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Travel report: BIG CATS of Kenya’s Masai Mara, March 2010

Just a few months ago Kenya was suffering from one of its worst droughts in decades. That’s something you wouldn’t have said when we arrived. Actually we took with us some nice and sunny weather. Something they could use in a wet Masai Mara, but esp. in some other places. A week before we arrived dozens of tourists in Kenya had to be airlifted to safety after their camp was hit by flash flooding. Campers staying at the popular Samburu National Park in the North of the country were forced to climb up trees or onto roofs as 4x4s were swept away. The wet weather gave us an overall different experience, and every now and then we had some difficulties, or better said our drivers had some difficulties, but as always our yearly return to Paradise caused a lot of fun, happiness and above all excitement and perfect sightings!! Here’s the full report of our 2010-Maasai Mara trip!

The trip started with overnight flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, where we would meet up with the rest of the crew, our overseas friends flying from London, early in the morning to continue our drive to our final destination. We were collected by our three Sun World safari vehicles with our befriended drivers and guides of last years’ trip, James, John and Wilson. The drive to Mara Bush Camp was supposed to take about 5-6 hours but due to a long lunchbreak at the magical Great Rift Valley View Point, where we enjoyed the great view and our packed lunches and had to catch up with all our friends and fellow-travellers. We had to change cars as we couldn’t pass the river, as the level was too high because of the wet weather. But we all enjoyed to be in Kenya again, to see a bit more of the country and already some wildlife on the way like giraffes and some zebras, and we took a little nap in between.

The arrival at Mara Bush Camp was way after lunchtime but time doesn’t matter at this place and nor do they have strict rules. Rule #1 is to enjoy ourselves and so it happened we had lunch at about 3 p.m. and had a very late afternoon drive after this to see if there were already some cats who showed themselves. Unfortunately they didn’t but lots of elephants and giraffes did and it was just sooo good to be back in paradise. Think we all shared this same feeling and the people who were there for the first time all agreed and they would certainly come back if they get the chance. That’s how it works at this place, if you’re not careful you get addicted to it just like we are but it’s a healthy addiction I can assure you that!

The beautiful Mara Bush Camp was base for the time we were spending here, like it was last year and if we are to say it for the coming years too! The camp is discreetly tucked away in a riverine forest on the banks of the Olare Orok River. Camp was exclusively set up for our group this time of year. This Bush Camp fulfils your dreams of sleeping out in the bush near the wild animals, hearing their sounds like lions roaring, hyenas “laughing” and the unmistakable sound of the hippos. As the camp is not fenced Masai warriors (“Morani”s) look out for our safety while we are sleeping or when we are leaving or arriving when it’s still dark. Again there was a big bull who wanted to join us in camp so he was kindly shown another direction to continue his walk without leaving us destroyed… Also one naughty hyena came back every evening after our dinner to try and get some left-overs. When we were just gone to bed we often hear him coming… closer… and closer…. This is the Bush… this is the wild… the real thing that you hope to get when you make a trip like this!

The camp’s Chef Cook was taking very good care of us and that we had plenty of nice meals to eat. At camp freshly prepared meals but as we often choose to stay out in the bush all day, picnic meals were readily available, so every morning we tried to find a tree to have our packed breakfast and our natural toilets “behind the car” or “behind the bush”…and in the afternoon we had a lunchbreak on our drives searching for the Big Cats and other wildlife, on some nice spot with usually a great view. On the first morning we had elephants passing by when we were having breakfast and another day we had a group of giraffes spying on us when we had our lunch. We usually left at 6.30 a.m. after early morning coffee and tea was served on our private tent veranda. Last year we always left half an hour before but the first few days there was no way to cross over the river(s) so we had to stay on the same side near camp, which was not much of a punishment as there was lots to see, like Olive and cubs at about 800m away from our camp (just luck that they happened to be at this place this time).

 

Due to the wet weather and heavy showers before our arrival lots of animals moved to other parts of the Mara or Kenya. Last year the plains were full of zebras, thousands of black and white stripes, all kinds of ages. A great sight for us and plenty of meals for the cats. This year we hardly saw any zebras, only while entering the Mara a few and on our final day when we drove to another part of the Mara. Zebras and lots of prey animals don’t like the tall grass as they don’t see the predators coming. Elephants don’t have the same problem so they had a feast. We never saw such large herds before; over hundreds of elephants roaming around at the same time and place, amazing sight. Lots of water, grass and trees so the elephants had everything they needed. Some predators move along with their prey, but the others left behind have a tougher time hunting. The bigger Prides of lions with lots of cubs to feed were hunting bigger prey like hippo and buffalo, but we saw small groups of young male lions who were kicked out of the Pride, and a few lonely lionesses, who were looking very skinny and hungry. This time you realise what a tough live the animals sometimes have in the wild with lots of competition for food.

 

It also proves how changeable situations in the wild are. We return frequently back to the Mara but every time it is a different experience. Even though it is like Paradise here for catslovers and photo/videographers, it’s never for granted and it requires a lot of hard work: time, patience and lots of luck to be able to see something interesting. To see sleeping animals is one thing but we of course like the action and unique situations. We needed some “catkarma” again and thank god it was there and we had so many exceptional sightings again. Elephants chasing off lions and leopard cubs, following a leopard hunting ending up in a “survival of the strongest (or smartest)” between jackal, hyena and lioness. Lots of baby animals crossed our ways like 22 lionscubs of different sizes, two 8-month old leopard cubs, elephant calves from a few weeks old to a few years old, hyena pups, hippo babies from a few days old, chicks of Crown Crane Birds, etc. etc. etc. In this report I will tell a bit more about a few of the most exceptional events of this trip.

 

Seeing leopards is always high priority for us on trips like these but of all African Big cats they are the most elusive and when they don’t want to be seen you just don’t see them. Masters in hiding in the bushes and tall grass. Our special aim was to see female leopard Olive with her two 8 month old sons. A good thing about Big Cat Diary star Olive is that she is not shy. Her mother, the wonderful Bella, wasn’t so shy and neither is Olive’s son Kali and daughter Binti, who’s now pregnant too. It is always a good thing when mother leopards aren’t shy as they usually pass this on to the future generation and so also Olive’s boys aren’t so shy (one a bit more than the other though) and we heard they often show themselves well already from very early age on, so this made our hopes look promising. We were lucky that Olive and her cubs were just staying near our camp, only 800m away from it, which made it easier to return often and search for them, which we often did as we were stuck at one area for the first few days because of the high water level of the rivers that we needed to cross if we wanted to go to different areas of the Mara.

 

On our first morning drive we spotted the two cubs who were playing in the bushes. One of them was still sitting on the road when we came but then also soon disappeared into the bush to play with his brother. They were stalking some dikdiks in the bush. At one point it seemed they were having something eatable in which they put their teeth but also played with. Maybe some leftovers from another meal mother Olive brought them as they didn’t seem skilled enough to hunt themselves. Dikdiks are tiny antelopes that form monogamous pairs in fixed territories of low bush along dry, rocky stream beds. The perfect “snack” for leopards who use to sneak on them in the bush. It was difficult to have a good sighting of the cubs because of the bushes and tall grass. At one point one of them was sitting a bit more in the open but still a difficult place for great shots, too much shade and too dark a place. But still so good to see a leopard in the wild let alone two young ones. The problem is, even in this season, that whenever a leopard has been spotted many vehicles drive up to this place to see it. But we just arrived so we had more chances to take.

 

One morning we really had a matter of 6th sense… or as we like to call it “Cat Karma” as we were leaving camp early to try and cross the river to go to the Marsh Pride of lions. We were suddenly driving very slowly so we thought good-old John (our driver who proved last year to be a great leopard spotter too!) did this to look out for leopards as we just arrived in the area where Olive left her two cubs. Very slowly driving we suddenly got very excited when we noticed one of Olive’s boys sitting not far from our vehicle in a semi-open spot, looking at us but not trying to run as we were the only vehicle there and not making any noise while driving so slowly. When the other cars arrived he jumped into the bush where his brother was eagerly waiting for him to have a playfight. We could see them jump up every now and then in the tall grass. Not ideal for photos but so lovely to see with your eyes. A shame when another vehicle came and drove into the bush acting very pushing to the cubs wanting to come near.. and near…. The cubs stayed in the bushes for a while but then they ran off to a tree and decided to climb in and have a play there. Better for us as we did have a better view now. Amazing how skilled these leopards are in climbing trees even to the highest points with very small branches. They seem like monkeys at this point. It reminded us of last year when their big brother Kali was giving a show to us in a tree. I remember we then said for the fun, “what can possibly be better than this?” and we answered “two leopards playing in the tree” and now look at this…. our wish came true!! But as for the cat karma…. it was so funny as suddenly John told us the reason why we were driving so slowly and that was because we had a(nother) flat tyre. He was a bit embarrassed and didn’t tell us right away and it now so happened a blessing as the leopard cub was waiting for us. If we would have driven fast to our destination, the crossing and the Marsh Pride, we no doubt would have missed this sighting!

 

Another morning we tried to cross the river when we were called by Wilson who’s driving the other vehicle with members from our group, that Olive, the leopard mum, has been spotted. She was walking very fast alongside the road he said. James, our driver, asked if we wanted to go and see if we could get a glimpse. Well of course…. if a leopard’s been spotted we like to go there right away, esp, if it’s Olive and family. So straight on we went and just in time to see gorgeous Olive sitting very relaxed in an open spot surrounded by a few vehicles. She’s so beautiful and so relaxed, really reminding me of her mother Bella and her son Kali who posed for us on previous visits. Leopards are usually very shy and except for Olive and family we this time saw just one more leopard but a very elusive one that instantly ran away (even from his kill) when vehicles were coming. So it’s good that every now and then there are a few leopards who aren’t so shy. Even then it’s amazing how well camouflaged they are and they can be invisible whenever they want to, which makes them the great hunters they are of course. One time we followed Olive when she was hiding in the bushes, needed my binoculars to follow her even if it wasn’t so far…it was so great to see her bodylanguage whenever she got impalas in sight. The one time you can see Olive best is when she is hungry, rest of the time she is also hiding like a “real” leopard.

 

Sometimes we like to make some people understand (who seem not to want to) why it’s so much nicer to see the animals in their natural habitat, having their “freedom” and showing natural behaviour, instead of caged animals in zoos or circusses. Well it’s so much nicer to see them act in the way they want… naturally… and a great thing about the wild is the unexpected… you never know what’s going to happen or what you are going to see next. Like one morning we followed Olive on her hunt. At one point we were having a great view where we could see her stalking and could imagine her stalking through the nearest bushes, and on the other side we saw a group of impalas where she would definitely go for. We were already hoping for some great hunting shots of a leopard. That would be so exclusive. The minute we were thinking this, one of our groupsmembers pointed out a jackal and a hyena behind the group of impalas. There seemed to be lying a fresh kill (impala fawn) too. It so appeared that the jackal made this kill and the hyena wanted to steal it and chased off the jackal, but then suddenly there was a lioness running to chase off both and she grabbed the kill and enjoyed this little “snack” in the nearest bushes. We went to have a look as we could imagine Olive giving up her hunting now with all this commotion and all her enemies around. The lioness was really enjoying her meal and seemed very pleased with herself. She almost choke, one of the bones got stuck in her throat, but she didn’t lose her appetite because of this. In one vehicle at the spot there were a few noisy children and the lioness gave them a glance and seemed to be thinking “another easy meal for later!”

 

After so much excitement we decided to have our own packed breakfast. We enjoyed it so much to be out the whole day and have our meals in the bush and in the open air. Even though there’s not much happening, animal-wise, during the hottest time of day, it’s nice just to be out and enjoy being in the Mara. At one time at breakfast a group of elephants walked by and one afternoon we had a few giraffes spying on us while we were having lunch. Great moments you will also never forget of course! On our way back after breakfast we went to take a look if Olive did catch something after all. If so, she would for sure go and get her boys. And this had happened as after searching for a while we found all three of them in the bushes. It was hard to see them. With binoculars we managed to see a bit. One of the cubs was drinking with Olive and the other was having a rest. We waited for a while and then suddenly not far from this place there was a lot of movement…. lots of baboons, which could mean trouble. Not long after this Olive stood up and went into the direction of the baboons. We thought she would probably go and check if they were save as baboons could mean a risk to leopards esp. big groups or big males. After she left and the cubs moved further into the bush there was not much left for us to see so we all decided to go. James, our great driver, drove slowly near the bush to check where Olive really was and suddenly I saw one of the cubs right next to the car eating…. Wow, an exciting moment!! A good position to take some shots… and great to see the cub so close. What a beauty, just like his brother Kali who gave us a big treat last year with his presence. Suddenly “baby boy” got a “bit” angry and started hissing…. then we saw Olive coming back and she lied down near her cub, very relaxed not disturbed by our presence at all, but he thought he had to protect his meal from his mum…. wasn’t the sharing type.

 

Cheetahs were a lot harder to find this time than it was last year when we saw 17 different ones also in the area near camp. Along with the prey animals the cheetahs seemed to have moved to other parts of the Mara. We were very keen on finding “our” cheetahs again like the three brothers (Honey’s boys) and Shakira with her three girls. The Disney cars were, like last year, still around every day. For two years they are filming certain lions and cheetahs for a big Disney Motion Picture to be released in 2011. Lots of great filmers like Simon King are working to get lots of footage for this production. Our friend and fellow-traveller Gavin Thurston knows these people so often when there was a Disney car around he had a little chat and shared some information as where to find certain cats. Honey’s boys were seen the day before in a certain area, so we tried to check it out if we could find them. The first time without any luck. These boys cover such great distances and then again, if they would lay flat in the grass you wouldn’t see them anyway. So this probably was the case as a few days after, while we were not searching, we found them and they were very active. We hoped they would go for a spectacular hunt and followed them on their way. They definitely were cats on a mission. One leader and two followers…. always great to see their strategy of hunting. They were moving very fast and we were following…. until…. we suddenly got stuck. Tall gras covering marsh and wet mud… the way to get stuck like we did a few times. This time it was the wrong time…. we could miss a great cheetah hunt… but hey that’s all part of the wild… so we make the best of it. While the guys were doing their utmost to get it all fixed we, girls, were making some crazy shots, standing on a termite mound pretending to be topi and cheetahs. Well you have to do something to pass the time right?

 

It took quite a long time to start driving again… but luckily we found the brothers again and weren’t too late for a bit of action. We saw the coalition of brothers chase a group of hartebeest but without luck. It was strange as they are always very successful and somehow it didn’t seem like they were doing their best to be successful at all…. now this seems to be the case with cheetahs when they are not really hungry (and they had quite full stomachs) but they just want to play and have some exercise. So this is what it was really.. but still great to have witnessed even from quite a long distance. On our final day we came across the brothers again, though they were very lazy…. only lifting their heads up when they heard something of interest but that was the only bit of action. Still great to see them again and say sort of “goodbye” for this time. On our way to the Marsh Pride of lions one morning we found a female cheetah, called Saba we heard later, with one remaining cub. Her other cub was killed by lions or hyenas not long before. It’s always a struggle for cheetah mothers to bring their cubs to adulthood. To have just one cub is even so much harder, as the cub has to stay behind alone when mummy is hunting. This morning they were lying on a termite mound. Saba was quite alert but the little cub was very lazy when we got there. Later on when he awoke there were some funny and touching moments when he fell of the mound twice and coming back up he was teasing his mum and they played a little… until Saba got up and run off inviting the cub to ran with her. So good to see them ran away in a playful mood. They were two of the cheetahs followed by the Disney cars… this time with Simon King. Gavin had a little chat with him as they are old acquaintances dating from the Big Cat Diary period when they worked together. It was nice to say “Hi” to Mr. Big Cat Diary while watching some lovely cheetahs. The day after we heard Honey’s boys chased off Saba and her cub…. out of their territory though one of them probably is the dad to Saba’s cub as they are the dominant males in the Mara for a while now.

Another lovely cheetah we saw on our search to the cats… a pregnant female on the look out on a termite mound… with a nice sunset to make the photos turn out very nicely. She kept on looking, searching for prey and then suddenly she started running to another, higher termite mound closer to a group of impala. This clearly was a lady on a mission…a hungry cheetah she was. We stayed with her for quite some time and saw all the commotion from a long distance… she was running to the impalas…. lots of it happened behind bushes (of course…) so we could not really tell what had happened and we thought she didn’t succeed in catching an impala. We thought to make sure of this and have a look…. only to find out she did catch a nice meal but not an impala…. it was a hare… who obviously got in the way when all the commotion started and had no way to escape. Cheetahs in the wild never get to enjoy their meal so much as e.g. lions, as they are always very nervous and keep looking around them if the enemies are coming (hyena, lions…) to steal their meal. it’s necessary to eat as fast as they can. It happened one time that a cheetah choke in the food… eating too fast, and died on the spot. So sad really.

 

On the last full day we drove to the other side of the Mara to see if we could find any cats there like cheetah Shakirah with her cubs. We were so happy to find them. With them was the Disney car who had special permission to go off road and stay close to them. In this side of the Mara the rules are very strict and rangers often drove around and checked on vehicles if they didn’t go off road and also in busy times vehicles weren’t allowed to stay longer than 5 minutes at a sighting. So it was from quite a distance we had to see these cheetahs who were hiding under a bush. Our driver Wilson said it were the three cubs and that Shakirah recently left them as the cheetahs were almost 2 years old now, the age to leave them. One of them stood up and was very alert in a group of impala and waterbuck nearby. It looked as if she was interested in hunting but she wasn’t hiding enough. After a while she gave up and joined the others who had also left the hiding place. Thinking back of this we think this could have been Shakirah joining her two remaining cubs, as back in Holland we were told that Shakirah was spotted with two cubs and the third one was missing. She could have been killed, but other reports claimed she had been seen with a kill but this is not yet confirmed. Well whoever they are it was great to see them and we hope the third cub is okay of course. This side of the Mara we also had a great sighting of a Black Rhino. Quite exceptional how close he came as usually they more on a distance than the white rhino and they are also more aggressive. Seeing this Rhino made the Big Five for us complete again; Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Buffalo and Rhino.

 

Leopards, but sometimes also cheetahs, are usually more difficult to track down and spot than lions, but also this time we really had to search for them with the tall grass, high waterlevel in the rivers and poor food condition they moved a lot more and could make themselves invisible at some times. It was great how many lioncubs there were around this year…22 spotted but we did not even see all cubs born in the Marsh Pride (about 11). The smallest cub we saw was from 12 weeks old. He was lying under a tree with three lionesses and another, bigger, cub. The small cub drank with his mum but when she thought it was enough he wanted to have more, so he also tried it with the other lionesses, walking on top of their backs and played with their moving tails. Lovely to see of course. We also saw two different Prides with 8 cubs, all running and playing. One mating couple was chased off by an angry elephant (matriarch) who went after them loudly trumpeting. The two lions run away from her and when the elephant was gone they sat down next to each other, looking very warm and exhausted. The male lion was having eye for his lioness only and was really interesting in mating, the female wasn’t so keen and played hard to get for a very long time. It was interesting to see how the male followed every step of the lioness but was hit back hard sometimes as she wasn’t interested. They later on rested under some bushes… were shaken up by another elephant who passed by very close. Close to the mating couple there were two lionesses with two cubs…. we were with them for a while and then suddenly I could see, in between bushes, that the male lion got what he wanted after all (patience pays off) and they mated…. the sounds of growling made the cubs very alert. They went to sit with their mothers and looked into the direction of the mating couple with great interest. Probably their dad…

 

One day we finally made it to the Marsh Pride of Lions though this area was even more wet and hard to reach. When we found lions (three lionesses and five cubs) sitting on a termite mound we couldn’t get any closer otherwise we definitely would get stuck in the marsh. The lions were surrounded by lots of elephants, most of them quite far away from the lions, except for two young bulls who were matching their strength, had a playfight and ended up running, one after the other, and closer to the lions. When this was finished one of the bulls probably still had to much energy or was still frustrated because of the other bull, so he went up to the lions and chased them off the termite mound and near the water. The three lionesses jumped over the water but the three cubs were to small so they waited and the bull didn’t push it that far and went back.. first concentrating on the third lioness who was brave and kept lying down until the bull came too close for her likeness and she also jumped over the water leaving her three cubs on the “dangerous” side. The bull did gave up, otherwise there was just one option for the cubs and that was to swim to their mums. When the bulls were way off the lionesses jumped back and they all reunited on the termite mound again to have a deserved rest. For us it was a great piece of action of course and we could take some very nice shots.

 

The elephants really seemed to be dominating the Mara this time with the big herds existing of even over 100 elephants roaming around…”bullying” the cats, esp. lions and leopards. Olive’s cubs were hiding in the bushes one afternoon and they were also chased off by an angry elephant. A dangerous place sometimes, but for us very exciting to be lucky to see this all of course. It was also nice to see all young animals like the four hyena cubs who just came out of the den with their mother.

 

On the way back to the Marsh we took great risk in getting stuck again but we were driving into long, wet grass to see a Pride of lions, lots of lionesses and 8 cubs, feasting on a hippo kill. Most of the lions were already finished and were resting with big bellies, but one lioness and two cubs were still eating.. and jumping on the hippo, who was covered with thousands of flies and didn’t smell too nicely when the wind was blowing our way. But always great to see and take some shots of an eating session. A bit further we saw Notch, the big male from this Pride, and also his two sons must have been around. They all help getting a big prey like a hippo down and so they have days food for the whole Pride.

Unfortunately there comes an end to everything and also to this lovely trip. On the final morning we did a short drive as a short of “farewell” for this time and we did see three lionesses and two cubs we saw before and they were hunting. One time we saw one of the lionesses go after a warthog but unfortunately she missed. We followed them a bit but then had to go back to camp to pack, have another great breakfast and leave for the airport. On our way out of the Mara we spotted a lioness that didn’t look healthy and very slim. She did not even react when a (collared) hyena walked close behind her and checked on her. We also saw very big groups of giraffes, which was also great to see.

 

All in all we had such an exceptional and wonderful time again at our favourite place on earth and we were so lucky with such great sightings. Of course it was hard to leave it all behind again but we are already planning another trip there and besides this we firstly go to see some tigers in India in June this year. Always great to have something to look forward to.

A big thank you to all the people and animals who made our trip so memorable and worthwhile again!! Thanks all people at Sunworld and Mara Bush Camp, also for the sundowners the one evening when we had to appear in your promotion film by Gavin Thurston.. can’t wait to see it! And like the words on the farewell cake we got at our last dinner at camp “Thanks and see you next year!!”

Report and photos Copyright by: Babette de Jonge/www.wildcatsmagazine.nl
For more photos refer to the Magnificient cats Photogallery.

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