Focus on...Maasai Mara, Kenya
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
The (not so) Elusive Leopard.
Masai Mara, July 2018.
This was my second photography trip to the Maasai Mara during the Great Migration season. The first was a very short 72-hour photo tour, with only one and a half days of safari. Even though it was short, the entire experience was overwhelming. Therefore, I decided to return by myself this time. By myself because I wanted to dedicate this trip to photography, and the getting-up-early stuff and the endless waiting for the right light or some movement in the bushes doesn’t fit the idea of a holiday for most of my friends.
I booked everything online. I really don’t think it is necessary to book a safari holiday through an agency. The international flights to Nairobi by Kenya Airways and then the domestic flight by Air Kenya to the Ol Kiombo Airstrip were easy to book. Domestic flights are a blessing, after my last experience transferring by minibus from Nairobi to Maasai Mara. The road was so bad, I felt like I was sitting in a washing machine for about 6 hours, therefore this was not to be repeated.
Research does pay off
I had done my research and chose Julia’s River Camp as my base, not the most luxurious tents, but comfortable. The best thing was the views of Talek River, full of hippos and crocs, from my veranda. The rates of the camp included transfers from and to the airstrip, full board and every day two half-day safari drives or a full-day safari drive.
Meals were breakfast and lunch at the camp or packed breakfasts and lunches, and dinner in the camp’s dining area. The food is simple, but tasty and the staff super friendly, they really want to make your holiday memorable. We agreed with the driver on a full day or two half-day game drives for the next day and the meals were prepared accordingly, no hassle at all.
The game drives are shared with the other guests in the camp and are included in the room price, so with a bit of online digging, it becomes very doable to organise a full safari from start to finish by yourself at prices that are much more competitive than going through an agency with a private driver. Some other guests paid about 50% more than I did, so it was well worth doing the homework.
The perfect location and a busy night
The location of the camp is hard to beat, bang in the middle of the Maasai Mara Reserve. The wildlife was literally right outside the camp – and inside. The hippos, located in the river just below my veranda, passed by my tent each night to go grazing at the other side of the camp. One night was particularly busy with, of course, the hippos roaming around, but then some elephants paid a visit and a lost male lion passed through. There were also some other animals – I think hyenas - hiding in the bushes, so that kept the Maasai guards on their toes. Fortunately, it felt very safe in my tent. At night the guards, armed with their spears, always accompany you to and from your tent, so there is nothing to fear. In the morning, with the hippos back in the river and no lion in sight, it was all clear.
I was lucky because there were groups and individual guests with their private drivers staying in the camp, the demand on the camp’s drivers was not high, so for one and a half days I had Eric, the senior driver of Julia’s, to myself. The other days, one or two other couples joined the drives. Every morning Eric checked what we were interested in seeing. I had never – after three visits to Africa – seen a leopard before and really wanted to see a Great Migration river crossing, so off we went…
Breakfast on location
Since the camp is in the heart of the reserve, the safari drives start literally right outside the gate. On the first morning, we found a cheetah with its prey, which was still alive when the cheetah started digging in. That’s how cruel nature is. Nevertheless, it was a pity we had missed the chase, because that could have made for some good photos, but wow he (or she) was gorgeous in the first rays of the sun.
With the sun rising over the plains we drove towards the river crossing points, about 1 hour away. On the way, we saw all sorts: cheetahs, lion families, elephants, the inevitable zebras, every brand of gazelle and, of course, giraffes. At one stage, the wildebeest started to come into view. We came out of some bushes and on the plain in front of us there were thousands and thousands of them all moving towards the river.
The river crossing waiting game
Suddenly, a stampede of wildebeest passed the car. I have no idea what triggered it. But then again, having had the chance to observe them for hours, I had learned they don’t need any excuse to start a stampede or change direction; it just happens.
We waited for hours and hours with about 50 other cars near the river crossing and a couple of times they seemed to have decided that the timing was right, but at the last moment turned back. This sometimes goes on for days. Yes, of course, the river crossings do happen, but you need to be lucky. We went twice, and nothing happened. The second day, the leader of the herd was ready to make the jump, but a car got in the way just before they reached the river and he and the herd turned back. A fantastic opportunity was missed due to the actions of a completely irresponsible driver. There was a huge outcry from all the other drivers, they were so mad with their colleague.
On the way back, Eric wanted to find me a leopard, to make up for the missed crossing. He knows the most likely spots to find any kind of wildlife. He understands where the family of lions go in the morning, were they often stop for their siesta in the afternoon and where they go hunting at dusk. The cheetahs also can’t keep any secrets from him. We found a group of five male cheetahs a couple of times with ease in different locations throughout the reserve.
The elusive Leopard
And we did find a leopard, but unfortunately almost completely hidden in the trees. Eric told me to keep faith, because the leopard would soon come out of his tree and start roaming around… and so it happened. After 15 minutes of waiting, there was movement. After a quick sprint with the car to the other side of the bushes, there he was. First, he was still elusive, hidden in the bushes. Maybe the sleeping hyena, not far away, had something to do with that.
But he decided all was clear – well sort of clear, because there were at least 10 other cars waiting for him to come out – and he literally started to parade on the open space right in front of us, first to the right, then to the left, another turn and for good measure sitting in the centre with his back half towards us, just to ensure that all had a good opportunity to photograph him from his best side, before moving back into the bushes.
What a magnificent animal! Cheetahs are elegant, lions are mighty, but the leopard is my favourite of the big cats; the perfect combination of beauty, elegance and strength.
All images © 2018 Marco Duyves