Mike Mockler

Kenya - November 2014

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Every safari is different and, when you embark on a new one, you never know what you're going to see.  That's what makes Africa so exciting for me - even after more than 120 safaris! Take Lions, for example.  There's grave concern about the decline of Africa's Lions which you would never have known from this safari.  Lions were everywhere!  In fact, in almost 40 visits to the Masai Mara, I've never seen so many Lions, or Lionesses with cubs!

I was leading a group of 10 clients, with the main focus of the tour on the Masai Mara (with an optional extension to the north).  The dramas began almost immediately when a Lioness we were watching with her three small cubs spotted a group of Impalas and began stalking them.  She grabbed a young Impala in a rocky gully and brought the kill back to the cubs, though they were too young to be able to open it up to feed on it so she had to do that for them.    

Later, in another part of the Mara, we watched with bated breath as a herd of Buffaloes attempted to kill tiny Lion cubs that were with their mother in a dense thicket at the top of a steep, rocky slope.  Although events were partially obscured by the vegetation, it was possible to follow what was going on. The Buffaloes were within inches of trampling on the little cubs and reinforcements from the pride males proved ineffective. In the end, three Lionesses lined up alongside the courageous mother who previously had been defying the Buffaloes alone.  It was the presence of these females (and not the useless males!) that turned the tide and the Buffaloes backed away.  Such was the confusion during the drama that photography was well-nigh impossible but an image is indelibly printed on my mind: the mother Lioness standing over her helpless cubs and snarling at a massive bull Buffalo whose horns were just inches from her face.

The following day, two Lionesses with small cubs reacted to the approach of another Buffalo herd by escorting their six cubs away to a new hiding place.  The dominant Lioness simply picked up one cub in her mouth and set off with the other 5 cubs in a line, trotting after her.

On another occasion, two lionesses feeding on a Wildebeest were being closely watched by a Spotted Hyena.  When the Hyena encroached too close to the kill, one enraged Lioness launched herself at the Hyena, seizing it by the neck.  She seemed intent on killing it, pinning it to the ground by the throat before throwing it from side to side like a rag doll.  The howling of the Hyena was extraordinary but the Lioness eventually let it go and it sloped off with its tail between its legs.      

Three fine-looking nomadic male Lions were discovered a short distance away from the group's first camp and, on the first day at the next camp, six Lions spent several hours reclining on a large, smoothly rounded rock about 50 yards from my tent.  They slipped away during the night but, inside my tent, I could follow their progress by the alarm snorts of the local Impalas. 

Around 4.30 one morning, Lions were calling at the water-hole in front of camp.  We caught up with them on the morning game drive: two young males and two young Lionesses.  We later came to know them better as we discovered how naïve they were.  On one night-drive, we watched them "hunting", which was little more than looking down Aardvark holes, apparently searching for sleeping Warthogs.  At times, it was pure slapstick: all that was visible was the back ends of lions! The next night-drive revealed their lack of experience.  After a skirmish with a gang of Spotted Hyenas, the two young males made themselves scarce but one Lioness was treed by the Hyenas, trapped up there, nervously looking down at the Hyenas and snarling at them.   The Hyenas eventually realised they could not reach her and slunk away.   

Not surprisingly, with their deadliest enemies present in such numbers, Cheetahs and Leopards were keeping a low profile.  Even so, the group managed to see nine Leopards, including a pair mating, and ten cheetahs.  A major highlight was a prolonged encounter with a beautiful female Leopard.  She had hidden her two tiny cubs in a rocky location in the camp when I was there in February but, sadly, both cubs had since died.  We spent over an hour and a half with her as she patrolled her territory after an absence of several days.  

A Leopard mother and small cub were found hidden away in typical Leopard terrain, a deep, bushy gully.  But two Spotted Hyenas had found them and the mother Leopard ferociously defended her cub from the Hyenas who scuttled away, one of them with a bloody nose.  We also found a very attractive young Leopard waiting for her mother to return from hunting and left her reclining elegantly in a tree.   

We came across a young male Cheetah who was a new arrival in the area and appeared to be very aware of the dominant Cheetah brothers who were the territory-holders there.  His behaviour was intriguing as he warily sniffed patches of ground and vegetation where the brothers had obviously left their scent-marks.  We also came across a beautiful, mature female Cheetah and, late at night, we found another female resting deep in a grassy depression right out on the plain.  Two of the group watched an interesting Cheetah courtship developing and, on the final morning, we finally caught up with the dominant Cheetah brothers. The group had already witnessed a rather grim, protracted kill when an immature male Cheetah caught a newly-born Topi calf but was totally inept when it came to killing it.  

An enjoyable and unexpected sighting occurred when we noticed Impalas and Gazelles all staring in one direction.  Thinking that there might be a Leopard there, we searched the thickets, only to find a Serval, a delightful small spotted cat. 

We encountered a massive number of birds, including White-fronted Bee-eaters, White-throated Bee-eaters, Rufous-tailed Weavers, Southern banded Snake-Eagle and Greater Sparrowhawk, all of which are uncommon in the Mara. 

Migrants were arriving daily and, on occasions, we had superb views of “raptor migration” in action: Steppe Eagles, Wahlberg's Eagles, Steppe Buzzards and both Pallid and Montagu's Harriers drifting down from the north, like aircraft "stacking" on their approach to Heathrow.  European Hobbies were seen several times, often displaying their marvellous, dashing flight.  One even repeatedly dive-bombed a flying Great White Pelican, a bird many times larger than itself.  There were also Amur (Eastern Red-footed) Falcons, Lesser Kestrels and Yellow Wagtails, including the Blue-headed race, feeding around the feet of Zebras and Buffaloes. 

Among other bird highlights was a Lappet-faced Vulture on a termite mound, dwarfing two Steppe Eagles as they all fed on emerging termites.   The largest of Africa’s vultures feeding on tiny insects was a first for me.  Other birds of interest included Schalow’s Turaco, Lizard Buzzard, Black Stork, the elusive Pygmy Kingfisher, and a confusingly-plumaged Steppe Eagle with a blond crown.   

A touching scene involved a Hamerkop and a small Warthog piglet.  The young Warthog was with its mother who appeared to have lost all her other babies, as a consequence of which the sole survivor had no playmates.  Seeing a Hamerkop  perching on the ground nearby, the piglet seemed to decide it now had someone to play with.  Racing around at speed, it repeatedly ran towards and past the Hamerkop which was clearly bewildered by this behaviour and finally flew away.  

A nimble-footed, male Crowned Crane performed a wonderful courtship dance with his female but introduced an extraordinary variation which incorporated kicking and balancing on some Elephant dung-balls nearby.   Repeatedly, he dashed away from the female to the dung-balls where he gave flamboyant demonstrations of ball skills that would have impressed Victoria Beckham. 

An absorbing time was spent with a wonderfully relaxed herd of 40+ Elephants, with many calves, feeding around our vehicles and we found a large bull Elephant (with no tail) lying flat-out on the plain, fast asleep.  There were huge numbers of Giraffes and Wildebeest and, as it was the start of the rains, there were many new-born Warthogs, Topis, Gazelles, Impalas, Jackals and Spotted Hyenas.  We actually witnessed the birth of a Thomson's Gazelle.

In the north of the country, we saw localised specialities such as Reticulated Giraffe, Beisa Oryx, Grevy's Zebra and Jackson's Hartebeest.  On several occasions, we enjoyed close encounters with both Black and White Rhinos, some with young calves.  Mornings produced atmospheric, misty scenes and wonderful light, with glorious views of the summit of Mount Kenya rising up through the mist

On night-drives, sightings included Bat-eared Fox, Spring Hare, Black-tailed Scrub Hare, White-tailed Mongoose, Genet, Lesser Galago (Lesser Bushbaby) and, incongruously at night, a newly-born Impala.  Rarely-seen species included Aardwolf, Striped Hyena and, remarkably, six Zorillas!      

However, all of these sightings pale into insignificance compared with the experiences we had with the animal that is the Holy Grail for even the most battle-hardened safari-goers. To put things into context: on my first 120 African safaris, I saw only two Aardvarks.  Yet, on this safari, my group saw, unbelievably, no fewer than four Aardvarks!   Admittedly, I had designed the itinerary to include night-drives in what I knew were "Aardvark hotspots" but four sightings on one safari would have been way beyond my wildest imaginings. 

In fact, one Aardvark gave us one of the most amusing and memorable cameos of the safari.  The Aardvark was deep inside a hole, digging furiously while being watched from above by a Silver-backed Jackal presumably hoping to pick up stray termites.  However, each time the Jackal approached the hole to look down inside, a tsunami of soil was thrown up into its face! 

As I said at the beginning, every safari is different and you never know what you're going to see! 




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