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The ‘Big Five’ in five days – Part One

Monday, November 15, 2010 posted by Bruce 8:21 PM

Africa’s great wildlife adventure

A photographic team from Thailand goes on safari to Kenya

Leopard in Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya

When I was young, the dream to go to Africa was always on my mind. I collected many books and magazines on the subject and learned about the ‘Dark Continent’ with all its amazing wild animals. But it has always been just a dream until this year.

Male lion portrait in Maasai Mara

Once in while, the chance of a lifetime comes along and the opportunity to visit Kenya, Africa to photograph wildlife became a reality. This place is certainly the ‘Holy Grail’ for photographers and naturalists, and is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world.

Female elephant in the Maasai Mara

The Masai Mara plains in the southwest section of the country adjoining the Great Serengeti Plains in Tanzania, plus a few other protected areas in Kenya are the ultimate safari experience. The Kenyan people are proud of their heritage.

Cape buffalo and oxpecker in Maasai Mara

White rhinoceros in Lake Nakuru National Park

Buffalo and oxpeckers

Elephant herd on the savanna

The planning and scheduling for the safari was arranged through the Thai Embassy in Nairobi who recommended ‘Transworld Safaris’ as one of the best operators in Kenya. The company certainly lived up to their commitment as a very professionally well-run operation with excellent staff and services.

Lion cubs – part of a large pride

On September 5th of this year, nine people from different walks of life met-up at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok late at night for the eight-hour flight to Nairobi. A group of Thai nationals and myself made up the rest of the group. One thing in common with all of us was the desire to see and photograph wildlife.

Lion cub playing with its mother

We left Thailand on Kenya Airways just after midnight. The airline allowed 40 kilograms of baggage that permitted lot’s of heavy photographic gear. With a couple of tripods, camera-traps, clothes and other stuff, my bags were close to the limit.

Cheetah on a termite mound in the Maasai Mara

The next morning we arrived in Nairobi at 5am and quickly went through immigration and customs. Transworld Safaris manager Sati Lota and two very capable and friendly drivers, Patrick Njoroge and George Ndungu, plus two safari vans were waiting for us at the airport. We were quickly on the road for the five-hour trip to Maasai Mara National Reserve and the first lodge in the bush.

Black-backed jackal in the Maasai Mara

A quick stop at a supermarket was made to buy some foodstuffs and a load of green peas for the ‘bean bags’ needed for camera and lens support on top of the van while photographing wildlife. In Kenya, it is absolutely forbidden to exit the vehicle anywhere while out on safari.

Wildebeest on the run in the savanna

The traffic out of Nairobi was a bit hectic but we eventually arrived at the half waypoint above the ‘Great Rift Valley’ for a quick cup of coffee, and to enjoy the view and buy a few trinkets from the tourist shop. The road then got tougher as we crossed the valley into the Maasai Mara reserve. As we got closer, we began to see antelopes and zebras.

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River

We arrived at the Mara Simba Lodge just after noon and checked in. After depositing our bags in the room, it was straight to the buffet lunch set-up overlooking the Talek River. As we got there, a pod of hippos showed up for a sunbathing session on a sandbar. Egyptian geese were also by the river.

Hippos by the Talek River in the Maasai Mara

As I had my medium camera and lens with me, I made quick work of the situation. The hippo’s size filled the frame and I got some flying shots of the geese. After a quick bite, I took a stroll near an electric fence surrounding the lodge and bumped into a pack of banded mongoose. Three species in less than an hour of arriving; things were certainly looking up.

Hippo pod in the river

At 3.30pm, we had some tea and readied ourselves for our first afternoon ‘game drive’ as they are called. As we left the lodge, we began to see wildlife right away. After a short while, we bumped into a pride of mature female lions and their cubs enjoying the late afternoon sun, and setting out on a hunt. It was exciting to say the least.

Banded mongoose by the Talek River

About 5.30pm, we saw a large group of safari vehicles surrounding a tree out in the savannah and George our driver said it was probably a leopard. We quickly motored to the spot and found the mystical cat sleeping up in the tree. George was very skilled at getting us into a good position.

Egyptian goose taking-off from the Talek River

I managed to get some very close facial shots of the big cat (lead photo). I was using a Nikon D3s and a 400mm f2.8 lens but the catch-lights in the eyes of my leopard were provided by a Canon flash used by my companion next to me. Strange how things work out sometimes but I was elated to say the least.

Leopard coming down from the tree

If you get a leopard, it is said you will get the ‘Big Five’ and that is exactly what we were able to accomplish over the next five days. We also managed to get some very good African buffalo and elephant shots the first day.

Leopard posing for my camera

On day-two, a mature male lion was sleeping off a heavy meal on a grassy knoll. When we arrived, there were about ten-safari cars gathered in a semi-circle around the lazy lion. After a while, most people became impatient and departed for other areas but I insisted we stay put and be patient.

Sleepy male lion in the Maasai Mara

About 6pm, the old boy got up and gave us the classic lion yawn flashing his big teeth. Now that really got the blood flowing and I snapped a long series of close-up shots of the magnificent cat.

The classic African shot – a male lion yawning

On day three we moved to the Mara Serena Lodge in the western section of the reserve. We had ringside seats at two different animal crossings where wildebeest and zebra were struggling in mass to get across the Mara River back into the Serengeti Plains.

Black-maned lion hunting wildebeest

A large pride of lions including a ‘black maned male’ were hunting the ungulates as they came to the river. While the pride attacked, it was pantomime as the antelopes struggled to get away from the lions to the safety of the big herd.

Nile crocodile alongside a wildebeest carcass

Amazingly, the crocs seemed full and we did not see any attacks but did find some very lazy reptiles sunbathing near some wildebeest carcasses. It is certainly an amazing wildlife spectacle and many animals do not make the other side drowning or being taken by the crocs. The vultures were everywhere taking in their fill. A black-backed jackal was scavenging on a wildebeest carcass and posing for us.

Zebra and wildebeest at a river crossing

On the forth day, giraffe, topi, impala, cheetah, hyena, buffalo, vulture provided lots of photographic action. We finally ran out of time and had to return to the hotel. On the way back, we bumped into a female ground hornbill in the beautiful evening glow of the setting sun.

African ground hornbill in the Maasai Mara

After four days of game-driving the Maasai Mara, we headed to our next location. Lake Nakuru National Park further north where the flamingos, and the rare Rothschild giraffe plus white and black rhino live. It was a tough five hours on the road but we arrived at the Savora Lion Hill Lodge just in time for lunch and a bit of a rest.

White rhino mother and calves in Lake Nakuru

At exactly 4pm, we left the lodge and motored close to the lake where the flamingos are. On the way, we bumped into a white rhino mother and calf munching on the lush grass. A herd of bachelor buffalo bulls was also grazing close to the waters’ edge.

Flamingos thrive in the thousands at Lake Nakuru

Greater and lesser flamingos are here in the thousands and it was absolutely a photographer’s delight. The ‘big five’ in five days was in the bag so to speak after the rhino shots.

Group photo at Lake Nakuru with the flamingos in the background

After two days around Lake Nakuru, we were on the road again, this time to a higher elevation. On the way, we stopped off at the famous Thompson Falls for a rest, coffee and some scenic picture taking. The falls were in full flow and the weather was cool at 2,360 meters above sea level.

The famous Thompson Falls at 2,360 meters

Additional photographs obtained while in the Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru

Zebra abstract on the savanna – Maasai Mara

A warthog in mid-day – Maasai Mara

Vultures playing ‘king of the hill’ – Maasai Mara

Secretary bird on the savanna – Maasai Mara

A lone hyena in a dry stream bed – Maasai Mara

Topi on a termite mound – Maasai Mara

Zebras on the savanna – Maasai Mara

Wildebeest after crossing the Mara River – Maasai Mara

Wildebeest on the savanna – Maasai Mara

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Impala and baboon – Maasai Mara

Griffon vulture – Maasai Mara

Hamerkop building a nest by the Talek River – Maasai Mara

Baboon eating a guineafowl chick – Lake Nakuru

Saddle-billed stork and flamingos – Lake Nakuru

Cape buffalo bull – Lake Nakuru

The very rare Rothschild giraffe – Lake Nakuru

An impala male – Lake Nakuru

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