Mara light and serengeti skies

The Serengeti meets the Kenyan border along its northernmost edge. From there, it extends southward into Tanzania for many miles, with the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to its east and the legendary Lake Victoria to the west. I’m told that the word “Serengeti” is derived from the Masai language, meaning “endless plain that touches the sky.” If that definition is correct, then this must surely be the most appropriately named place on earth.

The Serengeti under a spectacular sky.
The central Serengeti under a spectacular sky.

The Serengeti is contiguous with the Masai Mara, which stretches north, well into the heart of Kenya. Despite the similarity of their wildlife and the ubiquity of the Masai people throughout, these two parcels of terrestrial heaven seem to have their own characters and temperaments. The Serengeti is hauntingly beautiful. Flatter than the Mara, its expansive grasslands are dotted with isolated stacks of boulders called “kopjes” (pronounced much like the word “copy” with a slightly elongated “o”). These odd, eye-catching formations were created when molten material punctured the earth’s surface and cooled as enormous piles of igneous rock. They punctuate the landscape under skies that always impress and frequently overwhelm.

The gorgeous hills and grasslands of the Masai Mara.

The Mara conveys a slightly different mood. To the farthest horizon its hills are speckled with acacia and fig trees, randomly dispersed islets of green on an a golden sea. But what makes the Mara transcendently beautiful is the quality of its light. In the heart of the dry season the Serengeti sky can be almost blinding, and full days and even weeks may pass without even the trace of a cloud. Not so with the Masai Mara. Its “dry” season is rarely completely dry … which is why the vast herds of wildebeest and zebra continue to turn up each August, just as they have for many centuries. The clouds seem to gather every afternoon. Their shadows dapple the low hills and accentuate the pure colors of the African sky.

Light of this quality is not uncommon in the Mara.

After I return from a trip to East Africa, I spend many hours and even days poring over my images, performing a sort of photographic triage. So many times, I’ve paused in disbelief over a landscape and silently questioned my cameras, lenses and filters. Was the the sky or the grassland really that color? Or could there be some luminous anomaly at work, altering the hues to some fantastic shade that couldn’t possibly be real? The only way to validate the quality of light and color is to return for a personal assessment … twice a year at a minimum.

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