After travelling to Africa for only the second time in 2016, it was pretty obvious that we hadn't come close to 'getting Africa' out of our system. Rather the opposite. Its very likely that Africa has properly caught us. So, it wasn't a long debate about which continent we were going to in 2017. The issue was more about which country. Somehow, we kept coming back to Kenya and the Masai Mara as the place we had to go to. Nevertheless, we didn't rush direct to the Mara. Instead, after a fair bit of planning, we decided to have a broader look at the country's wildlife / rural destinations.
Our eventual journey started in Nairobi (if you exclude, as I do, the inevitable and boring international flight from Heathrow) where we spent a night before flying up to Samburu County and the Wilson Range in the Namunyak (or 'blessed') conservancy. From there we flew South West a bit to the high plateau of Laikipia before finally heading to the Masai Mara national reserve and the neighbouring Ol Kinya conservancy. Each of these areas has quite distinct scenery and the the fauna and flora changes, especially between the first two northern areas and the Mara.
This page is the mini-blog covering the different animals we saw, watched and, as always in my case, spent a lot of time photographing. This Kenya trip had a slightly different tempo in that, while we wanted to get an overall taste of the country (or at least as much as you can reasonably do in a couple of weeks), we also wanted to spend more time observing the interesting animals we did see. As a result, this blog is likely to show fewer species but a bit more depth. But more of that below
As you browse through the different animals below, click on the title links or the images to go to the full gallery page for that subject.
If you want to skip the mini-blog bit you can use this link to go directly to a list of all the species photographed.
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There is no way this blog was going to end up being a sequential tale of the places we visited and the stuff we saw. Instead I'm starting towards the second half of the trip with one of the species that actually led us to Kenya in the first place: Cheetah. We had hoped to see and spend time with a good few cheetah and that's exactly mow things unfolded. This was our first sighting and it turned out to be a bit more than we could have hoped for. Watch out though, this set of images gets a bit "red in tooth and claw" - literally.
Back to the start of the trip in the Matthew's Mountains) and something that's a bit different. Porcupine are very difficult to see; probably something to do with them being nocturnal. The daytime finds them underground, usually in a burrow and that's not the easiest place to watch or get photos. This opportunity was quite unusual as this family had set up home under the main 'mess' building at our camp (Sarara Camp, in the Matthew's Mountains). A spectacular location in itself but I couldn't miss the opportunity when I heard that there were basement tenants in residence. This single photo of a porcupine at home was taken with my head and shoulder through a small trapdoor with my small camera hoping one of the porcupines wouldn't decide to backup fast into me. Later in the trip we were fortunate to see one in the Masai Mara out and about at night but there was no chance of a picture in the dark there.
We first saw did-dik in the Matthew's area. It is one of the tiniest and most attractive woodland antelope. This set of images is taken from the whole trip and that accounts for the variety of backdrops from dry sands of Sarara to the comparative green lushness of Laikipia and the Mara conservancies. Dik-dik are very skittish and are normally seen darting away from the safari vehicles as you make your way through the bush. It's actually quite a challenge to get a close up photo of anything but the disappearing rear end of these little animals. Often overlooked while searching out the more exotic game - but not here!
The reticulated giraffe was possibly the 'poster' animal of the Northern part of the trip. It's a species not seen further South and it was the first time we had seen this spectacular species. They seemed to be doing very well in these arid areas and were still finding plenty to eat on the taller bushes and trees. Seeing giraffe initially can be quite peculiar because you often see just the long neck appearing out of the vegetation from a distance. Sometimes that's all you can spot in the wider landscape.
We saw Elephant at each of the three main places we visited in Kenya. In the Matthews we saw mainly mature males because many of the family groups had moved to better, wetter pastures. The big guys were still coping with the dry conditions mainly because there is still water available at Sarara Camp itself and also, through the local people who dig wells (the 'singing wells') for their livestock but also dig wells the elephants can also access (i.e. with ramps down to the water which is 15' under the river bed). In Laikipia, which was positively verdant from recent rains, the rivers were up and the elephant were to be seen in good numbers; the most interesting action happening at the river crossings where a number of the images here come from. In the Masai Mara, there were significantly fewer numbers of elephant but we still found them grazing on the grasslands.
I've also put up a short blog entry about the Elephant Orphanage at Reteti here.
Remaining in the northern half of our trip, here is the Grevy's Zebra. Again, a northern Africa species where Kenya (the Lakipia) area straddles their southern most range limit. We saw Grevy's a good deal and they seemed to be thriving. But this experience belied the truth state of these zebra. There are only about 2,500 of these, the most beautiful, of the zebra surviving in the wild. On reflection, this was a very special experience.
A rather attractive member of the dog family that we saw most in most places we visited. They are quite timid and you often only see them at a distance or disappearing away from you into deeper bush. When you get closer, it's always worth pausing and appreciating them.
Hyena, image below perhaps notwithstanding, rarely reach the threshold for 'cute' but they are really interesting to watch and are highly social animals. Like vultures, they play a key role is ensuring the grasslands are not knee deep in old carcasses. We saw quite a good number on our journey. In the northern areas they seemed quire timid and close encounters were non-existent. However, in the Masai Mara area we saw several larger groups and some (gruesome) hunting and feeding. Be-warned, there is a bit of gore here. Hyenas fully exemplify the "nature red in tooth and claw" truth of tough life and death that occurs on the daily on the savannah.
It's about time to end the teasing and get back to one of the stars of Africa - Lions. Lions really were a feature of the Masai Mara end of the trip. We were pretty spoiled by the number and range of sightings we got to enjoy there. There are some big prides and big alpha males in the Mara and surrounding conservancies but some go the most enjoyable viewing was of mothers and cubs just chilling out and playing. Lions really do only become active in the late afternoons and early mornings (and mainly hunt at night). By mid morning, most are laid up in vegetated bush. (Top tip from the guides - never walk through bushy scrub where you can't see ahead and around. You wouldn't want to surprise a resting lion.)
A brief diversion to have a look at one of the smaller, but spectacular, animals you are likely to see in Kenya. Pretty much, these can be found on most places with rocky ground in the sun. They are easily overlooked while out driving about but are fun to watch around camp while nursing a cold drink during the heat of the day.
Water monitors are a creature of wetlands. So it was a bit of a surprise when we almost tripped over this pretty big guy in the middle of the Masai Mara. Ok, it was only a 100 metres or so from some small streams and a few boggy pools but they really didn't seem to be a great place for this monitor. It just seemed a strange environment in the middle of grassland. Previously, we saw them in Botswana but always in or above decently sized waterways.
Small, big, and now small again. a selection of some of the smaller animals of the plains and bush. Take a quick look before getting back to those big, showy, cats again.
We return to cheetahs with a pair of males that we followed for several hours one morning as they traversed their territory checking it out for messages and leaving their own for other passing animals. In other words, a couple of boys spending the morning on 'social media'. In my book, it was Infinitely more watchable than the people watching version!
The plains giraffe are mainly found on the plains. So no surprise there perhaps. We saw them in the Masai Mara and it was great to see the contrast in their markings with the reticulated versions we had seen further north. Equally spectacular going about their daily browsing in the tree tops.
From one 'plains' animal to another. This time it's the plains or Burchell's zebra. Again, like the giraffe, the plains zebra's range covers a similar area with (shown further up) the Grevy's zebra found further north than the Masai Mara. I'm just not sure why 'plains' species come in threes when I photograph them...
No getting away from it. We move from the 'ah' to the 'ugh' animals in one small step across the plains. One moment I'm showing you pictures of beautiful animals, the next, their remains are being picked apart by... vultures. But wait a moment. These are incredibly important animals and fascinating too. Pause a moment and take a look at the savannah's clean up crew. Somehow though, I keep thinking about Disney's Jungle Book and 'That's what friends are for..'
The vervet monkey and baboon are the savannah primates. They are very different in character but are some light relief after the vultures.
It feels like time for some birds, I realised that we have gone a long way through this mini-blog without sight of a bird and that's something of an oversight. Birds were not our highest priority on this trip so this is just a sample, not all of the birds of Kenya. There are a wide variety of, often, very colourful birds nearly everywhere you visit. There is a far greater diversity of birds in Kenya compared to the UK as is attested to by the size of my 'Birds of East Africa' guide book. 1388 species according to the cover. It makes it a serious undertaking when you are thumbing through looking for a LBJ (little brown job).
This is the third and final part of the cheetah oddest in the Masai Mara. In a way, this is the bonus feature in terms of photos but it represents more that a day of cheetah photography. There are three cheetahs featured here, The first we found laid up, possibly in an ambush spot next to a water pool that other animals like warthog would use. Then there are a few, mainly close up images of a female we followed on a late afternoon's hunting. That trip was unsuccessful and we eventually left her in the dark as she moved into cover for the night. Finally there is a sequence of a female we also followed for a number of hours before she eventually chased down in the light bush. We saw the ambush site, the beginning of the chase and the final seconds of the kill, Unfortunately the chase and take was mostly hidden by light bushes; by no means are all cheetah hunts in the wide open grassland.
After all the predator and scavenger action it's time to to have a look at the animals that draw them all to the Masai Mara. The wildebeest.
The main migration of the wildebeest across the river happened early this year - by mid July. There were also rains across the grasslands of the Masai Mara leading up to our arrival in late August and, indeed, while we are there. That was very welcome but it did mean most of the wildebeest were spread out and those still on the other side of the river didn't need to make the trip across at that time.
Moving on quickly from the wildebeest to some of the other antelopes and gazelles that become a familiar sight as you tour around the bush and plains of Kenya. These guys do a lot of eating and watching out for things that want to eat them. It's great when they show some different behaviours; though that often amounts to running away from something.
Concluding with the 'ugly brigade'
I was looking for a way to conclude this mini-blog when it occurred that the last three animals that I wanted to feature are all, well, not the most attractive of the animals that grace the planes and bush of Kenya. Each of them can also be cantankerous and dangerous if you don't give then the respect their size or weaponry demands. That being said each is striking and worth spending a while watching while out and about. The first here is the cape buffalo. Big and so legendary in its bad temper that it earns its place in the safari 'big-5' (though truth be told, it's probably the least interesting of the 5. Then there is the warthog. Truly un-photogenic but ubiquitous and I have something of a fondness for their quirky behaviour. And concluding with the hippo. Manly seen in daytime up to it's nose and eyes in the water but a few photos here of them doing stuff and, possibly, smiling.
That's it for Kenya... for the moment. A stunning country and one to return to.
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