Maasai Mara, Kenya, December 2020

December 12, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

About a week after we returned home from our trip to Ol Pejeta and Lakes Elementaita and Naivasha (trip reports here and here respectively), we set off for our next family adventure - this time to the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

'The Mara' was a fairly obvious choice of destination for us early in our time here in Kenya - it is widely regarded as one of the great safari destinations and an excellent place to see a range of East African wildlife. After a little research, we decided to stay at 'Mara Explorers' - a cheap campsite situated just outside the Sekenani Gate. It was a nice campsite and served our needs perfectly. Unfortunately, the campsite has now closed down - nothing to do with us I hope! I should add that there is also a luxury lodge with same name - we definitely didn't stay there.

Having self-guided all of our trips in Kenya thus far, we decided to commission a guide to join us in our vehicle for this trip. Mara Explorers hooked us up with Kennedy (+254708134916 / +254790142718), an excellent guide - personable, knowledgeable and fun to have around. I normally prefer the freedom of not having a guide but in the Mara it is well worth it. Firstly, the area is large and can be disorientating for those that don't know it. Secondly the guides keep close contact with each other and can help navigate you to wildlife sightings - though this is a bit of a double-edged sword which I will get to later!

We drove straight to the campsite from our home outside Nairobi. It was a very straightforward drive on good roads - something that can't always be guaranteed in Kenya. It took about 5hrs in total. On arrival we set up our tent etc. and met Kennedy. He was keen to take us out and we didn't object. So we set off for a late afternoon safari about an hour after arriving.

It didn't take long after entering the Mara for us to have our first wildlife encounters. Initially these were close and quality encounters with familiar species:

Common ostrich (Struthio camelus)Common ostrich (Struthio camelus) Common eland (Taurotragus oryx)Common eland (Taurotragus oryx)

A nice new one for us on our first day us was meeting the first of many topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela). These beautiful relatives of the more widespread hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus) gather in large herds in the Mara and are easily seen:

Topi (Damaliscus lunatus)Topi (Damaliscus lunatus)

A treat for us on our first Mara venture was to bump into a group of no fewer than five cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). This particular group is quite famous here. Known as the 'Tano Bora' (roughly translating as 'Magnificent Five' in the Maa language, apparently), they are an all-male cheetah coalition. The relationships between them are a bit unclear (and vary according to different sources) but it is probable that at least a couple of them are directly related. I should add that, at the time of writing (a year on from this trip), the coalition has now (partly) separated - they are not a magnificent 'five' any more! Unlike many of our later cat sightings we had them all to ourselves - making for a truly excellent and memorable encounter.

When we saw them the light was fading fast. Our time with them was also limited as you have to be out of the reserve by a certain time. I had to bump the ISO quite high but I managed to take a few keepers to remember this amazing experience:

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

After a great first day we returned to the campsite and settled down for the night.

We set off again the next morning, leaving just before first light. Just indulge me for a moment whilst I make a comment for photographers who don't have experience in East Africa:

The 'golden hour' here is very brief. I would reckon that, on a clear day, you actually have about 20-30 minutes after sunrise before the sun is already quite high in the sky and creating harsh light. So, if you want to take beautiful golden hour portraits, you need to a) know exactly where the animals are so that, immediately as the reserve gates open, you can drive straight to them before the sun is too harsh or b) be accommodated inside the reserve such that the distance to the animals is short enough to make this possible or ideally c) both of these! Unfortunately, the lodges inside the reserve tend to be quite expensive, making golden hour access to animal sightings something of a luxury!

Our first sighting for the second day was a leopard (Panthera pardus) which was sleeping in a tree - a fairly typical leopard encounter! Unfortunately, we were not the only ones there, and this is the honest nature of most cat sightings in the Mara. Around the base of the tree were about 10 other vehicles, all jostling for the best spot. Amongst them were a few 'serious' photography vehicles who, we were told, were intending to camp there for the whole day. We stuck around for about 10 minutes but I really hate this sort of situation and was keen to move on and leave the leopard to it. I had encountered something similar with tiger safaris in India (read this blog post for details) and I wish it was something that was better controlled. The Mara supposedly has rules against the overcrowding sightings but, from our observations, they seem seldom enforced.

Anyway, here is the leopard - a gorgeous animal, sleeping peacefully:

Leopard (Panthera pardus)Leopard (Panthera pardus)

After moving on from the leopard I was keen that we just explored on our terms. I wasn't so keen on cat-hopping which seems to be the main way that most people experience the Mara. As we drove around the reserve that morning, we had some quality encounters with some stunning birds:

Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum)Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) Harlequin quail (Coturnix delegorguei)Harlequin quail (Coturnix delegorguei) Harlequin quail (Coturnix delegorguei)Harlequin quail (Coturnix delegorguei)

Red-necked spurfowl (Francolinus afer)Red-necked spurfowl (Francolinus afer)

We were also very lucky with elephants (to be precise - African bush elephants - Loxodonta africana) this morning. At this time of year the herds of wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) for which the Mara is famous are over the Tanzanian border in the Serengeti. Apparently the elephants do not like the noise of the vast herds of wildebeest so, when the wildebeest are gone, the elephants are in! We had some really quality encounters with them and they are easy to see from a long distance, standing out from the homogenous sea of red oat grass (Themeda triandra) which characterises the Mara landscape:

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)

Other mammal encounters that morning included occasional encounters with 'common' warthogs (Phacochoeros africanus) - a species which I mentioned in my last blog can be quite shy and hard to photograph well. We had a brief encounter with a family of fast-moving banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) as well as small groups of wildebeest (C. taurinus). Wildebeest were not super-abundant at this time and we just saw scattered individuals. Their (enormous) herds usually migrate to the Mara around July-August.

Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) Banded mongoose (Mungos mungo)Banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) Common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)Common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)

Later that morning we had our second encounter with the Tano Bora cheetah coalition. It was the middle of the day so they were heading into some shade after, I presume, a failed hunt (they were all there and not covered in blood). We got really clear views of them, though the light at this time of day is particularly horrible!

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

Towards the end of that day we went to investigate a leopard sighting (yes, we reverted to cat-hopping), hoping for it to be less crowded than the morning's one. Alas, it was actually more crowded, as this particular sighting was of a mother leopard and its cub. Both were sat in a tree, the mother having recently killed an impala which it had brought up for them both to munch on. People did seem better behaved here and at least gave the leopards a decent radius from which we could all enjoy seeing these beautiful animals. On a couple of occasions the cub, whilst trying to eat part of the impala, dropped its meal and then jumped to the ground to retrieve it. The mother did this once as well (second photo below) and on each occasion it was met with audible joy from the audience:

Leopard (Panthera pardus)Leopard (Panthera pardus) Leopard (Panthera pardus)Leopard (Panthera pardus)

It was getting late at this stage so after spending a little time with the leopards we headed back to the campsite.

On the next morning we decided to go and investigate the Mara River. The river is best known for the crossings made by the wildebeest herds (though this only happens during the migration later in the year). We were just hoping to see some crocodiles and hippo. We had a few nice encounters along the way, such as this Coke's hartebeest / kongoni (Alcelaphus buselaphus):

Coke's hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii)Coke's hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii)

We had a great close encounter with a displaying male black-bellied bustard (Eupodotis melanogaster):

Black-bellied bustard (Eupodotis melanogaster)Black-bellied bustard (Eupodotis melanogaster)

My experience of vehicle-based safaris in Kenya is that they are not a great way to see reptiles, so you'll note that reptiles don't feature heavily in such reports of mine (but don't worry - there are plenty of reptiles to come in future foot-based ones!). On this drive we did see my first and only Mwanza flat-headed rock agama (Agama mwanzae) basking on a rock:

Mwanza flat-headed rock agama (Agama mwanzae)Mwanza flat-headed rock agama (Agama mwanzae)

As we approached the river, we had a succession of awesome encounters with lions (Panthera leo):

Lion (Panthera leo)Lion (Panthera leo) Lion (Panthera leo)Lion (Panthera leo) Lion (Panthera leo)Lion (Panthera leo) Lion (Panthera leo)Lion (Panthera leo)

We also passed by quite a lot of African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) - an animal that I've always struggled to take compelling photos of. However, I thought that this one posed nicely for us, even if it does look a bit grumpy (pulling its standard buffalo expression):

African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

After a pretty full-on few days, we decided that we needed a bit of a break so we headed back to the campsite at around midday and took the early afternoon off. As we sat eating our lunch, we noticed that a variety of small birds were coming to the lunch areas to feed on crumbs and scraps etc. So I got my camera out, lay on the ground and did my best to photograph them as they came and went:

Rufous sparrow (Passer rufocinctus)Rufous sparrow (Passer rufocinctus) Grey-capped social-weaver (Pseudonigrita arnaudi)Grey-capped social-weaver (Pseudonigrita arnaudi) D'Arnaud's barbet (Trachyphonus darnaudii)D'Arnaud's barbet (Trachyphonus darnaudii) Village weaver (Ploceus cucullatus)Village weaver (Ploceus cucullatus)

I'm not very good at sitting still and after a few hours of lazing at the campsite I was restless and keen to get back out exploring the reserve. I was also hoping to try and get some better photos of the animals in nicer light which was generally eluding me this trip. However, for various reasons we decided to make this one a short drive and only had one new sighting - a roadside encounter with a black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas). This individual had a short and stubby tail - I have no idea what happened to it - presumably a run-in with another predator:

Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)

The next morning was the start of our last day in the Mara and we were getting a bit weary of spending so much time in the vehicle! Well...I could probably have hacked more but our kids were definitely reaching their limit! On our morning drive we had some nice encounters with a few new bird species:

African wattled lapwing (Vanellus senegallus)African wattled lapwing (Vanellus senegallus) Lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus)Lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus) White-browed coucal (Centropus superciliosus)White-browed coucal (Centropus superciliosus) Yellow-throated longclaw (Macronyx croceus)Yellow-throated longclaw (Macronyx croceus)

A great encounter was with a Speke's hinged tortoise (Kinixys spekii). This little chap was seen trundling along the ground while we had made a brief stop. Interestingly, its shell is cracked - possibly stepped on by an elephant or attacked by a strong-jawed predator:

Speke‘s hinged tortoise (Kinixys spekii)Speke‘s hinged tortoise (Kinixys spekii)

We headed back to the campsite early, as on the day before. In the early afternoon we decided to do a very touristy thing of visiting out a not-so-authentic Maasai village. Not really my cup of tea, and not particularly convincing, but it was interesting to learn about a genuinely fascinating culture. That afternoon and evening I did a bit of exploring around the campsite. I was hoping to find some reptiles alas I was unsuccessful. I did find a nice Peter's foam-nest frog (Chiromantis petersi), along with a nice (unidentified) wolf spider and a pretty little sleeping large orange tip butterfly (Colotis antevippe):

Peters’ foam-nest frog (Chiromantis petersi)Peters’ foam-nest frog (Chiromantis petersi) Wolf spider (Lycosidae)Wolf spider (Lycosidae) Large orange tip butterfly (Colotis antevippe)Large orange tip butterfly (Colotis antevippe)

The next morning we headed back home and had a quiet few months whilst we prepared for our next big adventure. We enjoyed our time in the Mara - it's a wonderful place and a terrific place to see a range of wildlife. However, as mentioned, the behaviour of people towards the cats does leave a lot to be desired and I hope that the Kenyan authorities start to take this seriously.




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