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Old 20th September 2018, 18:20   #1
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Default Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven

Masai Mara. Just the name triggers a sense of awe and wonder. Mecca for all wildlife enthusiasts around the world. At some stage, any wildlife photographer will want to go there and try out their skills on the huge variety of fauna on display throughout the year. When migration season comes by every year, this huge variety seems to simply explode - drawing hordes of tourists to view the action. The frenetic crossings, the crocs waiting for the feast, the land predators gorging on the abundance of prey, the birds and the ever present millions of wildebeest, gazelles, zebra, you name it.

Incidentally, the park's name is indeed Masai Mara and not Maasai Mara, as some people spell it. The Maasai are the semi-nomadic locals who live inside the Mara triangle and are always seen wearing those bright red shawl like garments. Maa is actually the name of the language they speak. I will henceforth refer to it with the shorter name of Mara.

It feels like all my trips to Kabini, Bandhavgarh, Ranthambore, et al have been in preparation for this pilgrimage. These places, wonderlands in themselves, have helped me sharpen my photography skills so that I can do some justice to the beauty on offer. This year I decided that I'm ready, so I visited Masai Mara in the third week August. This is the peak of the migration season in the triangle and it sometimes looked like there were more tourists there than wildebeest! At the end of the seven day trip, I had so many photos (over 2000 of them) that I had a hard time selecting which ones to process and which ones to leave alone for the time being. Out of those that I did process for display (over 260 of them, an approximately 1:8 keeper ratio which I personally think is reasonably good), I had an even harder time culling them to post here in this thread. Here they are, for your viewing pleasure. I have decided to present all pictures in a 16:9 format, instead of the 4:3 that comes out of the camera. This suits most displays today, including phones. I suggest you view these photos full screen for better clarity, but hey, your convenience.

Equipment
I took two cameras and two lenses with me. I am from the dark side, so Nikon gear!
Nikon D7200 DSLR
Nikon D3200 DSLR
Nikon 200-500 mm f/5.6 lens
Tokina 11-16 mm f/2.8 DX II lens
Apple iPhone 7 (this can indeed be classified as photo equipment, its camera is so good)

I made a mistake in not taking another medium range lens like the outstanding 24-70 mm or its far cheaper but equally good cousin, the 24-120mm. I badly felt the need for this range within minutes of entering the park, as the 200-500 is too close up and the 11-16 is too wide. A 24-120 would have been perfect, plugging the gap between those two lenses nicely. As I don't own either of these lenses, the thought didn't enter my mind when I was planning the gear. I have a Tamron 16-300mm, which would have also been perfect for the job on hand, but that one was on loan to a friend who was climbing Kilimanjaro at around the same time. I'm yet to see the photos he took, though.


Day 0 - Bengaluru to Nairobi
Getting to the Mara from Bengaluru is an exercise in boredom, as with any long distance travel. There is no direct flight to Nairobi from Bengaluru yet, so I had to go through Mumbai. Of course there are other options like Emirates via Dubai or Etihad via Doha but they are more expensive and the travel times are much longer due to the additional distances involved. Currently there are only two flights from Mumbai to Nairobi, both by Kenya Airways, one at 6:35 AM and another at 4:40 PM. Taking the morning flight would mean spending the better part of the night in Mumbai airport and I hate sleepless nights. Even if I check in to the lounge I always end up sitting and reading novels on my iPad, so I try to avoid it as far as possible. Thus I decide to take the 11:30 AM flight from Bengaluru to Mumbai and then the afternoon flight to Nairobi.

The Customs muddle
Whenever I go out of India I make it a point to declare my photo gear at customs, so that there is no issue with them when I return. This is the first time I am going via Mumbai. I duly walk up to the customs desk and fill out the form quoting model numbers, serial numbers, value, etc. When I submit the form to the person behind the desk, he promptly asks me for the original invoices for all of them! This has never happened to me at Bengaluru airport, they simply verify the equipment against the form and stamp it. I am left flabbergasted and no amount of arguing with the official convinces him that these are mine. He keeps quoting rules and how some other official was reprimanded for letting travellers through without checking. Finally, I manage to convince him to let me show photos of the invoices in lieu of the originals. Obviously I don't have the photos with me and fortunately, it is a Sunday and my wife is at home. So I call her, tell her what is happening and how she can be my rescuing angel. I get to listen to some choice comments on how unprepared I am and how I should anticipate such things in life. Conveninently ignoring the fact that she never advised me before I left home and that we have never faced this situation before when we have travelled abroad either together or separately. After the gyaan session, she sends me the photos of various invoices via WhatsApp. What will we do without WhatsApp. I show them to the customs guy and after some heavy mumbling and grumbling, he signs and stamps the declaration form. He also gives me a justification lecture about how he is simply doing his duty and ensuring adherence to the rules. I've since searched high and low to find the rule that says we have to produce the original invoice, but I have not been able to find it. If someone can point me to the right site or wherever, I'll be grateful. All this takes more than an hour and it helps while away the three hour wait for the flight to Nairobi.

As usual, I am part of a group of photographers on the tour organized by Toehold who are probably the best in the business of wildlife phototours in India. I meet up with one of them in Mumbai airport during the customs saga and he too is undergoing the same third degree treatment. I can see the same dazed expression on his face as well. We share our experiences and after all ends reasonably well, we board the flight to Nairobi. Six more hours of boredom, alleviated by some in flight movies. We land at Jomo Kenyatta airport at around 8:30 PM local time (a time difference of two and a half hours accounting for the gap) and are picked up by one of the tour guides. Check in to the hotel, meet up with others of the group of ten, a light dinner and we turn in after a long day. The plan is to have an early breakfast the next day and leave for the six hour drive to Mara.
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Old 20th September 2018, 18:30   #2
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Default Day 1 - Nairobi to Mara and the first safari

Right, plans never survive the light of dawn. We are up early and are done with breakfast. But there are so many guests at the hotel leaving at the same time to Mara that retrieving our luggage and getting them loaded onto our vehicles takes more than an hour. The hotel staff are supposed to be used to this, being the peak season and all, but they soon are a frazzled lot with every one wanting to leave quickly. Finally we get into our respective Land Cruisers and depart the hotel. The planned 7:00 AM departure is now actually an 8:10 AM exit.

The road to Mara is a bit of a Kenya darshan route. You get to see the country in all its avatars and drive through a variety of landscapes. Flat land, mountains, valleys, steep winding roads, long straights, good roads, bad roads and "roads" you wouldn't want to risk your car on. We stop mid way at a small town called Narok for a comfort break (why can't we simply call it a visit to the loo?) and to stretch our legs. Some time after this, the roads turn seriously bad and becomes a mud road for more than 50 kms. There is a new road being constructed by a Chinese corporation and there are several places where we slow down to a crawl. Finally we reach Masai Mara. This sign post is placed a few hundred meters before the actual entry. The Chinese have taken over construction in Kenya in a BIG way.

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We enter the Mara proper and the first sightings are almost immediate. We are already seeing many impalas, tommies (Thomson's Gazelles), zebras and giraffe. We are not even a kilometer into the park. Oh, I'm going to have fun!

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There are a couple of hyenas sitting on the road and we are seeing many wildebeest standing around basically doing nothing. This is just on the drive to the camp, we are not yet on safari.

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Finally we reach the camp, Fig Tree Mara. We are all so hungry that nobody wants to take any photos, just dump our luggage in our tents and head for a late lunch. It is almost 3 PM and we are late by nearly two hours. Post lunch, we are ready to hit the trails. Here's the tour skipper, Sachin Rai, discussing possible routes with our guide, driver extraordinaire and a person with a great sense of humour, Newton Njane. He first introduces himself to me as "I am Dr. Newton" and I nearly fall for it! There is some talk of falling apples and we are off on our first safari. At last. Did you know that the word "safari" is Swahili and means "journey"? We are traveling in big six seater Toyota Land Cruisers with openable tops which will be more or less our home for the next five days. The advantage of a Toehold tour to Mara is that we are only three people in a six seater, which leaves one seat for each of us to keep our photo gear. Much needed space, as most of us are lugging around multiple cameras and lenses and it would be very inconvenient to keep it on the floor of the van or on your lap.

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As I mentioned, we are already pretty late and the sun is getting low on the horizon. The clouds are beginning to gather and the rays make a good back drop to this small cluster of vehicles gathered just outside the resort gates, probably to exchange information about the day's sightings. All vehicles are equipped with short range radios and some of them (like ours) are equipped with long range radios as well. This is how they keep in touch with each other, as phones rarely work inside the triangle. Some places do have a strong signal, especially if you are on a hill, but it is not dependable.

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Not half a kilometer from the resort gate (which is inside the park, BTW), we get news that a leopard has been spotted very close by. We rush there and spend a few anxious minutes trying to figure out where the fellow is lurking. After about 20 minutes, he decides to come out into the open and lie down in full view of this horde of vehicles almost surrounding him. This is the life of a Mara superstar. There is no escaping the paparazzi.

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We wait there for more than half an hour to see if he does anything interesting, but this look was the best we could get.

"What? Only so many? I thought there would be more of you, this is an insult!"
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We have hardly any time left to go into the park proper as it is already 6:30 pm and it is time for us to exit.

Thus ends Day 1. Of course, there followed a great evening conversation over drinks and then a good hearty dinner, but you know what I mean.
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Old 20th September 2018, 18:44   #3
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Default Day 2 - Full day Mara and Simha meets Simha

From this day, for the next five days, we are on full day safaris. Leave at 6:30 am and return at 6:30 pm, with packed breakfast and lunch in the shade of some lonely tree in the park. Strenuous, no doubt, but not many complained. There will always be one or two who will crib at facilities, no matter what they are or how good they are, but such people are better ignored than listened to. In any case, I'm totally excited and can't wait to begin. First surprise. It is cold. Like 10 degrees Centigrade. We were informed about this, so we do have some warm clothing but it still takes me by surprise. I mean, Africa? Cold? Something does not compute. But it is the altitude that is the cause. The Mara is about 1800+ meters (6000+ feet) above MSL. Four times higher than Dehradun. Twice higher than Bengaluru (yes, BLR is twice higher than Dehradun!).

Just outside the gate of the resort, there are balloons preparing to go up into the sky for an aerial safari. Each resort seems to have five or six of these balloons and the ride costs USD 500 per person. The duration of the ride is about two hours, with breakfast served up in the air. Each balloon seats (or stands, since there is no seat) 16 people plus crew.

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We move into the park and very soon come across our first lions. My very first lion in the wild. Simha meets Simha. My name is Jaisimha and Simha means lion in Kannada, my mother tongue.

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One of them strikes a regal pose and I'm reminded why he is called the King of Beasts. At this point, I have a very strong urge to get out of the vehicle, bow down low and pay my respects to this magnificent creature. Prudence prevails and I satisfy myself with clicking this image. The early morning sun also seems to be anointing the King in a coat of gold.

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He yawns wide showing us how sleepy he is, probably after a full meal late the previous night. Actually, both lions are pretty sleepy, yawning away alternately and too lazy to get up and walk around.

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After spending some more time with the sleepy lions, we move on and within minutes chance across a cheetah stalking a gazelle baby. I'm not sure how the cheetah can even spot the baby in this tall grass, which is completely covering the gazelle. I can't see it at all, but the cheetah can.

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A few seconds of chase ensues at a fast-ish speed and the baby is brought down in front of another vehicle that is parked right next to us. The baby couldn't have gotten away at all, the cheetah hasn't even worked up a sweat chasing it.

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Ah, the cycle of nature! One animal's death is another animal's life. I feel sorry for the gazelle, that it had to give up its young life, but at the same time I feel happy that the cheetah has found food.

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We watch the cheetah carefully look around to see if any other predator or scavenger is around to take its hard won prey away from it. It then quickly begins to eat the kill as fast as it can. Fortunately for the cheetah, there are no other predators or scavengers around.

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We move on from there, roaming the wide open grassland to see what else we can find this lovely morning. We have already been fortunate to see the King and the cheetah making a kill, setting our expectations very high for the rest of the day or even the tour. Will they be as productive as this? Am I going to be disappointed? Little do I know what else Mara has in store for me. As we continue, we find several typical sights in the Mara.

A herd of zebras in the tall grass. That grass is more than a meter high to cover the zebras' legs completely.

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We come across a herd of Giant Eland, the largest antelopes in the world, watched by a baboon in the foreground. These animals are as big as horses and apparently weigh around 500 kgs each! Only full grown lions can bring down one of them and that too only in collaboration with other lions.

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And then we get our first glimpse of a very large herd of wildebeest. We've been seeing them dotting the landscape all the while usually in groups numbering in the hundreds, but this one is numbered in the thousands. Newton, our driver, exclaims "Migration is here!" in a sing song voice. He says he's been doing this for the last 10 years and the migration never fails to instill awe in him. We hear similar sentiments from the other two drivers in our group too, Steve and Kariyoki.

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I attempt a panorama shot of the slowly moving herd, as no single frame can cover the sheer numbers in front of us. Even the panorama fails to capture the entirety of the herd.

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Portrait of a galloping wildebeest. There is a story about how God created these creatures out of the left over parts of various other animals, which is why they seem to have such different features.

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We come across a lone saddle bill stork, wading about in a small water body. Usually, birds are not the focus of the Mara tours, since people tend to concentrate on the animals a lot more. But there is a huge variety of birds here as well, if you are a birding enthusiast. Just tell your driver that you want to stop for birds and he will generally point out as many birds as he can find.

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In the afternood, we come across our first crossing. We are a little late to join the party and all the choice positions are already taken up by other vans. But we still manage to manoeuvre into a reasonably good position.

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This time, there are no crocs in the water that we can see, at least from our position. So the crossing seems to proceed peacefully, although there is always that sense of urgency among the wildebeest and the need to get to the other side as quickly as possible.

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There are some zebras in the mix too! These guys seem to share most crossings with the wildebeest so they are usually seen together.

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There's a frantic jam on the other side, with everyone fighting to get out of the water and away from the bank as quickly as possible. Reminds me of traffic at junctions back home!

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Within a few minutes, the crossing is over. This is not a big herd, just a few hundreds maybe. Not the one we saw earlier. So we move on, continuing our search for more photo opportunities. This is a female warthog, it is called Pumba in Swahili. Do you remember Pumba from the movie, Madagascar? Named for this character.

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A lone tusker wanders around in the tall grass. The scene looks so peaceful and tranquil, with the blue sky, the rolling hills, the tall waving grass and this gentle giant.

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Something about this image says "Mara" to me. A long line of zebra walk beside us for quite a distance, flicking their tails and moving slowly on the path. Reminds me of the unending parade of animals we see during our week. Those tails look like they are braids, don't they?

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While on the way back to the resort, I spot a cheetah sleeping on the ground. Yes, this girl is actually sleeping. This is how they sleep, with head on shoulders. They do sometimes rest their head on the ground, but more often than not this is their preferred posture. Doesn't it look painful?

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The light is going down quickly now and we are slowly making our way out when we spot this leopard. This is the only glimpse we have, as it quickly vanishes into the undergrowth. I believe it is very rare to sight leopards in the Mara, but we have seen two in two days. Good going, I must say.

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The sun goes down on the Mara. The wide, wide plain, the waving grass with nothing to break the monotony, the lowering clouds with a hint of rain off in the distance, the setting sun colouring everything yellow makes for a beautiful scene.

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Thus ends Day 2. My first real sojourn into the Mara has yielded some good photo ops and a great introduction to what I can expect over the next few days. I can only hope that the coming days will be equally good, if not better.
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Old 20th September 2018, 19:01   #4
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Default Day 3 - The Five Brothers and the (triple) cheetah hunt

Day 3 begins at 6:15 am and the sight of balloons going up. We are also treated to a mind blowing sunrise right off the bat. Obviously I heavily underexposed this one to get the colours right and the orb of the sun visible without blowing out the rest of the image.

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Again, within minutes of entering the park, we come across a pride of lionesses and young ones. I choose the wide angle for this photo since they were really close and slightly spread apart. There are 14 of them in the pride, which seems to be the usual number, give or take a couple.

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There are quite a few sub-adults in the pride along with two young ones. The mothers seem to be following a few meters behind, allowing the younger set to lead the way. They seem very clear as to where they are heading, with not much wandering around.

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This seems to be the baby of the pride and he knows it. Tries to grab as much attention to himself as he can, knowing it won't last and he'll be replaced soon. He has a lot of spots on him, putting his age around four or five months.

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These two are fairly grown up, maybe upto an year old already. Being females, they'll stay with the pride and won't leave at any time.

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The light is now glorious, with the sun behind me and at a low angle. It lights up this young lioness almost perfectly.

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Sister and brother, probably. They rarely leave the little one alone for long, one of them is always within touching distance. Maybe to ensure he doesn't get into any mischief!

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Of course, I have a ton of photos of this pride, most of them good enough to be displayed but I have a constraint on how many images I can post here, so we'll now take leave of this pride and move on. The (still) early morning light imparts a great glow on the beard of a wildebeest and some rim lighting on its body.

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Nothing much seems to be happening this morning in the park, we are wandering around hoping to spot something when bingo! we hit the jackpot. We spot the world famous group of five cheetahs, famous because cheetahs rarely form such a large group. Two is common among males, three is rare, five is unheard of. These five are brothers and cousins and have been together for the last one and half years, wandering, hunting, eating and sleeping together. These guys are the top celebrities of Mara and are not seen very often as the park is big and the grass hides them quite well. We are fortunate to have spotted them, so we make the most of the opportunity.

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Again we are fortunate, as they decide to turn towards where we are parked giving us this head on image of all five of them.

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I zoom in on one of them and he looks back at me as if to ask "How am I lookin' dude?" You look just great, bud, just great!

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Just to give you an idea of how close they are to our vehicles (and there are a lot of vehicles around, after all these are the undisputed rockstars of Mara so the paparazzi are always present). I'm not sure where the fifth one is, must be somewhere behind one of the vehicles, entertaining the occupants.

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Cheetah profile study. There is only one specific purpose for this long, lean, deceptively powerful build. Speed. The long, heavy tail acts as a perfect counter-balance when they are at full stretch, almost acting like a rudder in a speed boat.

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We move well ahead of them to see if we can get more head on pictures and again fortunately the cheetahs move in our direction. They keep looking back at the wildebeest in the distance, as if to judge their chances of getting one of them, but they decide to move in the opposite direction.

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They are perfectly well hidden in the grass, especially if they crouch down low. No way to detect them, at least for those of us who depend on sight alone.

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We leave them be after all this and they slowly disappear in the distance, where there are no paths and the vehicles cannot follow. Rangers are everywhere in the Mara, keeping a very strict control on the vehicles and where they can go. The Land Cruisers are literally capable of going anywhere, so the Rangers are always around. Surprisingly, the Rangers move around in Maruti Gypsy vans. No Land Cruisers for them. Of course, the Gypsy is quite capable by itself too.

Moving on, we spot some typical behaviour of these antelopes called Topi. They get onto the nearest available mound and take turns to keep a watch on the surroundings so that the other animals can graze peacefully. They are the watchmen of the plains, according to our guides.

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A typical Mara scene. There is a lone tree in the middle of the grass and the nearest next tree is quite some distance away. If you think you can cool off in the shade, you better check first to see whether it is occupied. We find a mating pair of lions under this one.

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For the birders, this one is a Lilac Breasted Roller. Close cousin to the Indian Roller, which has grey breast feathers. Incidentally, this is Kenya's national bird.

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It is mid-afternoon by now. We have had a good packed lunch under the shade of a couple of trees (we checked first, there were no prior occupants) and we are roaming the park in search of interesting activities. A cheetah is racing behind a Thomson's Gazelle baby (babies seem to be their favourite snack) and the speed at which this chase takes place is unbelievable.

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The baby is desperate to get away and the cheetah is equally desperate to catch it. The lightning speed, the electric twists and turns, the pounce and then:

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As usual, the cheetah checks around to see who is watching (apart from us, that is, she doesn't care about us). This time there is a lone hyena waiting in the bushes, so she is extra careful to keep that dirty fellow in view.

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While she is thus distracted, the baby leaps up and is away. Another breath taking chase follows. It is so difficult to keep these two super fast creatures in the camera frame!

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The gazelle is caught again.

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and for whatever reason, it escapes those jaws and can you believe it? It is running again! This baby wants to live! This time the cheetah stretches at full speed - these two must be doing somewhere near 80 kmph at least - and knocks the gazelle down.

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From this takedown, there are no comebacks unfortunately.

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We keep watch to see if the hyena will attempt a robbery but the cheetah is very careful and keeps moving the kill around while eating it up as quickly as it can. The hyena has to find some other source of food today. We leave the cheetah in peace and make our slow way back to the resort.

An adult Thompson's Gazelle is up on the hill with the darkening sky behind it.

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And we are treated to a spectacular sunset.

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Thus ends Day 3. It has been an exhilarating day with sightings galore. Now the expectations for the next two days are very high. What can we find that can top what we have already found?
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Old 20th September 2018, 19:15   #5
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Default Day 4 - Crossings, the feast for the crocs and rain

As usual, we start around 6:15 am. We take a different route today as we are entering the park from the other side of the river. This should give us a better position if we spot any crossings since the animals will be coming towards us rather then going away from us. Let's see how that goes. We spot a long tailed shrike having an early breakfast of some kind of frog it has caught.

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Then we come across another pride of lions, also numbering around the same, 14. It is surprising how many lion prides have approximately the same number of individuals in them. 14 seems to be 42 as far as lions are concerned, the single answer to Life, The Universe and Everything! A pair of very young lions quench their thirst after a good early morning meal.

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A very young cub, this one can't be more than a few months old, relaxes by the water. Judging by its stomach, he has had full meals in the morning. He is barely able to walk around.

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Big mama keeps careful watch on the pride, ensuring there is no misbehaviour and all rules are strictly followed. The individual lions in the pride occassionally come up to her, nuzzle up, get petted and return to their frolic.

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Moving on, we meet a cute little baby elephant greeting us ahead of Ganesha Chaturthi. We offer our pranams in return.

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Then we meet a huge Cape Buffalo staring us down from just feet away. These guys are very volatile and kill more people than any other predator. Those horns look awesome, don't they? Even lions won't attach them from the front.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp04006-mm5120.jpg

Some giraffes are enjoying the cool day near a small pond. The one of left is an elderly gentlegiraffe, that's why his coat is much darker. The older they are, the darker their spots. Our guide says this one could be close to 10 years old.

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A wake of vultures (wake is a group of feeding vultures, I didn't know that until now) is ripping apart an abandoned carcass, probably a wildebeest. That big bird at the back is a Marabou Stork, also called the Undertaker bird.

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A hyena gets into the act, wanting its piece of the feast. When I see these scavengers in action, I get a good idea of why their names are part of the English language ("like vultures"), as they fight among themselves, with others, try to get as much as possible. The behaviour cannot be captured by a photo, only a video would do. Their heads and necks are all red because they are almost diving into the carcass to get at the meat.

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I'm looking around the same spot and I see a Grey Heron on a branch. I wait for a few minutes and when he crouches, I know he is going to take off. He does and I get this shot.

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While all this is going on, we are actually waiting for a small group of wildebeest to cross the river and come to our side of the water.

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And they finally do jump in. As usual, the pace is frantic, "don't leave me behind", "I don't want to be last", kind of crowd. This is where I miss an intermediate lens as the 200-500 gets too close and the 11-16 is simply too wide. Anything in the 50-100 range would have been ideal to capture the action at this spot.

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One of the wildebeest seems to be struggling, has lost its sense of direction and is headed the wrong way.

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As it gains the bank, a huge crocodile slips quietly into the water. He is well hidden in the bushes, so the wildebeest cannot see it until it actually gets up onto the bank. By that time, it is already too late.

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Within seconds, he is joined by another of his friends, who also wants a share of the food on offer. It is now clear why the wildebeest is struggling. It has broken its right hind leg in the mad dash earlier! At this point, it is a foregone conclusion that the poor fellow cannot get away, but we are literally shouting encouragement from a distance, egging the animal to climb up the bank. Cries of "C'mon, you can do it!" from my co-tourists makes it sound like we are in a stadium.

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But to no avail. The two crocs almost leap out of the water and drag the wildebeest down. It is surprising how the crocs can actually propel their massive bulk so much and grab on. Half of one croc's body is out of the water as he lunges and grabs the wildebeest from behind.

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A crop of the above image to show the action better. We were quite a distance away, but the 200-500 seems to have captured quite a bit of detail even at full extension.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp04017-mm5286z.jpg

Quickly, the two crocs drag the wildebeest down into the water and simply drown it to death.

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We don't see them surface with the kill later, so maybe they have taken it away downstream or our guide says sometimes the crocs wedge the carcass under a rock in the water so that it won't float away. Whew, this is one mind blowing experience! We've all seen this on Nat Geo, Animal Planet, etc., but seeing it happen live in front of my eyes is something else. We talk about this for the rest of the day while driving around.

At one point, we are up on a hill and I take this image with the 11-16 mm lens. It was built specifically to capture images like this one. Can you spot the lone giraffe in the picture?

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A group of foraging Banded Mongoose (are a group of them called Mongeese?) stand up on their hind legs for a better view of what is going on in front of them. They are all going quitely on their way when our guide stops the van and claps once loudly. They all go up instantly to see what made the noise and I go click, click.

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A small family of elephants get a drink of water at the end of a long, hot day. It is very cold in the morning, cool by mid-morning, hot by noon, very hot mid afternoon, cool by evening and cold by night. Plains weather for you.

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By this time, around 5:45 pm, the clouds begin to gather and heavy rain is already falling in the distance. We decide to get back to the resort and drive as fast as we can.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp04022-mm5403w.jpg

Lightning and thunder begin doing their thing and the clouds get lower and lower. It is almost like I can reach out and touch them. No animals are visible, I wonder where they have all gone.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp04023-mm5403w3.jpg

And then the heavens open up. It rains so heavily that the entire plain turns into one giant marsh within no time. The road back to our resort has become an absolute nightmare and the drivers are needing all their skill to maneouvre the big vehicles around. The Land Cruisers skid, fishtail, protest, whine, but never once do they quit. They take everything that is thrown at them and ride out supremely confident. My respect for the vehicle and its capabilities go up by an order of magnitude. The drivers are simply too good and I learn what off-roading really means.

We finally make it back to the resort and all of us breathe a sigh of relief. We are treating our drivers to stiff drinks for their performance today and they deserve every bit of it. I don't have any photos of what the situation was, but believe me it wasn't good.

Thus ends Day 4. With so much rain, how will it be in the park tomorrow?
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Old 20th September 2018, 19:25   #6
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Default Day 5 - More crossings, the Lion's Share and a Rhino in the Rain

The day dawns cloudy and we start early as ever. The sunrise today is spectacular and the overnight rains (it was raining continuously till almost 3 am in the morning) have left the park very wet.

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It is also quite gloomy, but fortunately there is no rain. We hope this will continue throughout the day, we are keeping our fingers crossed. The balloons are going up anyway, so this brings us some cheer.

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We are going downhill from our resort and the balloons from a resort down on the plain are coming up. We are actually higher than the balloons here, which allows me to get this image.

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A pair of giraffes out for their morning constitutional. These guys look pretty aloof to whatever is happening, like everything is beneath their notice. Which it literally is, come to think of it.

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We encounter yet another pride of lions (that number 14 again, is this some kind of magic number?) and a pair of them are enjoying the early morning weather.

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They run and go at each other on the move and we track them for quite a distance.

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As usual, the matron of the group keeps a watch on proceedings. A disapproving look on her face, probably directed at those two jay walkers who are playing in the distance.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05007-mm5499.jpg

We meet one more pride of lions (this time there are 15 of them in the group, non standard fellows) and we first see a pair of males gobbling away at something. This is where we learn how the term Lion's Share came into being. These two males just don't seem to stop eating!

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05008-mm5549.jpg

A hungry female come up to them and probably says "Enough guys! Leave some for us too, after all we did the hard work here".

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05009-mm5561.jpg

The males are having none of it, one of them looks back at me as if to ask "What do you think? I've had enough?"

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05010-mm5586.jpg

This bit of distraction gives the female an opportunity to steal a leg piece away and she trots off with the prize in her mouth.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05011-mm5602.jpg

After a while, one of the males has had enough and moves away to a nearby stream to quench his thirst after a full meal.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05012-mm5610.jpg

At this point, the other male lifts the kill up and everyone goes "Ohhhh!". It is a zebra and it is already half eaten, so the kill probably happened early in the morning.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05013-.jpg

He is carrying that 300 kilo zebra like it was made of thermocol. Whoa, the strength of this one! He wants to hide it in the bushes for later retrieval. The zebra's head is half gone.

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A triumphant look after he accomplishes his deed.

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He then walks away too and the whole pride gather in for the feast. Unfortunately for us, he puts it behind the bushes, blocking our view completely. There is no way for us to go around to get better shots, so we move on.

We stop for breakfast at a bend in the Mara river and our tour leader, the incomparable Sachin Rai, takes a pano of the river with me in the frame. Of course, we have carefully scouted the location and have determined that there are no previous occupants who are anxious to convert us into breakfast.

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After a leisurely breakfast, we arrive a place where the wildebeest have begin to gather in their thousands on the opposite bank. Every black dot you see in this picture is a wildebeest. We are not sure where exactly they will choose to cross, there are quite a few points in this region that can be crossing points.

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We keep moving and following the herd as they wander about, taking their time to decide where to cross. Mid-morning becomes noon becomes lunch time. We have lunch and resume our wait. At last, around 3 PM, they make their move down to the water. This time we are almost perfectly positioned.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05018-mm5857.jpg

Down here too there is some jostling and hesitating. Arguments ensue among the animals as to who should actually step into the water first. Many counter-arguments follow, declaring why it should be someone else and not him. Finally, one of them decides he is going to take the plunge, test the water, be the first, get the glory, lead the herd.

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And soon the rest follow, as always. Actually, I think the leader has the best chance of crossing safely as the crocs haven't yet realized there is food in the water. But the animals don't think that way.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05020-mm5742.jpg

This crossing goes on for a long time, given the number of animals that have gathered. They actually cross in three different batches, giving us plenty of opportunity to set up our shots the way we want it and wait for the exact moment to shoot.

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While this is going on, I spot a father-son duo on the far bank get down from their vehicle and start taking photos. This is completely against the law and they are risking arrest and large fines here.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05022-mm5802.jpg

Where is the need for such stupid behaviour? What prompts idiots like this to act in such a manner? They know they are breaking the law, they are actually running a risk of falling into the river while trying to get that photo and their driver is also yelling at them to get back in. Soon enough, the Park Rangers appear on the scene and take them into custody, although we have no visual confirmation. We hear later on the radio that the driver is banned for one year from entering the park and the idiot father is slapped with a fine in excess of USD 500 for the trespass. I wish he were thrown in jail for a few months. They bring Indians a bad name.

By the time all this drama has ended, it is almost 5:45 pm and it is time to get back to the resort. We are making our way out and are almost at the gate, when we hear an excited call on the radio. I can't understand much, since the drivers speak Swahili almost exclusively, but I can catch the excitement in his voice. Our driver takes a detour to see what it is all about. Finally, we see what they were excited about. A Black Rhino!

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05023-mm5919.jpg

It has also begun to rain heavily again, so we try to get as many photos as we can of this extremely rare animal. Apparently, there are only about 25 of these giants left in the wild. They have been hunted to near extinction for their horns which are supposed to have magical powers. There is a Park Ranger vehicle now with almost every rhino, following it very closely to ensure there is no mischief anywhere. Their numbers are slowly increasing, but they are still listed as Critically Endangered.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05024-mm5966.jpg

We have only a few minutes with the rhino and we have to leave. On our way out of the park, we see these five giraffes huddling against the rain. There is no shelter to be had for them, they are all taller than the shelter!

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp05025-mm5914.jpg

Thus ends Day 5. One last full day tomorrow and this trip is almost ended.
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Old 20th September 2018, 19:32   #7
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Default Day 6 - The last day, the buffalo hunt and the Rhino family

Right, last full day in the park. The days have really flown by. What does Mara have in store for us that we haven't already seen? We have seen the Big Five (Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Buffalo, Elephant), we have seen the Five Brothers, we have seen the cheetah hunts, we have seen the crossings, we have seen crocs pulling down a wildebeest, we have basically been there, seen that. But this is Mother Nature, she will always find ways to awe you.

An impala, with perfectly symmetric horns in the beautiful early morning light, wishes me Good Morning.

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A Giant Eland female is also in the vicinity, looking very pretty.

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A hippo is out of the water for once, foraging amongst the grass for something to eat.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp06003-mm6054.jpg

A Thomson's Gazelle gazes at me, these animals can give cheetahs a run for their money despite their dimunitive size.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp06004-mm6089.jpg

And then we come across our final lion pride (take a guess at how many are there in this one. Did you say 14? You are right!)

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp06005-mm6102.jpg

They are all watching another young one trying to stalk and attack a lone buffalo that has separated from the herd. One lion against a full grown buffalo doesn't stand a chance, so we feel this attempt is only a mock, but you never know right?

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Maybe she is still learning the ropes, maybe the others were too well fed to get up and assist her. In any case, she gets up too early and the buffalo spots her.

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For a moment, I think the buffalo will charge at her and wait with bated breath to witness one of the classic battles of the grass lands, but the buffalo decides to run away. Discretion, you see, is the better part of valour. Darpok kahin ka.

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A disappointed lioness returns to the pride with a downcast expression.

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While the entire pride looks at her returning, as though saying "We told you it is difficult to do this alone".

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An yellow breasted long claw also watches proceedings with reserve. This little bird looks like its front has been dipped in yellow paint.

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We move around, looking out for more action, to see what we can find on the last day. Suddenly one of the drivers whispers "Rhino! Rhino!" on the radio. Sure enough, we spot a pair of them in the distance. It is a mother and calf pair! You have now seen more than 10% of the world's wild black rhino population! Kind of sad when I say it like that, isn't it? And we have only ourselves to blame.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp06012-mm6214.jpg

The calf doesn't have very solid horns yet, it looks more like a soft bump.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp06013-mm6221.jpg

The mother, on the other horn, has very sharp horns. That looks like mud sticking to the top of the horn, from the digging she has been doing in search of food. Which is what the horns were meant for anyway, not for impotent men to resurrect their flagging...

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp06014-mm6224.jpg

They come on to the road to get to the other side of the park. There are quite a few vehicles here, we are fortunate that the mother decides to cross right behind us.

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They cross and wander off into the grass. Bye, bye and have a great undisturbed life!

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We are now very close to the Tanzania border, where all the grass has been burnt by the Tanzanian Rangers to ensure good regrowth. There is some grumbling from our guides, who are obviously Kenyan, about how the Tanzanians drivers cross over with their tourists into Kenya. Ah, the eternal border issues! There is no fence or anything like that, just a marker stone saying this side is Kenya and that side is Tanzania.

There are a couple of cheetahs resting in the shade of a lonely tree in all that burnt grass. One of them is so pale, it is almost white. Maybe an albino. The other one is a normal orange brown.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp06017-mm6258.jpg

We spend a long time with these two since there isn't much else happening. We are hoping the cheetahs will get up and go looking for prey, of which we can see quite a few in the distance. But I guess the heat and the dryness makes them too lazy, they just don't move from the shade.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp06018-mm6261.jpg

Soon, it is evening and time to leave the park. On the way out, we see a Secretary Bird, the world's only walking raptor. Although capable of flight, they spend most of their time walking around looking for small prey like mice.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp06019-mm6362.jpg

Thus ends Day 6 and the final day of the trip. Tomorrow we leave Mara for Nairobi and although we will drive through the park for a good couple of hours, it will be restricted to the main road which is more like a wide path that cuts through the park. So we bid goodbye to the Mara and return to the resort with a heavy heart.
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Old 20th September 2018, 19:36   #8
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Default Day 7 - Return to Nairobi and home sweet home (on the next day)

We start a bit late this morning, by 8:00 am. The plan is to reach Nairobi by around 3:00 pm, have a leisurely lunch, get dropped off at the airport and catch the 8:55 pm flight back to Mumbai. But first we have to drive through the park and we might get a couple of good images as a goodbye gesture. Although we have our cameras ready and waiting, there is nothing much to see at all. Most of the animals have moved away from the main road and Newton is simply zipping down the track at a high speed (when I say high I mean about 35 kmph, since the road is not exactly a road), but it is still too fast for photography.

We make our last stop at the Mara gate and get down to see what we can find. We see some excitement near a stream and go down there to find a monitor lizard. I go down on the ground to get this.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp07001-mm6303.jpg

There is also a tiny fellow called the Agama in breeding colours nearby. It is almost impossible to believe that these colours are natural.

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A vervet monkey is sitting on a log nearby wathcing us all curiously.

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We take the opportunity to click photos with our three drivers who have become friends over the last few days. That's me with (from left) Newton, Kariyoki and Steve. Extraordinary drivers all, with tremendous knowledge of all the fauna in the park and all three have a great sense of humour. Live long and prosper, fellas!

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For one final time, I pose in front of the sign welcoming me to the Mara Triangle.

Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven-tbhp07004-mmip003.jpg

We return to Nairobi in due time, delayed a bit by a horrific accident along the way. A very late lunch follows and we get dropped off at the airport with a whole hard disk full of memories. An uneventful and boring flight to Mumbai which lands very early at 5:30 am in the morning. I am so looking forward to presenting the customs declaration forms all filled, signed, sealed and hoping for the disappointed look on the customs guy's face!

I collect my luggage and walk up to Passport Control and after getting my return stamped, exit into the airport building. Guess what? No one even bothers asking me for the customs declaration form for my camera and lens! After all the hungama while leaving and all my effort in getting to stamped, this is a kind of anti climax. But all is well that ends well, I guess.

Catch the flight the Bengaluru and I'm back at home sweet home by noon.

It has taken me nearly three weeks to process all the images from the trip, agonizing over what to process and what to leave alone for the moment. I have taken nearly three days to write this travelogue down and I have agonized over which of those processed photos I will present to you people. I hope you have enjoyed the photos and while I don;t know how many of you have read through it, I appreciate lending me your time. As always comments and critiques are most welcome.

Until next time then, ciao, take care and drive safe!

Last edited by Stryker : 20th September 2018 at 19:38.
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Old 20th September 2018, 19:48   #9
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Default Re: Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven

Mod note: Thread moved to Travelogues. Thanks for sharing this beautifully detailed trip. Great looking images too.
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Old 20th September 2018, 20:25   #10
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Default Re: Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven

Great shots, looks like a Mecca of wildlife. I seriously think I should learn wildlife photography, thanks for sharing. The lion cubs shot looks straight out of the lion king movie.

My boss went to Masai Mara this year, 3rd week of June. I wonder what was he after, he is neither a wildlife photographer nor an enthusiast. May be Masai teaches important management lessons

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Old 21st September 2018, 00:00   #11
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Default Re: Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven

Stryker, an amazing travelogue indeed. Thoroughly enjoyed your narration and your extra ordinary snaps. I have watched all this a million times on Nat Geo and Animal Planet, but it feels more surreal reading and seeing pictures of an actual Safari, rather than watching it over and over on TV.

Thank you for taking the pains to share your wonderful experiences and superb photographs here. Enjoyed reading it.
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Old 21st September 2018, 02:24   #12
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Default Re: Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven

Just amazing set of photos! Great clarity and composition...

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us!!!
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Old 21st September 2018, 06:57   #13
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Default Re: Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven

There is only one statement I can add : You have upgraded yourself from Kabini to Masaimara! And yes, is the last picture of yours, you should have put the "capture machine" alongside!

Awesome log and pictures!
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Old 21st September 2018, 07:30   #14
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Default Re: Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven

Wow! What an awesome log. Enjoyed all the pictures, and for the less fortunate guys like me Mara is still somewhere in the dreams and bucket lists. Thanks for showing us this wonderful place, and of course all pictures tell a story.


Wonderful, and thanks again for the log. 5 stars to you
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Old 21st September 2018, 08:48   #15
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Default Re: Masai Mara - A magical week in wildlife heaven

Beautiful pictures Stryker! Loved all of them!
And the crisp narration to go with it just made my evening yesterday. I went through the log again now for the second time.
Quote:
It has taken me nearly three weeks to process all the images from the trip, agonizing over what to process and what to leave alone for the moment. I have taken nearly three days to write this travelogue down and I have agonized over which of those processed photos I will present to you people. I hope you have enjoyed the photos and while I don;t know how many of you have read through it, I appreciate lending me your time. As always comments and critiques are most welcome.
Why the agony, you can present all of the processed images to us. Only fly in the ointment is that one post allows only 30 pictures

It is my dream to visit this place. I don't know when I'd be able to realize that. Thanks again for sharing
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