A trip to the southern edge of the Mara

We recently took a break from our northern Mara home and spent a little bit of time down in the Masai Mara National Reserve, right on the border with Tanzania. We were fortunate to take over the Ker & Downey seasonal camp with a few friends for three days, and the location couldn’t have been better. We had wildebeest and zebra crossing the Sand River in and near camp, lions roaring nearby each night, newborn topi babies learning how to run, and spectacular sunsets.

It has certainly been strange for me to not be out on safari with my guests in June, July, and August for the first time in more than 20 years. But I have loved being able to spend so much time with the kids both at home and on a few little family safaris here in Kenya. Hopefully we will be back out there next year. Until then, enjoy a few highlights from the Mara:

Sunrise hot chocolate in camp.
Ollie and two of his buddies were excellent spotters!
This lioness was simply too fat to catch another gnu!
Baboons and impalas at a little stream.
Ollie enjoys exploring the Sand River.
Wildebeest and zebra coming down to drink and cross the Sand River.
Gnus on the move!
Portrait of a young gnu.
Halina watches a crossing from camp.
Halina and her friend, Bella, observing eles.
A special sighting of a very handsome reedbuck.
Karembo, a lovely little female cheetah, at sunset.
Karembo sunset.
A birthday dinner on the river bed with the full moon rising.

African wild dogs in Enonkishu Conservancy!

Since moving to the Mara, we have heard occasional reports of sightings of the rare and endangered African wild dog in the hills above us. Beautifully colored in their mottled coats, small groups from perhaps a single pack are seen every few months as they hunt antelopes on the bushy hillsides to the north and east of the Mara – their remaining hold-out in the region. Since they disappeared from the great plains of the Mara’s grasslands in the early 1990s, due to a rabies outbreak, this pack has eked out an existence on the outskirts of Enonkishu and the other conservancies, away from the higher densities of lions.

So, we were thrilled a few weeks ago when we drove out one rainy afternoon and were treated to some fantastic viewing of three wild dogs who had killed a male impala. And while a hyena had taken a good chunk of the feast by the time we got there, the dogs were excitedly bouncing and twittering around, enjoying other morsels from their meal. We shared this spectacular viewing with Oliver and Halina, who were seeing this species for the first time – and it was the first time Steph had ever seen the Mara wild dogs, in twenty years! This sighting has reinforced our commitment to providing free rabies vaccinations to domestic dogs and cats in our area every year, to prevent the disease from spilling over into the wild dogs again. We’ll be helping the vets again this December! 

Here is a short video clip:

Zebras after dinner

Not every meal at our home in the Mara finishes with the sounds of lions and hyenas scrapping over a kill, but one recent night it certainly did! Just after 8pm, as we were about to do the dishes, the unique, eerie cackling of hyenas and the sharp, aggressive growls of lions drifted into our open kitchen. We knew there was about to be some super carnivore action, so we grabbed the cameras and binoculars and our carnivore-loving family headed out to investigate. On arrival we witnessed the classic head to head combat of lions and hyenas in the dark April drizzle. Of all the up-close wildlife viewings in Africa, it’s an unbeatable experience of pure, primal competition as ferocious hyenas rally their clan members for what they know will be some rough and tumble. Sure enough, several of them are pummeled, clawed, and even bitten by the lions, but they get their own back when they eventually overpower the big cats with a few good butt-bites to see them off. After raging back and forth for close to an hour, with yelps and growls the lions eventually retreat, not wanting to risk serious injury.  

For our kids, ending the day with such a wild and dramatic scene less than a mile from the house is a pretty good consolation after the challenge of school closures and their online classrooms. Being stuck at home for nine onths could be a lot worse! Sound on for these fun videos!

Turn up the volume and enjoy these three videos from the night of war!

Kisaru, the greatest cheetah mum ever

A very rare sight – 7 cheetah under a tree! Kisaru in front of her six cubs.

Good viewings of cheetahs always add enormously to the safari experience. Over the past twelve months, with so much time at our Mara home in Enonkishu, we’ve had the privilege of regular sightings of one female who has defied the odds and raised six cubs through their first year. Typically, cheetah mothers lose many of their young. But Kisaru, fast becoming our local mascot, has become so adept in her hunting of gazelles and impala that she has kept her brood of six alive and well. 

In December, we had the excitement of observing this cheetah family from our rooftop as Kisaru chased some antelope into the nearby bush. Since then she’s made regular appearances nearby, providing wonderful viewings for those of us lucky enough to call this paradise home; I only wish I could be sharing it all with guests who would have been on safari with me over the past couple of months! At least some good friends from Australia enjoyed a visit in February before the pandemic, and got to see our resident cheetah family enjoy a big meal after Kisaru made a swift, successful hunt of an unsuspecting impala.

Kisaru and one of her 1-year-old cubs in Enonkishu in July.
Kisaru and the cubs rested just in front of our house back in January.
One of Kisaru’s cubs. Now almost 14 months old, they are just about fully grown, and Kisaru is about ready to leave them.

On the great plains of Africa – recent safari video clips

Every time I explore the vast Mara-Serengeti ecosystem I’m reminded that it truly does hold the greatest wildlife viewings on Earth. We’ve preserved some really fun and memorable moments of this magical place during a recent safari. Depending on the time of year, the Mara or the Serengeti is an absolute must for any inaugural safari, and perhaps even for a second or third safari as well! A few days under canvas in the heart of this region will be rewarded with outstanding big cat viewing, and always the chance of witnessing their mesmerizing predatory behavior.

New video of gorillas in the mist – Rwanda’s finest wildlife experience

A visit with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda has been celebrated as one of the very best wildlife experiences on the planet. Immersing ourselves for a day or two within the tangled montane forests that are home to these magnificent creatures is something that my guests and I count as an enduring privilege. The Virunga and Bwindi forests have also been a conservation success story with gorilla populations nearly triple what they were in the early 90s! Now with some of the most stylish boutique safari lodges in Africa, Rwanda has become one of my more popular – and favorite – safari destinations.

Aping around – video of the chimps of Mahale Mountains, Tanzania

Experiencing close up encounters with wild chimpanzees in an African forest alongside the deep blue waters of Lake Tanganyika rates for most as an ultimate safari activity. Very much the Tarzan storybook country, the forested slopes of these hillsides make for the most evocative of settings. Greystoke Camp itself is one of the most remote safari locations, keeping the romance of that real safari alive. Time spent out cruising on the lake complements the chimp trekking nicely to round out one of Africa’s best kept secrets.

We support the Lion Guardians

For this year’s Giving Tuesday, we hope you will consider donating to the Lion Guardians, who work towards the coexistence of people and wildlife in the Amboseli area. Several of my guests have supported the individual Lion Guardians working on the ground in and around Kitirua Conservancy, our private safari area next to Amboseli National Park. Metito, Laen, and now Lankoi are local Maasai warriors turned guardians of the lions in this critical corridor for wildlife at the base of Kilimanjaro. There are many ways to help the Lion Guardians, all of which are detailed on their excellent website:

http://lionguardians.org

3,000 years of history in Ethiopia

Nowhere else south of the Sahara can you be immersed in such a rich tapestry of history than in Ethiopia. Since the royal visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, a dynasty has ruled this nation, and this year I was back exploring some of the country’s most impressive ancient heritage. 

The towering sandstone cliffs and pillars surrounding the town of Gheralta, in the Tigray highlands of the north east, offer many of the most incredible scenes and historically significant archeology in Ethiopia. Housed within these mountain retreats are monasteries dating back to the 4th century, complete with original scripts and biblical scenes painted using natural berry and flower pigments. Orthodox priests maintain their epic vigil and religious routines, hermit-like on the tops of the cliffs. 

The monasteries are typically only accessible by foot and a visit often entails some quite strenuous hiking up the well-worn trails, where centuries of pious footfalls have left a sheen on the stony paths. It’s a stunning place to walk and to witness a special panoramic majesty. We admired the detail and rigor of the artists and engineers who crafted these structures over 1,000 years ago. Going in by helicopter allowed us to visit more churches in a shorter space of time, and also to access several that were completely off the beaten track. This flying with Phil Mathews, pilot extraordinaire, who knows every inch of this country, has to be some of the most breathtakingly beautiful on the continent.

I also finally got to the infamous Danakil Depression in June. Sitting below sea level, with its lava flows and salt caravans, the Danakil Depression is one of the harshest yet most spectacular habitats in Africa. Visiting here, we quickly understood why the Danakil tribesmen are undoubtedly some of the hardiest folks around.

By helicopter, we swept in over the kaleidoscopic mineral-stained earth, landing at several locations where it seemed the very core of the planet was bubbling to the surface. Volcanic flows that had remained for millennia beneath the Red Sea now simmer away in this most dramatic, blistered terrain. We found the salt-miners hauling out their bounty, and seeing them load their camels in this timeless way was moving. I wondered how few people in the interior of this country knew what it took to bring this cherished flavoring to their tables, and noted how almost unchanged this activity had remained for millennia.

The Lion King – in Kenya and in New York City

It’s 2am and from my bedroom here in my Mara home I hear the lion roaring. There is no other sound that evokes such a primeval sense within us; a reminder that this is an animal for whom primates are on the menu. Having spent countless hours over the past 25 years watching these apex predators, I now imagine this one, patrolling his or her territory in the African darkness, and feel privileged to live here where the wild things still roam free.

There is something about “Simba”, the largest of our big cats, that mesmerizes us. Ever since humans could record their feelings, lions have featured in our art, as evidenced by the life-size cave lions drawn in the 28,000 year old paintings at Grotte Chauvetin in France (https://www.ancient.eu/Chauvet_Cave/).

Today, we photograph, study, listen to, and watch these magnificent beasts; the fascination continues no matter where we are. Last month, in the heart of New York City and far from our home in Kenya, we took Ollie and Halina to see The Lion King on Broadway and at the movie theater. The artistry and storytelling inspired by our feared and revered feline friends are truly things to wonder at – although we still think the hyenas got a raw deal!

Over the years, I’ve been so privileged to share the joy of my guests when they see their first wild lion. Of all the places in lion country, the Masai Mara in particular is perhaps the ultimate location for spending time with lions. In Amboseli, as the local lion population has increased over the past decade, we’ve also had outstanding experiences in our private conservancy there, Kitirua. This lion recovery has been aided significantly by the fantastic conservation work being done by our friends at the Lion Guardians program. Recently, several of my safaris have had the special opportunity to visit the Lion Guardians camp in Amboseli and get some insights into how this unique and dynamic project operates. You can learn more about their work here (http://lionguardians.org).

My own safari work, as well as Steph’s carnivore research, have enabled me to learn so much about lions and the immense challenges humans face living alongside lions in the 21st century living. Sharing ideas and discussing issues related to lion conservation can bring even more to the experience of seeing one of the most impressive wild animals on the planet, which in turn will help us conserve lions, and be inspired by them, for generations to come.

Photos by Max Melesi, taken on safari with me in June, 2019.

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