Mara Wildebeest

Mara Wildebeest

In early September Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve is alive with animals on the hoof. Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra have arrived from Tanzania and for a few weeks their presence makes this little stretch of Africa the most fascinating and vibrant place on earth. It is an irrefutable reality that no man-made wonder can compete with the grandeur Mother Nature offers us, and there is no more spectacular confirmation of this fact in the natural world than the great wildebeest migration. I’ve now been witness to this sweeping movement of ungulates on several occasions, and I think I have a pretty fair understanding of why it happens and how it works. There was a time, not so long ago, when I had no clue.

I’d seen the frenetic river crossings on television before I ever visited Africa and was enthralled by the fundamental life and death struggle that seemed to tumultuously capture the spirit of the savanna. I was also amazed by the scope of it all … the turgid, mocha colored river twisting through steep banks, teeming with wildebeest under an endless sky. But I operated under the misconception that the animals entered the waters of the Mara initially when they crossed into Kenya, and took the leap once more when they returned to Tanzania. I should have looked at the map.   The Mara River doesn’t even mark the border between the two countries. It winds through rolling Kenyan hills in a southwesterly direction, slicing through a corner of Tanzania, and onward to Lake Victoria.   The migration animals actually encounter the river all through the Masai Mara reserve and transit it many times from July through the end of September, sometimes later in the year if the rains are favorable.

Wildebeests may not be the most physically appealing of Africa’s animals, but they are astonishing nonetheless. Their faces and eyes seem to be dull and expressionless. At first glance, they impress us as being entirely devoid of thought and feeling. But they somehow magically turn up right on schedule season after season, birthing their young in the same spot in February in the southern Serengeti and grazing their way across the Masai Mara between July and October. Their instincts have vectored them off in the correct direction to find the best grasses year after year since time immemorial. Nature has programmed them well, and they continue to thrive against all odds.

And the Mara River crossings … certainly the most dramatic spectacle available to anyone on safari. No two crossing events are identical, but here, generally and unscientifically, is how it seems to work.

The animals begin to mass on the plain, grazing, not far from the river. You can look away for a time, turn back toward the herd and you may 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 seem to sense the danger, so they are naturally reluctant. Oftentimes the animals will be spooked for no good reason and stampede back up the banks and onto the plain.   Then the process begins anew. The mass of animals eases slowly toward the water and then drifts away again. The same unaccountable instinct that tells them to enter the water also seems to tell them that this may be the last thing they will ever do. So they are cautious.

A crocodile surfaces in the Mara while a wary wildebeest considers taking the plunge.

A crocodile surfaces in the Mara while a wary wildebeest considers taking the plunge.

Eventually, and inexplicably, one animal will take the plunge and the river becomes a bawling riot of splashing water and flying mud. Sometimes the crocodiles take the swimmers in mid-stream, but the crossing momentum, once initiated, is difficult to stop. There are recorded instances of river crossings lasting for hours and the casualties sometimes number in the hundreds.   If the wildebeest choose their exit point poorly or drift too far in the fast water, they sometimes drown or are mortally injured by the crush of animals exiting up the steep banks.   But the strength of the species is in its numbers and the vast majority of them successfully reach the destination. Those animals sacrificed in the river or on the plain unwillingly serve a critical purpose. They ensure the continuation of so many other species – crocodile, lion, cheetah, leopard, vulture, etc. – that collectively make the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem the most interesting place on earth.

Taking the great leap just upstream from the rapids.

Taking the great leap just upstream from the rapids.

 

Mara River crossing ... noisy, dusty and chaotic.

Mara River crossing … noisy, dusty and chaotic.

There’s no way to know how long the great migration will continue in its current form.   The human pressure on all sides of the Masai Mara seems to continue to build steadily without any immediate prospect of relief.   There always seems to be a new lodge under construction or a news story about a poisoned lion pride. It is rare to hear any reports that do not describe some activity that is detrimental to the health of the wildlife population. But for now, let us take whatever joy we can from the sight of this ocean of animals as they occupy Kenya’s rolling hills, and hope and pray the coming generations of humanity will respect nature enough to guarantee the continuation of the cycle.

Exiting the River can be the most dangerous part of the ordeal.

Exiting the River can be the most dangerous part of the ordeal.

 

 

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Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Most of my visits to Africa coincide with the timing and location of the great wildebeest migration. The wildebeest is not a particularly photogenic animal, but the migration as a physical event is one of the most awe-inspiring sights mother nature has to offer. The sheer numbers of wildebeest are astounding. I’ve heard estimates as high as 4 million but none lower than 1.5 million. It seems to me that someone should send a couple of graduate students into the game reserves with clipboards and calculators and actually count them just to get a firm and accurate number (just kidding).

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

The wildebeest do not travel alone. They are accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebras, and there are usually a few adventurous gazelles on the circuit as well. Much of the appeal – certainly from the photographer’s perspective — is the dynamic level of energy and activity that are the natural by-products of the movement of such an incredible mass of living creatures. They form enormous, bawling queues on the riverbanks and in the open fields as they prepare to run the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara, Talek and Grumeti Rivers. They coalesce into a dark, staring phalanx at the sight of a cheetah … and they lock focus onto lions of any size, ready to bolt in an instant if the big cat even looks their way.

Forming a wall against the danger.

Forming a wall against the danger.

I’ve been witness to the migration in the central Serengeti, at Ndutu (southern Serengeti) and in the Maasai Mara. Each location is spectacular in its way. The great herds can usually be found in the middle of the Serengeti in the May and early June time frame as the rainy season comes to a close. The grass is green and tall in places, but it fades quickly as June wears into July. Then the monstrous aggregation of animals works its way north, arriving in the Maasai Mara in late July or early August.

On the move to greener grasses.

On the move to greener grasses.

The Maasai Mara in the months of August and September is certainly the most vibrant place on earth. The rolling hills are speckled with wildebeest and zebra, and the lions are on patrol and open for business. The Mara, during this season, certainly hosts the largest and most visible concentration of wild lions in the world. As the short rains begin in late October and early November, the migration swings south again and lands at Ndutu by February. The cycle begins anew here … nearly all the wildebeest in the region are born at Ndutu in late January and throughout February. It all makes perfect sense. The grass is green, thick and nutritious … the mothers eat well and manufacture plenty of milk for their little ones. But Ndutu also illustrates how cruel nature can be. One lazy charge from a half-interested predator is sufficient to scatter a herd and separate mother from newborn. A young wildebeest’s life is measured in hours if it loses track of Mom … and the shores of Lake Ndutu are dotted with the carcasses of little ones who strayed too far from their mother’s protection. The sight of a baby wildebeest looking for a parent is heartrending. This past February my guide and I found a solitary young one on the beach at Lake Masek looking for its mother, but attempting to bond with anything … zebras, gazelles or even the trunk of a large tree. We sat and watched the confused animal for several minutes and it eventually ran to the shade of our land rover, clearly hoping that we’d become its adoptive parents. I was tempted to exit the vehicle and give it some much needed comfort and affection. But that interference, although well intentioned, would ultimately only prolong its misery. Toward sunset we turned back toward camp and the newborn followed our rover … we eventually lost sight of it in the dust and darkness.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

The wildebeest may number in the millions. But on an individual level, the 24/7 goal is to stay alive. And this applies to newborns as well as migratory veterans.

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Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara.  This shot captures the PCS.

Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara. This shot captures the PCS.

We depart from the Sarova Lodge (the glories of which are discussed in an earlier post) at 0830 on September 10th. It’s about 40 miles to the Mara River and the Serena Lodge, and the transit is fascinating, as always. Just a few kilometers from our destination we stop to observe another mating lion pair sprawled in the grass by the roadside. Photographing lions in this mode is not difficult, but some patience is required. They average 2 to 3 “events” per hour (24/7) for an extended period … sometimes 5 or 6 days. The “events” are brief … 10 seconds or so, and generally only minimally interesting. The key to a good photo is capturing what I refer to as the Post-Coital Snarl, or PCS. Unfortunately for the female, the male appendage is actually barbed and its withdrawal is always painful for her. At the conclusion of each “event” she predictably turns on the male and growls her displeasure via the PCS. The male, not to be intimidated, usually responds with a much deeper and more frightening PCS.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The guides are correct about the location of the wildebeest … the migration is here in astronomical numbers. On our first afternoon in the central part of the reserve we visit the banks of the Mara River and observe a column of wildebeest queuing to cross. They carefully survey the river, the rocks and the crocodiles and then very prudently change their minds. As the day winds to a close, a gorgeous sunset illuminates the hills, accentuating the beauty of the migration in the red glow of late afternoon. I tell Kevin that there’s no place on earth I’d rather be at this moment. The beauty of the Maasai Mara at this time of year, and in this light, completely defies all descriptive powers.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Early the following morning we find two lions ripping up a wildebeest carcass. This is a coalition of older males … apparently well past their prime. Their manes are dark and the coloration of their noses indicates that they are in their later years. They were probably pride males at one time, but were supplanted by an even more powerful coalition. Long gone are the days when these lions sprawled in the grass while their lionesses worked to kill. But they are physically imposing nonetheless, and based on their round stomachs and the size of the wildebeest carcass, it’s fair to say that they are still very effective hunters.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

At about 10 a.m. on a bright morning David places us high on the banks of the Mara River. Sure enough, a dark line of wildebeest forms on the horizon and works its way to the water’s edge. As always, the animals take the time to assess the danger and make a few false starts, but eventually they take the plunge (see my blog post dated 29 July 2009 for more on the crossing procedure). The river is very low this year because of the extended drought, and at no point do the animals have to swim. This actually gives them greater mobility and facilitates their ability to evade the river’s most dangerous predator. Within a few seconds, however, a large crocodile glides to within just a few feet of the splashing wildebeest, and then actually invades the column. It makes repeated lunges at the wildebeest, but never manages to take one. Finally, a yearling attempts to leap over the croc and is captured in mid-air. The croc turns downstream, the prey clamped firmly in its jaws … the confused wildebeest struggling to keep its head above water. It bawls pitifully until more crocodiles converge and end its torment. About twenty minutes after the last animal struggles up the bank on our side of the river, a single female wildebeest re-appears at the river’s edge, looking back at the opposite bank. She stares upriver, then down … and then safely re-crosses back to the open plain where she stood with her lost calf about half an hour ago.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest graze and loiter without form or design. But when they move from point A to point B, it’s always done in a column … and at times that column can extend for many miles. Their instincts are admirable if not incredible. As they coalesce into a long line it’s difficult not to wonder what’s happening behind those flat faces and dull eyes. One of the tens of thousands must assume a leadership role, the others must unspeakingly acknowledge the leader and fall in behind, and then the whole column must magically move in the direction of more nutritious grasses. And season after season, year after year, decade after decade, millennium upon millenium … it all seems to miraculously work according to plan.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

A friend of mine – a photographer — recently told me that the Maasai Mara is his favorite place on earth. I think I agree with him … and I will be a repeat visitor for as long as I have the time, resources and health to do so.

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My first ever photo of a Purple (or Rufous-Crowned) Roller captured in the Eastern Maasai Mara in September 2009.   This bird is a cousin of the more common Lilac-Breasted Roller.

My first ever photo of a Purple (or Rufous-Crowned) Roller captured in the Eastern Maasai Mara in September 2009. This bird is a cousin of the more common Lilac-Breasted Roller.

The grass in the eastern Maasai Mara is usually tall, healthy and golden in the month of September, with the slightest traces of green near the roots. But the drought this year has been severe, and the effects of it are much more pronounced in this part of Kenya than any place we’ve visited to date. The rolling grasslands, usually so rich and vibrant, look more like a midwestern American wheat field just after the combine cuts through … yellow stubble emerging from loose gray dust, stretching for miles over the rolling hills. Because of the unseasonable dry spell, this is poor grazing land for the ungulates, and it’s no surprise that there are relatively few wildebeest and zebra here. But there is no shortage of predators, and the lions appear to be present in their usual strong numbers.

Very young lion cubs nursing in the Maasai Mara.

Very young lion cubs nursing in the Maasai Mara.

On our first afternoon game drive we find fifteen … including a mating couple and two lionesses with cubs so young that their walk is mostly a stagger. David positions us so that we’re able to capture close up shots of the little guys enthusiastically nursing. We are also fortunate to get a glimpse of a leopard within the first few hours of arriving in the Mara. Perched in a tree near a dry streambed, she peers through the branches long enough to allow us a few reasonably good shots. The leopard is by far the most elusive of the great cats, and seeing this one may be a good omen for us.

Leopard surveying the horizon for a potential meal.

Leopard surveying the horizon for a potential meal.

Late on our second day in the eastern Mara we are favored with a sublimely ridiculous sight … one that I’ve never seen before and sort of hope I never see again … a pair of mating hyenas. Mating lions are a common sight on the African plain, and they usually execute the procedure with the same speed and aggressiveness they employ when they hunt. The hyena approach is much more deliberate. The male is slightly smaller than the female, and, like a cook stretching for a bowl on the top shelf, he very nearly has to tiptoe to reach the target. The immobile female gazes disinterestedly at the ground throughout the process while the unenthusiastic male stares goofily into space. This is one of the most inelegant copulations you’ll ever see. I’ve embedded a photograph here, but it is severely cropped in order to maintain our PG rating.

Sweet love on the African plains.  Strategically cropped to maintain the site's PG rating.  Converted to black and white to enhance the artistic power of the shot.

Sweet love on the African plains. Strategically cropped to maintain the site's PG rating. Converted to black and white to enhance the artistic power of the shot.

The hyena event is not the only rarity we witness during this visit to the eastern Mara. On two separate occasions we see one of Africa’s most reticent predators, the serval cat. The first serval is in the hunting mode, creeping stealthily around a stand of tall grass in pursuit of a francolin. Through the bush we see the bird launch, the cat leap in hot pursuit and the feathers fly. Most of the action is obscured through the scrub, so photographs of the attack really are impossible. The second cat is very cooperative. Hunting, he eases warily through the grass and edges close enough to allow us some acceptable portraits. This is indeed a gift … the serval close-ups are tight and clear … much more so than we could have reasonably hoped for. As the old chief in the movie Little Big Man once said … “sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” This time it did.

Serval Cat on the hunt ... and looking remarkably like a common housecat.

Serval Cat on the hunt ... and looking remarkably like a common housecat.

Perhaps the most impressive thing I witness on this segment of the trip is my friend Kevin’s commitment to quality photography. We are fortunate to find a leopard in deep brush on a stream bank on a bright morning. Muteti positions the vehicle as best he can, but the least obstructed view is still from the driver’s window. Kevin works his way between the narrow bars that separate the passenger section from the driver and very nearly lands in Muteti’s lap. He positions the camera across David’s chest and takes his best shot at the leopard resting in the shade. I’ve yet to see the image, but suspect that it is wonderful indeed. Hats off to him for his skill and perseverance.

Zebras populating a hillside in the eastern Mara.

Zebras populating a hillside in the eastern Mara.

The first real signs of a break in the drought coincide with our presence in the eastern Mara. The clouds build in the late afternoon and on two separate occasions we’re caught in heavy rains at about sunset. Along with the showers come the grazers … the hillsides begin to fill with zebra and wildebeest although not in last year’s numbers. Muteti and the other guides tell us that the central Maasai Mara is host to the most of the migratory animals this year. That’s our next stop.

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Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m often asked which African animal is my favorite. As I explained, it’s actually a tough question because there are so many worthy candidates. I’ve never been asked which animal I like the least, but that would certainly be an easy one to answer.
All animals that manage to survive and thrive in such a demanding environment deserve our respect. But I’ve found the spotted hyena to be the most difficult of all creatures to love. They are physically unappealing, with short rear legs and a sloping back that makes every movement a suspicious looking skulk. Their eyes are warm in color but cold in aspect, with a curious dead quality that reminds one of a shark’s eyes. They hunt on occasion, but prefer to steal their food if the opportunity is presented. The cheetah, because it is light and fragile, stands no chance against the hyena. If the cheetah brings down a gazelle within the sight or hearing of a hyena, then it has labored for nothing. The hyena will ignore the cheetah and move in directly to take the prey. They also steal from lions, but this requires a concentrated team effort by the entire pack. The hyenas swarm around the pride until the lions, annoyed and frustrated beyond their ability to endure, slink away and leave the kill to the pests.
Watching a hyena take a live animal is not a sight for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Lions, leopards and cheetahs kill quickly by clamping onto the throat of the victim. Once in the grasp, the prey animal is dispatched in mere minutes (cape buffalo is the exception owing to its size and strength). The hyena is not so merciful. They disable their prey, take it to the ground and begin to eat immediately. The “kill” is often still alive even after it is half devoured.
The cliché is true … the African plain is indeed “unforgiving.” When I see an injured gazelle or wildebeest — and there are many during the migration time — I make a silent wish that the hyena will be the last predator to cross its path. Better to die of dehydration in the sun than to become a meal for my least favorite animal.

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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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