Sad News

The last week has been pretty frantic, getting all the material ready for the edit (editor starts today) as well as getting ready for a trip to Washington DC to account for our time in the Mara.

We hear that the rain hasn’t stopped there yet, which means we got out in the nick of time. Black cotton soil can swallow cars whole if it’s wet enough.

Sad news about the ‘Lazy Girls’ though. These are the two lioness and three cubs we filmed at crucial times for our film. We called them the Lazy Girls not because they seemed in any way lazy, but because of their presumed association with the Lazy Boys (who truly are lazy). The first night we met the Lazy Girls, they were trapped in a lugga with their cubs surrounded by hyenas. They roared repeatedly for support, and the Lazy Boys roared back – but didn’t come and help.

Last week we heard that that the smallest of the three Lazy Girl cubs has been killed, and her mother is pretty beaten up – either by the Motorogi females who are not happy with the Lazy Girls trying to raise cubs in such close proximity to their own families – or by hyenas. Either way, the Lazy Boys failed to be there to prevent this loss. Let’s hope the last two cubs make it through. The Mara needs them.


Mara Plains staff

Roughing It!

Filming wildlife often involves long haul flights on uninsurable airlines to far flung unheard of destinations at least 50km from the nearest Golden Arches fast food restaurant. Obviously that’s not all bad but in Africa you often have to put up with bugs, bats, malaria and waterborne diseases in your coffee. I say ‘often’, as on this occasion our accommodation could not have been further removed from the traditional natural history filming experience. Mara Plains is one of the best camps in the Mara. But honestly we stayed there because of the location and 24 hour electricity, not because of the amazing food, good company or stunning tents.

We would like to thank Richard, Juma, Moses, Dominic, Adam, Kelvin, Tyler, Susan, Ella, Ping, Philip and everyone else at Mara Plains Camp (http://www.maraplains.com) who helped to make our trip so memorable (in a successful sort of way). We were extremely lucky to find such a fantastic location to use as a base camp and even more fortunate to have been looked after so well. A special thank you to Sean ‘Boy Scout’ Hartley for all of his help in accommodating us, spotting the lions and keeping the generators running despite the sleep deprivation this must have caused.

And special thanks too to:
Richard ‘Marmalade’ Jones for learning to love the Starlight camera
Tom ‘Cakeboy’ Stephens for getting to grips with the thermal camera alongside general creative input AND dealing with much of the digital file management
Stanley ‘Houdini’ Kinyolo, for some expert car magic in the Mara mud
Jean Hartley of Viewfinders http://www.viewfindersltd.com/ for getting us in and out of the country with no problems whatsoever, and supplying Snickers bars at a time of need.

We have now returned to the office in the UK with all of our kit intact (if a few kilos heavier from the sand (read blood sweat and tears) it has collected to start the preparation for the edit at the end of the month. Thank you to everyone back in Kenya who helped us with this trip and made it such a success.

The Ammonite Team


Friday the 13th - Unlucky for some

Friday, the last filming day of the trip, started badly. The brand new generator broke down. It had been bought hurriedly to stand in for the main generatator which broke down a few days earlier. We just had to hope that we had enough battery power left for filming that night.

Later in the day, storm clouds started to gather on the horizon. The ground was already getting slushy from rain on the previous few days, and damp black cotton soil can become like ice if it gets another wetting. We were dreading having to follow the lions through thorn scrub and flooded luggas in the pitch dark, so we added Sean ‘Boy Scout’ Hartley to the team for his intricate knowledge of the area.

After setting off, we soon found the two Lazy Girls, with their three cubs larking about in puddles. At that point bit of a roar-off ensued when some of the Motorogi females turned up with the Lazy Boys - who are probably the fathers of the cubs of both prides. The Lazy Boys got a slapping from the Motorogi girls while the Lazy Girls ran back south with their cubs to their favourite lugga. Pretty lucky for us as it happens, but not so good for the Lazy Boys who seem to have been found out for two timing.

And then our worst weather fears were realised. The heavens truly opened, dumping 50 (much needed) mm in just an hour. The usual drizzle that follows made filming and following the Lazy Girls even more of an ordeal than it might have been.

With no moon, and a thick layer of cloud, this was about as dark as it ever gets on the plains. The Lazy Girls walked confidently forward despite the fact that we knew they couldn’t see anything that wasn’t silhouetted against the sky. Tommies ran from the unmistakable sound of approaching lion footfalls with their heads held low to see where they were going. The lioness with a missing tail tuft suddenly strode off on her own, leaving the other lioness and the cubs alone in the middle of the plain. The tuftless lioness immediately headed off towards the flooding lugga as we struggled to reposition the car in the rain and pitch dark to see what she might be heading for. The thermal camera quickly revealed she was looking towards a grazing herd of zebras.

Stalking silently through the bushes the lioness crept ever closer to the unsuspecting zebras. Inching forward she stalked to within 10m of the herd.As always seems to happen with lion hunts, we had to make a quick descision to reposition the car in preperation for where we hoped the chase would take place. Filming between dense thorn bushes, flooded luggas and manouvering over rocks, we decided to reposition the car for a better shot before she made her run.

No sooner had we repositioned than the tuftless lioness ran to a zebra and a mad chase began - away from us. The move was starting to look like a catastrophic error when the zebra turned back on itself and Tuftless Lazy Girl didn’t give up. Just as they were coming out from behind a bush, Tuftless leapt at the Zebra. Somehow she missjudged, or the zebra made an evasive move - and Tuftless shot straight over the zebra, landed on her head and cartwheeled a few times before bouncing back onto her four feet. This was obviously very lucky for us and the zebra. At that moment, we saw a bright shape on the thermal camera shooting past the front of the car. It was the other lioness, previously unseen to us and our ever vigilant ‘Boy Scout’ spotter, darting from the darkness and intercepting the zebra. (A bit unlucky for us). By the time we got the car turned around, Tufty Lazy Girl had the zebra standing, but still needed help from slightly limping Tuftless to bring it down. It was a strong and healthy stallion.

The question is, whether or not this apparently fine stallion was selected by the lions for being somehow unfit ( as suggested by ‘survival of the fittest’ evolutionary theory). Or whether this zebra was just plain unlucky (as suggested by some more recent evolutionary ideas). In this case, it appeared that the lions simply took the closest zebra, and were lucky enough to have the strength to bring down all 400 kilos of him. And we were very lucky to be there and pointing in the right direction on the darkest, wettest night of the trip.


Mara Storm

101 reasons why timelapses fail

(Well there are at least 101 reasons but there isn't space to list them all.)

Timelapse photography has become much more common recently, owing mainly to the arrival of digital still cameras which offer a relatively cheap and simple way of recording events and processes invisible to the naked eye. But it’s one of those ‘minute to learn, lifetime to master’ things. Here’s a small selection of what has gone wrong in the past and what will definitely happen again to those unable to connect with their inner Zen.

1, What looked to be interesting sped up is in fact really boring - a very common fault - hopefully you’ll learn from that experience

2, A shot which started off in a really interesting way soon fizzled out and became very dull - you should have been there earlier

3, Lens cap - it has happened

4, Forgetting to turn the camera on - yep that’s happened too.

5, Rain on the lens - at least it shows you’re taking it to the limit.

6, Not winding up the (clockwork) camera before starting - up til very recently, clockwork Bolex cameras were used for timelapse photography.

7, Forgetting to format the CF card - a modern affliction that plagues users of digital still cameras for timelapse

8, Too few frames - always think of a number and double it

9, Impossibly variable exposure - you can be lucky with auto exposure - but usually not.

10, Leaving the camera on autofocus - another modern curse - it creates an interesting but more or less useless wobble board effect.

11, Using auto exposure - arthouse maybe, but often pretty hard to watch.

12, Running out of battery - either the timer, the camera, or any motion conrol devices could stop at any time.

13, Passers by stopping in front of the camera and having a good old look down the lens -

14, Sombody setting up a tripod in front of your timelapse to take photos of whatever you are taking photos of.

15, Monkeys pulling wires out.

16, Plants which should be blossoming, wilting in shot.

17, Plants which should be growing through the middle of the frame managing to grow neatly around the border.

18, Turning the camera off too soon - be patient - make sure it’s over.

19, Drooping camera - this has created some potentially interesting but mostly quite dull movies of the ground

20, Focus - almost all lenses have a depth of field scale on the top - try it.

21, Camera falling off front of car - what can I say?

22, Condensation - clear starry nights usually mist up the lens just as it’s getting good - a difficult problem to solve.

23, Missed frames - very hard to cure- make sure the camera is actually doing what you think it is.

24, Food, insects and other objects on the lens - always worth a check before you press go.

25, Hot air balloon rotating - don’t bother trying timelapse from a hot air balloon.

26, Camera shadow - the sun moves, so does the camera shadow - more than likely into your shot.

etc etc

OK I’ll admit to at least a few of these errors over the last few days while trying to capture the incredible storms that have been marching over the Mara from the East. The drought is over, the black cotton soil is eyeing up its first unwary car victims of the season - and we have just a couple of days left before returning home.


Brian's Hooligans

Brian (the lion)* is the coolest cat on the plains. He’s one of the mature males of the Bilashaka pride and under the thumb/paws of his cubs. His laid back 'love and peace' attitude seems a bit out of place for a large male but perhaps due to his two most ferocious adult females, the mothers to his offspring, the youngsters love having him around.

Following Brian and his large group of boisterous over-grown cubs have given us the most exciting and entertaining nights of our trip so far. Brian’s cubs are around 18 months to two years old and have the stature of nearly full-grown lions but none of the prowess! Their mothers seem to despair and abandon them at dark, opting to catch their own food and leave their kids to their own devices.

For the last few days the moon has risen an hour or two after sunset, which in combination with cloudy skies creates a period of total darkness, the perfect conditions for our lions to head out and terrify the neighbourhood.

The gang consists of five young males and four girls, the smaller of which we call Kit Kat. She is an amazing lioness and the driving force behind the groups hunting efforts. Most lions may hunt once or twice a night before crashing out to sleep but Kit Kat just keeps on chasing and chasing anything that moves. We're exhausted. Her hunting 'technique’ is not so much to stalk an animal but to simply run it down! This method can work on dark nights, but not in daylight. We’ve repeatedly filmed her both day and night run over 100m flat out just to reach where her prey was standing before giving chase. Most adult lions employ some sort of stealth and patience but Kit Kat just relies on endless enthusiasm.

Kit Kat's insatiable appetite for hunting has led her to chase topi, zebra, Impala, and she even gets the odd fawn which her brothers promptly steal. But she and the rest of the gang seem to enjoy 'hippo surfing’ the most. On three separate occasions we have seen this pride of hooligans cling with their front paws onto the bottoms of the terrified running hippos, the lion's back legs bouncing like Pogo sticks behind them. The poor hippos run into a lugga and the lions give up. What has become clear is that these youngsters have yet to learn how to hunt for themselves. Perhaps chasing hippos is a good if rather dangerous way of learning their limitations.

This post written by Tom 'Cakeboy’ Stephens

*Brian is our name for him - he may also have another name


Cattle crisis

Being new to the Mara has been an interesting experience for me in observing the high levels of cattle grazing the plains. Having previously worked in more central Kenya I’m used to seeing livestock and wildlife mixed together but the levels here are quite concerning. Not just because cattle compete with wildlife for grazing but because of the many factors that accompany high levels of livestock. Whether this grazing is the result of the recent drought or whether it is more entrenched is hard to say.

Stray dogs have come past our camp, presumably distantly accompanying a herdsman and his livestock. The dogs may be harmless enough but they can carry diseases such as canine distemper and rabies, which in the past have already wiped out the Mara’s wild hunting dog population and caused a crash in the lion numbers. Diseases carried by domestic animals are a direct threat to all wildlife in the Mara, and threaten the entire ecosystem (and therefore income from tourism).
We’ve seen large herds of cattle inside the reserve both day and night but what we saw last night was most depressing. On our way out filming for the evening we noticed 3 starving and emaciated young cows that clearly abandoned near our camp. When we returned 12 hours later, we made a grisly discovery of around 20 hyenas feeding on all 3 of them. One calf was still alive for a few minutes so there could be no doubt that hyenas had made the kills. But what were the cows doing there? This is not the role hyenas are meant to play in the ecosystem; they should be maintaining the plains game population levels, keeping the fit animals fit with their chasing, as well as taking out sick and diseased animals. There aren’t enough hyenas to do that as well as deal with the inevitable fallout of drought combined with massive overstocking of cattle, sheep and goats.
We’ve come to the Mara to film romping lions and hyenas in their natural environment, let us just hope that this behaviour doesn’t become a common occurrence.

post written by Tom ‘Cakeboy’ Stephens


Days off Nights

Cameraman Richard ‘Marmalade’ Jones arrived a couple of days ago, so it seemed a good time to take a break from nights and try and get some daytime hunting behaviour. Richard’s first assignment was to sit with the two ‘Lazy Girls’ and their three cubs, as they had been living in the same lugga for weeks now and killing only in the heat of the day when animals came to drink.

Then it rained, the Lazy Girls caught a wildebeest at night and it seemed the only thing to do was to go back to nights (3pm to 3am).

Richard’s 1st night was a disappointment. We went to look for the Motorogi group who had been spotted nearby - but they had moved - and we found the Monico* pride youth group who were so fat they couldn’t move. At least this was a good time for Richard to get the hang of working the Starlight camera

Last night we were a bit more adventurous, going to the recently rained on slopes of Rhino Ridge where we found the Western arm of the sprawling Bila Shaka pride (sometimes called the Marsh Pride). It was the usual youth group arrangement, a couple of mums and in this case 6 almost full grown but otherwise useless offspring. They didn’t disappoint. The two mums were setting up a good zebra ambush joined by possibly the stupider of their two daughters - who started a run way too soon. She ran and ran and ran after the only zebra foal in the group. Every zebra within a mile saw this and they all too ran after the escapees. Mum lion was not impressed and seemed in a particularly bad mood.

After dark, they managed to lose us a couple of times, but we found them again just as they had surrounded a hippo.

This was a spectacular battle with the four young males vying to be the bravest (for brave read stupid) by trying to climb on the hippo’s back. After much spinning, running and charging, the hippo ran into a lugga and the lions eventually lost interest.

Well done Richard Jones for getting some unforgettable starlight images, Tom Stephens for finding the lions again and filming some incredible thermal action, and, at the wheel, Stanley ‘Houdini’ Kinyolo for conjuring some very narrow escapes with deep black cotton soil mud.

* Monico pride named after Monico hill where they live, named after a Maasai warrior who went there to kill a lion - but it killed him.

Working By Starlight

Tom Stephens at work


Life In The Car

Every night we pack our night filming car to the gunnels with 6 cases, 4 car batteries, 2 inverters, 2 desktop computers, 2 custom-built cameras, gallons of tea and a packed dinner that we just about squeeze 3 or 4 people around. Not so much a filming car but a mobile filming office. As you can imagine, now the rains have started, that we’re increasingly anxious about the water-tightness of the car. So far so good however with just one exploded inverter. The rain has become a welcome relief from the dust bath we are used to driving in.

The main challenge of filming at night is navigating around the Mara in total darkness whilst following lions in and out of thick thorn bushes. We don’t use any visible light so our driver Stanley wears night vision goggles and illuminates the road ahead of the car with infra red light. This relaxes the wildlife and prevents creating an unfair advantage for the lions by spotlighting a potential meal.

If we don’t accidentally bump into them, we locate the lions using our thermal camera which can pick out a heat signature from several kilometres away. As we mentioned before in our blog about mistaken identity, this can lead us towards hot rocks and glowing termite mounds but most of the time we find the lions we are looking for. The starlight and thermal cameras are providing us with incredible insight and images of life on the plains at night. I can only compare the experience to SCUBA diving, when you first plunge into the sea and discover it is not full of the sharks that your imagination convinced you were there waiting for you. We have a unique and new view of what is really going on and it is endlessly fascinating to see the plains covered with grazing hippos and romping hyenas once the sun sets.

We have two weeks of filming left to go, who knows what we will find in the dark over these final weeks!

This post written by
Tom ‘Cakeboy’ Stephens