Searching for snow leopards: Part 1

21 02 2014

Heading into the Himalayas to search for the elusive snow leopard, two things immediately struck me – the incredible beauty of these mountains, and the enormity of the task at hand.  The realisation that followed shortly after (when disembarking the aeroplane), was that this was not going to be a warm safari – a cool minus five degrees Celsius (23°F) welcomed us (what turned out to be a rather warm minus five, things would only get colder).  After spending two days acclimatising to the new (and for most people, extreme) altitude we headed into the snow leopard reserve to begin our search, and take on this seemingly futile challenge.

I only had one real hope for this safari, and that was to see a wild snow leopard, photographing one would be a bonus. My dream was realised on the very first morning!  After a rather chilly minus fifteen degree (5°F) sleep in a tent that offered little to no protection from the elements, it was a great surprise to wake up to two snow leopards (a mother and a sub-adult cub) taking a rest on the ridge above the camp.  The ridge was quite a distance away, and even the big lenses struggled to find the cats, but alas, there they were.  Not only had I seen wild snow leopards, I had a cup of tea in my hand at the same time.  Very civilised. This was a great bit of luck, but it was also the last bit of luck we would have for a few days, as things got really tough from there on.

Temperatures dropped, as did reports of snow leopards along with any other signs of the big cats.  The next two days were spent trekking high up into the mountains to no avail.  The satisfaction of already having seen the leopards was pretty much the only thing to hold on to (the ridges we were climbing were very steep with no vegetation, so there was literally nothing else to hold on to).  The assault predicted on the legs and lungs was in full swing, and even the most remedial task (like putting on your shoes) took all your breath away – a ten-meter walk felt like a ten kilometre hike.  Things were tough…

A nightlong snowfall changed our luck a little.  We were now able to spot the tracks of the snow leopards, and this we did. There was great excitement around camp, when we found a set of tracks high on the mountain, and began to follow.  Unfortunately, the great distances that these magnificent cats travel, and the speed at which they travel left us chasing a ghost, but at least there were now signs that the cats were back in the area.

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A little teaser

17 10 2012

Having recently come back from Kenya, and having witnessed the most incredible wildlife spectacle first hand, I thought it was only fair to share with you some of the madness!

I will be leading The Great Migration Safari again next year, and am already looking forward to getting back amongst the tens of thousands of wildebeest as they gather on the banks of the Mara River waiting to cross, as well as all the predators that roam those beautiful, wide open plains.  The photographic opportunities are endless, as animals seem to constantly fill the viewfinder of your camera.  It really isn’t fair that one place on earth can have so many animals, with so much diversity!  It is a photographic safari like no other.

It does all come down to the famous crossing of the Mara River though. There is something about that experience which is quite difficult to explain – you can watch it on TV a hundred times, but you will never get the level of panic at each crossing.  The wildebeest herd is extremely sensitive, which seems odd given that they are not the sharpest animals around, and even the slightest disturbance will turn the mega herd around, delaying the crossings.  They seem to do their best not to cross, but the overwhelming instinctive drive eventually pushes them to do it. The tension that emulates from the herd is palpable, as they pluck up the courage to start the crossing. Eventually, one brave/stupid/pushed wildebeest makes the leap of faith, and is rapidly followed but the rest of the herd.  The tension climbs to a maximum in seconds as literally tens of thousands of wildebeest and a few hundred zebra hustle to get across the most daunting challenge that faces them on their yearly migration.  Add a crocodile to the mix, and the panic reaches melting point.  The wildebeest do their best, but many succumb to the strong current, and even stronger crocodiles.  The only way to truly understand what happens each year, and what has happened for millions of years, is to experience it.

Have a look at the little teaser I have posted for you, which should whet your appetite! If you would like to join me on next year’s safari, click here!





Two little bits of fun

9 10 2012

A young baboon’s first step out into the big bad world can be daunting, but with a sibling on hand to try it out with, it can only be fun.  I was out on an afternoon safari, and found a troop of baboons, finishing up their day.  Between all the flea picking and playful teenagers, were two fresh-out-the-oven babies, exploring their playground for the first time.

Once they had broken free from their mother’s protective grip, they headed straight for an old, dead log and began climbing it.  I use the term climbing loosely, as they battled their way to the middle.  The climbing quickly evolved to trying to push the other one off the branch, which lead to shrieks of fear and delight – all very entertaining for the photographers that were present!  At one point, the braver of the two tried his hand at a live tree, and made it all of thirty centimetres off the floor – his more timid companion stood in awe!  I spent a magic forty-five minutes clicking away at the babies, as they tried to figure it all out.

From time to time, the mothers would pop their heads into the little explorers club, just to make sure everything was still OK, only to be met with blatant rejection, as the now cool young guns continued up to the middle of the big old branch.

The time did come though when they were all played out (meaning they were hungry), and went scuttling back to their mothers for milk.  Firmly attached to their mother’s belly, they were escorted back to the troops roost for the night.

 

To join me on safari, click here!





A cheetah’s pride

2 10 2012

You would think that in flat grassland, you wouldn’t be in for too many surprises, as you could see everything at a distance, and having spotted a cheetah at a good hundred meters away, I thought as much, until she came closer.

I was out on safari in Kenya, one of the largest grassland ecosystems in the world, when we spotted said cheetah.  The grass wasn’t at its longest but was long enough to hide a couple little secrets that the female cheetah was hiding.  We had stayed with her for a while, hoping she would venture a little closer to the vehicle, which she did, and were rewarded with a great sighting of her two three month old cubs!  It is not every day you see cheetah, and to see a cheetah with such small cubs is a real treat.  The cubs still had their grey mantles on (all cheetah cubs are born with a strong patch of grey hair that grows down their back, the length of their body), which made the photographs even more special.

In classic cheetah fashion, they took to rest on top of a termite mound, and posed beautifully as we clicked away.  The cubs, being cubs, didn’t sit still for very long, which was fantastic, and made for some great images.  We spent a good hour with the young family, until the mother, who was keen on hunting, led her family away out into the grassland.

For more on this sighting, as well as other great images form the safari, check out http://50safaris.wordpress.com, and www.50safaris.com!





Caught between a rock and a hard place

27 09 2012

The famous river crossings in Kenya’s Masai Mara are usually filled with excess drama and action, but every so often, one individual’s story catches your attention. I was taking a photographic safari to witness these magnificent crossings, and found myself engrossed with the plight of one young wildebeest.

The crossing had a normal start to it; hours of back and froth from the mega herd of wildebeest, followed by more waiting. The herd had built up nicely, and we were in for a massive crossing – if, of course, the wildebeest decided to jump in and get started. As it turned out, the zebras, unusually, took the lead, but started crossing a little further downstream than usual. This meant that together with the fear, panic and strong river current, the wildebeest now had to contend with rocks! Most of them dealt with the new obstacle by simply jumping over them. In a fantastic display of athleticism (and action photography), all but one youngster cleared the rocks without any problem.
The young wildebeest had somehow managed to wedge his hips into the rocks underwater. I am not sure how he got that right, but he was firmly wedged in. He struggled bravely for a good half hour, before his struggles got the attention of a passing croc. The monster of a croc came right into the action to see what all the splashing was about, and found himself face to face with the trapped wildebeest. There was a cruel ten second stare down as the croc, with a huge weight advantage, sorted through the options, before it lunged out of the water and grabbed the young wildebeest by the horn. I don’t think the croc was fully aware of the wildebeest’s predicament, because he couldn’t get him out of the rocks. A second reset, and he was better prepared. The wildebeest, understandably panicked, was trying his best to get free from the rocks, but to no avail. The croc had come in for a second attempt at an easy meal, and pulled the wildebeest free from the rocks, and down into the water.

It is not always easy witnessing nature unfold, and I certainly felt for the young wildebeest. The whole situation made for some interesting images, ones that documented an unusual event.

For a day by day look at the safari, check out www.50safaris.wordpress.com!





The case of the curious giraffe

16 08 2012

You would think when predator and prey meet, the prey would run screaming bloody murder deep into the hills, with the predator hot on their heels.  Well, that is sometimes the case, but there are times when an awkward truce is called.

Out on safari, I came across a large male lion, working his way through most of the buffalo he had caught the night before.  He was stuffed, but in true lion fashion, he kept at it, aiming for the personal low point we have all hit around the holidays, where you literally can’t move because you have eaten so much.  While this was going on, a journey (the actual collective noun) of giraffe came wandering by.  Obviously, and I think it is a justified reaction, when they saw the lion, they changed to full alert, panicked a little, and prepared to make a run for it, but then they noticed his condition, and slowed their heart beats back to something countable again.

The lion looked up at them for a second or two, then lowered his massive head back into the buffalo, and continued gnawing away the carcass.  A lion in this state is not a great threat to any juicy piece of antelope, which means it is one of the few opportunities an antelope gets to inspect this great predator.  Most antelope do it, but giraffes are famous for it.  When they see predator who poses no imminent threat, their curiosity gets the better of them, and they often approach the predator to get a better look.  On this safari, the giraffes came to within 15 meters of the lion while he fed.  Those would be silly distances if he was not in said state, and would likely shrink the giraffe herd by one.

They watched him for the better part of an hour, until he lost the battle against the huge buffalo, and moved off a little distance to digest.  You don’t make it as a giraffe by being stupid, and when he did move, they backed off a short way, just to make sure they had a good head start should the situation change.

It was a great scene to witness, and even better, provided the opportunity to make a few images!

 





Putting on a show

8 08 2012

Wildlife photography has a lot to do with patience and luck (which often go hand in hand), but I managed to go one better and find a willing participant.  It was a great bit of luck to start with, because spotting the leopard, resting in the fork of a rather dense tree, was tricky.  Once I had settled into the sighting, it became quickly apparent that it was going to be awkward getting photographs.  I had a limited (although lovely) view, and needed her to change her position in the tree.

As if it were scripted, she descended the tree – always fun getting images of a leopard coming down a tree – and kindly moved through a small open area, allowing for more great photographic opportunities.  I followed her for a while, thinking the best was done, but she had other ideas.

She spotted an overturned tree (the handy work of some elephants), climbed up it and sat patiently, allowing me to get into position and click a few frames.  She then moved over to an even better ‘photographic stage’ and posed beautifully, giving me some wonderful head on portraits.  The weather was not ideal, but with the setting she was in, it was possible to get a really interesting image of a leopard going about her day.