Our safari guide, Edward, is his usual cheery self when we meet at 6.15am for an early morning game drive. As Edward has already shown us the Big Five — the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino — on the previous two days’ drives, he is determined to show us some hippos today.
We are following Edward’s advice to keep an open mind and trust our guide, so we’re happy to do whatever mild-mannered Edward suggests as he hasn’t steered us wrong so far!
As we drive off on a beautiful, crisp morning in the Masai Mara, Edward starts scanning the channels on his two-way radio, the main form of communication the guides use to keep each other informed as to what animals they’ve spotted so their friends can make a beeline to a spot if one of the Big Five is making an appearance.
While we’ve occasionally found it annoying when drivers less considerate than Edward manoeuvre their vehicles into positions that spoil other visitors’ views and photo opportunities, generally the drivers in the Masai Mara are courteous and give everyone a chance to take their turn at enjoying the spectacular wildlife action.
After a short burst of chatter in Swahili over the radio, our plans change. Edward says a leopard has been spotted up a tree not too far away. Being solitary and very good at blending in with the bushes, leopards are one of the Big Five that many visitors go home without seeing. The night before we saw a female leopard with two gorgeous cubs, but frustratingly, due to limited visibility through the bushes and the fast fading light, I couldn’t get a decent photograph of her and her adorable playful cubs. We thought that we’d had our only chance.
Edward quickly changes direction. About 15 minutes later, as we hurtle across bumpy dirt roads and barely-visible rocky tracks on our way to the spot, Edward hears on the radio that the leopard has come down out of the tree and can no longer be seen.
When we arrive at the site, we spot hyenas running up the slope. There are just a few 4WDs, but more vehicles quickly arrive, and moments later there are a dozen. The tree that the leopard was in is a good 500 metres away. We can almost hear Edward’s mind ticking over when he says, “Let’s go up there, the leopard is probably in the gully, but we might get to see him.”
The vehicles wait in a group at the bottom of the gully, but Edward continues to drive in the direction the hyenas run, up the hill. As we pull up near the tree, Lara yells out, “There it is!”
I quickly grab the camera with the right lens, focus, and fire off a few frames as the leopard playfully bounds across the grass. The leopard hides out of sight for a few seconds before reappearing again to take up position on a dirt mound — “the leopard is flirting”, Edward suggests, suspecting there is another down in the gully or bushes — but sadly, while we can see our leopard, he’s obscured by the shadow of the surrounding high grass.
Being the considerate guy he is, Edward has put out the call, and soon dozens of cameras are poking out of the game vehicles that have rapidly gathered around us. For most cameras, the leopard is merely a distant, tiny, dappled lump on a grassy knoll. Lara counts 22 vehicles, all jostling for the best position.
We wait patiently to see what the leopard will do but the splendid creature stays obscured by shadow in the same spot. Around 15 minutes later we decide to leave the rest of the disappointed visitors and head off for that hippo-watching we’d set out to do.
As he turns the vehicle around, Edward apologizes that we didn’t get any good photographs of the leopard. “No,” I say, “I had it covered.” I show him the back of my camera. A sequence of 12 shots in two bursts. They certainly aren’t the best leopard shots ever, but they are mine. He’s just a little bit impressed, I’m quite relieved. That was my ten seconds with a leopard at the Masai Mara. Gone.
So, how do you make sure that you get the shot — a shot, a shot that’s yours — instead of missing an opportunity? In the next post I’ll share my tips for being a modern ‘Great White Hunter‘, so you can snare the Big Five — with a camera of course!