We’re up early next morning, the sun has not yet made an appearance as we make our way over to the main building for sustenance before we venture out onto the plains for a full day’s drive. Patrick and Sammy have suggested, rather than three separate drives, returning back to base for meals throughout the day, that we stay out all day and take a pack lunch with us. This will allow us to cover far more ground which we all think is a good idea especially when it comes to the elusive Leopard that we all have high hopes on seeing.
The jeep bumps out over the familiar terrain, and we head out pasted where we were looking for the cheetah last night but continue on along a new path, away from the hill we had driven up. The grass is long on either side of the track we are now following, and with the undulations of the ground, visibility is restricted, moreover it provides ample opportunity for the wildlife to dissolve into. I “assume the position”, standing on covered back seats, head out through the open top of the vehicle allowing me an uninterrupted view of our surroundings and increasing the possibility of seeing something that might be hiding in the grass.
We drive on still further, all we can see are acres and acres of grass interspersed with the odd tree (and some of them are very odd) and bush. Something catches my eye in a dip to one side of us and focusing my gaze on it, it’s the mother cheetah we’ve been looking for and we’re in luck, her two cubs are following dutifully behind her. Sammy maneuvers the vehicle to a point that transect her path allowing us to photograph this graceful and elegant family; the mother cheetah is totally unphased by our presence, the cubs however are a little wary of us and make a beeline for a nearby bush. The mother, however, has other ideas and before we know it, she’s used the spare wheel mounted on the back of the Land Cruiser to give her a leg up and is now sitting directly above my head (I sat down as soon as I saw the cubs, to try and photograph them from a low angle). This is a special moment for all in the vehicle and we’re all spell bound by such a close encounter with one of our favourite big cats, unfortunately as I try and stand up to move to the other end of the vehicle the mother bends slightly and hisses at me to tell me to back off. I immediately sit down, castigating myself under my breath at forgetting all I know about interacting with wildlife, whilst the rest of the part are standing at the other end of the jeep able to take photos of her. I move slowly, changing the lens on my camera, dispensing with the 150-500mm I have fitted to the 5D mark II (the 1D4 is with me, and fitted to the 600mm) replacing it with the 17-40mm and slowly I crouch down, and move slowly to where the rest of our party are standing. Unfortunately the sun is behind the mother, and as such photos show her as a silhouette; I set my camera to spot metering, take a reading from the cheetah and start taking photos, fully aware that the background will be over exposed but that I will get some close up shots to remember such a magical moment.
The mother, having surveyed her domain, concluding there is little of interest for her to hunt finally jumps down to join her cubs and they rush up to her, nuzzling up to bond with her. We watch and photograph the family for at least 30 minutes and I manage to take my favourite photo of the whole trip when one of the cubs decide to try and climb the bush that they’ve been shading themselves under. Reluctantly we move on, the cheetahs look firmly ensconced in the cooling shadows of the foliage providing little in the way of new photo opportunities which is, after all, why we’re there (well, and watch wildlife.. but not watch wildlife sleep), plus other vehicles have spotted us and are heading our way – I’m not particularly fond of other cars in my photos (unless I’m photographic them specifically of course). You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what we encountered next.