What is it like to visit the Masai Mara? To photograph wildlife in one of Africa’s most iconic game reserves?
These are questions I get asked often and, like many of our guests also said during the last few weeks, it’s very difficult to tell someone what it’s like. You have to experience it for yourself, and this after only a few days in this amazing destination. It is the kind of place that gets under your skin very quickly and quite often the experience is a lot more visceral than just another visit to a Big 5 game reserve.
There are very few places in Africa that comes close to offering the same kind of wildlife photography opportunities and wildlife experiences – those are two very different things – and unfair as it may be to compare any two reserves, the open plains of the Mara gives you more than just incredible game viewing. It offers a glimpse into a unique and truly dynamic ecosystem and within a few days of arriving you start seeing, you start feeling the pulse of Africa.
Seriously, the way in which you can view the distant hills changes on a daily basis, sometimes on an hourly basis, with the ebb and flow of massive herds of wildebeest is obvious, yet subtle at the same time, that you cannot help but feel a part of the story. A story that makes for incredible wildlife photography. Add to that the open plains which makes looking for and, more often that not, finding the same big cats you photographed the day before easier than normal and you have the makings of a truly incredible African photographic adventure.
Sitting down to write the trip report for the photo safari that Marlon and I hosted from 24 to 30 August, I didn’t quite know which way to go with it. A day by day account of sightings? Or perhaps just a rough overview of the highlights from a great experience shared with a wonderful group of people?
In the end I decided to look through my images from the safari in chronological order and pull out moments that, to me, stood out for some or other reason.
On top of this I will then do another post in a week or so which will feature 8 images from each of the guests that joined us for an experience that created new friends and lifelong memories.
So let’s kick it off with the very first frame I captured on this particular safari.
As the door to our charter flight opened we stared at a herd of buffalo, a few scattered elephants and no less than 7 species of general game. We had arrived in the Mara! Minutes after leaving the airstrip this was the first image I shot.
For most of our guests it was their first time in the Mara and the wonder and complete awe was beautiful to see.
As we started heading away from the airstrip and towards the Wild Eye Mara Camp, the photographic tension was just too much for some people to bare so we spent a good deal of time photographing the large numbers of general game species scattered across the African savannah.
A name that became very popular with our guests and rightfully so. This lion, son of the famous Notch from Big Cat Diaries fame, was in the Mara Triangle with his three brothers and they were close to camp. During the next few days we spent a considerable time with this amazing coalition of lions and photographically they did not disappoint.
Our first sighting saw two of the big males on each side of the road which meant loads of different photographic opportunities.
On the one side of the road we had Scar, still hiding his now infamous speared eye.
On the other side of the road one of his brothers was taking a Sunday afternoon nap under the watchful eye of a group of Zebra.
Our photographic safari in the Mara had started and we had not even arrived at camp! Everyone knew we were in for a helluva ride!!
Now even though the Mara, and East Africa in general, is known for it’s wide open spaces the diversity of biomes and backgrounds for different types of images is quite remarkable.
During the last few weeks this is something I have discussed quite a bit and the value of placing your subject in a specific environment is absolutely priceless when it comes to creating unique wildlife images.
After kicking off the day with a pretty sweet Cheetah sighting we found him again.
Close to camp.
This lion is awesome and has incredible attitude. So much so that we have seen Facebook updates from some lodges on the other side of the river, while sitting in a sighting photographing him, saying that he has crossed back to their side. Hey, anything to help tourism I guess?
During the first few days we spent quite a bit of time with this pride, as when you have a guaranteed sighting, you should work it as much as you can rather than scream around all over the place looking for something else to photograph. Our patience and perseverance was rewarded and during the week we had some amazing ‘Scar and his brothers’ moments.
There is however more to the Mara than big cats and crossings, and it was always great to see people grab their iPhones and capture some moments to share with their friends online and family back home.
A few days into the safari I was in the vehicle with Jimmy and we spotted something that would produce great sightings for the next week or so.
Initially we though the Jackal was carrying a fresh kill but it turned out she was in the process of moving 4 youngsters to a new den site. As luck would have it the new den was right next to the road and no more than 5 minutes from our camp.
Yes, for the next few mornings we hit the den first thing each day.
And then of course, crossings.
The Mara is by no means defined by the Great Migration and it is a truly spectacular wildlife destination right through the year but during August and September it is why people go there.
Massive herds of Wildebeest. Dramatic river crossings. The visuals have been shared endlessly throughout television documentaries and on social media platforms, but to experience it for yourself makes it real and you realise then that is is a story that had been taking place for hundreds of years.
Large crossings, small crossings, dusty crossings, zebra crossings.
On this particular trip we saw and photographed them all.
We even saw a Thomson’s Gazelle crossing, a first for me.
Ok, there were just four of them.
But they did cross the Sand River with a group of wildebeest so technically it counts!
I could go on and on.
And on and on.
I could keep on choosing images of moments that were special to me but I’ll leave that for next week when we’ll share some guest images. That being said, I’m gonna wrap up this post with two more images.
We had just photographed Scar and his pride while a massive African storm was brewing in the background. We didn’t want to go but we had to and that was ok.
It was time to head back to camp and on the way I grabbed this image.
The mood in our vehicle was quiet but not in a bad way. It was beautiful and even though no one spoke I knew everything was perfect and this image will always remind of the mood on that afternoon.
All the guests were content and I had a moment of immense pride in the experience we have been able to create for our guests. It has been a long time coming and the road has been long but Andrew, Jono and I have been working hard on our Mara packages and along with our incredible staff in East Africa we have created a product that is, and I truly believe this, one of the very best Mara experiences anybody could ask for.
This is not something we do on the side, this is what we do. Many years of experience in the hospitality and guiding industry, numerous guiding qualifications and a certain X-factor when we all work together has made for something very special, and based on the feedback we have received, our guests agree and that is why we do what we do which brings me to the most important image from the trip.
But before then here is a quick iPhone video from the trip where I asked the guests about their highlights.
And now, back to the one image that really matters.
Taken on the third day of our safari, this image is what it’s all about.
It’s about experiences.
It’s about the people that share these great experiences.
It’s about an incredible team of people who create magic out in the field.
It’s about the guests who believe in what we do.
It’s about changing the way you see the world!
Thanks to everybody that joined us on this safari and our team in East Africa who helped Marlon and I do what we do.
I look forward to meeting you all again on our next photographic adventure.
Until next time.
Gerry van der Walt
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