The Masai Mara

"World famous for good reason as this is the most photogenic and iconic of all safari destinations!”

When you picture yourself in Africa, with vast herds of wildebeest thundering across the landscape, thrilling big cat chases and the lumbering greatness of elephants, you’re probably imagining the Masai Mara – arguably the most iconic and most photographed of all safari destinations.

There is a movie set quality to the Masai Mara as you stand under a lonely desert date tree on the vast plains and stare in wonder at the abundant wildlife all around you. No wonder ‘Big Cat Diaries’ and Disney’s ‘African Cats’ were filmed in such a visually perfect location.

Where is the Masai Mara?

The Masai Mara is located in the southwestern corner of Kenya, bordered by Tanzania to the south, the Loita Hills to the east and the 400m high Oloololo escarpment to the west.

The Masai Mara National Reserve has two main rivers, the Mara and the Talek Rivers, which divide it into three sections. The National Reserve forms a small but significant part of the vast and unfenced Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

What makes the Masai Mara so special?

The annual wildebeest migration, involving over 1.5 million of the shaggy-haired beasts, takes place each year across the Serengeti and the Mara in a generally clockwise direction, a cycle that depends on rainfall and pastures. Every June or July vast herds of wildebeest and zebra arrive from the Serengeti into the Mara in search of greener pastures, a result of the ‘long rains’ that occur between March and May.

The crocodile-filled Mara and Talek rivers must be crossed to access these pastures and these deadly river crossings provide one of nature’s truly awe-inspiring spectacles.  The migration is dubbed one of the natural wonders of the world and nowhere else on the planet can you witness anything even remotely similar.

However, its popularity has resulted in a huge increase in visitor numbers to the Mara and it’s not uncommon to have 50+ vehicles, including mini-vans, at the river crossings jostling for the best photo spot.

To avoid this circus, we strongly recommend staying in one of the surrounding private conservancies rather than inside the Reserve during the peak travel period from June to October. Day visits to the river crossings are still possible, but trust us, escaping the crowds afterwards is even better.

The migration is about far more than just the river crossings and it’s relatively easy to have the spectacle of tens of thousands of animals spread out across the plains to yourself if you use the right operators and guides.

But the great wildebeest migration is just a part of the astonishing ecological show on offer. The area teems with a wide variety of species of birds and the Masai Mara comes with enough wildlife viewing to last a lifetime.

The Masai Mara National Reserve

The Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the most famous wildlife reserves on the planet and encompasses 1,500 square kilometres of mainly rolling hills and grassy plains, divided into three main sections by the meandering Mara and Talek Rivers.

The Mara River has only two bridges where vehicles can cross, while the smaller Talek can be crossed by a vehicle at some points depending on that year’s water levels and road conditions. The southeast of the reserve, close to the Tanzania border and along the Sand River, is particularly scenic and worth exploring as it is also away from the frenzied crowds.

In the Mara, there is no fixed pattern for migration and no typical migratory route. After crossing the Mara River in Tanzania and moving into the Mara, large herds continue north into the western section called the Mara Triangle. Here, many turn east and cross the Mara River again into the east of the reserve. Large numbers of others continue north and later cross the Mara and Talek Rivers at different points.

These herds continue to the far north and east and spread out over the vast conservancies around the reserve. In the process, they cross the dangerous rivers many times looking for greener pastures driven by instinct and fear of predators. There is, therefore, no one perfect place to experience the migration and river crossings.

The greatest show on Earth is always spread out over a large area and takes place over several months. It is possible to see the migration from most locations as long as the visit coincides with the migration period. The great spectacle remains an awesome experience but can be very busy. We recommend staying in one of the conservancies surrounding the National Reserve to avoid crowds or visiting outside of the migration season as the Mara is a very productive wildlife area all year round.

What activities are on offer in the Masai Mara?

Whether you’re visiting in the dry season or the rainy season, there’s always plenty to do in Masai Mara. Unsurprisingly, the sight of thousands of wildebeest charging across the perilous rivers is without doubt top of most people’s list, but there are countless other activities on offer.

Fancy a hot air balloon ride as you gaze down at the seemingly endless African continent? Or how about the cultural tours that often visit the local Masai village or the slightly unnerving, yet oddly thrilling night game drives?

Perhaps you’d simply like to take the time to relax and enjoy a champagne breakfast as you gaze out over the African bush. Whatever your vibe, the Masai Mara has it in intoxicating abundance.

What are the private conservatives in the Masai Mara?

The Mara National Reserve is surrounded by several private wildlife conservancies along its northern and eastern borders, mostly former cattle grazing areas. Through agreements with Maasai landowners, they have now been converted into eco-tourism sanctuaries.

The landowners agreed to not live on the land in return for regular income from the safari operators, but most still have grazing rights for their cattle on the land within a strict management plan. Many local Maasai people work at the camps, which is ideal given that they were born and raised on the land and know it intimately. The conservancy’s successful conservation model offers a win-win for all parties concerned.

Their formation has resulted in an area larger than the reserve now forming a contiguous protected ecosystem. There are currently nine conservancies, with more likely to be established soon. Each is private and only hosts a select few safaris operators who are members of that conservancy, ensuring a very exclusive experience for their guests.

How to choose the right conservancy?

Choosing the right conservancy for your safari holiday will depend on a number of factors, including accommodation options and which, if any additional activities you wish to participate in, such as cultural tours, a hot air balloon safari or night game drives.

Regardless of which conservancy you choose, you can be sure to find experienced guides with a detailed knowledge of the natural habit who will do all they can to make your Kenya Safari a lifetime experience you’ll never forget.

Here are our choices of the best conservancies in the Masai Mara.

The Mara Naboisho Conservancy

Naboisho translates as ‘coming together’ and the Naboisho Conservancy incorporates some 200 square kilometres of varied habitat. The Conservancy supports large animal populations and healthy predator numbers, including the largest lion pride in the Mara. Naboisho has around seven operator members and is home to the Koiyaki Guiding School, while also having its own airstrip, Ol Seki, which provides plenty of scheduled flights in and out of the region.

The Mara North Conservancy

Created in 2009 and comprising some 300 square kilometres, Mara North lies adjacent to the northern boundary of the National Reserve. It forms an important wildlife corridor for the wider ecosystem. Over 800 landowners lease their land to the conservancy and maintaining a consensus amongst them is no mean feat and a testament to this robust conservation model.

The Conservancy supports a large density of game animals and as the Maasai have grazing rights, herds of cattle might also be spotted occasionally. The iconic Leopard Gorge is as famous as the big cat nursery of the Greater Mara and is one of the best places in East Africa to catch a glimpse of these exquisite, yet deadly animals.

Olare Motorogi Conservancy

The Olare Motorogi Conservancy started in May 2006 and is well regarded for its conservation work and community involvement. The Conservancy comprises 139 square kilometres, made up of 89 square kilometres in Olare Orok and 50 square kilometres in Motorogi – both of which are managed as a single conservancy. Olare Orok is leading the way in the Mara in terms of sustainable tourism.

They limit the number of tents to just 12 per camp, with at least 3 square kilometres of game viewing area per tent. This area, just north of the border with the National Reserve, has some of the best game-viewing in the Mara, with plentiful predators and one of the highest densities of lions on earth. This, in combination with the low visitor density and the walking and night driving activities available here, makes this our favourite area in the whole of the Mara.

Ol Derikesi Conservancy

This is a fairly small conservancy in the far southeastern corner of the greater Mara. Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp is the only member of the conservancy and is situated on the side of a hill overlooking Tanzania with awesome vistas over the Serengeti Plains. The camp has easy access to the southern section of the Masai Mara National Reserve and the spectacular terrain along the Sand River.

Lemek and Ol Chorro Conservancies

These two conservancies are in the far north of the Greater Mara and have some truly spectacular terrain, comprising grass plains and small valleys along seasonal creeks. After a good rain, when the grass is lush and green, the area is teeming with wildlife, making it a photographer’s dream. It shares more than a striking resemblance to the scenes from ‘Out of Africa’ and there are several great smaller family-owned and more affordable camps in the area.

What can I do after my Masai Mara Safari?

If you’ve got a little more time after your safari, Kenya is home to some of the most astonishing locations in all of East Africa.

The Lake Nakuru National Park, just over 220km northeast of the Masai Mara, sits regally amid the Rift Valley and provides not only a spectacular collection of bird species, including the dazzling spectacle of hundreds of flamingoes, but it’s also home to hippos, big game, as well as a thriving monkey population – perfect for any wildlife photographer.

Considering that the Tanzanian border is just a short drive southwest through the gorgeous Kenyan countryside, why not find time to visit the other-worldly Ngorongoro Crater and the spectacular Serengeti National Park – both of which will bring your safari experience to a deafening and unforgettable crescendo.

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