Maasai Mara, sometimes spelled Masai Mara and natively known as the Mara is one of Africa’s re-known and important national reserves. Located in Narok – southwestern Kenya and adjoining Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, the Mara is famous for its exceptional wildlife populations including an array of African bush elephants, lions, leopards, and cheetahs. Masai Mara also hosts the Great Annual Wildebeest Migration; one of the most magnificent wildlife displays. The Great Wildebeest Migration is also known as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. Together with Serengeti National Park, forms Africa’s most diverse ecosystems and one of the best big game viewing ecosystems.
Masai Mara derives its name from the beautiful Maasai people who migrated to the region from the Nile Basin. The Maasai are the ancestral inhabitants of Masai Mara and they described the area as “Mara” which is the native translation for “spotted,” when looked at from a distance. The Mara features plenty of short bushy trees that dot its stunning landscape. The Maasai are a community that lives in northern, central, and southern Kenya, as well as northern Tanzania. They are pastoralists who believe they own all of the cattle in the world. The Maasai rely on their lands to feed their cattle, as well as themselves and their families. They were forced to leave their native lands before the reserve’s designation as a wildlife and wilderness conservation area.
Established in 1961 as a wildlife refuge, the Mara was only about 520 sq. km (200 sq. mi) until it was increased to 1,821 sq. km (703 sq. mi) towards the east, to make room for a game reserve. During this time, management of the reserve was situated in the Narok County Council; however, in 1974, a portion of the reserve 159 sq. km (61 sq. mi), and another 162 sq. km (63 sq. mi) later in 1976, was given back to the neighboring communities. By 1984, only 1,510 km2 (580 sq mi) remained of the reserve and this is what makes Masai Mara National Reserve.
The Greater Mara Eco-system on the other hand, encompasses the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Mara Triangle, and several Maasai Conservancies, including Koiyaki, Mara North, Lemek, Olkinyei, Ol Chorro Oirowua, Ol Derkesi, Siana, Maji Moto, Kerinkani, Oloirien, Kimintet and Naikara.
Masai Mara is home to over 95 mammal species and more than 500 recorded bird species. It has a diversity of attractive ecosystems including rolling grassland plains, large rivers, and lush riverine forests that provide natural habitat to its thriving wildlife populations.
Masai Mara can be visited anytime throughout the year. Nevertheless, the gorgeous wilderness is best visited between late June and October, when it is driest because the foliage is thinner during these months, and animals congregate around rivers and water holes, making them easier to spot during game viewing safaris. These are the perfect months for wildlife viewing.
Masai Mara is a fantastic place to see animals all year, but the wet months (March, April, November, and December) make some of the roads to and through the reserve difficult to travel. More so, Mara’s top safari highlight – the wildebeest migration, and especially the river crossings, are tricky to time, but the ideal time to see this sight is in late September and October.
Home to over 95 mammal species, Masai Mara boasts a magnificent population of wildlife including an abundance of herbivores and plenty of predators. Popular wildlife in the Mara includes Masai giraffes, elephants, buffaloes waterbucks, hippos, warthogs, roan antelopes, elands, gazelles, Nile crocodiles, black rhinos, Impalas, Kirk’s dik-dik, various species of monkeys and baboons, tree hyrax, nocturnal bush babies, and monitor lizards, you name it.
The National Reserve also features Kenya’s famous “big cats” including the largest population of lions. The Mara also offers spectacular sightings of leopards and spotted hyenas. Besides the mountain gorilla, Masai Mara offers all of “Africa’s Big 7” wildlife sightings, with predators being the top-notch of your Masai Mara game-viewing safari.
The Great Wildebeest Migration is Mara’s top safari highlight: it is one of the reasons thousands of tourists from all over the world visit the reserve. Every year between the end of July and the end of November, over a million wildebeest, joined by half as many zebras and gazelles, among other angulates migrate from the short-grass plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania to fresh grazing in the Mara grasslands. The Great Wildebeest Migration provides one of nature’s most spectacular sights. The angulates roar across the plains in groups of up to 20,000 at a time, pausing only briefly to reach the Mara River, where many fall prey to the waiting crocodiles. They start crossing back into Tanzania around the end of October. The actual date of the migration, on the other hand, is determined by the weather and does not always occur on time.
Masai Mara is also one of Kenya’s Important Birding Areas, boasting over 500 permanent and migratory recorded bird species, including many that are both regionally and globally threatened. The reserve is home to over 53 birds of prey and 12 species of Cisticola. The common ostrich, secretary bird, black-bellied ground hornbill, and Kori bustard are easily seen in the reserve’s plains.
Other notable species include crowned plover, red-necked spurfowl, and helmeted guinea fowl, among others, while near the rivers, African fish eagles, Egyptian geese, yellow-billed stork, sacred ibis, and blacksmith plover thrive. Birds of prey in Masai Mara also include the augur buzzard, black-shouldered kite, bateleur eagle, and six vulture species. The Reserve is also Kenya’s sole spot to witness the endangered Schalow’s turaco.
Masai Mara is a destination of breathtaking game viewing and game drives in the reserve are one of the best activities to enjoy while on a Kenya safari. Game drives in the Mara are done in three sessions: morning, afternoon/evening, and night game drives and are conducted in the spots with the highest concentration of wildlife. Safari game drives are often carried out in typical 4WD open-roof safari vehicles. The morning game drive in the Mara starts early at 6:30 am and takes around 3 to 4 hours. This is the best time to catch animals in the reserve at their most active selves as the grazers head out to feed, whereas the predators, head back to their hideouts.
The afternoon game drive starts at around 2:30 to 3:00 pm and usually ends at 6:00 to 6:30 pm. During this time, animals congregate around the various waterholes in the reserve to drink water and refresh; hence these are the best spots in the park to have an afternoon/game drive. The night game drives, on the other hand, are as fulfilling as ever: the night game drive in Masai Mara allows you to catch the park’s predators and nocturnal animals hunting and roaming the landscape. They are carried out using large spotlight torches and under the close supervision of an armed ranger. Night game drives start between 6 to 7 pm and end at around 10 pm.
Experiencing the Great Wildebeest Migration while on a Kenya safari in the Mara is one of the most memorable moments. The Masai Mara hosts one of the world’s finest wildlife spectacles between June and November, where over 1.5 million wildebeest, Thompson’s Gazelles, and Zebras migrate from the Serengeti to the Mara River in quest of greener pasture. Their journey is however a roller coaster as they face numerous obstacles.
In addition to avoiding predators, migrating animals must cross the crocodile-infested Mara River, where thousands perish or are eaten by crocodiles. Those that cross the river must battle with Africa’s most dangerous animals. The migration is vast enough that it may be seen from space. Tourists come to the Mara to see a large number of animals, the calving season, and the conflict between predator and prey.
Maasai Mara also offers exhilarating bird-watching for the birders, with over 500 bird species, including more than 50 raptors. The reserve also boasts a high number of Ostriches known as Maasai Ostriches and an array of martial eagles and vultures. The Mara’s rich bird life can be found in the reserve’s several ecosystem zones, which include open savannah, river banks, the Great Rift Valley escarpment, and rock sides.
A typical birding tour in Masai Mara will include sightings of numerous species such as ducks, egrets, geese, herons, ostriches, hornbills, pelicans, spoonbills, and storks. Birding tours are led by competent and experienced ornithologists/naturalists. These birding guides are well-versed in the various varieties of birds, flora, and wildlife that you will encounter.
Masai Mara is surrounded by the Maasai local population and their culture is one of Africa’s greatest cultures that you should not miss seeing on your Kenya safari to the Mara. The Maasai – also known as Maasai pastoralists, have a distinct culture that is not found anywhere else in the globe. They have intriguing cultural norms and practices that will leave you in admiration while visiting them. On your Masai Mara safari, discover the unique Maasai traditional dwellings, learn about their lifestyle and how to collect fresh blood from animals, milk their indigenous cows, and get enthusiastic about their dancing style as they bounce up and down to their classic music.
Another way to explore the vast incredible wilderness of Masai Mara is on guided nature walks (walking safaris). Tourists are treated to up close and personal encounters with wildlife, birds, and Mara’s stunning landscape while exploring the reserve on foot. Done in the private conservancies that surround the reserve, guided nature walks allow visitors to spot a variety of birds and animals such as elephants, buffaloes, and giraffes, in addition to taking in the sheer beauty of the pristine wilderness. They are led by experienced Maasai guides and armed rangers and are conducted in predator-free areas.
Masai Mara also offers horseback riding safaris which allow tourists to explore the reserve like the early explorers. Horseback riding in the Mara is also organized in the conservancies rather than in the main reserve. On the back of a horse, participants are taken deep into the Mara to see antelopes, elephants, wildebeest, giraffes, leopards, hartebeests, and lions, among many others. It is the most environmentally friendly way to tour the reserve without emitting any noise or fumes. This adventure is led by park Rangers, conservancy owners, or native Maasai guides.
This is also another fascinating safari activity to enjoy while visiting Masai Mara on a Kenya safari. Hot air balloons in the Mara include taking an overhead excursion over the vast wilderness of the Mara. The hot air balloon route follows the Mara River, providing an aerial glimpse of the woods, birds, and aquatic creatures before venturing deep into the savannah for even more breathtaking views of the region. The one-hour exercise concludes with a picnic lunch/breakfast with champagne on the savanna plains and certificates of appreciation are presented to all participants. Hot air balloon safaris in Masai Mara are ideal for honeymooners and families. They also offer the best camera shots of the reserve.
Masai Mara can be accessed both by road and by air. By road, the Mara lies about 270 km/167 miles northwest of Nairobi – the capital of Kenya. The drive takes approximately 5 hours and the route is notoriously inaccessible especially when it rains. It’s also possible to drive from Lake Nakuru National Park which is approximately 235km/150 mi. by road: it is approximately a 6 hours’ drive.
However, the majority of the visitors to Masai Mara often fly to the reserve. Nairobi is a major African transport center, so getting it is simple. All international arrivals mainly land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO), which is located 15 km/9 mi southeast of Nairobi. Domestic flights to Masai Mara depart from either Jomo Kenyatta International Airport or Wilson Airport – located south of Nairobi.
Masai Mara has many camps and hotels perched along the Mara and Talek rivers, as well as in private conservancies, and offers spectacular views of the Masai Mara plains. Depending on your budget, you can select from a variety of camps and hotels in the Masai Mara, and here are some of the top accommodations in Masai Mara;
This community-focused lodge is placed in a valley of olive and cedar trees. The opulent lodge features exclusive cottages – well designed with antiques, Persian carpets, and broad cedarwood beds. Guests to the lodge can explore the surrounding hills with Maasai warriors on a guided bush walk, followed by a relaxing spa treatment in the serene Maasai Wellbeing Space. For discerning travelers, this is one of the top Masai Mara lodges.
Naibor Camp is a luxurious tented camp located in the Masai Mara Game Reserve. The camp sits on the banks of the Talek River featuring resident hippo families that appear to enjoy the camp and its surroundings as much as we do. The camp has a calm and classic safari feel to it, with modest furniture, a candlelight common eating room, and extremely accommodating hosts. This makes it ideal for first-time safari guests or those looking for a real authentic Kenya safari experience. Its luxury rooms are well furnished with king-sized wood beds, a private verandah, and en-suite bathroom facilities.
This luxury tented camp is located in the Naboisho Conservancy, which borders the Masai Mara National. The camp, which can only accommodate 12 people, is incredibly serene and secluded, ideal for those wishing to escape the crowds that the Mara Reserve may draw. Ol Seki also has a ‘bride stays free’ promotion, which makes it a highly appealing honeymoon safari option for couples planning to visit Masai Mara.
Angama Mara lodge is a new safari lodge in the Mara and is already popular for its panoramic views of the Mara. The lodge sits at the edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, overlooking the huge Mara plains. ‘Angama’ means ‘to be suspended in mid-air’ in Swahili. Angama is a very high-end facility with a tremendous number of amenities, but its disadvantage may be that it does not provide enough safari. The lodge features two separate camps, each with 15 cottages. The cottages are beautifully furnished and have en-suite facilities.
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