Once visited, the Masai Mara exerts a visceral magnetic pull; a force of nature that calls you back with irresistible certainty.
My 60th year, with the planet emerging from Pandemic chaos and finally exhibiting some semblance of travel normality, seemed to be the time to succumb to the preternatural summons and to return to one of the worlds natural wonders.
We had provided some nominal support for the wonderful Mara North and Olare Motorogi conservancies during the Pandemic through Kicheche's 'Conservancy Guardian' programme, created to help fund the work of the Rangers, local communities and to preserve the incredible environment in tough times when the tourist spend evaporated. This visit, being the time to see how the magical Mara conservancies had weathered the pandemic storm.
What a return this proved to be!
Kicheche camps provide the VERY BEST place to be in The Mara.
A return to both Mara and Bush Camp, provided the tantalising destinations for the quintessential safari photography trip. Superb tented and unfenced accommodation, incredible food, warm hospitality, brilliant guides, low vehicle and tourist density, off-road travel encouraged and this time, even a sole use vehicle adapted for low level photography, promising 'eye to eye level' contact with the Mara wildlife!
Past experience taught this enthusiastic wildlife photographer, that the best promises to self not to return with 1000's of pictures, but merely a small number of judiciously chosen captures of the best moments .... are doomed to failure.
So it is then, that I share here some favourites shots, mined (so far) from the hard drive motherlode that must surely yield more golden nuggets each time I return to dig around in its raw ore of golden depths, in the coming months.
The wildlife of the Mara are cast in spell-bounding light at the start and end of the day. Early starts in the altitude induced cold Kenyan air, bring a fresh wake up to every game drive - the very best of times!
The equator adjacent, high plains dawn golden hour is shorter than in more norther or southern latitudes as a result. With this knowledge, the Kicheche guides (Edward at Mara North for the first couple of days), work hard to give you the very best chance of being in the right place at the right time.
This shot of the Elephant patrolling an amber dawn horizon being a good example of the necessary perfect juxtaposition of location and timing, with the hope that the local wildlife got the memo too!
Sometimes, you can catch some early morning grumpiness between neighbours, as shown by the interaction between this Black-chested Snake Eagle being mobbed by a highly indignant early morning Shrike.
Whilst you can start the day with an idea of what you are hoping to see, agree a plan with your guide, set out with that in mind, more often than not The Mara conservancies write the script, the screenplay and direct the action, with your only task to try and capture the action playing out at close quarters, with your camera.
With James my guide at Bush Camp, an early morning climb up a rocky escarpment proved to be the cue call for a remarkable action series.
I know what you're thinking .... It's Simba on Pride Rock !
A brief and barely forgivable outbreak of Disneyesque sentimentality when faced with such a sight, ensued. A young male Lion appears to be surveying his kingdom as he stares into the dawn light, breeze ruffling his emerging mane.
What we didn't realise is from that picture book start, is that we were soon to witness the unfolding daily story of nature showing both the joy of new life and the raw 'red in tooth and claw' reality, of life in The Mara.
Leaving 'Simba' (I know 🙄 ... I'll stop it right now!), to a couple of vehicles full of adoring iPhone wielding fans, we bumped our way back down the escarpment and back to the rusty red track running across the plain.
Hours can be spent searching for a sighting, but this time the action appeared on the track in front of our vehicle, entirely disregarding of our presence ... a female Lion and her four tiny cubs!
Not for the first time, the value of the lowdown view enabled by the drop sided photography vehicle came into its own. It's tough to get eye level with a Lion cub, but we gave it a good go as he/she made use of the track.
The little family group walked past our vehicle, with barely a glance at this thrilled photographer, whose face was no more than a couple of wide open metres from their journey. It seems that the wildlife sees the vehicles as a rock and as long as you behave properly and stay within its confines, even if the sides are completely open, then they don't distinguish your presence from ... 'rock'.
We watched them heading for a small watery ditch and a few low growing Acacia, where a previous nights kill of two Topi awaited their arrival.
A few lazy mouthfuls for the Lionesses and soon it was time for the cubs (surely still being nursed too?), began their game of "look what we've killed - aren't we brave", as they gave their best impression of what they thought brave lions should do.
I'm not convinced they did much more than 'play with their food', but it was clearly part of learning 'how to be a Lion 101'. One learns never to use the c*te word when referring to nature in the raw, but somehow ...
... rules are there to be broken right ? .... supercute!
We left the Lion family to their meal (and perhaps some 40 winks) and went off in search of Cheetah - more to follow on that in a minute, but before I tell that story let's skip a few hours and return to check on how things unfolded when we returned to check in on the Lions again, on the evening game drive.
No sign of the cubs this time. We heard that the Lionesses had taken them to the safety of an escarpment away from the very dangerous Buffalo that had come a little too close in the afternoon.
Instead, we found a lone female guarding the kill remains and we were soon to learn why ....
The Lion initially showed willing to repel all boarders, but soon took the pragmatic solution of surrendering one kill to preserve the other for herself. This meant both Hyenas and Lion got to eat, which all did with absolute ferocity!
Well that was a thrilling watch!
The element missing from wildlife documentaries is the sound of brutal crunching of bones and tearing skin ... the shrieks, howls, growls and roars of wild animals are usually masked by some dramatic music soundtrack and an accompanying comforting narrative over. Close up and right in front of you, nature ...'red in tooth and claw' indeed!
So what about the spotted cats ... any sign? Well, with the skills and unfailing eyes of Edward and James ... yes!
This years visit was to yield both Cheetah and Leopard sightings in each conservancy, a feline bounty to savour and celebrate.
(click on the thumbnails to enlarge and view)
Time spent watching a mother and her three cubs relaxing, playing and finally embarking on a long stalk in search of prey, was something to behold. However this time the chase didn't yield a meal for the Cheetah family as the female seemed to pick the 'wrong' target.
Many hunts end in failure, but I felt sure that this Mother was going to be successful soon - just look at her athleticism - just not necessarily pointed in the right direction this time!
Middle of the day - light harsh - heat haze a nightmare - action distant - crop huge - but you get the idea!
Back to another Cheetah on another day shortly, but time for some Birds I feel!
My memory of my first visit to the Mara was the last but one day, when I realised that the 'big' game spectacle was so astonishing that I'd barely registered that the landscape and skies were full of incredible avian beauty. It was still hard to make sure I took proper notice, but with the help of Edward and especially James, who is also a proper birder, we managed to stop the vehicle to take enjoy the birds of the Mara, more thoroughly on this trip.
There really is no where else in Africa (probably, the World) where you can get such amazing sightings of Leopards. Friends tell stories of their safari trips yielding a 3 second glimpse of a Leopard tail disappearing into the bush, as their only success.
Kicheche rising star guide Edward, put me in place to see these beautiful creatures at dusk and dawn in bush cover up in trees and even right in the middle of the day as he drove me from Mara North to Bush Camp as you will see.
The first sighting was on my first night, a bit weary from the international and then internal transfer flight and with the light fading to dark, he found this young male deep in cover. My incredible trusty Nikon D850 and 300mm f2.8 prime lens set up, performs miracles in low light and came into its own to deliver this first glimpse.
A little work in Lightroom and Topaz de-noise ... and there - unveiled from the darkness ... he is.
The following couple of days seemed full of Leopards, snoozing in trees, prowling through the undergrowth, carrying food for their youngster and I had position 'A' in our photography vehicle at all times.
... same youngster next morning
Leopard descends with the bark flying
look up .... look down .... look around
Midday snack Deliveroo Leopard
The big cats are a thrill - especially when they send their calls into the night what feels like metres from the thin canvas of your tent in the depths of the night! However, an even lower rumble to stir the depths of your being, is the almost subsonic communication of the Elephants, who often take a liking to the grass or Acacia trees half a step away from your bed!
The Askari (Masai security team) did a great job escorting you from your tent to Dinner in the dark, albeit a flashlight and a heavy wooden stick appeared to be all they needed 'just in case' our wildlife neighbours insisted on getting between me and the amazing food delivered by the Kicheche Chef Brigade each day.
One night in particular, we could see the team shooing the Elephants and other hungry beasts (Lions ??) away from the open sided mess tent as we sat, dined, chatted and laughed away through another glorious culinary end to the day - well done them!
Elephants in the daytime are a great watch, with many family groups enjoying the grazing afforded by some rain in the week previous to my arrival.
I even tried my hand at some 'arty' monochrome captures of these huge gentle giants - maybe not quite at Paul Goldstein's quality, but I'd settle for a generous 4/10 for these couple of shots ?
A evening drive and the following morning drive out with James, connected with a female Cheetah and her sole youngster. She had secured a small Thomsons Gazelle for supper and we got to watch them both as they finished their meal, 'washed up' and made their exit into the Mara sunset.
Raw appetite, to parental care and affection in three pictures - these are the moments you remember as you sip your sundowner as the light fades away ...
We saw the same pair the next day, but they had strayed just outside the boundaries of the conservancy. Here's where you realise the value of the conservancy rules, with a glimpse of what happens without those Ranger enforced protocols in plain sight, as we left and joined some unregulated common land - literally dozens of vehicles swarming around the the bewildered Cheetah - not a happy sight !
This is NOT what happens in the Mara conservancies !
This simply doesn't happen in the conservancies, where the 'rule of five' is self policed by the guides and closely monitored by the Ranger teams.
Obviously .... we didn't join the scrum and drove away to have breakfast in the bush, returning only as the pair made their way back towards the conservancy land and had only a couple of other vehicles watching at a respectful distance.
I'm glad we returned as we were able to observe that they had survived the tourist scrum as they sheltered from the midday heat, under the scrubby bush.
It also allowed me to capture, possibly my favourite shot of the trip as the youngster relaxed with its Mother, a picture of contentment and calm.
If I allow myself of moment of self-indulgence, I could name these two as 'Amber and Blue' alongside their Masai given names, as their eyes glowed with a different hue in the shade of the bush.
This years visit did yield a previously unseen (by me!) cat species.
We were perhaps 60 seconds outside Bush Camp and on the way out for the evening game drive, when James's astonishing near super-powered eyesight picked out a Serval Cat in the long grass - what a delight, all slinky-sinuous-long-limbed-feline-grace.
Perhaps a quickfire highlights section now, would help me bring this blog to a close?
It's so hard to resist a minute by minute commentary, as the desire to share each second of the thrills experienced, becomes overwhelming.
A ten minute blog read can never do justice to the excitement of each dawn foray into the eventful and thrilling experience that it is to spend time in The Mara. Just look what happens as you roll though the day ... and towards the night!
I have to say a special thanks to my guides Edward and James, who with almost supernatural skill, great experience, good humour, patience and kindness, delivered me to the perfect place at the perfect moment over and over again!
Edward & me
James and me
The whole team behind the scenes at both camps, are extraordinary examples of hospitality and customer experience focused brilliance, so much so that to name individuals, whilst each deserving superlative plaudits, might diminish the cumulative celebration of the perfect Kicheche team - thank you to all.
It might be a while before a return, but I already have a group of friends keen to join a hosted visit when collective diaries allow.
The call of the WILD and the WILDerness has echoed through my post work life. It's sights and experiences have illuminated my life in a way it seems barely possible to have imagined in the time before I had space to draw breath and look around in a landscape not cluttered with work travel, board meetings, budget reviews, team conferences and every demand the corporate world places upon your time.
As the sun sets on another Mara visit story, I'm sure there's still nuggets of gold to find in a more thorough trawl through the thousands of RAW files safely tucked away on a hard drive, just waiting for a cold winters morning to be lit up with the glow of a Mara memory.
I've held back the series of pics from the final day, where James put me in place to watch a Cheetah brothers stalk, chase, kill, event, right through to the clean up squad - perhaps that start to finish story for another post soon.
Until the next time, here's to adventures anew, wildlife thrills and delights aplenty and friends yet to be made, in the most majestic and magical of landscapes - The Masai Mara.