At some point in the 17th or 18th Century, the Maasai people arrived in south-western Kenya. They looked down on the grasslands, sprinkled with acacia trees, and pockmarked by craters, and they decided to call it “Spotted’ or Mara in their Maa language.
The Masai Mara National Reserve is a place that has barely altered in a million years.
It remains one of the most ancient and complex natural environments on Earth. The glorious kingdom of the Maasai is home to elephant, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, hyena, and the celebrated big cats: lion, leopard, and cheetah. Every year, from about July to November, the classic golden savannah, patches of riverine forest, and those distinctive clumps of trees transform into an oasis along the most extensive mammal migration route on earth.
The reserve also shares unfenced borders with several private and exclusive conservancies. This is where the elite sleep, as visitors staying in a conservancy can cross into the park and enjoy some of Africa’s most authentic safari experiences while park visitors may not pass into a conservancy.
This blog will guide Afrophiles through everything they need to know about the perfect Masai Mara safari.
Masai Mara National Reserve Fast Facts
The Mara ecosystem is around 1870 m2 (3000 km2) big – a little larger than the greater Los Angeles area.
Between July and November every year, around two million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle travel from the Serengeti up to the Masai Mara (and back again). This is known as the Masai Mara migration.
The Mara-Serengeti has the highest concentration of large predators in the world.
As one of the top five bird-watching destinations on earth, the Mara ecosystem features the highest ostrich population on earth and is also home to the unique grey crowned crane.
15 September is World Mara Day. The Mara River is celebrated throughout the world, and legend has it that wildebeest will cross from Tanzania into Kenya on this day every year.
Small seasonal rivers cross the Masai Mara Game Reserve, and the primary Sand, Talek and Mara Rivers run through the lush terrain and form the northern limits of the Mau-Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.
This rich and fertile river basin is part of the natural water tank of East Africa. Without the water from the Mara River, there would be no wildebeest migration, and many communities could not survive here.
Over half of the households along the Mara River are home to smallholder farmers.
Threats to the Masai Mara National Reserve
Poaching, expanding agricultural development, population growth, and other influences place the Mara-Serengeti and the thousands of animals it supports under threat.
Kenya is doing well to re-establish its elephant population, which was 167,000 in 1973 before declining to a mere 20,000 in 1990. Today elephants number around 350,000 even though approximately 60% of the elephant habitat lies outside the national parks. There are still over 100 endangered species in the country, including the black rhino, wild dog and cheetah. They are also working hard to increase a lion population that has halved over the last 20 years.
Who should visit the Masai Mara National Reserve?
The Mara is the ideal destination for first-time safari-goers and seasoned visitors to Africa because:
- Excellent guides are fluent in English.
- The roads are maintained – and in good condition.
- As the plains are flat and open, it is easy to spot the wildlife and the animals are in great shape.
- Conservation projects are the norm, and the wildlife is abundant and
- It is possible to enjoy an authentic cultural encounter as safari operators cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with tribal landowners and conservationists.
The Mara is a rewarding safari destination that offers many unique experiences, depending on your travel style…
First trip to Africa?
Have tea with giraffes near Nairobi and visit an Elephant Orphanage. Travel to the Masai Mara during the height of the Wildebeest Migration. Meet the Maasai and the elephant herds of Amboseli.
Book private concessions (with sleep-outs and romantic, candlelit dinners) and begin or end your safari at the beach. Do go on a Hot Air balloon adventure.
For photography, the light is best during the low season (also known as the green season). It also happens to be a great time to spot predators as the plains game are giving birth, and the birds are sporting their most extravagant plumage.
Who travels alone travels fastest?
Plan a bespoke safari with private guides, personalized adventures, and made-to-order experiences with as little or as much social interaction as you would prefer.
Many lodges cater beautifully to young minds with children’s activities, menus, and childminding. With more multi-generational travel, family-friendly properties also ensure grandparents have the time of their lives, and the entire family can make memories across the generations together.
Save the date for your Masai Mara Safari
Let’s look at the weather:
Altitude can vary quite a bit in the Mara from 4,708 to 7,031ft / 1,435 to 2,143m, and this will affect the temperature.
Summer Between December and March Average temperatures between 68°F (20°C) and 93°F (34°C)
Winter Between June and August Average temperatures between 64°F (18°C) and 84°F (29°C)
Dry season: June to September and January to February
Wet season: around November to May Long rainy season: mid-March to June
Short rainy season: October to December
During the high season, the park can get very busy, but the open savannah makes for easy wildlife spotting. June to October is relatively dry, with the best general wildlife watching. If you want the best opportunity to witness the annual migration, you should plan to visit during September and October.
PEAK SEASON JULY TO OCTOBER
Good for Cool weather Sunny and dry days No rain and the animals are gathered around rivers and waterholes which makes it easy to see them Wildebeest migration
Do note The rates are high The parks are crowded, and sightings attract many vehicles The landscape will be dry and dusty
GREEN SEASON DECEMBER TO APRIL
Good for Wildlife babies Migrant birds Lower rates Lush bush and no dust Wonderful light for photography The park isn’t too busy Rain can interfere with plans
Do note High temperatures Rain No wildebeest migration
LOW SEASON APRIL AND MAY
Good for Game viewing remains quite good
Do note Traveling during Kenya’s ‘long rains’ is not ideal. Some safari lodges and camps are closed during this time, and the roads may be in terrible condition.
To do in the Masai Mara
Take a Hot Air Balloon Safari
It is the stuff of daydreams. Drifting lazily between candy floss cumulus clouds and the rolling grass plains of the Masai Mara in a hot air balloon. Many of Africa’s most legendary creatures gazing up to map your journey.
See the Big Five
Although some rhinos still live in the Masai Mara, they are actually quite tricky to find. The other four prove much easier to find in the Mara.
The Mara’s flat, vast and open plains are also perfect territory for cheetahs.
Spot other unique wildlife
Small predators like bat-eared fox, black-backed jackal, and spotted hyena can be seen. Antelope sightings include reedbuck, Thomson’s gazelle, eland and topi and buffalo, elephant and giraffe are abundant
There are no white rhinos. Wild dog and black rhinos are rare, and leopards are spotted occasionally.
The Wildebeest Migration
Although the pattern is well known, the exact timing of the migration is unpredictable as animals move with the rain looking for greener pastures.
The same goes for the spectacular river crossings. No one decides for the wildebeest when the time has come to cross the border!
The migration is dazzling but can also be quite graphic with kills a regular part of the day.
Do book early for the Wildebeest Migration
– Up to a year in advance is recommended.
Come for the birds!
Birding is exceptional in the Masai Mara. There are over 500 bird species in this birding haven, and you can see everything from the iconic Secretary bird to frolicking Lilac-breasted Rollers in abundance.
Spot other unique wildlife
Dine in the bush
There is something about dining surrounded by the African bush on all sides that is exhilarating and relaxing at the same time. You will remember the hippos grunting or a lion roaring while you eat for the rest of your life.
… and don’t forget to look up
As you near the equator you have an opportunity to see all 88 constellations from Ursa Minor to the Southern Cross
Great stargazing apps to download before you come:
Star Walk 2
Take a cultural tour.
A visit to a traditional village will allow you to have an authentic cultural experience, with the hustle and bustle of the Maasai tribe’s semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle happening all around you. Dressed in vibrant clothes, the villagers and their fierce warriors engage in cultural dance and caring for their cattle. You may also have an opportunity to purchase beautifully crafted handiwork created by the people you have met, and all proceeds from the visit go directly to the community.
Alternate Safaris in Conservation
The Masai Mara Conservancies are on private land owned by the Maasai families and set aside for wildlife conservation and tourism. The families lease their property to safari companies, and the monthly fees go back into the community while the Maasai can graze their cattle on the land under controlled conditions.
While the Maasai communities benefit economically from tourism, the formerly overgrazed land is also rehabilitated as wilderness with increasing wildlife numbers. Tourists also experience a lower density of other visitors and vehicles and activities such as night drives, off-road driving, and walking safaris that are great, immersive experiences are allowed in the conservancies.
A walking safari is an excellent opportunity to learn much more detail about the ecosystem from animals to insects and the medicinal and cultural uses of plants.
Pause for Sunset
The tradition of a sundowner on safari was founded during the days of great game-hunting in the early 20th century. Today, the ritual lives on and allows us to take a pause and contemplate our surroundings while enjoying a favorite drink and some snacks.
Where to Stay in the Masai Mara
The Masai Mara is a trendy destination for travelers in search of a safari experience, but it isn’t always the dream to share your safari with several other cars filled with more travelers. If you prize exclusivity, then the private luxury tented camps of the conservancies offer a great alternative to staying within the confines of the Masai Mara National Park.
But this isn’t the only reason we love properties inside the conservancies:
It is possible to visit a traditional Maasai manyatta or village in tribal lands and to see an example of people, wildlife, conservation, and domestic livestock sharing a corner of Africa in a way that works for everyone.
In the conservancies, the strict rules of the National Game Reserves do not apply. Activities like night safaris and walking safaris are possible.
The conservancies, mostly situated around the northern and eastern ends of the reserve, cover an area of land almost the same size as the national reserve.
When you stay in a Maasai-owned conservancy, you are contributing directly to community preservation, conservation, and the increase in wildlife numbers.
The Mara North Conservancy has around 700 acres for every tent and is excellent for big cat sightings and the Great Migration.
Mara Naboisho Conservancy has around 877 acres per tent and was formed when over 500 Maasai families joined their land (Naboisho means coming together) to facilitate the movement of wildlife.
The Enonkishu Conservancy is currently focusing on eco and wildlife regeneration.
There are only two small camps and two mobile camps in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy with 1100 acres per tent. Exclusivity and excellent wildlife viewing (they also do game drives in the neighboring Naboisho Conservancy) come together in Ol Kinyei.
As one of the oldest and most successful conservancies, the Olare Motorogi Conservancy is a blueprint for other concessions and community projects in the Masai Mara. The concession has one room per 700 acres.
The very remote Olderikesi Conservancy has one room for every 1200 acres, fantastic cat sightings, and plenty of solitude.
Established in 2015 by 1200 landowners, the Mara Siana Conservancy lies in the east. It is very remote, with only two lodging options and a variety of wildlife.
These are some of our favorite camps throughout the Masai Mara National Park and neighboring conservancies:
A prime location, chosen initially especially for Kenya’s governors, the camp nestles in the forest on the banks of the Mara River.
Watch the Great Migration thundering past from your elegant tent above the mighty Talek River.
Inspired by the natural wonders of the Masai Mara, Olonana’s 14 glass-sided suites make for a memorable African safari stay.
ELEPHANT PEPPER CAMP
Located within the Mara North Conservancy Elephant Pepper Camp’s remote location combines modern comfort with incredible wildlife and star-strewn night skies undimmed by manmade lights.
Conservancy is home to a camp that offers spectacular game viewing within a setting that is sheer exclusivity. Only nine tented suites complete this elegant safari camp.
Another camp in the Mara North Conservancy, this boutique lodge has five elegant cottages, a family villa, and a private villa.
Top Tips for visiting the Masai Mara
Chat to your guide – they love learning about your culture, and you will never stop learning about the bush from them. Do always follow the instructions from your guides – their most important job is keeping you safe in the bush.
Try to avoid the temptation of late nights around the campfire. Safari days always start early.
Don’t walk around without a guide at night.
- Kenyan Shilling is the national currency, but US Dollars are widely accepted.
- Major credit cards are accepted in Nairobi and the bigger lodges.
- Tipping for excellent service is optional but customary
- Kenya is home to a reasonably conservative society that places emphasis on good manners and courtesy.
- Always ask permission before photographing local people.
- Remember to consult your medical provider about vaccinations – and necessary prophylactics for malaria as early as possible.
- Do let your doctor and your travel specialist know if you’ll be scuba diving as some medications may interfere with the safety of diving, and you must schedule sufficient time between diving and flying.
- Light casual wear in neutral colors do avoid white, black, blue, and bright patterns as these can attract insects or distract the game.
- A warm jacket for evening game drives.
- Always wear a hat and apply sunscreen liberally.
- Don’t bring snacks to keep in your tent – you will attract monkeys and squirrels, and they are masters of havoc!
Combine your Masai Mara safari with…
The best of the rest of Kenya:
Wake up to sweeping views of Kilimanjaro and the sight of large herds of elephants in AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK.
Visit the exclusive beaches on the KENYAN COAST with reef scuba diving and snorkeling and much barefoot luxury.
Take a camelback safari and spot rare northern white and black rhino in LAIKIPIA AND LEWA.
In the SAMBURU NATIONAL RESERVE, you may see leopard and wild dog as well as the Samburu Special 5 – Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, and Beisa oryx.
Let your imagination take flight with the flamingos (and 400 other bird species) at LAKE NAKURU.
The rest of Africa:
- Nairobi is one of East Africa’s major transport hubs, and this makes it reasonably straightforward to combine your Masai Mara safari with other sensational destinations…
- Add MALAWI for world-class snorkeling.
- Fly down to SOUTH AFRICA to visit Cape Town, the Winelands, and Big 5 Safari lodges.
- Complete your migration experience in the Serengeti of TANZANIA.
- See Ngorongoro Crater, climb Kilimanjaro, and relax on the stunning coast.
- Go gorilla trekking in UGANDA and RWANDA.
- Take a walking safari in ZAMBIA and visit VICTORIA FALLS.
- See the mega herds of elephants in ZIMBABWE