Complete Guide to Masai Mara Safari

Complete Guide to Masai Mara Safari

‘Mara’ means ‘spotted’ in the Maa language, which is spoken by the area’s ancestral residents, the Maasai people. It refers to how the Mara is dotted with acacia trees, indentations and craters when looked at from afar. Its wide open plains provide an oasis-like sanctuary for an abundance of wildlife like elephant, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, hyena, and the Mara’s celebrated big cats: lion, leopard and cheetah. And, from about July to November every year, its savannah provides nourishment for wildebeest herds of epic proportions.

Riding with Offbeat Mara Camp.

 

Thousands of visitors come to the Mara annually for some of the most authentic safari experiences in Africa. This blog will guide safari lovers through everything you need to know about the Masai Mara.

Location & landscape

1. Location and Landscape

The Masai Mara National Reserve covers about 370 000 acres in south-western Kenya – an area slightly bigger than greater Los Angeles – and shares unfenced borders with a number of private conservancies, which are administered by the Maasai. It’s the northern-most part of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, famous for the annual Wildebeest Migration. The landscape is dotted with thorn trees, kopjes and craters, and the reserve is drained by its major rivers: the Sand, Talek and Mara Rivers. The Mara’s terrain is mostly open grassland with small seasonal rivers.

The Mara River provides the chief obstacle for the wildebeest herds to cross at about mid-year but smaller break-away groups also cross the Talek and Sand Rivers. Outlying stragglers have been known to cross the Talek as late as November!

Go2Africa works with safari partners in the national reserve and several conservancies. Visitors in the conservancies can venture into the reserve but those staying in the reserve cannot venture into the conservancies, making the conservancies a far more exclusive and private experience, especially during the height of the Migration. Some of the best accommodation is found in the Mara Triangle, Olare Orok, Naboisho and Ol Kinyei conservancies. Because they are tribal lands, you will pass the occasional Maasai manyatta or village and even large herds of beautiful and beloved Maasai cattle. The conservancies are great examples of where people, wildlife, conservation and domestic livestock have all found a place.

Kenya’s capital and central transport hub is Nairobi, which is about 224 kilometres or 139 miles from the Mara’s eastern-most border. Safari goers usually fly into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, then catch connecting flights from the next-door Wilson Airport to the Mara’s various airstrips. Sometimes you may drop other passengers at one airstrip before heading onto your own – almost like a ‘bus system’ for the bush.

The classic Mara landscape is golden savannah: flat grasslands with plentiful grazing and the perfect terrain for cheetahs to chase down an unlucky Thomson’s gazelle. But it also has small patches of riverine forest and clumps of trees – over the centuries, elephants have made short work of keeping much of the Mara clear of trees and forests, giving it its distinct openness.

Ballooning at Mara Engai Wilderness Lodge.

 

Neighbouring areas

Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the south, the Esoit (Siria) Escarpment to the west, and Maasai pastoral ranches to the north, east and west.

The Mara’s distinctive acacia trees dot the south-east region, while the western border is the Esoit (Siria) Escarpment of the great East African Rift.

Costs

2. Costs of a Masai Mara Safari

It’s not easy to give exact costs for a Masai Mara safari. There are many budget-influencing factors like the time of year you travel, how luxurious you’d like your stay to be, whether you fly or drive between camps and lodges, whether or not you go private and exclusive, and which extra activities you want to add to your itinerary, like spa treatments, hot-air ballooning and cultural visits.

We can, however, provide approximate costs for a safari in the Masai Mara. The following estimates are based on a price-per-person-per-night, including accommodation and transfers:

4-star comfort 4-star luxury 5-star luxury
Low High Low High Low High
$260 - $340 $300 - $500 $420 - $480 $580 - $680 $800 - $880 $920 - $1120

At Go2Africa we tailor-make safaris that match your budget and personal travel wishes. We do not offer cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all packages and prefer to create bespoke journeys that make sense for your individual needs – thus no two Mara safaris will ever be the same.

Please remember that all these costs are guidelines only. Feel free to connect with one of our Africa Safari Experts to help you plan a Masai Mara safari itinerary that perfectly suits your budget and specific travel wishes. Our agents can help you get the most safari bang for your buck.

Read more

Why is an African safari expensive?

Why go on a private and exclusive safari

Best accommodation

3. Best Masai Mara Safari Accommodation

Choosing which area in the Masai Mara to visit will influence your safari experience. The national reserve is busiest during the Wildebeest Migration (from about July to November) and most of the area’s camps and lodges cater for large numbers of guests. The concessions to the north offer more privacy at luxury tented camps and special activities like walking safaris. The Mara’s eastern region is nearest to Nairobi and the accommodation is more geared towards scheduled tour groups.

Accommodation in the Mara can range from no-fuss mobile camps that move with the Wildebeest Migration to old-style tented camps and very luxurious family-friendly lodges. Here are some of our favourite options:

 

Masai Mara National Reserve:

Private Concessions:

Game Viewing & Big 5

4. General Game Viewing, the Wildebeest Migration and the Big 5

The Masai Mara is one of Africa’s top wildlife destinations and Kenya’s flagship conservation area. It offers excellent year-round game viewing thanks to its diverse population of game like elephant, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, hyena, eland, gazelle, and the Mara’s famous big cats.

Finding lions with Naibor Camp.

 

The Wildebeest Migration

The Mara-Serengeti ecosystem is the theatre in which one of the greatest shows on Earth is staged every year. From about July, two million wildebeest traverse the Mara River into the Masai Mara National Reserve to feast on fresh and succulent savannah. The herds hang out in the Mara until they’ve devoured its grasslands (around November), and then cross back into the Serengeti to continue mowing East Africa’s mega-lawns.

 

Keep the following in mind if you want to see the Wildebeest Migration:

  • Book your accommodation far in advance – about nine months or more. It’s a major safari highlight so camps and lodges get booked up quickly!
  • Rather go private. It’s an extremely popular natural event and the national (public) reserve can get very crowded.
  • It’s impossible to predict the Mara River crossings – the herds don’t ford at the same time and place either. Only the wildebeest decide when it’s go-time.
  • Kills are not for the squeamish or faint-hearted. When the wildebeest arrive en masse, so do the hungry predators.

Cheetah chase at Mahali Mzuri.

 

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How the Wildebeest Migration works

How to book and plan a Migration safari

 

The Big 5

Although some rhino still live in the Masai Mara, they are actually quite difficult to find. It’s much easier to spot the Big 5’s other distinguished members: lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo.

A bonus of the Mara’s flat, wide and open plains is that cheetah are perfectly adapted to it and this a great place to see them. Although not part of the Big 5 crew, it’s always a highlight to watch these lightning-quick and nimble big cats chase down their prey in the Masai Mara.

Stalking cheetah near Mara Plains Camp.

 

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Best time to go

5. Best Time to Go on a Masai Mara Safari

There is no real ‘best time’ to go to the Masai Mara for general game viewing, thanks to its abundant wildlife and mild climate. It is renowned as a year-round safari destination because there’s almost always something to see on the Mara’s wide and open plains. The only time when it’s not ideal to travel is during Kenya’s ‘long rains’ (about April to June). Some safari lodges and camps are closed during this time.

A dozen lions near Rekero.

 

Deciding when to go to the Mara depends on a few factors – like your personal schedule, budget, and what you want to see and experience…

 

PEAK SEASON LOW/GREEN SEASON
WHEN July to October December to April
SEASON Autumn (fall) and winter Spring and summer
WEATHER Cool with no rain Hot with afternoon thunder showers
WILDEBEEST MIGRATION Yes No
LANDSCAPE Dry and dusty Lush and green, with excellent light for photography
GAME-VIEWING HIGHLIGHTS Wildebeest Migration Babies and migrant birds
RATES High Low

 

Alternatively, travelling to the Masai Mara in the ‘shoulder seasons’ (about November and May-June) means that you’ll enjoy mild temperatures and excellent general game viewing. The seasons are changing so the weather will be ‘a little bit of everything’.

Finding elephants with Sanctuary Olonana.

 

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What you’ll see in the Masai Mara Green Season

Safari high season vs low season: the best time to see animals

Getting around

6. Getting Around in the Masai Mara

Mara tours are often ‘fly-in’ itineraries to maximise your time on safari. An affordable option is a small group overland tour, conducted by a driver or guide in a specially-modified 4X4 vehicle. The Masai Mara is not recommended as a self-drive destination.

Most travellers fly into Nairobi’s major international airport, Jomo Kenyatta International, and catch a short-haul flight from nearby Wilson Airport to the Mara’s various airstrips. From there you’ll be transferred to your camp or lodge by 4x4. The more affordable option is a road transfer from Nairobi but keep in mind that it’s a 270 kilometre or 168 mile-journey to the Masai Mara Reserve’s nearest gate – this can take between four and five hours.

Driver-guides at Encounter Mara.

 

Read more

Why go on a fly-in safari

Why go on scheduled and overland tours

Choosing your safari

7. How to Choose the Best Mara Safari

The Mara is a rewarding safari destination which offers many unique experiences, depending on your travel style…

TRAVELLER TYPE RECOMMENDATIONS HIGHLIGHTS
First-time safari goers Nairobi-Amboseli-Masai-Mara round-trip
  • Elephant Orphanage and Giraffe Sanctuary in Nairobi
  • Wildebeest Migration in season
  • Cultural encounters with Maasai tribes
  • Amboseli’s elephant herds and views of Mount Kilimanjaro
Photographers and birdwatchers Low / Green Season
  • Best light of the year
  • Colourful migratory birds
  • Plenty of predator action as grazers give birth
Honeymooners Exclusive settings in private concessions
Combines well with a beach destination
  • Hot-air balloon safari
  • Private candle-lit dinners in romantic settings
Families Travelling with children over 8 years, teenagers and grandparents
  • Family-friendly lodges
  • Children’s safari activities
  • Child-minding services
Solo Private overland tours
  • Adventurous and authentic experience

 

Ballooning with Governors Il Moran.

 

The Mara is the ideal destination for first-time safari goers and visitors to Africa because:

  • Roads in the reserve are well-maintained.
  • Guides and staff speak English.
  • It’s easy to enjoy 360-degree views of the landscape and to spot animals – the terrain is open, flat and unobstructed by thick vegetation.
  • Wildlife is abundant and healthy, thanks to well-established conservation projects.
  • Meaningful and authentic cultural encounters are possible thanks to mutually beneficial relationships between safari operators, tribal land owners and conservationists.

Maasai guides at Cottar’s 1920s Camp.

 

Whether you’re travelling solo, with your family, or celebrating your marriage with a romantic honeymoon or anniversary vacation, we recommend chatting to one of our Africa Safari Experts. Get in touch to tailor-make your safari itinerary and accommodation to your wishes and interests.

 

Honeymooner’s tent at Elephant Pepper Camp.

 

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Health & safety

8. Health and Safety

Kenya is a safe destination to visit and thousands of travellers go on safari in this country every month. We’ve been tailor-making Masai Mara safaris for our clients since 1998 – here are our top tips when it comes to health and safety:

Before your safari

  • Consult your travel clinic about necessary vaccinations well in advance.
  • Check with your doctor about taking the right prophylactic for malaria. Although the risk is low during Green Season (November to April) and very low during peak season (July to October), the risk is higher if you’re going to visit rural villages outside the Masai Mara National Reserve. Also remember to let your doctor know if you’ll be scuba diving after your safari as some medications may interfere with the safety of diving.

During your safari

  • Always stay hydrated, wear sunscreen and a good hat – even in winter!
  • Listen to the professionals: always heed your guide’s warnings and instructions. They know best and are there to keep you safe in the wild.
  • Don’t have late nights in your camp or lodge’s bar. Wake-up calls for game drives are early and you don’t want to miss out on having a supreme safari experience.
  • Always walk to your tent with a guide or escort at night, even if your camp is fenced.
  • Don’t keep food in your tent or room – you might get an unwanted visit in the middle of the night!

 

The view with Mara Engai Wildnerness Camp.

Combines best with...

9. Masai Mara Safari Combines Well With…

The rest of Kenya:

DESTINATION WHY VISIT
Amboseli National Park • The best views of Mount Kilimanjaro
• Great big game viewing, especially elephants
Laikipia and Lewa • Off the beaten path – great for seasoned safari goers
• See rare northern white rhino and black rhino
• Go on camelback safaris
Samburu National Reserve • Great game viewing, especially leopard and wild dog
• Fascinating cultural interactions
• See the 'Samburu Special 5': Grevy's zebra, gerenuk, reticulated giraffe, beisa oryx and Somali ostrich
Lake Nakuru • See Kenya’s famous flocks of flamingos
• Over 400 recorded bird species
Diani beach • Popular family resorts
• Exclusive beach lodges
Lamu Archipelago • Reef scuba diving and snorkelling
• Barefoot luxury experience – ideal for a honeymoon

 

White rhino in Lewa Wildife Conservancy.

 

The rest of Africa:

Because Nairobi is a major transport hub for East Africa, it’s very easy to get to other sensational destinations…

COUNTRY WHY VISIT
Tanzania • See the Wildebeest Migration in the Serengeti
• Superb Big 5 viewing in Ngorongoro Crater
• Idyllic beach holiday in Zanzibar
Zambia • See Victoria Falls
• Fantastic walking safaris
• Boat cruises on the Zambezi River
Zimbabwe • See Victoria Falls
• A classic safari experience in sensational parks
Uganda • Unforgettable gorilla trekking in Bwindi
Malawi • Outstanding snorkelling in Lake Malawi
South Africa • Visit Cape Town
• Travel the gorgeous Garden Route
• Experience the renowned Kruger National Park

 

You'll also enjoy reading:

What to expect in Amboseli

Kenya vs Tanzania: how to choose for a safari

Most popular itinerary ideas

10. Our Most Popular Masai Mara Safari Itinerary Ideas

 

For Families:

For Couples and Honeymooners:

11. Masai Mara Travel Tips

 

Climate

  • Summer is December to March – average temperatures: 20°C / 68°F to 34°C / 93°F
  • Winter is June to August – average temperatures: 18°C / 64°F to 29°C / 84°F
  • Long rainy season: mid-March to June
  • Short rainy season: October to December

 

Money and spending

  • The Kenyan Shilling is the national currency but US Dollars are widely accepted. Your Safari Expert prefers to create an all-inclusive itinerary for you, meaning that extras like ballooning are included and you need only take cash (in US dollars, preferably) for sundry purchases.
  • Major credit cards are accepted in Nairobi and the bigger lodges.
  • Tipping for good service is customary, although it’s entirely at your discretion. A 10% tip is the norm when a service charge is not included in your bill.

 

Etiquette

  • Kenya is a reasonably conservative society which places emphasis on good manners and courtesy.
  • Always ask permission before photographing local people.

 

What to pack

  • Light casual wear in neutral colours such as grey, khaki, brown or green – avoid white, black, blue and bright patterns as these can attract insects or distract game.
  • A warm jacket for evening game drives.

 

ASE Rikke watches Maasai cattle in the Mara Triangle.

12. Must-do Checklist

 

Book early for the Wildebeest Migration

  • Up to a year in advance is recommended.

Stay in a private conservancy

  • These offer low visitor numbers during the Migration season, excellent accommodation, fantastic game viewing, and night drives and guided nature walks (not offered in the national reserve).

Go on a hot-air balloon safari

  • It’s a speciality in the Mara and delivers a spectacular bird's eye view of the Migration!

Meet the Maasai people

  • Make sure your cultural interaction truly benefits the local community, and is an experience that’s genuine and meaningful.

 

Classic sunset over Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp.

 

So now that you know all there is to know about the Mara, why not co-create a tailor-made Masai Mara safari with us? Get in touch with an Africa Safari Expert today.