Extending northeast from a shared border with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, the 1,510 km2 Masai Mara is the most famous and popular safari destination in Kenya, if not anywhere in Africa. The appeal of the Mara and adjacent private/community conservancies isn’t difficult to explain. Its mosaic of rolling hills, open grassland and acacia woodland supports a quite incredible profusion and variety of wildlife. Large predators such as lion, leopard, cheetah and Spotted hyena are easily seen at close quarters all year round, and the reserve truly blossoms between August and October, when the legendary wildebeest migration - perhaps the world’s most breathtaking wildlife spectacle - crosses into Kenya from Tanzania.
Cheetah in grass plains of the Masai Mara Reserve
An excellent introduction to the reserve’s varied grassland, woodland and wetland habitats is provided by the dawn balloon safaris offered by almost all the lodges. Over August and October, balloon trips can also provide an astonishing vulture’s-eye view over the migrating wildebeest herds.
The Big Five are all present and seen with various degrees of ease. Elephants are very common, as are buffaloes, the latter being the favoured prey of the reserve’s unusually large lion prides, which often number 15 or more adults. Leopards are more elusive, but quite easy to locate if you know where to look, and while numbers of black rhino dropped alarmingly in the late 20th century, up to three dozen individuals still survive. The rhino population here is the only one in Kenya that can be regarded as fully indigenous, with a gene pool (as yet) undiluted by translocated individuals of southern African or mixed origin.
Even outside of the migration season, ungulates are well represented, too. There’s no better place for close-up views of the eland, the world’s largest antelope, which seems to be less skittish here than in most of its range. Also likely to be seen are giraffe, impala, gazelle, topi, Coke’s hartebeest, reedbuck, Defassa waterbuck, hippo and warthog.
The Mara provides a fine introduction to East Africa’s savanna birdlife, with more than 500 species recorded in and around its borders, including such perennial favourites as Lilac-breasted roller, Superb starling and Little bee-eater. Large ground birds such as ostrich, Southern ground hornbill, Kori bustard and the localised Denham’s bustard are also common. The riparian forest along the Mara and Talek Rivers is an important habitat for niche species such as Ross’s turaco, Schalow’s turaco and Grey kestrel.
The drama of the Great Migration as the cross the treacherous Mara river
The drama of the wildebeest migration is encapsulated by the multiple river crossings that punctuate the great herds’ three-month tenure in the Masai Mara. The river crossings usually start in August, when the wildebeest disperse into the plains surrounding the Mara River, and continue on a regular basis until the southward migration begins in October. The wildebeest tend to stick to a few favoured crossing points; the four used with greatest regularity lie along a 5 km stretch of river, meaning it is quite easy to keep tabs on any pending crossing.
Bounded by the Mara River to the east and Oloololo Escarpment to the northwest, the Mara Triangle is an untrammelled westerly wedge that forms part of the national reserve but has been managed by a non-profit management company called the Mara Conservancy since 2001. The Mara Triangle offers a similar standard of game-viewing to the rest of the national reserve, but it is easier to escape the congestions of safari vehicles that tend to congregate around wildlife sightings east of the river, especially during the migration season.
A game drive through the Masai Mara | Credit: Sanctuary Olonana Camp
The national reserve is bordered by a cluster of private concessions and ranches, most of which are leased from or owned by local Maasai communities and serviced by a handful of small tented camps that share exclusive traversing rights. The big advantage of staying in one of these concessions is that, even more so than the Mara triangle, there is very little tourist traffic so you are more likely to have sightings to yourself. Many concessions also offer guided game walks and night drives, both of which are forbidden in the reserve proper.
The easiest and most comfortable option is a fly-in safari package out of Nairobi. This can be arranged through any reputable operator, either as a standalone safari or as part of a longer countrywide itinerary. Road safaris from Nairobi generally work out to be cheaper, but it is worth bearing in mind that a significant proportion of your time and energy will be consumed by the bumpy six-hour drive in either direction.
There is no shortage of lodges and camps scattered in and around the Masai Mara. Unfortunately, this means that the reserve has acquired a reputation for being touristy and overcrowded, especially at the busiest times of year. When you book a lodge, be aware that crowding tends to be most extreme in the sector southeast of the Talek River and its confluence with the Mara. The central sector, cupped between the Talek and Mara, tends to be quieter, but the best lodges for those seeking a real bush experience are those in the westerly Mara Triangle and private concessions and ranches outside the park.