Trip Report 2: Great Migration Photo Safari, 21 to 27 September 2014

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, great migration, Morkel 2 Comments

Where does one begin to describe a safari that had everything a wildlife photographer could wish for and more?

My good friend Marlon already posted his account of this Great Migration photo safari we hosted together, so I will try and complement his in my own way without rehashing too much of what he shared.

I normally like to give day-by-day accounts with detail descriptions and multiple images to give you a feel of what it was like for our guests – however last year’s Migration report went to 3 parts and this one is in danger of going to 5 parts if I went that way…so instead I will lift out highlights from the trip as they jump up from my image library. Suffice to say that we had amazing wildlife sightings EVERY single day during this safari. I can’t recall one day being a bit boring or tedious, and our guests will say the same.

From the moment those traveling from Johannesburg on the midnight flight out met each other at the check-in counter and proceeded to have a cup of Joe at the Mugg & Bean in the international departure section, the anticipation and excitement was palpable. What would the Mara Triangle dish up for us?

Day 1

The Wild Eye Great Migration safaris are engineered to maximise your time in the Mara. Our guests who have been to the region before commented on how much they appreciated not having to fly in early and spend a night at a hotel in Nairobi, and how they didn’t have to check out at 9am on our last day but were able to spend the majority of the day out in the field and still be in Nairobi that evening for a flight home. By 10h30am local time we landed on the Mara Serena airstrip and it wasn’t too much later that we were in the Wild Eye cruisers patrolling the riverbanks for potential crossings.

We witnessed a mini crossing through a flooded channel shooting off from the Mara river, and were able to position the vehicles for some nice angles across the water.

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We spent some time with a couple of zebra that were fidgeting around on the banks of the Mara river – but after a while it was clear they were merely contemplating getting a drink – something we decided seemed like a good idea, so we headed to camp. Driving through the herds, one of my guests sighed and merely commented on how amazing a sight it was, and that this is what he came here for. Well, he would get lots more than that as the week went by!

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After a quick introduction to the camp staff and the welcome message by the legendary Dickson, we all had a drink on the banks of the Mara river as the day built up some sweltering heat. We could see the clouds building for relief across the river, and eventually headed out for our afternoon drive…what would the Mara deliver on our first day? A herd of elephants were grazing on the opposite bank of the river close to our camp, and the scene just invited a wide angle lens!

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It wasn’t long before we spotted a beautiful male leopard on patrol, and were able to nail some interesting images!

Here he is licking and rolling in some buffalo dung…

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After a while, this handsome boy laid down in a thicket and we proceeded to patrol the plains for some photographic opportunities. There’s just something special about the Mara under stormy skies late in the afternoon!!

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We ended our first afternoon drive with mating ostriches, some more elephants, lion cubs and sleeping male lions.

What a start!

Day 2

When your day starts like this – you know it’s going to be awesome!

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I lie – our day actually started with a delicious cup of coffee and a rusk in the dining tent on the banks of the Mara river, watching the pre-dawn glow build up to this sunrise. Shortly afterwards, we found a lion couple on the move. The male was one of the famous brothers who had crossed over the Mara river from the Marsh pride a while back.

He eventually flopped down where his brothers were already laying, and we focused on the lionesses – of which there were now 4…and we captured some precious moments of interaction!

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Eventually we left the lions and found a very special sighting of no less than 3 “African Unicorns” accompanied by some of those animals with trunks and tusks!

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The rest of the morning’s photography was split between some more Elephants, a curious troop of Olive Baboons and some Zebras rolling in the dust on the plains – following which a hearty breakfast was enjoyed in the middle of the big migrating herds – an experience all by itself. One of our vehicles had struck out in a different direction that morning and also had some great sightings – one of which included a pride of lions with cubs on a fresh kill.

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After breakfast we spent a long time waiting at the river for a herd of wildebeest who were looking to cross from the other side.

We waited.

And waited.

Until they eventually obliged!

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The looks on the faces of our guests were awesome to behold. We went straight back to camp for a quick lunch before setting off again…

We decided to spend the afternoon with the lions that we left that morning.

En route we found that the “migration” fever had rubbed off on a large herd of Cape Buffalo too – the biggest herd I’ve seen in the Mara for sure.

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The lions were being true to form and useless, but as the light faded we found two of the females on the plains stalking among the herds. As it was time to return to camp, we wondered if we would find a kill here in the morning. An evening of excited chatter in the media tent and around the dining table and campfire followed – and everyone was feeling privileged to be here for a couple more days of wildlife mania.

Day 3

Our day started with the usual pre-sunrise coffee and cereal on the banks of the Mara, before heading out towards the Oloololo Escarpment.

This little cocky elephant and his family provided some shutter exercise in sweet light…

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We drove along the Oloololo Escarpment road through vast herds of wildebeest and zebra, stopping for the odd photo, and eventually found a pride of lions stuffed from the night’s kill (which wasn’t too far away given the vultures loitering around). Despite being well fed, they did not seem to forget that there was plenty of food still around…

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Although the wildlife is prolific in the Mara ecosystem, the birdlife is even more so. One of our guests is an avid birder and ticked over 86 species off his list during this week (with the help of one of our Maasai guides Tim, who is also keen on birds). This Marabou Stork was landing at the kill the lions shown above had made.

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We took our time driving through the massive herds en route to our breakfast spot – this is part of the experience and something you have to soak up with all your senses, as mere photos cannot convey this feeling and the multitudes!

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After our breakfast stop we trawled along the river, but no crossings were building up and we settled for a relaxed Elephant bull who allowed us close as he grazed. Using our wide-angle lenses we were able to capture some nice images of this scene.

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The other vehicles had made their way back to camp to relax and have some lunch, but by the time we reached the turnoff to our camp site we noticed a large herd of Zebra had built up at the local drinking/crossing spot, hoping to quench their thirst in the heat of the day. We just sensed something would happen here…so we skipped lunch and sat here photographing the tension of the midday drink for 4 hours!!

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Eventually, after almost 3 hours, the rest of the vehicles came out of the camp on their “afternoon drive”, and joined us in waiting for some action here.

There was a lot happening here, both at the river’s edge and inside the vehicle, and I’ll do a proper blog post on this 4-hour session soon. Suffice to say that eventually there were two huge crocs that fancied their chances, and the action came from a most unexpected direction, and I personally cocked up my images of the pivotal moment, as did Marlon – grea job coming from the photographic hosts eh?

Luckily most of our guests nailed this one…and the images they got are spectacular – which always puts a smile on the faces of the Wild Eye team!

As the rest of the group headed out for their afternoon game drive, we popped into camp for a quick bathroom break and headed back out immediately. The afternoon was spent with one of the famous Lionesses of the Mara Triangle who loves to lounge in trees. We were hoping she would descend from the particularly good-looking tree she chose to lay up in around sunset, and that she did! Again – we all positioned our vehicles for a good angle/perspective depending on the kind of image we wanted, and we all waited for that pivotal moment when it all (hopefully) comes together. This is a key element in what distinguishes a dedicated photographic safari from traveling in a group of general tourists – the ability to work towards the same photographic goal and spend as much time with a specific subject as you want to…

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Needless to say, after skipping our lunch we wolfed down our delicious dinner that night with fervor. The night was filled with the sounds of hippo, lions roaring close by, and a rasping leopard across the river…

Day 4

The lions were still roaring as we met for our pre-departure cup of coffee. We headed straight out to look for them…and found a mating couple on the plains not very far from our camp.

She was however trying desperately to give her Don Juan the slip and as soon as he dozed off she stood up and trotted up towards the escarpment. He was up minutes after that, and realised his love interest had left. We followed him as he tracked her scent and he provided us with some nice opportunities to see a male lion somewhat on a trot.

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He didn’t quite catch up with her, and followed her trail into some thicker bush. As we decided to leave him and head in other directions, we ended up driving through the big herds again – and this usually brings on an opportunity for some slow shutter panning of running Wildebeests.

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During our breakfast stop at a tree near the Oloololo Escarpment, some lions came walking past us (range of about 60 meters) – quite exciting!

By the way, how does this look for a breakfast setting?

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We received word of some unnerved Wildebeest around the dried marshes close to our camp, so we headed down there after breakfast and found a lone Lioness stalking along the marshes where the herds were grazing! Lining up our vehicles along the only corridor where we had a visual on her, we were able to provide our guests with a lion kill – start to finish!

For many, it was their first ever kill to witness and photograph.

The distance to the subject and the heat haze of midday made sure we got “record” shots but nothing really worth adding to your portfolio.

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This lioness had cubs, and no sooner had she dragged the young wildebeest to the bushes and brought the cubs to feed, and the wildebeests forgot about her and piled back in after the green grasses…and guess what?

She made another charge! Such an opportunist.

We drover up to the bathrooms at Hippo Pool quickly, and as we came back, we saw that the herds were surrounding her position once again.

This time we chose a different position so we could have a better view of the charge. She did so again – albeit unsuccessfully!

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After this attempt, she really seemed to settle down and gorge on her initial kill with her cubs. We headed back to the camp for a well-earned lunch and shower. What action!

For our afternoon drive, we decided to check up on her again, but she was lying flat under the bush where she fed with the cubs, fast asleep, and the herds seemed to have learned their lesson as they were keeping well away from her position. We were just about to go looking for action along the Mara river when we were called back to camp with the news that a large male Lion had taken up position on the bank of the river directly across from where our tents were pitched! We headed back, grabbed some comfy chairs and drinks, and waited for him to start getting active as the sun dipped. The setting was fantastic, and we hoped for some nice images…

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Besides the Simba lying there, we had some nice elephants and a huge buffalo to work with on the other bank – and at one stage a small cluster of wildebeest even came running full speed towards the riverbank, stopped, looked puzzled, then turned away and thundered on…what silly beasts they are!

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The lion wasn’t as cooperative as we hoped – lying down much of the time (did we really expect him not to be true to lion form?). As the weather worsened and the rain started to pelt us and our expensive camera gear, most of the group scuttled for the cover of the dining tent – but those that stayed the extra minute in hope of that keeper image were rewarded, handsomely, when he got up at the last minute for a quick 3 frames, before ducking into the bush behind him. As the darkness fell and the rain subsided, he got out and roared as we had our dinner. What a way to end the day!

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Day 5

Some of our guests left very early to join Marlon on a morning balloon ride over the Mara with Governor’s Balloon Safaris. The rest of us headed out as soon as we could, and coming across a fresh kill quite close to our camp, we noticed a male lion walking away from it…it was Scarface, or Scar, as he is known. A formidable lion, who oozes confidence and character. We were able to work with him in some great light, and through clever vehicle positioning by our drivers on my instruction, we got some nice low angles too as he strolled towards the escarpment.

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As he eventually found some shrubs to lay down under, we moved on, heading towards a Black-backed Jackal den we found on our first afternoon drive. A pair of raunchy Thomson’s Gazelle made us stop briefly. He was feeling it, she wasn’t!

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The jackal pups were out and about, and mom and dad brought them food intermittently. We enjoyed watching their antics, and every now and then got some cute poses from them…

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After picking up the “balloon-riders” from their champagne breakfast out on the plains, we decided to head out to the Tanzanian border to look for potential cheetah sightings – but we found something else instead! A pride of lions had killed no less than 4 wildebeests earlier that morning, and took only one with them into a drainage line close by.

The other 3 carcasses were left for the scavengers, who swarmed and flocked and caboodled in by the numbers. Spotted Hyaenas, Marabou Storks, various Vulture species and some lone Jackals all provided great exercise for our shutter fingers and tested our dexterity to quickly change memory cards that became full!

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When the action died down, we proceeded to a nearby tree and had a late breakfast. This was one of my favourite meal spots on the trip – as the endless vista of iconic Balanites trees was a sight to behold.

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After enjoying some coffee, eggs, sausage and yoghurt, we moved back towards the Oloololo Escarpment along the Tanzanian border. What followed was an epic afternoon and one of the highlights of the trip for everyone involved…we found a female Cheetah with 5 very young cubs! We found out on our return that the Mara Triangle rangers call her “Kakenya” to distinguish her from another female on the Maasai Mara Game Reserve side of the river who also has 5 cubs.

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Not only were we privy to some wonderful moments between her and her cubs, we also got to watch her lead them on a long march along the escarpment as she scouted for a potential prey. When she spotted a lone Thomson’s Gazelle, the cubs hunkered down, and by re-positioning our vehicles we were able to get a great view of the chase. The cards were stacked for it to come straight towards us, but as it goes, the gazelle took a turn and veered off, causing the take-down to happen away from us at a distance.

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As soon as the prey was down, though, we could move in closer – always sticking to the rules of the Mara Triangle (a ranger was on hand to control the sighting and protect the cheetahs from unruly operator behaviour). It was really special to see how she calls her cubs and how they rush into the kill.

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As the family started to tuck into their dinner – the rain came down, and it was bucketing! This made for some interesting photo opportunities…

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We stayed with them and watched as they fed and groomed (the rain subsided) until we really had to leave to make it back to our camp in time for the conservancy cut-off time. That evening the media tent was a buzz of activity, as everyone had stacks of filled up memory cards to download. Conversation around dinner was lively, and everyone was overwhelmed by the day’s sightings.

How do you top a day like this?

Would the trip wind down from here?

What would the Mara dish up tomorrow?

Day 6

My day started early this time, as I was given the opportunity to join the morning’s hot air balloon outing from Governor’s Balloon Safaris. This is an experience I would advise everyone visiting the Mara to opt for. The whole landscape and ecosystem takes on a new dynamic if viewed from the air at low altitude…

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The wind took us over the river, which is awesome to see. We even floated over our camp! See Dickson and Isaac waving at us from the mess tent.

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After getting picked up from the landing spot by one of our vehicles, we found a lioness who was on the hunt – but she was upwind and the herds caught her scent. She then receded into a drainage line to rest.

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We bumped into the 3 “Mara Unicorns” again, which was special. This little guy has a floppy ear:

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This particular morning was a special one – we were having our bush breakfast atop the Oloololo Escarpment, looking out over the Mara…

This is a wonderful experience and one that entrenches the holistic approach the Wild Eye East Africa team take when giving our guests an authentic Mara safari adventure.

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After the completion of our brunch, we headed down to continue our wildlife adventure. The plan was for everyone to stay out in the field for the rest of the day. What we found next just took this day to a new level of excitement…some lionesses were lounging under a tree, when a herd of wildebeest and zebra suddenly came running down from the escarpment to join some others on the plains.

They came close enough to pique the interest of the lionesses, and the hunt was on! After one failed attempt, one of the lionesses managed to take down a young wildebeest quite close to us (after she stalked right next to our vehicle). She then proceeded to leave her prey where it was and went for a rest – these lions were clearly just doing some target practice!

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The second lioness was now moving along the main Oloololo road towards some more wildebeest and we thought for sure that a two-for was on the cards! We proceeded to where she seemed to be heading, but she ducked into a culvert under the road and proceeded to snooze. We then decided to go and look for our superstar Cheetah mom, “Kakenya”, again. En route we found our hunting lioness from earlier in the morning, and she’d made a kill but was also lying down close to the road, not eager to tuck into her meal at all. These Mara cats were all fat and lazy and full!

We found the Cheetah family quite close to where we left them the previous afternoon…and lo and behold, mommy-dear proceeded to go into hunting mode again! Would we have a repeat of yesterday??

They proceeded to pose nicely on a couple of termite mounds for us, as they gradually made their way East along the escarpment.

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She proceeded to chase down an unfortunate Thomson’s Gazelle fawn who appeared over a ridge with its mother. We respectfully waited where we were, as moving before she started to chase might have spoiled her chances, and her feeding her cubs is paramount at this stage given cheetah cub mortality in Africa. We were able to get into a good position to get her moving towards us with her prize, though.

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Again she called the cubs to her, and they proceeded to tuck into the kill. A storm was building again, but this time they would remain dry while having their meal! Eventually we left them and patrolled the plains looking for photo opportunities in some awesome afternoon light, capped by a wonderful sunset overlooking the vast herds.

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Morkel Erasmus - Wild Eye

Our day’s driving was encored by a male lion lying on a mound right at the turnoff to our camp – we nearly missed him as it was quite dark by then. Back in camp, another tradition of the Wild Eye Great Migration safaris was kicked off – a traditional Maasai evening where the camp staff, led by Dickson and Frances, gave us some cultural background on the Maasai, answered some questions from the guests about their traditions and lifestyle, and performed a legendary jumping dance. This was followed by sharing a communal meal of goat roasted over an open fire in their traditional way.

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The mood around the dinner table was vibrant after the amazing day we had – it seemed every day was a highlight, and the day that followed always seemed to top the previous day time and time again. Needless to say, our guests were beside themselves with what they had seen and experienced during this week. It was a relief to know that we still had a proper morning drive on our last day – as we would leave the Mara by chartered flight only at 4pm to Nairobi. This safari truly is designed to maximise time in the field…

Day 7

We woke up with a bit of a sombre mood, knowing it’s our last morning on the banks of the Mara. Nevertheless, a wildlife adventure awaited and we were out in the field as soon as dawn broke. It wasn’t long until we found our favourite group of male lions, very close to camp yet again! One of the brothers was lying up with a female, and we figured they were in a mating cycle. Suddenly, another female came from the bushes – and proceeded to lure on of the brothers with a teasing run!

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It didn’t take us long to figure out that this was the lactating female with cubs who caught the wildebeest in the marshy area a couple of days ago – and that she was feigning oestrus to lure the males away from where her cubs were stashed! They would surely kill them since they are probably the offspring of another male. Every time the raunchy male came close to mounting her, she would smack him and run away for a while – all the while leading them way up to the Oloololo Escarpment. It was a fascinating display of natural instinct and behaviour, and we stayed with them until they moved into an area that was tough to follow them into.

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Most of the vehicles were heading to the river in hopes of a last-minute crossing possibility, while we decided to look for our Cheetah family again. We never did get far enough in their direction, as a lovely Serval distracted us from our goal as she was hunting in the grasslands!

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The rest of the day’s sightings included more lions, some hippos in the Mara river, a lovely family of elephants, some more migrating herds, and a potential crossing from the other side of the river that just didn’t happen in time for us, as we headed back to our camp for lunch around 1pm. Around the table one last time, everyone gave their highlights and a summary of their experience this week, and it was emotional for many to realise that this experience of a lifetime was at an end.

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We had a great group of guests and a great safari made possible by an amazing team on the ground. As the plane took off and we all got a view of the Mara one last time from up on high, I felt grateful to be able to share this magic with others, to see these places while they are still there, and to capture some of what I experience in these places with my camera.

Why don’t you join us next year?

It could be you in this photo!

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Thanks for following along on this memoir!

Have a fantastic week.

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 2

  1. sandy clark

    We were at the same place you were watching the migration as you were. I recall your camp chairs and long lens camera around us. I have wonderful memories and beautiful pictures, but we missed the rhino!!!

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