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 Tales
One of the most exciting aspects 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.
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.
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?
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.
The middle lion was 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.
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.
After an hour, and as the sun began to set, the females inexplicably attacked the male from both sides.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the lion with her binoculars. She kept us entertained with a play-by-play of the big cat’s movements, or more accurately the lack thereof.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.