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"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page" St. Augustine
TRIP REPORT: Green Season On The Masai Mara, May 2012
I'm a photographer rather than a writer and a traveler by necessity, so this TR aims to describe what the photographically inclined reader might expect during a visit to the Masai Mara during the Green Season. I don't like to spend my safari day writing copious notes, so its not a day-to-day, animal encounter to animal encounter, exquisite breakfast to exquisite dinner type of travelogue, but a series of impressions, observations and experiences. With a few photos thrown in. And hopefully, some reasons why you (and that includes non-photographers) might want to choose the Green Season over the traditional migration season on the Mara.

Sorry for the smaller image size and embedded copyright notice, but image theft on the internet is so rampant nowadays, the least I can do is make it more difficult for the thieves!

Something was different. As I walked out of JKIA into the familiar smells of Nairobi, something was missing. Not the eye-watering pollution from diesel exhausts, of course, but the odor of humanity. With the cooler weather and recent heavy rains, the smell was different. The late night taxi ride to Country Lodge was somewhat nostalgic--getting use to traveling on the wrong side of the road again, the heavily guarded businesses fortified for the night, remembering the epic traffic jams--all punctuated by the many shiny new buildings and hotels that had sprouted since my last visit three years ago. Nairobi may be a vibrant city, but for me, only a necessary but tolerable stop to and from the parks and animals.

After over a half-dozen Kenyan photo safaris, all but one during the October and November dry seasons, I wanted something different--green backgrounds in my photographs instead of burnt brown, and animal encounters without bumper-to-bumper safari vehicles. In other words, the Green Season. After many email conversations with Bill Given of The Wild Source, I decided upon a special Green Season offer from Serian Camp within the Mara North Conservancy. Bill had photographed from there during the previous May, so he had recent first hand experience, something invaluable for a photographer.

• The Mara North Conservancy: Vehicles limited to participating lodges; cattle grazing permitted during the rainy season (important!); not bottomland, so easier vehicle travel during the rains; and the promise of higher cat densities.
• Alex Walker's Serian Camp: Special Green Season pricing, so luxury at a discount; air travel from NBO included; all inclusive, which includes the exclusive use of a safari vehicle with a guide and driver.
• Green Season: Lower visitation, instead of the usual Mara zoo experience; and lush green backgrounds for photos.
• Timing: Late-May, improving chances for solitary animal encounters since many lodges wouldn't open until June 1; and the long rains should be ending.

Of course, reality always messes with theory. Normally the short rains on the Mara start in November and the long rains start in March, but the rains had started in earnest the previous August and continued nearly non-stop until the week before my arrival on May 18 (producing much anxiety on my part during the previous month). Nine inches of rain fell in November alone. The grasses were extraordinarily high, vehicle travel in the Reserve bottomlands was difficult, and the Mara River was overflowing its banks. The BBC One's Planet Earth Live broadcasts from Governor's Camp in the Reserve featured lions filmed in Mara North, in part because of all the grasses and travel problems in the Reserve. Bill's reassurance that travel in Mara North was much easier during the rains proved spot on, and since the rains had just ended, we rarely had problems crossing luggas.

My 11 night stay at Serian was scheduled to include five nights at their mobile Nkoromba Camp, situated along the Mara River in the southwestern part of the Reserve proper. Considering all the rain and grasses, I opted out of the mobile camp experience. On my last full day in the Mara we made a circuit of the Reserve and I was happy for my decision--the grasses were higher than the hood of the Land Cruiser, and even larger animals like lions just disappeared in the tall grasses. The scenics looked so picturesque with all the green grasses, but the animal sightings were few. We didn't see the famous leopard Olive and her latest cubs, or her daughter Bahati along the Talek, but we did see the Pump House leopard and her very shy 1 1/2 y/o daughter in adjacent trees near Paradise Crossing. It felt strange to be at Paradise Crossing and not see thousands of wildebeest waiting to cross nor dozens of safari vehicles on the river banks. And in the middle of the flooded, nearly inaccessible Paradise Plains, a lone male Black Rhino.

The very shy 1 1/2 y/o daughter of the Serena Pump House leopard
"Cattle can be your friend"…never thought I'd say that! During the rainy season, the herder/owners of Mara North Conservancy are permitted to keep cattle in sections of the 74,000 acre conservancy (until June 1). While the Reserve must wait until the wildebeest and zebra migrations return to knock down the tall grasses left over from the long rains, the cattle continually keep the grasses short during the rains on Mara North. The wild animals are drawn like a magnet to this tender grass, so portions resemble the Mara of old--animals everywhere. Only once, while photographing topi in the early morning fog, did I suffer from the cattle's presence as they slowly pressed the topi away.
After so many previous visits to the Mara, I wasn't really interested in more photos of the most common species, so I decided to concentrate on the cats and any different shots of the common species I might run across. Unfortunately, the cats, being cats, had different ideas on making themselves available (or more accurately, revealing themselves in the tall grass areas). Many hours were spent scouring every bush, every lugga, and every tree line for the elusive cats. Not that I was left wanting, since each species sent enough sacrificial specimens to keep me busy, but I would have been happier with more choices.
One disappointment was not finding Zawadi, thought to be the second oldest wild leopard in Africa, who hadn't been seen for a month or so (after losing her latest daughter Malaikain in January). Originally named Shadow, I first photographed her 16+ years ago, along with her mother Half-tail, in Leopard Gorge before Mara North was formed. I had hoped to complete the circle, to see and photograph her again--at that age she won't be around much longer.
Half-tail and daughter Shadow/Zawadi

Instead, I had to be satisfied (tongue firmly in cheek!) with photographing her 3 1/2 year old son, Hassan--an excellent example of a mature male leopard. After first finding him high in a tree in a nearly impenetrable lugga, he seemed to favor one particular lugga nearby, so I was able to photograph him in different trees over several days . Contrary to popular wisdom that leopards only hunt at night, one afternoon we followed him in bright midday sun as he hunted out on the plains. The tall grasses provided him with cover for stalking, but it was interesting to see the number of warthogs he missed because he couldn't see them (nor could we until they flushed). He came within feet of catching one warthog in an open area, but then gave up and retreated to the forest.
During the first full day on Mara North we ran across a trio of Cheetah brothers (sorry, but can't say with any certainity who their mother is), but they proved elusive after that. One brother did a neat impression of a leopard, when he climbed fairly high up a tree.
"I dreamed I was a leopard"
The main cheetahs I encountered were a mother and her 7 month old daughter. They managed to strike all the classic poses to make up for the lack of variety, and the female caught a baby Tommy for the visitors to watch. Their range was centered around the main road through the Conservancy, so they were frequently attended by visitors.
The main lions in the Conservancy are the splinter group from the Musiara Pride, after fleeing the Reserve when four new males took over the pride--8 mature females, and their 6 cubs (two sets, about 6 and 8 months old). We first encountered them being filmed by the BBC as they lazed in the tall grasses, but on subequent days found them on the move and then feeding on a freshly killed buffalo.
Some other interesting sightings: A pair of Verreaux's Eagle Owls in a fig tree at Leopard Gorge, many large tusked male Elephants, and a surprising number of Common Elands.
Although the main wildebeest migration was still months away, some of the resident Loita Herd began returning from their migration. Some 100,000+ strong, the herd follows its own migration route--ranging from the Mara North Conservancy over to the Loita Hills to the east, as well as mingling with the main migration within the Reserve when it arrives. Their numbers can vary, since they can gain or lose members when mingling with the main herd. Despite all of the rain, they reappeared in Mara North fairly close to their usual schedule of late May/early June (something to consider when scheduling a visit during the Green Season).
One striking change I noticed, especially at Leopard Gorge, was the near total transformation of what is now Mara North Conservancy from woodlands to the typical grassy Mara plains--in other words, deforestation. I had photographed Half-tail with various cubs and while hunting in fairly dense bush on the northern rim of the Gorge. Now it is all grassland. And remembering back to the '80s and '90s, the main road to Musiara Gate (except near the village of Mara Reienda) was through fairly dense bushlands. So I asked my guides. Apparently, since the land owners are herders, the bush has slowly been burned to create more grasslands for their cattle. I'll leave it to others to debate deforestation, but I will say that in this particular case (since this area has been made a conservancy), I think that wildlife has benefited somewhat.
Half-tail in once woodland habitat, now grasslands
Speaking of Leopard Gorge, I assume you've all read of someone starting to build a new lodge next to the Gorge. Apparently without asking the land owners or the Conservancy, they just started to build! The construction was ultimately stopped, but the site is still littered with partially built buildings and many piles of rocks that were destined to be cabins. Hopefully, at least the walled structures will be removed to reduce the visual impact.

We passed the ruins several times while searching for Zawadi, and each time I marvelled at the view out across the Mara Plains. But it would have been a travesty to build a lodge in the middle of prime leopard habitat, especially considering that most of their forest habitat in the southern end of the Conservancy has disappeared.

Construction rubble. Note the Hyraxes that now call it home.
So would I recommend visiting the Mara during the Green Season? A resounding Yes! Maybe the first time visitor wouldn't mind sharing every wildlife sighting with dozens of their closest friends, but anyone interested in more intimate encounters with the wildlife, without queuing to get within photographing distance, will appreciate the non-zoo-like experience during the off-season.

But keep in mind that the Green Season has additional weather-related risks that need to be considered, but then all African travel involves some level of natural and man-made risks. One con that I noticed was that with fewer vehicles looking for animals, less animals were spotted, so we had to spend more time beating the bushes ourselves. But maybe the most important pro is more affordable accommodations (relatively speaking!) and access to normally inaccessible conservancies that you maybe otherwise couldn't afford.

PRACTICALITIES

Although I have stayed at various lodges on the Mara in the past, my stay at Serian was the first all-inclusive, extended stay at an established lodge. For this seasoned self-driver, the experience was somewhat overwhelming--a mansion-sized tent rather than a small dome tent, a soft bed rather than a leaky air mattress, early morning wake-ups with coffee, exquisite meals, daily showers, laundry service, a cold beer after a hot day, friendly staff to attend to your needs, etc. Very different, but appreciated! I was originally booked at Serian Camp, but because of some thatched-roof maintenance at Serian, my stay was at the more luxurious Ngare Serian located directly across the Mara River. (Forewarning: Access is via a rope bridge--don't look down at the rushing water while crossing!). The co-managers for both camps are Adrian and Roisin, both genuine Kenyans, who run a well organized and friendly operation. The owner, Alex Walker, when in residence and not at his other camps in Tanzania, provides the innovative spark that makes this eco-chic camp somewhat unique on the Mara. His experience with operating a lodge in the Mara (and particularily in the Mara North Conservancy) are quite insightful, and makes for some interesting dinner conversations. And speaking of meals, co-manager Roisin has assembled a menu of scrumptious meals of many courses, and it is near impossible to not gain some weight.

Another pro of a Green Season visit: Tourism is low, so the lodges are relatively empty, giving you a more intimate experience and more personal service. While many lodges close during the Green Season because of low bookings, Serian remains open to provide jobs for the staff, which creates very loyal and dedicated employees, and a very low worker turn-over.

In short, I highly recommend Serian and Ngare Serian. Trip Advisor has given them a middling ranking among the other Mara lodges--another neighboring lodge is suspected of sabotaging their rating with some false reviews. But for photographers, whose needs are different than the typical tourist, I rate them much higher.

My tent at Ngare Serian. Officially Tent #4, but also called the Hippo Pool tent, since it faces a hippo pool in the Mara River. Thankfully the hippos are quiet at night, since they are off feeding inland, but they can be noisy at 5AM when they stumble home from a night on the town. On the far right of the tent is an open air shower--when showering in the heat of the day, I swear they were bellowing rude comments about my body!
Probably the most important reason I chose Serian (over lets say, Mara Plains) was their policy of providing (at no extra cost) the exclusive use of a safari vehicle, complete with a guide and driver, for a more personal experience. For a photographer, or anyone interested in spending any length of time with an animal encounter, this is priceless. Imagine yourself sharing a vehicle with first time visitors only interested in spending minutes before they want to find something new, or birders who have little interest in large animals, and you can see why an exclusive vehicle is necessary.

As an experienced self-driver in Africa, I was somewhat concerned with having a guide and driver--my only other experience with guides was in Tanzania decades ago, which proved to be a disaster, and firmed in my mind the need to be self-sufficient and rely on my own wildlife knowledge. But my concerns were unfounded--the quality of guides on the Mara has improved considerably with the introduction of the Koiyaki Guiding School, providing local Maasai youth with the knowledge and professionalism needed to provide visitors a quality safari experience. My guide Jonathan, and driver William, both graduates of this school, are excellent examples of high quality guiding. Besides having encyclopedic knowledge of the individual species, their local knowledge of the habits of each species and where to find them proved invaluable (unlike some guides whose knowledge involves a radio and cell phone). Both could recite the lineage and ages of many of the individual animals--especially important with the big cats. (As a self-driver, how would I know that I was photographing the 3 1/2 year old son of Zawadi, daughter of Half-tail?). And their eyesight, with or without binoculars, was phenomenal--William spotted a dangling leopard's foot at about 1 km! Needless to say, my opinion of guides did a complete reversal.

My safari vehicle experiences have always been with hard-sided vehicles with varying degrees of window accessibility, and I just accepted the limitations imposed on photography. So it was with some trepidation when I learned that Serian vehicles are fully open on the sides, with a canvas roof and rolled up sides. How would I support my long lens without a door? Turns out I rarely used my 500mm lens (for which I carried a small tripod to use as either a tripod or monopod). With William's excellent judgement in positioning the vehicle close enough but without scaring the animal, I was able to handhold my 100-400 (with Image Stabilization) and relished the freedom of a 270 degree shooting range. I'm afraid the next time I am relegated to a 90 degree view I will be quite disappointed.

Speaking of lenses, my 100-400mm proved to be the most versatile and so was the most used, followed by my 24-105mm (both on full frame bodies; cropped sensor cameras would give you an apparent longer reach). Those two zooms, preferably each with their own camera body, can cover probably 90% of your shooting needs without any major readjustments in position. Although fixed focal length lens might produce a slightly sharper image (somewhat debatable, since sharpness depends a lot on shooting skills which can vary greatly), you lose the flexibility of quickly recomposing your picture when the animal moves or the situation changes. Keep in mind that a slightly softer image is better than no image when you are caught in the midst of changing lenses. And being a firm believer in Murphy's Law, I always carry 3 bodies on safari, and a 70-200mm (an ideal lens by itself; plus a 2X extender as a backup for the 100-400).

Of course, carrying around such a complement of bodies and lenses runs afoul of the 15 kg baggage weight limit on the small planes to the Mara, since you also have to carry other trivial items like clothing, hiking boots, toiletries, etc. (hey, I said I was a photographer!). Airfare to the Mara was included with my lodging, and Air Kenya proved to be an efficiently run airline--I haven't flown in a Twin Otter since the early '80s! So when you drop off your luggage and camera roller bag at their terminal at Wilson Airport, come prepared with some extra cash and to ask for a better deal (the young guy is well versed with the subject!).

For those wondering about bugs during the rainy season, I saw only several tsetse flies and mosquitos and had no bites that I noticed. When I asked, Roisin said that malaria is not a problem in Mara North, and that the resident staff takes no prophylactic measures.

And finally, Serian owner Alex is a photographer himself and recognizes their needs and limited budgets, and has offered to work with ST members to provide a quality experience at a lower cost (primarily during the low seasons, but he said that sometimes even in the high season openings do occur). Contact him through their Booking Office at safaris@serian.net.

If you are interested in learning more, something I forgot to mention or fuller explanations, feel free to ask either publicly on the ST forum or privately (mwg@mtaonline.net)!