Expert Reviews – Masai Mara NR

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The Masai Mara – the million wildebeest march
Overall rating
4/5

There are certain moments in life when timing just works. I had timed my trip to the Mara for late September in hopes that I would be there for the great migration. It was difficult waking up at 4am but the promise of my first hot air balloon flight more than made up for it. With extraordinary luck, the wildebeest decided to start heading south that morning. As we floated above the earth in a basket, a long thin trail of animals plodded patiently across the golden grasslands for as far as the eye could see.

The Masai Mara was first turned into a game reserve in 1948. Since then, the protected area has grown and shrunk again currently standing at 1,510 sq kms (583 sq miles). However it is part of a far far larger protected area, surrounded by private reserves and bordering Tanzania’s vast Serengeti National Park. Scenically, the Mara isn’t one of the most beautiful parks in Africa, although its huge skies and vast rolling plains have majesty. The word ‘Mara’ means spotted and refers both to the shadow patterns of the clouds chasing over the savanna and the occasional stands of acacia. What the open savanna does offer is superb visibility and huge numbers of plains animals, which, in turn, act as a fast food joint for endless prowling predators. The net result is that the gameviewing is good all year and magnificent between June and September when the great migration herds are in the north. The eastern half of the reserve which is closer to Nairobi, with more accessible roads (although most fly) is far more touristy than the west and has the large lodges.

However there are clouds hovering as well as hot air balloons. A recent wildlife survey of the reserve has shown alarming drops in the density of some species, citing the pressure of tourism and grazing around the edges of the reserve. And park fees are now sky-high, even by Kenya’s astronomic standards. The Mara has priced itself out of reach for all but the super-rich and the once-in-a-lifetime dream trip.

Migration madness in the Mara
Overall rating
4/5

As neighbour to Tanzania’s Serengeti, the obvious attraction of the Mara is the chaotic migration of thousands upon thousands of wildebeest and zebra during July/August and then in October as they follow the scent of greener pastures. I was there in early August, with the wildebeest swarming like ants across the savanna, and was lucky enough to see frenetic river crossings as nervous wildebeest and zebra sensed crocodiles hiding in the shadows waiting silently to grab the bold or the vulnerable. Their arrival signifies a feeding frenzy for predators too and we frequently saw whole prides of lions, cubs included, walking slowly with swollen bellies, licking their bloodstained faces after the kill.

But there’s much more to the Mara than the migration. Its sweeping plains are home to masses of animals that include the Big Five, although rhino are quite difficult to find, and its birdlife is tremendous. Unsurprisingly, it attracts masses of tourists too, catering for all budgets, so if you want to avoid the crowds, steer clear of the high season.

Another tip for avoiding the crowds is to stay in one of the conservancies bordering the park. These are owned by local Maasai who benefit from leasing the land to just a few lodge owners. It’s a complete win-win situation – with only a handful of lodges on each conservancy, visitors get a great place to stay with few other tourists; the wildlife has returned to what was once deserted land due to overgrazing by cattle; and the Maasai get a welcome and not insubstantial income. I stayed at Naboisho Conservancy and was blown away by the amount of game on the plains.

Life and death in the Maasai Mara
Overall rating
4/5

The Maasai Mara seems to be a place of constant drama. I can’t remember many drives on these vast grassy plains without something exciting unfolding in front of me. Of course most exciting wildlife viewings involve some predator activity and predators seem to be in huge supply.

Some areas of the Mara get a lot of tourist traffic which takes away of the experience, but on the other hand, the predators seem so used to vehicles that you can really observe their behavior. They just go on as if you weren’t there. I’ve had a leopard using my vehicle as a cover to approach its prey. I’ve also seen a cheetah, which usually likes to sit on a termite hill to scan the surrounding plains for gazelles, sit on a car bonnet to do just that. Lions are often found hunting or on a kill. Any kill in the Mara seems to attract lots of scavengers as well. Hyenas and vultures are usually the first ones on the scene and jackals are never far off.

All this drama carries out throughout the year, but the biggest spectacle unfolds around June-July, when the wildebeest migration arrives from the Serengeti. Predators, especially the opportunistic lions, seem to be even more prolific and this is the time of the year for the Nile crocodiles to get their fill during the famous river crossings. The Mara, a place of life and death, is no place for the softhearted.

A timeless safari experience with a full complement of African animals
Overall rating
4/5

Kenya’s best-known reserve, it’s everything you’d expect of an African wilderness area; rolling plains, rocky outcrops, and deep green winding rivers full of hippos and crocs. Its animal diversity is one of the greatest in East Africa and all of the Big 5 is easily found. However I find it can at times get overrun with tourist pop-up minibuses, and the bewildering amount of lodges and camps means that its ‘wildness’ may feel sanitised and the experience can be ‘package-holiday’ like. Nevertheless, you can’t beat the drama of the Mara – a massive migratory herd of wildebeest and their zebra friends marching across the plains, a cheetah making a mad dash through the grassland, a group of hyena squabbling over a carcass, or a hungry croc dramatically rising from the waters in the Mara River. Its popularity and appeal is also because the Mara offers a varied choice of safari options across most budgets. For a start you can either get there by air or road, and accommodation ranges from large family-friendly lodges in the reserve, super-luxurious and intimate camps in one of the conservancies or group ranches, to budget banda/tented accommodation outside Talek, Sekenani and Ololaimutiek gates. But whatever your safari arrangements are for the Masai Mara, you can be sure of plenty of dazzling animal action.

Where culture meets nature
Overall rating
4/5

My first safari experience was a tough act to follow. By day we spotted lions sheltering in emerald-green foliage and spent hours photographing a leopard napping next to the kill it had hoisted into a tree. By night, we were treated to a little Masai culture, with folklore tales and after-dinner dance performances. The Masai Mara is deservedly popular, with its range of accommodation to suit all budgets, its elegant and striking Masai people who sometimes work as guides and its plethora of animals that includes the Big Five and practically every other species you're likely to have on your checklist.

Coming eye to eye with gentle giants
Overall rating
4/5

Gorilla tracking is arguably one of the most rewarding wildlife encounters in Africa. Although chimps are more closely related to humans, gorillas seem to connect more to us as visitors. Nothing prepares you for being stared at by a gorilla. And that is exactly what they do: they seem to be looking at us as much as we are looking at them. I’ve been privileged to see gorillas in Volcanoes National Park about a dozen times, and each experience has been totally different from any other. One amazing experience was when the whole troop followed me down the mountain to the boundary of the forest after my time with them was up. Budget permitting, I can recommend booking two gorilla tracking permits on consecutive days. The one hour spent with these gentle giants might just feel too short. Keen hikers should stay on for a day or so to visit Dian Fossey’s research station or climb Bisoke Volcano. Tracking golden monkeys is also a worthwhile activity.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.4/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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