The Masai Mara
No Kenya safari holiday would be complete without a trip the world-renowned Masai Mara.
The Masai Mara National Reserve is an expansive and beautiful grassland, covering 1,510 km2 and made far greater in size by the surrounding private conservancies. The endless savannah plains are interrupted by acacia thorn trees, rocky kopjes and craters; this dotted landscape fits with the origin of the name Mara, meaning spotted in Maa, the language of the local Maasai people.
The Masai Mara forms the northern section of the greater Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, world renowned for the annual migration of millions of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle. Whilst this incredible spectacle draws most visitors to The Mara during July to October, not all the animals migrate south to Tanzania. The abundance of resident wildlife, including lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, wildebeest and hyena makes a safari to the Masai Mara and the neighbouring conservancies exceptional throughout the year. This blog will provide a guide to the how, why, where and when of your Mara safari adventure.
Why choose the Masai Mara?
The Masai Mara is the classic African safari destination and most of us will have seen it featured in one of the many wildlife documentaries filmed there. It supports one of the greatest densities of lions in Africa and the myriad of predators have been made famous by the BBC’s Big Cat Diary. It’s undoubtedly this abundant year-round wildlife and the endless romantic vistas that hold such mystical allure for visitors.
However, there are plenty of other highlights that make the Mara exceptional and reason to spend several nights. Drifting over the savannah in a hot air balloon, visiting a local Maasai community, game drives and walks, bush dining under a vast African sky – all blend to create a cocktail for the soul. Whether it’s your first safari or a return visit, the special feeling you will have, as you descend to an airstrip in the middle of these grassland plains, dotted with animals, is why you have chosen the Mara.
When to go
Masai Mara Wildebeest Migration
THE GREAT MIGRATION – MASAI MARA
Apart from where to visit during your safari, a key consideration is when to go. As mentioned, the wildlife to be found in the Masai Mara is great year-round. However, there are some seasonal weather conditions that may influence your decision.
July to early October is the dry season in Kenya and the Masai Mara, with warm days and cool nights. This is a good time for a safari, as the wildlife concentrates around the dwindling water sources available and can be easier to spot. It’s also when the Great Migration moves into the Mara from the Serengeti in Tanzania. This incredible spectacle itself may well be your reason for visiting the Masai Mara and if that’s the case then this is the time for you. However, this is also peak season, so be prepared for it to be busy. Accommodation prices are higher and you should book well in advance to avoid disappointment, as availability is limited.
If you are open to the fact that the migration is not the be-all and end-all of a Masai Mara safari, then November to February is another great time to visit. Whilst these months coincide with the short rains, these are characterised by short-lived showers that usually add to the drama and excitement, rather than significantly disrupting your experience. This is a time of new life and colour, when you can enjoy both the calving season and migratory birds, with their bright breeding plumage. The reserve is less busy than during July to September and what better way to celebrate the festive season than on safari, with some winter sun, whilst spotting wildlife in the lush green grasses.
The time to avoid, unless you are truly intrepid or a real deal hunter, is late March through May. This is the peak rainy season, when it often rains for much of the day, the saturated black cotton soils of the Mara can become impassable and many camps are closed as a result.
LION IN THE MASAI MARA
Although predominantly open grasslands, the Masai Mara has a variety of habitats, which in turn support a wide diversity of wildlife. As well as being home to the ‘Big 5’ – lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino, the Masai Mara is renowned for its predator sightings, with large resident populations of lion, leopard and cheetah.
The Masai Mara is renowned for its large, resident lion population and your chances of seeing lion are very high. The open savannah is also ideal habitat for cheetah, making the Mara a great place to view them and, if you’re very lucky, witness their incredible athleticism during a high-speed hunt. There are also very large clans of hyenas boldly roaming the plains, which makes them quite a common sighting day or night.
Rhinos are the most rarely spotted of the large mammals. There used to be a healthy population of black rhino in the Mara, but poaching resulted in a dramatic decline in their numbers, to the point that they were almost eradicated. There has been a gradual recovery over the last twenty years or so, but very slow and their numbers therefore remain extremely low, as do your chances of spotting them.
Hot Air Balloon Over The Migration By Tom Harding
GREAT WILDEBEEST MIGRATION IN THE MASAI MARA
As well as its predators, the Mara is well known for the Great Migration. Approximately 1.5 million wildebeests, 200,000 zebras, 500,000 Thomson’s gazelles, 100,000 topis and 18,000 elands arrive in the Masai Mara from the Serengeti in Tanzania from July. July to October is the best time to find the large herds grazing the Mara plains. Many would also argue that this is where you have the best opportunity to experience the drama of a river crossing. The herds tend to traverse back and forth, repeatedly running the gauntlet of the Mara River and tributaries, such as the Talek River, where enormous Nile crocodiles lie in wait.
As I mentioned earlier, not all the above herbivores join the exodus south, leaving the Masai Mara devoid of wildlife. Smaller herds of these species remain resident in the Mara, as well as impalas, duikers, hartebeests, and roan; plenty of prey to support the residing predators. The Mara is also home to the Masai giraffe, smaller predators like bat-eared foxes, jackals and servals, and large pods of hippos inhabiting the rivers.
The Masai Mara is a great destination for birders as well, with over 450 species identified there, including numerous brightly coloured summer migrants and raptor species.
National Reserve vs. the Conservancies
GAME DRIVE IN THE MASAI MARA
It’s important to know that there are no fences between the Masai Mara National Reserve and the surrounding conservancies, which include Mara North, Olare Orok, Lemek, Naboisho and Enonkishu. This means that the wildlife can move freely across this greater Mara ecosystem. Whether a safari is better in the National Reserve or conservancies is a matter of opinion, as both offer great game viewing and exceptional lodges and camps to choose from. However, there are some key differences to consider when planning your safari.
Although when and where the migrating herds will make a river crossing is unpredictable, there are several key crossing points, most of which lie within the national reserve itself. Many visitors prefer to be as close to the action as possible, to have the best chance and hopefully best spot from which to view a crossing.