I’m often asked if I have a favorite animal. The answer is “yes” … twice over, in fact. My favorite to photograph is certainly the plains zebra. There’s something magical about their patterns and the way they manage to be beautiful against any backdrop and in any light. They seem to pose with even the slightest movement … and in groups they’re incomparable. They are at their most photogenic when they’re draped across each other and staring curiously at the camera. They’re also spectacular when they’re in a tussle, competing for the attention of the ladies, pulling the flesh on their opponent’s neck and snapping at each other’s forelegs.

But my real favorite animal is the African elephant. They are the epitome of physical implausibility, with their enormous leaf-shaped ears fanning the warm air and their pylon legs extending down to flat-bottomed feet that are truly unique in the animal world. Then there’s the gray corrugated trunk that represents an almost incomprehensibly sophisticated assemblage of muscles … so flexible that it can pick up a pea from the sand and place it onto the tongue but so powerful that it can rip a young acacia tree right out of the ground.

But these attributes are peripheral to what really makes this the most majestic of all creatures. The love elephants feel for their family members is both deep and permanent, extending beyond life itself. Elephants routinely visit the remains of their loved ones, lingering for hours, gently holding and caressing their bleached bones. Unlike so many other animals, their existence transcends the immediate present. They certainly recall the distant past and, I think, consider and prepare for the future.

Elephant researcher Joyce Poole relates the story of a mother elephant that refused to leave the body of her dead calf, standing guard over it for hours in the African heat. Out of pity for the mother, Joyce temporarily abandoned the scientist’s unwritten code of non-intervention and drove to camp to bring water to the grieving mom. She filled a tub from her water cans and then drove a short distance away to allow the elephant to drink. She repeated this kindness twice more, until the mother elephant sprayed herself with the water, signaling that she’d drank her fill. Joyce then settled into her land rover to wait with the elephant. But after a few minutes, the mother elephant cautiously moved to the driver’s side of the rover, paused, and in an unmistakable gesture of gratitude, gently placed her trunk into the vehicle and across Joyce’s chest.

I was moved, but not surprised by this story. The eyes of the elephants are as expressive as our own, and their feelings are at least as deep. Many times I’ve seen those eyes filled with joy, and on at least one occasion I’ve seen them lit with extreme displeasure (this was on the banks of the Zambezi River on the Zambia side … a sufficiently noteworthy incident to merit its own post later on).

Each animal of the plains is unique and interesting in its way. But the elephant surpasses all others in my estimation … not just because of its physical magnificence, but for the strength of its love and the power of its intellect. They are and always will be my favorites.

Male Zebras fighting at Ndutu, Tanzania

Male Zebras fighting at Ndutu, Tanzania

Young elephants at Tarangire

Young elephants at Tarangire

Elephant Family at Amboseli, Kenya

Elephant Family at Amboseli, Kenya

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There are certain books that strike a unique and often permanent chord with their readers. In Wilkie Collins’ absorbing mystery, “The Moonstone,” there is a butler named Betteredge who finds every bit of wisdom life requires of him in “Robinson Crusoe.” He says …

“You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday, she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.” – from “The Moonstone”

Robinson Crusoe is a lovely book, but it has never moved and served me as it did Mr. Betteredge. I have, however, been known to turn to “Huckleberry Finn” from time to time for commonsensically delivered life lessons, particularly on issues of integrity, where the peerless Huck has more to teach us than any character in all of literature. In a moment of extreme duress, he manufactures this logic …

“I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place is taking considerable many resks, though I ain’t had no experience, and can’t say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here’s a case where I’m blest if it don’t look to me like the truth is better and actuly SAFER than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it’s so kind of strange and unregular. I never see nothing like it.” – from “Huckleberry Finn”

Who could possibly argue with that? Having grown up not far from the Mississippi, Mark Twain’s style and substance are more directly relevant to my taste and experience.

My father, who passed away at age 94 in August of 2008, could have been a Mark Twain character. He was a delightfully humorous man, a storyteller par excellence who lived a quiet and peaceful life in rural Missouri, just a few short miles from the river that was the beating heart of Twain’s writing. Last Christmas I visited his grave in company with my oldest son and lamented the probability that in a generation or so, his marker would be just one stone of many in a country cemetery, and the beauty of his wisdom would no longer even be a memory. My son very appropriately cited the last sentence of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” It is this …

“for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – from “Middlemarch”

This placed things in the proper perspective and inspired me to tackle this monstrous book that had so overwhelmed me when I was 18 years old. So … “Middlemarch” became my travel book for a vacation to the Dominican Republic. It is a book that requires the reader’s focus and full attention. Given the appropriate level of quiet and solitude, it is no longer a ponderously written 800 page Victorian novel … it is a “page turner” that captures the range of human frailty and delivers many a valuable lesson to the receptive reader. Although Charles Dickens was an equally perceptive observer of humanity, as a writer he was never George Eliot’s equal. George Eliot – Mary Ann Evans Cross – was without peer, certainly the greatest English writer of her generation.

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Maasai Mara ... August/September 2008

Maasai Mara ... August/September 2008

The narrative below supersedes previous blog entries and covers my entire trip to Kenya in August and September of 2008.  The photographs appended match various parts of the narrative.

28 August 2008

Departing for Nairobi via Detroit and Amsterdam on Northwest/KLM airlines. It is a perfect time to be leaving the country, with one political convention ending and another looming. It’s demoralizing to watch adults assume the role of elementary school playground combatants. The Maasai Mara will be a much more sane, healthy and beautiful environment.

The transit from my home in Virginia to East Africa is long and uncomfortable, but the reward should be well worth the investment in physical misery. This will be my fourth visit to this corner of the world, my third as a photographer. Like Paris was to Hemingway, the hills and rolling savanna of Kenya and Tanzania represent my moveable feast … a unique confluence of landscape and memory that haunts many of my waking hours. It is always a joy to return … and there are very specific and unique sights and smells that I particularly look forward to experiencing again.

There are few things more glorious than an African morning. I suspect that this is particularly the case in the Mara in early September, with miles of zebra and wildebeest to raise the dust in the first warm rays of the day. The Mara will assuredly be vibrant with activity. My hope and goal is to capture some small part of the spirit and beauty of the place in my photographs.

On the recommendation of a friend, my travel book is “Birds Without Wings” by Louis de Bernieres. It seems the ideal selection … it is an absorbing story of Asia Minor in the early years of the 20th century, elegantly written … an expansive study of all that is good and bad in humanity.

29 August

Behind me in the boarding queue at Amsterdam is a tall, gaunt and very dark man of unmistakably African descent. He is well dressed but has the sunken eyes of someone who has been in serious want of food at some time in the not so distant past. There are decorative scars from the top of his head that converge, but do not meet, as they extend down to his forehead. He doesn’t quite look Kenyan, but I assume that he must be, given his destination. I turn and greet him in Swahili … he looks at me blankly and says … ”that’s pretty good.” We strike up a conversation, in English, and I learn that he is flying to Nairobi to begin the bureaucratic process of bringing his pregnant, African-born wife back to America. His voice is gentle and sincere, and he seems excessively grateful for the smallest act of kindness. When he tells me that he is Sudanese, now living in Houston, I instantly connect him with the PBS Frontline television special on the immigration of the “Lost Boys of the Sudan.” He tells me that he was indeed part of that documentary. Despite the difficulties of minimum wage work, the taxing adjustment to a new country and culture, and the separation from his loved ones … he considers himself “blessed.” He shares a row with me in coach class on the flight to Nairobi and I learn more about him. His Sudanese village was attacked repeatedly when he was a child. Orphaned, he and some other Christians escaped into Ethiopia and ultimately found their way to a refugee camp in Kenya. It was from there that the arrangements were made to move him to Houston and make him an American. After the initial weeks of indoctrination and acclimation, he took two jobs … from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. in a laundry and then from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. as a security guard. He says that now he wants to launch his own ministry, and someday soon he would like to write a memoir of his life in the Sudan and the subsequent events that resulted in his American citizenship. I offer my assistance … and we exchange contact information.

The number one wildlife guide in Kenya, David Muteti, is waiting for me at Jomo Kenyatta airport and delivers me to the Nairobi Comfort Hotel for the evening.

30 August

Although it is Sunday morning, my friend Serah meets me at her office at Eastern and Southern Safaris in downtown Nairobi. The consummate professional, she has worked some magic to arrange this trip for me on short notice. We discuss the trip and tentatively agree on a possible business partnership that will, hopefully, result in East African photo tours coordinated by her and led and mentored by yours truly.

At all points along the way to the Mara, the local folks want to quiz me about the pending presidential election. They seem to have a favorite candidate, and I assure them that their man is the odds on favorite to win. We stop for fuel in the city of Narok, and strike up a conversation with the pump attendant … a tall, smiling man who has lost an arm in an accident. He quizzes me intensively about American politics … I answer as best I can … and we agree to resume the discussion when we pass through Narok on the return trip to Nairobi.

The first glimpse of African wildlife is always electrifying … and it generally seems to happen well outside the boundary of the game reserves. This time is no exception. The plains zebra is the first to appear, followed by the tail-twitching Thomson’s gazelle and the profoundly implausible Maasai giraffe. Then comes a rapid succession of interesting birds, including the lazily strolling and sublimely ugly Southern Ground Hornbill. After checking in at the Sarova tent camp, there is plenty of time for an afternoon game drive. The lions and elephants are near the camp in large numbers, as are hartebeest, impala and gazelles … both Grant’s and Thomson’s.

In the evening, just after sundown, we find a huge pride of lions scattered through the tall grass, resting quietly under a stand of acacia bushes. I count 22, but suspect there are more … and there is no pride male to be seen. Photos are tough due to the lack of light, but I ratchet the ISO setting to 1200 and keep firing. From the distance comes the guttural roar of the patriarch and the entire pride immediately rises to its collective haunches to respond. The deep calls of the adult females seem to penetrate the chest and head and reverberate there for several seconds. The lions are providing papa an audible homing beacon … and the little ones do their comical best to assist. I’ve always said that you’re guaranteed something magical on each day expended on the African savanna, and this first day has been no exception.

Lion cub and Mom shot just after sunset ... minutes later the whole pride was calling the Pride Male

Lion cub and Mom shot just after sunset ... minutes later the whole family was calling the Pride Male

31 August

The great migration is not a tightly concentrated mass movement over the plains and hills. The sheer volume of the animals would never permit that. It is an amorphous aggregation of several million wildebeest, several hundred thousand zebra and a few miscellaneous strap-hanging gazelles traveling in the same general direction. Yesterday there were precious few of them in the Sarova area, but today they begin to arrive in numbers that defy description … dark columns of bleating grazers that stretch to the horizon. By mid-morning the one-lane dirt roads in the eastern Mara are clogged with them, making forward movement problematic. At about 10 a.m., Muteti points to a distant hillside where the wildebeest have begun to sprint down the slope and out of view behind a long row of trees. They are running to build their momentum and confidence to cross the Talek River, which is invisible to us in the folds of the hills. Muteti wheels the land rover to take us to the crossing, but we are in the middle of several thousand bawling wildebeest and cannot go quickly. They slowly step aside to allow us to pass, much like the Red Sea must have parted for Moses. The nearest animals turn and stare dully as we roll by. Muteti positions us on the high bank of the Talek to observe the proceedings … and judging by the numbers on the opposite side it will probably take two more hours for them to cross. The Talek is deeper here than usual and it appears that the animals cannot touch bottom with their feet. The banks on our side of the river, where the wildebeest exit from the Talek, have become a muddy morass that is becoming increasingly difficult for the animals to negotiate. We are in a prime spot for photos, but within a few minutes another land rover rolls to a stop on the opposite bank … some jackass exits the vehicle, and, like magic … the crossing comes to a grinding halt. Wildebeest spend every hour of every day trying to survive … they are easily spooked, and the near proximity of a human on foot is sufficient to reverse and re-direct their movement. So much for two hours of crossing photos.

Wildebeest scrambling up the muddy banks of the Talek River

Wildebeest scrambling up the muddy banks of the Talek River

Muteti has promised me some rhino shots. I’ve seen them from a distance in Ngorongoro Crater and close up at Lake Nakuru, but I’ve never captured quality photos of them. For the second time on this day, we are lucky. We happen onto a mother and little one tucked away in a grove of acacias. We see parts of them through the leaves, but there isn’t enough of them in view to merit a photo. As we wait, two Black-Shouldered Kites strike up a grudge match in a nearby dead tree. The rhinos never really make an appearance for us, but just being this close to them is grounds for serious optimism. The Kite pictures taken while we waited for the rhinos are some of the best bird images I’ve ever captured.

Black-Shouldered Kite Smackdown in a dead tree top

Black-Shouldered Kite Smackdown in a dead tree top

1 September

On this day David and I request a box lunch and depart early for the Mara River, which is about 50 kilometers away. It is deeper and wider than the Talek, and if we’re fortunate enough to catch a crossing it will likely offer us an opportunity to capture some dramatic images. The drive to the western half of the Mara is interesting and beautiful … the rolling hills are lovely under the deep blue morning sky. We see impala, gazelles, topi and hyena in the tall grass, but very few wildebeest in this part of the reserve. As we head further west we pass endless columns of zebra recently arrived from the Serengeti and large herds of cape buffalo that are year round residents of this part of the Mara. We reach the banks of the river in the late morning but there’s not a live wildebeest anywhere in sight. But there are hundreds and hundreds of dead ones and we literally smell the river before we see it. In places the carcasses are so thick they nearly create a logjam that forms a pathetic bridge across the fast moving water. The scavengers and carrion eaters outnumber the dead wildebeest by many multiples. The far bank seems to be a mass of crawling wings and feathers, with hundreds of vultures of different species sunning in the mid-day warmth. Very few of the vultures are eating … the crossing that claimed these wildebeest happened about two days ago, and in the interim 48 hours the vultures have eaten their fill many times over. There are a few marabou storks hopping from carcass to carcass in the shallow water. The marabou is probably the ugliest bird extant and possibly the ugliest animal of any kind in all of Africa. They are about 60% stork and 40% vulture in my estimation, which is based on no science at all.

On the slow drive back to the eastern Maasai Mara we find a large herd of wildebeest moving slowly to another section of the river. We wait patiently for about an hour, but the herd never makes a decisive move toward the water. As we drive on, the rain comes in sheets despite the fact that we’re in the heart of the “dry” season. We see five adult giraffes against a young acacia tree with their backs toward the torrent, and David helps me roll down the windows and cover my lens for what is probably the best giraffe shot of this trip. About halfway back to the tent camp there is a lioness in the middle of the road … she is in open view but in a low stalk with her eyes fixed on the same buffalo herd we passed in the morning. She is not the only lion hunting this herd. The pride seems to have the buffalo encircled and both predator and prey move slowly to the north and out of our field of view … so we move on. The rain has cooled the air noticeably and the lions, usually lethargic until nightfall, are open for business. About two miles from camp we again find ourselves in the middle of an ocean of wildebeest, and David hits the brakes very suddenly.

Just a few feet from the rover is a lioness, low in the grass with her rear toward us, hunting a column of wildebeest running parallel to the road but in the opposite direction from our heading. The wind shifts slightly and the wildebeest seem to get wind of the lioness and break away in a hurry. The lioness then shifts her focus to another column crossing the road ahead of us, edging forward, with us crawling ahead in company. She studies the situation carefully as the process of natural selection begins to unfold before our eyes. From the stream of wildebeest a lone animal peels off and lopes away at a 90 degree angle from the rest, toward us and the waiting lioness. The wildebeest apparently has an injured back leg … he is limping slightly and remains oblivious to the danger. The lioness stands upright and begins to trail the luckless wildebeest. She is in no hurry … there’s no need to be. The wildebeest crosses the road behind us and, in a final desperate display of courage, turns to face the predator. The lioness clamps down on the throat of the wildebeest and pulls the carcass off the road and into the grass as night falls.

Lioness taking down a wildebeest just after sunset ... natural selection at work

Lioness taking down a wildebeest just after sunset ... natural selection at work

2 September

The food at Sarova Mara tent camp is prodigiously good. There is an extensive variety at the buffet, including several Indian dishes that are a particular weakness for me. After over-indulging the previous evening I make an early breakfast of bread and tea. Muteti expects us to catch a river crossing today, so we launch before sunrise to improve our chances.

Our journey to the Talek River is interrupted by a cheetah in the tall grass not far from the road. Male cheetahs sometimes form coalitions that improve their chances to survive and thrive, but this young animal is solitary and must hunt alone. He sits quietly, alert despite his immobility. About a quarter of a mile ahead of us, an endless column of wildebeest begins to cross the road. The cheetah seems only vaguely aware of them, and sits for over an hour without moving. Tired of waiting for a photo, I bend down and tell Muteti that we should probably leave our spotted friend and move on toward the river. He whirls around from the driver’s seat like an irritated father dealing with a restless child, and says, “Bill … you are not a tourist, you are a photographer. You must be patient.” Humbled, I return to my post at the cheetah watch. Within minutes, our cheetah is on his feet and strolling toward the column of wildebeest that continues to flow past us.

A large male cheetah will only attack an adult wildebeest under the most desperate circumstances. The cheetahs are too fragile to risk the injury that a full-grown wildebeest can inflict. For a cheetah, a broken leg is a death sentence. But the newest generation of wildebeest is only 6 or 7 months old, and they are a favorite prey species for all the great cats, including our cheetah. He strolls lazily toward the wildebeest, and the front rank of animals in the nearest column stops to stare at him. The images captured at this moment are my favorite cheetah shots from the trip. Muteti was right … patience, in this case anyway, is a virtue.

Cheetah checking out a large herd of wildebeest ... probably looking for a young one

Cheetah checking out a large herd of wildebeest ... probably looking for a young one

We reach the high banks of the Talek River at about 10 a.m., just as another large herd of wildebeest is queuing to cross on the opposite side. Our light is poor … we are looking directly into the sun, but the configuration of the trees, bush and river make it impossible for us to move closer to the animals. After much hesitation, the herd plunges into the river in a shallow bend with many slippery rocks to navigate. Within minutes, something happens to completely spook them and reverse their course. A lone wildebeest is either struck by a crocodile or injures a leg on one of the rocks … and the rest of the group tsunamis away in complete panic. When I review my photos later, I see that at least one mother wildebeest is flipped upside down in the rush to escape … her hooves are in the air and her nipples point skyward. The lone wildebeest described earlier struggles up from mid-river to the bank, but his foreleg is clearly broken. It is obvious that he will never leave the riverbank, and we hope, for his sake, that the lions find him before the hyenas … it will mean a much quicker and more merciful end for him.

Panic in the Talek River ... note the upended female on the right side of the image

Panic in the Talek River ... note the upended female on the right side of the image

The animals that have yet to cross must now find another route to our side of the Talek. They move en masse, upriver, toward us … and after going through the usual pre-crossing rituals, begin to ford the river and pass directly in front of our land rover. We are perfectly positioned to photograph them. I capture a few images, all the while thinking through the different lenses and angles that I’ll be able to use from this vantage point. As I reach down for another camera/lens combination, a lioness charges out from the acacias and into the middle of the wildebeest struggling up the bank toward us. She catches a little one, dispatches it, leaves it and goes looking for more. Within minutes, she takes down an adult and leaves it without eating as well.

I’ve often heard it said that humans are the only animals that kill for pleasure, and that predators in the wild kill from necessity and always eat their prey. It isn’t true. In less than 10 minutes I’ve seen this lioness kill two wildebeest with no intention of devouring either. I don’t think she did it for pleasure. I just think she is programmed to kill wildebeest, so that’s what she does.

3 September

This is my second visit to the eastern Maasai Mara and during that time I’ve covered most of the trails in this section of the reserve. But this morning David takes us into an area that I haven’t seen before. The grass here is tall and golden with no open areas. There are few wildebeest here but there are large herds of zebra in every direction. The wind bends the grass into yellow arcs that contrast sharply but beautifully against their black and white vertical stripes.

We stop to watch four lionesses lounge around a stripped wildebeest carcass. The cubs are barely visible in the high grass, their heads popping into view intermittently as they climb on the adults and wrestle each other. Eventually the group strolls across the road, with one lioness dragging the remnants of the kill along with them. Every stomach on every animal is distended from overeating. The little ones are particularly comical, their undersides virtually dragging the ground. They appear to have eaten nearly their weight in wildebeest, but they still have sufficient energy to tug each other’s tails and “attack” the flanks of their parents with the same motions they’ll someday use to take down their prey. The adults finally stop to rest on a large rock and slowly maneuver into the sleeping position.

Young lion "attacking" an adult, which is dragging a wildebeest carcass ... every pride member carried a basketball-shaped stomach from heavy eating

Young lion "attacking" an adult, which is dragging a wildebeest carcass ... every pride member carried a basketball-shaped stomach from heavy eating

We take a winding road back to the Talek River and see many vultures on the banks. There are wildebeest carcasses in the river here and there, but they are much fewer in number than those we’d seen earlier on the Mara. There are a few live wildebeest on the opposite bank, so we wait … and wait … to see if they queue for a crossing. The late morning sun is warm, and this day is fairly quiet, which gives us time to consider our good friends, the wildebeest.

It’s difficult to comprehend what transpires in the minds of these unattractive creatures. Their faces and eyes are dull and expressionless, and they give the impression of being completely devoid of thought and feeling. But sometimes they will surprise. They magically turn up in the same locations season after season, always birthing their young in the same spot to our south at Ndutu. Their instincts have sent them off in the correct direction to find the best grazing year after year since time immemorial. And the river crossings. The herd begins to mass not far from the river. Look away for a time, turn back toward the herd and you’ll notice that a handful of them have moved to the high banks of the river and are surveying the terrain both up and downriver. They seem to be deciding on the optimum place to ford, in complete defiance of my impression that they are incapable of thought or reason. Look away again for a few minutes … and a few brave quadrupedal souls are now near the river’s edge … staring one way and then the other. In the meantime, the larger mass of animals has moved toward the water, building pressure on the leaders to cross. They all certainly sense the danger, so they are naturally reluctant. The same unaccountable instinct that tells them to take the leap also seems to tell them that this may be the last thing they ever do.

Eventually, and inexplicably, one animal will take the plunge and the river becomes a riot of splashing water and flying mud. Sometimes the crossing is interrupted mid-river by crocodiles, and lions often lay in ambush in the short trees on both sides of the river. These animals struggle to survive every day, but those sacrificed ensure the continuation of so many other species that collectively make the Mara-Serengeti savanna the most interesting place on earth.

But there’ll be no crossing today. We return to the tent camp for dinner and a Tusker beer.

4 September

We start early this morning and are barely a mile from camp when we find a 3 way competition for a dead wildebeest. The participants are a black-backed jackal, a single vulture and a juvenile snake eagle. We watch their odd movements as they attempt to feed … a bizarre mix of canine and avian dodges and feints as they dive in to tear meat from the carcass. We observe this macabre, triangular dance for less than a minute when David sees something on a distant hillside and immediately puts us into motion. He has promised rhino photos and he is now making good on that promise.

It is a black rhino, which is slightly smaller but reputedly much more aggressive than its cousin, the white rhino. This adult male is about a hundred yards away from the trail to our right, moving slowly through the grass, eating as he goes. There is another land cruiser nearby. It carries English-speaking people who have apparently been watching for some time. As the rhino drifts further away, we hear them comment that he’ll soon be out of view. The other vehicle moves on, leaving us alone with the great creature. David thinks we should stay and watch for a while, and sure enough, the rhino slowly turns toward us and eventually comes much closer. He looks up from his grazing and stares in our direction. Muteti turns to me and laconically says, “Bill … remember … they are not friendly.” He puts a little more distance between us and the rhino.

Black Rhino in the Maasai Mara

Black Rhino in the Maasai Mara

As always, Muteti has placed us in the perfect position to photograph, and I’m finally able to capture some quality rhino images.

In the afternoon we happen onto another large wildebeest herd positioning to cross the Talek. They seem to have selected a very poor spot. There are many slick, sharp rocks to navigate before they enter the river, and the banks on both sides are precipitous here. Nevertheless, they launch. David peers through his binoculars at the opposite side … his eyes are on a single land cruiser that eases toward the thrashing column of animals. He says, “I know that guide … he is new and has no experience.” And the driver does indeed edge just a little too close to the wildebeest … without breaking speed, they immediately divert about a quarter of a mile upriver and begin to cross. With difficulty, David maneuvers us through the bush to their exit point on our side of the river. The wheels have yet to stop rolling when a lioness, clearly a mother, emerges from the scrub to attack. She misses on her first attempt, but in the ensuing confusion she sees a young one and tries again, this time successfully.

Lioness preparing to launch another attempt for a wildebeest after missing on her first try

Lioness preparing to launch another attempt for a wildebeest after missing on her first try

This young mother clearly killed to eat. She drags her meal out of sight near the river bank.Note from our camp … at the end of each day there’s been a dik-dik not far from the opening of my tent. She ran away on the day I arrived but has tolerated me every afternoon since. But today she is gone and my new company is a dwarf mongoose. Regardless, these are welcome companions. To my knowledge, there are no vervet monkeys in this camp. They’ve been known to raid tents and lodge rooms and wreak a fair amount of havoc in the absence of the occupants. The vervets are so entertaining … truly a joy to photograph, but I prefer to keep them out of my belongings.

5 September

There are elephants in the Maasai Mara, but there are better places to go to photograph these most majestic of animals. I have yet to visit Botswana, but I’m told that the herds there are enormous, with total numbers over 50,000. In Tanzania my favorite elephant spot is Tarangire, which has substantial herds year round. Here in Kenya, Amboseli is a phenomenal place for elephants, although the reserve can be very dusty and it’s sometimes crowded with tourists.

But this morning begins with a large family on the move to our south. The group comes progressively closer to us, and eventually they cross the road directly in front of us, perhaps 50 yards away. It’s always touching to see the adults in the family go to extremes to shelter and protect the little ones, and this group performs the task particularly well. There are several young ones under the legs of the grownups … they look at us occasionally, certainly more curious than fearful, and then cross into the high grass on the north side of the road.

Elephant column crossing a field on early on a September morning in the Maasai Mara

Elephant column crossing a field on early on a September morning in the Maasai Mara

An hour later we find a large male cheetah in company with a wide swath of wildebeest. The cheetah would probably like to pick a young wildebeest from the herd and make a meal of it, but the sheer number of possible candidates seems to overwhelm and confuse him. The wildebeest, in turn, seem not to know what to do with the predator. Their ensuing movements are outrageous and even difficult to describe. Somehow the thousands of wildebeest and the single cheetah seem to turn circles around each other for a several minutes. The cheetah makes an occasional full speed sprint into the heart of the pack and the wildebeest scatter … kicking and bouncing as they escape. Finally the cheetah sits upright in the grass mere yards from the wildebeest, overwhelmed and befuddled. The tables then turn, and the wide stream of animals runs directly at the sitting cheetah, veering to the left prior to impact. This is one of the strangest sights I’ve witnessed in Africa. A column of wildebeest a hundred yards wide and innumerable miles long engaging a full-grown male cheetah in a game of Savanna Chicken.

Our drive again takes us to the banks of the Talek, where another mass of wildebeest is just beginning to enter the water. Within minutes yet another lioness bursts from the thickets along the bank and kills an adult wildebeest at the water’s edge. After her work is complete she stands with her forepaws in the water, heaving to recover her breath. Eventually, she clasps the carcass in her jaws and pulls it across the river and up the bank on the opposite side, bringing it to rest in the shade of an acacia. This is the seventh kill we’ve witnessed in less than a week’s time.

In the afternoon, about a half mile from the Talek, we pass a pride of lions resting under a stand of acacia bushes. As always in the heat of the day, the adults are dozing and the little ones are active and energetic. One of the pride males slowly pulls himself up and yawns. As he does so, a little one comes closer and peers deep into his mouth like a dentist preparing for an examination.

Lion cub peering into Papa's yawn

Lion cub peering into Papa's yawn

At day’s end we receive a request for assistance from another guide with clients who have yet to see lions. David is happy to help. We form a convoy and lead the other guide into a maze of bushes to a large sprawl of lions of all sizes. This is the ultimate professional compliment to David. His expertise is actively sought from other guides to locate animals. A good man and a wonderful guide.

6 September

Finished reading “Birds Without Wings” late last night. A remarkable book and an elegant story that captures the noblest qualities of the human spirit and the darkest side of human nature.

Tired from reading into the night but up early anyway. This is the last full day of the trip, so I resolve to try to capture some landscape shots. Even though it’s technically the Mara’s dry season, we’ve seen a fair amount of rain and the skies have been beautifully photogenic every day. There is indeed a shower in the afternoon with some lovely and very ominous clouds that I capture with a wide angle lens.

After the rain we find a martial eagle, a lone juvenile, tucked away under some tall bush. Uncharacteristically, he refuses to move and allows us to creep right up to him. He is so close he more than fills the viewfinder of my Nikon and we actually have to back away just slightly to photograph him. I shoot a series of full face images and he accommodates me with a number of poses and expressions. I finally see why he is immobile. Underneath him, deep in the grass, his enormous talons clutch a full grown banded mongoose. He will not abandon his lunch, even for a 2 ton land rover.

Martial Eagle ... protecting its prey and somewhat irritated with the photograph

Martial Eagle ... protecting its prey and somewhat irritated with the photographer

In the last half hour of daylight we sit quietly on the trail and watch a colorful sunset under a clearing sky. I’ve placed a wide angle lens on my camera with a heavy duty graduated filter, looking directly into the dying sun and photographing the swaying savanna grass. Appropriately, on this last evening in the field, a long column of wildebeest emerges from the south and moves quickly past our rover to the north. I stow the wide angle and grab my 500mm lens. That’s because this torrent of animals is heading directly toward two lionesses that we’ve passed just an hour before. David slowly moves us northward along with the wildebeest. The lionesses move so quickly that the wildebeest never even have the slightest chance to react.

Successful hunters

Successful hunters

They instantly bring down an adult as the rest of the crowd moves a short distance away. One of the lionesses applies the death hold as the other catches her wind. Before the dying animal ceases to breath, two cubs edge out of the grass toward their mother and aunt. They pause tentatively, but are then quickly on the kill, clamping the mouth in play just as they will in earnest a few years from now.

Lion cub attacking an already dead wildebeest

Lion cub attacking an already dead wildebeest

The rest of the wildebeest remain close by, and the nearest animals continue to bawl pitifully as they gaze at the lionesses and the carcass. These animals are so numerous that there is an impression of inherent anonymity among them. That is, it seems impossible that they can “know” each other as do lions, or elephants or humans. But I can’t help but sense that the dead animal was “known” among the herd, and that the loss of him meant more to them than a simple, insignificant reduction in their awesome numbers.

Time to head back and pack for the trip home.

7 September

One final morning game drive before we depart for Nairobi. I try to concentrate on capturing some quality images despite the depressing prospect of leaving.

We drive leisurely along the central road through the reserve as a coalition of three male lions emerges from the grass. These are very powerful adult males, all about the same age. Based on their size and demeanor, it appears that they are more than ready to assume custody of a pride. And I suspect they could easily do so at the first opportunity. I’ve yet to see the pride male or pair of males that could stand up to these guys. When they do execute their hostile takeover, they will kill any young cubs in the pride. This will bring the females into estrus and afford the three conquerors the chance to mate. But then they’ll fight among themselves for that opportunity.

These three males never strike the pose I want for my photographs. I’d hoped to see them abreast of each other, with manes touching, so that I could fill the frame with their massive heads. They move away slowly and eventually they do what I want them to do, but they’re far too distant to capture the shot effectively.  As the Sioux Chief said in Little Big Man … “sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Three male lions posing ... too far away for the shot I wanted

Three male lions posing ... too far away for the shot I wanted

On that note, I stow my gear and we close the top of the rover. To Nairobi and Amsterdam … then home to Virginia.

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