Endless plains, breathtaking vistas and abundant wildlife all help to make Kenya’s Masai Mara one of the world’s best safari destinations.
An area of preserved savannah wilderness in southwestern Kenya, the Masai Mara National Reserve attracts huge numbers of visitors every year, drawn here by the chance to come (almost) face-to-face with lions, cheetahs, elephants, zebras, wildebeest, and an array of other beguiling native creatures. If you’re thinking of embarking on a Masai Mara safari and would like to get the inside track on what to expect, what to bring, how to book, and other essential tips, we’ve compiled a short guide below.
History of Masai Mara Safaris
The Massai Mara National Reserve has a long and fascinating history. When the reserve was first established as a wildlife sanctuary back in 1961, during the British colonial period in Kenya, it spanned just 520 square kilometres. However, it was rapidly extended to more than triple the size, covering more of the area where the majority of wild animals were inhabiting, and soon evolved into a fully-fledged game reserve.
In 1973, by which time it had become an officially designated National Reserve, a sizeable portion of the reserve had been returned back to the local Masai Community, one of Africa’s most famous tribal groups and after which the reserve had taken its name. Today, the Massai Mara spans 1,510 square kilometres and remains one of the leading wildlife conservation areas in the world,
Types of safari
When it comes to the type of safari you choose, the options are almost endless. Everything from single-day trips through to multi-week adventures that take in several countries and national parks are available, and the one you pick will depend on a number of factors including budget, length of trip, energy levels, and the animals you’d like to see along the way.
All Masai Mara safaris include some combination of game drives and bush walks. Game drives are the quintessential safari activity, and in the Masai Mara you can experience them both by day and night. During the day, you’ll venture out in a 4×4 vehicle early in the morning or late in the afternoon to optimise your chance of spotting wildlife. On a night game drive, you’ll be treated to nighttime prowling and hunting, as many predators only tend to come alive after dark.
A bush walk allows you to leave the vehicle behind and explore the Mara wilderness on foot. You’ll delve into the finer details of the African bush, with your guide pointing out plants and birds that you might not see from a vehicle. A walking safari is an exhilarating experience and you can even spot big game and learn tracking skills from the experts. However, families should be aware that there are normally age restrictions for walking safaris.
One other unique option is a hot air balloon experience which let you take to the skies in a hot air balloon for a birds-eye view of the Masai Mara. Departing at sunrise, you’ll enjoy the best seat in the house, with panoramic views over the glowing plains, rolling hills and river crossings. From your incredible vantage point, you’ll have the chance to spot wildlife at one of their most active times of the day. To round off the experience in style, you’ll get to enjoy a lavish champagne breakfast in the bush.
When to go
With no shortage of resident wildlife and temperate weather all year round, the Masai Mara can be visited at any time of the year. The most popular months are July and August, when visitors flock here to witness the Great Migration, which sees over 1.5 million wildebeest, antelope and zebra race across Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Masai Mara, in search of greener pastures.
If you’d like to see the Great Migration when the Masai Mara isn’t so busy, October and November, when the wildebeest migrate back to the Serengeti, are the best months. The exact timing of the return migration varies annually, as the wildebeest move with the arrival of the rainy season – which you can’t always set your watch by.
Kenya has two rainy seasons – ‘short’ and ‘long’. The short rains tend to arrive in November, with fleeting, afternoon downpours that serve to cool the humid air and then sunshine for the rest of the day. It’s a stunning time for wildlife photography enthusiasts, with the landscape illuminated in greenery, migrant birds arriving, and new-born antelope emerging into the world.
February and March are also excellent months to visit, with lush green grasslands and baby animals leaping around the plains. However, wildlife can be trickier to spot after the rains, as the tall vegetation conceals them from view. The heavy rainy season usually lasts through April and May, with many lodges and camps closing during this period, due to flooding and impassable roads.
How much it costs
There are many factors that determine the cost of a Masai Mara safari tour, including type of accommodation, number of people travelling, mode of transport, duration of trip, time of year, and inclusion of additional activities. As a general guide, full packages – which include transport from and back to Nairobi, safari game excursions, accommodation, meals, and park entry fees – start at around $350 per person for a budget 3-day tour for a group of 6 staying in a budget camp, rising to about $1,500 per person for luxury accommodation for a similar safari.
Prices tend to be higher during peak season (July-October) which is normally when the Great wildebeest migration happens as this attracts large numbers of visitors, making it more expensive to secure rooms. Clients on a limited budget may want to avoid this period and instead visit during low season (January-March ) when prices are lower and rooms are readily available.
Apart from what’s included in the standard package, some visitors also opt to include other activities such as a Maasai Village Visit, Hot Air Balloon Flight, night game drives, Bush breakfasts and dinners, nature walks, and horse riding. While these activities can enhance your safari experience, they do come at an added price. For example, a Masai Village visit can cost anything from $30 per person, while a hot air balloon flight starts at around $415 per person.
Where to stay
The Masai Mara has over 100 camps and lodges spread across five primary areas. The Northern expanse of Masai Mara only has private conservancies while the Eastern, Southern and Western Masai Mara comprises of the main reserve and a private conservancy. The heart of Masai Mara – Central consists of only the main reserve.
Staying at a bush camp or rustic lodge within a conservancy is the most popular option. Firstly, they offer activities such as night game drives, walking safaris and village visits that are restricted within the public reserve. Secondly, each conservancy limits the maximum number of guests, vehicles and rooms, helping create an intimate experience more in tune with nature. Thirdly, the conservancies are located adjacent to or within close proximity to the reserve, offering easy and convenient access.
Where to book
There are a wide number of Masai Mara safari tour providers that let you book online. Two of the most popular tour agency platforms are Bookallsafaris and Bookmundi, and we’ve picked out two of their tours catering for different durations, destinations and budgets.
If you’re short on time and budget, then this 3-Day Masai Mara safari could fit the bill. Starting and ending with airport transfers from and back to Nairobi, you and your group of up to 8 people will traverse the Masai Mara National Reserve in the company of an English-speaking guide. During daily guided game drives, you’ll have the chance to see lions, buffaloes, cheetahs, crocodiles, and other animals. The tour price includes your game drives, two nights’ accommodation, three meals a day, and airport transfers.
For a more extended experience, this 7-day safari takes in the Masai Mara as well as several other notable Kenya destinations. Over the course of the week, you’ll visit some of the country’s main highlights, with the chance to see exceptional wildlife throughout. As well as the Masai Mara, other highlights include a trip to the Great Rift Valley Lakes and the Amboseli National Park, the latter being home to huge herds of elephants as well as the rare and elusive leopard, all framed by the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. The tour includes round-trip transport from the parks, park entrance fees, and all meals and accommodation.
You can book these and many other Masai Mara safari tours at Bookallsafaris and Bookmundi.