Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hanging with the Big 5 in Masai Mara National Reserve

They get close here
Lion in a Tree
  When people go on their first safari one of the major goals is to find the 'Big 5.' This group of animals was nicknamed by the hunters during colonial times, not because of their size, but because if you shot one of these five animals and only wounded it then it could charge and kill the hunter. Hence there is no giraffe on this list. The Big 5 consist of Lions, Elephants, Buffalo, Rhino, and Leopard.
Cuteness factor with baby lion cubs
  We were lucky enough to encounter all of the Big 5 here in the Masai Mara. While a lot of the major national reserves and parks in Africa house the Big 5, it can be quite difficult to see them, especially in just one park over the course of several days. We managed to see the Big 5 in just one full day here in the Mara.

  We had several lion encounters including a family taking down and eating a warthog, which if you haven't read about the click here for a play by play. We saw another pride of 13 lions lounging by a water hole. And finally we came across females with tiny cubs that had just made a zebra kill. The youngest of the cubs was only a couple months old and possibly the smallest cub I've ever seen.

All the best photos here
 Elephants and buffalo were spread around the park, although one big group of both species was mingling around a swampy area at the base of the escarpment. It was fun just to sit there and watch them jostle for position and communicate with each other. The buffalo would disappear from sight as they sank down into the muddy water to cool off. It is hard to imagine these gentle animals as part of the 'Big 5', but local Africans across the continent fear these two animals the most. They are pure power which most of the big predators think twice about messing with.

Black Rhino
  Another gentle giant, at least while photographing and not hunting, is the rhino. In the Masai Mara there are about 18 black rhinos remaining. They are cruising their natural habitat that they have lived in for generations. This is a rarity around Africa, as most of the rhinos were hunted out to local extinction and had to be reintroduced to places that could contain and protect them. We were lucky enough to be with guide Massek, who works as a rhino researcher when he isn't guiding. He was able to tell us the names of the different rhino and backstories on each of them. There is something so gentle and amazing about these animals, and while you watch them it is very hard to understand the drive some people have to poach them simply to turn their horns into a mystical medicine.

  Our last sighting to give us all the Big 5 was late at night when we were on our way to a bush dinner. We had a leopard walk through our spotlight. We were able to follow it through the brush for quite some time before it ran off across the plains to go hunt. Since it was on the move and in the darkness I wasn't able to get any pictures of it. So I will just have to substitute a sixth species to make up for it.

  The Cheetah might not have been a Big 5 for the hunters, but it could easily qualify for a Big 6 for Safari goers. We found these two brothers right on the political border between Kenya and Tanzania. Here the landscape opens up where the spotted land of the Masai Mara meets the endless plains of the Serengeti. Luckily the cheetah brothers stayed in Kenya for this encounter. They had recently eaten, hence the huge bellies, and were quite content with laying in the shade under a lone tree.

 All in all another quality day for the Dillon's here in Africa.

Walking Safari in the Masai Mara

Jackson pointing out plants
Since we were staying at andBeyond's Bateleur Camp in the Masai Mara we had the opportunity to head out on foot into the wilds for a walking safari. It is a very different way to experience the African bush and one that I didn't want us to miss. Our wonderful guides Jackson and Massek led us first through the neighboring jungle and then up the escarpment.

Watching the monkey turf war
  In the jungle we quickly came across a tree hyrax, which looks like a giant hamster but is actually closely related to elephants. It saw us and scampered higher up in the tree, but that is when we noticed a second hyrax head poking out a hole, and this one belonged to a baby hyrax. Then we heard a commotion nearby so we went to investigate. It turned out to be two rival troops of blue monkeys having a bit of a turf war. Massek talked us through what was going on and pointed out things before they even happened.

Maggie's natural Maasai toothbrush
  We then walked past a family of warthogs and started climbing the Masai escarpment. The views of the park got better and better the higher we got. With the birds eye view we could see lions on a kill, and watched as elephants ran off a rare black rhino from a shady spot under a tree.

Stunning views from the escarpment
  All the while we were finding interesting bushes, plants, and small animals right around us to learn about. We looked for tracks and found baboon and small antelope. Maggie's favorite bush was the toothbrush tree, which the Maasai people use to clean their teeth and keep their gums clean. I've often notice how nice their smiles are.

  The group was very interested in different scat that we found along our path. It was a fun way to mix things up and get a little exercise in the process.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Masai Mara: The Lion Hunt

Sunrise over the Masai Mara
What is up in that tree?
  We awoke to an incredible sunrise over the Masai Mara. After a big breakfast we jumped into our safari vehicles for a full day safari all the way to the Tanzanian border. Our goal for the day was to track down some hunting cheetah out in the savanna close to the political border. But, as usually happens here in the Mara, other animals pop up making it difficult to stick to the original plan. It is a very good problem to have...especially with what happened today.

Tree climbing lion of Kenya
  We got word that some lions had been spotted by our other vehicle. Luckily it was in a part of the park where off roading was allowed. As we got closer we could see our other vehicle parked next to a solitary tree in the middle of the high grass. Then I was quite surprised to see a resting female lion up in the tree! Then we saw a second, young lion up in the tree as well as a few others on the ground. If the encounter would have ended there it would still have been exceptional, but it turned out that we were in the right place and the right time....for a hunt!

Dillon Family ready for action
Communication for the hunt
  People can come on multiple safaris and never witness a hunt. I've only seen it a couple of times in all of my experiences. As we were watching everything changed in a moment. The adult lion in the tree perked up all of a sudden like she saw something interesting out in the tall grass. It took us a while to see what she was looking at. It turned out to be a lone warthog, enjoying a nice meal of grass, totally unaware of the danger nearby.

Stalking so close to the warthog
  Watching the communication go back and forth between the lion who saw the prey and the others as they spread out was amazing. After climbing down from the tree the adults fanned out into the tall grass. We kept our eyes on the one heading strait for the warthog. I was pretty shocked to see just how close the lion got before the warthog noticed. By then it was too late. The warthog darted off to the left, but another hidden lion was there to cut it off. The chase was over in about five seconds, with the main huntress latched onto the warthogs throat.

Let the feeding frenzy begin
Feeding is tough work
  The older cubs and the adults wasted no time in pouncing on the suffocating warthog. The squeals of the warthog were emotional for all to hear, but we reminded ourselves that this is the circle of life, and wonderful to see mom providing for her family.

That used to be a warthog
Rack of Ribs for dinner
    We were so close to the action that we could hear bones and sinew snapping. It was about as close as you can ever be to the action. The lions feasted furiously on the warthog. We watched for about 45 minutes, until there was almost nothing to left. One by one the lions would get up, walk past our cars, and head back to the tree that was so vital in their successful quest for food.

This is how the Dillon's go on Safari
  It was as raw an Africa experience as you can get. The Dillon's luck is holding strong. Not many people get see a hunt while on safari, especially from beginning to end like this. It was a magical experience that was made even more magical by the fact that we were the only two cars there. We witnessed the entire event. And Massek and Jackson lent their wonderful insight through the entire hunt.

Warthog head prize
   Just under an hour after the huntress came down from the tree, the last of the lions left the kill area with its prize, the disembodied head of the warthog. It was wild to think that this warthog was leisurely chewing grass an hour earlier. With the kill zone vacated we ventured closer to glimpse what was left. A few hoofs was about all the marked the area which was once a warthog. This is the kind of wild Africa that I was hoping the group would see.

 High Resolution African Wildlife photos from this experience and more here: DaiMar'sPhotos

Friday, December 29, 2017

Entering the Masai Mara, Kenya

Terry and Sherry arrive in style
 Warm Welcome to the Masai Mara

     After our narrow escape from the charging elephant in Samburu, we split into two 12-seater prop planes for a quick flight down to the famous Masai Mara. I was excited to see everyone's reactions to our next destination, which is considered the jewel of Kenya. Plus we were staying in style at andBeyond's exclusive Bateleur Camp. Not everyone can travel Africa like this, but if you can it is an incredible experience. Flying into the Kichwa Tembo airstrip was an Out of Africa experience as the closer we got the larger the herds of zebras and antelopes became. There were topi and zebra grazing just off the side of the airstrip as we landed.

Massek with champagne
Jack and Erin in Africa
  We were met by the team from Bateleur Camp right as we disembarked the plane. They took care of all our bags and walked us over to a beautiful picnic table. Snacks, cold drinks, flowers, coffee and even champagne were there waiting for us. Now imagine all of this, in the middle of the savanna, with giraffes and zebra walking across the back ground.

Arrival at the Mara
I was in the first plane so I waited eagerly for the second plane just to see their reaction. And this was just the beginning of our amazing safari into the iconic Masai Mara. Our camp is located on a private land concession which opens up the possibility for walking tours, night drives, and overall flexibility that lodges inside the park proper can't offer. But as the group would soon find out it is the staff that really makes the experience exceptional. It is the true luxury experience in the middle of the bush.

Raft of Hippos
Rare daytime Hyena
  Before we even made it back to the camp to check out our new lodging our guides, Massek and Jackson, took us to the river to show us where the famous crossings happen during the great migration.

Dangerous drinking
Almost crossing at the Mara River
     When we got there they were very excited to find a zebra stallion who was thinking about crossing the river to join females grazing on the far side. A few minutes after touching down and we were already watching one of natures great events unfold. The zebra ended up calling it off, possibly after seeing some huge crocodiles swimming his way, but the excitement would continue our entire stay. We also saw our first hippos, hyena, masai giraffe, topi, eland, and buffalo on our way back to the lodge.

Family style dining...
...with a view
   The awe and amazement really settled in for good when we were greeted at the lodge. All the staff was out to sing a welcome song. Esther, the camp manager, invited us out to the lawn where lunch was set up for us. Every seat was a seat with a view, looking out across the lush expanse of the Masai Mara plains. Elephants and gazelles mingled out in the grass while the delicious food and wine flowed around the table.

Fiona, Terry, and Jack at the Mara river
Roughing it in the tent
   One of the benefits of flying between parks means that you don't lose any game drive time. Just a few hours ago we were cruising through Samburu, and now we are all charged from lunch and ready to head out into the Mara. This is how you do Africa.