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Maasai Mara National Park

Maasai Mara National Park

Introduction

The Maasai Mara, also known under the different spelling of Masai Mara, and with the locals just known as The Mara, is a large national game reserve in the Narok area in Kenya.

It is basically connecting with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and is often visited by travellers during the same trip and for the same reason. The park is named in honour of the Maasai people, which were the ancestral inhabitants of the area, and who had originally migrated to the area from the Nile Basin.

The “Mara” in the name comes from their first description of the area. “Mara” means “spotted” in the local Maasai language and to them the area looked spotted from afar because of the many short and bushy trees that form part of the landscape and “dot” it.

Maasai Mara is definitely one of the most famous wildlife destinations and a very important conservation and wilderness areas in Africa. It is world-renowned for its extraordinary populations of lion, cheetah, African leopard and African bush elephant.

Most of all however, it hosts the annual Great Wildebeest Migration, which obtained fame as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, and undoubtedly as one of the ten Wonders of the World too.

The Greater Mara ecosystem includes several areas, such as the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Mara Triangle, and a number of Maasai Conservancies like Koiyaki, Lemek, Ol Chorro Oirowua, Mara North, Olkinyei, Siana, Maji Moto, Naikara, Ol Derkesi, Kerinkani, Oloirien, and Kimintet.

A bit of history

The Mara park was originally established before 1961 as a wildlife sanctuary and then only covered 520 square kilometres or 200 square miles of the area covered now. It did include the Mara Triangle then.

Lots of chopping and changing then happened during the next few decades. From 1961 the area was converted to a game reserve and extended to the east to cover a further area, bringing it to a total of 1 821 square kilometres or 703 square miles.

At that time the Narok County Council (NCC) took over the management of the reserve. In 1974 a part of the reserve was given the status of a National Reserve, with a remaining area of 159 square kilometres or 61 square miles being returned to local communities in the area.

An additional 162 square kilometres or 63 square miles were removed again from the reserve during 1976, and in 1984 the park was reduced to 1 510 square kilometres or 580 square miles.

In 1994, the Trans-Mara County Council (TMCC) was formed in the western part of the reserve, with control being divided between the newly established council and the existing Narok County Council. During May 2001, the Mara Conservancy, a not-for-profit organisation, took over management of the Mara Triangle.

The Maasai people is synonymous with the Maasai Mara reserve. The Maasai themselves consist of communities that span across northern, central and southern Kenya as well as the northern parts of Tanzania. They are known as pastoralists, as they hold the firm belief that they actually own all of the cattle in the world.

The Maasai people heavily rely on the land they occupy to sustain themselves and their families, as well as their cattle. The establishment of the reserve as a protected wilderness area for the conservation of wildlife forced the Maasai to move out of their native lands.

Tradition still plays an important role in the lives of modern day Maasai people. While they are also known for their very tall stature, their patterned shukas and beautiful beadwork add to their worldwide image. Estimations have it that there are about half a million individuals that still speak the original Mara language, but this number does not only include the Maasai but also Kenya’s Samburu and Camus people.

Current administration

The Maasai Mara area is administered by the Narok County government and the eastern, and more visited part of the park, which is known as the Maasai Mara National Reserve, is managed by the Narok County Council.

The Mara Triangle, which is situated in the western part of the Maasai Mara area, is managed by the Trans-Mara county council, which in turn has since the early 2000s contracted management to the Mara Conservancy.

Group Ranch Trusts of the Maasai communities administers some of the outer areas and conservancies, but this approach has in the meantime been criticised by some groups as being beneficial for just a few powerful individuals rather than benefitting the majority of landowners.

This does not influence the wildlife too much, since although there has been more fencing on private land in recent years, the animals can still roam freely across both the conservancies and the reserve.

Location of the Park and how to get there

With the Maasai Mara National Reserve being one of the most popular tourist destinations on the African continent, many travellers are always eager to find out exactly where it is, and what different ways there are for you to reach it and discover the wildlife found there.

Where is Masai Mara located?

The reserve is located in the southwest of Kenya in a preserved savannah region.

It is a very large game reserve and situated in the Narok County in Kenya and named in honour of the previous inhabitants of the region, the Maasai tribes.

Maasai Mara lies next to the border of Tanzania, alongside the Serengeti National Park, which is just as famous a safari destination as the Maasai Mara itself. Kenya’s other neighbours, of which some are also popular travel destinations, include Uganda, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Kenia is one of the east African countries that comprises large stretches of savannahs, many lake lands, the Great Rift Valley and mountainous region, and a beautiful stretch of coastline along the India ocean.

How to get to the Maasai Mara

The Maasai Mara is accessible both by air and by road.

Visitors arriving by air will probably first land at Nairobi or at Samburu, Lewa Downs, Nanyuki or Mombasa or Diani. From there an aircraft will take them to one of the small Mara airstrips, from where they will need to be transferred by car to their chosen camp or lodge.

A flight from Nairobi will take between 45 minutes and one hour. The quickest and best option to get to the Maasai Mara is usually to fly in, especially if you plan to stay in the Mara Triangle which is situated in the eastern part of the Maasai Mara.

Because the roads in the area aren’t in great condition, most people prefer to make use of the option to fly to the park. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) in Nairobi is the nearest international airport to the reserve, and lots of people fly into the city first when visiting the Maasai Mara.

From there it will depend on their destination to which of the many airstrips surrounding the reserve they would fly. Airstrips close to Maasai Mara include Keekorok, Serena, Ol Kiombo, Siana, Musiara, Ngerende, Buffalo, Ol Seki, Olare Orok, Kichwa Tembo and Cottars.

It is of course more expensive than hiring a vehicle with a professional guide, which is an alternative but good option if the travelling party consist of more than 2 persons. If you choose to travel by road from Nairobi, such a drive can take you about five to six hours during the dry season, and up to seven hours or more in the rainy season, so you will only be able to make use of this option if you have enough time on hand.

If you travel by car, you can enter the game reserve through the following gates: Sand River, Musiara, Talek, Sekenani or Oloololo Gate. The latter being the furthest entrance from Nairobi, means that there are less vehicles and tourist disruption.

Roads to and within the reserve are not always in a good condition and can easily become flooded and consequently turned into deceptive mud pools in the rainy seasons – both in April and May and again from September to November.

The following three options to reach the Maasai Mara are the most often used:

1. Travelling by road from Nairobi

Travellers flying into Nairobi with the intention to drive from there to Maasai Mara all by themselves, will make use of the B3 and C12 routes.

The distance from the city of Nairobi and the game reserve is approximately 306 kilometres (or 190 miles) and it can take 6 to7 hours, or even more to drive over this distance. Although this takes a lot of time from your itinerary, it is definitely the most rewarding way if you want to experience the Kenyan countryside first-hand.

The drive from Nairobi to Narok will take you around two-and-a-half hours but will offer plenty of spectacular views and scenery. After that you will be able to see the Great Rift Valley escarpment. The rest of the journey, from Narok to Maasai Mara, can get quite uncomfortable and may take more than three hours, and on this stretch there also is not much to see. Still, if you have enough time on hand and want to experience more of the Kenyan landscapes, this remains the best option.

2. Flying in from Nairobi

If you don’t have that much time and prefer to get to Maasai Mara as soon as possible, the best option would be to fly in from Nairobi to one of the airstrips near Masai Mara. This is a fairly short flight and usually takes between 30 and 45 minutes.

Apart from it being much more comfortable than the driving option, you should still be able to see a lot of wildlife from the air, which is after all the main purpose of your trip. Flying will give you another and interesting aerial angle and view of the region that will take your breath away at the same time.

It is possible to take a domestic flight from Wilson Airport (WIL) in Nairobi to the airstrip that is closest to the accommodation in Masai Mara where you will stay during your visit.

3. Flying to and from Mombasa

Maasai Mara can also be reached from Mombasa. Visitors can take a non-stop flight to Nairobi from where they can take another short flight of about 30-45 minutes to the reserve, depending on which airstrip is near the destination where you need to be.

Some safari companies compile their packages in a way that offer the option to fly to Nairobi and drive from there to Masai Mara, while there are also direct inbound and outbound flights from Mombasa to the Kichwa Airstrip near Maasai Mara.

This air safari is another unique way to experience the Masai Mara game reserve and this part of the African continent. On this flight you will pass over Lake Amboseli, the Great Rift Valley and you can enjoy views of the Soda Lakes Natron in Tanzania and Magadi in Kenya.

Once again, this is only an option if you are not too short on time, but a wonderful opportunity and the way to go if you want to explore more of Kenya and experience another exciting city.

Fortunately there are a lot of travel agencies that organise safari trips to the Maasai Mara and a prospective traveller should find it easy to book a tour package, which would involve that all these transportation issues to and in the park, are left in their hands.

It is possible for travellers to organise their trips themselves, by directly contacting the camps and lodges. Most of them may also be willing to assist you to book these local flights and transport options and help you organise your trip.

Geography

The Greater Maasai Mara ecosystem’s total area under conservation covers an area of almost 1 510 square kilometres or 580 square miles. It comprises the northernmost section of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, which covers some 25 000 square kilometres or 9 700 square miles in the countries of Tanzania and Kenya.

It is hemmed in by the Serengeti Park to the south, the Siria and Oloololo escarpment to the west, and several Maasai pastoral ranches to the north, east and west. Rainfall patterns in the ecosystem gets considerably better along a southeast to northwest gradient, it varies markedly in time and space, and is also distinctly bimodal.

The major rivers that drain the reserve are the Sand River, Talek River and Mara River. Most of these drainage rivers are fringed by shrubs and trees hilltops and hillslopes are also covered with similar trees and shrubs. In the south-east of the region clumps of the distinctive acacia tree are often found.

The rest of the landscape of the reserve is mainly open grassland with seasonal rivulets. The Esoit (Siria) Escarpment of the East African Rift forms the western border. This is an approximate 5 600 km or 3 500 mile long system of rifts, stretching from Ethiopia’s Red Sea in the north through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and south into Mozambique.

Most of the wildlife tends to be concentrated in this area because the ground is quite swampy and access to drinking water is mostly good. Tourist disruption in this part is also minimal.

The easternmost border of the park is 224 km or 139.2 miles from Nairobi, which results in those regions being the easiest and most visited by tourists.

The rains in this region are biannual, with two distinct rainy seasons during each year. Local farmers tend to refer to them as either ‘long rains’ or ‘short rains.’ The long rains usually last for about six to eight weeks during the months of April and May, and the short rains last for approximately four weeks in November and December.

General elevation in the park ranges from approximately 1 500 to 2 180 metres (4 920 to 7 150 ft); average rainfall is 83 mm (3.3 in) per month; and the temperature range is 12 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees Celsius, or 54 degrees Fahrenheit to 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

Weather and climate

For travellers visiting Maasai Mara for a typical wilderness safari, the weather is one of the factors that will significantly affect which animals they will be able to see.

During the planning stage prospective visitors should thus first learn how the different seasons affect this famous national reserve, to decide which months are best for visiting, depending on what their aim for a safari may be.

Throughout the year temperatures are mostly reasonably mild and pleasant, even though it may be a bit cooler in the evening. Varied climates are experienced throughout the reserve, caused by the differing altitudes.

Seeing that the Maasai Mara is located in an area that is so close to the equator, it is actually chillier than one might expect. This happens mainly because of said varying altitudes of the reserve, which range from as little as 1 435 m to 2 143 m (4 708 ft to 7 031 ft). Visitors will be wise to pack in a way that they have warm layers of clothes for when they are staying overnight or planning a safari in the early morning or at night.

The different Maasai Mara seasons can be described as follows:

The rainy seasons

In this area the wet season begins in November and lasts until May, but the months of January and February are usually dry.  The days often tend to be overcast, starting off with chilly mornings and temperatures hovering around 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit), and with showers that can be expected in the afternoon.

During the months of November and December one will experience some “short rains” and average afternoon temperatures as high as 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit).

Although there is typically less rainfall in the two months of January and February, one may still expect a few showers. The dry period usually falls around this time, but even here the timing may vary too.

The months of March, April and May are known for their “long rains”, with April usually being the wettest month because of the regular good showers. This is the time that tracks and roads may become slippery and will not be easy to navigate.

During early mornings the average temperature may drop as low as 13 degrees Celsius or 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

The dry season

The proper dry season usually stretches from June to October and is known for the kind of weather that is perfect for a safari, making it one of the best times to visit. Visitors will enjoy pleasant warm weather during the day (albeit with a rain shower or two at times during the day) and fairly cold weather at night, given the different altitudes of the area. You will definitely need warm clothes if you plan on going on early morning game drives.

There are chances of rain in June, but during July and August it is mostly sunny and dry. Temperatures may reach 25 degrees Celsius or 77 degrees Fahrenheit during the afternoon but during the evenings and early mornings colder weather will be experienced and temperatures of around 12 degrees Celsius or 54degrees Fahrenheit will be the norm.

The months of September and October is still counted under the dry time of year, with a slight possibility of rain on some days. Temperatures can get a little warmer from October and linger around 27 degrees Celsius or 81 degrees Fahrenheit or higher but may decrease if it rains. Early mornings in these months will be quite chilly as well.

During the months in the dry season rain is not expected on more than 10 days in a month. In the season of short rain, that is the months with medium precipitation one can expect rain on around 15 days of a month, and the months of long rain high rainfall can be expected around 21 days in a month.

Wildlife

Wildebeest, topi, zebra, Thomson’s gazelle. Hyenas, cheetahs, jackals, servals and bat-eared foxes. Even lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, black and white rhinos.

You name them and they are in the Maasai Mara. Without too much effort, a visitor should be able to tick them all off his or her sightings list.

The Wildebeest, zebra, topi and Thomson’s gazelle migrate from the Serengeti plains to the south and Loita Plains in the pastoral ranches to the north-east, into the Mara reserve and occupy it from July to October or later. There are however some herds of all three species resident in the reserve too.

All members of the “Big Five”, lion, elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo and leopard, are found in the reserve all year round. Until 1960, the population of black rhinos was fairly large but dwindled due to poaching in the 1970s and early 1980s until there were eventually only 15 individuals left. Since then their numbers have been increasing very slowly, with the Maasai Mara the only protected area in Kenya with an indigenous black rhino population.

In the Mara and Talek rivers, large groups of hippopotami and crocodiles are found, and hyenas, jackals, cheetahs, servals and bat-eared foxes are also roaming the reserve. The best area for game viewing, in particular if you want to see predators like lion and cheetah, may be the plains between the Mara River and the Esoit Siria Escarpment.

Antelopes can be found, including Grant’s gazelles, impalas, duikers and Coke’s hartebeests. The plains are also home to the distinctive Masai giraffe. The large roan antelope and the nocturnal bat-eared fox, rarely present elsewhere in Kenya, can be seen within the reserve borders.

More than 470 species of birds have been identified in the park, of which many are migrants, as well as about 60 species of raptors among them. Of the bird species that find their home in this area for at least part of the year are vultures, secretary birds, marabou storks, crowned cranes, hornbills, long-crested eagles, ostriches, African pygmy-falcons and lilac-breasted rollers, which is the national bird of Kenya.

But in this reserve, wildebeest are king. Well, not the traditional King of the Jungle, but definitely the dominant inhabitants and main reason why the Maasai Mara is such a popular safari destination. Apart from their numbers being estimated in the millions, every year around July, they migrate north in search of fresh grassland from the Serengeti plains, and return to the south again around October.

This Great Migration, as it is called, is worldwide beheld as one of the most impressive natural events, involving easily 1 700 000 blue wildebeest, more than 500 000 Thomson’s gazelles, 97 000 Topi, 20 000 common elands, and 250 000 Grant’s zebras.

Research and conservation

It was already mentioned that the Maasai Mara is the only protected area in Kenya with an indigenous black rhino population.

The Maasai Mara further also a major research centre for several other species.

Two field offices in the Mara, the Kay E. Holekamp Lab of the Michigan State University study the behaviour and physiology of the spotted hyena, as well as doing comparison studies between large predators in the Mara Triangle and their counterparts in the eastern part of the Mara.

A flow assessment and trans-boundary river basin management plan to sustain the ecosystem for the river between Tanzania and Kenya was finalised since the basic needs of a million people depend on that water.

The Mara Predator Project monitoring and cataloguing lion populations of the region also operates in the Maasai Mara, concentrating on the northern conservancies where communities have to coexist with wildlife.

The project’s purpose is to identify population trends and responses to changes in land management, livestock movements, human settlements and tourism.

The Mara-Meru Cheetah Project has been working in the Mara since October 2012, monitoring the cheetah population, estimating population status and dynamics, and evaluating the predator impact and human activity on cheetah behaviour and survival.

The head of the project worked as assistant researcher at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Maasai-Mara Cheetah Conservation Project in 2001-2002 where she developed an original method of cheetah identification based on the visual analysis of the unique spot patterns on their front and hind limbs and spots and rings on their tails.

Photographic data collected over the years helps to reveal parental relationship between individuals, survival rate of cubs, cheetah lifespan and personal reproductive history and allows the project team to trace kinship between generations and build a Mara cheetah pedigree.

Tourism

The Maasai Mara has long since been one of the most famous safari destinations on the African continent and currently there are a number of lodges and tented camps inside or bordering the reserve that cater for tourists.

In the various separate conservancies which border the main reserve are also some accommodation options. With the main reserve being unfenced even along the international border with Serengeti in Tanzania, there is free movement of wildlife throughout the ecosystem and it does not matter so much where one stays on a visit.

Although the Mara Triangle covers about one third of the whole Maasai Mara in the western part of the larger reserve, there are only two permanent lodges within its boundaries, namely the Mara Serena Lodge and Little Governors Camp. This area also has well maintained, all weather gravel roads.

Game rangers patrol regularly which means that poaching is prevented as best as possible and game viewing are generally excellent. Strict control is enforced over vehicle numbers around animal sightings, so that visitors are assured of the best possible experience when out on a game drive.

Most lodges within this region charge higher accommodation rates during the migration season, but with the Maasai Mara teeming with prolific wildlife year-round, this need not necessarily be the only time to visit and travellers can make use of slightly lower rates during other times of the year.

There are several airfields near most of the camps and lodges in the Maasai Mara, including Mara Serena Airstrip, Musiara Airstrip and Keekorok, Kichwa Tembo, Ngerende Airport, Ol Kiombo and Angama Mara Airstrips. Several airlines, including Safari Link and Air Kenya offer scheduled flights from Nairobi and elsewhere more than once a day.

The most popular activity in the Maasai Mara remains game drives, but other activities like hot air ballooning, nature walks, photographic safaris and cultural experiences are also offered. Helicopter flights are also available, but flights over the reserve are limited to a minimum height of 1 500 ft.

There are numerous camps and lodges on the Narok side.

The best times to visit the Park according to different sightings

Al the animal species, including the Big Five, can be spotted all year round in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Most visitors dream of visiting in order to see the Great Migration though. So, if the reason for it being your choice as safari destination is the natural phenomenon that sees thousands of wildebeest travelling from Serengeti National Park into Maasai Mara, the best time to visit will be between July and October.

In fact, the best time to visit Maasai Mara completely depends on what you most likely want to see and do during your visit. The following summary should give an indication of what activity is best experienced during which months of the year:

For the Great Migration – plan your visit from July to October.

If birdwatching is your aim – try to visit any time from November to March, but make sure that your safari operator know what your purpose is and arrange to leave from lodges in the early morning when birds are at their most active.

You can avoid crowds by carefully timing your visit according to the two “rainy seasons” in Maasai Mara. The first, the “long rains”, lasts from March to May while the second, the “short rains”, is falling from October to December.

If you are one of those that like to avoid crowds, you should visit during the months of March to May, that is in the “long rains” season. The animals will still be spotted easily, but because it is slightly off-season, you will have to contend with fewer people at sightings.

You can also plan your visit according to a month-by-month guide to the Great Migration in Maasai Mara:

July

This is the beginning of the Great Migration, where visitors can see thousands of wildebeest and zebras crossing the Mara River from Tanzania into Maasai Mara. It is also a great time to view birds of prey and big cats such as lions and leopards.

August

By now, travellers will find that the Great Migration is slowing down with further opportunity to view wildebeest, zebras, lions, leopards, and more, all grazing happily on the Maasai Mara plains.

September

This month remains a popular time to visit although the dry season is in full swing. Visibility of the Great Migration’s wildebeest, zebras, big cats, and more is still excellent, but expect higher temperatures and larger crowds.

October

As the last month of the dry season, the migrating animals begin to make their way back to Tanzania. The south-eastern part of the reserve now offers the best views.

November

The “short rains” usually begin in mid-November, so travellers must bear with the occasional wet day. This time is ideal for birdwatching as well as some new-born animals.

December – June

During these months the animals of the Great Migration have returned to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. While many remain in Masai Mara, the taller grasses make them difficult to see.

Costs and Fees

Once you’ve decided to go on this one-of-a-kind safari and visit the Maasai Mara, the next step would be to determine your budget and consider all of the costs and fees applicable.

Entrance fees

The entrance fees for Masai Mara National Reserve differ for residents and non-residents, with residents of Kenya enjoying discounted admission. Non-resident adults pay 80 USD per person, children 3 to 18 years old pay 45 USD, and infants and children under three enter free of charge.

There are more fees in place for different kinds of vehicles and for visitors interested in camping in the reserve, but for travellers on an organised tour, those are usually included in the price.

Accommodation

The price of accommodation in Maasai Mara depends on the level of comfort and luxury you want.

For budget travellers there are small but secure tented camps that keep you protected from the elements without providing any luxury. Mid-range options include more permanent tents and small lodges that offer a comfortable experience while luxury accommodation is comparable to resort hotels – at a cost that matches.

The popularity of the Maasai Mara means that several factors must be considered when choosing your accommodation. The reserve’s central region is busiest during the migration season when its lodges and safari hotels cater for large numbers of people.

The private conservancies in the north offer more secluded accommodation, such as luxury tented camps and decadent safari suites. Here you can also enjoy a greater selection of activities like guided walks, night game drives and stargazing.

The eastern region of the reserve is closest to Nairobi and the accommodation larger in scale to cater for scheduled tour groups.

Since the Masai Mara delivers great game viewing throughout the year your safari experience may be different during the quieter low season (December to March) but there will still be plenty else to see and do, probably at a discounted, out-of-season rate.

Things to remember when visiting

The duration of your tour

When planning your budget, decide how many nights you want to spend in the park and how many game drives a tour operator includes in your tour.

Food

Meals are generally included in a safari package, so make the operator aware of any dietary restrictions. If you anticipate requiring extra snacks or water, obtain that before you set out on your safari.

Transportation

There are two main options for safari travel within the Maasai Mara National Reserve: safari vans and land cruisers. Safari vans are the more budget-friendly option. The rides will be bumpier and offer limited views since they are usually covered over.

Land cruisers are more traditional open-air vehicles that allow the best visibility and more comfort, but they are of course more expensive.

Tipping

While tipping isn’t compulsory on safari trips, tips are always much appreciated and can make a big difference in the lives of your local guides.

 Cash or card

Remember that there will likely be fees and commissions associated with international withdrawals or card payments.  Also, while ATMs will be available in major cities, they are few and very far between in remote areas. Many smaller venues might only accept cash.

Currency

The currency in Kenya is the Kenyan Shilling and must not be confused with the Tanzanian or Ugandan Shillings.

US dollars are usually accepted on airlines as well as in major hotels and national parks, but it may be a good idea to obtain some local currency for tips and shopping too. Exchange bureaus are easy to find and generally offer the best rates.

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