Hair-raising safari tales

Happy faces on their way to Masai Mara   (Selfie courtesy: Tete)

Last week’s trip to Masai Mara was almost like manna from heaven. The man of the house was sinking under tremendous work pressure when the savannah lifeline was thrown at him by good friends Jui and Nirmalya Banerjee. They were going to inspect the site of the new Porini Cheetah Camp they would soon be setting up in the Ol Kinyei conservancy (in partnership with Gamewatchers Safaris). Would we like to tag along?

Of course, we wanted to, but that would mean taking the Friday off from school/work but thankfully that was doable. The universe also conspired to make the daughter’s tutors busy elsewhere over the weekend. Mara can never be experienced in 2 nights but we had been away from the bush far too long to afford to be choosy about such small things.

Coffee break @Narok Coffee House   (Pic courtesy: Tete)

The road trip to Porini Lion Camp in Olare Motorogi conservancy was quite uneventful and we reached by lunch time. We hurriedly ate what we had to and got ready for our first safari of the trip. It was threatening to rain some time soon and the light was magical. As I watched hundreds of wildebeests and other usual suspects grazing on the golden plains, I found a perfect photo getting composed right in front of me.

Jambo Zebra, said the Topi

We made a short stop at Mahali Mzuri (Sir Richard Branson’s famous high-end property) in the same conservancy to check it out. While the accommodation was extremely luxurious, what fascinated me more was the huge viewing deck (attached with every room) along with the thrilling fact that one could watch lions while soaking in a bathtub! All this of course comes at a pretty high premium.

The amazing bathtub view with part of the huge deck visible at the corner (Pic Courtesy: Tete)

The grasslands were relatively empty and just when we spotted a lone giraffe at a little distance, our driver-guide Geoffrey said that the giraffe looked nervous! But why, we could not fathom as there was nothing around. We inched along the path looking right and left, when we suddenly spotted the cause of his ‘nervousness’. Basking in the sun was a majestic lion with a really imperial air. He sat there for a while, then walked down for a drink of water after which, he marked his territory before retiring for the day.


I am handsome!

There were quite a few Topi gazelles with very young calves. We also found a pair of lion siblings due to an incredible distance-sighting by our guide. They were resting and the brother had a very full stomach. The sister however looked like she could do with some more food.

Mother Topi with her little calf
The sub-adult sister
The well-fed sub-adult brother

A stationary Landcruiser at a distance drew our attention and when we reached there, we found two very large hyenas. However, its occupants were excitedly pointing downwards, which we later learnt was because of a sighting of a crocodile eating a zebra. Since we were on the other side of the river, we could not see what was happening on the bank directly below us. On our way, we saw some giraffes and two jackals trying to ferret out a prey from a termite mound against the backdrop of beautiful crepuscular rays (Jacob’s Ladder).

While we looked at the hyena, the guys across the river enjoyed a more bloody sight


Crepuscular rays
Jackals trying to ferret out a possible prey

Then it started to rain and we all got quite wet. But we managed to see two lions out on a hunt – we followed them for a while till it got very dark – and soon after we found ourselves inside our camp. The lions were hunting within a walking distance from our tents! Early next morning, we heard a roar pretty close to the camp  which probably came from these two big cats.

Hunt in the dark

Experiencing sunrise at Masai Mara can be spiritual for some.  Our morning safari started with a heart melting scene of a lioness (from the Ol dik dik pride) nursing her 6 fluffy little balls of delight – barely a month old. I often get consumed with very evil thoughts when I  witness such unbearable sights of cuteness – like kidnapping a few cubs for a while or darting the mother to sleep for half an hour to play with her litter!

thumb_img_2658_1024But since I don’t succumb to such diabolical ideas, I did the next best thing –  I sat there for one and a half hours, watching the mother patiently and indulgently suckling her 6 adorable cubs. My like-minded companions didn’t seem to mind the wait at all. She was a handsome creature who stayed in one place all this while,  for us to feast our eyes on them.

What’s there beyond my mum?
Essential body contact
Patient mother

Ultimately, she had enough of the “torture” (or maybe the sun was getting too strong) and got up to go down to a shadier place, away from our prying eyes. We also noticed the rest of the pride lounging on a higher level, where there were older cubs.

I have had enough!
Other members of the pride on a higher level

thumb_img_2782_1024It is quite interesting to observe how morning shows the day. Of the litter, there was one cub who was more adventurous than the others. It was very curious about the surroundings and almost ventured out to the river bank – tell tale signs of a future leader. There was another one, a follower, who kept a safe distance.

The adventurous one
The paw size will tell you it’s not a house cat
Don’t take me lightly

Of course the bird lover in me did not miss out on her feathered friends who intermittently flitted in and out of the scene – Egyptian geese, bulbuls, bee eaters, eagles, kingfishers, hornbills, kestrels and more.

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And then we spotted the magnificent cheetah Musiara with her 3 grown up cubs, lazing in the savannah sun. We had last seen them in December 2015 and it was so heartening to see all 3 survive such heavy odds. They were quite active and looking for a kill but the gazelles looked alert and evaded them. Later we heard that they managed to get their afternoon snack an hour after we left. But we were quite happy to enjoy the glorious sight of the beautiful mother with her gorgeous cubs.

Looking for food

thumb_img_2830_1024thumb_img_2836_1024Our next stop was Porini Mara Camp in Ol Kinyei conservancy. En route, we stopped by the air strip to see off some of the Lion Camp guests. Later, we were lucky to sight a resplendent tree agama lizard trying to mate with a most nondescript female without much luck. All this grand show of colour was proving to be somewhat futile in his hunt for a potential mate. There were quite a few females around the tree who seemed to be teasing him in turns.

The best located airport in the world

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The landscape around Porini Mara Camp looked more wild. You had a feeling of owning the place. Hardly any safari vans, no crowds and no off routes – it was like having your own private safari in a place with a very high density of cats and other sightings to keep you constantly chuckling with delight.

We quickly finished our lunch and went off for our afternoon game drive and spotted some beautiful fireball lilies, birds, jackals, wildebeests, crocodiles, gazelles, antelopes, giraffes and elephants. The plan now was to look for the big cats.

Porini Mara Camp
Wildlife all around you
Wildebeests galore


Suddenly, we got the news of a leopard roaring near our camp – immediately we turned back to look for it. As we approached our camp area, the guide spotted unusual baboon behaviour. Looking up, we saw a whole troop of baboons perched on tree tops, their tails hanging silently. I have never seen such well-behaved baboons in my life!

Right through our wait/search for the elusive leopard – which was for over an hour – the baboons stayed right up there, motionless and in pin drop silence. Some huddled together, some clutching on to their babies and some just by themselves, on the thinner branches that cannot support leopard weight.

Unusually quiet baboons

This is the beauty of Porini guides. First, every vehicle gets a driver-guide and a spotter. More than their phenomenal spotting skills, what will astound you more is their uncanny inference skills. They can track cats simply by observing animal behaviour. Over and above spotting them, they will also find them for you. I have been to many camps but the Porini guides beat everyone hollow.

If you truly care for the earth and love wildlife, you can be guaranteed of an unforgettable experience in any of the Porini camps. They are more expensive as they are in a conservancy with very few camps but if you can overlook resort luxury (the tents are very comfortable but you won’t get pools or spas or gyms; instead you will get one bucket of warm water for your bath) and focus only on experience, this is the place to be in.

Our guide kept looking and then we heard a roar from a nearby bush. We went and parked near it and waited. Our men also imagined two soft “roars” in the interim period, later identified by our guide as belonging to a goose and a frog! How more embarrassing can it get? And then a loud and clear roar almost made us fall off our seats – the leopard could not be more than 10 metres away. Our guide saw a movement in the bush and we were very excited but a bit uneasy at the same time. I had never heard a leopard’s call before and its proximity was a bit unnerving. We wanted to change the position of our vehicle and discovered that it had got stuck in a very awkward situation!

A cautious giraffe gingerly walking along in the fading light in front of us

Nothing we did could make the Landcruiser move even by an inch. In the middle of all this, there was another roar, this time even closer. The camp was very close and we nervously asked the driver if it would be wise to dial them for help. Now, the Masais have a very strong sense of pride. It is a big blow to their ego to ask for help and so he didn’t even consider our suggestion. Instead, he asked the men to get off to reduce the load. Naturally, he wouldn’t even dream of asking the women/children to do so. Incredulously, we asked if it was safe to do so, to which he calmly assured us that it was. We kept a lookout for possible dangers to cover their backs, but without abandoning our sense of humour. The guide had to sometimes remind us gently to shush.

However, we were still confused as to why the leopard was roaring – if it was a mating call, another leopard ‘on heat’ was likely to arrive on the scene soon. If it was a roar to announce her claim to the territory, the neighbouring lions may come to challenge her status. Neither situation was comforting, to say the least. But our guide and spotter seemed very relaxed as they tried to get the car out. The extreme edginess of the situation however, made our otherwise camera-shy men smile unnaturally widely, displaying a false sense of bravado.

When you have nothing to lose, you might as well laugh    (PC: Jui Banerjee)

The next roar was softer, indicating that the cat had decided against human prey and moved away. Our car also was out of danger and we drove around, trying to locate the source of the sound which kept getting softer and softer. We safely returned to the camp, not really disappointed because this experience was worth much more than a mere leopard sighting.

Post dinner, the plan was to go on a short night drive. Jui and Nirmalya had told us that night drives in Ol Kinyei are quite rewarding. This is yet another plus of staying in Porini camps. Night game drives are included in the package and the thrill of driving out after dinner is incomparable to any other experience. Red lights are used to spot animals as they do not really bother the nocturnal ones. Yellow lights can temporarily disorient an animal for up to 30 minutes, yet many conservancies do that – charging a hefty fee for their night safaris.

Here, they do not even shine the red light on any animal for a long time as that makes the predator and prey more visible (either depriving the cats of their food or giving the prey a lesser fighting chance of survival). In fact, the Masai guides even dim the car headlights if they spotlight and stun any animal. Nightime in the forest is supposed to be a dark time, providing refuge for some and opportunity for others. Laws of the jungle need to be respected as much as possible, wherever, whenever.

Aardwolf feasting on termites

It had rained more heavily in this part of Mara and the red light attracted hundreds of termites. I had been assured of sighting bush babies and the usual nocturnals like the spring hare (African kangaroo), scrub hare, jackals and so on, but within a minute of our night game drive, we were rewarded with a very rare sighting of an aardwolf feeding around a termite mound. Surprisingly, this very shy creature made no effort to move away. Possibly because the red light attracted his favourite food (termites) towards him. The animals we saw later, paled away in comparison after this very rare sighting!

img_2944We woke up to another beautiful sunrise and got ready for our last safari. We saw the same herd of elephants walking in a file ahead of us. We also spotted a magnificent Bateleur eagle.

Dawn is a feeling, a beautiful feeling..
Elephants walking in a file
Bateleur eagle

We couldn’t find any cheetahs but found a lion hidden in the bushes. While Olare Motorogi conservancy was bone dry, Ol Kinyei had received quite a bit of rain. All cats (except tigers) hate to be wet and move on to drier pastures or go up the hills when the plains become marshy. That is why this part was not full of visible cats.

Normally, this conservancy is famous for being a cat country where you will always see cheetahs and lions and more often than not, leopards as well. If you want to see the elusive cats, you better come here. You should also ideally spend 3 nights for a more fulfilling experience.

Lion in hiding

Our guide seemed to be on some kind of a secret mission as he kept looking for something. He stopped at a secluded spot and bent down to peer into a small ravine, carefully covered by a thick bush. Then he exclaimed happily ‘There she is!’ Who? What? Where? He maneuvered our Landcruiser into a waterlogged ditch and asked us to look through the bush. And sure enough, there was a lioness with 3 newborns, who were yet to be taken out in the open as they were still very vulnerable.

It was quite a scary situation as she was only about 30 metres away and it is well known how fiercely protective mothers are of their cubs. Every time we peered through the branches, the lioness would look straight at us but gradually got assured that we did not pose any real threat to her babies.

Vigilant mom
Cub #1
Cub #2

Naturaĺly, we were thrilled at this rare sighting. Only rangers know where a new mother is hiding her cubs and in a conservancy, this news is often shared with the camp since it is safe to do so – the number of visitors are small and the camps very responsible. We were privileged to be taken to this spot because Jui and Nirmalya were with us. They gave a new dimension to our safari experience with their personal involvement which incidentally, is extended to all their clients.

The little one still can’t focus properly

Since we had a flight to catch later in the day, we decided to leave the mom and cubs in peace to look for something else. But as Geoffrey tried to reverse, he discovered that the Landcruiser had got precariously stuck in the slush. The wheel did not get any traction and kept spinning wildly, emitting black fumes and carelessly flinging muck in all directions. The lioness immediately sat up, looking very alert. We had got ourselves in BIG trouble! After a few futile attempts, even the proud Masai realised it was a hopeless case and decided to call for help. But the call was made after a few more attempts.

Royally stuck

Tensely, we waited there for over an hour albeit punctuated by uncontrollable fits of nervous, semi-silent giggles over things that were not even remotely funny, like various modes of death, adding an extra layer of clothing by wearing a waterproof poncho to make the biting more difficult and so on.

What was truly noteworthy was the extremely cautious behaviour of the Masais – the same guys who so very nonchalantly asked our men to get off the car in really close proximity of a roaring leopard the previous evening, did not even attempt to step out of the car in the presence of the new mother lioness.  Instead, they kept looking at the bush to gauge her mood.

Waiting for help

Finally, help arrived in the form of a Landcruiser loaded with 5 smiling Masais along with a driver and mechanic. They brought some branches and threw them in front of our wheels — but did not dare to step out. Such is the depth of their respect for the new mother. A shovel was chucked nervously from the other vehicle but it lay on the ground, untouched, as it didn’t reach close enough for our driver to pick it up without leaving the car. Nobody  attempted to get out of the vehicle.

Masai throwing branches in front of our wheels

This (branch throwing) exercise was of little help and so the other Landcruiser decided to go around to park behind us. The tarpaulin cover was pulled down on the lioness’s side of the vehicle to block her vision of the major movements happening on this side. One by one, 7 of us crossed over to the other car and drove away happily and with a huge sigh of relief. Our Landcruiser was left abandoned there, to be rescued later as and when the lioness moved away with her cubs, which was bound to happen soon, given the degree of disturbance caused by us although unintentionally.

The rescue vehicle parked next to us
Evacuation process
Worried mechanic looking at the next evacuant
The happy survivors in the new vehicle

Truly, it was a hair-raising experience.

It would be unfair to end my post without mentioning the very hospitable Banerjees. It is going to be the first Indian hosted camp in Masai Mara. Food is usually a big problem for Indian tourists in Kenya, especially the vegetarians. That will definitely not be an issue in Porini Cheetah Camp as they intend to  address this problem very earnestly.

They are both extremely passionate about conservation, wild life, creating general awareness about the delicate balance in nature, and their child-like enthusiasm can be quite infectious. Their biggest USP is of course, to host the clients and accompany them in their game drives. And when the host resides in the camp, every service – from housekeeping to food to guiding – goes up a few notches. I’m really looking forward to the opening of their camp in June 2017.

P.S. – We enquired and found that our Landcruiser was retrieved from that ditch the same afternoon. The lioness had predictably moved deeper into the ravine with her cubs, out of human sight, but was still in the vicinity. Because when the Masais went to retrieve the vehicle, there was a loud growl the moment they stepped out.

(All photos, except otherwise mentioned, is by the author.)

PPS: My family had the privilege of signing the register of Porini Cheetah Camp as guest #1 and I’m happy to report that it’s running happily to outstanding TripAdvisor reviews. Here’s a link from one of leading Indian dailies.


Tadoba Trip: Jungle experience (part 2)

DAY 3: We passed by the beautiful Telia lake on our way to Choti Tara territory but she was not there. It was a lovely morning and we got some new bird sightings.

I saw a magnificent plum headed parakeet, a green bee eater and an evil looking crocodile.

Plum headed parakeet
Green bee eater

I missed the chance to click a lovely frame of a golden backed woodpecker but could capture a yellow crowned one. They too have an amazing camouflage and I could not see it first against the bark of the tree.

I finally managed to get a clear shot of the resplendent jungle fowl as well. It was again in a mad rush but thankfully it stopped just long enough for me to photograph it. And there were quite a few treepies which gave us hope of a Sonam spotting.

Jungle Fowl


Show for the female
Rufus Treepie – always around tigers to clean their teeth

We almost failed to notice the bamboo plant next to which our jeep was parked. It was flowering, which is a once-in-40 years phenomenon, after which it dies. It also gave me time to admire the light and shade play on the leaves.

The captivating bamboo flowers
Isn’t the canopy awesome?


We waited patiently for Sonam to make another appearance but while she disappointed us, we saw an array of animals coming for a drink of water, one after another, despite the lurking threat. It was so much fun watching this free animal show.

Wary male sambar walking towards the water


First arrivals

The sambars were there first to give relief to their parched throats but there were on high alert. Next to come was the majestic white-socked gaur.


The don’t-mess-with-me look

IMG_9928A pair of shy charsingha were next in line. Only a video can show the trepidation with which they approached their drinking site.

A pair of charsingha


Oh for a gulp of water

A pair of barking deer joined them soon after.


Barking deer

A bunch of langurs were also hydrating their bodies and soon, a wild boar joined them.

Thirsty langurs
The boar could not resist taking a roll

Then came the peacock, very nervy and jumpy. Could not drink peacefully at all.


Our majestic national bird

IMG_9883IMG_9875A white eyed buzzard was the last one to come for a drink that evening. The sun was beginning to set and it was time for us to leave.


White eyed buzzard
End of the day

DAY 4: It was our last safari in Tadoba and we wanted a real close encounter with the tiger. Today we visited the buffer zone. All our sightings had been across a waterbody. The first 2 hours were quite unproductive except for learning about the crocodile bark tree.

Crocodile bark tree

There was a watering hole which was been frequented by the Wagdeo, the oldest and biggest tiger in Tadoba and his cubs. We were told that he had a new young romantic interest called Aishwarya who was the sister of his former mate. But there were conflicting reports about whether the cubs were Aishwarya’s or her sister’s.

After spotting nothing for over an hour, we went to explore the right side of the buffer zone, while my brother and his group who were in another gypsy stayed behind. Barely a minute after we left, their wish was fulfilled as Wagdeo along with his cubs and Aishwarya made an appearance at that concrete watering hole. After frolicking for a while, they disappeared as the tourists were making too much noise. Here is what my brother saw. He did add that the experience felt very artificial – almost like a zoo.

Later we got to know that as we were leaving that side of the buffer zone, some drivers tried to call us as the tigers were spotted. Meanwhile, we went exploring on the other side where there was the vast Irai Lake. We found a purple swamp hen, a lesser adjutant stork and some whistling ducks. I also saw a beautiful flower whose name I still do not know.

We saw some fresh pug marks but failed to see any tiger. Just as we thought our luck had run out, we found a jeep full of photographers beckoning us wildly. Across  an expanse of water, was one of Sharmilee’s cubs peacefully dozing in the water. We missed our much desired “close” encounter by a few minutes as the tiger was just in front before she wanted privacy from the photographers. But we could clearly see the cub with our naked eyes.

Our first glimpse
Eyes open
Who disturbs my slumber?
You guys again!

We went inside the forest to try and find Sharmilee and her second cub but could not. The bamboo grove was fabulous though. But when we came out, we found another cub in the water! The mother must have been somewhere close.

Appearance of the second cub

IMG_0082On our way back, the jeep stalled. Thankfully, the driver knew what to do and we came back safely without becoming fodder for the tiger.

Tadoba Trip: Jungle experience (part 1)

“Eki drishshyo dekhi onnyo,  ey je bonnyo ey oronyo” 

(This is a different kind of scenery, this is a wild wild forest) 

DAY 1: Our first safari was in the afternoon of April Fool’s Day. The only thing that made us forget the blazing sun was our excitement of anticipation. I have already written about the general information about visiting this park in Tadoba Trip: A curtain raiser.

The first thing that struck me about the park was how beautiful and green it was. I live in Kenya now and just as my safaris there are never only about lions, I did not come to Tadoba just to see tigers. Of course, I was desperately hoping to see one, for the first time ever, but that did not make me oblivious to the birds and other animals of this place. And the amazing diversity of the flora and habitats in this small area.

Gaur (Indian bison)
Dhole (Indian wild dog)
Lovely snoozing place of the dholes to escape the scorching heat
Open billed stork
Honey buzzard
Chital (Spotted deer)
Sambars taking refuge in Tadoba Lake

We were lucky to see the famous tigress Maya (P2) with her cubs at Pandharpauni within an hour of our first safari. The amazing camouflage provided by the dry long grass has to be seen to be believed. How beautifully the stripes merge with the golden colour of the reeds and grass. Keep looking and you suddenly get to spot this magnificent animal.

The Queen of Tadoba – Maya or T2
See the camouflage I was talking about: Now you see them, now you don’t

She had 3 boys and a little girl who came out to pose for us in the open. But the mother and her sons continued feasting on the sambar they had killed the previous night. Watch the slideshow below. The female cub was so much smaller.

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The little sister
I am a tiger too!
But awww, I am still a kid

Suddenly , we saw a wild boar come to drink water near them and I was sure that he would be killed but thankfully, the tigers were not interested. There were some thirsty birds around too, all flocking around the waterhole.

A herd of chitals (spotted deer) also drank water quite cautiously and went on their way. On our way back, we passed by Lake Tadoba and saw quite a few aquatic birds, langurs and sambars.

We were also lucky to sight a serpent eagle on our way. As the weather was getting cooler, the dholes were coming out of their slumber and becoming active. We also spotted a Rufus Treepie which is known as the tiger’s dentist. Unlike the fearless ones in Ranthambore, they shied away from human contact.

A male sambar was grazing by the roadside. A magpie robin was about to call it a day. We also spotted the very shy barking deer. A pair of golden orioles playing in the bush looked a very pretty sight. The sun was beginning to set and in the dusk light I saw a green pigeon for the first time. I could not make out the colours well but I saw their unique colouring in the morning light the next day. We saw quite a few peafowls scurrying around but they were so frisky that I could just about get a bad shot.

But the day belonged to the magnificent setting sun!

DAY 2: The next day turned out to be a day of of mostly birds and an interesting dhole sighting. But we had to get out when the moon was still in the sky at 4am (because we could only get an entry through Zhari gate which was quite far away) but were rewarded with a mesmerising egg-yolk sunrise.

We saw many rollers as usual and a pond kingfisher patiently waiting for its breakfast and a langur sitting near it. We also spotted a jungle fowl scurrying away to god knows where. While we waited by a watering hole where leopard sighting was “guaranteed”, I had a chance to observe quite a few interesting birds around me. Especially my favourite ones – the gorgeous green pigeons.

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The leopard never came despite an hour-long wait – instead chitals came in great numbers, drank water and left. However, I had a great sighting of a Changeable Hawk Eagle who was probably trying to steal a crow’s eggs/chicks and was challenged bravely the much smaller bird.

The dauntless challenger
Changeable Hawk Eagle


Kingfisher and the green pigeons

I also got some interesting shots of langurs. And a very unique ant nest made up of leaves. Never seen something like this before.

Monkeying around
The beautiful forest


Ant nest – you can see the big red ants all over

IMG_9552In the afternoon our entry was through Mohurli gate, we had a glimpse of one of Sonam’s cubs at Jamunjhora. Later in the afternoon, Sonam and the other 2 cubs had also emerged, we were told by another guest at our lodge.

Sonam’s cub approaching the watering hole


First full view


On our way back, we passed by Tadoba Lake which always is a treat for sore eyes.


Black headed Ibis and little egret

Our driver then dashed towards Pandharpauni again to check on Maya. We didn’t have much of a say though. We had a good sighting the previous day and the waiting place is infested with flies who don’t give you a respite. So remember to carry insect repellants if you want to wait here. We did sight Maya in the long grass and she seemed to be initially interested in a kill but then the sambars got a wind of her presence and scampered away, alerting all and sundry. The chitals followed suit quickly.

On our way back, we saw the ghost tree (that changes colour every season; white in winter, pink in spring and brown in summer) and some more birds. When it is white, its silvery bark glistens in the dark, especially on a moonlit night. We were there in April and a few of them quite ghostly white, although it was beginning to change colour.

Reminded me of Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow


The we saw a pack of dholes on a hunt. They seemed to have some kind of plan as they disappeared up on a hillock after coming close to the group of sambar. We could not wait long as it was getting dark.

I spotted a ruddy mongoose with some kind of berry in its mouth. Also, a Brahminy starling, treepie, peacock and barking deer.

And then we got back to the lodge for the night. The sunset was nothing spectacular like the other day. We saw a peacock engaged in a mating dance but promptly showed us his back as we came closer. In any case, the object of his attention had moved away.



The time when curiosity almost killed the cat

According to Wikipedia

“Curiosity killed the cat” is a variation of the proverb – curiosity killed the cat – that includes the rejoinder “but satisfaction brought it back.” Although the original version was used to warn people of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation, the addition of the rejoinder indicates that the risk would lead to resurrection because of the satisfaction felt after finding out.

I had a first hand experience of literally “witnessing” this proverb last week, on my solo trip to Maasai Mara.

After a not-so-exciting afternoon game drive, as I was returning to the camp, my driver Simon got a call informing him that 2 leopards had been spotted at the location we had left minutes back –  after a futile search for these very animals. The sun was about to set and darkness was fast descending. He quickly reversed the jeep and reached the spot in time to find 2 jeeploads of tourists keenly  looking towards a spot, dimly washed with twilight. My eyes needed a little time to figure out what they were looking at – two leopards lounging on the fallen trunk of a tree, looking into the bushes and beyond.

The first sighting of the 2 leopards
The wary older one
The curious younger cub


One was visibly much smaller than the other but I couldn’t make out if it was an older brother or the mother. Anyone who knows me even a little bit, knows about my love affair with these very beautiful but shy grey-eyed cats. As I sat enraptured, feasting my eyes on these two cats, I noticed two young elephants benignly progressing towards these spotted felines, while merrily chomping on the plucked grass. Although the little one was closer to the pachyderms, the older one had wisely slipped off the log and disappeared into the long grass as they came closer.

The young elephants and the little cub – look at their relative sizes
The restless and the curious one


Check the position of the tree trunks to follow the progress of the elephants
The older one makes a hasty escape

The little one was as fascinated with the trunked giant as I was with her. She refused to budge and kept watching it. For a split second, there may just have been a change of mind, induced by the instinctive feeling of possible danger, because she jumped off the log for a moment.  But seconds later, she jumped back on it, even more curious!

Back on the log, but at the spot where the older one was initially
Open challenge or juvenile curiosity?
Coming closer

But now, the elephant was within nudging distance, and not looking too happy at the cub’s public show of defiance. I was getting edgy now as I knew what even a playful nudge of those tusks can do. Then came the trumpeting call of warning. The little one had not an iota of doubt any more about which road to take. In a flash, she was gone and I started breathing again! The mini tusker  kept slamming into the log, with her tusks, with displeasure but soon went back to the more pleasurable activity of munching grass.

Now the cub finally gets wiser and starts to move

My hunch is, these two “kids” encountered each of its kind for the first time and went home all the more wiser. I also think the bigger leopard was probably an irresponsible older brother because he never entered the scene after his vanishing act. Would a mother leave her cub to spar with a tusker, no matter how young the calf may have been?

This round belonged to the young tuskers

But the unanswered question that remains is: was the cat’s curiosity satisfied and if so, “will satisfaction bring it back?”

PS: Dusky conditions made photography very difficult.

Tadoba Trip: A curtain raiser


  • Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) is Maharashtra’s oldest and largest National Park. The current TATR (625.4 sq km) was established after Tadoba National Park merged with Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary
  • TATR is divided into 3 forest ranges – Tadoba, Kolsa, and Mohurli (sandwiched between the first two)
  • The rain-fed Tadoba and Kolsa lakes together with the Tadoba river sustain the park’s diverse eco-system.
  • It is open from 15th October to 30th June
  • Closed every Tuesday (and on Holi) but the buffer zone is open
  • Book your safari online before you look around for any accommodation or transport
  • It helps if you can arrange for a good guide and driver but they are readily available at the gate on a rotational basis but a good one may not be guaranteed

The first time I had heard of Tadoba was around 2012, when my friends had gone there and come back with a lifetime experience of tiger sightings. I also learnt that in Tadoba, the question to be asked was “how many?” and not “did you?”.

Our final group of 9

My experience in the Sunderbans was very disappointing and although Kaziranga rewarded us generously with wildlife and otherwise, we did not see the elusive Royal Bengal tiger. So, a Tadoba plan had already started germinating in my head but our sudden transfer out of India put a big spoke in my planning wheel. I was planning to go last year during my daughter’s school break but came to know that the park closes for 3 months after June. This year, I was determined to go. My brother was also game for a tiger safari in April. Our initial tour group of 3 ultimately trebled in size to a very nice mix of 9 with the members’ ages ranging from 11 to 83!

We booked our plane tickets to Nagpur in January as Indigo was giving an amazing round trip offer of around INR 5,800. After intensive googling, I zeroed in on Serai Tiger for our lodging. However I learnt later that we should have started the process by first booking our safaris. The booking system here is totally different from the African safaris! Thankfully, by various permutations and combinations of entries through different gates, the camp manager Mr Dev booked us 6 safaris.

We flew to Nagpur on April 1st and spent that night at the house of my old school mate Swagatika, who I was meeting after December 1977!! She was incredibly and unbelievably gracious not only to house all NINE of us but also serve a delicious spread of palak paneer, Kolhapuri chicken, prawn malaikari and doi maachh (fish in yoghurt sauce). This informal gathering at her house proved to be a good icebreaker (while snacking on authentic Bengali vegetable cutlets) as most of the group members hadn’t met each other before. The manager at Serai Tiger even asked me once, if we were all very old friends, such was the visible camaraderie amongst us.

After dinner, my friend told us that many beautiful birds visited the garden in front of her balcony early in the morning. We made a mental note of it but did not take her so seriously as we probably thought how many birds can visit this concrete jungle?

I woke up early to give her company in the kitchen and had more or less forgotten about the birds. Suddenly, the oldest (and the most experienced wild lifer) member of our group urgently called me to the balcony. What a sight greeted my sleepy eyes! Birds of all hues and sizes were very busy with their morning chores around the verdant patch in front of us. Parakeets flew around in gay abandon. And bird calls greeted us from all corners. I will let the photos do the talking but I rued the fact that I had not gone out earlier to see a few more. Birds don’t enjoy the heat of the summer and are usually around in the early hours of the morning and again around sunset time.

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After a sumptuous home-made dosa breakfast, we left for Tadoba in the big van sent to us by the lodge. The roads were smooth and we reached in time for lunch (very good taxi driver Prakash Dungre +91 9423404693) and soon got ready for our first safari. We had been warned about the deadly heat in that part of the country but had also been assured that in early April, the heat will be bearable. However, while driving to Mohurli gate in an open Gypsy, we felt we were passing through a furnace. Our hats and sunglasses hardly provided any relief. The jungle did not provide a canopy either and we got roasted almost until sunset. Looking at the headgears of the other tourists, who were all dressed up as the infamous bandits of the Chambal Valley, we all realised that we had made a BIG mistake in our estimation of heat. But our excitement and very good sightings made us forget the heat for a while. More about the beautiful forest and its flora and fauna in my next post.


The beautiful Tadoba
A must, if you are going in summer


Safaris can be booked by you online at this site. Bookings are open 120 days in advance but they go away very quickly. However, some resorts do it for you at a nominal charge. A safari costs about Rs 3500 per jeep. Not person. Keep some cash with you.

  • Forest entry fee – Rs 1000
  • Gypsy charges – Rs 2000 (IN CASH) unless the resort arranges one for you before
  • Every camera over 250mm lens – Rs 200 (in CASH)
  • Compulsory Guide – Rs 300 (in CASH)

The group leader’s name along with his/her ID details are required during the booking. He/she MUST be present while entering the park; else the permit will be canceled. It is better to enter more names, as cancellation is not an issue (a jeep can carry a maximum of 6 people plus driver & guide). Add-ons are allowed but I am not too clear about how it is done — all I can say is that it can be done at the gate for an additional fee. According to rules, the names cannot be altered after the safari booking but some do it illegally. Usually, only the group leader’s ID is checked but a random check may happen any time. So it is better to keep your IDs with you. Remember to carry a printout of the online receipt with you at all times.

A much cheaper canter bus safari has now been introduced but you must reach the gate very early and wait for the bus to be filled up to a required minimum number of tourists.

Tadoba map

There are SIX gates or points of entry at Tadoba National Park:

  • Moharli/Mohurli (approx 180 km from Nagpur): NINE vehicles allowed every morning and evening (total of 18 a day) for a tiger safari from this gate.
  • Kuswanda Gate (approx 140 km from Nagpur): FOUR vehicles allowed every morning and evening.
  • Kolara Gate (approx 120 km from Nagpur): NINE vehicles allowed every morning and evening.
  • Navegaon Gate (approx 140 km from Nagpur): SIX vehicles allowed every morning and evening.
  • Pangdi Gate (approx 250 km): TWO vehicles allowed every morning and evening.
  • Zari Gate (approx 190 km): SIX vehicles allowed every morning and evening.

Accommodation facilities are best found near Mohurli and Kolara gates.

MTDC and FDCM guest houses are the best located and cheapest places to stay with all basic amenities. However, food options are very limited. They only have online booking facilities. Do not try to call them.

Royal Tiger Resort is another very affordable place right next to Mohurli gate. It is a favourite haunt for photographers. There are other resorts too to suit your budget needs. Check this site for very comprehensive information on TATR.

We were very happy with our stay at Serai Tiger Camp. The “tents” were very spacious and comfortable and the food very wholesome. The staff was also very helpful and polite.

At the Kolara gate, the most famous high end resort is Svasara but Chava is much more reasonable and very good, according to my friends who have stayed there. Their food is very good too but 100% vegetarian. The biggest plus of this gate is that it is much much quieter than the very touristy and noisy Mohurli.



A private celebration…and exploring Naivasha


Celebrating 5o years of existence on planet earth in grand style seems to have caught the fancy of most people on social media. However, I just didn’t feel any extra special to be touching this golden figure. Fifty is a good number, a friend jokingly told me, but I still think it is a better score in cricket. When I think back, I don’t recall going through any kind of struggle to get to this number. Or making any extra effort to reach to this point safely. Completing 25 years of marriage however, calls for a celebration, my husband and I both agreed.

We planned to have a private family getaway somewhere close by. After some googling and brainstorming, we zeroed in on Loldia House, a relatively unknown property of Governor’s Camp, on the shores of Lake Naivasha. We had fallen in love with their camp at Mara and were sure that this property will not disappoint us either. Workaholic hubby took a day off (miracles do happen, yes!) and daughter also played truant from school. It almost seemed like planning a naughty weekend.

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The newly paved road leading towards the well-known Great Rift Valley Lodge & Golf Resort was smooth as silk and the drive was one of the most scenic ones we have ever taken. Soon after crossing the golf resort, it was a good 5 km of bumpy road before we sighted the gates of Loldia House. And then it was a further 3 km of driving through the rough roads of the picturesque Loldia farm before we reached our destination.

We were warmly greeted by their manager Heather and adorable labrador Scotty, and taken to our cottage on the hill. She explained that as we were the only people there during the week, we might as well enjoy that specially located room. Which it was indeed, perched on a hillock with the balcony facing Lake Naivasha. The cottage had two en suite rooms on either side of the living-dining area (which even had a recently-tuned piano) and a third room in the attic. A small kitchen and another bathroom were located just outside.

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Our cottage area was fenced and we had a jeep at our disposal to go to the reception as the farm is visited by leopards and hippos! For a couple of days, we were pampered like royals with delicious lunch and dinner served in our cottage. Breakfast was the only time we went down the hill. And of course also for the night game drives, which did not reward us with any leopard sightings but blessed us with many nocturnal animals like the bat-eared fox, common African hare, spring hare, jackal, nightjar, Verreaux’s eagle owl as well as hyenas, hippos and the usual herbivores.

The lake facing balcony was our favourite chilling area – with various birds coming in for a dip at the bird bath. We were also lucky to see a pair of nesting fish eagles atop a huge acacia while the hippos grunted and fought for their territorial rights down below. The chef rustled up a lovely birthday dinner and managed to bake a cake as well. Then he joined the steward and my hubby in singing the happy birthday song while my daughter played it on the piano. As I cut the cake I felt very thankful for everything life has offered me thus far.

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Just like all clouds have a silver lining, the reverse is probably also true. In our excitement of exploring the lush grounds of Loldia House, we almost had a Hansel & Gretel like experience. Right next to ours, was another beautiful cottage with its gate swung open, literally inviting us to walk in. As we entered, we were greeted by a fairy-tale house painted like a dream with bougainvilleas of impossible shades. There was a small flight of moss covered steps which lured us even further. We could see a house with many rooms and thought that maybe this is where the other rooms of the lodge were.

Suddenly, a black labrador (mix of a lab and terrier, we later discovered) bounded towards us. There was something different about this dog. It was too lean and its eyes had a less soulful look. But it behaved like a lab – full of energy, delighted with human company and begging to be petted. It even joined my daughter on the trampoline! Then it abruptly disappeared somewhere.

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As we were walking away, we saw the second dog – a mean looking brown dog on another level of the garden. Our sixth sense prevailed and we briskly walked away, although there was nothing we could have done had he decided to charge at us. On enquiring at the reception, we were told that the dog was indeed a menace and had bitten Heather and other staff members on numerous occasions!

The lovely property adjacent to us, belonged to the owner of Loldia Farm who inexplicably refuses to have a sign saying PRIVATE PROPERTY on her gate, despite repeated appeals from the management of the Loldia House, who should also in all fairness, warn their guests to stay away from this dangerous dog.

Early next morning, as I was strolling in front of our cottage, I had a blood curdling moment when I saw 2 dogs racing towards me! The dog sitter was taking them out for a walk, unleashed, when they decided to make a dash. I screamed at the guy and decided to freeze at the spot as running would surely agitate the dogs. The black lab reached me first and jumped about excitedly while I braced myself for the brown one to bite me.

As I was steeling my nerves for the attack, he stopped at my feet, sniffed at my jeans and inexplicably decided to heed to the dog sitter’s calls of going back to him. The black one continued to hang around me for a while and then he too sprinted away. I feel that the black one saved me by openly demonstrating that he knows me. I thanked my lucky stars that we ignorantly trespassed into the neighbour’s property the previous day and befriended the black dog who turned out to be my saviour.

A pied kingfisher about to swoop on its prey @Lake Oloiden

We set off for Crater Lake Park the next morning and stopped by Lake Oloiden to be swept by the cool breeze on an otherwise sweltering day. An interesting fact about this lake is hardly known by most. This lake being salty, is devoid of water hyacinths that is a scourge of Lake Naivasha. As a result, boating here is a more enjoyable experience. During the drier season, it also attracts more flamingos! To reach this lake, you need to go through Naivasha town and drive past Elsamere resort on the southern side of Lake Naivasha. The road is very scenic and dotted with wild life – we even saw wart hogs by the roadside!

Crater Lake however disappointed me. I was curious to see a green lake but too much rain had made the water look commonplace. However, the picnic lunch that followed was bound to lift up anybody’s spirits. Under the shade of a huge fig tree, with the giraffes, zebras and impalas grazing by. The day was quite hot but the shade of the tree made us forget that. I somehow resisted the temptation of lying down and taking a snooze right there.

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Our next stop was the most interesting one of the day – a bird rescue centre run by an admirably gutsy lady. She had so many interesting stories to tell us about the birds which were housed there. The Verreaux’s Owl who thinks he is a human and refuses to mate with a female owl. A Ruppell’s vulture who needs to first learn how to be a vulture before he can be set free, and many other interesting and heartwarming stories.


She is building a hospital and desperately looking for an avian vet – She plans to open the centre to the public by this year end, hopefully. Mainly for educating the Africans that an owl is a farmer’s best friend and not the harbinger of bad luck or death as it is tainted to be. Most believe that the hooting of an owl is a bad omen because it is sent by a witch doctor to deliver a fatal curse!!

It was very intriguing to read about the African folklores connected to owls. It was all the more interesting because in our part of India, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, rides an owl and the white owl is associated with good luck.  Here is another fascinating link about some other perspectives. The lady was aware of the auspiciousness connected to owls in India and wished that it was so too, in Africa.

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There is a Facebook page where you can get a detailed history and updates of all the feathered inmates at the bird centre. However, she does not want any publicity now as she is not yet ready to entertain a large number of guests. But if you are really interested to volunteer or help in any way, make sure you CALL first to make an appointment. Else you may just have to go away without visiting these lovely birds.

Patiently waiting outside the gates of the owl centre

We did not know that and arrived totally unheralded on a rainy day. She was naturally quite unhappy about it and almost turned us away. Maybe the eagerness in our eyes swayed her and she kindly agreed to give us a ‘very short’ tour, which luckily ended up being quite a long and happy one. Do NOT drop in without notice – she stressed  that you have to call and make an appointment if you want to explore this lovely place.

We returned to Nairobi the next day and went back to our daily grooves. But this sudden getaway was a welcome break to unwind ourselves. And to celebrate a sum total of 117 years of existence on this planet among the three of us. Cheers to that!

Leaving you to get immersed in some bewitching sights of Lake Naivasha.

Grey headed gull
African Jacana
Black winged stilt with the hippos
Pelicans taking off
Tree full of cormorants
A typical Naivasha sunset (Pic credits: Aditi Biswas)
And another (pic credits: Aditi Biswas)



Of Fig and other leopards

Let me forewarn you that this blog entry has more photos than writing as one can never do justice to a leopard with just words. At least I cannot. So please be prepared for the visual onslaught!!

I have been living in Kenya since April 2014 and I have so far (till March 2016) visited Masai Mara 5 times, Naivasha 4 times, Nakuru thrice, Ol Pejeta & Amboseli twice each, Aberdares & Samburu once and Nairobi National Park too many times to remember accurately.

I was very lucky to spot the Big 5 on my very first visit to Mara. It was a beautiful sighting of a leopard climbing down one tree and up another leafier one to get away from too many prying eyes. That time, I was not aware that animals had names and one can form a personal relationship with them. For me, it was just a visual treat. However, I fell in love with this magnificent spotted animal at first sight.

My first ever leopard sighting
Gets off the tree
Walks away
On to a another tree

It wasn’t until June 2015 that I spotted another leopard – in Mara North conservancy. Actually, two robust males. I was thirsting so much for this animal that I was almost trying to will-power it to appear in front of me. And magically, it did, on our last afternoon game drive! I even spotted it before our amazing Masai guide could. I had to blink twice to make sure I was not hallucinating. He passed right in front of our jeep and posed for us for quite a while. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to pack my camera and had to rely on my very basic mobile phone. But it will give you an idea how close it was.

Male Leopard #1
Various moods
This one had a fresh gash on its left cheek
Sorry for the poor pic quality
He ran away from his territory due to the presence of lions

The next day, before leaving Mara, we spotted yet another one dozing in a bush. And within a hundred metres, there was a Masai sleeping peacefully in the open grasslands. What more could I ask for? But how I missed my camera…

Male leopard #2 in Mara North conservancy
A few 100 meters away this Masai was sleeping peacefully

Since then, I have seen plenty of game but I had this special bond with leopards and cheetahs. No matter how many simbas (lions) I saw, there would always be a little unfulfilled corner in my mind if I failed to see one of these spotted beauties. Probably because leopards are so very elusive, I was more keen to catch a glimpse of them.


My next leopard sighting was in November 2015 (near Mara Intrepids) but it was a very sleepy one who didn’t give a damn about the curious tourists in the jeeps and vans buzzing around the tree. It had draped itself around a branch in such an elastic way that you may be forgiven to doubt if it had any bones. It absolutely refused to open its eyes to acknowledge our presence and continued to sleep, balancing precariously in their typically lazy way, with an occasional flick of its tail to ward off the pesky flies.

Less than a month later, in December, we visited Mara again. This time, to Olare Motorogi conservancy, which my friends had assured me, was THE big cat terrain. And sure enough, it was!! On our way to the camp, we met the famous cheetah Malaika and her 2 surviving cubs and was also rewarded with her jaw-dropping, adrenalin-rushing 200m impala chase, which stopped right next to our Land Rover Defender. Thankfully, the impala lived to see another day. More about these unbelievably gorgeous cheetahs some time soon.

I had heard of the ‘resident’ leopard Fig in the conservancy from my friends and was very intrigued. How can this terribly private cat be spotted so regularly? But the leopard who revealed herself first was another regular visitor called Pretty Girl. I have written extensively about her futile hunt in A Lesson in Solidarity”.

Good morning!!

We met her once almost every day. She was a magnificent looking cat as leopards normally are but I didn’t think that she was particularly ‘pretty’. There was a menacing look in her eyes and she seemed to be a master of stealth and ambush as I witnessed later.

It hardly mattered whether she lived up to her name or not as I was already in seventh heaven having seen more leopards and cheetahs than lions so far on this trip. Unbelievable, yet true. It seemed that my fervent prayers for sighting these spotted beauties were being answered much beyond my expectations!

Pretty Girl
Looking for prey
Very alert

During the afternoon game drive, our guide Jackson told us that he was taking us to a place where Fig had been spotted. I was already half in love with this cat even before seeing her. A leopard called Fig? Can it get any more cute than that? When we reached the fig tree, there were some jeeps parked around it already. The beauty of a conservancy is that there are very few vehicles and you can enjoy your game drive without hundreds of tourist vans polluting the place. I was told that Fig was up there with her baby boy. I could see them through the leaves but their faces were not clearly visible. So I waited…

The sun was slowly making its way to the horizon and the place looked serene in the light of the setting sun. And then SHE turned. And my heart stopped for a few seconds. I stared, hypnotized at the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. A perfect creation of nature with the most captivating pair of grey eyes.

Gorgeous Fig

I just kept clicking away to my heart’s content…

Mesmerising grey eyes
Did I see something?


Fig and her cub
Sometimes dozing
Sometimes alert

Then I got greedy. I wanted to capture her cub on film too. But the cub was proving to be very frisky and elusive. And it was facing the other way. Thanks to our intuitive guide Jackson, we managed to park in a spot where I managed to see his face for a very short time but long enough to get some decent frames. He was trying to feed on the remains of a young gazelle that his mother had brought up for him to hone his carnivorous instincts.

Fig’s cub
Handsome fella
What next?
Trying to munch on the remains of a Thomson’s gazelle

At the camp we were staying (Porini Lion), I met Joseph S.T. Lam, a renowned wildlife photographer from Hong Kong, whose photos have been featured in African Geographic. We were privileged to watch some amazing footage of the great migration and other fascinating wildlife moments. He had been coming to Kenya for years and was a popular and regular Porini guest.

While we were stuck in the reception area due to an unexpected and fierce cloudburst in the evening, he told us about Fig, who he had been tracking since she was a baby. “She is the prettiest of them all”, he said and we could not agree more. She is smaller than other leopards but is undoubtedly the most stunning. He also regaled us with his stories of deep sea diving in Malaysia and of his adventures in Mara. Quite a thrilling way to spend the last evening of 2015.

I learnt that Fig was born under a fig tree to mom Acacia and dad Pink Nose and is five years old now. She has a baby sister called Porini, named so because she was born inside Porini Lion Camp, probably near Tent #6. Joseph very graciously allowed me to use some of his photos in my blog. Thank you so much for encouraging me too!

Fig’s mom Acacia (pic credits – Joseph Lam)
fig 2013
Fig in 2013 (pic credits – J. Lam)
Fig’s baby sister Porini (pic credits J. Lam)

The picture of Porini at this age is especially rare, Joseph said, as she had disappeared without a trace when she was 9 months old. Last year, she was again spotted by a Masai guide and everyone was thrilled and relieved that she is still around. He also pointed out that this picture is precious because it was taken in complete darkness as is evident by the complete dilation of her pupils. Anybody who understands cats, will realise this!  Contrast it with my other pictures taken in the sunlight and you will note the difference in the pupil size.

I also heard that Fig had been trying to get pregnant for some time. After some futile attempts, her union with an over-10-year-old leopard (quite elderly by leopard standards) named Yellow made her a mother for the first time, when she gave birth to a male cub last year. He is now 8 months old and is as gorgeous as his mother. However, he is yet to be christened. As is evident from the picture below, Yellow does have a rather yellowish coat of hair.

yellow fig mate
Fig’s dad Yellow (pic credits – J. Lam)

I will leave you with these amazing pictures of momma Fig teaching her playful cub to carry a fresh kill up a tree. She had just hunted a small bat-eared fox to train him. Behind me, the sun had started to set and it was a resplendent sight with the acacias in the foreground against the brilliant flaming sky. But the rare tutorial happening in front was far more precious – the patience and love with which Fig encouraged her cub to climb the tree with the little fox in his mouth. Was this display of extreme tenderness natural for leopards or was Fig a little more protective and maternal because it was her first child, and conceived not so easily? The way we humans do?

The sunset I didn’t care for!!

The light had started to fade and I knew I couldn’t get good pictures in this poor light. But my eyes were feasting on a sight that was tugging at the strings of my heart. Here was a sterling example of maternal love and parental responsibility at its best. The cub tried very hard but would need a few more lessons to successfully learn this task.

As the light almost faded out, the mother seemed to indicate that it was enough for the day and started to cuddle her “tired” cub and engage in the so very endearing rituals of feline playfulness. After some minutes of rolling, licking, wrestling and pouncing on each other in the tallish grass, mother and son disappeared into the darkness in the even taller foliage.

And we reluctantly made our way back to the camp with semi-moist eyes and a head full of wonder and gratitude for getting the privilege of witnessing this magical functioning of the animal world.

Fig up on the tree while her cub is toying with the kill below
Fig trying to coax him up the tree
Under her watchful eyes the training continues
A little anxious maybe?
Bravo, she says as she guides him up
Mother & son up there but the bat-eared fox has slipped out of her cub’s teeth
That’s enough for the day, little one!
Mother lounging in the grass while the cub plays away from our sight
Time to hug and cuddle

(I have a video of this training but I need to learn how to include it here)

Night of the hyenas

Not so high on the popularity charts

It is a common sight in Kenya to see hyenas steal food from the bigger cats. Whenever there is a kill, you are sure to find these scavengers slowly fill up the fringes. Sometimes, they even take over as the dominant group, as I recently witnessed at Mara, where they staked their claims on a hippo killed by the lions. Their sly look, droopy back and awkward gait do not earn them any brownie points. However, they form a vital part in the cleaning up of our ecosystem.

I have learnt quite a few interesting facts about these cunning creatures during my stay in Kenya. They are not related to dogs although they seem to be. These hyenas not only scavenge, but they also skillfully hunt in packs. They can devour a whole zebra in under 30 minutes. Hyena poop is milky white due to the high presence of calcium from eating up all the bones. Female hyenas are more muscular and dominating. Interestingly, she has only 2 nipples – as a result, only the strongest 2 of her litter survive, leaving the weaker ones to starve to death! How cleverly nature keeps a balance….

I have only seen spotted hyenas so far and I only refer to these when I write. For more hyena “wild” facts, click on this link.

The Ark (picture from the lodge website)

During our recent visit to Aberdare National Park, we stayed at The Ark. Most of my acquaintances who have been here, usually spend their time chilling out in the viewing deck with a drink or two, watching buffaloes and elephants (and sometimes a leopard or a rhino if they are lucky) at the salt lick and watering hole. When we reached there, we were also greeted by a similar placid sight – buffaloes, elephants, wart hogs and bush bucks jostling for a good lick of salt. And there were some herons, egrets, cranes, geese and ducks. We were not expecting anything scintillating but as we walked towards the lodge on a canopy bridge, cutting through the lush green forest, we mentally prepared ourselves for an adventure of sorts.

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The mating ducks

There are 3 viewing decks at the Ark but due to the cold, we chose to lounge in the one completely enclosed by glass panes but keeping an eye on the waterhole, hoping for a stray leopard. There wasn’t much action happening at that time, except for a pair of yellow billed ducks, engrossed in a deeply elaborate mating ritual.

After dinner, I asked the resident ranger if hyenas ever come visiting there and he said “Oh yes, they were here just now!” As I was ruing the fact that I had missed them by a whisker, I saw a big one sauntering in from the forest. It was 8:20 pm.

The first hyena

Slowly, their numbers started to increase, alerting me to something sinister waiting to happen. The scene looked pretty peaceful till then – a herd of buffaloes grazing by the waterhole, with some ducks and geese skimming over the water. There was also a lone elephant and some genet cats scrounging for food. And the funny looking giant forest hog, which I saw for the first time.

And THEN we spotted the buffalo calf and the slow build-up of hyena activity around it. And their bloodthirsty intentions became quite clear. It was a spine chilling drama waiting to unfold…

Can you spot the calf in the middle?
The mother trying to escape with the calf
The mother and calf looking for sanctuary in the water while the father tries to ward off the predators on the land

The number of hyenas had now grown up to 25! With the aid of some impeccable invisible communication, they had all positioned themselves around the floodlit waterhole, completely surrounding the calf. Some lazily sitting, some strolling, some drifting and a couple even mating in a bush! But they were all patiently waiting for their dinner.

Suddenly, a pack of 5-6 became aggressive and started to attack the calf. From all sides. For hours, the parents and other herd members charged at them in turns, trying to ward them off but keeping the calf well covered. Sometimes they even scampered away to the jungle, but were driven back to the salt lick from the other side by this relentless pack. They even tried to take refuge in the water but even there, the hyenas would not leave them alone. As I zoomed in on the calf, I noticed that its tail was bleeding. And there were scratch marks on its hind legs. The hyenas had tasted blood! The glass deck was full of visitors now, unsure of whether to stay on (and witness the gory end) or leave.

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For some strange reason, the other herd members gave up defending the calf after a while. It was now left only to the mother and father. At  12:30 am, we decided to retire to our rooms as we realized this was going to be a painful wait. In any case, we could all guess how this story was going to end. In my restlessness, I had come out once again to the deck only to see a white tipped mongoose scurrying about and a deathly calm around the floodlit salt lick/waterhole.

white tipped mongoose

Just as we were dreaming that the calf got saved, we were woken up by the loud and continuous, painful grunts of a buffalo. The death cry pierced through the still of the night and we rushed out only to find the waterhole completely deserted. The ranger pointed out to the direction of the forest where the action was supposedly happening and after 10 odd minutes, the groaning stopped. At 2:20 am, it was all over.

Unlike the big cats, hyenas do not suffocate their prey – they eat it alive! One of the most painful deaths one can imagine. It shook us to the core trying to imagine what was happening beyond our line of vision. But that’s how it happens in the jungle. nature at its primitive or pristine best. There are no lions in Aberdare National Park and so the resident hyenas need to hunt in order to get their food. I have seen lion and cheetah hunts before but this one was particularly unsettling.

The next morning, there was the usual activity of the buffaloes and other animals at the waterhole. But the youngest member was conspicuous by its absence…

The Enkoyanai Pride & some other lions of Mara

During a visit to Porini Lions Camp, we had the luxury of the afternoon game drives stretching up to almost 8 pm. Our first lion sighting of the day was during an evening drive and what a majestic sight it was! Nineteen lions of the Enkoyanai pride spread out on the plains of Olare Motorogi Conservancy, enjoying the post-sunset coolness.

Our first glimpse of the lions scattered all over the plains


I learnt that this pride started to form around 2007, when 4 lionesses found refuge here. Two large males joined them and took over the pride. During the migration season of 2008, the pride was blessed with 10 cubs but there was a fear that these cubs may all starve when the herbivores moved south post migration.

Wish I knew this beautiful cat’s name

The management of the conservancy did not bend down despite growing pressure from outside to feed the pride as they felt that this situation arose from “poor parenting”. However, this “cruel” approach worked as the starving lions were forced to learn how to hunt. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention/discovery!

They lost only 2 out of the 8 cubs which is an acceptable survival rate. Not “sparing the rod” prevented similar starvation disasters from happening in the future and the pride seemed to have learnt that they needed to aggressively hunt for food during non-migration months. The pride has since multiplied and are the second largest pride in the conservancy.

Wish I could click a 360 degree view of all the 19 lions

We spent quite some time just watching the lions enjoy the cool evening breeze after the scorching heat of the day – playing, snuggling, rolling and generally lazing around. Most of the adult females were pregnant and were in no mood to frolick with the sub adults. However, there was one, aptly named the Babysitter, who had a gentler and more loving disposition. The “meet and greet” ritual we witnessed will be forever etched in my mind. Around 12 sub-adults rushing happily towards the pregnant but maternal Babysitter was a sight to behold! The cuddling, body rubbing, rolling over, licking and jumping around rituals warmed up the cockles of my heart. Sadly, it was quite dark and I have no good photos to document this amazing ritual.

The sub adults on their way to “meet and greet”
MOHICAN – The Lion King of the Pride

And then we saw Mohican – at first a jaw-dropping silhoutte of this majestic dominant male of the pride walking towards us – his dark mane looking even more regal and awe-inspiring in the twilight. I was instantly reminded of the killer lions in movie Ghosts of the Darkness. He kept a distance from the rest of his brood, but he was around them, keeping a keen eye.

A very common Mara sunrise


Next morning, we witnessed the brilliant African sun rise up in the horizon and met the same pride again – this time, basking in the sun and looking quite relaxed and well-fed. The momma of the pride, Babysitter, was also there, but a little further away – may be to ensure that the playful sub adults do not disturb the other mothers to-be of the pride!

Young male
The Enkoyanai Pride basking in the sun
She may be the babysitter, but I would not like to cross her path

We decided to drive to the main Masai Mara reserve next day after hearing that a pride of lions had killed yet another hippo in a span of 2-3 days. On the way, we met a lioness who had recently given birth and was looking very alert.

New mother

We reached the spot of the kill quickly and were greeted by a most terrible stench. And an even more unusual sight….

Lion and hyenas sharing a kill
Hyenas inside the hippo belly
Hoof of the dead hippo

There was a small pool in which the hippo carcass lay. On the left side of the pool, on dry ground of course, was a lioness munching on hippo meat but sitting inside the belly of the hippo was a pack of hyenas laughing, screaming and fighting as they gorged on the meat. We learnt that hippo meat is akin to pork, in taste. So, not only was there a huge availability, it was tasty as well.

There was one cheeky hyena right in front of the lioness too, trying to snatch her share. Soon, her brother came to help his sister who was having a tough time warding off the dauntless hyenas. In fact, one of them got a mighty slap from the bro and was flung a few feet away!! The series of photos below may just about give you an idea of the commotion that was happening there.

Sister getting harrassed
Brother comes to his sister’s rescue
The hyenas were a little wary of the male

Never had I witnessed lions and hyenas eating together. Our guide guessed that the hippo was probably severely injured by the lions and came to the pool to take refuge as cats hate to get wet. Here, she may have succumbed to his/her injuries and then the hyenas took over. There were a few lions hidden in the tall grass but the hyenas outnumbered them. They were everywhere – INSIDE the hippo, ON the hippo, AROUND the hippo, IN the water, on the banks, in the grass and far away, waiting for their turns.

In the middle of all this gore, the keen birdwatcher in me saw a very pretty sight. A little Malachite kingfisher perched on the blade of a grass waiting to get lucky as well. The size perspective was quite interesting!!

As the hyenas eat while sitting in the hollow of the hippo’s tummy, a Malachite kingfisher patiently waits to be as lucky for lunch

We left this site of gore to look for more pleasant things and were rewarded with a beautiful sighting of another majestic lion Lipstick. If you observe his lips, you will know why he has been named so. He was enjoying the morning sun and seemed in no hurry to go anywhere.

He proved to be the perfect model but after a while got terribly bored with the humans and disappeared into the bushes after marking his territory !

Humans are such a bore!
Why don’t you just leave me alone?
Ok, I’ve had enough…..
If you don’t leave, I will!
Just remember it’s MY territory

We went back to the hippo feasting site to see what else was happening there and found it almost deserted. Only one lion was semi-dozing in the bush some distance away and all that remained of the hippo was this.

Once upon a time, a hippo grazed the plains of Mara
Circle of life
A satisfied lion post lunch

Later, our guide took us to the spot where the first hippo was killed a couple of days ago and this is what was left there!! Only his skull, which was too hard even for the hyenas to crack. An elephant calf had died of natural causes a few days back, providing an easy meal for the lions but that site was clear too.

The skull of a hippo killed earlier

Much as we hated to watch the blood and gore, this was food for the lions. Anyone who has watched a lion (or any carnivore) hunt knows how difficult it is for them to get a meal. How hard they have to work. And that there are more failed hunts than successful ones. And when the cats give birth, the task becomes doubly difficult. Not only do they have to hunt to keep themselves alive and healthy to produce milk for the cubs, they also have to hide the cubs safely to save them from other predators. When the cubs are weaned off milk, they are still too playful and take a long time to learn to hunt. Then the mother has to hunt to provide enough food for herself and her cubs. Many a time, the playfulness of the cubs spoil the carefully laid out plans of the mother. I have myself seen this a few times.

For the herbivores, food is easy as grass and leaves are everywhere. And then there is amazing collusion among the “hunted” to warn the others of the presence of predators. The baboons, the collective network of the ungulates and the drone system of birds like hamerkops and rollers (whose eggs are food for predators like leopards).

These beautiful impalas don’t have to hunt for food


Territorial battle is a more serious concern for these young males

Many lions are killed by these very aggressive cape buffaloes

It is a very very hard and tough life for the cats. Just because we buy our meat from sanitized environments, we cannot pretend to be “holier than thou” and ignore the equally (or probably more) gory circumstances which bring these juicy burgers, steaks, kebabs and tandoori chicken to our table.

A friend of mine was recently pondering whether she should have saved a skink from the jaws of death of a snake instead of clicking an “award winning” picture. But we all agreed that we should let nature take its course and not interfere. It is after all the snake’s meal. Who are we to snatch it?

Would you snatch his meal?

However, I would save a cheetah cub by raising hell if I saw a hyena attack it. Cheetahs are endangered species and they are not exactly a hyena’s meal. They just kill them to reduce the competition. But to be honest, it’s also because they are frightfully cute!

But maybe one should not do that either as that is also an interference into the natural order of the survival of the fittest….or maybe not?

A Lesson in Solidarity

Very rarely does one sight a leopard out in the open the first thing in the morning. Not only did we sight Pretty Girl but we soon realized she was hungry and looking for a kill. She had 2 big cubs who were unfortunately not old enough to hunt on their own. IMG_7090

The gorgeous sight of this magnificent cat, a few metres away from our vehicle, stopped us in our tracks. After scanning the area for a while, she decided to try her luck on the other side of the river. We too moved away and positioned ourselves on the other side.

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Watching a leopard preparing for a kill is a hair raising experience. Not for anything is it one of the stealthiest predators. Unlike lions, it does not hunt in a pride. Unlike a cheetah, it does not chase its prey at supersonic speed. It mainly depends on its stalking and ambushing skills. I will let the pictures speak for themselves….

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We had read about the amazing jungle radar system that protects the herbivores. The zebras have an acute sense of smell. The Thomson’s gazelles have a good ear. The baboons and monkeys send warning calls when they spot a predator. The hamerkops and rollers act like drones and send distress calls when they spot a leopard – they hate the cat as it eats their eggs. But what we did not know was how they boldly challenge their predator after spotting it!

Fortunately for the gazelle, the leopard was spotted and it started to walk away dejectedly towards the bush across the plains. And then the drama unfolded. The little gazelle alerted its mates, who followed it at a distance, and then started charging towards the leopard. We thought that this foolishness will cost the Tommy dearly but the little fellow darted across the leopard and called out to the Topi herd, who came charging at her too. Then the impalas came running. In the midst of all this, a lone buffalo stopped grazing and started to walk menacingly at Pretty Girl.IMG_6267

The way the cat scampered away for cover is a sight I will never forget. A huge group of herbivores converging on their predator who slunk away for cover. What an unbelievable show of might. What an amazing show of solidarity. My hand raised an invisible salute. And the leader of the pack was the little Tommy who was about to be devoured. The anger, the arrogance and the challenge by that little fellow was awe inspiring.IMG_6232

And I could not help but think of the war-ravaged and beleagured people of the world, especially the Middle East. Could they have triumphed if they could show similar solidarity?