The 1,510-sq-km (583-sq-mile) Masai Mara National Reserve is Kenya’s most celebrated wildlife reserve, and arguably its best. Gazetted in 1968, it is dominated by open grassland, but as implied by the Maasai name Mara, meaning spotted, it is interspersed with rocky hills, acacia woodland, and riparian forest. Mara Mara National Reserve is rewarding not just for predators such as lion, leopard and cheetah but for spotted hyena, bat-eared fox, and black-backed jackal as well. Elephant and buffalo are common, and a number of black rhinos still survive. Other ungulates include impala, eland, and reedbuck. A checklist of 450-plus birds includes raptors and ground birds such as ostrich and ground hornbill.
Things to do in Masai Mara National Reserve
For a first-time traveler to East Africa, Masai Mara National Reserve, a comparatively tiny portion of the expansive game-rich wilds known as the Serengeti just across the border in Tanzania is indispensable, considered the ultimate opportunity to view wildlife in all its untamed, theatrical glory. If the literature is to be believed, Mara Mara National Reserve boasts the highest concentration of terrestrial wildlife on Earth. And, yes, the Great Migration an awesome, rollicking natural cycle when hundreds of thousands of wildebeest attempt dangerous, frequently foolhardy river crossings as part of their annual biorhythmic round-trip exodus from Tanzania into Kenya really is as spectacular and mesmerizing as the wildlife documentaries would have you believe.
Those astounding images of thousands of seemingly hypnotized animals flopping, diving, and tripping into crocodile-infested rivers are the stuff of every wildlife enthusiast’s dreams, and it is reckoned that this particular migration one of the numerous animal treks that happen around the world throughout the year is best witnessed here in Mara Mara National Reserve, where the massive animal numbers are compressed into a relatively small area. Imagine 21⁄2 million visiting animals cluttering the plains and clogging the rivers as they squeeze into an area that covers just more than 1,500 sq. km (585 sq. miles).
Masai Mara National Reserve is one of nature’s must-see dramas—although, with its high death toll, not necessarily for the squeamish (and the sight of Bambi being mauled to death by lions is sure to traumatize the kids). Even if you don’t make it in time to see the Migration, you’ll be treated to one of the richest and most diverse animal kingdoms in the world. And if you choose carefully, you’ll be staying in intimate, luxurious surrounds, far from the maddening crowd
1. Game Drives
With regularly spotted cheetah, loping hyena, and shyer carnivores also out to up their protein intake, Mara Mara National Reserve is a priority destination for observing animated and furious interactions between predators and their prey. If lion kills and cheetah chases aren’t your things, there’s always plenty of mellower hippo and croc action down at the river. Or simply take in the endlessly compelling sight of elephant herds cruising the wilderness, tan-colored topi standing sentinel atop termite mounds, or groups of sullen-faced buffalo giving you the once-over. And backing up all this animal magic is an enduring, ever enchanting landscape.
The Masai Mara National Reserve has an extensive network of dirt roads that are maintained by park authorities. You will hopefully be driven around by experienced guides trained to look for clues telling them where animals are most likely to be found. It is also possible to sign up for hot air balloon safaris, horse safaris, and bush walks. Several safari operators can arrange specialized tours, treks, or hikes in the Mara.
2. Hot Air Balloon Safaris
Balloon safaris are very popular and certainly a unique way of experiencing a safari in Masai Mara. In fact, Masai Mara National Reserve has to be one of the very best places on earth for ballooning. Soaring across the savannah, sometimes so close to the ground that you swear you could reach out and touch the trees and animals below, a balloon safari is the ultimate predawn adrenaline rush. Floating over the plains and above the forest that straddles the Mara River, you get an entirely unexpected perspective on this animal-rich world, particularly enchanting during the Great Migration, when sightings of lions, hyenas, and other predators are all but guaranteed.
Taking off as the sun starts to rise, check-in time is 5:30 am, and that means making a very early start—particularly if you’re traveling from a faraway lodge or camp. Flight time is usually 1 hour, culminating with a champagne breakfast in the open grassland, complete with Maasai chefs preparing pancakes to order. The all-inclusive cost (with transfers that include a game drive en route back to your lodge) is between $410 and $450 (highest during the Migration and Christmas/New Year period) per adult; kids under 12 pay half the adult price.
Note: Be warned that, during the Migration, you should reserve your place when you book your accommodations because demand frequently outstrips availability in 2007, when a record 10,000 people were flown above the Mara River, the companies turned away hundreds of disappointed would-be passengers
3. Maasai Manyatta Visits
A visit to Masai Mara National Reserve also offers you the opportunity to rub shoulders with the Maasai. Kenya’s most famous group of people is a tribe of tall, elegant pastoralists who despite encroaching modernity have somehow managed to sustain many of their traditional ways. You’ll see young Maasai boys herding hundreds of cattle or shepherding goats across the land, or come across the legendary Maasai warriors (morani) dressed in their bright red shukas and long-lasting sandals made from recycled rubber tires who have long stirred the imagination of visitors to East Africa. If you’re lucky, these men will be the guides and drivers assigned to take you through the Masai Mara National Reserve wilderness.
4. The Great wildebeest Migration
We all must have heard of The Great wildebeest Migration in Africa, a seasonal movement of large herds of wildebeests accompanied by zebras and antelopes. Time your visit to Mara Mara National Reserve accordingly, and you can prepare for one of the world’s great wildlife dramas, a hoofed mob of a million-plus wildebeest moving in masses across grass-filled plains, over hills, and through rivers besieged by hungry crocodiles and watched by salivating lions and excitable hyenas. Pounding up the dirt in a splendid display of obedience to some powerful biorhythmic clock, it’s a riot of wild, unbridled energy and fierce determination as herds of wildebeest and other, less clunky hangers-on some 360,000 Thomson’s gazelle and 191,000 zebra move across the border from Tanzania, filling the Mara with the primordial sounds, smells, and lumbering charm of their bovine feeding frenzy.
So what’s the story? After the long rains in April and May, the Mara Mara National Reserve’s sweet, tall, red ort grass, much loved by wildebeest, starts to grow, and, having exhausted the pastures of the Serengeti National Park, two million animals respond to some inexplicable instinct that ultimately brings them together into what looks like a single massive herd and steadily drifts northward. Visually it’s breathtaking, although it’s a myth that these animals come bounding along as though this were some kind of goal-driven marathon, in fact, this “annual” migration is an ongoing circuitous event with no real start or endpoint. The sheer force of numbers creates the spectacular effect of a single surging column of life that stretches across the horizon.
With little more than grass (and an inkling of survival) on their minds, they continue to pour across the border, and as they fill Mara Mara National Reserve, the ensuing action is relentless. Lurking by the wayside prides of magnificent Mara lions some numbering up to 40 strong prepare to ambush their lumbering victims. And like kids in a candy store, Nile crocodiles wait along the rivers that will prove the undoing of tens of thousands. Leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas pick off unfortunate stragglers. The gruesome sight of predators pulling a struggling wildebeest apart is not for the faint of heart, but for those who can stomach the savagery, it’s a thrilling open-air lesson in survival of the fittest.
Navigating by instinct and memory, the beast in their eagerness to reach the long grass that covers the northerly plains must cross the swirling waters of the Mara and Talek, rivers encountered along their circular route. It’s an awesome, inexplicable sight. One animal will raise its head as if testing the air and bound into the water, only to immediately be followed by thousands more. Diving and dashing into the waters with marauding predators waiting to pounce, these river crossings give visitors the chance to witness nature at its most brutal and bloody. Thousands of the animals drown, and the body pile-ups attract a motley assortment of scavengers. Instinctively as if part of a natural ritual culling process that will weed out the weak and make room for future generations the migrating herds inevitably choose terrifically dangerous fording points and attempt to cross near-impossible points in the river. The result is a mass drowning coupled with attacks by ravenous jubilant crocs and other predators.
These grotesque and spectacular migration pile-ups may easily see up to 1,000 wildebeest dead at any particular point but freak events, where the frenzied lemming-like wildebeest surge into fording points that are dangerously steep, or where the river current proves too fierce, can see the death toll rise to several times this number. But the Migration is really not about death, but part of an endless, ongoing cycle of life. Drive into the midst of the herds, and you are immediately aware of the constant movement and ceaseless activity, and at night there’s a veritable concert of grunting gnus, barking zebras, roaring lions, and laughing hyenas against a backtrack of chorusing cicadas. Finally, having grazed their way across Mara Mara National Reserve over a 3- or 4-month period, the survivors steadily return south, usually before the onset of the short rains in November. By December or January, they will have reached the Ngorongoro highlands in time for their calving season that sees as many as 8,000 wildebeest calves dropped each day. Six months later, these newborn wildebeest will be strong enough to tackle the long march back toward the Mara. Such is the constant theater of primal, primordial Africa.
Exploring Masai Mara National Reserve
Masai Mara National Reserve can be divided into three distinct parts. The eastern sector runs southeast from the Mara and Talek rivers to the Ngama Hills, the central sector lies cupped between these two rivers north of their confluence, and the western sector is flanked by Oloololo Escarpment and the Mara River. The east carries the heaviest traffic, which can detract from the wilderness atmosphere. Bear in mind that game drives are generally confined to the same sector as the lodge or campsite. Visitors with more than 3 nights at their disposal could divide their time between lodges in different sectors. It is easiest to visit Mara Mara National Reserve on an organized safari from Nairobi, but self-drive safaris are also an option. However, internal roads are rough and signposts non-existent.
Ngama Hills and the Eastern Plains
Accounting for about half of Mara Mara National Reserve, the eastern sector of Masai Mara is the closest to Nairobi and the most visited. Dozens of campsites and lodges are set within its boundaries or lie immediately outside them. The most prominent geographical landmark, the quartzite Ngama Hills, tower above the main Sekenani Entrance Gate and are visible from all corners. The smaller Ol Opelagonya and Ololoitikoshi hills both lie in the far southeast towards Ololaimutiek Gate. The rock-strewn grassland of these hills does not support the wildlife volumes associated with the plains below, but its dense thicket patches are a favored haunt of the reserve’s last few dozen remaining black rhino, while the margins harbor buffalo, dik-dik, and impala.
The flatter plains that run from the base of the Ngama Hills to the banks of the Mara river from the classic East African landscape of short grassland interspersed with a parsimonious scattering of acacia and other trees. The main roads through this part of the reserve are somewhat rutted and the relatively heavy traffic seems to be a deterrent to wildlife, so it is generally more productive to stick to the maze of regularly intersecting tracks that run between them. Lion and cheetah are common in this area, along with topi, gazelle, eland, ostrich, and kori bustard. The park supports a much higher elephant density than expected in such open terrain.
Other landmarks include the long-serving Keekerok Lodge, which is the launch site for early morning balloon trips. Further south, the seasonal Sand river more or less follows the Tanzanian border west towards its confluence with the Mara Mara National Reserve. Practically at the border, the South Mara Bridge is the only crossing point between the reserve’s eastern and western sectors and overlooks a hippo pool that is a popular picnic spot
Mara and Talek Rivers
The Mara River and its tributary the Talek are the only perennial waterways to flow through the Masai Mara National Reserve. Dotted with dozens of deep hippo pools, the Mara river supports varied aquatic wildlife that includes hippo, crocodile, and otter, along with riverine birds such as hamerkop and African darter. The lush ribbon of riparian forest that follows both rivers for much of their length is densely populated with leopard, vervet monkey and bushbuck, as well as a selection of birds that is strikingly different from those in the rest of the park. This includes the brilliantly colored Schalow’s and Ross’s turacos and the melodic white-browed robin-chat.
One of the most spectacular events in the Serengeti-Mara migration is the wildebeest crossing of the Mara river. This might happen several times during the migrant wildebeest’s 3-month Masai Mara tenure. There are eight major crossing points, of which the four most regularly used lie along a 5-km (3-mile) stretch of the Mara upriver of its confluence with the Talek and overlooked by the Mara Serena Safari Lodge. Often, wildebeest will congregate in their thousands on the banks for days before one impatient individual takes the plunge, triggering a lemming-like stampede that provides rich pickings to the waiting crocodiles. An estimated 3,000 wildebeests perish annually while crossing the Mara, but numbers are readily replenished by the average of 400,000 calves born in the Serengeti every January to February.
Located in the heart of Mara Mara National Reserve and serviced by a handful of upmarket camps, the untrammeled plains of the central Masai Mara flanked by the Mara River to the west and the Talek to the south – offer exceptionally reliable game viewing, particularly when it comes to big cats. Dominated by a long succession of thickened males, the legendary “marsh lion” pride hangs around the grassy verges of Musiara Swamp and Governor’s Camp and is habituated to vehicles.
The open grassland around Paradise Plain is arguably the best place in Kenya to look for cheetahs, while several generations of habituated leopards inhabit the vicinity of Leopard Gorge, a short drive outside the reserve from the Musiara Gate. By contrast, the prominent Rhino Ridge overlooking Paradise Plain seldom lives up to its name. Crisscrossed by motorable tracks, the short grass plains north of Rhino Ridge are densely excavated with aardvark holes that now serve as dens to spotted hyena, bat-eared fox, and black-backed jackal. Two localized birds associated with this part of the park are Denham’s bustard and the lovely Rufus-bellied heron that inhabits Musiara Swamp. The central plains are spectacular from August to October when zebra and wildebeest congregate there in their tens of thousands. The best place to view large numbers of hippo and wildebeest – and with luck the occasional river crossing – is Lookout Hill, located opposite Serena Lodge.
This most westerly sector of the Mara Mara National Reserve is also the oldest, having first been gazetted as a 510-sq-km (197-sq-mile) game reserve in the late 1940s. It is the most scenically dramatic part of the reserve, set below the 400-m- (1,312-ft-) tall Oloololo Escarpment and studded with isolated granite hills known as koppies. The open grassland supports dense seasonal concentrations of migrant zebra and wildebeest. The Mara Triangle is good for spotting big cats and other members of the Big Five, although rhino are not very common. Roan antelope and African wild dog were once widespread here, but have not been seen since the late 1980s, although plans are afoot to reintroduce the former from Ruma National Park, their only extant haunt in Kenya. The Oloololo Escarpment along the western boundary is a good place to spot the dainty klipspringer antelope, the rock hyrax and spectacular Verreaux’s eagle.
When to go to Masai Mara National Reserve
The migration of wildebeest from the Serengeti to Masai Mara National Reserve commences in July and continues through to October; it’s when accommodations are at a premium and when Mara Mara National Reserve is most crowded with visitors. Many camps close during the rainy seasons; the “short rains” happen in November, while the “long rains” fall in April and May. The rainy season is the best time to come if you prefer the solitude and verdant green of the quiet season. The birthing season is known as “Toto Time” starts in December and continues into February; it’s a popular time for visitors (accommodations are again at a premium) who come to witness infant wildlife staggering to their feet and skittering as they take their first steps it’s a magnificent scene, often accompanied by thunderous storms. March and October tend to be the hottest times of the year, but Mara Mara National Reserve is seldom oppressively hot, and some of the higher-altitude lodges can get cold at night.
Efforts to implement the currents ensure that the conservancies have enough vehicles moving around the park to ensure that these rules have been observed. Signs posts have also been put up in different locations within Masai Mara National Reserve to guide game viewers; signs of no floating, speed limit, and directions to different game sections
How to get to Masai Mara National Reserve?
Most visitors come to the Mara Mara National Reserve as part of an all-inclusive safari package, commencing with a cramped drive in a minibus from Nairobi. If you want to get there by road, opt to be driven in a 4×4 (preferably a Land Cruiser), which will then be used as your game-drive vehicle throughout your stay; count on spending around $250 to $350 per day for the privilege. Narok is the main point of access to this region and is a 3-hour drive from Nairobi; from Narok, the transfer to your lodge will take between 2 and 4 hours, depending on which part of the park you’re staying in and also on weather conditions. If you’re counting your shillings, you might want to know that regular buses and matatus arrive in Narok from Nairobi and other destinations.
A far better option and the only one if time and comfort are of any consequence is to fly directly into Mara Mara National Reserve. Most lodges and camps are within 45 minutes of the nearest landing site (there are several), and a few places have private airstrips, too. There are daily scheduled flights from Nairobi (AirKenya and Safarilink have two flights each), the coast, and Nanyuki (for connections from Laikipia). Private charters also use these strips. Most lodges will provide transfers from the airstrip, meaning that your game drive begins shortly after you touch down. Generally speaking, your tour operator, who will book all your accommodations, will reserve your flights and ensure that you touch down at the correct landing strip.
Where to Stay in Masai Mara National Reserve
To the northwest, the Mara ecosystem is bounded by the Esoit Oloololo Escarpment, and here—in a part of the park watered by the Mara River—is the Mara’s most scenic and game-rich terrain. This area can be difficult to traverse during the rainy seasons (Apr-May and Nov), and the swampy ground generally becomes impassable after heavy showers. Many of the upmarket lodges are located here, too. Because of its accessibility from Nairobi, the eastern part of the Mara is generally associated with mass tourism lodges, meaning that it’s where you see a considerable number of crammed minibusses. The most remote and unhindered part of the region is the southeastern corner of the Reserve (and beyond its borders), where the Sand River prevents minibusses from venturing at all.
Shameless development in and around the Masai Mara National Reserve has meant that there’s an ongoing rise in the number of available beds. Although this means there is more to choose from, it also means that there are more vehicles within the Reserve and an ever-growing number of off-road tracks grafted into the landscape by undisciplined drivers. Depending on your priorities, your first concern may very well be finding lodging as far from the masses as possible, you have very little chance of not meeting up with other vehicles while out on game drives. That might be one problem you’ll battle to overcome (unless you insist that your driver steers you far away from the maddening crowds), but you can stave off the effect of crowded lodgings by selecting smaller, more intimate accommodations. With no fences or manmade barriers, wildlife can move freely throughout this “dispersal area”—essential for sustaining a vast transnational conservation zone—so game viewing is pretty good no matter where you choose to bed down.
Accommodations in Masai Mara National Reserve range from too-basic-to-recommend campsites with zero facilities to palatial tents with all the trimmings and tip-top service straight out of some fantasy colonial heyday. If you’re after a peaceful bush experience that leaves the crowds behind, then you’ll definitely consider the significance of staying in an eight-tent camp as opposed to a lodge with 70 or 80 bedrooms. You came here to commune with nature and wildlife, but it’s inevitable that at the larger, blander, resort-style lodges you’ll be inundated by homo sapiens. If you value privacy and a true wilderness experience, don’t think twice about paying a little extra for more exclusive accommodations—you’ll be rewarded with memories that are unforgettable for the right reasons (as opposed to wishing your fellow guests would quiet down).
Also, be aware that “exclusivity” out in the bush doesn’t always translate to luxury in the same sense of a city hotel or resort. If nonstop power, permanent hot water, and a full-on spa are requisites when you go on holiday, here you may find yourself sharing those “luxuries” with large groups. However, this doesn’t mean that some of the intimate camps don’t pull out all the stops, too. Just about every lodge and tented camp organize game drives in the early morning and late afternoon—traditionally the cooler times of the day when the wildlife is most active—but at the larger establishments, this pattern can quickly become a numbing routine. Many of the smaller places emphasize individually tailored programs so you can determine not only when you wish to go game viewing, but also what format you’d prefer this to take. So rather than spend each and every day bouncing along in a 4×4, there’ll be opportunities for bushwalks, too. Or, during the Migration, you can happily pack a picnic and stay out for the entire day.
Masai Mara National Reserve Rules and Regulations
Maasai Mara National Reserve is a unique place with different ecosystems, this unique ecosystem is the sole reason Masai Mara National Reserve attracts a lot of people from different parts of the world. Both directly or indirectly, humans and wildlife are bound to be in conflict, the Mara Triangle Conservancy has come up with rules to make sure that both coexist in harmony.
- No littering in Masai Mara National Reserve, cigarette, litter and plastic bottles can be detrimental to the environment.
- Noise making is not allowed cause it can change the animal behavior in the Mara natural habitat
- The recommended speed limit within Maasai Mara National Reserve is 50 kilometers per hour, this speed or less should be maintained even while in the game
- Vehicle during the game drives should be 25 meters away from the animals, at that recommended distance, one can still take a comfortable picture and it keeps the animals behaving the way supposed to.
- While on a game drive in Maasai Mara National Reserve, animals have got right-of-way, this
- is because they were there before and deserve to put as first priority we were
- No driving off-road other words, avoid off tracking while in the park, employ high-tech equipment like binoculars to be able to view from a distance without having to disturb the animals.