Trip Report Part 1: Great Migration, 22-28 September 2013

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 12 Comments

This report is looong overdue. But, better late than never, I always say. Marlon du Toit and I had the immense privilege of leading the last of this year’s dedicated photographic safaris to the Mara Triangle for the annual Great Migration spectacle. What a trip it turned out to be! Throughout this report you will mostly see photos taken by Marlon and myself, with some snapshots thrown in from our iPhones and perhaps a snapshot that we received from the guests.

This report may come across as long-winded. Deal with it. I love writing and I love including many pictures to make you go “ooh! aah!”, rather than just saying: “and then we saw an elephant flinging a grown lion into the river” – and hoping you take my word for it…

I am splitting it up for ease of digestion. Part 1 will cover Days 1 to 3, while Part 2 will cover Days 4 to 7. These reports will be followed up by another post which will contain a selection of images supplied by our guests to show their vision of what transpired. You are also welcome to check out the guest post done by Seyms Brugger, one of our guests on this safari.

Let’s get started then, shall we?

Day 1

The excitement was palpable as we gathered with some of the guests that would be joining us at OR Tambo international airport at 22h00 for our flight out at 00h30. Our trip coincided with the terrible attacks in Nairobi at the time, so it was good that we transferred to Wilson airport immediately after landing at Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi.

Our transfer flight was short and the view over the plains was blocked by the overcast weather for most of the inbound flight, but once we descended for our landing and we broke through the clouds, we could immediately see that we were about to touch down in wildlife paradise…we could spot thousands upon thousands of wildebeests from the air, and even some elephants close to the landing strip.

The wonder of landing in the middle of the herds is something that will stay with us and our guests for a long time to come.

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We piled into the Wild Eye Landcruisers and some of us already got our cameras out (myself included) to not even miss a moment of driving leisurely to our camp on the Mara river. Others preferred to just sit back and soak up the beauty of our first drive in the Mara.

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On the way to camp we saw all of the following (not counting the thousands of wildebeest and many zebra):

1. Male lion sleeping under a tree

2. Elephants on the plains

3. Black Rhino sleeping in the grass

4. Cheetah brothers lying on a mound

5. Lionesses attempting to chase down a waterbuck

6. Buffalo bulls in the grasslands

Not bad for just driving from the airstrip to camp, eh? By now the place had instilled an infectious anticipation and expectation into each and every one of us. What would the next 6 days hold???

The welcome in the camp by Dickson and the team was awesome – if you have not experienced Maasai hospitality before, then you don’t know what you are missing out on!

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This is the view that we had from our comfortable tents…

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After a hearty lunch, discussing everyone’s photographic goals for the week and getting to know each other better, we set off for our first afternoon game drive. It was a leisurely drive filled with the masses of plains game, some nice elephant bulls on the plains under stormy skies and for one of the vehicles, a cheetah kill from a distance!

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After the challenge of getting back to the camp amid bucketing rain, we sat down to an amazing dinner next to the Mara river. That night I bet most of us didn’t get much sleep as we thought about the day ahead…

 Day 2

After waking up to a cup of warm Kenyan coffee and a quick bowl of cereal, we set off. It was an overcast morning, but spirits were high all around as we looked forward to what the Mara would dish up. First up we encountered a Wildebeest with a nasty gash on its hind leg, being harassed by a Spotted Hyena. The hyena couldn’t really take on the wildebeest on its own, and soon gave up. We then drove past the hyena den, where we were entertained by the youngsters for a while.

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We didn’t spend too much time with the clan before the call came in that the herds were building up to cross at a nearby crossing point! We unanimously decided to head over there and possibly enjoy our first river crossings…what followed would be an entire morning spent watching the animals cross back to the Masai Mara National Reserve side.

It wasn’t the most populous or dramatic of crossings per se, but the massive crocodiles were out in full force and were taking down animals left, right and centre. This of course made for dramatic moments to be photographed to our guests’ delight.

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After an eventful morning, we chose a spot to enjoy our packed breakfast in the field. These safaris are geared towards maximum photographic time, and often we had both breakfast and lunch out in the field and stayed out until sunset. Nothing could escape the wrath of our lenses, not even the tree we chose as our breakfast spot this morning! LOL

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We headed back to the crossing point after breakfast, and came across a large herd of zebra that were trying to decide whether to cross or not. This allowed us to play around with creative compositions and focus techniques to get some interesting photos of the “dazzle” of zebras. A large pod of hippos and a lone buffalo bull rounded off the morning and we headed back for a well-deserved lunch at the camp.

The afternoon drive was shrouded in threatening storms again, and some Masai Giraffes posed very nicely for us under these gloomy clouds.

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Next up we found a pride of lions close to camp, but they were being typical lions and were lying flat in the grass without so much as a movement. After spending about an hour with them we decided to rather scout for a more productive sighting (we could always come back knowing where these lions were).

After photographing many vultures perched in trees as we made our way up to the Oloololo Escarpment, we came across a half-eaten zebra, guarded by a lone young male lion. The pride had to be nearby, and sure enough a few hundred meters from there we found the lionesses and the 7 boisterous cubs – with a wildebeest kill.

Food was just so plentiful now that the lions were taking down prey whenever a potential candidate walked past them, it seemed! We spent some time watching and photographing the cubs at play, and although the grass wasn’t always playing along (by getting in the way of the cubs) it was a lovely sighting. One of them was particularly interested in the leg of the wildebeest…

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Eventually, we had to leave them to make it back to camp around sunset. We had to stop to take in the lovely mood and soft light, coupled with the iconic scenery!

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Like every night, the hippos and roaring lions and whooping hyenas provided a lovely chorus to fall asleep to after dinner and banter…

Day 3

The rasping of a leopard close to the camp before dawn had everyone hopeful for great sightings again as we headed out. The sky was gloomy and overcast again, and hopes of a golden Mara sunrise were dashed. We found a beautiful pair of Crowned Cranes near the marshes close to camp, engaged in courtship display…

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As we left this sighting we came across a herd of impala who were very restless, barking alarm calls and looking into the dense woodlands that line the Mara river. We stayed for almost 30 minutes, scanning the bushes in the hope of finding our rasping leopard from the morning. Though we didn’t see anything, we were certain it was somewhere in there, possibly feeding on a kill as vultures were flying in and perching in the trees around the area that sparked the impala’s interest.

Meanwhile, up on the escarpment, Marlon and some of the other guests were enjoying a magnificent sighting of the resident dominant male lions and the cubs from the previous afternoon (they headed up there first thing in the morning).

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After spending some time with a clan of banded mongooses and some vultures in the trees, we caught up with the other two vehicles. By now the males and the “creche” had moved off, but the rest of the pride were sprawled out around yet another wildebeest kill…with more plains game unknowingly approaching them.

We thought we would surely see a kill right there and then, as the lions really were fancying their chances. A shift in the wind made the herds (who were descending to eventually reach the river) stop and redirect their course.

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Seeing their quarry get a whiff of them demotivated the lions completely, and they slumped down to continue their daily dozing. We decided to go trawl the river for potential crossings…

This Longcrested Eagle provided some in-flight entertainment on the way.

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As we approached the river close to the previous day’s crossing point, we saw some lions lying in the tall grass. At first it looked like they were just lounging about, but we’re not the kind of photographers that would ever just drive past a lion sighting, so we turned in down that road. As we stopped next to them – we noticed the main lioness (the mom, we figured out later) was in the prone position ready to pounce…but on WHAT??

The answer soon presented itself, as a lone wildebeest slumped up the riverbank, having crossed from the other side all on its own!

Things then happened VERY quickly, and after quickly giving my guests the settings I think would nail the action, we pointed our lenses towards the wildebeest and fired away.

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The wildebeest put up a brave fight for about 15 minutes, but eventually the end had come. No matter how exciting it is to be seeing and photographing this kind of action, the cycle of life in Africa always leaves one with more to think about than just the photos you’re getting…

Shortly after subduing their quarry, the lions pulled it into the long grass and started feasting where no decent photos would be possible. We decided that it was as good a time as any to go and have our breakfast under a tree. On the way there we found some cuteness to make up for the macabre scene we’d just witnessed…

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This is me, having breakfast. Sort of…

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After enjoying our breakfast, and still shaking from the amazing sighting we had, we decided to practice some slow shutter panning photos as the thousands upon thousands of wildebeests were filing and flocking towards the river. We slowly made our way back to camp to go and enjoy lunch and download some of the images of the morning.

For our afternoon drive, we decided to go looking for leopards along the Oloololo escarpment. It certainly was a quiet drive compared to the morning, but driving through the herds and staring at the beautiful vistas of the Mara is hardly what anyone would despise, is it?

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While we were enjoying our drive and the scenery, the other vehicles were enjoying this:

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Our drive was about to become a lot less “quiet” though…enter the 7 cubs and their “keeper” (and some decent light for a change!)…

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We were constantly encouraging our guests to incorporate the Mara scenery in their wildlife shots – it’s important to convey context and a sense of place in your safari photography.

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We stuck around until the sun was busy setting, as we had some ways to go to get back to camp in time. On the way down to camp, however, we came across this star performer…

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Finding a lion up in a tree like a leopard was…well…special! She then proceeded to further entertain us by coming down with grace, and very nearly stalking some zebra that were walking by. Shooting with our medium zoom lenses (your typical 70-200mm lens) we were all able to get a nice sequence from this special sighting. A fitting end to the day, and to top it off one of our other vehicles witnessed ANOTHER lion kill close to camp (albeit a bit farther off this time). What a day that could only be described as MARA MAGIC!

Our dinner conversation was alive with the wonder of Africa, and after dinner we even got to spend some time in the media tent discussing processing workflow techniques.

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What would the Mara throw at us the next day??

Stay tuned for Part 2!!

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 12

  1. gerda

    what a beautiful narrative to describe an experience of a lifetime! Well captured and it brings back so many special moments and emotions
    Thanks Morkel!

  2. Pingback: Trip Report Part 2: Great Migration 22-28 September 2013 - Wild Eye Photography

  3. Pingback: Trip Report Part 3: Great Migration 22-28 September 2013 - Wild Eye Photography

  4. Joey Nel

    Fantastic report Morkel… brings back such beautiful memories. Lovely images – some sneaky ones as well… hehe. Thanx for sharing Morkel

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