What It’s Like on a Safari Game Drive

David and His Pride

Photographing Lion eats a kill in the Masai Mara, Kenya
David, the alpha male, enjoying a kill after a successful nighttime hunt

He sat in the wheat-colored grass, the remnants of a fallen wildebeest hiding everything but his magnificently maned head and the bloodstain goatee on his chin. Undeniably handsome, yet scarred from years of battle, he was Aslan in the flesh, as if plucked from The Chronicles of Narnia and deposited 15-feet from our land cruiser.

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 pride of lions 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.

Photographing Lion in the Masai Mara, Kenya
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.

Photographing a lions walking in the Masai Mara, Kenya
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 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.

Photographing Lion walking in the Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Photographing a lions playing in the Masai Mara, Kenya

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.

Lioness walks toward male in the Masai Mara

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.

Lion pride eat 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.

lion cubs eating a kill under a tree in the Masai Mara

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 with a pride of lions

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.

The Leopard, Her Cubs, and the Wildebeest Kill

Baby leopard in a tree in Kenya

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.

Adult leopard 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.

Lion with wildebeest carcass at her feet

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.

Leopard drags a wildebeest kill in Kenya

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.

Battle on the Mara: The Tale of the Tenacious Cubs

Lion dragging a wildebeest - Masai Mara Safari - Lion Stories

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

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.

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.

lion and cubs in the Masai Mara - Lion Stories

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.


The Zebra and the Hungry Crocodile

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

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.

Zebra drinks water out of the Masa 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.

Crocodile tries to bite a zebra in the Masa 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 zebra in the Mara River. Splashing water. Masai Mara, Kenya
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.

Crocodile tries to bite a zebra in the Masa Mara River in Kenya

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.

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.

If you enjoyed this post you may also like

Free Safari Packing List: Everything You Need to Know to Prepare for a Great Trip

Safari Photography Tips to Use For Before and During Your Adventure

Soul of the Elephant: An Extraordinary Film by Dereck and Beverly Joubert

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60 thoughts on “What It’s 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. 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.

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