After the fantastic sightings we had in 2011, we had some trepidation going into year two...would it live up to the previous year? Of course, the Mara is such an exceptional reserve for the Big Cats our concerns were only fleeting...but we are always striving for improvement. Well, we need not have worried! This was the feedback we recieved from Pip & Jan after the conclusion of the safari:
A huge thank you for a fabulous safari again this year. Last year no stone was left unturned in making our safari as brilliant as possible and I half wondered beforehand whether you could achieve the same high standard again. Well not only did you achieve it, you exceeded last year's trip hands down! We had the most extra-ordinary sightings of wildlife and I know from conversations held on the way home that the rest of group had a fantastic time and they echoed my feelings about the safari. So-oooo, this is probably going to upset the hell out of you, but can we look to do the same safari again next year? I think the safari stories and photos we took are going to whet many people's appetites, I am sure word is going around to other artists on Facebook and the like.
The safari started on the 15 minute drive from the Ol Kiombo airstrip to the camp -11 lions resting in the shade of some croton bushes. With several total safari virgins on this trip, the 15 minutes took a fair bit longer, but by the time we reached camp, Pip declared he'd already taken photos that would make two excellent new paintings once he returned home. Simon Knight had been on an African safari once before, and seen three lions his whole stay, so was happy that this new trip was already a success for him!
Settled into camp, lunched and unpacked, the afternoon gamedrive started in a sudden torrential downpour, but soon we found legendary Mara lion Notch, four lionesses including our favourite, Ugly Betty, and three cubs! The aftermath of the rain resulted in some great photo opportunities with wet lions and sodden but very playful cubs.
The recurrent refrain was: "How are you going to better that tomorrow?"
Little did they - or we - know what was in store!
Fortunately the rain had cleared after dinner, so coffee and Amarula liqueurs at the fireside ended the day in true safari style. It is sad how so many safari camps and lodges nowadays have done away with the true campfire - if anything having a tiny glow in an artificial "dish" on a deck raised off Mother Earth.
All meals are taken under canvas (or under the stars if the weather allows) in our Mess Tent, at a long table elegantly lit by silver or crystal candelabra and a plethora of candles. The meals are prepared the traditional way - on a campfire, in a tin box over the coals used as an oven - by our trained safari chefs. They delight in preparing anything from eggplant parmigiano, courgette risotto, profiteroles, croissants, and tasty cakes to perfectly roasted joints of meat (and of course vegetarian, gluten free, lactose free & diabetic course for those who require them) in their rudimentary kitchen. The kitchen tour at the end of the safari always raises gasps of true amazement!
We followed the two boys as they headed towards the swollen Talek River, which was in full flood after the rains of the past several days. But then, to our amazement, they leaped into the muddy waters and swam powerfully to the other side!
With her face bloodied from a recent and fresh kill, we knew she would be heading back to the cubs, either to suckle them, or possibly get them to follow her back to the carcass.
Then she moved down to the river banks, and sat gazing intently across the fast-flowing torrents. I chuckled to myself, and then commented: "Imagine if the cubs are the other side, and she decides to swim through the river!"
It was a raging flood...no cat, particularly a small female leopard, would do that!
So, how do we top the first afternoon's game drive? Hmmm...how do we top this one!?
More leopards? Done. A kill? Tomorrow! We can't do everything in one day...after all, you are here for a week!
Then suddenly the baboons start alarming, frantic, and the elephants trumpet loudly. The lions are hunting! We see a small herd of zebras flash by...lions in hot pursuit, and then its over...they've got one.
We move in closer as the lionesses throttle their victim. They have several young and teenaged cubs with them and so we sit watching the feeding frenzy, marvelling at the sounds...and also the fact that the Maasai Mara is really special in March as there are so few other tourists about. We spend the whole morning with the lions as they devour the zebra...and eventually one other vehicle arrives as we are departing! A "virus-free" sighting! Exactly as our leopard the previous day had been! The Mara in March is really great.
Interestingly, when Phil found this female cheetah there were a few other vehicles with her, but after their obligatory five-minute stop they left, and we had her all to ourselves. (I guess the drivers were worried about missing lunch.) We sat with her for at least an hour, convinced she was hungry and keen to hunt one of the nearby Tomson's gazelles. I was also pretty sure she'd looked at the roof of my 4x4 a few times, with a look I've come to know after many years in the Mara. Not all, but several cheetahs there have grown up with and around vehicles, to the extent that they simply see a 4x4 (a green one, not a white minbus) as a high feature in the landscape, a vantage point from which to scour the plains for prey. Last October a female cheetah had jumped on my roof...and I was wondering if this might be the same one.
Sure enough though, after about an hour the cheetah decided to start a stalk of a lone Tommy on the hillside below us. Unfortunately for her, she was spotted by another Thomson's ram who gave the alarm, and after a short but speedy chase she gave up. Walking back up the hill, we positioned ourselves ahead of her near a pool of water, and sure enough she obliged by coming for a drink! Watch out for paintings from Pip and Natalie Mascall in the near future!
Then, without much further ado, she strolled between our vehicles and in one bound was on top of Phil's 4x4! Extreme low-angle close-up photos were the order of the day. Pip McGarry later declared this to be the greatest experience of all his many safaris in Africa. "We';ve seen it on BBC Big Cat Diary...now we've had it happen to us. Incredible!"
Pip & Jan McGarry, and guide Phil West, use the opportunity for close-up photography.