Where on earth to start?
Perhaps with this ....
.... a long held 'bucket-list' wish to visit Kenya and the Masai Mara Northern Conservancies, has just been fulfilled in spectacular style!
Countless recommendations from 'photography friends' pointed at Kicheche Camps being the best destination to accommodate a visit that both me and Sarah would enjoy - how right they proved to be.
Located in the Northern Conservancy and nicely once removed from the tourist scrums in the main Mara National Park, the conservancy is built on respectful and sustainable partnerships with the Masai Mara ... this was going to be a lifetime experience not to be missed.
There are limits on the number of visitor beds in the conservancy - only one bed per 350 acres of wilderness, 25% of Kicheche turnover goes into wildlife conservation, with $250 per guest per day allocated to wildlife conservation and community projects, ensuring 150,000 acres of wildlife habitat are preserved.
Social and eco credentials established, guests are subsequently treated to an astonishingly personal and life changing experience, immersed in an environment where you learn that we are the visitors to a raw natural setting, rarely experienced by world weary travellers.
The camps have no perimeter fencing and you can enjoy superb tented accommodation, exceptionally friendly staff and wonderful food, all surrounded by the wildlife that rightfully claims the bush setting as their 'home'.
Sarah says that she was 'completely blown away' by the experience of sleeping in a beautifully comfortable bed, separated only by mm's thick canvas from Lions prowling and growling and Elephants rumbling and grazing on the Acacia trees, a metre or so from where we lay.
It certainly focused the mind when you had to be escorted back from the mess tent to your own tent by a Masai 'security' person who were armed only with flashlight, Masai stick and their assured calm self-confidence to clear the way from the wild animals between you and a 'good' nights sleep!
It was fascinating to feel that visceral human 'flight or flight' response kick in and flood your body with adrenaline when you are awoken in the depths of the night by Lions brushing against your tent, or Elephants pushing whole trees over in search of their 'midnight feast'!!
We stayed for 3 nights in the Main Mara camp, situated in a granite valley full of game and close to the open plains that teemed with life, including Lion prides, Cheetah families and everything you ever dreamed you'd see.
Our second three nights were spent in the Mara Bush camp, with a subtly different landscape and some exceptional opportunities to see Leopards - a rare privilege granted only to the patient lucky few.
If this makes it sound that we headed off on our own into the wilderness in search of wildlife, then of course this wasn't the case. Our wonderful Kicheche guides, (Richard for the first 3 days and the Nelson for the following 3 days), were exceptional people, able to put us in the right place place at the right time, to experience everything their wonderful country could offer.
The task of filtering through the THOUSANDS of photos taken has already consumed a fortnight's efforts in front of the Mac. I'm sure I'll still be finding incredible shots I missed on this process for the next few years as I revisit the catalogue of RAW images in the future.
For now ... this blog will try to give you a sense of our experience, with a roughly chronological canter through the 6 days, 12 game drives and the dizzying spectacle that unfolded in front of two grateful visitors.
The Northern Conservancy is one of the best places in all of Africa to see Cheetah. These beautiful creatures are under threat, face daily struggles to find territory, raise a family and secure a future for their species. It's no mistake then, that TV programmes such as The Big Cat Diaries are shot here (indeed some of that team were moving into our tent when we left).
Cheetah sightings can be hard to find, which is why our guide Richard was open mouthed in shock when he realised he had shown us 13 (!!!) individual Cheetahs in one day.
This exceptional total is partly explained by the recent arrival of a young Mother and six cubs to the conservancy. Facing the daunting challenge of both protecting and feeding such a large family, we were privileged to be able to watch at close quarters her doing just that .. (the following pictures were taken over the 3 days we watched her and her cubs).
Watching the Cheetah's patient stalking pursuit of her prey explode into blistering pace, twisting and turning to eventually trip and dispatch her target was truly thrilling and somehow entirely different in person, compared to watching through a TV screen
With 6 hungry mouths to feed, these were truly 'life or death' enterprises, with perfect protocol followed to keep safe distances from the chase, kill and feeding shown by our guides and others watching the action.
Exhausted by her efforts, the Cheetah called her cubs to her and found some shade sanctuary under the vehicle alongside our viewing point while she recovered her energy; eventually taking the kill to a shady tree to let the youngsters feed.
The incredible diversity of species is hard to imagine until it is painted across your vision in a stunning kaleidoscope of colour, sounds and energy.
A reminder that we neglect protecting that diversity at our peril, coupled with wide-eyed delight at what we could see, lit up our whole stay. Here's just a few shots to illustrate that diversity.
Whether it was Lion cubs playing together, or Cheetah siblings setting off on a family hunt, the conservancy served a reminder that apex predators only thrive where the whole diversity of life is in place.
Wildlife exploded all around you and it wasn't always possible to capture that photographically. Sometimes your eyes and memory had to serve instead, such as the time Nightjars swooped through the headlights of our vehicle pre-dawn, or when Hyenas cleaned up a Lion kill Zebra foal mere metres from the camp, seen again through the headlights as we returned in the dark.
It feels like I've barely scratched the surface of those first 3 days, but before we move to the Bush Camp experience that followed, I wanted to share a sight encountered not two minutes into an afternoon game drive.
Our guides called the Warthogs that became a familiar and welcome sight, 'The Kenyan Express'. It was sometimes hard not to laugh as yet another 'Pumba' trotted in their comical way alongside our vehicle.
Shocking then, to get a close up view of these muscle bound creatures engaged in combat, presumably fighting over territory or breeding bragging rights, in a storm-cloud of dust and fury ... the ground seemed to shake with each impact.
So then we leave the Mara Camp behind, bidding farewell to our night-time Hippo and Buffalo neighbours, tremendous Kicheche team led by Cas and with the lovely Richard driving us across the plains on one final game drive that ended up at Kicheche Bush Camp.
Chris Packham had been a guest here a few days previously and had benefited from the same warm welcome and more superb Kicheche team members all striving to make your experience as comfortable, as it was exciting.
Chris P wrote a blog that mentioned Nelson (our guide for the three days) and his uncanny ability to spot things even the most experienced naturalist failed to see. How lucky were we then to have his lovely patient and courteous company, as well as his seemingly supernatural ability to provide extraordinary wildlife experiences for his guests .... as you will now see!
The Bush Camp does what it's says on the tin, in that it is set directly in the bush of acacia trees, with a neat browse line created in part by the Elephants that visit regularly both day and night.
It is also closer to the many wooded streams, river beds and valleys that meaner through the landscape, providing ideal territory for the hard to find and usually secretive Leopards, that live there.
Nelson was able to tell the story of the individual Leopards to be found on our game drives, beginning with perhaps the most famous Leopard in Africa - 'Fig' (above), as some will remember from various wildlife documentaries over the years.
The very first Leopard we saw with Nelson was Fig herself, holding court to her gathered adoring public, at the foot of the tree she chose for receiving us (or so it seemed).
Despite the moody afternoon thundery skies, low light and Fig's pretty sleepy demeanour, the encounter ignited a burning desire to see more of the beautiful Leopards in their natural environment.
Fortunately we were with the right man for that job, as Nelson and his close Kicheche colleagues put us in place to witness what is probably my favourite lifetime wildlife experience (so far at least!), featuring Tito (below) - daughter of Fig and soon to be star of our very own wildlife documentary style story.
Regular readers will know that my interest and enthusiasm for wildlife came long before my developing interest in photography, the two things recently coalescing into a passion, that has enriched my post full-time work world!
To share the experience of the Mara North Conservancy with Sarah and to see her face light up with delight at each new sighting, was both a wonderful reaffirmation of my own journey and such a happy thing to share with each other.
Somehow then, the photography came second to that enjoyment, with Sarah sometimes having to remind me to 'take some shots' of the action unfolding, as we watched together.
Fortunately - a little more experience and some decent kit came in handy, as the light conditions for what we were to see over those three days sometimes made capturing the amazing scene quite tricky.
The story started in earnest when, having seen Fig the afternoon previously, we heard news that her daughter Tito had been spotted a good few miles away with a kill. Agreeing to the longish drive over often extremely rough terrain, Nelson got us in place just as Tito was hauling her prize towards a tree where she had already stashed a kill from the previous day.
Tito had made her kill some way from where she intended to place her meal, safely out of reach of the Lions and Hyenas who would gladly relieve her of her prize.
Watching the strength it took (just look at the neck muscles!) to haul the gazelle over 200m across rough ground was truly impressive.
Watching her pause to catch her breath and gather her strength for the next few metres at close quarters, really put into perspective - as Sarah said - just how easy we privileged humans in the Western world now have it; able to feed ourselves with almost indecent ease.
Thanks to Nelsons experienced anticipation and skilful positioning, these shots with her above us, afforded rare opportunities to to secure an intimate view of her struggle at the top of the stony valley sides, (my 300mm f2.8 prime lens coupled with the Nikon D850, seemed to be the right combination - most of the time).
Eventually she reached the tree she had selected and with almost superpower strength, leapt upwards to reach the safety of the branches above.
Her mission seemingly complete, we left her in peace as other vehicles moved in to view her in the tree, which had now become a Leopard larder.
Nelson considered what we had seen that afternoon and recommended a super early start the following morning in the hope that Tito would be encouraging her cubs not yet seen properly in the open, to leave their cover in a valley wall crevice and move to the tree that she had now stocked with food for her and her family.
So it was then that we headed off well before sunrise, Kicheche warming hot water bottles (!) pressed into action for their grateful guests, as we bumped our way past bewildered Wildebeest, fording streams, descending and climbing steep rocky valleys to return to the tree and whatever was going to transpire there.
We arrived to find Tito perched on a branch and peering into the rising sun and before we knew it, she set off to find her cubs ....
Tito reappeared a few minutes later carrying one cub, with the other following close behind - WOW!
Thanks to Nelson's advice and our early start, we were on our own with Tito and her two cubs for almost 90 mins, before being joined by others from Kicheche and the handful of other camps in the conservancy to enjoy the view.
Seemingly oblivious to their audience, the Leopard family were watched carefully as the youngsters first 'hitched a ride' with Mum and then later with growing bravado, had a go at climbing and descending from their refuge high in the sturdy branches.
What an incredible thing to see. I thing we were both struck by the contrast between her fiercely determined behaviour with her kill the day before and Tito's gentle parenting behaviour with the two delightful blue-eyed cubs, as they explored their new surroundings the following day.
Time and again one of them would decide to venture back to their 'old-home' about 80m away and she would fix them with a concerned stare until they were safely concealed again, or alternatively would pace after them to bring them back close to her.
Both cubs were still being fed by her and could also be seen starting to feed on the carcasses in the tree.
Only once, as various vehicles carefully moved to allow others to get in place, did she ever register even an acknowledgement that humans were present. It seems that the animals see the vehicles as solid objects (like rocks) and don't register the occupants unless they appear beyond the outline of the vehicle.
The shot below was the only time I saw this happen in 6 days, some comfort to any worried about human impact on behaviour. It seems the animals may be habituated to vehicles as part of their landscape, but not humans - only a cursory glance at her expression (below) when noticing a human is required to see the difference.
I returned with Nelson for the evening game drive, but news had got out and the slightly increased activity meant that Tito and her cubs stayed in the branches of 'her' tree, the cubs remaining hidden in the canopy despite the perfect soft evening light, compared to the harsh backlight of morning.
A few soft evening sun-burnished shots of her in the camera, we left her and her cubs for the last time, wishing the best for an amazing creature and mother to her lovely cubs.
What a story told over three days.
Meeting Fig and then her daughter Tito. Watching first hand as she prepared to bring her young cubs out in the open for the first time and then willing them to stay safe as they explored how to climb and stay close to the safety of their Mother's protection.
As a footnote to this story, it seems that Tito had actually delivered 3 cubs (a very rare thing to have more than 2). She lost the third cub the day before we are told, when Buffalo (the most dangerous animals in Africa alongside Hippo's) had trampled the unfortunate cub the day before. Nature is beautiful but raw and we can only hope that with just two cubs to protect, this relatively experienced Mother would be able to successfully add to the mature Leopard conservancy population.
Both of us would love to return one day and see how the Fig / Tito family has grown.
The holiday nearly over, we decided to spend the last day ranging over the Bush Camp conservancy area as widely as possible.
If we thought we'd seen it all were were WRONG!
A chilly morning ... Nelson spotted two young male Lions looking interested in a herd of Buffalo with young. The Lion pair were soon spotted and seen off by the huge Buffalo, but then we noticed some commotion at the edges of the herd.
It became clear that two large males were engaged in brutal and bloody mortal combat. If anything brought home the difference between a TV wildlife documentary and being only a few (sensible) metres away from the action first hand .... this was it!
These beasts are HUGE, able and intent upon inflicting gruesome injury upon one another.
We watched the fight until the very end, at which point it seemed to us that the loser was truly defeated and hard to believe that it would survive as it limped away, broken horn, bloodied and apparently on its last legs. 'Red in tooth and claw' doesn't really cover it when you feel every crash and collision, hearing the gladiators laboured breathing as the drama is played out, right in front of you.
Perhaps our time in the Mara North Conservancy with Kicheche is best summed up by the last few minutes on the ground.
Nelson was driving us to the local airstrip (man on moped rides fast along grass to remove wild animals = airstrip).
On the way up the escarpment Nelson noticed Vultures circling above, spotted a Leopard in a tree seemingly over a mile away and eventually parked up at the scene of a perished Wildebeest carcass, surrounded by the Vulture hordes, Marabou Storks, an opportunist Tawny Eagle and three Hyenas ... desperately trying to eat some Wildebeest and trying to secure a 'take-away' leg whilst fighting off the encroaching crowd.
Camera equipment all packed away for the bush flight back to Nairobi Wilson Airport and then home from Nairobi airport itself, we watched the spectacle unfold.
"Keep an eye out for the plane", said Nelson ... it wasn't until I called it's presence a few metres from landing, that Nelson could bear to tear us away from nature in action. He set off at breakneck speed to literally 'catch' the plane, before it departed with us ... the only passengers the little 8 seater had landed to pick-up!
Luggage loaded, a quick hug in farewell with our guide and off we went - every single second (right to the end) filled with the most incredible wildlife scenes, experiences and celebrations of the wonderful natural world in a true WILDerness.
Never to be forgotten - somewhere we WILL return.