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Masai Mara - elephant herd

The Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, owned by the Maasai people, is one of East Africa’s most famous safari destinations and a favorite amongst wildlife lovers, photographers and conservationists.

Masai (Maasai) Mara

The Masai Mara National Reserve lies in Kenya's Rift Valley Province in south-western Kenya. The Reserve is the northern extension of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and is renowned for its magnificent Big Cat population.

The Mara
Known to locals as the Mara, the reserve is no bigger than Rhode Island yet is probably the most visited safari destination in Kenya. At most times busy with tourists and mini-buses, it is nevertheless a highly recommended destination and a special place that tempts the visitor back time and again.

Diversity and Ecosystems
In the east, the sandy hills and bushes of Ngama Hills are preferred by Africa's endangered black rhino. The western border of the Mara is demarcated by the Oloololo Escarpment. For excellent sightings of elephant, giraffe, lion, cheetah and leopard, the Musiara Swamp also has a lower density of tourists. Mara Triangle is bordered by the Mara River, with acacia woodland and lush grassland, attracting a high concentration of wildebeest during the annual migration. The Central Plains cover the largest area of the Mara, with outcrops of boulders, scattered bushes and savanna grasslands favored by plains game. Wildlife is free to roam across the Mara boundaries into huge ‘dispersal areas’.

Serengeti and Masai Mara - route of the migration

The Masai Mara is the setting for one of nature’s most spectacular events, the annual migration of huge herds of wildebeest and zebra.

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The Masai Mara at a Glance

It started out as a small Wildlife Sanctuary about 520 square kilometers (200 sq miles), established in 1948. It was only extended eastwards in 1961 and went through a number of size variations before settling on its current game reserve status at 1,510 square kilometers (583 sq miles).

The Maasai community are unmistakably the most recognized people of Africa, characterized by their bright red garments and their beautiful beadwork which plays an essential element in the ornamentation of the body. Young men often cover their bodies in ocher and cultivate ornate hairstyles to enhance their appearance.

What’s in a name?
The Reserve got its name from the local people who called the land “Mara” which means “spotted” in Maa. Maa is the name given to the Masai language. This is exactly what the area looks like from afar. It is dispersed or “spotted” with Umbrella Acacia trees, bushes and animals, even the shadows created by cloud cover add to the spots. Add to this, thousands of animals and you have one very large speckled African wonderland.

How to get there
Some travelers decide to avoid driving and will fly from Nairobi or the Kenyan coast to one of the airstrips in or near the Reserve. Daily scheduled flights and private charters use either the Mara Serena, Musiara or Keekorok airports located withn the Reserve or Mara Shikar, Kichwa Tembo or Ngerende airports located within the Conservation area of the Mara.

Driving alternatives are with a hired car or with a safari tour operator. Access to the Mara is via the Narok region which is a 3 hour drive from Nairobi. Roads and tracks in the Mara are well established.

Best time to go
One of the most famous events on the Mara calender is the annual wildebeest migration that occurs between July and October. Naturally this is the peak season for visiting the Reserve, however it is never disappointing to visit year round. Most of the rain will fall from November to April but Kenya is mostly arid with a wetter coastal belt and therefore rain is seldom an influencing factor to a safari in the Mara.

Read more about the wildlife and attractions of the Mara:
The Great Migration
Wildlife of the Masai Mara
The Maasai People
Adventure in the Mara

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The Annual Great Migration

The Great Migration from the Serengeti in the south is one of the most spectacular wildlife shows on earth. Although the exact timing of the migration varies every year, the best time to witness this spectacle in the Mara is usually between July and August, when large numbers of wildebeest and other antelope congregate and prepare to cross the Mara River in search of fresh grazing on the other side. Predators hunt frequently as the migrating antelope pass through their territories. Calves are particularly vulnerable during this time and the Mara river crossing poses life threatening obstacles. Many drown in the scramble to cross, or become lunch to the crocodiles. Those that survive will enjoy the grasslands of the Mara Triangle before turning south at the onset of the short November rains to return to the Serengeti in October - November. To witness the migration and especially a river crossing is undoubtedly a highlight and a privilege on any safari that will earn the traveler bragging rights around the dinner table back home.

Mara River wildebeest crossing

The Wildlife of the Masai Mara

The wildlife of the Mara is plentiful throughout the year but is especially prolific during the dry season, July through October. Safari drives are best taken at dawn and dusk since this is when nocturnal and diurnal animals can be seen and wildlife is most active and most visible. Sunrise is an especially busy time when one is more likely to see a predator kill. The animals make use of the cooler times of day to move around and then seek out shade to siesta through the hotter midday hours when the sun beats down unmercifully on the African savanna.

Predators are well represented in the Mara with cheetah, leopard and the black maned lion that is found in the area between the Mara River and Oloololo Escarpment. The Mara has the largest lion population in Kenya which means that the chance of spotting these mighty predators is very good. Leopards are a little trickier to see, since their ability to climb trees, nocturnal habits and camouflage make them less obvious in the bush.

Not as striking perhaps but with their own charm, hyenas are seen often. Although not as photogenic as an elegant cheetah or powerful lion, they deserve their predator status and are amusing at times and always interesting to watch. They are hunters in their own right but often choose to steal the kills away from other predators. Large family groups form formidable hunting packs.

Herbivores of the Mara include antelope (especially wildebeest, zebra, eland and Thomson’s gazelle) as well as elephant, hippo and black rhino.

Up to the 1960’s black rhino were plentiful in the Mara but they suffered large losses due to poaching. In the 70’ and 80’s their numbers were as low as 15. With increased protection and conservation efforts from game rangers, the numbers are climbing ever so slowly.  

Not to be forgotten are the river dwellers. The Mara and Talek rivers are home to hippopotamus and Nile crocodiles.

Kenya wildlife

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The Maasai People

Maasai are tall, sleek, decorated in jewelry and draped in red blanket-like shukas. The Maasai have a reputation for bravery and even arrogance. Their belief is that Ngai, their rain god, entrusted all cattle to them, permitting them to raid the cattle from other tribes. Their primary goal as a tribe is to raise cattle and often will move in search of grazing for their animals. A tribe’s wealth is determined by the number of cattle it owns, quantity will out-weigh quality and they use their animals for trade and custom. A father will demand a negotiated number of cattle from his daughter’s suitor as payment for her hand in marriage. Cattle also make up a big part of their every day lifestyle with use of the hides for bedding and clothing. Blood and milk are used for food, dung for plastering walls and in recent years the less nomadic tribes will use their cattle to till the soil of their vegetable gardens.

Kenya Maasai dancing and decoration

Sadly the traditions of the Maasai are being engulfed by the ever increasing western influence, attracting many of the younger Maasai to forego their tribal ways in exchange for more comfortable and convenient western living. However some of the more rural tribes living in the Mara’s dispersal areas still practice their ancient ways as semi nomadic pastoralists. With less ground available than before for grazing, they now have smaller herds of cattle and are now farm vegetables and therefore have an additional commodity with which to trade.

Adventure Activities in the Mara

Balloon safarisMany safari operators and lodges can arrange a balloon safari for you. Typically your day will start before dawn as you are driven out to the launch site. By around 6:30am you are airborne, in time to witness the African sunrise and the wildlife stirring beneath you for another day in the wilderness. Flights are usually an hour long and after your return to terra firma you are treated to a bush breakfast and champagne to toast your bravery.

Trekking on foot – Traditionally a safari is conducted by road in a 4x4 safari vehicle, but one of the best ways to experience the African wilderness is on foot. Always ensure that it is safe and that you are allowed to hike in the area that you are visiting. Walking in the Reserve is controlled but you can arrange a walking safari with your lodge, camp or safari outfitter.

There are more walking options outside the Reserve and one of the best ways to truly experience the bush is with a local Masaai guide. He will explain what you see and point out what you may otherwise miss, discuss local customs and legends and use his experience to keep you safe.  A bush walk can be both a thrilling experience and a good opportunity to learn about the wilderness, medicinal properties of plants and discover the smaller animals and birdlife that you never see from a vehicle.

Loita Hills is a popular highland area outside the Reserve that attracts hikers because of its wildlife diversity and beautiful scenery. Another area to consider is the Nguruman escarpment.

Horseback safarisWhen you are on horseback the wildlife will not be aware of you, seeing instead another animal venturing into their path. For this reason, you are able to get closer to the grazing animals, move through the herds and even run with them on horseback!

FishingDay trips or overnight fishing trips can be arranged from the Mara to Lake Victoria’s Rusingi Island. Equipment is provided on site.

Herbalism -  A visit to a traditional healer known as Daktari wa Miti Shamba is a fascinating experience and an opportunity to learn about traditional medicine practiced by the Maasai. These traditions and recipes are sadly fading and there is a sense of urgency in the scientific world to preserve the knowledge of these traditional remedies because tests have shown that many have significant medicinal and curative benefits.

Many of the lodges and camps in the Mara and even some of the private ranches will arrange a visit for you with a local herbalist if you are interested in learning more about this fascinating subject.

Bird Watching - Although not considered to be an ornithologist’s paradise, the reserve nevertheless is home to raptors, with more than 50 species of vultures and around 450 bird species. Look forward to spotting the Corncrake, Ostrich, White Headed Vulture, Secretary Bird, Lilac Breasted Roller and many more.

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