Tuesday, February 25
Alright, forget everything I may have ever said about having had the best game ride ever, because I actually think today may have been it. No, seriously, this day was spectacular, and so evenly paced that it kept us going all day. I'll have to explain.
We (the ladies from New Zealand and me) were up and out by 5:53. Yes, it is astonishing that that's the time that I'm resisting getting out of bed for work when here I am dressed (not showered, just lathered in SPF 30 and bug repellant) and in a vehicle on the road at least an hour before there is any decent daylight. But off we went.
Knowing that I am a big cat aficionado and in particular a Big Cat Diary fan, Jackson and Stanley whizzed us off to the west side of the conservancy on the border of the reserve where the Marsh Pride live. Sure, most of the Marsh Pride stars of Big Cat Diary have passed on, but this pride is epic. We pulled up to a shallow mound on which slept 10 cats: nine females and one male. All of them but one seemed to be sub-adult. The other was the mother of this group, according to Jackson. It was pretty cool to be there and try (again) to get a shot of lions against the sunrise. I think I may have failed there but we were right next to the pride when the matriarch rose and roared her lungs out. That is humbling to be sitting right next to. What was funny is the pride didn't flinch. They let her roar, she sat back down and it was business a usual. I think she was just declaring this her turf.
We next came upon a young male cheetah out on his own. He seemed to be just wandering a bit and not really committed to anything but he did look like he needed a meal.
Not too far from where the Marsh Pride was lounging about, Jackson and Stanley found a secluded island in the marsh on which was a lioness from the pride and her three young (under 6 weeks) cubs. I about keeled over with delight. This is, I think, the youngest lion cubs I've seen, perhaps younger than those in Tarangire last year. The lioness keeps them secluded from the rest of the pride until after 6 weeks of age, when she'll introduce them to the pride. With other still nursing cubs in the pride, there is the risk that those cubs would nurse on her and deprive these newborns of milk. All so fascinating, but bottom line, incredibly cute to watch her nurse and clean her tiny cubs. Already this day was a huge score.
We came across the same male cheetah reclining on a mound nearby and spent some time taking the requisite photos. It was a good angle and good light, so well worth the time. Cheetahs are never "off"; even when they appear to be sleeping, they keep waking to check what's going on around them. They need to be very aware of everything from predators to scavengers who would take their food.
Today seemed to be pretty full of warthogs. I learned that a group of warthogs is a "sound" of warthogs. And there is a tower of giraffe and a business of mongoose, I think. Who says safari is not educational?
One thing I've seen quite a lot of is male antelope species standing alone on a termite mound or other elevation, looking very stoic and proud. It's quite an impressive sight on a wide open plain. Jackson explained that this is how the males indicate that this is their territory. So it's not just all for show.
Fast forward through a half dozen or so birds...I'm not a big birder but the people I was with are, so I had to give equal time to the birds.
By this point we'd sort of wandered our way into the Masai Mara National Reserve again, only this time I was on the northwest side, so it was completely different from where we were on Saturday. And of course, a huge part of the Mara experience is seeing the Mara River and imagining the insanity of the annual wildebeest migration crossing the rivers and dodging the hungry crocodiles to get to the other side and continue on with this annual rite of passage. Today though, we got to see a mini-migration of three zebra. As they approached the top of the riverbank, they saw that there were two old (and hostile) Cape buffalo right at the water's edge. They probably also know about the enormous pre-historic looking crocodiles that live there; we saw them, they're hard to miss, more so if you could be their lunch, I suppose.
These three zebras apparently drew straws or did rock, paper scissors, and one was forced to take the lead and approach the water. First obstacle was to get past the buffalo. That was pretty easy. The next was to test the waters and check for crocs. The trio, led by the poor guy with bad luck, approached and retreated easily three times before they tread carefully across the river. They made it and disappeared up the riverbank. When we got to the top and saw them, I almost wanted to applaud. It was so nicely executed. And they live for another day.
Our next sighting worth mentioning (skipping a few birds and the Coke's hartebeest which I already gushed over at Ol Pejeta) was a female cheetah who had made an impala kill. What made this notable was that it was Malaika, Kiko's daughter (another Big Cat Diary reference). We pulled up to find the Norwegian photographer and his daughter watching it, and they kindly pulled back so we could see too. It wasn't as clear a shot as the kill on the first day, but it would do. Apparently this cheetah has made the chase and finished it off in thick hedging, which seems odd for a cheetah; they usually prefer open and flat with no obstacles. Good for her, I say.
The warthog sighting at the mudhole was notable only because we'd never seen so many of them wallow before. They would literally plop down in it and shimmy to get lower. It was pretty funny and actually looked pretty comfortable.
Our guides with hyper-eagle eyes spotted cheetah under a tree and there appeared to be two males and a female, all of which were Amani's cubs from her second litter (we saw her with her solo cub from her fourth litter yesterday). So it was good to see that she'd raised three to such good health. At some point soon the female will go off on her own, as females live solo unless raising cubs and the boys will stay together as a coalition.
The next sighting was our Double Crossing Pride four lionesses with 7 cubs. They were really flaked out in the heat of the day around a tall bush. It was very difficult to capture them all in one photo but probably best experienced as we came upon them. The cubs were in various states of rest; some out cold and some a bit awake. We saw two actively nursing and another two approached a lioness with these pathetic little "mews" that almost had me getting out to feed them. I think the kids were hungry and mom was too hot to give in. Eventually she did but not before I could hear them plead for a teat. I've really enjoyed being somewhere to come across the same prides or cats day after day and watch their lives unfold, even if today it was just nursing and sleeping.
As the day was drawing to an end, Stanley said "one more look around leopard country", to which I said "I'm feeling lucky!" Since today was my last full day here, I had a growing sense of desperation about getting to see more than a fleeting glimpse of a leopard. We looked and looked and looked. Finally we were all staring with binoculars into a thick bush convincing each other that those were actually leopard spots deep in the thicket, although at times it felt either like Where's Waldo or having a sighting of the Virgin Mary on a slice of burnt toast.
We went over to the other side of the streambed and looked down, only to find we had the wrong bush entirely and there actually was a leopard, two bushes down the stream, and it appeared to be Fig, the daughter of Acacia (another BCD reference), who is well known to the guides. She is also quite habituated to the vehicles so there might actually be the chance of seeing more than a spotted yellow streak or tail or back end this time. So back over we went. (This was no small feat since we had to cross the stream each time, which was running quite high due to the recent rains, but Stanley has proven to be an incredible driver). We got back over and plunged our Land Rover down the top side of the embankment right next to the bush. We stood on seats and peered down in, only to see....leopard paws. And sometimes an ear. In any event it was obvious from the breathing that this cat was asleep and not likely to awaken soon. We passed around the area and discovered that there as a baby impala kill hanging high up in a nearby tree, which is leopard behavior, so Fig was likely sleeping off that meal for now.
We decided around that time (5:00 or so) that we'd go for a ride, look for something else and check back. I reconciled myself to making tomorrow's half day game ride all about leopard. It was leopard or bust and I didn't feel like today was going to work.
So off we went and again our guides with eagle eyes spotted the tawny brown of lion up on a large flat outcropping. We four-wheeled it over boulders and drastically uneven terrain and pulled up next to four lionesses in various states of REM sleep. These were the only four females of the Enkuyani pride, which did number 11 but since they forced the females out, are now just seven males. The girls seem to be doing well for themselves and Jackson says they are courting a couple different male prides out there.
With not a whole lot of hope, Jackson four-wheeled it out of there as he had heard over the radio that people across the streambed saw Fig starting to rouse herself, licking, cleaning and yawning deep in that bush. We quickly returned and took the place of honor right outside the bush (maybe 40 paces away). Finally a voice on the radio said she was moving and out she came. She stopped and preened and posed and looked her gorgeous self. I was getting the exact leopard experience I wanted, this was practically a dream sighting! She played this up all very well. She'd go maybe 20 meters and stop and lie down, or yawn exaggeratedly. Fig was hardly bothered by the 10 or so vehicles tracking her every move, some following her every step. She went down the bank, crossed to the other side, climbed up, climbed down and then prepared to cross right under the impala kill in the tree. We all braced for some dramatic leap across, all cameras set on multi-frames per second. In the end she tip toed gently across, quite obviously hating water, and only leapt the last few feet.
What awaited her when she got up to the top of the riverbank were ten vehicles with easily 50 cameras pointed at her. This was paparazzi that only Princess Di would deserve. We all expected her to go directly up that tree and finish off that impala. Imagine our collective surprised when she passed next to us and under another car only to go further uphill and stare down the likely mother of this poor dead impala. And when that was done, she went further still and laid down. This Fig girl knew how to hold an audience captive and work a crowd. Except we all hadn't peed since about 3:00 and it was now 7:00 and we'd been on the road for 13 hours. We bailed out and headed for camp. [We found out at dinner from other safari goers that she did actually kill a second impala today and drag it up the same tree; so Fig does quite well for herself.]
Heading back into camp, the light was so dim by this point but on my side of the vehicle, there was a very large open space and in the middle it appeared that there was what I thought was a cheetah sitting in the middle. I pointed and said "cheetah?" and both Jackson and Stanley flipped out in unison and said "leopard!!!" and with that Stanley turned hard right and peeled out in the direction of the leopard while Jackson radioed the other guides about this sighting. He was speaking Swahili, but I heard "Acacia" and knew we were on to something. During our stakeout of the bush that did not contain Fig, Jackson had explained to me that Acacia went missing about two months ago. When last seen she appeared to be pregnant, but no one was sure and no one had seen her. Tonight she reappeared, and I spotted her. It was much too dark for any good photos, but judging by how quickly all the other vehicles watching Fig got to our location with Acacia, this was huge news. I think the guides were far more thrilled with this sighting than any guests were, and that made me feel good knowing that they cared so much to have that sort of reaction.
Coincidentally enough, Jackson said that Acacia secreted her last newborns away under tent #3 here at camp. That tent is actually where I sit right now. And the guard who walked me to the tent tonight said that a leopard was spotted right outside my tent after I left this morning. Was it Acacia? Is she really just down below this tent now in the streambed with her newest litter?
So that was our day, 5:53 am to 7:15 pm. Long duration but went by in a flash. I can say unequivocally that this day was hard to top. I'm glad it came at the end but also realize that this is only going to fuel the addiction to this safari thing. There is such a rush in going out there and not knowing what the day will bring and when it offers up so much about what is right in nature in plain view, it is just so utterly fulfilling and addictive. It has me plotting how soon I can get back.
Ah, for those keeping score, the meals today were:
Breakfast by the Mara River: hard boiled eggs, toast, pancakes, sausage and a spice cake with OJ and coffee.
Lunch by a hippo pool: chicken legs, pasta salad and cole slaw with raisins.
Dinner: cream of pea soup, beef stew, rice, spinach and delightful banana fritters.
I sit here now, 11:05 at night, knowing I'll have to be up at 5:45 for one more time tomorrow. I hear hippos out in the stream snorting and belching like they did behind my headboard all last night. I have just heard a lion roar way off, letting the plains know this is his spot. And I can't believe that I've just lived these last 12 days. I'm so incredibly blessed by all of this good fortune.