Skip to content

To the Maasai Mara

It’s a seven-hour drive southwest to the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s most famous national park, with a good part of the road being rutted dirt. By the time we arrived at the Mara Bush Camp it was already almost dark, but even after the long drive from Nakuru, followed by a game drive in the Mara, we were exhilarated by what we had seen.

We were welcomed by our first leopard (though by no means the last we would follow in the next four days); and by a family of lions who would cross our path almost daily.

The two lionesses seemed to share in caring for their cubs, seven in all. It’s remarkable how these mothers tolerate their babies crawling over and nipping at them.

Our tents at Mara Bush Camp were spacious and comfortable, and we were serenaded to sleep by the snuffling, grunting hippos in their nearby pool. Because the camp is not fenced in, animals are free to roam in; so we were cautioned to call our Maasai warrior escorts whenever we would walk after dark. Our William was draped in a traditional red plaid shuka (blanket) and armed with a spear, a knife and a flashlight. One morning as he was escorting me to the Land Cruiser he stopped to flash his light on a cheetah that was strolling through camp.

Bush Camp Courtyard

We took our meals in the courtyard at the center of camp, and each night at cocktail hour we enjoyed sitting around the bonfire and chatting about our day.

Maasai Mara is home to big cats, and we saw many. Besides the lion family and leopards, cheetahs were everywhere. No one — even Jonathan, Wilson and Piper — had ever seen a leopard sitting on its hind legs, so we were lucky to get the shot!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As hard as it is to get out before dawn (and breakfast) the rewards are plentiful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the other end of the day, as light was fading, we saw two magnificent young lions — still without their manes — whom Piper said carried all the signs of being the next leaders of the pride. Wilson explained that the lions in the Mara form coalitions to lead their prides, rather than taking down the current elder and fighting each other for supremacy. We saw these boys almost every day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Day’s end.

Through the Great Rift Valley

Northwest of Samburu, a six hour drive through the Great Rift Valley, lies Lake Nakuru National Park. Famous for its huge flocks of flamingoes (a flamboyance), climate change has altered the water level and alkalinity dramatically in the last two decades as well as the algae upon which the flamingoes feast. Sadly, we only saw these colorful birds from a distance. Skeletal dead acacias, their feet deep in water, testified to the precipitous rise in the lake level.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA    IMG_0709

 

However, here we got our first peek at rhinos, both the critically endangered black and the white varieties. My past encounters with rhinos had been at such a distance that they looked like grey boulders, but here we were able to get close enough to zoom in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

White rhinos have a shovel-shaped snout, while the black ones have a pointed upper lip. Otherwise, they’re hard to distinguish from each other. The above images are black rhinos; the mother and calf below are white.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The climate in Nakuru was cool and misty, lighting the yellow acacia forest with a magical glow. On an early morning game drive we could detect the giraffes’ breath in the golden rim light.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later in the morning we spotted a lioness with her cubs tucked into the grass beside the road. I couldn’t get enough of these precious babies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After a while she led them to a small thicket, where she tucked them in and presumably gave them instructions to stay still and quiet while she went hunting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mama on the lookout for something tasty… OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The dirt roads in these parks are deeply rutted, and during a bouncy ride on our second morning in Nakuru, I remarked to my mates that our driver, Jonathan, had just turned  down a road marked “Road Closed.” About ten minutes later we found out why.

IMG_0703IMG_4614

After Jen, Marsha and I delicately disembarked, Jonathan called Wilson for assistance. After speculating that they might not be able to get the Land Rover out of the sucking mud — necessitating calling Nairobi for another one, 8 or more hours away — they connected the two vehicles with a heavy cable and Wilson was able to pull it out as Jonathan gunned the engine. Only after we got back in the vehicle did we think about the rhinos we had seen just beside the road…

Our Days in Samburu

Wildlife in Samburu was abundant. Pre-dawn excursions offered beautiful light. We would typically jump into the vehicles before the sun came up, chase some animals, and stop between 9 and 10 to have our breakfast in the bush. By 11 we were back at the lodge for lunch and a rest before heading out again around 4 p.m. to catch wildlife during the golden hour.

One animal new to me was the gerenuk, aka the giraffe gazelle, for obvious reasons. It’s remarkable how they delicately eat the tender leaves and leave the nasty thorns behind.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The river running through the preserve was a rich source of activity, including a sighting of wild dogs who apparently haven’t been seen here in over seven years. Their manic racing made it extremely difficult to capture focused images.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then there were the scores of guinea hens with their remarkable blue plumage and polka dotted undercarriage scurrying across the road… OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here we saw Rothschild’s giraffes in the wild. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Grevy’s zebras continued to fascinate us, as we followed their peregrinations and antics. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next up: Lake Nakuru.

 

 

 

 

 

Off to Samburu

A bit about the logistics of this safari: As I mentioned in my first post, there were six of us on this adventure, with our photographer leader, Piper, and drivers Jonathan and Wilson. Our plan was to take off from Nairobi and visit three different national parks over the next eleven days. With two Toyota Land Cruisers, we had plenty of space to spread out: each of us had her own row, so we could shoot from either side of the vehicle as well as from the open roof.

A six-hour drive took us to Samburu National Reserve. En route, we discovered what I call speed bump commerce.  Kenya seems to love speed bumps, which are ubiquitous even on major highways. At these spots where vehicles slow down, there are shops, eating spots and various other types of commercial establishments — even when there is no town.

Our first game drive of the trip didn’t disappoint us, as we saw kudu, oryx, waterbuck, gazelles, dik diks and countless birds. Piper had told us we would see Grevy’s zebras, which are considered endangered, as their grazing lands have shrunk and their population is down over 50% over the past 30 years. This is the only place in Kenya where you can see these zebras.

Larger than the more common plains zebra, they also have bigger ears, and their stripes are narrower, giving them what Piper aptly described as an elegant look.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As darkness began to fall, we spotted a mother leopard and her two youngsters. They nearly blended into the rocks… I was so excited, as I had never spotted a leopard in the wild before. Little did I know we would see them every single day!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We had two more days in Samburu, with lots more to see.

Another Trip of a Lifetime

The first day started with irresistible baby elephants at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, located in Nairobi National Park. Each of the six women on this private photo safari had adopted her own calf, and we were excited to discover that we would have a very private visit with those cuties at their late-morning feeding. At some silent signal, the elephants scampered around the corner from their bedrooms, practically knocking the keepers down to guzzle their breakfast.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

My little guy, Kiombo, was born in March, 2017, in the Maasai Mara, and was orphaned when his mother died of unknown causes. When SWF heard about him they dispatched a team to watch him for a couple of days, during which time they identified the body of a lactating female they concluded had been his mother. Poor little Kiombo was in obvious distress, having gone without food for several days. In many cases, another herd will adopt an orphan, but in Kiombo’s case that didn’t happen. So the team wrapped him up, put him in a Land Cruiser and took him to the nearest airstrip, where a charter bush plane was waiting to transfer him to the SWF nursery. He has apparently adapted easily to his new home, and with his friends enjoys a little romp in the nearby bush every day as part of the process of readying him to be returned to the wild.

This wonderful facility has been rescuing orphans for forty years and is worth checking out here.

Just down the road we stopped at the Giraffe Center, established in 1979 to save the endangered Rothschild giraffe, whose numbers had dwindled to a mere 130. Here they breed the giraffes in captivity and introduce them into the wild. Feeding these handsome creatures was a real treat. Rothschilds are distinguished by the dark center appearing in their brown spots.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What an exciting way to begin our adventure in Kenya!

Farewell, Rapa Nui!

Orongo is a deserted village of stone huts important in the tribal history of Easter Island. The island was plagued with tribal warfare over land, resources and power, and by the latter part of the 17th century the society that had so systematically carved the moai had disintegrated into anarchy and were even beginning to destroy the statues they had so painstakingly created. A group of warriors suggested that the path to restoring order was to create an annual competition, with the winner assuming the seat of chieftain for the following year. Thus was born the Birdman competition.

Tribal leaders would each select one athlete to compete, while they lived and watched from these huts, built into the side of a hill that topped a 1000-foot cliff overlooking the wild ocean and these three islets, Moto Nui, Moto Iki and Moto Kao Kao.

The springtime competition began with a climb down the rocky cliff face and a swim through the chilly, shark-infested waters to Moto Nui, the largest of the islets.  There the swimmers would wait for the first egg laid by one of the hundreds of Sooty Terns that migrated there to lay their eggs and raise their young. Sometimes they’d be on the islet for weeks. The lucky spotter and retriever of the first egg would signal to his waiting chief, who would shave his head and eyebrows and wait for the competitor to swim back to the main island, climbing the steep cliff and presenting the unbroken egg. The chief would be proclaimed Birdman until the next competition. This tradition continued for about 150 years and was central to the island’s religious beliefs.

On the backside of this village is Rano Kao Crater, which we had visited earlier in the week. Much more scenic on a fair day!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our organizer photographer arranged a model shoot one day at Anakena Beach, and we were fortunate to be able to meet these beautiful people and make pictures they can use on social media. As I usually do, I’ll end this series of posts with faces from Rapa Nui.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Spectacular Skies

Being out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Rapa Nui has some seriously dark skies. And even during daylight, the heavens are pretty spectacular, with roiling black clouds signaling rain, or just achingly blue clear sky.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The new moon happened on April 2, which made the skies above Anakena Beach even darker. Our local guide and astrophotographer, Marc, pointed out the various constellations, including the Southern Cross, Pisces and Orion, as well as the International Space Station and several planets, among them Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus.  Shooting stars zipped across the void. After unsatisfying night shooting in Alaska (Northern Lights and freezing) and Namibia (a malfunctioning lens at wide angles) I was determined to get something — one good shot — to bring home. My first one delivered a big surprise…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The cloud, which appeared to the naked eye as a blob of puffy grayness, had been brilliantly tinted by the brush fire we had smelled earlier in the evening. It made for some real drama as it shape-shifted throughout the hours we stood on the beach. See the shooting star directly above the rightmost moai, above?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What was so great about the cloud — or was it actually smoke? — was that it made every shot just a bit different from the others. Now I’m really hooked on dark skies!