Horns and Hooves

Kenya – The Great Migration

The Great Migration. Sir David Attenborough calls it “The Greatest Show on Earth” – he’s not wrong.  If you think it looks amazing on TV, seeing it for real is a once in a lifetime experience.  Nothing could have prepared David or I for what we were going to see.

When we heard that an enormous herd was gathering at the Mara River, we literally inhaled our breakfast because we wanted to get to a prime spot as soon as possible.  As we headed towards the river, we could see the great line of wildebeest heading to the river.

Wildebeest line

When we arrived, there were already 4 or 5 cars there.  We all stayed a healthy distance from the riverbank – the reason for this was not just to give the herds space to get to the river, but also because if the cars get too close, the herds will not cross.

We asked James what the likelihood of seeing a crossing was as there didn’t seem to be many animals at the riverbank.  His reply was that if there were enough zebras there, the herds would cross provided they were not disturbed by predators or cars.  It was now a waiting game.

A Lone Impala

We waited and we waited.  The hot African sun beating down on our heads made the wait very uncomfortable.  We were wearing hats but this did not stop the sun from burning our arms and legs and through our hats.  Worse, even our cameras were getting too hot to hold.  We looked enviously at one lady who had had the foresight to bring an umbrella to protect herself from the sun.  The numbers of the herd swelled to epic proportions – surely they must cross soon.

Zebras and Wildebeest

Much to our frustration, there were multiple false starts – zebra would climb down to the riverbank which was out of view only to come back up on the same side.  Then the wildebeest started to do the same.  “Aaaargh! Cross already!!” was voiced frequently in our car.

Black and White Zebras

I occupied my time by taking photos of the herds but always with one eye on what was happening at the riverbank.

Zebra Headshots

There were so many zebras in the herd that all the guides were convinced that there would be a crossing that day.

After two hours, some cars gave up and left, only to be replaced by other cars.  We were given the option to leave and look for something else to photograph but we opted to stay.  The herd was still growing so we were pretty hopeful that they must cross and soon.

I don’t recall what happened but suddenly, everyone was starting up their engines – the great migration had begun!  It was like being in the F1.  The dust was so thick we could not see where we were going.  I wondered idly if James would know when to stop or whether we would end up in the river, participating IN the migration rather than photographing it.

Wildebeest Havoc

We arrived too late to get to the front.  It was utter chaos.  The air was full of dust and the deafening thunder of a million hooves.  Photographers everywhere, hanging out of windows and the tops of their cars, all vying to get a space to shoot the grand spectacle.

The Great Wildebeest Crossing

David got out of the jeep – our location allowed him to stay hidden from the rangers so he could shoot from the ground over the bonnet of our car.  I couldn’t do this as I was too short.  So I took off, with James’ help, moving through the jeeps to get to the Kicheche car that had an unobstructed view of the river near the front.  This was not an easy thing to do as I was carrying two camera bodies with enormous lenses attached to each!

Churning river of Wildebeest

People started to shout – the crocodiles were coming down the river, looking for their next meal.  Hippos were going into the river too.

Crossing to Safety

This was singularly the most stressful and yet exhilarating photo shoot I had ever done.  I tried to concentrate on the shots I wanted to get but it was impossible  because there was just so much going on and I wanted to capture it all.

Wildebeest Splash

“Oh my god! Look! The crocodile has got a wildebeest!  Don’t go into the river little zebra! There’s a croc lurking!”  So many people shouting running commentaries, thundering hooves, zebras braying, the roar of the river, I thought I was going to explode, trying to stay calm and focussed in the cacophony of noise.

Dangerous Waters

And then I saw him – the lone wildebeest sitting in the river as the rest of the herd swam or ran past him.  His head was barely above water.  To my right, I saw another wildebeest, also “stuck” in the river, unmoving.

Wildebeest and Zebra running

The crossing was relentless.  Wave upon wave of wildebeest and zebras jumping into the river, swimming for their lives to get to the other side.  It was just incredible.

Race for Life

Suddenly, my camera stopped shooting.  WTF?!?!  Unbelievably, my 32Gb card was full and my cards were back in the car!  Thank god I had my spare camera body on me.  But I knew it only had a 16Gb card in it – I hoped to god it would be enough.

I wondered where the herd went when it go to the other side but it was just a fleeting thought.  There was more drama unfolding before my eyes which required my immediate attention.

Running to Safety

I spied a zebra family with a foal.  They wanted to cross but directly below them lurked a crocodile and it was clear he wanted the baby.

Waiting to cross

The crocodile eventually left to help the crocodile who was still struggling to bring down the wildebeest.  The zebras took the opportunity to jump in and swim to the other side.

Zebra Crossing

Zebra Line

Zebra Crossing in numbers

But the currents were very strong and the foal panicked and turned around, followed by his mother.  He and his mum were now stranded on our side of the river with the rest of the family on the opposite bank.  Zebras are herd animals and the family tie amongst zebras is such that they will not abandon their own.  They cross together or not at all.  You could hear their distress as they called to the foal and his mother but they would not/could not make the crossing.  The zebras had no choice but to come back for them.

Zebras in water

The zebras braved the river once more and came back to help the mother and her baby.

Zebra Magic

My heart was in my mouth as the family attempted the crossing for the second time.

Zebra Swimming

This time they were accompanied by some wildebeest.

Follow the Leader

Had the crocodiles not been pre-occupied with the wildebeest already in their jaws, I am sure that this zebra family would not have escaped unscathed.  When they all made it safely to the other side, I breathed a sigh of relief as did many others who were also watching.

I now turned my attention to the drama unfolding close to the opposite side of the bank.

The wildebeest had been caught early on in the crossing but he was still fighting for his life.  Time and time again he would drag himself out of the water, with many of us shouting encouragement, taking the crocodile with him.  But whenever we thought he would succeed, his back end would go crashing back into the water as the crocodile hung on to his victim.

Fight for Life

The crocodile who had been hanging out for the zebra foal decided that he wanted easier prey, so went to assist his fellow crocodile with the wildebeest.  We honestly thought that would be the end of him but the wildebeest was strong and clearly wanted to live.

Prey versus Predators

Against all odds, he dragged the two crocodiles with him towards the riverbank. “Come on! You can do it!!” we all screamed.  We willed this wildebeest to win this monumental battle, to escape, to live.  But it was not to be.  A third crocodile came gliding down the river , grabbed the wildebeest by it’s horn and between the three of them, they dragged this mighty wildebeest down into the murky depths of the river.

A Battle Royale

It was over.  And as tragic as it was, his death meant that the other wildebeest and the little zebra foal lived.

The great migration was also over.  It had lasted 30 minutes but the herd had made it.  With the exception of a couple of hippos, the Mara River was empty again.

Hippo in Mara River

Our tour guide has been visiting Kenya for over 10 years and in that time, he has witnessed many crossings.  The crossing we had just witnessed rated in his top five crossings – I’ll take that as it was a pretty good one then.

For those of you who would like to see the Great Migration, here are a few tips.

  • Allow yourselves at least a week in the Mara.  Crossings do not occur everyday so if you go for just three days, be prepared to be disappointed.
  • On the day you go to the river, depending on where you are staying, it is most likely to be a very long day i.e. you will leave your lodge before dawn and you will not return until early evening.  Take a hat and an umbrella to give you protection from the sun.  If you are lucky, the crossing will occur very quickly but be prepared to be sat out in the sun for anything up to six hours.
  • Think about the sort of photos you would like to take – do you want to tell a story?  Are you after specific shots?  Are you looking for interesting shapes?  This is never more important than when you are photographing the Crossing.  It really will help you to keep your focus in all the chaos.
  • Last but not least, make sure you have plenty of memory cards on your person!

Mbuni tent

Kenya – Our African Safari

After the huge disappointment of our South African safari last year, I couldn’t wait to get back to Kenya.  In order to maximise our chances of seeing game, David and I timed our visit to coincide with the Great Migration.

From the moment we left Ol Kiombo airport for Bush Camp I could barely contain my excitement at being back in Africa again. It had been far too long, in fact, the last time we had visited Kenya was our honeymoon back in 2001.  The drive from the airport afforded us our first sighting – a cheetah and her 11 month old cub.  A good omen for the start of our African Safari!

The jeeps at Bush Camp have been specially adapted with platforms off each window and there were plenty of beanbags in the cars for steadying our cameras. Our driver, James, was known for his uncanny ability to anticipate the movements of the animals.  A handy skill to have when ferrying around photographers looking for the best photographic positions.

As the harsh light of the first game drive of our african safari finally turned into beautiful golden light, we came across a pride of lions just waking up from their nap. At 22 strong, the Monaco pride is the dominant pride within the conservancy. I literally did not know where to point my camera because there were so many lions and cubs around us.

A son of the Monaco pride taken during our african safari holiday

Incidentally, the camera and lens combo I was using on this trip was a Canon EOS 7D teamed up with my trusty Canon 100-400mm lens. I know there are noise issues with the Canon 7D but provided the subject and main focus is sharp, I personally think that a bit of noise in the background is ok.

We stayed with the pride until there was no light left before reluctantly leaving to find somewhere to enjoy our sundowner. What an excellent way to start our safari!

Over the course of the next few days, we bore witness to some incredible sightings: African Wild Dogs (also known as painted dogs) that have not been seen in the Mara for over a decade and have the ability to run great distances. This pack more than lived up to their reputation as we followed them for over half an hour and covered miles.

African Wild Dog (lycaon pictus)

We also met Narasia the Cheetah and her two young cubs who were just 10 weeks old. The cubs kept us highly entertained with their antics but my favourite memory of them was when they interacted with their mother. The bond of love between them was just so beautiful to see and I feel privileged to have been able to capture the sequence below.

Cheetah cub jumping onto his mother

Cheetah cub playing with his mother

Cheetah mother and cub love

Perhaps our most adorable encounter was with a small herd of elephants that contained a tiny baby calf snuggling with her older sibling. We were thoroughly enchanted by this baby elephant and her sister who was still a young elephant herself.

We were mindful not to get too close to the young ones as we didn’t want to be charged by the adults in the group. However, they seemed relatively relaxed about our presence which gave us the opportunity to watch and photograph the gorgeous baby elephant as she explored the area.

Elephant calf snuggling with her older sibling

The morning we were due to enter the Masai Mara, we encountered the famous Marsh Pride, well, some of them anyway. The cubs were 10 weeks old and had not long been re-introduced to the rest of the pride. There was a third lioness but her cubs were very young so she had taken them away from the pride for now to keep them safe. In time, she would rejoin her sisters.

Marsh Pride with cubs

A rare opportunity to capture hippo with their young out of the water.

Adult hippo with a young hippo by the river's edge

I had hoped to capture an iconic animal under an acacia tree but it just never happened so I settled for a Topi on a mound with the acacia tree in the distance.

Topi on a mound on the mara plains

Our best sighting of a leopard came during the magical golden hour. We had hired one of the brand new Canon 300mm f/2.8 lenses for the trip but I had been reluctant to use it simply because it didn’t have the range of my 100-400mm. I can’t say that I loved the lens on first using it, mainly because I am used to telephoto lens and not primes but I can see that I could grow to like this lens.

Leopard in golden light

I also marvelled at the fact that we had not seen any hyenas. It turned out that not many hyenas hang out at the conservancy due to the high density of lions in the area. Ironically, the lack of hyenas meant that cheetahs thrived in Olare Orok since it meant one less scavenger trying to steal their food.

Hyena in the brush

One of the reasons I love Africa so much is because there are so many opportunities to capture images that are made so much more interesting because of their backstories.

I mentioned earlier that the dominant pride in the conservancy was the Monaco pride. For some reason, two of the lionesses have split from the pride to form their own little family. On our penultimate day in Africa, the bulk of the Monaco pride came across the two lionesses who had young cubs with them. The talk at dinner that night was of the annihilation of this small pride and our hearts ached at the thought of the cubs being killed. The following morning we travelled to the last known resting place of the small pride, looking for signs of survival. We found one of the lionesses alone.

Lioness at dawn sat in long grass

She got up and left as we approached and we noticed that she was wounded – her hindquarter had a particularly nasty gash on it. James surmised that she must have stayed to fight off the Monaco pride, allowing her sister to take the cubs to safety. We found her sister eventually but with just two of the cubs and they were terrified. We left them alone as we didn’t want to draw attention to the traumatised group but our concern for the missing cub grew. We eventually found the first lioness again and to our relief, the last cub was with her.

Lioness with her cub

I think the whole group was glad that the little pride was safe as it would have cast a pall over the end of our african safari had the pride been lost.

There was also good news on the cheetah front in that the coalition of brothers had managed to make a kill and it had been a good one of a wildebeest. We didn’t see the actual kill but we witnessed them feeding and then clean each other. I was also impressed with how they expertly extracted the stomach and laid it to one side of the carcass, completely intact! It seems they don’t like to eat the stomach so leave it for others to feed on.

Cheetahs cleaning each other

Our african safari ended on a high with what felt like the entire Monaco pride coming out to bid us farewell. It had been a fantastic trip and I think it will be a while yet before I get through all the photos I took. Farewell Africa, we will be back!

Golden Jackal