Depending on which country you’re in or if you’re staying on a private reserve versus a national park, the rules for animal engagement on game drives vary. In the two places I’ve stayed in Kenya, the Masai Mara and Amboseli, the rules are simple: No off-road driving.
In short, what that means is if you’re driving along and see a family of cheetah far off to your right, you can’t drive off the road to get a closer look. If the road doesn’t lead in that direction you’ll have to manage with a really long lens or some powerful binoculars because you’re out of luck otherwise.
The reason behind this is a good one: you’re keeping the animals safe from harassment, especially in national parks where tourist traffic is higher than in private areas, and it keeps the land from getting torn up by 4-wheelers.
Surprisingly, there are a lot of people who want to stop and stare at an animal for an hour even if it’s so far away it’s only the size of a pin-head in their view-finder.
Case in point: In Amboseli one very lucky jeep filled with Australian (may have been New Zealand, can’t remember) travelers had the great fortune to come upon a female cheetah and her cubs while they killed an impala. It was apparently an amazing sighting. They talked about it at dinner one night and it seemed as if the entire dining room at our hotel was buzzing about it. Everyone wanted to see the cheetahs. We wanted to see the cheetahs, so the next day the search was on.
Now I need to stop here a second to make something clear, Amboseli is known for its elephants. They love its wide-open plains filled with yummy grass and the marshes which keep them cool and hydrated. On the other hand, It’s NOT known for its predators. It’s not that they aren’t there, they’re just harder to see. Lions and cheetahs don’t like to hang out in wide open spaces because they like to hunt in stealth mode, which is hard to accomplish when you don’t have anything to hide behind or in.
In Amboseli, those places were rarely near the road. Hence, on the average, lions and cheetah are often seen from a distance…. a really BIG distance. If you’re goal is to see a lot of predators, skip Amboseli—the odds are against you.
Now, I love to see cheetah, who doesn’t, but I’m also of the mind that there are a ton of other fabulous animals in the bush and if you look and look and can’t find cheetahs, focus on what you can find. Love the one you’re with, and all that.
Sorry, I digress… the search was on…
We looked for the cheetahs almost every day. Any time another visitor would mention cheetahs, off we’d go in that direction. With my travel mates the cheetahs were very top of mind. I was the odd man out, not really wanting to search for something that we’d most likely have to see through a telescope. However, the majority ruled otherwise and we’d head towards the last sighting of the elusive cheetahs, only to come up empty. Meanwhile, I did my best to keep my frustration in check.
To be fair, when you’re on safari everyone has the right to see (or try to see) what they want. Unless you have your own private jeep, like a marriage, a game drive is all about compromise.
(Side note: While I’m discussing this at length in this one post, I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t have a great trip, I did, and I enjoyed many wonderful sightings.)
On the last full day of our adventure, after a long search, we found the cheetahs. Woot!
That being said, the only way I could see them was by aiming my camera in the direction that our guide was pointing, use the greatest focal length of my longest lens, and then blindly click the shutter. Next I had to blow up the shot to its highest magnification on my LCD screen to see if they’d been captured—with my naked eye they were as good as invisible. The photos in this post are the result. Mission (sort of) accomplished.
We hung around for a while hoping they’d move so we could get a better look, but no cigar. We decided to have lunch a short distance away in the bush to give them some space and when we returned they hadn’t budged—apparently it was incredibly comfortable where they were sitting. Finally when it was clear that they were there for the long haul, we moved on.