After many months of planning and changing places of visit, we finally decided that we will visit Lake Nakuru and Masai Mara this time around.. two of the best kept national parks in Kenya. On a daily basis we watched the weather reports for these areas, reason being that October and November are the Short-rainy seasons in Kenya. The rains arrived as per schedule and we got the information from our drivers and tour operator that the greenery started consuming the dry brown-yellow savanna. Being photographers one always wishes Greener back grounds and more vibrant pictures. Birds and animals always look great in greens.
The flights we took from Bangalore to Nairobi were all on schedule and we landed at Nairobi at night to be greeted by a thunder storm and it poured nonstop throughout the night. From airport we headed to the hotel for the night’s stay and planned to leave Nairobi very early in the morning as we got the news from Narok town that the rains there were less compared to Nairobi which is at an elevation of 1,795 meters (5,889 ft). The lower elevations did not experience much rains, so we left the hotel by 5AM and started towards Nakuru town. After an hour of driving, the rains subsided and Lake Naivasha being on the way to Lake Nakuru, we wanted to spend some time there as we had enough time to get to Nakuru by lunch time as we planned.
We reached Naivasha by around 7AM and spoke to the boatmen there and hired 2 boats and started our photography. The weather was foggy and with light drizzle and the Sun tried hard to pop out once in a while.. but our moods were brightened up by the boatmen who told us there were more than 8 pairs of African Fish Eagle that reside at the lake and they were friendly for photography. Within few minutes in to the boat ride we did spot those magnificent fish eagles and one of them even hunted a fish in front of us. There were scores of Yellow-billed ducks, Cape Teals, Black Crakes, a few Grey headed gulls, Hadeda Ibis, Sacred Ibis, good numbers of Pelicans, Flamingoes and other water birds. Due to the constant presence of fishermen and tourists, the birds out there were not very shy of people (photographers). Most birds were approachable for photography and we did get some good images of the water birds out there. When we compared the light that was available for photography Vs the pictures that we made.. every one were very satisfied with the 2 hrs. boat ride. At around 9:30AM we decided to exit out and we had taken packed breakfast with us, so we landed the boat at the boat landing and had our breakfast there.
The food as always attracted the Superb Starlings in that area and we shot a very bold group of around 10 birds in good back grounds and the place also had few Common Boubou, flycatchers and hoopoes too. So ended a great morning at Lake Naivasha and we headed to the town of Nakuru. Our drivers Joseph and Lawrence were almost like encyclopedias, they both knew almost all the geographical, political and history of all the areas that we had planned to visit and during the long drive, they kept talking to us about these places. All that I would tell you guys is the road trips in Kenya are the best (even though they are time consuming and sometime tiring) we get to smell the beautiful air, you get to see the local people and their life style, their towns and villages are enchanting, the struggle of common man for their day-today needs is almost like us Indians. Africa is beautiful and its people, culture, wildlife, life forms are all a thing of beauty and you can experience all this only by hitting the road.
By around lunch time we reached the town of Nakuru and it’s a town that poses loads of educational institutions, Colleges and School are everywhere, a very well designed town in Kenya. We did see loads of students all around and on the outskirts of this town is the Lake Nakuru. The resort we had booked for a couple of days stay was very close to the lake, hence we headed there. We spent a few hours resting in the resort after a great meal and then headed out on Safari. Our plan for the 2 day Safari at Lake Nakuru was to spot and photograph the White Rhino, Black Rhino and the beautiful Long Crested Eagle. After a few hours in to the Safari we got the news that one of the Safari vehicles had found a group of 11 White Rhinos grazing at a location which was around 5kms from where we were, hence we headed their and found them feeding in thick bush, not very conducive for photography. With wildlife you have to buy time, hence we stay put with that group and after around 2 hrs, there was a clearing in the Yellow-bark Acacia woodland, and the Rhinos started coming out to the open, everyone were awe- stuck to see their great horns and we did get some great clear pictures of them. All the shutter happy humans were satisfied with their clicks, so we moved to an elevated area of grassland to try out the Black Rhinos which were spotted that morning by few jeep drivers, we did scout that area but couldn’t find any. But we were treated by a group of around 20 Lesser Kestrels catching insects and there came along a Banded Snake Eagle too.. being birders at heart, we enjoyed watching them. It was a bit far for photography so the binoculars gave us great comfort. As the Sun started to go down, we started our journey back to the resort, and on the way spotted a few White-bellied and Black Bellied Bustards, many African Paradise Flycatcher, White-eyed Slaty Flycatchers, Wood Hoopoes, Starlings, Sooty Chats and mammals like Olive Baboons and at the end of the Safari, we did see the Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl as well.
It was a wonderful first time experience for us at Lake Nakuru… it is not the lake that it became famous for.. which is, it use to host hundreds of thousands of flamingos. The water level in this lake started to increase and there vanished the algae that supported the flamingos. Last 3 years the flamingos here are seen in very small numbers as their habitat vanished. Buts Nakuru has many other things to offer and if pursued with grit and patience, there are good numbers of Roths-child’s Giraffes which you don’t see elsewhere, there are lions, leopards and scores of birds out there.
The next day we went again searching for the prized species, the 2 species of Rhinos and the Long Crested Eagle. The Rhino sighting was poor this day and we did see some Rhinos but at a great distance, we did see a few lions feeding on a Imphala carcass. Yes I would like to mention here that at Nakuru the park authorities have put a restriction that one cannot leave the jeep tracks, you have to abide by it and you are well monitored there by the park authorities (whom we call as forest department personal here in India). But we did see some crowned cranes, African spoonbills, many migratory water birds, few flycatchers etc.. once the Sun started to take control of the surroundings and when light became harsh, we headed to the resort for rest. At the resort due to a light drizzle, the termites were emerging every where and that attracted the passerines (small birds) in the area and to our surprise, we did see the spotted flycatcher as well. Even the more shy Abyssinian Wood Hoopoe was seen collecting insects out there. The Hadeda Ibis were also probing the soft grounds and it was wonderful to watch all the colorful birds out there. We took a few hours of nap and we headed back on to the safari. We did ask a few jeep drivers on the Long Crested Eagle sighting and started our search, by around 5PM, our driver Joseph waved to us that at a distance an eagle was perched, and when we reached there, it was our prized catch the Long Crested.. it was very cooperative and allowed us some great pictures. The place where it was perched even though was not photogenic, it was very beautiful whereby the habitat in which it lives was shown well in the pictures. I was damn thrilled to see that extra ordinary crest from which it gets its name and was over the top. On the way back we did see the Eagle Owls but again, they perched against light, in dark and were not photographable. But it was a wonderful day again and Nakuru was unique and it was a different experience. The next day we wanted to leave the resort very early in the morning, so that the long 7 hour drive to Mara could be done with at least 2 breaks, our aim was to reach Mara before 2PM and we did bird all along the way and found 2 Black Rhinos too on the way.
After the last 80 kms of driving on gravel roads.. I call this road as Massage Mara Highway, one has to experience this and you will be awe-stuck how the 4×4 Toyota Landcruiser is modified to take this kind of abuse by the bad roads. But it’s a one of kind experience to travel this road every time you visit Mara. When we were closing-in towards the resort, we did see huge numbers of wildebeest and zebra and were thrilled that the migratory herds were still there even in November. The resort folks welcomed us with some great welcome drink and great food and every one were re-energized to hit the jeep tracks again in the afternoon. Within few minutes in to the drive, we found a sub-adult Martial Eagle perched on a high perch but was very intently looking at a bush nearby, within few minutes, it dived down and caught a Banded Mongoose, perched on the quarry for few minutes and once the prey was dead, it dragged it for a while before taking it to the nearby tree to feed. Martial eagles are one of the largest of the forest eagle species in Africa and they are great hunters, they sometimes even take antelopes. It was an awesome experience for all of us to see this mighty predator hunt and it was a once in a life time kind of an experience for me. That was one awesome start to our safari at Mara..
We did find many lions this afternoon, a mating lion pair gave us some fab images, there were many bustards, many species of lapwings, mammals were in great numbers and at around 5:30PM, the down pours started and it was one heck of a thunder storm, the skies became dark in few minutes and Mara looked beautiful and after few land scape pictures, we returned to the camp for the night. The rain continued late in to the night.
The next day was planned to find the Cheetah. The world famous mother Cheetah (Malaika) with her cubs had crossed over to Tanzania and was not seen around, but the drivers were telling us that another Cheetah (Hinani) mother with 3 cubs were spotted at a distance by few jeeps. So one of the jeeps headed there and we found 2 pairs of lions engaged in their mating rituals and we stay put with them. Our drivers explained to us that those were the migratory male lions which had ventured in to Kenya from their native Tanzania following the great herds (comprising of Wildebeest, Zebra and few gazelle species). They had come here killed all the cubs of the Mara female lions and started mating with them. Nature’s way of introducing newer gene pools, so that the young that are born will be healthy and to some extent the problems of inbreeding can be defeated… nature is always perfect in everything it does.
We did get some spectacular action pictures here, and also found the not so often seen species Wood Land Kingfisher as well. The Sun was playing hide and seek for most of the time and the afternoon rains were threating already by around 11AM, hence we returned to the resort. Folks in the other Jeep, which was Vinay, Subbu , Vishwa and Jeevan showed us the Cheetah pictures and we the Lions and Kingfisher pictures. The rains started to pour and we stayed indoors till around 3PM before heading for the Safari. We did see some spectacular rainbows, combined with dark clouds and Sun breaking the dark skies to create some drama in the skies, I cannot explain this by words, you have to visit that paradise to experience it. On the way back to the resort we saw two Hyenas hunt down a Grant’s Gazelle fawn and we did get some pictures of it as well in very low light. At first we saw a Hyena running behind the gazelle and the mother gazelle tried to dodge and come in-between the fawn and the hyena and when all this was happening, we did not see another hyena hiding in the bushes, suddenly it got up and after a short chase caught the gazelle fawn and even though hyenas are social feeders, the prey was pretty small for it hence, did not stop there but ran with the quarry.
My experience about the rains in Mara is that they create life and the whole landscape get transformed within a single day, the lighting, the colors are just out of this world. Even many bird species suddenly appear from no-where and its all a very magical experience. One such experience is, after the overnight rains, the Talek River had swollen and we were not able to cross it this particular morning as the Jeep drivers got an information on a Leopard sighting, we were disappointed that we couldn’t cross the river to see the spotted cat, but when we were driving in that area, we found around 5 Yellow-throated Sandgrouses, perched on the jeep track, waiting for the Sun to peep-out, so to dry their feathers, normally they are a shy species in the Mara, but this time around due to the wetness all around, they allowed us to approach them close by and we got some great images of both the males and females. There was water puddles all around, and we did see a few Malachite Kingfishers as well, so Mara never disappoints you. We found a lone male Cheetah too that morning and he allowed us some close pictures. A short rain occurred at around 8AM and there after the jeep tracks became very slippery and it was fun to drive the Landcruiser in those condition and how it is so well equipped for these kind of conditions. On the trunked radio our driver Joseph received a message that Hirani the Cheetah with her cubs were feeding on a fresh kill and we started to head there, there was a tiny rivulet that we had to cross and when our Landcruiser entered the ditch, there was a buried huge tree trunk that hit the front axel and the vehicle got caught in the slush, the more we struggled, the more the vehicle sunk.. hence we called the other jeeps which were roaming in that area and after a 45mintutes struggle, we were pulled out. All of us in the Jeep were very disappointed that we could not reach the Cheetah spot and were heading in a different direction. Suddenly I head Vinayak Yardi yell, stop stop.. peregrine,peregrine… the vehicle came to a halt and when I saw the falcon, it turned out to be the Lanner Falcon, one of the largest found in the African continent, it had killed a Senegal Lapwing and was de-feathering it, it sat there for a while allowing us to click some images and when a couple of African Tawny eagles came in there, it took off with the kill and vanished in thin air. I almost leapt for joy and I would rate this as one of my best raptor sightings at Mara after many trips to that wonderland. Also it’s a proof that Mother Nature never fails, we felt bad that we got caught in the slush and the Cheetahs were gone from that area and felt it was a missed opportunity, but nature had other ideas. Our dead spirits were lifted high with this sighting. I have experienced this many times during my journeys, that never get disappointed when your plan don’t work, you will be reward in a different way by mother nature.. she always surprises even the most accomplished wildlifers…
The rest of the trip at Mara was one unique experience with loads of Lions, other ungulates and many birds, even the rare Side-stripped Jackals gave us some good views and photographs. One thing that was missing from our list was the Leopard and on the last day when we were driving back to Nairobi to catch the flight, we got a call from one of our Drivers friends (another Jeep driver) that he had spotted a leopard sleeping close to a riverine habitat, when we arrived there to our surprise, another leopard in that area had freshly killed a Thomson’s Gazelle and was removing its fur. Due to the presence of Hyenas in that area, it dragged the kill to a bush which hid it so well and there was no access there at all for photography. But it was great to watch the 2 leopards from a very close range and the sighting of the big 5 was achieved once again . We stay put in that area for around an hour and wanted to exit. As we were driving, we found a pair of Hyenas mating and they gave us some fantastic pictures. So as always we were all discussing how nature can surprise everyone and sightings can happen any time anywhere in Mara.. all that you need is patience, belief and hope that you will see everything. I am very big prisoner of hope..
We hit the 80km gravel road again, but had the cameras on our side as till you exit the park, great sightings can happen any time, one such sight was before we exited, a group of cattle and sheep grazing very close to the park boundary and herd of almost 20 odd giraffes walking among their midst, our driver Joseph who is a great conservation-naturalist at heart and has done a diploma in giraffe behavior explained to us how diseases spread to the wildlife when they come in contact with the domesticated animals. Also he was telling us how in the recent past, man has invaded in to the natural habitats of the wildlife there for pastures and how human-animal conflict has made it disadvantage for the wildlife in those very tricky areas.
So that’s how ended another enchanting trip and as always Mara never disappoints and always Rocks!!
Few thoughts for my fellow photographers and wildlife lovers who will visit Mara and other wildlife areas in Kenya is that the common man out there is going through loads of hardships, the bad face of poverty hides within the life of a common man out there. Kindly generously tip your drivers and folks who work at the resorts. Also if you can carry used cloths (in good wearable conditions), please do so and give them to the drivers/guides, many a time they will not open up and ask, but its our duty to understand their plight and in a very pro-active manner act. We enjoy so much of luxury and the wildlife out there and it is time that we give back to its people in whatever small way possible. It always helps.. Long live Africa and its people.. when people are happy, the wildlife thrives..