Masai Mara or Kruger National Park - which safari is better?
Everything you need to know to choose the right location for you from getting there to wildlife to budget.
Operations & Marketing Development
12 Dec 2022
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Kenya’s Masai Mara and South Africa’s Kruger National Park are two heavyweight destinations for safari aficionados the world over and rightly so. They both boast huge amounts of diversity, wildlife, a vast array of activities, and stunning places to stay.
But, which is better?
First up, practical, but important! How easy it is to get to your safari destination to begin your holiday can effect if you turn up fresh-faced and ready to go, or need a holiday before you even begin! Luckily, both the Masai Mara and Kruger score well here.
Good news if you are flying from the UK, there are international flights directly from London to both Nairobi in Kenya and to Johannesburg in South Africa. What's more, South Africa is only one hour ahead and Kenya two hours ahead, so jetlag to contend with either.
Getting to the parks
Both parks are easily accessible by scheduled flights, and flying in a small plane to your chosen destination can be a thrilling experience as you watch the landscapes change below, and even spot wildlife as you come in to land.
Flying to and from the Masai Mara is very straightforward with most flights departing from Wilson Airport in Nairobi which is about a half an hour's drive from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi’s main international hub. There are multiple airstrips within the Masai Mara so where you fly to will depend on where you are staying, but several departing each day, it is easy to reach.
Driving to the Masai Mara is also possible and although a less popular option due to the ease of flying. The journey typically takes 5-7 hours depending on where in the Mara you are headed and new tar road that is being built from Nairobi to the Mara will make this even easier.
Flying to Kruger is possible from quite a few of the major cities in South Africa, although in general travelers will fly from Johannesburg but it is also possible from Cape Town allowing you to combine a safari with the Winelands and garden route.
Most flights from Johannesburg fly to Hoedspruit, a quaint town on the outskirts of Kruger, but there are also several airstrips located within the private concessions of Kruger, namely within Sabi Sand’s conservancies.
If you want to go by car, the road journey from Johannesburg to Kruger is between five to seven hours, depending on which gate you enter. Be prepared for road conditions in both South Africa and Kenya to be somewhat more demanding in places than you might be used to back home.
Overall, it is much of a muchness and a tie.
Let's start with the thing that draws visitors in, to begin with, the wildlife! Both the Masai Mara and Kruger National Park are big hitters here, so whichever you visit, you will no be disappointed!
The Masai Mara National Park, including all its various conservancies, is roughly 1,500 km2 whilst in comparison, the Great Kruger National Park spans over 19,600 km2 - so quite the difference!
Masai Mara - wildebeest migration & big cats galore
Both of these remarkable national parks are outstanding for wildlife in their own right. The Masai Mara is synonymous for the part it plays in the Great Wildebeest Migration during the river crossing season. The migration generally passes through this corner of Kenya between July and October each year as millions of wildebeest, zebra and other plains game follow the rains in search of fresh pastures.
The Masai Mara-Serengeti ecosystem is home to some of the densest populations of big cats on the African continent so the chances of seeing lions, cheetahs and leopard is pretty good.
If you are hunting for the Big Five, these can be found in the Masai Mara, but the number of rhino here isn't huge so these may be harder to come by. Take a look at our guide to seeing the Big Five in Kenya.
Kruger - the Big Five
If it’s the Big Five that you’re after, Kruger National Park will not disappoint. There are elephants aplenty, with no shortage of buffalo, lion and leopard sightings, as well as both, critically endangered black and white rhino. And because the Kruger National Park is so vast there is a huge variety in terms of biomes; from deep riverine, rocky mountains and expansive savannahs all of which translates into a wonderful abundance of diversity of birds and mammals.
Which is better depends ultimately on what wildlife you are hoping to see!
Culture and history
A safari isn't just about seeing incredible wildlife, it is also a cultural experience, and on this one, the Masai Mara wins hands down!
The Masai Mara is named after the Maasai people who have lived throughout Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti regions for decades.
Semi-nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai still live by herding cattle and goats, although many have joined modern-day living and the Maasai will often be your hosts or safari guide. Dressed in bright red robes, they are instantly recognizable and the warriors with a speed in hand are a particularly impressive sight.
Spending time with the Maasai and learning about their ancient traditions, how they are integrating their culture into today’s ‘society’ without losing many of their traditions and how they are coexisting with their wildlife neighbors is a must. Of course, you may also be treated to some remarkable dancing, singing, and local arts, as well as being invited into a ‘manyatta’ - a traditional Masai home.
Kruger National Park
Whilst the Kruger may not be able to boast tribal culture in the same way as the Masai Mara, it still holds incredible historical significance. Did you know that archeological artifacts have been from around 100,000 years ago with over 300 stone age sites and plenty of examples of San Rock Art scattered throughout the park which are definitely worthy of exploration?
A clear winner here, Kenya gets our vote!
Private Conservancies vs. National Park
This is less amount Kruger vs Masai Mara, but it is important to understand that both the Greater Kruger and Masai Mara National Parks consist of sections that are open to anyone visiting and paying an entrance fee, as well as a number of private concessions or conservancies.
These private concessions may be more expensive to stay within but they come with many benefits, and for a variety of reasons, we often recommend staying in a private conservancy over a national park. This is especially true with the Kruger National Park which has tarmac roads - read on to see more!
Why choose a private conservancy?
Exclusiveness. Within these private concessions, only guests paying to stay within specific camps or lodges who are members of the conservancy can explore the wildlife areas within its borders. Generally, there are no fences surrounding the conservancies meaning the wildlife can come and go as it pleases, but there are fewer other visitors present.
Limited vehicles on wildlife sightings. Unlike in the National Park areas, vehicles on wildlife sightings are restricted to between three and five depending on the conservancy regulations. Not only does this make for more rewarding, intimate wildlife encounters, but it also means less encroachment on the natural behaviour of the wildlife.
Off-road driving. If you are looking for an authentic safari experience, this makes a huge difference! Kruger National Park has tarmac roads which you could in theory you could happily potter around in a mini or sports car.... it can feel a little bit akin to a 'safari parc' you would find in the UK! Whilst the Masai Mara National Reserve has more authentic, dirt roads, these are still well-carved-out roads with plenty of traffic. Conservancies by contrast have much smaller tracks with fewer vehicles and also the opportunity to venture off the path. In the National Parks, going off-road is a big no-no, but in conservancies some off-roading is permitted to get you closer to the animals. This is done responsibly and the guides have gone through training on how to conduct this properly.
Night drives. Although these are available through booking at various rest camps within Kruger National Park - if you are staying at a camp within the borders, night drives are usually an activity reserved for those staying in a conservancy. Night drives are exactly that, they begin as the sun is beginning to set and you head out with your guide to explore the African wilderness at night using spotlights to search for nocturnal species as they begin their nightly forays. Coming across a pride of lions as they rouse from their slumbers and move into the night, patrolling their territory and looking for prey is a pretty memorable experience.
Bush walks. These are not allowed within the Masai Mara National Park and within the Kruger National Park they will need to be pre-booked from specific camps, but staying in a conservancy a bush walk is a much more accessible activity as your guide takes you to explore the bush on foot, pointing out various things of interest that might not be apparent when on a game drive. Take a look at our top walking safaris.
Sundowners and bush meals. For the most part, these are reserved for those staying in a private concession and are an absolute treat for guests. For sundowners, your guide will pick a scenic spot to watch the sun setting over the plains of Africa whilst setting up a table with all manner of drinks and nibbles for you to enjoy. Bush meals are splendid, informal affairs where you will be driven to a secluded place in the bush and awaiting you will be a full-on culinary experience with no corners cut. With all manner of delicacies served to you cooked on an open fire and served to as you relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of the wilderness around you.
Doing a self-drive safari, for some is a daunting prospect whilst others relish the adventure and this is their preferred way to experience the wildlife of Africa. Whilst the Masai Mara offers a deeper cultural experience if you are hoping to do a self-drive safari, the Kruger National Park gets our vote, and here's why....
The road network in Kruger National Park is much more developed with some tarmac roads, marker posts, as well as concise maps available that are easy to follow. It is possible to self-drive in the Kruger National Park in any car, there is no need for a 4x4. There are a good selection of rest camps which have a variety of places to eat and buy supplies, top up on fuel or simply sit and relax as a break.
Some would say that driving on tarmac with lots of other cars is far from an authentic safari experience, but this is how many tourists have been visiting the park since the public had access to it all the way back in 1927 when the entrance fee was just £1.
The main Masai Mara National Park doesn’t have such a well-developed self-drive option and the requirement for a sturdy 4x4 combined with some experience of driving these rugged vehicles in sometimes difficult terrains is a prerequisite.
Follow the rules!
In both National Parks, self-driving is only allowed in the main areas of the national park and not in the private conservancies, and there are various rules and regulations which need to be adhered to. For example, there is no off-roading permitted and in Kruger, there are clearly marked speed limits with all too eager wildlife rangers and local police armed with speed cameras and the ability to hand out spot fines for rule breakers.
Is it better to have a guide?
It is worth just taking a moment to note the benefit of a guided safari, especially if it is your first or second safari. Part of the joy of a safari is not just spotting wildlife for photographs, but the opportunity to learn about the wildlife - how they survive, the history of a pride of lions, the landscape, conversation projects in the area, changes in weather, challenges they face etc - and having an experienced guide who knows the area and can share their wealth of information we think is a key part of what makes a safari so specialist!
Combine it with.....
Which destination offers more flexibility to go beyond a Masai or Kruger safari....this one really depends on what it is you are hoping to combine it with - a dead heat!
Beach and bush
With the pristine white sands of the Kenyan coast and Zanzibar a short hop away, the Masai Mara is a clear winner here. You can even fly direct from the Masai Mara to Diani beach on the Kenyan coast, a real win for those looking to maximise their time and minimize hassle.
BUT.... from the Kruger, you can head north to Mozambique where you can stay at the exclusive Bazaruto Archipelago - Azura Benguerra here is one of our favouite islands properties, although a pricey option.
Another win for the Masai Mara which could easily be combined with Amboseli in Kenya which is famed for its vast numbers of elephants which are often photographed in front of Mount Kilimanjaro. You've also got Lewa and Laikipia which are brilliant for riding safaris and spotting rhinos, plus Samburu which has an arid landscape and the brightly coloured Samburu tribe. You could even combine the Masai Mara with the gorillas in Uganda as you can fly from Kigali to Nairobi.
The Kruger, by contrast, could be combined with the Madikwe Game reserve, or as the Kruger is so much larger in size than the Masai Mara with a greater range of topology, you could simply go to two, very different areas with Great Kruger.
Something a little different
If you are looking to combine your safari experience with some a little different, then the Kruger wins hands down. It is a short hop to the Cosmopolitan city of Cape Town which is home to table mountain and Robben Island… and of course the penguins of Boulder’s Beach. Why not take some time to lose yourself in the rolling hills and vast vineyards of South Africa’s Winelands, go whale watching in Hermanus or explore the garden route?
A little further afield but history buffs can explore the battlefields near Drakensberg Mountains, or could in theory even fly from Johannesburg to St Helena where Napolean spent his final days.
The spectrum of price is huge anywhere on safari, akin to the range you would find in a large city all offering their own twist on why you should stay. Both the Kruger and the Masai Mara offer a full range of more budget options to full-scale luxury.
The main difference in daily costs between the Greater Kruger and its surrounding conservancies compared to the Masai Mara and its conservancies is the conservation fees you need to pay. These fees which are charged daily per person are a charge that are rightly in place and which goes to either the land owners, like the Masai themselves or towards supporting conservation in general or anti-poaching schemes and suchlike.
The Masai Mara and its conservancies charge a range of between £65-120 per person per day and have been doing so since their inception. The Kruger main park fees are much less to make this affordable to locals and the local conservancies and concessions – the most famous of which is hte Sabi Sands – have only really started charging these daily fees more recently and are closer to the £20 per person per day rate. The Manyeleti and The Makalali Private Reserves are similar whilst the Timbavati is a little more at closer to £30.
Whilst it doesn’t seem like a huge cost, it all adds up and is not often something that is taken into account when thinking about the budget at the outset of planning your safari.
Where to stay
Hopefully, the above information has helped you lean towards one of the Masai Mara or Kruger, so let's take a look at the accommodation options for both.
To help explain where to stay in the Masai Mara a bit better, we need to it down into three different areas.
The Main National Park - As mentioned this is the main public area of the National Park where any and all who come can explore the vastness of the main park and there is a wide variety of accommodation options choice to suit every traveller's requirements.
Ranging from the luxuriant and world-famous Agama Mara located high on the Oloololo Escarpment. Each of its glass-fronted suits gives visitors stunning views of the Mara as it stretches out seemingly endlessly before them. If luxury accommodation, a stunning location, brilliant safaris and fantastic culinary experiences are all on your hit list, then Angama Mara is a heavyweight to contend with.
The Masai Mara Triangle. This is a very special corner of the Masai Mara with the majority of its Northern and Eastern border running along the Tanzanian Serengeti border. This is where the majority of the mass wildebeest herds cross from Tanzania to Kenya as they follow the rains and fresh pastures of the Great Migration cycle (read more about the Great Migration in Kenya). There is very limited accommodation options within the Mara Triangle with only a few camps having the privilege of being located within this section. These being:
Mara Serena - One of the oldest and largest safari camps in the Masai Mara. Mara Serena is perched on top of a rocky kopje in the heart of the triangle. It commands fantastic views of the Mara sprawling out as far as the eye can see and a large selection of rooms and is very close to one of the main crossing points during as the Great Migration passes through the region.
Governors Camp & Little Governors - Sister camps located close to each other and stone's throw away from the Musiara Airstrip. Governors Camps have become synonymous with safari travel to East Africa. These two camps are nestled in a riverine forest along the meandering banks of the Mara River and are a wonderful example of a luxury safari experience.
Masai Mara Conservancies. There is a whole host of private and community conservancies which help make the Greater Masai Mara National Park complete and it would be difficult to list all of them. There are definite benefits of staying in a conservancy over staying in the National Park with one of the main draws being the privacy whilst on game drives as the number of vehicles on wildlife sightings is restricted. And, of course, the selection of brilliant, upmarket safari camps as well as a wider range of activities readily available.
A couple of great options when looking to stay at in a conservancy would be:
Ol Seki Hemingways in the Naboisho Conservancy. This beautiful and innovative camp has a small number of large, luxury tents spread across a hillside all with panoramic views of the Mara Plains. The intimacy of Ol Seki makes it a splendid choice for honeymooners wishing to add a touch of luxury to their safari experience.
Alex Walker’s Serian Original. Located in the Mara North Conservancy. Serian is the benchmark when it comes to an authentic, vintage East African safari combined with luxury under canvas. Located right on the banks of the Mara River and with resident pride of lions close by and pods of hippos wallowing in the river below - you will really feel as though you are in the heart of the African wilderness.
Again, we need to break this down into ataying within the main Kruger National Park, staying within a private concession and staying outside the park.
Staying within the main public areas of Kruger has no shortage of options and is the more preferred method for those on a self-drive safari with the multitude of rest camps such as Lower Sabie, Skukuza, Oliphants - all offering various levels of accommodation facilities. From self-contained chalets, mid-range hotels as well as campsites for those looking for an exceptionally budget-friendly option.
Staying within a private concession. Bordering the main Kruger there are several private game reserves and private concessions which help make up the Greater Kruger National Park and it is these lodges that the majority of our clients choose to stay in. Within the private areas; guests can include a variety of benefits that are not available to the general public in the main Kruger; such as limited vehicles for wildlife sightings, off-roading to get you closer to the big cats and special sightings, guided bush walks, night drives and so on.
Londolozi Game Reserve. One of South Africa’s original private game reserves and has a small portfolio of five camps located along the Sand River in the Great Kruger National Park’s Sabi Sand. Game viewing at Londolozi is simply wonderful with over 16,000 hectares of private land for you to explore with your team of expert guides and trackers. If you’re searching for the perfect combination of luxury and wildlife - you’ll be sorely tempted by Londolozi.
Jock’s Safari Lodge. Tucked away in a quiet conservancy is the legendary Jock’s Safari Camp with over 6,000 hectares of private traversing for game drives which are famous for big five sightings. Each of the lodge’s individual thatched rooms offer solitude and a sense of being immersed into the beautiful African wilderness which surrounds you.
Staying outside Kruger National Park. This is an option that simply cannot be ignored. Bordering Kruger, there is a plethora of safari camps, BnB’s, lodges and hotels - all of which offer either half-day or full-day safari excursions into the main Kruger National Park. These are perfect for those who want to experience some wildlife whilst in South Africa but it is not their main focus - perhaps as part of a self-drive holiday to South Africa and exploring the stunning Panorama Route.
So, in conclusion.... which is a better safari experience the Kruger National Park or the Masai Mara? Both are magnificent and have something to offer for everyone, it all boils down to personal preference and this is where talking to an African travel specialist will help you choose the right one for you.