The Best Safaris In Kenya

Safari In The Masai Mara

Safari In The Masai Mara
By Stuart Butler

The very essence of an African safari landscape, the Masai Mara stretches along the Kenya-Tanzania border and forms the northern fringe of the greater Serengeti ecosystem (most of which is in Tanzania).

The sweeping grass plains of the Mara (as it’s usually referred to) are home to the densest concentration of large mammals on the planet. This is the place to see large prides of black-manned lions, bellowing elephants, grumpy buffalo and a pick ‘n’ mix box of antelope and gazelles. And that’s before we even touch on the smaller creatures and huge array of birds.

But, above and beyond all that, the Mara is where the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra make a daring crossing over the torrid, crocodile filled water of the Mara River during the famed wildebeest migration.

As well as the wildlife, the Mara is perhaps just as well known as being a homeland for the distinctive looking Maasai peoples. In the 18th century the Maasai were dominant among Kenya’s many tribal peoples, but a combination of drought caused famine, a major rinderpest outbreak and the impacts of colonialism destroyed much of their former power.

Today large parts of their former homelands have been given over to national parks and reserves (the Masai Mara being just one such example). But, the Maasai have adapted and evolved. On the fringes of many parks and reserves – and around the Masai Mara in particular – the local Maasai communities have teamed up with tourism, conservation and safari stakeholders to create the wildlife conservancies.

For all intents and purposes these are private, and normally very exclusive, wildlife reserves run for the benefit of both animals and the local communities (which can be a far cry from the national parks where the Maasai and others often consider themselves excluded).

Not just has the income provided by these conservancies helped improve lives among the Maasai, but they’ve also done much to change the shape of conservation in Kenya (and beyond), increased wildlife numbers throughout the country and, from the point of view of a safari tourist, they offer what is unquestionably the world's finest safari experience.

Safari in the Masai Mara

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Lions prowling in the Masai Mara

Masai Mara wildlife

The Masai Mara and the rest of the Serengeti ecosystem has the greatest population of large animals on the planet. Sit on a ridge here and watch as thousands of grazers mow the grass while keeping a beady eye out for the predator population that includes famously big lions, as well as cheetah, elusive leopard and cackling hyena.

All of the famed Big Five (so named because they were the prize targets of early-20th century hunters) are present here: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino. All but the rhino (there’s a growing population but they remain elusive) can be easily seen.

As well as up to a million plus wildebeest, there are dozens of species of antelope, gazelle and other herbivores including huge numbers of zebra, impala, Thompson’s gazelle and giraffe. And the rivers are stuffed with hippos and crocodiles.

Then there’s the smaller creatures who are even more numerous than the big boys: Aardvarks and porcupines, jackals and warthogs, baboons and vervet monkeys, squirrels and agamas.

From ostrich to weaver birds, birders will also delight. Over 500 bird species have been recorded in the Mara – that’s about the same as found in the whole of the UK!

It’s all here if you keep your eyes sharp.

Masai Mara highlights

The migration

One of the Mara’s top draws is the arrival of the wildebeest migration between June and October, when around 1.2 million wildebeest, hundreds of thousands of zebra, gazelle and impala cross over from the Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania.

Safari-goers flock to the Mara River to watch the migration’s most spectacular moment, as hordes of wildebeest thunder into the water, running the gauntlet of waiting crocodiles. It’s nature on its grandest scale – but also the busiest time to go on safari in the Masai Mara.

Conservancies

The Mara is fringed by private and community conservancies, which together double the size of the protected area. These conservancies protect key migration routes (especially for elephants) and areas of hilly woodlands, as well as the classic grassland savannah.

In many cases wildlife populations are actually greater in the conservancies than within the reserve itself. And, with visitor numbers strictly limited to guests of the handful of camps and lodges within each conservancy (some conservancies, such as Olderkesi, have just one camp – in this case it’s the spectacular Cottars 1920’s Safari Camp – it’s easy to feel as if you have a great swathe of African bush all to yourself.

Staying in a conservancy guarantees you the finest wildlife guides in the business, quality safari vehicles, wonderfully romantic accommodation and superb food as well as a whole host of activities not available within the reserve itself (such as bush walks, bush breakfasts, sundowners and the opportunity to learn more about conservation).

Balloon rides

Riding high on the morning thermals above the plains is a quintessential Kenyan experience and the Masai Mara is the place to do it. From on up high you'll marvel at snake-like lines of migrating wildebeest, watch the shadow fall from an acacia tree at dawn and, if you’re really lucky, see lions or cheetah readying themselves for the a pounce.

Bush walks

Nothing brings the Mara alive like exploring it on foot. You’re not allowed to do a walking safari within the reserve itself but if you’re staying in a camp on the edge of the reserve or in one of the conservancies then a bush walk should be easy to organise.

Best time to visit the Masai Mara

When the wildebeest roll through the Mara between July and early October the safari goers arrive en masse. But, even with high season prices and crowds this is still by far the best time to be in the Mara. The wildlife show is quite simply spectacular, the grass is green and the weather – not too hot and not too cold – is just perfect.

Another popular time is Christmas through to mid-March. The wildebeest migration might be far away (but resident wildebeest remain) but there’s still a massive amount of other wildlife on hand.

Mid-March-early-May is the height of the rainy season and many camps close and wildlife is dispersed. June, before the high season crowds arrive is a very rewarding time to be here.

How to get to the Masai Mara

The easiest and most common way of getting from Nairobi to the Masai Mara is by small plane. There are numerous small, unsurfaced air strips within the reserve and surrounding conservancies and dozens of planes (each carrying around 8-12 passengers) fly in and out every day.

The two main airlines serving the Mara are Air Kenya (www.airkenya.com) and Safari Link (www.flysafarilink.com). As well as linking Nairobi with the Mara they also link individual air strips within the Mara and offer frequent flights to Malindi and Diani beaches and other major national parks. Baggage weight limit is normally only 15kg. Excess baggage fees are steep.

Budget safaris and fully independent visitors often come overland from Nairobi or other parks and reserves. On a good day with light traffic leaving Nairobi it’s possible to drive from the city to the Sekenani gate in just five hours. However, a day of light traffic around Nairobi is as rare as a squat giraffe so allow a full day for the journey.

Where to stay in the Masai Mara

The Mara has a huge amount of accommodation options. In fact, with over 300 registered camps and lodges, many conservation experts fear that there is too much tourism development. Options range from shabby, basic and cheap (think around US$50-150) to something fit for the royals and with a price tag to match (it’s not hard to find places costing over US$1,000 a night).

The three main gates into the Mara (Sekenani, Talek and Oloolaimutiek all have lots of budget and mid-range accommodation. These vary from Maasai homestays (book through www.semadepngo.com), and basic campgrounds to well-turned out Maasai run safari camps.

There are also a smattering of high end safari camps where acting in an environmentally and socially aware manner is as important as all the bells and whistles that come with a stay.

If you want to stay inside the reserve then options are more limited and tend to revolve around a couple of dated safari ‘package hotel’ style lodges or much more impressive intimate safari camps.

The best areas by far to stay though are in the conservancies that fringe the reserve proper. These conservancies have vastly expanded the amount of land under some kind of protection. Staying in a conservancy is unquestionably expensive, but everyone should try and allow for a couple of nights in a conservancy camp.

Remember also the high prices aren’t just paying for the uniformly magnificent accommodation and superb safari experience but a great bulk of what you’re paying contributes to leasing the land and devoting it to conservation. Essentially your money is paying to preserve the wildlife habitat.

There are around 16 conservancies fringing the Mara but not all are fully set-up to safari tourists. The best known and regarded conservancies are listed below with recommended accommodation (all of which are highly exclusive, top-end camps).

Mara North - Perhaps the best known conservancy, this is a stunning slab of Kenyan wilderness bursting with wildlife. Try the following camps.

  • Saruni Mara
  • Offbeat Mara
  • Elephant Pepper Camp
  • Alex Walkers Serian
  • Kicheche Mara

Naboisho - Ground breaking conservancy working hard to protect wildlife and local communities. The scrubby terrain here is packed with big animals. Try the following camps:

  • Asilia Naboisho
  • Kicheche Valley
  • Basecamp Eagle View

Olare Motorogi - With one of the densest populations of lions in Kenya you’d be hard pushed to go wrong at this stunning conservancy. Try the following camps.

  • Mara Plains
  • Kicheche Bush

Ol Derikesi - Tucked into the remote southeast corner of the Mara region, this is African wilderness at its best. There’s an incredible amount of wildlife around here - including lots of lions - and just one spectacular camp.

  • Cottars 1920’s Camp
Safari In The Masai Mara

Stuart Butler

Stuart is the author of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal, the Rough Guide to Nepal, the Tibet chapter of the Rough Guide to China and the Bradt guide to Kashmir & Ladakh. He also writes widely about East Africa and conservation issues.

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