The cheetahs were moving away from us across the top of a rocky ridge, their movements effortless and graceful. Once we crossed the donga and started climbing up the hill, very, very slowly, the cheetahs became aware of our presence. We were still a good quarter mile or more away. All you could see was a slight movement in the high grass and every once in awhile the glimpse of a sleek, spotted body slinking away. Calvin figured it was a mother and her two adolescent children.
We started to play a little game with the cheetahs. Calvin would stop the Land Cruiser, kill the engine, and we’d let the cats have a good look at us before starting up again and approaching a little closer, at which point the cheetahs would slink further across the ridge as we followed. Doing this in steps, we eventually closed the distance between us from a quarter of a mile to maybe a hundred feet. This took us about half an hour.
At this point the cheetahs were slouched in the shade of a thorn bush with a view of the sloping hill in front of them. I had always thought that cats stalk their kill from a great distance, slowly sneaking up on it until it’s time for the chase, but Calvin said usually they find a good place from which to attack—like a covered area on top of a ridge—and let their prey come to them. Much more efficient. This was obviously what the cheetah family was doing.
All the shadowy coolness of morning was gone now, replaced by the harsh heat of day. Calvin positioned the Land Cruiser to give us as much shade as possible. Even so, it was starting to get hot. We didn’t talk. I’d screwed a mono-pod on to the base of my camera and was using a 200mm telephoto lens with a 2X multiplier and when I looked through my camera, I could see the amber eyes of one of the largest of the cheetahs, the mother, and a pink slip of tongue sticking out. She was beautiful to look at and seemed to be staring right back at me.
There was a cooler in the rear and Fletch got out very cold cans of Tusker beer and handed them around to everyone but Hardy. He had to pee but knew he couldn’t get out of the vehicle. Calvin asked him if we should drive away and find someplace where he could do his business but Hardy said no, this was just too amazing, he’d pee in a bottle if it got bad.
Just then the three cheetahs exploded in a furious run right in front of us. A lone eland had wandered by and the cats, led by mom, went after it. An eland isn’t typical prey for cheetahs. The largest of African antelope, they’re about the size of cattle, which they somewhat resemble. Several cheetahs could obviously bring one down, but it wouldn’t be easy.
The eland changed course, heading down the hill instead of up, the minute the cheetahs attacked. Before I could even swing my camera around, they’d moved off to our left, heading for the donga. The largest of the cheetahs made a swipe at the eland’s back legs to knock it off its feet but missed and the eland changed directions once again. Already the two smaller cheetahs had stopped running and were falling behind. Soon the mother gave up as well and the eland fled down into the donga.
Cheetahs are very fast but they have no stamina. They can run over 60 mph but only for short distances. And after a sprint, they need to chill out for at least half-an-hour before making another attempt. Calvin knew nothing exciting would be happening for awhile so he backed the Land Cruiser up and slowly drove away from the cheetahs, looking for a spot where we could safely get out and stretch our legs or whatever for a few minutes.
Then we went back to look for the cheetahs. They were lying on their sides in the shade, the mother grooming her two children. Calvin said he thought the cats looked a little thin. “They need a meal,” he said.
Pete and I took photos of them for another half hour or so, hoping that a small Thomsons gazelle or maybe a dik-dik would come by, something a little easier for the cheetahs to run down, but, like all cats, they are patient. It might be another hour before they gave chase again or it might be another five hours. Who could say? We’d already stayed with the cheetahs for a couple of hours. And hadn’t we originally thought we were going to spend the morning looking for Cape buffalos? So Calvin started up the engine and with the cheetahs sitting up watching us, we slowly retreated from the ridge, in search of buffs down in the wooded glen a mile or so away.
Tags: Masai Mara
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