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Maasai Mara: My First Time

First a warning. Two of the images in this post are a little graphic and show the reality of life in the Masai Mara (but I’ve put them at the very bottom of the page). OK. Warning over and I actually can’t believe it has taken me so long to visit Africa. It’s been at the top of my list for years, but somehow something has always come up that’s stopped me going. Now, don’t get me wrong, usually that something was another trip somewhere else, so I can’t complain, but it still remained that Africa eluded me. Indeed even this trip only came about because I had planned on visiting Alaska. But, when that sadly didn’t work out I knew I finally had the opportunity I had been waiting for. And so, one morning in September 2013, I found myself stuffing both my 600 VR and 200-400 in to my ThinkTank roller bag, and heading off to Heathrow to pay my first visit to one of the most spectacular places on earth…

Update: Join me in Africa on a safari to photograph these spectacular animals too.

Subadult lion at sunrise

Subadult lion at sunrise

 

HAVING THE SPACE AND ABILITY TO BRING THE RIGHT KIT

Two points I’d often considered when thinking about my first safari was being able to take the right kit, as strict weight restrictions are in place on the internal flight from Nairobi to The Mara, and secondly, once I was there with my kit, would I get in people’s way inside the jeeps. Thankfully these’s points are very much alleviated on this tour. Ground transportation is arranged for your main suitcase containing all the boring stuff, like your underwear and toothbrush, leaving you free to carry your essential camera gear on the internal flight.

Using the 600 for intimate close ups

Using the 600 for intimate close ups

Oxpecker on a cape buffalo

Oxpecker on a cape buffalo

Space inside the vehicles is of no concern either, as with there being six people in the group and two jeeps, each photographer is given an entire row of seats, allowing you to shoot from either side of the vehicle. Added to that, a seat is removed from each row, meaning it is easier to move about inside.

Dust. And lots of it.

Dust. And lots of it.

This was particularly handy for me as I wanted both my big lenses, for both intimate close up opportunities of larger animals, plus frame filling abilities of any birds we happened across. Of course, carrying two cameras and bodies with me also meant twice the dust to clean at the end of each drive, and there is a LOT of dust in The Mara!

HOME FROM HOME FOR EIGHT DAYS

Our week was spent at Entim Camp, in the heart of the Mara itself. It’s a comfortable and friendly staffed camp, which feels very private with just 10 tents. It also includes all the amenities you could want to make you feel right at home, including a hot water bottle left in your bed at night and a wake up call of either tea, coffee or hot chocolate brought to you in the morning. It also boasts a couple of iMacs, wifi and some of the tastiest ginger beer you could hope to sip after a mornings drive! Being open and fence free, it affords not only stunning views over one of the main wildebeest crossing points on the Mara river, but also ensures you are never too far away from your first encounter on each drive you take. Fence free also requires being escorted back to your tent at night via an armed guard, but once in my tent I found myself drifting off to sleep to the sound of hippos grunting in the nearby Mara river (which is actually a lot more comforting than it may sound).

Hippo with young in the Masai mara, Kenya

Hippo with young

Each day consisted of two drives. One for first light, followed by a picnic style breakfast at a picturesque location, before returning to assess the mornings images. This was then followed by lunch, a little rest and then our afternoon drive to catch the last of the days light.

Breakfast in style, every morning

Breakfast in style, every morning

What really impressed me on the drives though, was David’s relationship with the guides, Henry and Sammy. David has worked with Entim camp and these drivers for some time, and between them they know exactly where to position the vehicles for a prime photo opportunity. This was of particular note one afternoon, where we arrived at a leopard sighting. We were late to the game with several vehicles already in what appeared the prime viewing area. However Henry knew better, and positioned us at the back of the pack, away from everyone else, near a tree. We sat there for a good 45 minutes on our own. Others looked back as if we were wasting our time. But what they didn’t know, is Henry had spotted the leopard kill at the base of that tree, tucked in the bushes. Sure enough, eventually the leopard strolled out of it’s resting area, past all the waiting vehicles and straight up the tree where we were sat, sitting briefly out in the open before continuing up in to the canopy, leaving the other vehicles trying to reposition themselves whilst we simply took our photos.

The waiting game is rewarded with a quick photo opportunity of a leopard sitting half way up a tree, in the Masai Mara

The waiting game is rewarded

Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together!

THE LIGHT

I can’t write a blog about this incredible place and not give quick mention to the light. Wow, the light! When you get the good stuff, you really get the good stuff! In fact, the sunset was so intense one evening I had to really tone down the white balance on some of my photos. One in particular, looks like the white balance was up in 8000k range, but looking at the exif info revealed only 5000k, and even then I had to dial it back down to around 4000k for it to look a little more believable on screen.

Intense last glow of the day

Intense last glow of the day

This cheetah was one such example of the beautiful light offered. We witnessed the chase, and sat to watch the feast. The light was flat with many clouds in the sky but there was a small break on the horizon, and we knew that when the sun hit that break, the scene would be transformed. Every other jeep left whilst the light was dull, but but we waited it out. And in doing so had the cheetah bathed in the briefest of golden light to end the day.

A WEEK TO REMEMBER

The trip was simply phenomenal. The group got on so well that it was like being away with old friends and added to that, the fact I’ve long been a fan of the big cats. So finally seeing lions, cheetah and leopard freely roam for the first time was breath taking (I strongly believe seeing a cheetah at full sprint is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime!). Not to mention coming face to face with the imposing and powerful elephants that roam the reserve. Sadly, we didn’t get much in the way of wildebeest crossings as it appeared the great migration was in a time-out the the week we were there, hence one or two (too many!) big cat photos over any other subject here…

A pregnant lioness not 5 minutes from camp

A pregnant lioness not 5 minutes from camp

We also heard this fellow from camp

We also heard this fellow from camp

I’ve often heard people say ‘Africa gets in to your blood’, and I truly appreciate what that means now. I can’t use enough adjectives for it. Just get yourself out there if you haven’t been before, and if you have, I’m sure like me you can’t wait for the next visit. And regardless if you’ve been before or not, give it a go with David. I don’t say that because he’s a friend, but because more importantly he is an outstanding wildlife photographer with a wealth of knowledge on both the location and the subjects, and a very decent chap as well! And this, for me, is paramount. When you’re going somewhere for a limited time, you need knowledge to make the most of it. And when that knowledge is backed up by incredible photos, there’s really nothing else you need to know.

THE GRUESOME BIT – STOP NOW IF YOU DON’T LIKE BLOOD

Ok so we’re on to the little extra I mentioned at the start of the post. I wanted to add these in right at the bottom as I know not everyone will want to see the harsh reality of life in the Mara. But it’s not all beautiful light, cute lion cubs and something from a scene of one Disney’s finest movies and I feel it’s important to show that. Sadly, there is death in the Mara every day, and the bones of animals long gone are dotted around as a reminder.

A male lion carries a half eaten carcass through the sampled light of sunrise in the Masai Mara

The Lions Share

We saw more than our fair share of kills the week I was there although it should be pointed out this is actually quite rare, and even David had explained that our week was more bloody than the previous 4 weeks combined – so don’t think there is death at every corner you turn. But we had it all from Hyena taking down a young wildebeest to a young lioness playing with a young gazelle, like a cat with a ball and string, feet chewed off so it couldn’t run, to three members of the Marsh Pride spending half an hour trying to kill a baby hippo, before leaving it for dead. When you see these animals being hunted and eaten by each other on tv, you’re spared the worst of it. But when you’re face to face with it, it can be quite hard to watch and in fact every part of you wants to step in and help.

Brutality of The Mara

Brutality of The Mara

So there we go. If you made it down this far, thanks for sticking with it and getting a balanced view of what is, despite the above couple of bloody photos, a place full of breathtaking sights and sounds. It should be on everyone’s bucket list, period.

Spot the Safari newbie

Spot the Safari newbie

As for me. I’ll be back, and it can’t come soon enough!

About the author

Richard Peters is a Surrey based professional wildlife photographer, Nikon Ambassador, and one of the few British photographers to receive the accolade of European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He is known for a style that often favours dramatic use of light, runs wildlife photography workshops and, from camera clubs to big industry events, holds talks about his work.

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