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Masai Mara

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

The Masai Mara and surrounds offers the African safari of popular imagination. Standing under a lonely desert date tree on the Mara plains and wondering at the wildlife around you, feels like being on a movie set, it’s just incredible! It is no wonder that ‘Big Cat Diaries’ and Disney’s ‘African Cats’ were filmed here.

The Masai Mara is located in the southwestern corner of Kenya. It is 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, that divide it into three sections. The National Reserve forms a small but significant part of the vast and unfenced Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

The annual wildebeest migration takes place throughout the year across the Serengeti and the Mara in a generally clockwise direction, in a cycle that depends on rainfall and pastures. Every year around June or July large herds of wildebeest and zebra arrive from the Serengeti into the Mara in search of greener pastures. This is as a result of the ‘long rains’ that occur between March and May. The crocodile filled Mara and Talek rivers, need to be crossed to access these pastures and these river crossings are where the famous spectacle takes place!

The migration is dubbed one of the natural wonders of the world and is an awesome experience. However, its popularity has resulted in a huge increase in visitor numbers to the Mara.  It is not uncommon to have 50+ vehicles, including mini-vans, at the river crossings jostling for the best spot for THAT photo. 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 the river crossings. 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. Below is a summary of the various options.

The Masai Mara National Reserve

The National Reserve is around 1500 square kilometres. It consists mainly of 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. The smaller Talek can be crossed by a vehicle at some points dependant on that year’s water levels and road conditions. The south-east 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 crowds.

In the Mara, there is no fixed pattern for the migration and also no typical migration 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. Many turn east and cross the Mara River again into the east of the reserve.  Large numbers of others continue north in and later cross the Mara and Talek Rivers at different points. These herds continue far north and east and spread out over the vast conservancies around the reserve. In the process, they cross the rivers many times looking for greener pastures driven by instinct and fear of predators.

Thus there is no one place for experiencing the migration and river crossings, but rather it is spread out over a large area and takes place over a number of months. It is possible to see the migration from most locations as long the visit is inside the migration months.

The migration remains an awesome experience but can be very busy. We recommend staying in the conservancies surrounding the National Reserve to avoid the crowds of visitors, or visiting outside of the migration season. The Mara is a very productive wildlife area all year round.

The Mara’s Private Conservancies

The Mara National Reserve is surrounded by a number of private wildlife conservancies along its northern and eastern borders. These are 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. 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 concerned.

The conservancy’s 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. As each is private to the few safaris operators who are members of that conservancy, they ensure a very exclusive experience for their guests. In addition, walking safaris and responsible off-road driving can be conducted as well as night drives, making for a great overall experience!

The Mara Naboisho Conservancy

Naboisho meaning ‘coming together’ and comprises of 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. The conservancy has around seven operator members and is home to the Koiyaki Guiding School. The conservancy has its own airstrip, Ol Seki with scheduled flights.

The Mara North Conservancy

Created in 2009 and comprising some 300 square kilometres, Mara North lies adjacent to the northern boundary of 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 iconic Leopard Gorge, famous as the big cat nursery of the Greater Mara is here. The Conservancy supports large densities of game animals and as the Maasai have grazing rights herds of cattle might also be spotted occasionally.

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 of 139 square kilometres, made up of 89 square kilometres in Olare Orok and 50 square kilometres in Motorogi. These two areas are managed as one conservancy.

Olare Orok is leading the way in the Mara in 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 possible here, makes this our favourite area in the whole of the Mara!

Ol Derikesi Conservancy

This is a fairly small conservancy in the far south eastern 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 of grass plains and small valleys along seasonal creeks. After good rain when the grass is lush and green, the area is teeming with wildlife and is very photogenic. It resembles the scenes from ‘Out of Africa’. There are some great smaller family-owned and more affordable camps in the area.

When to Go

Best = Best Good = Good Mixed = Mixed

Why we like it

  • The iconic plains, rolling hills and incredible wildlife make the area jaw-droppingly beautiful and a photographer’s heaven!
  • The incredible concentration of wildlife throughout the year and amazingly approachable large iconic animals.
  • The private conservancies around the national reserve are a huge conservation success!
  • The relatively small area makes travel from the conservancies, to the Masai Mara National Reserve and the Mara River possible.
  • The Mara area is predator heaven, with some areas arguably having the highest densities of lions on earth.

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