Maasai Mara national park in Kenya, Kenya’s wildebeest migration tour destination, world-renowned for its exceptional populations of the Big Five and wildlife, where Maasai culture and fashion catches the eye a breathtaking climate and geography.
Maasai Mara also known as Masaai Mara, and locally simply as The Mara, is a large game reserve in Narok County, Kenya, contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It is named in honor of the Maasai people, the ancestral inhabitants of the area. Their description of the area when looked at from afar: “Mara” means “spotted” in the local Maasai language, due to the many trees which dot the landscape.
Apart from wildlife, the landscapes of the Maasai Mara are stunningly beautiful: the classic Out of Africa backdrops of seemingly never-ending savanna studded with photogenic acacia trees. To the west, the park is bordered by the Oloololo Escarpment, a dramatic plateau, while the rest of the park is made up of rolling grasslands, acacia woodlands, riverine forest and rocky hills.
Two major rivers – the Talek and the Mara – cut through the Maasai Mara National Reserve, splitting it into three sectors: the Sekenani Sector, which lies to the east of the Talek River, the Musiara Sector, which is sandwiched between the two rivers, and the Mara Triangle, which is west of the Mara River. The Musiara and Sekenani Sectors are controlled by the Narok County Council, while the more remote Mara Triangle is administered by a non-profit conservancy company, the Trans Mara County Council.
Musiara Sector offers great game viewing in the Musiara Marsh, as well as some of the most spectacular wildebeest crossings at the Mara River. In the southeast of the park and bordered by the Sand, Talek and Mara Rivers, the Central Plains makes up the largest part of the reserve. The expansive grasslands of the Central Plains attract vast herds of plains animals, especially during the Great Migration from August to October, while the area is also famed for exciting big cat sightings.
Within the Central Plains, the savanna of Paradise Plain is prime cheetah territory, while Rhino Ridge for black-backed jackals, spotted hyena and bat-eared foxes. Head to Lookout Hill for incredible panoramas of the Olpunyaia Swamp and sightings of hippo, as well as for scenes of wildebeest crossing the river during the months of the migration. As the closest area to Nairobi and with a huge number of lodges, hotels and camps, the Central Plains is the most popular area of the reserve for tourists.
The Maasai Mara’s rivers are home to hippos and massive Nile crocodiles, as well as many species of water birds, while the Mara River, which wends its way through the national reserve, plays host to the biggest pods of hippos and also to the perilous crossings of wildebeest during the Great Migration.
The great wildebeest migration is one of the most phenomenal natural spectacles in the world. It is an annual movement by millions of wildebeest, accompanied by large numbers of zebra, Grant’s gazelle, Thompson’s gazelle, elands and impalas across the greater Maasai Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.
Every year more than 2 million animals (wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle) migrate in a clockwise direction across the ecosystems of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya. The annual migration northwest, at the end of the rainy season (usually in May or June) is recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.
Wildebeest often graze in mixed herds with zebra, which gives heightened awareness of potential predators. They are also alert to the warning signals emitted by other animals such as baboons. Wildebeest are a tourist attraction but compete with domesticated livestock for pasture and are sometimes blamed by farmers for transferring diseases and parasites to their cattle. Some illegal hunting goes on but the population trend is fairly stable and some populations are in national parks or on private land.
The Maasai Mara covers some 1,510 km2 (580 sq mi) in south-western Kenya. It is the northernmost section of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, which covers some 25,000 km2 (9,700 sq mi) in Tanzania and Kenya. It is bounded by the Serengeti Park to the south, the Siria / Oloololo escarpment to the west, and Maasai pastoral ranches to the north, east and west. Rainfall in the ecosystem increases markedly along a southeast-northwest gradient, varies in space and time, and is markedly bimodal. The Sand, Talek River, and Mara River are the major rivers draining the reserve. Shrubs and trees fringe most drainage lines and cover hillslopes and hilltops.
When it was originally established in 1961 as a wildlife sanctuary the Mara covered only 520 km2 (200 sq mi) of the current area, including the Mara Triangle. The area was extended to the east in 1961 to cover 1,821 km2 (703 sq mi) and converted to a game reserve. The Narok County Council (NCC) took over the management of the reserve at this time. Part of the reserve was given National Reserve status in 1974, and the remaining area of 159 km2 (61 sq mi) was returned to local communities. An additional 162 km2 (63 sq mi) were removed from the reserve in 1976, and the park was reduced to 1,510 km2 (580 sq mi) in 1984.
The Maasai Mara is a major research centre for the spotted hyena. With two field offices in the Mara, the Michigan State University based Kay E. Holekamp Lab studies the behavior and physiology of this predator, 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 between Kenya and Tanzania was completed for the river to sustain the ecosystem and the basic needs of 1 million people who depend on its water.
The Mara Predator Project also operates in the Maasai Mara, cataloging and monitoring lion populations throughout the region. Concentrating on the northern conservancies where communities coexist with wildlife, the project aims to identify population trends and responses to changes in land management, human settlements, livestock movements and tourism. Sara Blackburn, the project manager, works in partnership with a number of lodges in the region by training guides to identify lions and report sightings. Guests are also encouraged to participate in the project by photographing lions seen on game drives. An online database of individual lions is openly accessible, and features information on project participants and focus areas
Wildebeest, topi, zebra, and Thomson’s gazelle migrate into and occupy the Maasai Mara reserve, from the Serengeti plains to the south and Loita Plains in the pastoral ranches to the north-east, from July to October or later. Herds of all three species are also resident in the reserve.
All members of the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo, and rhinoceros) are found here. The population of black rhinos was fairly numerous until 1960, but it was severely depleted by poaching in the 1970s and early 1980s, dropping to a low of 15 individuals. Numbers have been slowly increasing, but the population was still only up to an estimated 23 in 1999.
Hippopotami and crocodiles are found in large groups in the Mara and Talek rivers. Hyenas, cheetahs, jackals, and bat-eared foxes can also be found in the reserve. The plains between the Mara River and the Esoit Siria Escarpment are probably the best area for game viewing, in particular regarding lion and cheetah.
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, many of which are migrants, with almost 60 species being raptors. Birds that call this area home for at least part of the year include: vultures, marabou storks, secretary birds, hornbills, crowned cranes, ostriches, long-crested eagles, African pygmy-falcons and the lilac-breasted roller, which is the national bird of Kenya.
There’s less rain in January than in December, with an average of 15 days of rainfall in the month. If it does rain then it’s usually a short shower in the afternoon. January is one of the warmest months of the year, and day time temperatures can reach 28C, with nights dropping to a minimum of 12C.
January is a great month to visit the Masai Mara if you’re a birder: the birdwatching at this time of year is superb and there are many migratory species to spot.
It’s also the birthing season, so this is the time to go to the Mara if you’d like to see baby animals taking their first steps.
February gets more rain than January, with an average of 17 rainy days a month. Temperature wise, it’s the same as January: average highs of 28C and average night-time lows of 12C February is a good month to visit the Maasai Mara if you want to see lots of baby animals (up to half a million wildebeest are born this month), and you don’t mind afternoon thundershowers. Wildlife viewing is good, and birdwatching is excellent, with many migratory species present in the park.
March is a rainy month. Nearly every day of the month will have afternoon thundershowers and there may be continuous rain.
High rainfall in March means that roads get very muddy and can be challenging to drive on, and some camps close down until May. The park sees fewer visitors this month, while the landscapes are lush and green. A highlight in March is spotting migratory birds.
April is the wettest month of the year, and even though there’s rain almost every day of the month, it rarely rains all day. April is slightly cooler than March, but it’s still warm during the day, with average highs of 28C. While calving season has ended, the herds of wildebeest are still in the Southern Serengeti and Ndutu Region, sustained by the lush grass on the plains. However, the herds have also started moving northwards, so you can catch them on the move in the Seronera/Central Serengeti region too. Because of the amount of rainfall that April receives, it’s one of the least popular months to visit the park, which means that you can get discounted rates on lodging and packages. A plus is that the park is very quiet, so you’ll have sightings without any crowds.
There’s slightly less rain in May than in April, but it’s still one of the wettest months of the year. May marks the start of several slightly cooler months (with average daytime highs are 25C), lasting until September.
May isn’t an ideal time to visit the Masai Mara because of the amount of rainfall making wildlife viewing and driving around the park more challenging. Some lodges and camps are also closed because of the rain. One plus of visiting at this time of year is discounted rates for package tours and lodging and far fewer visitors to share sightings with.
After the rainy season months of March to May, June is much drier – down from 20 days of rain to an average of 12 days of rain during the month. June marks the start of the busy season in the Maasai Mara – the weather is dry, and the days are cooler than at other times of the year, and the wildlife viewing is excellent, although the majority of the herds of the Great Migration have not yet arrived.
Along with August, July is the coolest month of the year, and night times can dip below 10C so bring along warm clothes and lots of layers for early morning game drives. Day time temperatures are pleasantly warm. July is also the driest month of the year, with an average of only 11 days of rain.
In July the herds start moving into the Masai Mara from the Serengeti at the start of the Great Migration so it’s an ideal month to travel to the park if you want to witness the thrilling spectacle. The lack of rain at this time of year also means that the bush is thinning, making it easier to see animals. The downside of travelling in July is that it’s one of the busiest months of the year: prices go up and sightings can be very crowded.
August is one of the driest months of the year, and has the same cooler temperatures of July: average lows at night of 11C and highs during the day of 25C. August is very popular time for people to visit the park to witness the daily dramas of the Great Migration. As the dry season progresses, it becomes easier to see animals in the thinning bush.
In terms of wildlife viewing, it’s hard to beat. Along with September, it’s the busiest and most expensive month to visit the reserve.
September is slightly warmer than August, going up to an average daytime high of 27C, however, nights can be as chilly as 12C so bring along warm gear. September remains in the dry period, with little rain to disrupt game viewing.
Together with August, September is the most popular month to visit the Maasai Mara (expect lots of other tourists and the highest prices of the year), as the spectacle of millions of animals moving in the Great Migration is in full swing.
October marks the end of the dry season, and the “short rains” can sometimes start this month. It’s one of the warmer months of the year, with day time highs averaging at 29C. Some of the Great Migration herds are still in the Northern Serengeti (and still making Mara River crossings), but sometimes this month (depending on when the rains start), the herds start to move back down into the Serengeti from the Maasai Mara this month, passing through the Loliondo Game Controlled Area (a concession outside of the park’s northern section).
Depending on when the rains start in October, the herds of the Great Migration will start to make their way from the Masai Mara back down south into the Serengeti, however the exact timing of this movement is unpredictable. There is a chance that you can still catch the last of the river crossings in the Northern Serengeti this month. Falling at the end of the dry season, October’s very dry and thin vegetation means that this is an excellent month for seeing resident game.
November marks the start of the second rainy season of the year – the so-called “short rains”. With an average of 20 days of rain this month, you’ll likely to see thundershowers on most days of your visit, although they are often only short afternoon rain showers, after which the skies clear up.
November is a good time to visit the Maasai Mara to catch the end of the migration as the herds start making their way back down to the Serengeti in Tanzania. It’s a good month for birders too, as migratory bird species begin to arrive in the park. The only downside can be the rain but the thundershowers are usually short bursts of rain in the afternoon and are unlikely to disrupt your game viewing too much.
December falls during the “short rains” – the second rainy season of the year – in the Maasai Mara, and sees and average of 17 days of rain during the month. While the rain can be heavy, it usually only pours for a short time in the late afternoon and shouldn’t affect your game viewing too much. Longer grass from the rain makes wildlife viewing a little more challenging this month, although December is a fantastic month for birdwatching in the Maasai Mara as the migratory species can be spotted.
The birthing season which is called “Toto Time” starts this month, so if you fancy seeing baby animals being born and taking their first steps then plan on visiting the park between December and February. It’s less busy in early December than during the peak months of June to October, but it gets very busy in the park during the Christmas holidays.
The flight from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport can give visitors a beautiful aerial view of the park. The Kenya Aviation organizes flights from the park to Maasai Mara and back.
Maasai Mara national park has a number of lodges and tented camps (there are over 100 accommodations) catering for tourists inside or bordering the Reserve and within the Conservancy borders.
Although one third of the whole Maasai Mara, The Mara Triangle has only two lodges within its boundaries (compared to the numerous camps and lodges on the Narok side) and has well maintained, all weather roads. The rangers patrol regularly which means that there is less poaching and excellent game viewing. There is also strict control over vehicle numbers around animal sightings, allowing for a better experience when out on a game drive.
There are several airfields which serve the camps and lodges in the Maasai Mara, including Mara Serena Airport, Musiara Airport and Keekorok, Kichwa Tembo, Ngerende Airport, Ol Kiombo and Angama Mara Airfield, and several airlines such as SafariLink and AirKenya fly scheduled services from Nairobi and elsewhere multiple times a day. Helicopter flights over the reserve are limited to a minimum height of 1,500 ft.
If you want a unique experience in the Maasai Mara, consider a Maasai homestay: spending a night or two in a Maasai manyatta just outside the reserve’s gates. You’ll get to see what daily life is really like for a Maasai community by helping out with village chores such as milking cows, and learning to make jewellery, but you’ll also get to spend time in nature doing bush walks with a Maasai guide.
After your wildlife experience in Maasai Mara, you can go to other national parks in Kenya, parks such as Lake Nakuru National Park, Amboseli National Park and other national parks.
Other activities outside the park:
There are a couple of activities that visitors can take part in near the park and in Nairobi the capital. visiting the following places;
Those interested in buying souvenirs can stop by one of the local art and craft shops along the way to the park.
Going for a hot air balloon ride at dawn above the plains of the Maasai Mara is an unamicable experience. Getting a bird’s eye view of the endless savanna dotted with game is definitely one way of taking your safari up a notch. There are several companies that offer sunrise balloon flights and trips can be booked through your lodge and the price includes transfers from your lodge as well as a champagne breakfast when you land.
Game drives in Maasai Mara national park are done in safari vehicles starting the early morning in search of the leopards, hyenas, and the re-introduced lions. This is because the predators prefer to hunt at night or early morning and usually go into hiding as the heat from the sun increases. Along with the carnivores, enjoy the scenery of this beautiful park and several other big mammals like Elephants, buffaloes, antelopes, Zebra, and Giraffes. The landscape and beautiful wildflowers will make for good pictures for the interested photographer.
The Masai Mara’s birdlife, although less well known is equally impressive. There are over 470 species of birds recorded, which includes an impressive 46 different birds of prey. These birds range from the World’s largest bird the ostrich, to tiny sunbirds.
Cultural And Traditional Interactions:
Experience the rural Maasai life around the cattle keeping communities in Maasai village. During these cultural visits, you have the opportunity to observe and or participate in;
You then go through the process of converting milk into different products like traditional yogurt, ghee, and lastly take part in preparing a meal with some of the ingredients from the milk products.
This is an authentic cultural experience shared by the locals living adjacent to the park, they get to earn from this supplementing their agricultural income. This eventually contributes to conservation culture and wild animals in the park.