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
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.
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.
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
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.
Inside the Masai Mara National Reserve we highly recommend Governor’s. Perfectly situated in a wildlife rich area and nearby river crossings, there are three different Governors camps to choose between. Governor’s Camp offers a particularly good value, classic tented safari experience, in a stunning location and is excellent for families. Little Governor’s Camp is smaller and set around a large waterhole, making it a popular choice for couples or families who prefer a slightly more intimate camp. Il Moran is a step up in both luxury and cost, once again in a spectacular setting.
The disadvantage of the popularity of the Masai Mara is that it can get very busy, especially during the peak months of July to October. Avoiding the crowds is one of the benefits of the Conservancies. The wildlife may be able to move unchecked between areas, but only vehicles from the lodges based in the conservancy are allowed, providing a much more exclusive option for visitors. The number of vehicles permitted in a sighting is also restricted to enhance the experience.
Conservancies also offer a freer game viewing experience. In the National Reserve you are required to stay on the tracks created, whereas in the conservancies you are able to go off road which can allow you to get close to animals and can add to the excitement. They also include the option of night drives and walking safaris which are prohibited in the national reserve. If you wish to take a game drive into the reserve itself, most camps offer this option, particularly during the migration season, when full day drives are popular.
Another positive aspect of the conservancies is the benefit to the local communities and excellent contribution to conservation that they provide. They have been set up as a partnership between the local Maasai communities and private sector with the aim of achieving a sustainable tourism initiative. A proportion of the income from your stay is paid to the local community and in addition the camps support numerous conservation and community projects, such as schools and medical clinics. You may also sporadically see large herds of Maasai cattle and manyattas, or small villages, within these tribal lands.
There are many camps and lodges to choose between and that we love on the conservancies, but here are a couple of recommendations. Karen Blixen Camp is spectacularly situated on the Mara River, with views of a large hippo pod, providing fantastic game viewing from the comfort of your own camp. Kicheche Mara Camp is an unfussy, yet stylishly luxurious, smaller camp tucked away in a tranquil acacia valley, giving it a relaxed feel and the game viewing often starts from the camp itself. Both camps are situated in the Mara North conservancy and convenient proximity to the entrance gate to the Masai Mara National Reserve.
Another little gem that it is ideal for families or small groups is House in the Wild, overlooking the Mara River on the Enonkishu Conservancy. This private family-owned lodge is a real home from home, with an exciting story of conversion from farm to conservation area. As well as the great game viewing, a stay here offers a fascinating insight into this story and the local culture.
Accompanied by your professional guide, game drives, in customised, open safari vehicles are the perfect way to explore the grassland plains and discover the plentiful wildlife of the Masai Mara. These usually take place twice daily, in the morning and afternoon, when the animals, especially the predators, tend to be more active and it is cooler. The vehicles optimise wildlife viewing and comfort for your drives. The animals have also become quite accustomed to them, so you can safely get quite close, providing great photographic opportunities.
This is one of the special activities you can experience with a highly skilled guide and scout within the conservancies. It’s not a strenuous activity, as the walking is usually at quite a relaxed pace, allowing you to spot the smaller, but equally special, nature that you would otherwise miss from a vehicle. Your senses will be elevated, without the noise of a vehicle you will appreciate the sounds of the bush more, and you will learn to interpret some of the tracks and signs of the wild.
Hot air balloon safari
There can be few more romantic places to enjoy a hot air balloon flight than the Masai Mara and it’s definitely an activity worth considering, budget permitting. Drifting serenely over the endless plains offers a unique perspective on this magnificent ecosystem. You will rise early to be transferred to the launch site, so that your flight may take off at sunrise, making the most of the soft morning light. Your flight lasts about an hour, after which you will be treated to a champagne bush breakfast; the perfect way to round off an experience of a lifetime.
Discover Maasai Culture
The Masai Mara is home to an abundance of wildlife, but is also the ancestral homeland of the Maasai people. Most camps offer an optional excursion to visit an authentic Maasai village during your stay and discover a little more about the fascinating culture. One of our favourite lodges, Saruni Mara, also offers children and families a special Warrior Academy. This is a fun way to gain an insight into the Maasai tribe. Guided by the 'Moran', or warriors, you will find out about the lives of these colourful people, and take part in activities, such as how to use bows, arrows and spears, how to bead traditional artefacts and hearing tribal stories and songs. Enjoyed by children and adults alike and lasting from half a day up to three days, it is easily combined with your other wildlife safari activities.
How to get there
Getting to the Masai Mara is easy. International flights arrive into Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. From there you have a short road transfer to Wilson Airport to connect with your light aircraft flight; with daily morning and afternoon departures to the Mara. There are numerous airstrips that you can fly into in just 30-45 minutes, so that you will land close to your chosen accommodation. You will be met by a guide from your camp and enjoy your first short game drive through the Mara to your bush home for the coming nights.
If you arrive into Nairobi on an evening flight, we can simply arrange an overnight stay for you and a transfer to Wilson airport the following day. Similarly, there are domestic flights connecting the Masai Mara to the main tourist highlights across the country, so that it can be seamlessly tailored into your itinerary.
Although most visitors fly to the Masai Mara, it can also be accessed by 4x4 road transfer, within about 4 hours.
What to combine the Masai Mara with?
Kenya offers so many fantastic destinations to visit it can be tricky to decide what to include in your ideal safari itinerary. The wildlife reserves are numerous and varied; from the arid Samburu with its unique wildlife species; to those along the Rift Valley Lakes, such as Lake Nakuru or Lake Naivasha; or Amboseli, renowned for its elephants, set against the backdrop of the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, and of course, with Kenya and Zanzibar’s world-famous beaches right on your doorstep, this is one of the most popular ways to end a safari trip.
Whilst we can create any tailor-made Masai Mara safari for you, here are some of our favourite combinations.
Samburu shares its name with the colourful tribesmen of the area and is one of the dried and most dramatic safari regions in Africa. It is home to the Samburu Special Five including the Grevy’s Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe, Beisa Oryx, Gerenuk and Somali Ostrich, which can only be found in this part of Kenya, as well as rare rhino.
This off the beaten-track area works wonderfully well as a contrast to the Masai Mara and can easily be combined with a few days on the beach to finish. We always recommend doing Samburu before the Masai Mara as you can fly directly from Samburu to the Mara, but not the other way around.
Trip idea: Samburu, Masai Mara and Diani Beach.
Traditional game drives and guided bush walks
Learn about Samburu culture visiting traditional villages and seeing rock-art
Spot the Samburu special five
Breath-taking views from Saruni Samburu
Private conservancy in the Mara
Great Migration and high predator numbers
Bush breakfasts and sundowner drinks
Option to add a sunrise hot air balloon
Pure white sands of Diani beach
Sit back and relax or enjoy an array of watersports
Delicious food throughout
13 days, from £5,225 per person including flights.
Laikipia is a beautiful region located between Mount Kenya and Samburu with fantastic game viewing that is second only to the Mara. This off the grid region, is home to spectacular scenery and offers some truly unique experiences including the chance to experience a camel safari, to see rare wild dog and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy found here is home to a the Big Five with one of the healthiest populations of rare black rhino in East Africa.
Trip idea: Kenya Family Adventure
This classic Kenya family adventure combines Laikipia, Masai Mara and Diani Beach. It provides a wonderful mix of experiences to keep all the family entertained with stays in child friendly properties, it is a holiday that will create memories that you treasure forever.
Traditional game drives, night drives and guided bush walks
Kids bush school
Camel trekking safari
Sleep out under the stars fly-camping
Private conservancy in the Mara
Great Migration and high predator numbers
Learn about Masai culture
White sands of Diani beach
Warm Indian Ocean for snorkelling, diving and stand up paddle boarding
One of the joys of a Kenya safari is how easy is it combine with a few days of relaxation on the beach afterwards. Whilst being on holiday, watching incredible wildlife and enjoying gorgeous food might not sound too strenuous, the early morning starts and action packed days mean that the majority of our clients like to enjoy a few days relaxation on the beach afterwards.
The nearest beaches are those in Kenya which are just a short, domestic flight away, making the journey their quick and affordable. These stunning white sand beaches with the warm Indian Ocean are hugely popular with our clients who tend to head to Lamu or Diani Beach.
This stretch of islands just off the Kenya coast offers the perfect beach getaway. Lamu with a peaceful destination with no cars on the island, and all transport happening by foot, donkey or dhow. Spend your days relaxing on the beach, wander the old historic town of Lamu and enjoy sunset cruises down the coast in a traditional dhow boat. We love Peponi Hotel here which is located right on the beachfront and has been run by the same family for years, providing warm service and there are always plenty of interesting guests to chat to at the bar.
Another island in the Lamnu archipelago is Manda island, which is home to the luxury Manda Bay hotel. This smaller and quieter island is surrounded by superb marine life and makes the perfect place to relax away from any crowds, this is especially popular for a Kenya honeymoon.
Located south of Mombasa, Diani beach is a flawless, long stretch of white-sand beach, with lush forest on one side and the warm Indian Ocean on the other.
The beach provides some of the best kite surfing in the world, as well as exceptional diving and snorkelling along the beautiful coral reefs. In February and March, migrating whale sharks pass this way and the chance to the see these magnificent animals is truly remarkable.
With a range of boutique properties to choose from, Diani beach is popular with those on a Kenya family holiday and honeymooners alike.
A little further a field as you need to get an international rather than domestic flight but very accessible is the spice island of Zanzibar, famed for its powder soft white beaches, excellent diving and snorkelling thanks to the coral reef that runs the entire length of the coast. The reef also creates an area of shallow water, making swimming in the warm waters safe. Culture vultures will love exploring the buzzy Stone Town, where the old quarter is a UNESCO world heritage site.
How to arrange your perfect Masai Mara safari
The Masai Mara is a superb safari destination and hopefully this guide has helped to give you a little insight to help with planning your trip. As you’ve probably realised, there are lots of factors to take into consideration, such as the wildlife you would most like to see, the weather, how to avoid the crowds, not to mention the huge choice of accommodation. It’s also very likely that you would like to visit some of Kenya’s other highlights during your trip. One of our Kenya experts would be more than happy to assist with tailoring your perfect itinerary, so please get in touch.