Africa

A Day On Safari In Kenya’s Mara Triangle

Morning sunrise on the Mara Triangle.

Morning sunrise on the Mara Triangle. Not bad – eh?

It was a bit of a homecoming when I landed on the tiny airstrip in the Mara Triangle, one year and a week after my first visit in 2013. At least that’s how it felt. I looked out over the familiar landscape and exhaled—after 20+ hours of travel I’d finally arrived. I was on another Wild Eye Great Migration Photographic Safari and I couldn’t wait to get started!

In the small mobile camp of Dirisha, located in the Mara Triangle, our day began every morning at 5:30 am with the sound of a Maasai warrior’s low voice outside my tent. “Jambo Susan” (Hello in Swahili), then I’d hear the comforting splash of warm water filling a canvas basin.

It was time to get up; In no time we’d be on the move.

Leopard walking in the Mara Triangle, Kenya

A large male leopard who, after this picture was taken, came within 5 feet of our vehicle.

By 6:00 am and still dark, I would make my way to the camp’s main dining tent, 30 yards away, to grab a muffin and a mug of hot chocolate. As the other guests appeared, we’d greet each other sleepy-eyed and in a bit of a daze, staring at the horizon as the sun lit up the sky and the Mara River which bordered our camp. Hippos in the water grunted and screeched, birds chirped, and more than once we’d hear the punctuated sound of lions roaring in the shadows or the high-pitched wail of a hyena in the distance.

Nancy Moon, Sammny Ngongo, Susan Portnoy, Lori Duvall

My Jeep mates: Nancy, Sammy (Our guide/driver), Moi and Lori. Behind us the beautiful Mara Triangle as seen from the Oloololo escarpment where we ate breakfast one day

Dykson, a Maasai warrior, who ran the day-to-day workings of the camp, called me Susie and greeted me each morning by grabbing a mug before I could so that he could prepare my cocoa for me.

Dykson doubled as the resident mother hen, and he took his role very seriously, making sure that we were well fed, taken care of and accounted for. (One could never be too late for a meal, otherwise Dykson was sure to find you, and with the shyest of smiles and a good-natured chiding, he would scoot you to the dining tent before your food could get cold.)

Wildebeest running across the plains of the Mara Triangle on their way back to Tanzania

Wildebeest running across the plains of the Mara Triangle on their way back to Tanzania

At 6:15 am, we loaded into our jeeps, lugging our gear and readying our multiple camera bodies and myriad lenses for the day ahead. Sammy, our driver and guide, greeted us with his own brand of enthusiastic “Jambo!” that included a hearty clap of his hands and a radiant smile.

Sammy is Kikuyu, the largest tribe in Kenya, and probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I rode with him on my visit to Amboseli in June and I requested to ride with him in the Mara. He’s 50 years old but looks 30. I kid you not. His skin is flawless. He says it’s because he eats well, but a lot of people eat well and they don’t look like Sammy. If he bottled and sold his genes he would be an instant billionaire.

Two precious elephant babies playing with each other while the rest of the herd grazed

Is there anything cuter than these two?

I shared a vehicle with two other solo travelers, Nancy from Connecticut and Lori from San Francisco, and we were a great trio. It’s not a given that you’ll get along with your jeep mates but with Nancy and Lori it was easy from the get-go.

Nancy and I knew each other already, she’d introduced herself to me at a Nick Nichols photographic exhibit after seeing my photos online, and since then I’d helped her prepare for this trip, long before I knew I would attend myself. Lori, I’d never met, but according to a post she left me on my Facebook page, she said my blog was instrumental in her deciding to join this safari, and I was thrilled—and very relieved—to see in that she was having a ball!

Both were first-time safari goers, and it was wonderful to immerse myself in their virgin Africa excitement. There’s something about the first time that is beyond magical, for many it’s life changing—it certainly was for me.

A cheetah carries Thompson gazelle in her mouth

We watched this momma cheetah stalk and kill the Thomson gazelle in her mouth, then feast on it with her cubs. By the way, cheetah cubs are the cutest thing on the planet.

In total, there was the camp staff, 12 guests and two photographic leaders, Marlon du Toit and Morkel Erasmus, two talented wildlife photographers that took turns riding with each jeep during our stay.

Though fast friends, they are two very different men: Marlon is on the quiet, introspective side and Morkel explodes with the energy and excitement of a child going to Disney World for the first time.

Together they were an intriguing mix of photographic styles and personality. Both were incredibly generous with their time and experience, helping us with settings, calling out f-stops, suggesting angles or reminding us to try new compositions. Without question, this real-time assistance has done wonders for improving my photographic skills.

Zebras walking single file through the Masai Mara, Kenya

Zebras walking single file through the Mara

Between 9-10:00 am, depending on our sightings, our jeep would meet up with the rest of the guests at some picturesque location for a picnic breakfast. We’d lounge under a tree surrounded by a huge herd of wildebeest peppered with zebra, or in one case, an extra-special sit-down feast on the Oloololo escarpment overlooking plains of the Masai Mara—a place so beautiful it was the backdrop for a scene in the film Out of Africa.

Vultures watch hyena eat a carcas in the Mara Triangle, Kenya

Vultures watch hyena closely while they devour a wildebeest carcass looking for a chance to dive in.

Lunch was either in the bush—we had the option to stay if we wanted—or back at camp. If there was enough time I’d take a shower (an open air canvas stall with a large bag full of piping hot water and a shower nozzle), but as often as not there was little time before we’d head out again and I’d wait until night, washing by lantern light while gazing at the little dipper. It was divine.

Elephant portrait

A beautiful cow that stood near our vehicle and posed for over 40 minutes.

Our wildlife sightings were all I could hope for. From The Big Five—elephant, black rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo—to numerous species of oh-my-God-they’re-so-cute baby animals, wildebeest crossings, kills and near kills, and an uncountable number of birds, all nestled in landscapes that made us gasp. (More on all this in future posts)

A momma giraffe snuggles her baby in the Mara Triangle, Kenya

A momma giraffe nuzzles her baby

As twilight rolled around we’d drive into camp around by 6:30pm—the time in which all vehicles must be out of the Triangle—and unload our gear. The majority of us couldn’t wait to download our photos to see what we captured throughout the day and we’d head straight to the media tent where we would find our computers and chargers and other equipment.

wildebeest herd walking through the Mara Triangle, Kenya

Wildebeests go back as far as the eye can see and this is only one tiny piece of the Mara that surrounded our jeep.

While processing photos, I’d sip a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc and swap sighting stories with the others. One night Dykson laid out a platter of spicy meat Samosas and they were so tasty I binged—I could’ve eaten 10 of them. I very nearly did.

One of the many big beautiful male lions that seemed to favor the area around our camp.

One of the many big beautiful male lions that favored the area around our camp.

Dinner was always buffet style and served between 8-9:00 pm by lamp light, eaten at one large table. The meal would be alive with chatter and afterwards I would sometimes return to the media tent to process more photos, but mostly I headed straight to bed. I’d flop on my cot and read a little but I rarely could stay awake for more than 15 minutes. I was so blissfully tired my eyes would shut before I could pull up the covers and hug my cozy hot water bottle.

Besides, who wanted to stay up anyway? The sooner I went to sleep the sooner I could start it all over again…

****This is the first in a series of stories and posts based on my recent trip to Kenya’s Mara Triangle to see the wildebeest migration. 

34 replies »

  1. I am a long time Enthusiast and would very much want to go on an African Photo Safari, my question is: Do you need a VR with any of your lenses and for the camera – D4 or D4s only or would a D8XX and D750 do? Do you shoot while the vehicle is moving. What size memory card would be ideal for the trip?

    • Hi Vic – I’m sorry to be dense but not sure what you’re referring to when you as about a VR with the lenses or a D4… etc.
      In regard to shooting while the vehicle is moving: 99% of the time, no. I may now and then to get a sense of movement but most of the time the image isn’t particularly a good one. Happy to help as soon as I get a little clarity on the first part of your question. 🙂

    • Hi Vic

      Perhaps I can be of some assistance here. You certainly don’t need to the top of the range gear like the D4/D4s. We actually touched on exactly this topic in a video yesterday where my partner Gerry spoke about why you don’t need a specific camera to go on a photo safari.

      Whilst VR lenses are always great they too are not a necessity. In my personal experience I would rather travel to more new and exciting destinations rather than spending excessive amounts of money on gear and photographing the same subjects day in and day out. The more time you spend in the field, the more you will learn and grow.

      In terms of memory cards, I would suggest having many smaller cards (say 8GB or 16GB) rather than one large card. That way if a card gets corrupted you wont loose all of your images. Typically I will download images at the end of each day to make a backup and to keep some space available on the memory cards.

      I hope this helps?

    • Hi Vic –
      I wanted to provide a little clarity to Andrew’s comments below.

      First, he is one of the owners of the Wild Eye, the company that ran the trip I was on. He shoots with some pretty high-powered equipment and because of his business he is able to have access to a variety of bodies and long lenses. His job is also to be in the bush on a regular basis which makes honing his skills as a professional wildlife photographer easier than the majority of people who don’t enjoy his circumstances.

      I agree that investing in the experience is more important than the equipment. Period.

      As a non-professional, whose time “in the field” is extremely limited however, I want the best technology that my budget and skills can afford. Image stabilization is something I look for because it’s helpful. Thank goodness for rentals. The investment is a fraction of what it would be to own.

      That being said, without a good “eye”, understanding of light, good composition, and the behaviors of the subject etc., creating consistently good images, no matter how good your camera and lenses are, is impossible. I still need to learn so much and I am enjoying the journey.

      To Gerry’s point in the video, understanding how an animal behaves is far more important than equipment because once you know what to expect, you can be judicious in your shooting to capture a special moment. It takes practice and time. “Knowing when that moment is going to peak” is not something you master in a few hours. If you’re on safari for the first time there is no way to know these things.

      Should you decide to go on a photographic safari, working with a professional photographer/leader who knows both photography and animal behavior to educate you while on a game drive is critical. I found the Wild Eye team extremely helpful in this regard.

      Lastly, it all depends on the results you require of yourself and your images. I’m pretty hard on myself – maybe too hard – and I want a lot out of my images. Until I have more time in the field to learn the nuances of animal behavior so that I can pick and choose my moments as carefully as Andrew and Gerry can after years and years in the bush, I will rely on my equipment, more than they, to help me capture special moments.

      Per Andrew’s request, I tried to post the link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZC38Ig6qDvs&feature=youtu.be&list=UU9CaALAEikgXaPUb9KTHlYQ

  2. Hi Susan, I am a student doing my MSc in Conservation Ecology and spent the greater part of 2014 doing my fieldwork just outside of Kruger National Park in South Africa. I found your wonderful blog now while on an internship in Paris and you have reminded me just how much I love the bush life (and how painfully I miss it). There truly is something about the bush lifestyle that keeps you wanting more (and yet feeling so happy with the simpler things too). I am determined to make a life for myself in the savanna! Thanks for a great blog and spectacular pictures!

  3. I am a student doing my MSc in Conservation Ecology and spent the greater part of 2014 doing my fieldwork just outside of Kruger National Park in South Africa. I found your wonderful blog now while on an internship in Paris and you have reminded me just how much I love the bush life (and how painfully I miss it). There truly is something about the bush lifestyle that keeps you wanting more (and yet feeling so happy with the simpler things too). I am determined to make a life for myself in the savanna! Thanks for a great blog and spectacular pictures!

    • Hi Courtney –
      You’ve made my day! I am so pleased that you found and enjoy my blog. I hope you return.
      How wonderful it must have been to spend such quality time in Africa. Unfortunately, the most I’ve been able to stay has been a little over two weeks. I would love, love, love to stay there longer. I wish you good luck in your aspirations to make a life in the savanna..how wonderful that would be. 🙂

  4. Hey Susan

    A great post which go’s a long way to sharing what a typical day on safari is all about! It is great to see how your photographic skills have grown over the last couple of years.

    Looking forward to the rest of the posts!

  5. This is next on my list, last year I spent a week out on the Tundra in Churchill photographing Polar Bears, now I want the Big 5

  6. I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad day in the bush. I’ve gone hours without seeing anything, or perhaps just something like a jackal, but it’s all good to me! Hope you go some time.

Would love to hear from you!