Masai Mara National Reserve
Located in the far southwest of Kenya in the Great Rift Valley, the Masai Mara National Reserve is the country’s flagship park. It’s a vast wilderness of abundant big game, spectacular landscapes, and the scene of one of the planet’s most dramatic wildlife migrations.
The reserve is named after the Maasai people, a semi-nomadic tribe of pastoralists who have long inhabited the region, and their word to describe this landscape – “mara” – which means “spotted” – is a reference to the trees and bushes, as well as the shadows of passing clouds, that dot the plains.
The Masai Mara was established in 1961 as a wildlife sanctuary. Today, it encompasses an area greater than 370 000 acres, with no fences between the park and the Serengeti National Park’s neighboring wilderness across the border in Tanzania.
A Masai Mara safari experience is one of the best ways to see wildlife: the concentrations of game here are astounding.
Resident in the reserve are the Big Five (although not many rhinos, and they’re hard to spot), as well as vast herds of plains game, hippos, and crocodiles in the rivers and more than 500 species of birds.
The reserve is particularly famous for its big cats – lions, leopards, and cheetahs – and the nature documentary BBC’s Big Cat Diary was shot on the reserve’s plains.
While the wildlife viewing at almost any time of the year is superb, the Masai Mara is best visited during the months of the Great Migration.
This is when millions of zebra, wildebeest, and gazelle make their way north into the park from the Serengeti, crossing the Mara River in search of fresh grazing.
Watching vast herds of animals on the move, as well as the thrilling kills by the big cats that pursue them, is one of the most exciting Masai Mara safari experiences you can have, and it’s no wonder that the Great Migration is at the top of most safari travelers’ bucket lists.
Apart from wildlife, the landscapes of the Masai Mara are stunningly beautiful: the classic Out of Africa backdrops of seemingly never-ending savanna studded with photogenic acacia trees are jaw-dropping.
To the west, the park is bordered by the Oloololo Escarpment, a dramatic plateau, while the rest of the park consists of rolling grasslands, acacia woodlands, riverine forests, and rocky hills.
Two major rivers – the Talek and the Mara – cut through the Masai Mara National Reserve, splitting it into three sectors: the Sekenani Sector, which lies to the east of the Talek River, the Musiara Sector, which is sandwiched between the two rivers, and the Mara Triangle, which is west of the Mara River.
The Narok County Council controls the Musiara and Sekenani sectors. At the same time, the more remote Mara Triangle is administered by a non-profit conservancy company, the Trans Mara County Council.
Musiara Sector offers excellent game viewing in the Musiara Marsh and some of the most spectacular wildebeest crossings at the Mara River. In the southeast of the park (and bordered by the Sand, Talek, and Mara Rivers), the Central Plains make up the largest part of the reserve.
The expansive grasslands of the Central Plains attract vast herds of plains animals, especially during the Great Migration from August to October, when the area is also famed for exciting big cat sightings.
Within the Central Plains, the savanna of Paradise Plain is prime cheetah territory, while Rhino Ridge is ideal for black-backed jackals, spotted hyenas, and bat-eared foxes.
Head to Lookout Hill for incredible panoramas of the Olpunyaia Swamp and sightings of hippos and for scenes of wildebeest crossing the river during the months of the migration.
As the closest area to Nairobi and with a vast number of lodges, hotels, and camps, the Central Plains is the most popular area of the reserve for tourists.
The Masai Mara’s rivers are home to hippos, massive Nile crocodiles, and many species of waterbirds. At the same time, the Mara River, which winds its way through the national reserve, plays host to huge pods of hippos and the dangerous crossings of wildebeest during the Great Migration.
Highlights of the Masai Mara National Reserve
An excellent introduction to the reserve’s varied grassland, woodland, and wetland habitats is provided by dawn hot air balloon safaris offered by almost all the lodges.
Over August and October, hot air balloon trips can also provide an astonishing vulture’s-eye view of the migrating wildebeest herds.
The Big Five are all present and seen with varying degrees of ease. Elephants are very common, as are buffaloes, the latter being the favored prey of the reserve’s huge 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 rhinos 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 from southern Africa or of mixed origin.
Even outside of the great migrations safari season, ungulates are well represented. There’s no better place for close-up views of Eland, the world’s largest antelope, which seems less skittish here than in most areas. 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 favorites as Lilac-breasted roller, Superb starling, and Little bee-eater. Which makes this the perfect destination for photographic safaris in Kenya.
Large ground birds such as ostrich, Southern ground hornbill, Kori bustard, and the localized Denham’s bustard are also common. The riparian forest along the Mara and Talek Rivers is an essential habitat for niche species such as Ross’s turaco, Schalow’s turaco, and Grey kestrel.
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 regularly until the southward migration begins in October.
The wildebeest tend to stick to a few favored crossing points; the four used with greatest regularity lie along a 5km (3,1mi) stretch of river, meaning it’s pretty 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 untrammeled westerly wedge that forms part of the national reserve. Still, it has been managed by a non-profit management company, the Mara Conservancy, since 2001.
The Mara Triangle offers a similar standard of game viewing to the rest of the national reserve, but it’s easier to escape the congestions of safari vehicles that tend to congregate around wildlife sightings east of the river, especially during the migration season.
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 significant 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 all to yourself. Many concessions also offer guided game walks and night drives, both of which are forbidden in the reserve proper.
Practical Advice for the Masai Mara National Reserve
- The easiest and most comfortable option is a fly-in safari package from Nairobi. This can be arranged through any reputable operator as a standalone safari or as part of a longer countrywide itinerary.
- Road safaris from Nairobi generally work out to be cheaper, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the bumpy six-hour drive will consume a significant proportion of your time and energy 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 the 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. Still, the best lodges for those seekng an authentic bush experience are those in the westerly Mara Triangle and private concessions and ranches outside the park.