp, it is a beautiful clear night and we watch as the stars appear in the midnight blue black sky. It is so peaceful just the whoop of Hyaenas breaks the peace. The air is warm and caresses our skin, it is so relaxing being by the fire. Tonight we dine under the stars enjoying the sounds of the wild all around us, it is a sweet symphony.
Day 11 –
It is pre-dawn and it is dark and a little chilly. I have not heard the roar of Lions this morning which means they may not have made a successful kill. We head out to find the pride in the Lemek Conservancy. We drive around for over an hour and do not find them in their usual favourite spots; they must have travelled further to seek food. Only forty percent of hunts for a pride are successful, if the Lions tried to hunt a Zebra again, they give a lethal kick to defend themselves so chances are it could have got away. Lions will not have a successful hunt every day that is why they tend to hunt big prey so they meat can feed the whole pride and it can sustain them for a couple of days if necessary.
We do however find Dere who was mating a couple of days ago he has a bloody cut on his cheek no doubt from fighting. I suspect at the end of the mating with the Lioness she lashed out at him, this is very common. Or of course he could have after mating caught up with the pride and fought with Barikoi over mating rights. Twice yesterday Barikoi showed interest in mating with the Lionesses but they rejected him as they were not in oestrus. The rest of the pride after hunting unsuccessfully in the night are sleeping deep in the bushes gaining strength to try and hunt again later. They sleep long hours as they cannot regulate their temperature so they need to sleep in the shade in the hottest hours of the day. Lions are mainly nocturnal but can be known to be diurnal too when opportunity to hunt arises.
Not far from the Lions the beautiful Cheetah Kisaru has found a mate. They are seeking shelter in the bushes. Cheetahs unlike Lions and Leopards are quite shy when mating they prefer to mate in the cover of bushes. Cheetahs are diurnal and terrestrial so they are active during the day. Male and female Cheetahs only spend time together when the female is in oestrus. The female will choose a male who is strong and dominant; she will want good genetics for her cubs. However it is the female who decides when they mate and the frequency. Cheetahs tend to mate over three to four days, they spend time together bonding before mating and the mating intervals will be around three to four times a day. Like the rest of the cats they will mate until the female feels she has conceived.
There are large herds of Wildebeest, Buffalo and Topi roaming the Conservancy where the grasses are green from the flow of water from the escarpment. In a marshy salt lick area of the plains we see some agitated Wildebeest, the have some calves with them which are vulnerable to predator attack. They are making a warning call; crouched under a bush we see the source of their consternation. A beautiful Lioness is weighing up her chances of catching one of the calves. She seems to be alone so the calf would be the easiest target for her. A lone Lioness only has around twenty percent chance of a successful hunt alone. She knows she has been spotted so gets up and strides purposefully towards some bushes.
It is an interesting turn of events for resting in the bushes is Barikoi. As soon as the Lioness approaches him she walks around him rubbing herself against him as a sign of bonding. He gets up and she crouches in front of him and he mounts her. The mating is fast and aggressive. He bites her neck and growls and she looks back at him and growls ferociously. Within seconds it is over and as he dismounts her, as he does she turns and swipes her claws at him. She then walks away from him, heavily falls on the bed of soft grass and rolls onto her back to aid the flow of sperm. Barikoi heads back into the bush until he is required by her again. Unlike Dere who agitated his Lioness, Barikoi gives his Lioness space; he does not encroach when she wants to rest. There is no love between male and female Lions; it is mutual understanding of their roles within the pride. Twenty two minutes later they mate again. After every time they mate Barikoi gives a low chest deep throated rumble, he is tired and lies down to regain energy.
Lunch is back at camp enjoying the wonderful views of the Mara River. Suddenly though there is a rumble of thunder and a crack of lightening. As soon as we finish lunch the heavens open and the rain falls heavy and hard. The ground is drenched within seconds; the dry earth cannot absorb the moisture quick enough. Some rivers appear and the black clay mud becomes thick and sticky, it will be challenging driving conditions this afternoon.
Barikoi and the Lioness are laid out into the open, now the sun is hot after the heavy rain they seek to dry off and warm them. The grass is thick and green here and provides a good bed to relax on. The Lioness yawns, her mouth opens wide as she tilts her head back and displays her sharp canines, she starts to groom herself after her sleep. Barikoi is still sleeping, his thick mane damp from the rain. She gets up and walks over to him, immediately he is awake and sits up, she rubs herself up against him indicating she wants to mate. She encircles him then lies in front of him, he mounts her and they both start growling ferociously as his barbed penis makes the copulation uncomfortable for both of them. Within seconds it is over, she turns roars and swipes at his with her sharp claws and he jumps away. They both collapse on the grass glad it is over, they sleep.
Two of the male Cheetahs who were following Kisaru are laid out on the track as it is drier than the grass, plus they can have a clearer view around them for approaching threats. They are called Mbili (meaning two) and Milele (meaning forever) the blonder male, they came from the Mara North Conservancy, they will stay together forever hence their names Two Forever. Cheetahs have such beautiful lithe bodies perfectly built for speed. Their small heads are aerodynamic, their chest barrelled to hold large lungs and heart which enables them to run at speed. They also have large nostrils to take in more air to help them run. Their legs are long to facilitate a long stride when running and their long tail is a rudder to steer it when it runs at speed. Its black tear marks detracts the sun but enables them to identify prey to hunt up to five kilometres away. They are such unique cats, they do not roar but their chirruping communication is very endearing. Sometimes if they are relaxed you can close enough to hear them purr, but it is important to respect their space.
It is quite late in the afternoon so the Cheetahs are not inclined to hunt this late for fear of Lions waking and taking their kills. On the Horizon we see a lone a Hyaenas who would also be a threat. The two Cheetah brother coalitions seem content just to relax. It would appear from their round stomachs they have been hunting today. Cheetah has the highest success rate when it comes to hunting. These beautiful brothers are light blonde and easily blend into the light stone surface beneath them. Not far from them a Martial Eagle sits in top of an Acacia tree, it has brown feather, sharp long talons and intense beady yellow eyes. It is scanning the plains for rodents and hares to hunt. In the thickets two Giraffes graze on the tops of bushes, their long graceful necks reaching over as they dart out their eighteen inch sensitive tongues to wrap around leaves.
The sun is setting, the sky is heavy with dark gun metal grey clouds, the air is charged with electricity. The wind is cold and strong, it threatens heavy much needed rains for these thirsty plains. The sun sets behind the dense clouds, the bright beams cannot compete with the intense density of rain clouds. It is a stunning evening full of wonder and promise. Elephants as dark and grey as the thunderous skies seek refuse in the bushes. A slither of dark fiery red sun can be seen setting over the hills. This is Africa the weather changes so dramatically, all around the animals brace themselves for another heavy deluge.
At camp the flames of the fire leap and spark in the cool breeze. The warmth is welcome against this unexpected coolness. The night sky is moody and dark clouds streak across the bright moon, it is witchy and magical. This contrast to the hot days is just lovely; it is comforting to bundle up in Maasai blankets around the fire against the chill.
Day 12 –
It is my last day in the Maasai Mara; it has been an incredible experience. Seeing these amazing animals living free just brings home that their survival is so important. This is nature, wild and free, sometimes scenes are difficult to watch but it is also the circle of life, a fine eco balance. It is the human/wildlife conflict that is the concern now. We head out into the Conservancy, it is cool this morning there was much needed rain in the night.
The two Cheetah brothers Kisaru and Mbili are cuddling up for warmth on the tracks, the grass is too damp for them to lie on so they enjoy the heat from the dirt. They share body warmth they are sat so closely they have become one. As we approach we see one has its blonde head rested on its paws, he is a vision of serenity and beauty. The other looks up but is unconcerned by our presence, Cheetahs are gregarious cats. It is too cool to hunt so they conserve their energy for later in the morning. There is plenty of game for them to hunt in this area.
It is not far from them we find Dere by himself, his wound is healing well on his cheek. He licks his large paws and wipes them across his wound; the saliva is an antiseptic and will help in the healing process. He has finished mating and is regaining his energy, no doubt later in the day he will join the rest of the pride. He relies on the Lionesses to hunt for him although he is capable of making his own kill.
Thirteen of the Lemek pride is walking across the plains after a night of hunting, bringing up the rear a sub adult male at the back has a bite on his leg, Lions do fight aggressively when feeding. He limps and looks quite forlorn but the wound will heal quickly, cats are very resilient. They look tired and head to the croton bushes to sleep for the day, the pungent aroma of the leaves keep the Yellow hippoboscid flies at bay. The Lionesses lead with the tired young cubs keeping close to their mothers for security.
Barikoi is in the bushes already with two Lionesses; it is now his turn to mate. This is a strong pride but their strength lies in mating and having cubs to ensure it stays strong. Dere and Barikoi are strong majestic male Lions; they defend and protect their pride. Their main threat is nomad males coming in from the main reserve or other conservancies. The Lemek Conservancy has plentiful game so is a desirable area. It is important that Dere and Barikoi are never too far apart to they can defend the area together. There was a case very recently when one pride male was alone when nomad male Lions entered the territory; he was badly injured but fortunately not fatally. On my next trip I am looking forward to seeing some more young cubs.
I say goodbye to my wonderful friends Geoffrey and Purity at House in the wild, this is a very special place. Titimet has been as always a most wonderful friend and guide, his knowledge of the wildlife, habitat and culture is unsurpassed. My heart and soul stays as always in Kenya, the Maasai Mara, home to the real wild. Always remember take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints.