Trip Report: Great Migration Photo Safari, 7-13 August 2016

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, great migration, Morkel 13 Comments

It was with great excitement that I touched down in Nairobi on an early morning and met up with all our guests (and with Gerry) at the Weston Hotel. This was the first year that I would be seeing the Great Migration this early on in the season, and I couldn’t wait to see what the Mara would dish up for our group. The guests were all eager to experience this spectacle first hand…

Great Migration trip reports are so action packed, it’s worth dishing out in a day-by-day manner in these reports, so here we go! I’ll let the photos do the talking.

7 August

Our charter flight into the Mara Triangle lands very smoothly (possibly best landing ever, in ANY aircraft, I might add!), under overcast skies, and we drive off for a very leisurely drive back to camp. The herds are already moving in the grasslands all around the Mara Triangle.

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The “leisurely drive” ended up being about 3 hours’ worth of game drive, with so much to see, hear and smell as we introduce this special place to our guests.

From vultures getting into a squabble over a dead wildebeest…

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…to a very close call on seeing our first wildebeest river crossing…

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The local hippo pod at our camp have no shame, and our guests love it!

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After settling into the comfort of the rustic Wild Eye camp on the banks of the Mara river, we grab a quick lunch and immediately head out on our first “official” game drive of the week. The destination – the marshes northeast of the camp – and what abundance we find there! See for yourself:

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At this point we just needed a leopard and “Big 5” could be ticked on the first day. But luckily, none of us were really concerned about that kind of thing. Our first evening dinner in the camp dining tent is alive with enthusiasm and wonder about this special place called the Mara Triangle.

8 August

Up at 05h30 (some at 05h15 for a quick open-air shower), and ready for the morning game drive at 06h10 after a quick coffee and muffin. What would the day hold? We decide to explore the marshes again first thing, as the lion pride had been quite active there the previous day. As we drive out, the first hot air balloons start drifting overhead. The Mara is one of the best places in the world to undertake a balloon ride.

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We find the two lionesses from the previous afternoon on the move, and they also flush out a spotted hyena from the thickets. They lie down a tad far from our position for conducive photography, so we decide to patrol the Oloololo escarpment road for other photographic opportunities, slowly making our way to the river to look for potential crossings. Giraffes, elephants, and a secretary bird on the hunt entertain us.

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One of the stars of the morning is a mean-looking buffalo bull who had rolled in some deep mud and then proceeds to scrape the excess off against the bark of a tree. It’s not always about drama, predators and river-crossings, moments like this stand out to me – watching a specific subject showcasing typical behaviour, and capturing that on camera.

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Shortly before heading back to camp for lunch, we get stuck at the river for about 3 hours waiting for a sizeable crossing to take place. It does take place eventually – wildebeest, zebras, topis and even Thomson’s gazelles are involved.

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The drive after lunch is a bit more one-sided, as we decide to spend it with a mating pair of lions under a slight drizzle.

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That night, we are serenaded (as every night), by the calling of lions, hippos, elephants, baboons and hyaenas.

9 August

How to describe the morning our group gets to experience on this day?

Some of the guests opt for a glorious hot-air balloon ride, followed by a champagne breakfast on the plains (we partner with Governor’s Balloon Safaris for these), and the rest of us are out early and head to the marshes again to catch up with the lion lovers.

Some big tuskers greet us on the way there, one of them even shaking a balanite tree to dislodge some juicy branches.

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Following up on the mating lions, another male had taken over the “duties”, however he seemed much more interested in a herd of wildebeest that moved into the area south of his position. Soon he gets up, moves past his lover who looks on longingly, and stalks over to them with intent yet in plain sight. The next moment he squares off with a wildebeest who had ignorantly been rolling around in the mud (invisible up to then from our position), unaware of his approach! It doesn’t end well for the poor ungulate…

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Our group decides to stay with the lions for a bit, especially as the females try to convince the male that they also deserve part of the spoils. Eventually the vehicle I was in moves off to pick up the balloon-faring guests. The latter were obviously a bit disappointed at missing the lion action, but nothing could prepare us for the sighting we would be able to show them next!

We had gotten word that one of the Mara Triangle’s iconic male lions, “Scar”, was lounging around close to the Serena Hotel (the only permanent lodging in the Triangle). As we move towards that position, I saw a herd of impala being very alert and alarmed. Was it because of the lions? NO!

We see two feline shapes flit cross the road in front of us…leopards! Male leopards! In a territorial dispute!

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The leopards move back up the Serena hill after a short bout, and we assumed it was the end of this brief sighting – but a lioness had heard them and was coming closer to investigate. Suffice it to say what follows is one of the most interesting big cat interactions I’ve seen in my 34 years of wildlife safaris. I will leave that story for a follow-up blog, as I think it deserves to be told properly…

Needless to say, when this was over, we find Scar and his pride – and they entertain us for the next 2 hours or so, mating and even squaring off with a hippo in the long grass.

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The morning drive ends with a nice dusty crossing – and we make our way back to camp for a well deserved lunch!

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The camp is set on the banks of the Mara river, with one of the best dining tent views you can ask for…

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Our afternoon drive is a tad more subdued (how do you top that morning drive?) – and we spend time with a triplet of very young warthogs, some pods of hippo and then mostly wait for Scar and his brother to wake up from their afternoon snooze in time for sunset. They do not – as lions often do.

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As we fall asleep that night, I hear an elephant feeding in the forests around our camp, and a lion roaring in the distance.

10 August

After another early morning shower for some, an early morning hot beverage (not all of our guests were coffee lovers), and a quick caucus on the route plan for the day, we are off again in search of what the Mara would dish up…

We find a spotted hyaena feeding on a wildebeest carcass not far from our camp before sunrise, and another hyaena den with young pups along the main route to the crossing point lookout area.

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But the real star attraction of the morning is a huge, dusty, dramatic wildebeest crossing…pure mayhem!

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This amazing sight is followed by a truly memorable breakfast out in the bush, skilfully set up and prepared by the Wild Eye East Africa team. A scrumptious breakfast in the midst of thousands of wildebeest and zebra should be on everyone’s culinary experience bucket-list…

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What follows after this?

Besides crossing the Purungat bridge over the Mara river to see a lone cheetah resting under a bush, and a pleasing giraffe and tree scene…

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We have a BIG crossing…

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…and another good crossing…the shutters are firing and there are so many options to explore when photographing these dynamic and dramatic crossings.

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We stay out in the field all day – something our Wild Eye Great Migration safaris is well geared for – all to maximise our guests’ time in the field.

On the way back to camp we have a lovely sighting of the cute spotted hyaena pups coming out of their den next to the road to play.

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A great dinner rounds off the day very nicely indeed.

11 August

Our day starts in familiar fashion, with coffee on the banks of the Mara as the resident pod of hippos and the mating pair of African fish eagles wake us with their calls. Since a leopard had been spotted in the marshes we decide to check that area out first, and find the resident pride of lions lounging in the first rays of light.

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Since the lions are being typically lazy, we decide to trawl around the back end of the Oloololo escarpment in search of a cheetah that was spotted there the previous afternoon. We don’t strike it lucky in locating the cheetah, and eventually end up back at the Mara river and see a sizable crossing of mostly zebras. They move straight towards us which allow a close-up take on the swimming equines.

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Since we were out most of the morning, we have a late lunch in camp before quickly heading back out – such is the drive to go on drive in the Mara.

Did I mention the outdoor bucket showers in camp are awesome?

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There were reports of good herds building up on the opposite banks of the Mara along the main lookout stretch, so that’s where we are headed.

We experience two really good crossings that afternoon. With most of our guests now having “banked” enough sharp and striking crossing images, we start encouraging them to use slower shutter speeds (like I showed in THIS blog post) to try and capture something “other” than just a crossing image.

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1/20 of a second shutter speed

The second crossing was a BIG build-up…yet as so often happens just when it was about to happen, some of the animals start moving back up to grazing. When they eventually start to cross, many come back, but many also stay away. It is still a big crossing with lots of dust – and a fascinating view into what drives these animals to do what they do.

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1/10th of a second shutter speed

The Mara Triangle had definitely delivered for us so far during this week – and our guests were enthralled by what they were witnessing.

12 August

The first sighting of our last full day in the Mara is the local hyaena clan close to our camp interacting and socialising. Their fun is interrupted by a couple of zebra who did not like being in the same vicinity as these mangy hyaenas.

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We scour the entire length of the Mara river bank in this section of the Triangle in hope of an early morning crossing, or coming cross one of the male leopards (or even Scar the lion and his pride) again, but to no avail. We end up spending some time with a grouchy “duggaboy” buffalo and his oxpecker companions.

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Slowly we make our way to the spot called “Out of Africa” (where Meryl Streep sat under a tree watching over the Mara in the movie of same title) for our traditional group breakfast. This is always a very memorable outing and a fitting (near) end to the safari.

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Bellies full, and new safari plans made, we set off to go and find two male cheetahs who’d been spotted the previous day near the border with Tanzania. We make a quick stop at a couple of lionesses who were seen on a zebra kill that morning, but they are flat down under a tree. Not seeing much potential in that sighting, we proceed to the cheetahs. En route, a family of elephants walk across the plains.

When I notice a small waterhole up ahead, I instruct Sammy our guide to park us there, anticipating that the herd would come and enjoy the mud and cool water in the heat of the day, which they end up doing. I always encourage the use of wider focal lengths to capure “animalscapes” where applicable – and this was a good opportunity as they were right next to us!

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The cheetah brothers are found lying under a tree right on the border with Tanzania (Mara Triangle/Lamai Wedge Serengeti border). We opt to stay with them until they awake from their siesta – wildlife photography is after all a game of patience, luck and good preparation. These brothers are known to hunt wildebeest calves, and there was a big herd in a wide berth around them. The risk was always that something would happen on the Tanzania side and we would not be able to follow, but it was 50/50 for it happening in the Mara side as well. Only one way to find out…wait there…

Our patience pays off.

They go from this…

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…to THIS…very quickly (as cheetah’s do)!

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Seeing only one of the brothers tackle a fully grown wildebeest in full flight is something I will never forget. These cheetahs are a force to be reckoned with in this patch of the Mara! You can view a great video clip filmed by our guest Terrence Trevias below:

Needless to say, we were all glad that we stuck it out and waited over 3 hours with the cheetahs. Our supply of drinks and snacks in the vehicle was depleted by then! As we drive back to the vicinity of our camp, we move through such a multitude of wildebeest as I had not seen in the Mara before on previous years.

This year’s migration is epic in proportion and scale and our guests over the coming 8 weeks are in for a real treat!

A storm was building up over the region at sunset – the first real potential of rain we’ve had all week.

We have 2 options: either return to the lionesses (who were still stationary and lazy), or take a risk and drive into the storm and look for an opportunity to photograph in the rain. We chose the second option, especially since our guest Nicky Classen was very keen on doing this since day 1, should the opportunity arise.

I have heard of other well-known photographic tour operators in the Mara who have on previous occasion refused to go on drive in the rain, even when their guests expressed a desire to do so!! That baffles me – how could you NOT want to explore the photographic potential of rainy weather??

Our risk paid off. The elephants came out in droves to enjoy the rain with us. And we could experiment with various shutter speeds to capture moody images in this low light.

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The rain eases up just enough for us to enjoy our traditional Maasai cultural evening, where our camp crew grills a goat on a spit the traditional way, explain some of their culture with stories and dancing/jumping, and share the meal with us. It is Terrence’s birthday, so he also receives a custom-made bush cake! This is followed by a great traditional Kenyan curry dinner – and the rain returns as we head off to bed to pitter-patter us to sleep.

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13 August

The roar of a lion and the grunt of a leopard across the river signal the start of our final day in the Mara at around 5am.

There’s always a hint of sadness on the last morning, yet still an air of expectation, as this place can really dish out good “farewell” presents to naturalists who visit here…and so it does on this morning!

It starts off with the 2 lionesses from the previous day walking through the grasslands, roaring at first light, and moving right past our vehicles.

Who else was there when we found them? No-one. As with so many of the great sightings this week, the Wild Eye vehicles were alone. Our position in the Triangle allows for a lot of exclusivity, probably more than any other operator in the area.

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When the lionesses look like they settle down for a bit, we move on and come across the local hyaena clan devouring a fresh wildebeest kill. The hyaenas in the Mara are well accomplished hunters in their own right, and the Great Migration brings them plenty of opportunities to hone and perfect their craft.

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Photographing the grim reality of the circle of life in this place is not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are ways to photograph a predator-on-prey scenario to tell a deeper story (I elaborate on it in THIS blog post).

The morning wears on and we patrol some of our favourite routes, looking for something interesting. We find it in the form of a dead giraffe (presumably died from disease or snake bite), being scavenged upon by a brood of vultures and a lone spotted hyaena. There’s always interesting interaction in these cases, and if you read the blog post I linked to above, you would understand why I had Jimmy position us this side of the carcass to have less gore and be able to capture more “story” shots.

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After we finish with this grim scene, we pull into one of our favourite crossings points, and see a herd building up. Would we see a “farewell” crossing?

You can see below what happened. The dust is very much diminished due to the significant rains that fell all night, but it is still a very fitting end to the safari.

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Lunch is enjoyed in the dining tent on the edge of the Mara river one last time, a sullenness having befallen everyone.

Words fail for many when saying goodbye to the Wild Eye East Africa camp staff, to each other, and to the Mara Triangle.

Thanks to all the guests who joined us for this amazing adventure.

Until we meet again!

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Keep your eyes on the blog and on the social media channels of the entire Wild Eye team as they bring you updates from the field, and an additional 7 trip reports…

Cheers!

Morkel Erasmus

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Morkel Erasmus

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Just a regular guy, camera in hand, overcome by the beauty of the African continent, and passionate about sharing this beauty with others!

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Comments 13

  1. Andy Benaglia

    As you say it was truely an epic week. 10 crossing in 7 days, loads of action every day and most important of all you and Gerry there to provide the best service possible.

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Andy, thanks for the kind words. It was an absolute pleasure hosting you in the Mara, and I learned a LOT from you about Kenya and the life you lead growing up there. Eager to see some of your photos, my friend!

  2. Bethany Ogdon

    A truly great blog post. Thoroughly enjoyed reading about the adventures and sightings… and looking at the gorgeous images that brought the stories to life.

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  3. Pingback: Trip Report: Great Migration Photo Safari, 7-13 August 2016 - Africa Freak

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  4. Terrence Trevias

    Truly awesome photos and a comprehensive recap of this awe-inspiring event that should be experienced firsthand at least once in a person’s lifetime. Also my many thanks to you, Gerry, Sammy, Sakaya (Dixon) and the entire Wild-eye team for making an already amazing experience even more special with your attention to detail, optimal service, and great stories. Can’t wait for the next trip! 🙂

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hey Vikram – that would have been a great combo! Not sure the hospital would have liked it as much, eh?
      You should really try and make it on one of the Wild Eye migration safaris next year…

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