As a wildlife photographer, getting to go on safari is one of the perks of the job. It’s something I always look forward to — being out in the wild, close to nature, is such a special time. My safari this year was no exception.
Animals are unpredictable, so you always have to be ready for anything, And this year a cheetah named Malaika gave us some memories I will never forget.
Unlike most game drives, I’d decided that to maximise my time in the field, my vehicle would leave camp at 0600 and not return until sunset. This gave me a full 12 hours out in the savannah.
Typically, I wouldn’t expect to see much through the middle of the day as it’s very hot and most animals just find some shade and wait it out. However, the cheetahs are daytime hunters. It may be hot, but they still keep a look-out for any passing prey they can chase down.
For the most part, you usually find cheetahs sitting on little mounds in the grass as it provides them some extra elevation to be able to see their prey earlier and launch an ambush. But one day, a couple of cheetahs decided vehicles make even better mounds.
It was around lunchtime. We’d been driving around looking for a mother and three cubs that we’d seen earlier in the day when one of the cubs hopped up onto the bonnet of the 4x4. She stayed there for about five seconds before deciding the metal was too hot and hopping back off. Unfortunately, her siblings and mother decided shade was a good option and went and hid in the long grass by a tree stump. So we moved on, looking for Malaika. Of all the cheetahs in the Maasai Mara, Malaika is one of the most well known for climbing onto cars.
After about 20 minutes of driving across the Mara, we came upon her with her cub sitting in the long grass. We pulled up alongside and prepared to dip into our reserves of patience. We didn’t have long to wait though. Within about three minutes, Malaika had decided the vehicle looked like a good place to sit and she made her way over to the back. In the blink of an eye, she was on the top of the 4x4, perched precariously on the roll cage. Two minutes after that, her cub thought he’d join in the fun too, so now we had two cheetahs, one full grown mum and the other a seven-month-old male, just hanging out on our vehicle scanning the horizon.
After about 15 minutes the cheetahs were looking nice and relaxed and I guessed I had a bit more freedom to move around without spooking them. So I got out my 1m reflector. Now reflectors are not something you usually use with wild animals like big cats as they tend to be too far away, however this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss and I didn’t want to risk using the flash in case it scared them away. I started shooting, first with the reflector at the other end of the vehicle before gradually bringing it in closer until it was no more than one meter from Malaika, providing some lovely warm fill light to help me balance the bright sky behind.
After about two hours of shooting as the cheetahs moved around the roof, the cheetahs spotted a herd in the distance and hopped down to go and investigate closer. They’d left me and my three companions in the 4x4, with an experience that is unlikely to be repeated and memories to last a lifetime. It was a learning experience too. Throughout the time I spent with them, despite being within 30cm of them with no protection between us, there was no point when I felt threatened or at risk. Far from being big cats to be scared of, they were just two big cats being lazy big cats on our vehicle.