Sunday, 15 July 2012

Felids stop us in our tracks and the long journey home

It’s true that most of the blog posts written here have been about our animal sightings and in some respects we make no apologies for this given thats why we go to the Mara! However, its come to mind that we have never really blogged about the journey to/from Nairobi which really is an adventure in itself, but also not without animal encounters. Be warned...a 7 hour drive equals a long blog post today!
There are pretty much two ways in which to drive from the Mara to Nairobi (where our Land Rover is stored whilst we are in the UK). Neither way is much better than the other and around an hours difference in time, both feel like you are ‘running the gauntlet’ hoping for no vehicle issues. The first way being the ‘Lemek route’ going via the Mara North Conservancy and usually taking around 5-6 hours and the second via the Sekanani gate, taking around 6-7 hours (depending on which part of the Mara you are coming from)
The decision as to which route to take is often decided by the weather (and to an extent which part of the Mara you are coming from). Lemek is best avoided after the rains given that at least 1 hour of the journey is through black cotton mud/sand which sticks to the tyres like glue and turns them into racing slicks! We had come in via Sekenani and given that it had rained a far amount in the last 24 hours and also knowing no one that had come that way since the long rains we decided to stick to the way we had come in.
As we left the Mara Triangle at around 7:45am with heavy hearts (as we always so) and a tear in my eyes (referring to me, rather than Andy!) our mood was soon diverted as Andy stopped suddenly and pointed to the side of the road and here trotted a cute little Serval cat. We had commented only just the evening prior that it was the first Mara trip for a while in which we had not seen one of these cute little felids. With a mission for mice the little Serval moved off the road and into the long grass and here it carried on its business as we lost sight. Our moods changed as we laughed about the irony of this and then again Andy stopped suddenly again.  This time it was because of a various cars that had also stopped on the main road ahead with heads popping out of roof hatches all around and signaling something of interest for sure!. This time it was again our Felid friends causing the road block, with the entire Mugoro Pride (minus the males) laid out on the road causing a complete road block on the main Serena Road. It was quite hilarious and as if the Lions had come out to say good bye to us! What was interesting is in the days prior I had counted 10 members in the pride and all of a sudden 11 lay in front of us, meaning the 4 Adult females had 7, not 6 cubs. A pretty cool revelation! Taking the usual GPS references and notes we knew we could not stick around as we had one long long journey to go!
Given the ‘leaving party road block’ we had to make a slight change to our route to the Mara South Bridge where we would exit the Mara Triangle and so took whats called the ‘lower river road’. As we drove down, not paying too much attention and instead laughing again about the Mugoro Girls I suddenly told Andy to stop. On the right ,in the long grass were lions, a couple of adult females with a couple of 7/8 month old cubs making their way further into the plains and soon disappearing. The Lions really were coming out to say goodbye at this point! So, again we continued on until Andy heard me emit the immortal words again ‘STOP’! . This time on our left, around 200 metres away I pointed to a Cheetah on a mound. This was insane, less than 40 minutes after leaving our camp in the Mara Triangle and we had seen 2 Lion Prides, 1 Serval and a Cheetah! (3 different cat species!) Why does this always happen when you don’t want it to!!! We went on to the track to try and get a closer look but the adult female was moving away and her behavior revealing she was keen to hunt. Although we could off-road (allowed in this part) we decided against it and took a couple of quick snaps for ID and we then continued on. We really had to start making tracks ourselves and quite frankly the Mara was NOT making it easy for us to leave!!!
Andy politely asked me to shut my eyes at this point now for fear of finding something else!. We were almost expecting a Leopard or Caracal to pop out of nowhere, given how the cats seemed to be coming out of the wood work at this moment in time.
Along the route down to the gate we also saw something quite interesting, an adult Grants Gazelle with no horns (both male and female have horns). This creature was quite shy and I only managed to get a quick snap on my little camera before it trotted away, certainly an unusual sight and one we have never seen before and we debated for some time what may have caused this. 
The animal road blocks seemed to continue along the road as a huge Hippo, returning from its nightly graze on the plains stood in the middle of the track before disappearing into the deep lugga it evidently calls home. Now animals please could you let the Skinner’s go!! We don’t want to leave but we do have a plane to catch on Sunday and a 7 hour drive in-front of us! 
We soon arrived at the gate and made our last crossing over the Purrangati/South Mara Bridge, bidding a fond farewell to one of the most famous rivers in Africa. Clearly we were not the only ones to use the bridge as midway across we found Lion scat. Well,  why make life hard when you have a bridge!?
We continued on for another 1.5 hours on rough but just about tolerable tracks passing another Adult Lioness (although we can’t take credit for spotting this, instead a bunch of minivans gave it away!) We then arrived at the Sekanani Gate, the point at which we were well and truly leaving the Mara.
Now came the part of the journey we always dread the most and regardless of which route you take you cannot avoid what can only be described as the ‘roads from hell’. Imagine the worst dusty, potholed, heavily corregated gravelly/sandy track you can imagine and that pretty much describes the next 2 hours of the journey. The vehicle and indeed it’s occupants feel like it being shaken to pieces. It is not a journey for the feint hearted and its a wander that the minivans are able to do this route without falling apart, let alone robust vehicles such as Land Rovers and Land Cruisers. For those who have also done the same route you will know I am NOT exaggerating and every time we seem to do the roads in and out of the Mara it seems to get worse. Finally after 2 hours of horrible tracks, passing dusty plains being grazed by cattle and through Maasai Manyattas we finally hit Tarmac. Here you could here the sigh of relief. Reaching Narok town we made a brief stop to put air in the tyres and make a quick check to see if all was ok with the vehicle (given we were a little concerned that the fuel tank problem could have worsened after the roads from hell) After Andy gave the all clear we carried on for the last 2 hours or so of the trip.
The landscape really starts to change at this point, pasture land used for cattle grazing also turns to land also used for crops and terrain starts to undulate as you start to see the great and impressive Rift Valley in the distance, passing through small towns along the way. As it was a Saturday the towns were bustling with market stalls and a hive of activity. With children either playing in the street or taking the long walk home from Saturday morning school. Donkey carts transported goods as sellers on the street made the most of the busy streets, selling potatoes and Maize (Sweetcorn) to passers by. 
Passing Mt Longonot (a dormant volcano that last erupted just over 100 years ago) and then going through Maai Mahiu junction we came to the 2nd part of the journey also feared by many (especially if you have a fear of heights!). It’s not a road we are keen on to be quite honest!. The road passing up into the Rift Valley is described by many as one of the most dangerous roads in Kenya (and possibly the whole of Eastern Africa!). As you track from the valley floor to an altitude of over 2000 metres the road bends literally just inches from a huge drop. Large container lorries seem to come toward you out of control as you can smell the stench of brakes and clutches as they make the steep and windy descent. Despite the fact its a two way road many cars and lorries take their lives into their hands as they try to overtake on blind bends, with at least a vertical 2000-3000 ft drop the other side. As you approach the top dozens of little tourist shacks line the edge of the road and as you drive past offer the most spectacular views across the valley to Mt Longonot and beyond. It’s a fantastic sight and is what makes the Rift Valley such an amazing place and steeped in geological interest. 
The journey again tames for some time as you approach the outskirts of Nairobi before you then hit the usual traffic chaos that the city is so famed for. Crazy matatu drivers and large lorries causing chaos in the sometimes narrow streets as many go about their Saturday business. Traffic chaos, horns beeping, people trying to cross the huge busy roads and music blaring from everywhere. It’s what makes Nairobi such a crazy, but kind of cool place! 
So, over 7.5 hours after leaving our base in the Mara we had now arrived back, safe and well but dusty, dirty and tired. We did not need a shower, we needed steam cleaning! The vehicle had done us proud and thankfully the issue with the fractured Fuel tank pipe had not worsened but needed fixing before our next trip out. Now was the task of unpacking in the evening the vehicle and calling some of our kenyan friends before we bid it a farewell until the next Skinner adventure......hopefully in 3-4 months time. It’s true that the journey is never without seeing things that make you grateful for what you have and not without things that make you giggle. It’s what makes Kenya a fascinating and colourful place to visit.
Boarding the plane we said ‘Kwaheri Kenya’ and thanked ‘her’ for such a wonderful time, we would miss Kenya, it’s animals and old and new friends we had made there. We knew we were lucky to be able to visit so often but it still always makes us a little sad to leave. Although at this point getting excited to see our own little domestic felids (Yogi & Charlie!) who would no doubt be eagerly awaiting treats and cuddles when we returned home to the UK.
As we flew home we were treated to one of the clearest views of Mt Kenya we have seen to date as well as a great view of Mt Etna, who emitted smoke and to this day remains quite active (and where we spent our first wedding anniversary!) For two people fascinated also by geology this was a great treat.
Now is the task of sifting though the thousands of images we have taken as well as writing up notes from our Lion Sightings and mapping the 34 GPS logs from Lion sightings taken over the last two weeks. Two tasks that will certainly take quite some time and once done links to the final set of images will be posted here. In addition to some short (but decidedly shaky) videos that we took with our little ‘point & shoot’ camera. It’s just a shame that as of Monday its back to the ‘day job’ and our other lives! 
So, until the next Skinner adventure....its a big ‘Asante Sana’ from us both to those that have followed us along the way and until the next time. Kwaheri.

Lion Road block

Unusual sighting - Grants Gazelle without horns!

Hippo Road block

Leaving the Mara Triangle - Mara South Bridge gate

Crossing the Mara River

Lion scat on the Mara bridge

The Mara River flowing fast

The road from hell! 

Loading a bike - Kenyan style!

Part of the Rift Valley in the distance

Mt Longonot

Approaching Maai Mahiu Junction

Rift Valley Road - this is supposed to be 'two way' traffic!

Car overtaking on blind bend with a 2000-3000 ft drop below!

Rift Valley road

Rift Valley road - Altitude 2140 metres

Did Mark Zuckenburg imagine this when he started Facebook?!

Winding Rift Valley Road

Approaching Nairobi

Interesting name for a fuel station!

Traffic chaos on the outskirts of Nairobi

Our Land Rover, still in one piece!

Mt Kenya from the air

Mt Etna from the air


‘Trans-border’ lions and the sun sets on our last evening in the Mara.

On the 13th July we first took a drive down towards the Oloololo Gate, in search of the Oloololo Pride of Lions, also known as the “Out of Africa/Kichwa Pride. They had been seen the day prior close the a Murram pit so the plan was to search around this area and beyond.
Large herds of Elephants, including big breeding herds, many with small calves emerged from the Riverine forest like grey giants moving silently onto the plains. We must have seen literally hundreds during the course of the morning. Although we were not fortunate to find the pride and from talking to other guides no-one had been lucky with finding them that morning. We did find a single adult LIoness, belonging to the pride who had recently given birth to cubs and had been also seen the day before moving her cubs from one denning site to another. With the cubs still too young to be out of the ‘den’ she was alone and had left them to go and source food as we watched her scouting the plains. She moved into an area inaccessible to vehicles so we left her and decided to make a trip down to the Tanzanian border to look for the other less known Lion prides in the area, as well as to see if any of the Wildebeest herds were approaching. 
The border area is a part of the Mara we absolutely love. A place where you can usually escape from the many vehicles in high season and a part of the Mara that is vastly different in terms of vegetation and landscape. A quiet corner of the Mara that leads into the Serengeti where beautiful Kopjes and small flat topped hills dominate the landscape with Savannah plains stretching far across. 
The area was dotted with many species of plains game but as we scanned far and wide still no approaching Wildebeest herds could be seen. There were a small handful of the aforementioned but certainly not the large migratory herds that by now are usually headed in large linear formation across the plains.. As we looked into the distance we could see a ‘burn’ in the western corner of the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem in Tanzania. Unclear whether this was started naturally or a man-made occurrence this could potentially further delay the wildebeest into the Mara. As the burn, combined with rain would generate fresh green shoots that would be welcomed by the Wildebeest in this area. Not even Zebra herds could be seen, the species that generally precedes the Wildebeest and that grazes on the long grasses, leaving the medium/short grasses for the Wildebeest.
We had heard that some small herds and started tracking into the Talek side of the Mara and likely that these were some of the Loita herds that were heading in. Now almost a month ‘late’ (although using the word ‘late’ is a bit of a ‘misconception’ when it comes to wildlife!) the great migration still looked to be at least 2 weeks away. With the grass dry in the Mara Triangle and lacking nutrition at this time we even wandered how long the migratory herds would stay in this area. 
Knowing that we were also taking GPS references and conducting some of our own research’ of the Lion prides in the Mara our friend Chelle, one of the balloon pilots in the Mara Triangle had kindly called us whilst we were in the area and mentioned she had seen 3 male Lions near the border after her morning flight so we set out to see if we could find them, albeit the confirmed sighting had been one hour ago and in that time they could have moved some distance.
As we arrived in the area where they had been sighted, just 1/2km from the Tanzanian border we caught sight of one male sitting in the long grass, and then a further male a few hundred metres away and positioned at the base of one of the most beautiful flat topped hills, but no sign of the third. They had moved from where they had been seen earlier but not a huge distance. Fortunately we were in an area where off-road driving is allowed so we navigated across the rocky base of the large hill and to the first male. Given he was in the open and as it was starting to get hot he would be the first of the two likely to move to shade. We wanted to get some ID shots so headed straight to him, keeping our distance, knowing they may not be quite as accommodating to vehicles to the prides in the central Mara areas. He was a stunning dark maned male, aged approx. around 8 years old, sat majestically scanning his land. He was at ease with our presence and his behavior seemed to indicate he was not a nomadic male. We had met the day prior with the CEO of the Mara Triangle, who had helped us with some detail in the Lion prides of this lesser visited part of the Mara Triangle. He had mentioned three males who are part of a ‘trans-border pride’ but not seen all that often as they cross back and forth. So, it was likely that these were the males discussed and looking at the GPS references of the females we had seen a couple of days prior. We surmised that no doubt the males ruled over these ladies and as with many coalitions of this size likely ruled over another pride along the border.
Just after we managed to get a shot the male moved on and up to a large Croton bush around 1/4 way up the hill, scent marking along the way and swaggering with arrogance as he walked. At this point we thought it likely that this is where the third male who we could not see had already headed to. 
We then headed to the next male, hidden partially in the long grass. Although he was not shy he was a little more wary of the car than the first male so we remained quite some distance back in the hope that he would also move and make his way to the other male(s). He was around the same age and likely the brother, or perhaps cousin of the other male. He kept us waiting for about 2 hours before he finally decided to pop his head into open view and move, again scent marking along the way. As expected he moved to the same croton as his fellow companion. 
It was great to see new males we had not seen before and get some more ID shots which now number 18 males so far as part of our Lion file that we are compiling.  Certainly these boys would have to watch their guard once the impending Wildebeest herds arrived as often this also brings other nomadic males who would be a threat, depending on age and numbers to these males and their prides. We spoke after the sighting to our contact at the Mara Triangle who seemed to agree we had found the three males discussed the day prior, as both age, description and location seemed to match.
Not before stopping to relax at the border markers we then headed back North and toward camp, it was a great morning at the border area and failed to disappoint as normal! 
Later the sun went down on what was to be our last night in the Mara and what a beautiful sunset it was, a fabulous orange glow casting the most amazing refection over the Mara River. With the usual sad emotions we have on our last day we kept holding into the thought that hopefully in a few months time we will be back. 

Male 1

Male 2

Our Land Rover at the Border post (and a few feet into Tanzania!)

Andy & Sarah at the Tanzanian border

Stunning Landscape

A handful of Wildebeest at the border

A 'burn' in the distance in Tanzania

Stunning sunset over the Mara River

Thursday, 12 July 2012

New beginnings for the Mugoro pride once again!

On the last afternoon on the Narok side of the Masai Mara we went to spend our last afternoon with the Cheetah mum and two cubs. On the way we called to the area where we had heard that the other the Notch boys and the Rekero Pride had also taken down a hippo that morning, the same morning as we had been also watching Grimace on the other side of the Mara with his own Hippo. Tucked deep in a lugga you could hear the Lions feeding and the flies swarming but could barely see what was happening so we continued off to head for the Cheetah. 
We found them fairly quickly and again in the same area. It was clear that she felt this was a good area for the cubs as although she had previously had an ‘altercation’ with Hyena there were few other predator around and a reasonable amount of game to hunt. 
We spent around 45 minutes with them, for some time hidden in the Croton but soon moving across the plains, Maliaka wanted to hunt and continued her car hopping antics as the cubs frolicked and played. At one point darted up a small bush during which Andy got lovely shot of one of the cubs at the top.
Cumulus Nimbus clouds started to form and we knew this meant only one thing.....a storm was approaching and when the rains come down in the Mara the black cotton mud can prove quite a challenge so we cut short our time with the Cheetah and headed back to camp. Sure enough the heavens opened and the rain came down with force, the thunder boomed loudly around the Mara and lightening seared down across the plains. We sat in camp and watched the light show and wandered what the conditions would be like in the morning, knowing that it would be quite a challenge as the dusty plains took on a different face. 
Heading out the next morning we wanted to go back to the Hippo that Grimace, the other 5 lioness and Hyena had been feeding off the previous day. There was barely a morsel of meat left and various body parts lay scattered around the area where the Hyena had continued to feed long after the Lions had left it. So just 24 hours later as it was almost gone.
We had planned to spend one last night on the Narok side to go in search of Notch but as we started tracking along the roads the conditions became a real problem, despite having a well equipped 4WD vehicle and a husband that is well versed in off road driving the previous evenings torrential downpour had turned the roads into an ice rink, as we slid around for some time, constantly on the verge of getting stuck! It had taken us 2 hours to drive what had normally taken us 20 minutes and many other vehicles also struggling with the notorious African black cotton mud. At this point it became clear that we were going to struggle to cross the luggas and the constant battle to keep the vehicle from getting stuck was getting a little tiring. so our decision was made, today was the day to go over to the Mara Triangle. There we knew it was a little drier with better track conditions and so today was the day we had to say a sad goodbye to our friends on this side and start our search for the Mugoro Females (Lions) and all other things ‘felid’.
Tracking into the Mara Triangle it was indeed drier than the Narok side and not too long after crossing the Purrungati Bridge we came across 5 Lioness, looking wistfully toward the Serengeti and waiting for the lines of wildebeest that would soon be making their journey into the Mara and providing food a plenty for the predators. Whilst there was certainly a reasonable amount of game toward the Tanzanian border there still seemed no sign of the incoming ‘beests’ but given the rains the days prior this would certainly induce some movement and we would expect that in the next week they will likely enter the Mara and in the 2-3 weeks the herds will no doubt start their famed crossings over the Mara River, which is now around 1 month later than normal and largely due the the constant rains in Tanzania. 
For those who may have read our previous blog posts there is probably no surprise that our first priority was to check out how the Mugoro Lionesses were doing. We last saw them in June of last year in which we only saw 4 of the 5 girls. They had lost their cubs the February before to the new incoming males (4km boys) and in June they were mating. Reports had come through earlier in the year that they had cubs and we dearly hoped the news was true and that we would see them. Given in 4 years we have never seen them raise any cubs to adulthood it was about time these girls had some luck.
On the first afternoon drive we found one of the Mugoro Lioness, in the core of their territory but with no sign of the others (including ‘KB’) but it was early days yet and the mornings are always best for Lions. 
Indeed the next morning (today!) revealed ‘our girls’, again just 4 of them, and including the strong and fierce Lioness ‘KB’. It did not take long to see that she had indeed became a mum again as you could see she was full of milk and had been nursing cubs recently. More heads popped up in the grass, 1,2,3 and eventually 6 more lions and all cubs of different ages. Two aged around 3 months, and the other 4 around 6-7 months old. It was great to see that they had babies again and KB was the mother to the two younger cubs.
Having seen the ‘destruction’ of the pride just 18 months or so ago prior it was so great to see that they had successfully mated with the new ‘4km males’ and raised cubs to this age so far. Whilst the cubs looked hungry (one in particular) and the Lionesses were looking lean they looked better than we had expected given the sparse plains and feeding 10 hungry mouths is no easy task. They looked to have fed in the last 24-36 hours but needed more food for sure. We spent over 3 hours with them, most of the time with them just laying in the grass but at around 9am a herd of Topi caught their attention and so the hunting party set out. 
Led as usual by KB, with 2 of her fellow females flanking around the outside. With the wind direction sadly not in their favour there efforts were thwarted as the ever vigilent Topi soon clocked their intentions and the girls retreated back toward the cubs, who looked curiously on as the females tried to secure breakfast. Here we left them under Acacia and here they were likely to stay for some time so time for us to go and devour the sausages Andy had cooked the night previously in our camp. 
We can only just hope that now some stability can return for the females and they have the chance to raise cubs to adulthood. However, with the 4km males increasing their territory over the Mara River, also mating with the Paradise/Serena females and therefore leaving the females alone for longer amounts of time it would indeed leave the cubs and mothers vulnerable during migration in which nomadic males often follow.......only time will tell for these Lioness.....

Passing Elephant smells the lions

The Topi sense the lions

Full of milk!

One of the older cubs

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Hippo Feast

Up until this morning the last couple of days have been a little quieter in terms of sightings and animal behavior. We had a fleeting glimpse of a male Leopard around Smelly crossing but sadly not long enough to get any shots or ID who he was as he soon moved into dense forest and despite trying to track where he may reappear he never did. Given the area it’s likely it may have been either the Ridge Male (father of Saba, Olive’s cub ) or Nkaiyoni. 
Later that day we also came across the Notch boys, who you guessed it were lying flat out in long grass. However, they did pop their heads up once or twice, just enough to ID that Ron, Notch 2, Caesar were there. Notch himself is still being illusive and and has not been seen for quite sometime now but is no doubt doing fine, but a shame that we have not managed to spend any time with him other than the first day in which we saw him for just a few moments before he also lay flay out, refusing to lift his head! 
Given that Maliaka is still in the same area we have made the most of this and again yesterday afternoon returned to find her with a kill in long grass which looked to be a male Thomson Gazelle. The cubs were there but almost impossible to see apart from the popping their heads up once or twice and at one point jumping up on the legs of the Gazelle.  So on the photography side it was a little disappointing but on the other hand it was great to see that she continues to hunt successfully.
On the way back from seeing Maliaka we spotted cars across the river, by now it was time for us to retreat back to camp, but with 30 minutes left we hot-footed it through the gate as we were keen to see what was causing such interest. As we are taking GPS logs of all lion sightings we just wanted to see if we had more lions to add to our log and indeed who these lions were. This proved to be a good plan as we came across 5 lionesses with a Hippo, and we think former members of the Olkiombo pride. Rather than having been killed by the Lionesses (which would be a tough job and almost impossible for 5 lioness) it looked as if the Hippo had died by natural causes and no doubt the lions had come across it. At this point they had not fed on the Hippo and were trying to open up the carcass.
So given what we had seen yesterday afternoon you can guess our plan for where we would head this morning was already sorted and we hoped that by this morning more lions, hopefully males and certainly Hyena would have found the carcass. Sure as ‘eggs are eggs’ this proved to be correct as as we rolled up first thing we saw the unmistakable shape of a large male lion and still at the carcass the 5 lioness. Although it was still virtually dark we knew straight away it was Grimace. The stench of the Hippo was quite putrid but this was not going to keep us from staying here. 
He coveted the carcass as he fed and looked like he must have been feeding for some time as he had a stomach the size of a tank and we wandered how he could possibly eat any more. The females looked like they had fed a little but likely this had been not long after we left them the evening prior. Every now and then the females tried to advance to the Hippo, but Grimace aggressively headed them away and they returned a few feet away watching as Grimace devoured more. Surrounding the lions and Hippo a clan of Hyena watched. Despite the fact that that there were 19 of the Hyena were still outnumbered in terms of strength by the lions and especially given the fact that a male was present they just they remained a distance away but knowing in time their opportunity would come. Six Jackals also trotted around the Hippo, with one or two gutsy jackal running the gauntlet and dashing into take a morsel of the Hippo and running off as Grimace growled, becoming agitated by the presence of the Jackals. 
Grimace fed for around 45 minutes before finally admitting defeat and retreating away to Croton thickets 1/3 KM away. This at least gave the Lionesses the opportunity to feed and although one lioness had already moved away the other 4 dived straight in. The departure of Grimace finally signaled an opportunity for the Hyena to test the females and try to move in. Initially the Hyena were wary as you would expect but as the clan started to gather together, whopping as they did their confidence increased and so they started to advance to the lionesses. The lionesses growled and snarled and lashed out at the Hyena but as more Hyena appeared and the numbers increased. One lioness left the kill, leaving just three Lioness at the kill.
So the balance between the Hyena and Lion started to shift and so to the dynamics at the kill. The balance of power had changed now in favour of the Hyena. Realizing that the numbers of Hyena were increasing the remaining Lionesses started to become less aggressive and this gave the opportunity for the Hyena to move in, but not without some confrontation and lots of vocalising, snarling and rowing from both Hyena and Lion as both species started to feed together. Although this has been seen before it is certainly not a common occurrence to see the two species tolerating each other at a kill. So rather than retreating the lionesses remained, continuing to feed, along with the Hyena for around 30 minutes or so after which the Lionesses moved off with full stomachs and also fit to burst. 
As the lions retreated the remainder of the less dominant Hyena darted in and fed. The scene was intense as the Hyena’s whopped and vocalised with excitement as if all their Christmas’s had come at once. They squabbled and fought over the most nutritious parts of the Hippo, although their numbers were large it was clear that it would take some time to devour the animal. 
By now we had been at the sighting for around 3 hours and it had been so interesting to see so much behavior, especially the interaction between the two species. It was the first time we had seen lions feeding on a Hippo and the first time we had seen the two species share a kill. Although the light was rather poor we still managed a few good shots. It was an incredible morning and we knew how lucky we were to see such a sight and had certainly made up for a quiet few days for sure. 

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Maliaka goes car hopping and the Cheetah cubs have a close call....

We caught up with all 11 members of the Rekero Pride yesterday morning, hanging around the large rocks in the Talek by Rekero. Relaxing on the bank of the river they gradually began moving into the middle of the river crossing over the large granite boulders. The light was a little strange in the morning so was not great for photography but it was still nice to see all 11 together and looking well and relaxed.

For the last couple of days the Notch boys had gone AWOL again, although late this morning reports  have come back that they are hanging around the Topi Plains area of the Mara. Notch has not been seen for a few days and as our time to return to the UK is getting closer it may be that we don't have the chance to catch up with him again, although hoping this changes! We spent some time looking for him this morning, as did many others, although with no luck. He is most likely hanging with the Olkeju Rongai Pride, who are not always that easy to find.

So yesterday after we spent some time watching the Rekero Pride we headed off again to look for the Cheetah cubs, pretty soon she will no doubt move her cubs as she has been in the same area for some days now and although the cubs are growing bigger daily she will still have to keep them moving in order to avoid any other predators picking up their scent. So given this we wanted to spend as much time with them as possible as we had a feeling she may soon move into the Olare Orok Conservancy

Sure enough we found her fairly quickly, not on a termite mound, not hidden in a bush but on top of a car! Maliaka, (like other Cheetahs who have exhibited the same behaviour in the past) is one clued up cat and uses the height of the cars to scan the plains for potential prey. A behaviour that will most likely be passed onto her cubs. She seemed totally at ease, spending around 20 minutes on the car roof as the lucky guests captured images of her just a few feet way from them. This really was face to face with a cheetah! She soon jumped down and as she did the cubs appeared from under the car.

All the game vehicles left and we were soon left on our own with them, something that does not happen too often in high season. She looked hungry and moved through the high grass continuing to scout for prey. Although we could not really get any shots it was nice to just take time to be in their company and watch them as she focused her attentions on obtaining food. The cubs playing around at their mothers feet.

Soon enough other cars arrived at the sighting and Maliaka again took advantage of the mobile vantage points and off she was again, back on the car roof, this time on the roof of a vehicle belonging to a good fried of ours, Simon. His guest was treated to a great show as she sat relaxed on the roof, scanning the plains. The tiny Cheetah cubs thought they could have a go to and tried to take after mum, it was probably one of the most hilarious parts of the trip as one of the cubs threw itself at the tyre but  missing as it came hurtling back down the ground! Needless to say it did not try it again!

Although we knew she would inevitably hunt we left her as we had some things sort at camp but returned to her later in the afternoon. Sure enough it appeared she had not long hunted as we found her, again in long long grass devouring what looked to be a Thomson Gazelle. This pleased us as she was in need of food and without food she would not be able to keep her cubs alive. Although we could not see clearly it looked as if the cubs were starting to try meat as there heads bobbed up and down below the grass and looking like they may have been licking the kill. Although these little ones will still be heavily dependent on their mothers milk for a while yet they will now soon start to try meat, albeit just licking and chewing the meat and getting used to new textures of food. As Maliaka fed she would pop her head up in the grass, keeping a watchful eye for any other predators who may wish to enjoy her spoils to.

As the evening stated drawing to a close and as she still fed two shapes suddenly appeared on the horizon, two Hyena. Although we are very fond of Hyena and they are a species that gets unnecessary bad 'press' we will be honest and say that moment in time it was the last thing we wanted to see! Hyena and Lion are two predators that are bad news for Cheetah, especially ones with cubs. They were  attracted by the smell of the kill and advanced toward Maliaka with great speed. Fortunately she had seen them and started advancing toward the Hyena. She had to protect her kill, but most importantly she had two tiny babies that needed protecting. The Two Hyena soon came almost head to head with Maliaka, the cubs ran to our left and away from the kill as Maliaka distracted the hyena away from them. With a strong maternal instaimcy she haunched her back and spat and hissed with gusto at the Hyena, trying to push them away. She had successfully managed to distract the Hyena from her cubs (who could so easily be killed by the Hyena)  but she lost the fight to save her kill as the Hyena darted in, grabbed what was left of the Gazelle and ran off and started devouring and tearing apart the carcass.
However, by now she had fed for some time so had at least managed to consume a reasonable amount of food.

By now we had backed right away from what was happening, ok yes we missed getting shots of this but right now this was the last thing on our minds, and plus the grass was so high it seemed a pointless task trying to capture this. What we wanted to avoid was suddenly being in between the mother and cubs as they had become split away in the chaos.

The cubs called and chirped trying to get their mother's attention, they looked so vulnerable as they lay low and called for her to taken them to safety. Maliaka soon heard them and darted over and they were fortunately reunited, and as they did you could literally hear a huge sigh of relief from the few vehicles at the sighting.

By now the mother and cubs were visible properly for the first time that evening but they moved fast away from the area and given they had just had a pretty traumatic experience we decided to leave them, rather than following them. In our view this is where there is such a fine balance between 'getting the shot' and thinking about the welfare of the animal. Our hearts had been racing through this entire event, which happened in a matter of seconds and it just illustrates the constant battle that a Cheetah has to contend with on the African plains. This would be another important lesson for the cubs and all part of building up learned behaviour in order to survive into adulthood and no doubt this is not their first, nor will it be their last encounter with other predators on the Savannah.

Maliaka Scans for prey

and another car! 

10 members of the Rekero Pride relaxing on the banks of the Talek

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Cheetah quest continues...

Although we had plans to head to the Musiara Marsh mid way during our trip we have decided to make a slight change of plan and at present continue to stay around the Olkiombo area. Whilst we are keen to hook up with the Marsh Pride and see how they are doing as well as to see the Marsh breakaway females its not every day that you get the opportunity to see young Cheetah cubs. So with two sets of cubs around the area it seemed sacrilege to move anywhere else and therefore mission for the last 36 hours has been predominantly looking for Cheetah. 
Yesterday morning we went again to look for Maliaka and her two young cubs (Two month’s old) and the same little cuties that we saw on the 4th. After spending around 2 hours looking we abandoned the search. It was highly likely we could have driven past her, grass as high as six foot in some places is a damn good hiding place for the little spotty ones! So before the heat grew too intense we headed to where the Notch boys were, around 45 minutes away and South of the Talek River.
It was not long until we came back to the similar area they had been the day prior but by now it was getting pretty hot so we scoured under croton bushes and in the long grass. By now it was likely we would find them horizontal and sure enough they were. Grimace and Caesar were flat out in the grass and not too far away Notch 2, who was still mating with the young female. Notch and Ron were nowhere to be seen but no doubt not far away.
Grimace and Caesar were laying directly in the sun so we decided to sit it out and wait as we knew it would nt be long until they would need to find shade and sure enough around 30 minutes later they hauled themselves up and moved around 50 metres into the Croton and it was here we left them and headed back to camp.
In the afternoon we decided to head to Look Out Hill with our friends Aatish and Aashit to look for the other Cheetah mum who has 4 six week old cubs and also look into the distance toward the Serengeti and Sand River for any signs of the impending Wildebeest migration. Apart from a few small herds of Zebra we could not see any Wildebeest at all and so the migration still seemed some distance away, although some guides had reported earlier in the day seeing a herd of around 300 Wildebeest approaching.
As we started making our way back we finally came across the Cheetah and cubs, but only knew they were there as a few vehicles had been with them for the day, sadly they were not visible at all and lay flat in the grass. After waiting for quite some time to see if they would move Andy and I decided to make use of the last remaining evening light and head back toward camp and check out the whereabouts of the Ridge Pride, who we had passed on the way to Look Out Hill. Split into two groups around 1km apart they had barely moved in the last 3 hours since passing them on the way to Look Out. Although they had clearly managed to make a small kill as one of the sub males proudly munched on the head of a Warthog. 
The next morning (this morning) we again dedicated our efforts to finding the Cheetah Cubs near Look Out. Returning to the same area that she had been seen the night before, we knew that they would certainly be in the same area, as the tiny cubs would not be able to move far. Again we had no luck although we knew they were likely to be there, but as this morning was so cold and very cloudy it would be sometime before mother and cubs would rise from their slumber and where no doubt she was keeping the cubs warm until the sun gained some strength. We waited for some time but then felt our best option was to perhaps try them a little later when it was warmer. 
So we left the area and decided to track back across the Talek River via the area the Notches were seen the day prior. Although we knew by now they would most likely have moved off and this indeed proved to be true but it was still worth a quick check. These guys cover immense distances and by now were most likely a good few kilometres away.
With no luck with the one group of Cheetah Cubs we headed back to where Maliaka had been hanging out in the last few days and sure enough, with the help of a little 'inside intel’ found her and her cubs perched on a termite mound protected by Croton. Finally we were able to get a good view of the cubs. They seemed to be getting cuter day by day as they slept close to mum, at times resting on her and giving us a few good opportunities to get some nice stills.
After sitting with them for around 1.5 hours and fortunately this time in the company of only a few (well behaved!) vehicles the cubs began to get restless and started mooching around the bottom of the Termite mound, all the time Maliaka keeping a watchful eye on her fragile and vulnerable babies as they ventured a few metres away from Maliaka. Although still hard to sex at such a young age it looked as if the two cubs were a male and female. They played mischievously with Maliakas tail and one cub even decided to start investigating its surroundings by climbing into the Croton, peeking out before virtually falling back down inside the bush. We must have spent over two hours with them and although most of the time they slept it was so nice to sit and be able to absorb these gorgeous little creatures and to see them interacting with their new home and with each other and their mother. What made the morning even more special was that despite traveling extensively around various reserves in Africa and with at least 23/24 visits the the Mara we have seen very few Cheetah Cubs so we were really so happy to have been able to spend this amount of time with them. Above all we are just hoping so much that she had success in raising them to adulthood which given the high rate of cub mortality in the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem will be a huge challenge for sure. 

Later this afternoon we returned to the Cheetah cubs, but this time they lay hidden and did so until we had to return to camp for the night. A shame as by the evening the cloud had dissipated providing the most amazing evening light and a spectacular sunset as we drove back across the beautiful African plains of the Mara.

Grimace seeks shade

Grimace and Caesar in symmetry!

Malaika grooming one of her cubs

The Cheetah family resting on the termite mound


The sky glows red over the plains