What It’s Really Like on a Safari Game Drive

Closeup of three elephant heads in Kenya

If you’ve never been on a safari, chances are you’re not really sure what takes place a game drive is like. Sure, you know you go out into the wild looking for animals, but there’s no way to say exactly what happens, mainly because it’s never the same. And THAT’S what makes the experience so addictive. Some drives are slower than others (meaning you didn’t see much wildlife or you did but they were sleeping), but I’ve never returned back to camp unsatisfied. To prove my point, I wanted to share some of my favorite encounters.

First: The Basics of a Safari Game Drive

Game drives are the cornerstone of a safari. They take place for three to four hours twice each day, typically around sunrise and late in the afternoon. Times when animals are more active.

Unless you’ve arranged for a private vehicle you will share with other guests. Guides familiar with animal behavior and their relationship to the surrounding terrain will drive you around the region looking for wildlife. At some point, guests usually enjoy a snack or a cocktail in a beautiful, safe location where they can get out and stretch their legs. Simple, right?

If you think it doesn’t sound exciting, you’d be wrong. No two safari game drives are the same. Nine times out of ten, you’ll be amazed.

Below are just some of the wonderful sightings I’ve experienced

Game Drive Diaries

The most exciting part of being on safari is the animal behaviors you behold. Life and death, dominance and submission, love and jealousy (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing a wee bit here but still true) to name a few. Over the years, I’ve been thrilled, stunned, and fascinated by what I’ve seen.

An example of Lion behavior. A male and female sit near each other in the grass.

The Subtle Dance of Dominance and Submission

It began with a zebra meeting its end.

From miles away we heard its terrified, high-pitched bark echoing across the Mara.  It took us five minutes driving like a bat out of hell to reach it. By the time we arrived, it was laying at the bottom of a gully in a striped heap, alone.

Twenty yards away, a black-maned male and a lioness sat quietly in the high grass as if nothing had happened.

Fellow travelers who saw the encounter said the female brought down the zebra but the male, appearing out of nowhere, chased her from her prize.

Two female lions heads peek out from the high grass in the Masai Mara, Kenya.

Paws flew, growling ensued. She was in his territory and he didn’t like it. From the look of his belly—full and round—he wasn’t hungry, he just didn’t want her to have it.

The lioness rose and bolted west towards a hill in the distance, her gait a powerful trot as she floated across the plain. The male followed in hot pursuit and we watched as their shrinking silhouettes disappeared over the summit to a plateau beyond.

From the east, two sets of ears worked their way through the grass towards us. Occasionally, white-whiskered muzzles tilted skyward sniffed the air. Two females from the lioness’s pride were on their way. Would they help the lioness? Would there be a fight?

Male lion standing on the plain Masai Mara National Reserve: Seen on a safari Game Drive

At the top of the plateau, we found the male and the lioness, once again, sitting quietly in the grass. When the two females approached, he walked towards them. His posture was erect, he held his head high, his stride had strength and purpose. The females kept their heads low and crouched submissively as he circled and they sniffed each other.

Every day, lions engage in a subtle dance of dominance and submission.

This time, we were able to watch.

Each female behaved differently. The lion on the far left of the image below continually snarled. Her behavior seemed antagonistic but her posture—body low and to the side— was the most submissive of the three.

Dominant and submissive lion behavior between three female lions and a male lion in the Masai Mara One cringes another lifts her tale.
The lion on the far left continually snarled but was the most submissive of the three

The middle lion’s behavior was that of a temptress. She repeatedly drew the male’s attention by raising her tail and nuzzling him but she never let him mount her. The first lioness (on the right) sat, watched, and waited.

Inexplicably, the lions stopped circling each other and laid down as if a director had yelled “Cut!” only to resume moments later.

A male lion walking towards a lioness low to the ground in a perfect submissive and dominant behavior

Low to the ground, her ears pulled back yet utterly submissive, the snarling female wasn’t happy to have the male’s undivided attention.

Coming to her rescue, the temptress went from flirty to downright slutty, shoving her back end into the male’s face. She placed herself in front of the male as if to mate but the second he mounted her she scooted forward out of his reach.

Another break.

After an hour, and as the sun began to set, the females inexplicably attacked the male from both sides.

A female Lion swipes a paw at a male lion. Two other lionesses watch. Kenya.

The male spun around, lashing at them in return. The temptress on the left, the snarler on the right, while the first lioness continued to sit and watch. And as quickly as it began, it was over. Within minutes, the plain was veiled in black and reluctantly, we headed back to camp.

Seen on a safari game drive: A pangolin walks in the grass in the Masa Mara, Kenya

Miracle Sightings on the Mara

Pangolin! It’s a pangolin! Oh my God, it’s a pangolin!!!

I might as well have said “Pigs are flying! Pigs are flying!” Because until that moment, both were just as unlikely.

Pangolins are one of Africa’s most elusive creatures and rarely seen. I’ve spoken to guides who’ve spent 24/7 in the bush and have never had the pleasure. It’s the kind of sighting that earns your friends’ envy and a slap on the back or a big high-five even though you actually had little to do with it.

Pangolins are bizarre-looking, nocturnal mammals covered in scales that look like large artichoke leaves. When threatened, they roll up into a ball to protect themselves. Remember playing with potato bugs when you were a kid? They’re kind of like that but way bigger and, well, pangolins aren’t insects. They love to eat ants and termites and, unless mating, are solitary creatures. According to Wikipedia, they are the most trafficked mammal in the world. Sigh….

It was a glorious September morning and we were in the Masai Mara near the Tanzanian border. Our guide, Sammy Ngotho, was following our comrades in another Wild Eye land cruiser along a dirt road in the midst of a vast plain. The Serengeti was less than a mile away.

For some reason, when a chance to veer right presented itself, Sammy took it, letting the other car continue on its way.

That decision was the definition of serendipity.

Within less than a minute,  scurrying aimlessly through the grass, its aardvark-like tongue darting in and out,  I saw it. At first I was stymied. What the hell is that? Then it hit me; it’s a pangolin!

I lept from my seat and started shaking Sammy’s shoulder, pointing like a crazy person, and with as much control as I could muster considering the circumstances, said “Look! It’s a pangolin!”

My jeep mates, Elise and Paul McCulloch, were dazzled but couldn’t figure out why Sammy and I were so chuffed (a South African term for “incredibly excited”). We’d seen so many amazing animals on our adventure already but none that practically made our heads pop off.

While keeping my eyes peeled on the sighting of a lifetime, I explained how unbelievably rare it was to see a pangolin. It was their first safari and they’d hit the jackpot. We all high-fived.

While we gawked, the pangolin meandered about, and then BAM, it crawled into a hole. All in all, the sighting was under two minutes. But no one cared about the duration. WE SAW A PANGOLIN! And we had pictures.

A caracal being chased by a black-backed jackal in Kenya

Miracle Sighting #2

Three days later, just after sunrise, we’re on our way north to the marsh near the Oloololo escarpment to see if we could find Scar. (Cecil of the Masai Mara for those of you not familiar.)

We’re cruising along on the lookout for any photographic opportunity when a jackal darts in front of the jeep, barely missing being flattened by its tires.

What on earth?

We all look to see what had its attention and it’s a caracal! A caracal! Another elusive and highly coveted sighting.

A caracal walking in the grass in the Masai Mara, Kenya. A rare sight on a safari game drive.

This totally made up for the morning in which a gorgeous male lion (like Disney gorgeous) was walking through the same high grass, roaring to the world about his prowess and virility and I missed the shot. Full disclosure: I accidentally hit the exposure compensation wheel and was shooting the scene with a -3 setting, essentially turning the lion into a black void. Before I realized my mistake he’d finished his show and disappeared. I was apoplectic.

But I digress.

A caracal is one of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever seen. The size of a very large house cat, our caracal had blue eyes and adorable little tufts on the tips of its ears. Like the pangolin, they’re nocturnal and solitary souls.

The jackal chased the caracal a few feet  into the brush on the other side of our jeep, after which the caracal turned around and gave him a really good hiss. The kind of hiss that stopped the jackal in his tracks and made him reconsider his whole strategy.  After careful deliberation, the jackal chose to leave the caracal alone.

We however, were once again high-fiving like idiots.

I just love Africa.

Wildebeest crossing a rive with a hippo watching.

Witnessing My First Kill

In the Mara, the prospect of a wildebeest crossing is one of the many reasons you go. On my second trip, I was fortunate to see two, one of which starred a crocodile the width of a dinner table. And as I’m sure you’ve probably guessed, he wasn’t there to cheer on the wildebeests.

When we arrived at the edge of the Mara River, according to the reports from our guide’s walkie talkie, the wildebeests had been gathering for over an hour. This usually means a crossing is possible. The aforementioned crocodile at least 12 feet-long sat motionless on the edge of the river.

An hour later, a single wildebeest led the charge and the show began, hundreds of wildebeest poured into the river. Ten minutes in, something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye.

It took me a few seconds to register what I was seeing and a couple more to get over my shock and react. The croc was in the water, its teeth clamped around the midsection of a wildebeest and a death struggle was underway.

A crocodile attacks one of many wildebeest crossing a river in the Masai Mara.

It was my first kill and I’d been dreading it.

Yet, surprisingly, I didn’t react the way I expected. I thought I’d want to leave. I thought I might cry. But instead, I felt a surge of adrenaline as soon as my brain registered what was happening. My heart pounded. I was seeing a kill!

A REAL kill.

(In a millisecond of morbid humor, I noticed a large hippo only a few feet away watching the carnage and I remember thinking all he was missing was a bag of popcorn.)

A crocodile drowns a wildebeest in the Mara River

As I watched the wildebeest struggle and it was obvious it didn’t have much longer. Then my emotions caught up with me and I told myself to look away. Three seconds later, I couldn’t help but look back.  Maybe, I thought, the wildebeest would escape. I knew it was a ridiculous notion the second it popped into my brain but I hoped I’d be pleasantly surprised.

A very chaotic scene of wildebeest crossing the Mara River

Then, as quickly as it began, they disappeared. The rest of the herd splashed through the water where the duo had gone down as if nothing had happened.

I saw my first kill.

There would be others, but this, my first, was over.

My camera pointing towards a lion very far away in a tree during a game drive on safari.
My camera fixed towards the lion in the tree. I wasn’t kidding when I said she was far away.

The Lion in the Tree and The Evil White Jeep

“Aaaaaaaaaaaack!” Reflexively my jeep-mates lunged for their cameras. Panting from the adrenaline rush, they looked at me bewildered.

“It was a mistake! It was a mistake! I didn’t mean to hit the shutter!” I yelped apologetically, feeling like a dope. For a second they stared at me and then began to laugh. “I’m so sorry,” I said laughing too.

Everyone in the jeep, including me, exhaled. My finger had grown tired and twitched, hitting the shutter and setting it off at 12 frames per second with a machine gun-like staccato. They thought they’d missed the shot.

A classic lion behavior: sitting in a tree in the Masai Mara

We were all on edge. For over an hour we sat there our eyes glued to our viewfinders, fingers on the shutters, waiting for the lioness we found snoozing in a tree to get up so we could capture the shot we’d planned.

Our goal was to photograph the cat climbing down the tree but we were racing against the clock. The sun was fading fast and according to the rules of the Mara Triangle Conservancy in Kenya, we had to be back at camp by 6:30 pm. It was 6:15 pm.

Tree in Masai Mara
From where we were the lion obscured from view. We had positioned ourselves to capture a shot once she walked out on the limb in front of us.

From our position, we could barely see the lion as she straddled a large branch obscuring her from view. Her paws and tail dangling beneath the limb were the only things visible. We positioned the jeep and composed our shots for where we believed she’d go when she got up, and we knew we’d only have a few seconds to nail it once she did.

Time ticked by and as the light faded our anxiety mounted.

Lourette, the wife of our leader Marlon du Toit from Wild Eye Photographic Safaris, had a better angle at the front of the jeep and could see how the lion was behaving with her binoculars. She kept us entertained with a play-by-play of the big cat’s movements, or more accurately the lack thereof.

A Lion standing on a branch of a tree Masai Mara, Kenya,

“She’s up!”

“No….. wait….she’s back down.”

“We’ve got two paws up and she’s starting to stand.”

“Nope, she’s back down.”

“She’s looking left.”

“Head down”

“I think she’s going back to sleep.”

“She’s LICKING the tree.”

I was convinced the cat was fully aware of our angst and just effing with us.

Periodically, a jeep drove down a road that ran behind the tree. Terrified the offending vehicle would stop in the middle of our frame, I spoke out loud like a crazy person until I was confident they’d keep moving.

A ion stretching in at tree in the Masai Mara

“No…No….No… Don’t stop! NO… Don’t you DARE stop. Don’t you do it? Don’t stop!”

Suddenly Lourette shouted, “She’s up! She’s up!” Our beauty sauntered into view. Simultaneously, a white jeep barreling down the road behind the tree slowed down. “Oh hell no!” But of course, they stopped.

Lourette tried to wave them off but they were too far away or didn’t care. I couldn’t believe it, we’d waited nearly two hours for this moment, she was finally moving and some morons WERE IN OUR SHOT!

The lion lingered and slowly stretched.  I snapped a pic as Marlon yelled to Sammy our guide/driver, “Drive forward!”

Wait what? She was starting to climb down the tree and we are moving?! I was pretty sure my head was about to explode.

Lion runs down a trunk  in the Masai Mara, Kenya,

Marlon was taking a risk. It was possible we’d miss the moment but he wanted us to have a shot without the white jeep.  Our car lurched forward, tipping left as it hit a deep rut. My camera fell back on me almost knocking me to the floor, and I scrambled to right myself.

When I looked back, I saw she’d stopped halfway down the tree. I hadn’t completely missed it.

We snapped away like crazy, laughing like idiots from all our pent-up anxiety. Moments later, she jumped gracefully from the trunk into the high grass below then disappeared.

Though we waited for two hours, from the moment she stood up until she vanished was no more than 20 seconds.

Welcome to wildlife photography.

A female cheetah sits on a mound with five tiny cubs.
Female Cheetah with cheetah cubs laying on termite hill in the Masai Mara

A Rainy Afternoon with a Cheetah, Her Cubs, and an Unlucky Gazelle

It was insane, the rain was coming down in drops the size of my head. The sky was dark and green like a bruise, and if I’d been in my home state of Michigan I would have sworn a tornado was minutes away. 

The cheetah and her four cubs cared little about the weather, they were too busy eating a gazelle the mother had killed 30 minutes earlier.

Her babies were hungry and she was looking for something to kill. As she moved through the high grass she climbed every termite mound in her path using the extra height to her advantage. Every now and then she’d sit and her cubs would lay next to her and cuddle.

Adult female cheetah with cubs following her in the Masai Mara.

When we first spotted the family, the sun had shone brightly. The mother cheetah sauntered across the Mara, her head moving imperceptibly from left to right scanning the horizon, her five little ones trailing behind her in single file.

She didn’t stay down long though, in fact, it seemed as if every time the cubs got comfy it was her cue to get up. The cubs would watch her walk away and when she got a little too far for their comfort, they scurried after her, leaping through the grass like rabbits.

In the distance, a gazelle was sitting in the grass oblivious to the approaching danger. We saw it and waited for the cheetah to see it too. The instant she did her entire body became rigid, followed by the familiar elongated posture of a stalking cat. The cubs instinctively stopped and huddled together—she was on the hunt and they couldn’t follow.

A cheetah chasing an impala

The mother left the cubs exposed behind her—though the high grass gave them a modicum of cover—to go after the gazelle. It was dangerous to leave them alone, a predator could easily snatch a cub while she was away but she had no choice. They could not hunt with her.

We moved our jeep to a better vantage point putting the cheetah directly in front of us with the gazelle sitting in the grass to our right. It was a long wait. Cheetahs are patient animals, creeping ever so slowly towards their prey in an effort to get as close as possible before pouncing.

It was strange seeing the gazelle sitting there without a care in the world, knowing I was probably witnessing its last moments alive. Intellectually it all made sense; this was the circle of life. I’d seen this scene millions of times before on National Geographic, but seeing it play out in front of me was surreal and sad….and exciting, which made me feel a little guilty.

We waited for the cheetah to make her move.

A cheetah mother dragging an impala kill toward her cubs

I was ready, my camera was all set and my finger was on the shutter. I had no idea when or where the two would run, I just hoped I’d be able to capture a decent image when the drama unfolded.

We had no doubt something was going to happen. The cheetah may not be successful but we all knew there would be a chase.

The two ran around a log and headed back in the opposite direction, the cheetah closing the distance between them. They covered an enormous amount of ground in what seemed like a split second, leaving a trail of dust rising in the air. Their speed was astonishing.

Cheetah mom licking her cub in the rain

Suddenly the game was on; the cheetah ran straight towards the gazelle (and us). The gazelle jumped up and instantly ran to our left parallel to the jeep. The cheetah switched gears, running right to intercept her target.

I took a lot of pictures, my frame-rate clicking at 12 frames per second, trying to follow the zigzagging as best I could. I had no idea if I had been remotely successful. (I realized later I should have had my shutter speed even higher. My images came out soft).

Seconds later, a large cloud of dust shot up from the grass and we knew she’d captured the gazelle. With the hunt over, we moved closer and found the cheetah still at the live gazelle’s throat until eventually, it went completely limp.

Still panting heavily after her run, the cheetah sat up and looked around to make sure there was no danger or scavengers anxious to steal her kill. When she felt it was safe she chirped to her cubs like a bird. Moments later they were at her feet.

Cheetah mom sits with with her cubs in the rain on the Masai Mara

Ten minutes later we had to leave.

We were in the Mara Triangle Conservancy and the way it works with big sightings, of which this was one, only five vehicles are allowed near it at any one time.

When a sixth or seventh car pulls up and wishes to see, the first two jeeps must relinquish their spot and move on. If a line develops, each vehicle is given five minutes to take pictures and then it yields to the next in line. The word had gotten out about the kill and vehicles were coming from every direction. Our disappointment was palpable but since the rules were made to protect the safari animals, we obliged. We just got back in line.

Mother cheetah with her cubs in the rain

Fifteen to twenty minutes later we were in front of the cheetahs again. By then, the rain was falling and the sky was filled with thick clouds the color of dirty snow, making it unusually dark for the time of day and difficult to photograph.

The cheetahs continued to eat, periodically looking up with blood-soaked goatees to scan the horizon or shake out their fur in response to the weather. Their hair was matted by the rain into little furry meringue-like peaks.

Cheetah cubs huddle around their mother in the Masai Mara - Wildlife Stories

When they had their fill, the mother began licking her cubs in a haphazard, whoever-happens-to-be-in-front-of-my-tongue kind of way, removing the scarlet remnants of their feast. In return, the cubs surrounded her, licking her face in one of the sweetest behaviors I’ve ever seen. As usual, I wanted to leap out of the jeep and hug every last one of them until their little wet bodies burst.

It wasn’t long before our time was up. Again.  As we pulled away, the sated cheetahs nestled into the soggy grass and went to sleep.

A big male lion eats a kill in the high grass of the Masai Mara
David, the alpha male, enjoying a kill after a successful nighttime hunt

David and His Pride

David was his name. The alpha male of a pride we found on a gentle slope five minutes from Mara Plains Camp in Kenya’s Olare Motorogi Conservancy where I was an invited guest.

The lions were in the last stages of devouring the remains of a successful nighttime hunt. A few of the cubs, sweet-faced with over-sized paws, gnawed on an exposed rib cage with the tenacity of a guard dog. A droopy-eyed adult female was lounging in the throes of a food coma. David sat separately from the others, as males often do, with a chunk of the kill all to himself.

A lioness and her cubs eats a kill near Mara Plains Camp in Kenya

We were in a perfect position to photograph the pride. Johnson Pingua “Ping” Nkukuu, my Maasai guide, had a knack for divining an animal’s next move and the savvy to know how to angle the vehicle for the best possible shot. He understood wildlife photography, lighting, and composition and often saw advantageous angles before I did. (Ping is currently freelance and available for private safaris)

He learned his craft from the best in the biz, the owners of the camp, Beverly and Dereck Joubert, award-winning filmmakers, conservationists, and National Geographic royalty. Suffice it to say, he was an ideal companion for my photographic aspirations.

A male lion at sunrise looking left
David looking mighty handsome in the glow of the sunrise

Not every camp caters to the needs of the professional photographer, or amateur for that matter, but photography is part of Mara Plains’ DNA. Large blow-ups of Beverly Joubert’s iconic stills offered a constant source of inspiration and guests had free access to Canon cameras and lenses during their stay. Customized vehicles provided ample support and stability for equipment, and guides, like Ping, had both wildlife training and knowledge of photography to make the most of each safari game drive.

A lioness and her cubs walking in a line in the Masai Mara.
The pride on a morning hike

David began to lick his lips with bold sweeps of his tongue that ended in giant yawns. Ping looked at me from his seat behind the wheel and I understood. I knew this big cat behavior. Sitting lion + yawning + licking = about to get up. The question: Would he walk three feet and lay down again—which happens more often than not—or would he give us something more interesting to photograph? My shutter finger was itchy with anticipation.

Stretching as if practicing yoga, he stood in slow motion. My body involuntarily jumped a fraction of an inch, my reflexes on alert, my camera at the ready. With a flick of his tail, he sauntered towards the rising sun giving me a perfect view of his furry lion butt. Thanks, David.

A male lion walking on the plain with a female lion trailing behind.

A male cub, seeing an opening, stealthily picked his way through the high grass to chew on the carcass his father left behind. We lingered, waiting to see what would come next. When David didn’t stop, Ping flipped the ignition and we were off.

Grant Atkinson, one of my favorite professional wildlife photographers, was in a cruiser next to mine along with two other vehicles. He was leading a small group on a photographic safari group also staying at Mara Plains.

We all followed the pride, each anxious to get a good shot and conscious not to get in each other’s way. I could hear Grant reminding his guests about exposure compensation and I quickly updated my camera settings. Now and then it pays to eavesdrop.

A pride of lions playing with each other

I’m always excited when I’m in the presence of safari animals but the truth is seven times out of ten you’re watching an animal do two things: eat or sleep. Predators, predominately the latter.

The encounters you wish for, the addictive ones that keep you coming back, again and again, are those with a lot of interaction. On this morning, we had it in spades. I could hardly wait to see what would happen next.

David’s impromptu departure prompted the other lions to follow. In a long, strung out, single-file line, they moved east. David walked 50 yards, then sat down again, letting the rest of the pride pass.

A lioness walks towards male lion

Ping signaled we should keep going, David would eventually follow.  We drove parallel and uphill of the lions so we’d have the sun at our backs when we turned to face the lion caravan. If we’d driven on the downhill side the cats would have been back-lit and in shadow. Sometimes that can make for an interesting image, but in this case not so much.

Everyone had the same shot in mind: the pride walking towards the camera. Each jeep raced ahead, stopping in staggered positions so as not to get into each others’ frames. Each time the lions passed a jeep, the guide drove ahead of the pride leapfrogging past the other vehicles to a position in front of their approach.

A lion pride eats a kill under a tree

“Get as low as you can,” Ping recommended. I hit the floor so I was at eye level with the cats as they advanced. Awesome angle. Thanks, Ping!

As we moved from one location to the next, I noticed a youngster with mischief on his mind. Something about the look in his eye; the tilt of his head, and a low-shouldered trot that reminded me of my cat before she pounced.

The sneaky little fellow was stalking one of his brothers and sure enough, he tackled his sibling by grabbing his haunches on both sides as if he were hunting a zebra. Unphased by the weak attempt, the brother walked on, dragging his assailant still clinging to his side.

Lions eating a kill under a tree

Needing no encouragement, the other cubs joined in and a hilarious scrum of paws, tails, and fur ensued. For lions, as with all predators, play is fundamental in honing hunting and survival skills. For humans, it’s just damn adorable to watch and if you’re lucky, a pretty great photo-op too.

The pride came to a stop under a fallen tree where they’d stashed another kill. The predators had been luckier than we thought and apparently dropped corpses like breadcrumbs to eat later. Ensuring I could get a good shot, Ping angled the cruiser on a diagonal.

The cubs pounced on the carcass with a ferocity that belied the meal they’d just eaten. Occasionally, a savage growl would pierce the air as one cat lunged at another in a fight over a tasty morsel, exposing bloody, two-inch incisors and razor-sharp nails. Just as quickly they went back to eating as if nothing had happened.

Lion cub with blood on its mouth eating looks at the camera

David plopped himself under a tree, uninterested in anything but laying down to sleep, his golden coat melting into the grass.

I remember years ago, on my first walking safari, the guide said, “If we walk into a lion, whatever you do, don’t run.” I got the not running part—if you act like prey you’ll be treated like one—but “If we walk into a lion?” How could we ever do that? Watching David sink into camouflaged oblivion, I realized walking into a lion would be a pretty easy thing to do.

A baby leopard climbing a tree in Kenya

The Leopard, Her Cubs, and the Wildebeest Kill

Peeking from behind the grooved flesh of the tree, two tiny blue eyes caught the sun. A speckled paw the size of a half-dollar with needle-sharp claws latched on to the bark as it leaned against the base of a large branch. I could see the gentle curve of his plump, fuzzy tummy and I had to close my eyes against cuteness overload.

An adult female leopard sits in a tree in Kenya

His little head was straining upward, drawing my eye to a carcass his mother had skillfully wedged between two limbs five feet above it. His mother, a stunner of a leopard I’ll call Alice, was higher still, perched above us and looking at the four jeeps around her with minimal interest, the way we might look at passersby beneath a balcony.

The tail of a sibling flashed by the head of the first cub and just as quickly disappeared.  The evening before, my guide, Ping from Mara Plains Camp where I was an invited guest, told me that she had two cubs, but it was always a crapshoot whether you’d see them from one day to the next.

Cubs are the most vulnerable in their first year. They’re small and fragile and beloved by any number of predators. Thankfully, they’d made it another day.

We were privy to an important lesson; the cubs were being schooled. The mother was teaching her young ones to climb and to eat in a tree, but the cubs were struggling. They couldn’t navigate the branches successfully, and whether they climbed above or below, remained inches away from the carcass. The climbed about the limbs, anxious and hungry.

A leopard dragging a wildebeest carcass

Seeing her cubs distressed, Alice decided on a new strategy. Bridging herself between two limbs, she grabbed the neck of her half-eaten wildebeest kill in her mouth and with a powerful tug lifted it from its place and gently lowered it three feet and wedged it into another V of the tree. She did it with such precision and grace you’d swear her mouth had opposable thumbs.

She climbed down the tree, landing at its base and sat beneath the kill. The cubs scurried down, taking refuge under some bushes at her feet.

A leopard drags a large wildebeest up a small hill in Africa

Rising up on her haunches, she grabbed the wildebeest once again and pulled it down, unceremoniously allowing the remains—ahead, torso and some straggling entrails—to fall to the ground in a heap. She then began to drag it–her neck bulging with the effort–down a small incline, through an opening between two jeeps and up a hill into the woods behind us.

The cubs were beside themselves, excited to see the corpse within reach but intimidated by the metal gauntlet our vehicles posed.  Together they huddled in a small open space of a gully.  One cub gathered its courage and galloped forward, scampering after his mother and leaving the other alone somewhat bewildered.

Before the first cub could gain too much ground, the second rushed forward, low to the grown in a submissive posture, his little butt wiggling as he went.

Ping backed up the car, having a sense of where Alice was headed. We moved to a small clearing near the base of the woods and wouldn’t you know it, Alice appeared to our right dropping the kill. 

The cubs pounced on it in an instant but she was only resting. Moments later, she began dragging it again, this time into the trees where we could not follow, all while the cubs nipping at the wildebeest as they disappeared from sight.

A Lion dragging a wildebeest through the high grass of Kenya

Battle on the Mara: The Tale of the Tenacious Cubs

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never tried to drag half of a dead wildebeest in my mouth but I’m thinking it can’t be easy. It’s not a task I often contemplate mind you, but the thought presented itself when I saw a very determined female from a large pride doing just that in the Mara Triangle.

The cats had killed two or three wildebeest that morning (it was hard to tell, their remains were scattered) and eaten their fill but she wanted to move the head and part of the torso to where the pride was relaxing by a stream about 50 yards away. Unfortunately for her, It was mighty slow going.

Holding the wildebeest by the throat as she straddled it between her legs she could only take a few steps forward before having to release it, reorganize, and try again. And if that wasn’t bad enough, a couple of troublesome cubs were driving her crazy.

A lioness growls at a cub trying to eat a wildebeest she is dragging

While most of the lions sported tummies so full they practically scraped the ground, a few greedy kitties tried to take a bite out of the carcass while the lioness was hauling it through the grass.  First one, then both, the cubs relentlessly nipped at her heels. Literally.

Imagine carrying an entrée from the kitchen to the dining room while your children are trying to eat it while you walked. Annoying right?

Meanwhile, back at the bottom half of the unfortunate kill, a wake of vultures, marabou storks and a small pack of spotted hyenas were in a frenzy trying to eat the kill before the lioness returned.  As it was, in between scolding the cubs she’d spy the scavengers, drop the wildebeest and chase them away.

Just as tenacious, the hyena and vultures pounced on the remains as soon as she went away.

Spotted hyena eat a wildebeest carcass with vultures looking on

Back to the lions….

You know that saying, “Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned”? When William Congreve coined the phrase he hadn’t seen this momma. If he had, he would have said, “Hell hath no fury like a lioness fighting with her cubs over a kill.” She was vicious. She snarled and swiped at her little heathens but her effort was in vain.

A lioness and cubs in the Masai Mara

It didn’t matter that she acted as if she was going to tear them limb from limb. They had her number; they were loved. Her bark was far worse than her bite so they just kept coming.

In the end, overheated and probably exhausted, she gave up, and the cubs gleefully pounced on the kill.


A herd of zebra drink water out of the Masa Mara River in Kenya
Zebras tentatively drink water from the Mara River wary about crocodiles

The Zebra and the Hungry Crocodile

It’s hot. Really hot.

It feels as if we’ve been stuffed into a convection oven and I pray for a breeze. The temperature and immobility are making me sleepy but there’s no way we’re leaving.

We’re on a safari in Kenya in the vast plains known as the Masai Mara making some amazing wildlife photos on a Wild Eye safari.

A herd of zebra is drinking next to the water’s edge and there are two large crocodiles, gliding back and forth hoping to snag a striped lunch.

Skittish to the extreme, the zebra overreact to the slightest thing. A ripple in the river can send them stampeding in a cloud of dust as if being chased by a lion.  They don’t go far because they’re thirsty. They huddle for a few moments, scan the water, then try again. Rinse, repeat.

A zebra drinks water out of the Mara River in Kenya

On the opposite side of the river, two new zebras appear, walking out of the trees and down to the shoreline. Without the hesitancy of their buddies on the other side, the first zebra marches into the water and begins drinking. The second zebra follows dutifully behind.

I hold my breath. A horrible thought creeps into my thoughts. What if a crocodile lunges out of the water, grabs the zebra by the snout and drags it into the river? I hate the idea but that doesn’t stop me from focusing my lens on its muzzle. Only a few days before I’d seen many wildebeest killed during a crossing. You never know what’s going to happen.

The duo eyes the herd across the Mara, their noses tilt towards the sun to smell the air.

Then it hits me. These idiots are going to try to cross.

A crocodile attacks a zebra crossing the Mara River in Kenya
Crocodile tries to bite a zebra in the Masa Mara River in Kenya

Inside our jeep, the whereabouts of the two crocodiles become of paramount importance.

“Do you see the crocs?” asks my jeep-mate Nancy.

“Nope, can’t see them,” answered Lori, my other pal in the vehicle.

“Sammy, do you see them?” I ask, my eyes scanning the water with my lens. Sammy is our guide. He has the eyes of an eagle if anyone can find them he can.

“I don’t see them,” he replies.

For a moment I feel relief and then I remember they could be hiding under the water.

Crocodile attacking a zebra in the Mara River.
Crocodile attacking zebra in the Mara River. Splashing water. Masai Mara, Kenya

If only we had x-ray vision.

As I feared, the first zebra begins to wade into the water. Alarms go off in my head as if an air raid is looming.

“Don’t do it!… Don’t do it!” I say out loud. Hoping the zebra can hear and understand. Nancy and Lori chime in as we helplessly watch the oblivious zebra walk farther into the river.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the second zebra start to follow.  A cheesy horror flick is playing out in front of my eyes. I hear the two-note soundtrack from Jaws in my head.

A crocodile tries to bite a zebra in the Mara River

The first zebra hits deep water and begins to swim. I grip my camera, eye squinting through the viewfinder, ready for action. I am sure this cocky fellow is a goner.

Chris, a fellow traveler in the other jeep shouts “It’s going after the second one!!!!”

I look to the right and a wall of water splashes skyward followed by a glimpse of a large scaly tail. I see the second zebra twist sideways. My finger is pressing so hard on the shutter I’m surprised I’m not driving a hole into the case.

A zebra being attacked by a crocodile kicks the predator and escapes

There’s another splash and then the whoosh of water being forced sideways at great speed. The zebra somehow managed to spin around. It plants its front hooves into the riverbed and kicks the croc in the face, racing out of the water at breakneck speed.  It stops only after reaching the sandy bank, sides heaving from the effort, ears perked forward in alarm.

My heart is racing. Everything happened so fast. I’m thrilled the zebra isn’t hurt but sad that it’s been separated from its friend on the other side.

The zebra turns and stares at the others. So close yet so far. I imagine it calculating the odds of trying to cross again with little math equations spinning around his head.

It steps towards the water but then thinks better of it.  Water drips off its body as it slowly walks up to the embankment from whence it came. As if in a Disney film, the zebra looks back, hesitates a moment, then disappears into the trees.

Foiled, the crocodile sinks below the surface of the water.


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60 thoughts on “What It’s Really Like on a Safari Game Drive

  1. jim corbett says:

    I love these pictures, they are so mesmerizing and adorable. I really appreciate your work. Thanks mate for your kind info and want you to continue to post these kind of amazing stuff.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you very much, Jim. I’m thrilled you enjoyed the post. Thank you for taking a look and I hope to hear from you in the future. Take care –

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Jenn –
      Thank you very much. I really appreciate the nom but I want to be truthful, I don’t write about these kind of things on my blog which is part of the requirements. I wanted you to know that I am thrilled that you would think enough of my work to do so, but also why you would not see follow up on my part. 🙂

  2. diverduden says:

    An perfect story that just get even better with this fantastic photos as well. At the right moment at the perfect settings, that is timing.
    Good work!

  3. DaveT says:

    Fascinating set of images and a great write up on lion behaviour. It’s such a privilege when you get a chance to both see and photograph something like this. Thanks Susan.

  4. Kevin J. Scoggin says:

    Beautifully written and beautifully photographed. I have had the privilege of watching lions hunt at Kruger Park in South Africa and there is simply nothing like it.

I would love to hear from you! What did you think of the post?