Experience the unique ecosystem that are the salt flats surrounding Lake Magadi, a haven for the endangered lesser flamingo…
Along the Great Rift valley lies a type of unique ecosystem particular to this part of Africa. Lake Magadi, a soda ash lake, is one such ecosystem. However, the most famous one is Lake Natron, which we haven’t visited and hope to do soon.
The Geology of Lake Magadi
These soda ash lakes form due to volcanic activity and high precipitation in the Great Rift Valley region. Lake Magadi, Lake Natron and many other smaller alkaline lakes in the area are specialised homes for flamingoes, including the threatened Lesser Flamingo.
How Climate Change Affects Lake Magadi
However, the landscape of these lakes is changing, significantly affecting flamingo populations and their movements. Our Kenyan guides were quick to identify climate change as the culprit. However, scientists can only speculate on the exact cause.
In Kenya, the climate change experienced is not drought but rather increased rainfall. Some climate scientists have proven that this results from excessive groundwater exploitation in India for agriculture. This water, trapped under the ground for millennia, is being released rapidly and increasing precipitation levels on the other side of the Indian Ocean, in East Africa. This dilutes the salinity of the soda ash lakes which the flamingoes depend on to survive.
Our Hike to Lake Magadi
In 2020, we saw for ourselves how climate change was affecting Lake Magadi during our trip to Kenya. Our hike to the lake was the last portion of our six-day trek through the Loita Hills region in South Western Kenya. I had read a lot about East Africa’s soda lakes and was very excited to get to see the flocks of flamingoes in feeding in bright pink water.
Getting to Lake Magadi
Of course, visitors can get to Lake Magadi by car, but this would take a lot away from the experience of visiting the region. The beautiful stark landscape of the area is best appreciated on foot.
Our adventure to Lake Magadi began at the Entasopia guest house, in Kajiado, many miles away. The day got off to a rough start. After getting up at 5:30 in the morning to make sure we could complete most of the hike in the morning, our guide found out the car we had hired would not start.
How hard could the solution be? Surely there must be another car we could use.
Unfortunately, there were no available cars in the vicinity – the nearest one was in the neighbouring village, and we had to wait until the owner woke up. By the time we took off, it was already mid-morning.
Eventually, we got to the starting point of the final stretch of our six-day hike – a large watering area for all the villages nearby. Like something out of Star Wars, it was an interesting scene, with people and animals all gathered in this marvellous desert-like landscape filling up on the most precious resource here – water.
Just as we were about to begin our hike, a Maasai man came up to our guides, and they started to have an excited conversation between them. We couldn’t understand exactly what they were talking about, but we guessed that there was some problem with the road ahead.
The Flooded Salt Pans of Magadi
We nevertheless could not turn back and continued venturing forwards. For lunch, we would hike up to a lookout point on our way to Lake Magadi. This hike was beautiful, in a stark, alien way. I remember the dry, golden grass reaching high up my knees and the sort of tranquil silence that happens in the heat of the day when all the animals are resting.
Eventually, we came to an outcrop overlooking the land below. The view was breath-taking, and I could not help but stare at it in wonderment. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The land below us was utterly flooded, covered with pearly green-blue water. At the lake’s edges were many pink specks – scores, upon scores of flamingoes, were here, feeding on the algae rich waters.
I now understood the problem the Maasai had warned us about. The road that cut across the landscape, forging ahead towards Lake Magadi’s usual boundaries, was completely submerged. The only way across was a long pipe, about two kilometres in length. There was no way to cross the water by walking on the pipe, not with all our provisions. We would have to go around.
Lake Magadi had come to Meet Us
Interestingly, we were technically at Lake Magadi, for the lake itself had spilled out to come and meet us. Aeons in the past, when East Africa was a wetter place, Lake Magadi and Lake Natron were joined as one large water body. Some scientists believe this is what is happening to many of the Alkaline lakes in East Africa at the moment.
Although the day was already scorching, high up on the outcrop, there was always a pleasant breeze. There was also an acacia tree, which provided just enough shade for everyone. Under it, we all felt quite relaxed.
All of us rested, except the cook, Steve and our guide (also called Steve). Steve, the cook, immediately took out his pots and pans and began cooking on a small clearing right at the edge of the outcrop. I marvelled at how he did things – balancing the gas canister on a rock and using exposed rock faces to balance bowls of vegetables and potatoes. With this setup, he began making our mid-day meal. For a moment, I felt like we were in a reality TV show about extreme cooking.
Walking on the Salt Pans
I was reluctant to leave my shady, cool spot under the tree, but we had a long way ahead of us and had to get moving. So get moving we did.
We began by walking along the edge of the flooded salt pan. The view from below was very different from the one above, although no less magnificent. It was also a surreal landscape, with the ground covered in a thick white crust of salt and slippery clay. As we walked, our shoes crunched and squished in turn on the strange terrain below our feet.
A Flamboyance of Flamingoes
The most fabulous thing, however, were the flamingoes. There were hundreds of them, flying to and fro on the lake, hovering a mere few metres above the water. As they flew, they were almost perfectly reflected in the still, salty water below.
I knew that when it came to flamingoes, this was the moment. The high rainfall that had created this beautiful flooded plain with its hundreds of flamingoes would also have diluted the water at Lake Magadi’s usual boundaries. I knew we would not find many wading birds there. As far as flamingoes were concerned on this hike, the moment was now.
A unique experience
It was unbearably hot – so hot we could feel the salt from the ground steaming up into our eyes. However, the surroundings were so magnificent I did not mind the heat one bit.
I knew what I was experiencing was something entirely out of the ordinary. Usually, water did not flood the plains. None of our guides had seen it flooded like this before. To not only see it but to walk on it, was a truly unique experience.
If the Maasai can pass, so can we
Soon, we came to the very edge of the temporary new boundary of Lake Magadi. Here the land was mostly muddy, with occasional pools. Johnny looked across the shining flatland and pointed into the distance. Miles away, I could see some trees shimmering in the heat. That was where we had to go.
“Are you sure we can cross this mudflat?” I asked. I could see many shiny pools of salty water between us and the trees from where I stood.
“Sure we can.” Steve, our guide said. “Look.” He pointed to the ground. I saw there were the tracks of a motorcycle. “The Maasai have come here on motorcycle, if they can do it, we certainly can too.”
Despite the intense heat, the adventure of crossing the alien landscape was exciting enough that I didn’t mind it. We even came across some elephant tracks, which I got quite excited over. The thought of seeing an elephant crossing these majestic, empty expanse made such a poignant mental image in my head.
In the end, the crossing was not too challenging. Apart from having to jump over some large puddles and land on slippery mud, the walk across the flats was pretty straightforward. Our hiking shoes had soles thick enough to get through most of the pools.
Back on Land
Once we were done with the salt flats, we came to a raised piece of land covered in long, golden grass, dotted with acacia trees. The terrain here was tricker, as the grass-covered many high boulders underneath and we had to be very careful while walking, least we make a misstep and twist our ankles. The going was slow.
Although we were getting tired, Johnny showed no signs of flagging. He was filled with energy and was excited to show us the land. Along the way, we spotted a couple of giraffes and some zebras grazing in the high grass. It was an incredible feeling, walking through the bush, surrounded by such majestic creatures.
Getting to the factory at Lake Magadi
The going was slow for us, walking in the high grass, so our guides took us to the road that lead to the factory at Lake Magadi, and we walked along with it. Although the landscape was boring since we were walking along the road, I was glad for it. It was already mid-afternoon, and I was exhausted from walking in the high grass, fearing I might twist my ankle with every step. It was a nice change to be able to see the groud I placed my feet on.
Following the road, we soon came to the permanent part of Lake Magadi. It was an impressive lake, with a large soda ash processing facility along its banks. The edge of the lake also harboured a few flocks of flamingoes, although their numbers were not so great, due to the recent high rainfall which had diluted the lake’s alkalinity.
Camping in a Maasai Village near Lake Magadi
We arrived at our last campsite just before sundown. After miles on the road, I was looking forward to dropping my pack and taking it easy under the shade. After hiking for a bit into the bush, we caught sight of a Maasai manyatta. These were of a slightly different style to the ones we saw in Enkototu. The villages we had seen earlier did not have their households delineated with a fence of any border. We only recognised them as a collection because of their proximity to each other. Over here, near Magadi, the style was different.
The manyattas were surrounded by a thick fence of thorny branches, presumably to keep wild animals from entering the compound. There are wild animals everywhere in the Loita Hills, but it was around here that we saw signs of the big ones, like elephant and giraffe.
Maasai children under the African Sunset
As usual, the children here came out to greet us, but they were bolder and loved to have their photograph taken. While trying to capture the lovely, fiery sunset, the children gathered themselves into the shot and began posing. We were delighted they felt so comfortable in front of the camera and insisted on having us take their photo. It was such a joyful, spontaneous moment.
The night we spent here was an interesting one. We met a young Maasai woman who went to university in Nairobi. She was sassy and wouldn’t lay off making fun of our guides and porters. She stayed here in her village until the university reopened again after being closed for moths because of covid-19. It was an interesting meeting for me, as it revealed how Maasai culture has already begun to embrace women’s empowering for many years now.
Reflections after Lake Magadi
Our six-day hike through Loita Hills, starting from Maji Moto and ending off at Lake Magadi, was a truly incredible experience. We truly enjoyed being with our guides and having met all the incredible people that hosted us. During the hike, I felt how dynamic the Maasai people are – they genuinely bridge both a traditional lifestyle and a fast-changing modern way of thinking. And also, of course, there was the unique landscape that will forever be seared in my memory.
Hiking in Loita Hills and Camping in Maasai Villages
Discover the heart of Maasai culture with this multi-day hike through Loita Hills, where we camped in local villages…
Loita Hills is a pastoral paradise in the very heart of the traditional lands of Kenya’s Maasai people. Although Masaai culture is easily accessible through Maasai village cultural visits near the Masai Mara, those seeking an authentic and immersive experience will find the multi-day hike through Loita Hills a most rewarding experience.
“In Kenya, we say we have the big six.” Steve, our Kikuyu guide told us, as we settled around the campfire for a snack of roasted corn, freshly picked from the Maasai farm where we’d made camp. “The sixth is the Maasai traditions, for their way of life is changing fast”. I asked Steve if there are people from his tribe still living their traditional way of life in Kenya. “There are some.” He shakes his head and pokes at the fire. “But very few. It’s almost all gone now.”
Changing Maasai traditions
It’s no secret the Maasai are fiercely proud of their heritage, which they maintain through strict social rules interwoven with celebrated coming of age rituals. A well-known rite of passage is killing a lion, to mark a boy’s transition into a man. These days, it is no longer practised, as the Maasai value the conservation of these animals and their role in bringing in the tourist dollar. However, other rituals, like the piercing of ears and fire tattoos, are still observed, although even that is slowly declining as some schools forbid body modification on their students.
Starting at Maji Moto
To begin our trek, we stopped in Maji Moto, a Maasai town, to pick up our guide, an elder called Johnny. A trek through Loita Hills without an elder would be inadvisable, as he was essential in ensuring hospitality on our travels, as we would be camping near a Maasai village each night.
Johnny is a striking man – wiry in frame, dressed in the signature red of the Maasai, sporting many lively, beaded accessories. Colourful earrings dangle from his lobes, and he wore many brightly beaded bracelets on his wrists. After a quick introduction, we began our hike into Maasai land.
Camping in the Maasai Village of Narosura
We had set up camp in Narosura, an agricultural village in the northernmost point of Loita Hills for our first night. The Maasai here make a living from the maize and vegetables they grow, a change from the traditional herding of cows and goats. This Maasai village is nestled in a lush valley, and our guides make camp in a clearing covered with soft green grass.
People here rarely see visitors. Steve tells us they do as many treks up Mount Kenya in a month as they do through Loita Hills in a year. The children here watch us shyly from a distance, observing everything we do with amusement. They see that we have a camera with a long lens attached, which raises some excitement.
“Take a photo!” One of the teenage girls shouts across the distance. However, as Danny raises his lens, a young mother with a baby strapped to her chest yells, “No! No photo!”. This disagreement continues for some time, until, tired of the stalemate and not wanting to pass up on the opportunity to capture the moment, we took a few shots. With that, the excitement began to bubble up among the younger children, with some of the braver ones venturing forward to take a look.
Meeting with Maasai Morans
The next day, as we continued our hike, we came across three Morans. Despite the morning chill, these young men wore nothing but their shukas, their hair dreaded and coloured with red dye. These were Maasai teenagers, undergoing their rite of passing into manhood. The ritual of the Morani was the ceremony that involved the hunting of a lion in the past. In his mid-forties, Johnny told us his age group was one of the last ones to practice this tradition. “Back then, it was what we did.” He told us, with the help of Steve translating. “Then conservationists told us if we continue this way, soon there would be no more lions. So we stopped.”
Hiking through the Farmland of Loita Hills
The hike wasn’t strenuous, although the constant drizzle made the paths muddy, and the going slow, as chunks of mud glued onto our shoes while we walked. Steve told us the hike would be 18 kilometres today. It did not seem like much when we set out, but as the day wore on and the trail became increasingly wet and muddy, it began to feel like an eternity.
However, there were always moments of wonder. The landscape of Loita Hills is truly pastoral. The Maasai continue to live a comparatively low impact life in the countryside.
The farther we got from Maji Moto, the more remote it became. Soon, the cornfields and vegetable gardens petered out into scrubland. We were soon deep in Maasai land, where herding cows and goats is still the primary way of life.
The Maasai Village of Enkutoto
Soon, we came upon the Maasai village of Enkutoto, a village in the heart of Loita Hills. Steve stopped us and told everyone to take a break under a large acacia tree, growing on a clearing separating two collections of huts. As was the case in Narosura, all the children and teenagers of the village came out to observe us from a distance. They were as curious about us as we were of them.
As our guide went to negotiate the campsite’s price with the village elder, I sat down on a large root and sketched a little bit of the scene before me. What struck me most about the village was how well positioned it is in Loita Hills. The Maasai village is situated on top of a high ridge, overlooking a valley. The view from the village was breathtaking.
After some minutes, our guide returned with a striking lady in a bright pink shuka. Steve introduced her as the wife of the village head, who was currently not in the village. In his absence, she took care of matters like this for him.
Steve, Johnny and her had a long chat – it is how they do things here. The Maasai expect travellers to bring news the good old fashioned way. She has a mobile phone, but I suppose the Maasai living in Loita Hills do not waste precious phone minutes on small talk. However, I think the issue usually isn’t phone time but instead, battery charge. Out here, deep in Maasai land, electricity is a privilege.
After exchanging news and negotiating a night on their land, we began the last stretch of our hike for the day, making our way down to the river, where we would camp for the night.
On the banks of the Entasopia
The distance to the Entasopia river bank was not far. In an hour or so, we found ourselves leaving dry scrubland and entering thicker forest covering. A sign that water was near. We could also hear the sound of a rushing river, not too far in the distance. The air was fast becoming cool as evening approached.
There was still one more hurdle to overcome to get to our campsite – the river itself. Unexpectedly for September – it had been raining quite a bit, and the river was full and moving fast. Steve took my pack from me so that I could cross unencumbered.
It was difficult, balancing my way across a large fallen log, holding tight to the dead branches, hoping I did not make a misstep. All the while, Johnny was with me, always a few steps ahead, grabbing my hand when I needed help balancing. I am still amazed at how agile he was, having seen how he managed the crossing while burdened with our belongings.
Camping by the River that flows through the Loita Hills
Camping by the Entasopia was one of the most memorable nights of my life. It was indeed an incredible experience, sleeping under the shade of a towering acacia.
A few minutes after we had crossed, our cook, Steve, took out all his pots and pans and began making dinner. I was genuinely amazed at his perseverance. Although he had spent all day carrying a lot of gear – a tent, cooking equipment and a tin of gas, among other things, no sooner had he put down his pack did he begin chopping up vegetables for the upcoming dinner. On the other hand, I, with near-zero camping skills, stood around uselessly as the men did all the work.
And there was a lot of work to be done indeed. Our guides had our tents brought in by motorbikes that somehow braved the bumpy terrain and almost non-existent roads. They also brought in more food and drinking water for us. Happy that the porters had delivered all the provisions, Steve got everyone down to work with setting up the campsite and making a fire.
We were also waiting for our other guide (and friend from our previous trip to Kenya) Chris to meet us. He had left Nairobi earlier in the day to join us in Loita Hills. However, he did not make it that night as he’d arrived in the Maasai village of Enkutoto near sundown.
Breaking Camp on the Banks of Enkutoto
The next morning, Chris arrived, along with the first lady of Enkutoto. We had a lovely breakfast by the fire, and they told us about their night’s adventure. They’d attempted to set off for the campsite close to dusk, but the visibility had been bad as the roads in Loita Hills are mostly unlit dirt paths, and the motorcycle had tipped over. No one was hurt, but everyone then decided to spend the night in the Maasai village, and wait for the morning light.
Hiking in the Magical Forests of Loita Hills
“The hike today is going to be incredibly beautiful,” Tito, our porter, told me before we set out. “You’ll see”, he said.
He was right. As we ventured out of the thicket of trees we’d camped under; we found ourselves walking through a lush, green valley. This area of Loita Hills was different from what we had seen before.
The forest surrounding us was old and covered with a light mist, making me feel like I’d walked into the set of Jurassic Park. Creepers covered the many tall trees along the river banks, and it seemed as if the ground was rising like one giant organism. The land was enchanting.
We heard the calls of colobus monkeys from afar and strained to look at them. There were a few, although they were mostly hiding up high in the tree canopy.
Accompanying their calls was the sound of the river rushing beside us and a multitude of birds singing their hearts out. It was nature’s symphony at its best. Although we walked for hours, we did not see another Maasai village for some time.
All around us, the greenery stretched out, seemingly unending. It was a lovely day too, the air was cool and fresh, and the sun’s heat was tempered by light cloud cover—the perfect weather for hiking.
Camping in the Heart of Loita Hills
The landscape soon changed, however, and the day grew hotter. Soon, the cloud cover dispersed, and the misty green scenery turned into dusty bush. We had entered Njoroi, where the vegetation grew thick around our path.
By mid-day, the weather had become almost unbearably warm, but I had to put on my rain jacket as the scrubland around us scratched our skin. Soon, with the African bush reaching above our heads, even our guides got a little lost. Luckily, a little boy was playing in the bush. He guided us to our campsite near his Maasai village.
The child came in and out of view like a faerie, a moment he was right in front, waving us in the right direction, and a moment later, he was gone, vanished among the branches, leaves and thorns.
We walked around in circles for a while, with me sticking close to our guides and them keeping a watchful eye lest they lose sight of me. However, we were not lost for long. Soon, we found the clearing where we would camp for the night.
Hanging out with kids in the Maasai village
As with the other villages, the moment we set our bags down, we were greeted by about twenty children and teenagers, standing a distance away, curiously watching us. Even after we retired into our tents to rest, they remained there, wondering what we were going to do next.
The day was hot and humid, and our tent was incredibly stuffy. After some time, I could no longer bear to be in it. With nowhere else to go, I sat outside, by the little makeshift table our guides had set up for us.
There were tea and biscuits on it, as usual. I sat there and ate the biscuits while the children continued staring at me. At some moment, some young Maasai women with babies also joined the crowd.
Dancing in the Maasai Village
Eventually, one of the girls made eye contact with me and started dancing the Maasai jumping dance. She began chanting and making the rhythmic motions with her body and hands. Curious, I walked up to them, taking my shuka with me. The children were very excited now. She took the shuka from me, tied it around my shoulders, and then continued to chant, showing me the movements.
I did as she did, and in no time, the entire entourage of women and children were singing and chanting, performing the traditional Maasai dance. I was surprised at how even the youngest of the children, who must have been about three or four sang along perfectly, their voices harmonising with the crowd.
After it was all over, I felt that this moment was one of those moments I will take with me for the rest of my life. I had not expected to have the privilege to enjoy such an authentic, spontaneous moment in a Maasai village, certainly not one as remote as this, deep in Loita Hills.
The next morning, we began our hike up the Nguruman Escarpment. The escarpment is one of Loita Hills most incredible geological feature, overlooking the Great Rift Valley. All along the trail are breathtaking views of the surroundings, which spread out majestically below us.
We walk for miles along a path cutting through acacia forests. It was the dry season then, and I remember the forest floor covered in amber leaves. With the sunlight filtering through the thin branches above, the hike had a certain surreal quality.
Eventually, we came to the highest point on the bluff. The panorama of the Great Rift Valley that greeted us was stunning, spreading before our eyes in an unending sea of green and gold.
Having reached this incredible place, Johnny insisted that we all should take a photo, which we did. We also thought he looked very photogenic, looking out over the valley, and could not miss the opportunity for that quintessential photo of a Maasai looking over the Rift Valley of Kenya.
The Kenyan Outback – Deep in Loita Hills
We later made our way down the escarpment, heading for the Entasopia River Camp in the Maasai village of Kajiado. I thought the path downhill was quite challenging, with it being covered in scree. I did not enjoy the hike downwards as it was treacherous. Furthermore, I was put to shame by several Maasai women who bounded down the slope cheerily at five times the speed I was walking, all while carrying babies firmly bound to their backs.
Loita Hill’s Lenkototo River
Eventually, my ordeal was over, and the sight of the Lenkutoto river in the Loita Hills greeted me. I was never so glad to see a river. The day was getting very hot, and I wanted nothing more than to sit and dip my feet in its cool waters.
I was the last to arrive, of course. The rest of our guides were already cheerily seated on the river bank, chatting with some of the men from the nearby Maasai village.
The crossing of this river was not too difficult, although I had to resign myself to getting my feet wet. However, those who were more skilled at river crossings managed to get across and stay dry all at once.
Getting to the town of Kajiado
The way from the river to the town was beautiful. It was lined with green bushes and papaya plantations. There were also many empty schools along the way. Usually, these would be full, but they were unoccupied due to Covid-19. As I walked past the schools, I remembered myself thinking of how lovely it must be for children to be surrounded by nature all the time.
Soon, the bushes and plantations gave way to to a large, dusty road. There were brightly painted low buildings on either side of the road and many makeshift market stalls selling vegetables and fruit. There was a lot of papayas for sale – it seemed like it was the season for it.
The town felt a bit like a western movie, with its dusty atmosphere and oppressive heat. I was very eager to reach our next campsite and to take a much needed cool shower.
The Entasopia Guesthouse, an Oasis in Loita Hills
As one of the four buildings listed on Google Maps, the Entasopia Guesthouse is one of the town’s larger establishments. It was a relief entering this shaded oasis just as the heat was becoming almost unbearable.
My favourite part of the establishment was the large mango tree with its thick canopy right in the middle of the guesthouse. Under its shade, it was several degrees cooler. Fortunately for us, the mangoes were not yet ripe. Otherwise, there would have been many more biting insects.
We felt greatly relieved to have arrived at our lodging for the night finally. Although we enjoyed camping in or near the Massai villages the past nights, it was pleasant to have a real bed and an ensuite bathroom. Although amenities were simple, it was a welcomed change!
Our night here definitely refreshed us for the most trying part of the hike, which was our trek to Lake Magadi the day after. Read the continuation of this adventure here: Hike to Lake Magadi
Be transported to the Masai Mara, and spend a day out on the open savannah…
The Mara River snakes through Kenya’s most biodiverse savannah, the Masai Mara. Its caramel coloured waters move languidly, winding through the golden grassland. The river’s banks are tinted red, from the iron in its rich, fertile soil. Even from a distance, we can see its shores are dotted with many animals. These are hippos, basking in the sun, warming up from wallowing in the river’s chilly currents.
Dawn on the Masai Mara
Located on an elevated plain over a thousand meters above sea level, the air here is always pleasantly cool, especially in the mornings and evenings. Under the warm, yellow glow of the sun, the savannah is paradise. As our land cruiser trundles out of the miniature forest surrounding our tented lodge, we are greeted by a fabulous sight. Open grassland, stretching out for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see. The only interruption to this endless landscape are the umbrella acacia trees, which stand, silhouetted, against the coral dawn sky.
A Breakfast for Scavengers
As we continue driving down the undulating dirt road, partially covered in grass, we encounter a peculiar, yet enchanting sight. A medley of scavengers gathered around the carcass of a wildebeest. A fresh kill, by the looks of it. The resident pride of lions have been busy while we were sound asleep in our tents. Up to thirty hyenas surround the body. On the periphery of the hyenas, a collection of different species of vulture await their turn to feed.
Further out still, trotting excitedly on the fringes are a pair of silver-backed jackals, their fur glittering, haloed under the fresh morning light. We linger upon this scene, fascinated by the self-organisation of these creatures, as each animal waits their turn at the buffet table. In under an hour, the entire carcass is consumed. In nature, nothing is wasted.
“Enjoolata”, or the Joy of the Unexpected
Our journey into the heart of the African savannah continues. Expectant hearts and observant eyes wondering what the wild will send our way.
In the Masai language, there is a special word for a feeling often experienced on safari. “Enjoolata”, which describes the joy felt when something hidden becomes known. The word is an amalgamation of different sensations – surprise, delight and perhaps, a feeling of epiphany.
On the Masai Mara, one can travel for hours through the open grassland and notice nothing out of the ordinary. Then, in a flash, a great flurry of activity takes place, and some wonder of nature reveals itself. The Great Migration, one of nature’s greatest spectacles, unfolds in this fashion.
The Great Migration in Masai Mara
Year on year, thousands flock to the grasslands of the Masai Mara to witness this incredible event. Between the months of July and September, millions of grazers – wildebeests, zebra, impala and an array of antelopes, move thousands of kilometres in search of greener pastures. This is also a time of bounty for the big cats of the savannah, as ample prey makes for easy meals.
To observe this spectacle, we make our way to a notable crossing point along the Mara River. There are a few of these along the river’s bank. What makes them suitable crossing points is how the land dips towards the sandy water, forming a gentle slope for the migrating animals to enter and exit the river.
We wait by the riverbank, observing the large heard of wildebeest on the other side. Mixed in, among the hundreds of black bodies are a few, smaller, brown ones. These are gazelles hoping to take advantage of the mass movement of wildebeest to cross the crocodile-infested waters. For such an activity, there is safety in numbers.
Great Herds Make for Greater Indecision
The wildebeest are indecisive. The beasts know the risks involved. Inevitably, some are bound to die, as crossing the river is fraught with dangers. However, they are helpless against instincts evolved over millions of years, which compel them to migrate towards the smell of rain. As the day gets hotter, the stronger the urge to cross the river becomes. Eventually, they will choose to risk their lives and dive into the cold, murky waters of the Mara River. Sometimes, this decision is made at ten in the morning, sometimes, late in the afternoon. There is no way of knowing until the first brave wildebeest takes the plunge, leading the entire herd onto the other side.
Before the wildebeests cross, there is a great deal of indecisiveness. The herd of hundreds, if not thousands, of animals, go back and forth between different crossing points on the river, trying to make up their minds. After an hour of this, we notice the small group of gazelles giving up. Tiring of the pointless back and forth, they disperse from the crowd to continue grazing on their side of the river. However, today, we are fortunate, for the beasts decide to cross just a few minutes shy of noon. After some hesitation, due to the presence of multiple crocodiles at their chosen crossing point, the leader of the herd takes the first leap. The next follows closely, accompanied shortly by another after him. And so it begins, one of nature’s finest performances.
Reaching the Other Side
As they cross, the animals kick up significant amounts of dust from the river banks, creating an incredible atmosphere. Surprisingly, they do not neigh or whine. The only sounds are the thundering of hooves and the splashing of the river as it navigates around the mass of bodies.
One by one, the creatures make it to the other side. Some are lost along the way, victims to the crocodile’s powerful jaws. But this is a small fraction of the herd, compared to the numbers that make it through. Sometimes, these crossings can last hours. When herds, tens of thousands in number, make an attempt to reach the other side. Today, a day in mid-September, late in the migration, the small herd completes the crossing in fifteen minutes.
The Never-Ending Grassland
From here, we drive deeper into the rolling hills of the Greater Mara. As we look around, we begin to see countless black specks dotting the land around us. At first, we try to count them, making an estimate of the number of animals per acre of land. But as we drive deeper into the herds, we realise this task is futile. For even at the furthest hill, far into the horizon, we can still see innumerable dots speckling the grassy slopes. Amongst the wildebeests are also a significant number of other grazers. There are large herds of grumpy buffalo, gregarious zebras and playful gazelles. The zebras, in particular, are a joy to watch as they take turns rolling in the dust. We look on in wonderment as these dazzling creatures athletically flip onto their backs, kicking up a cloud of sand, before gracefully leaping back up, onto their hooves.
The distances on the Masai Mara are vast, but we are in no hurry. We take our time, meandering on the many paths that crisscross the natural reserve. Our senses are keyed into the surroundings, our eyes scanning the distant bush, in the hopes of spotting lion, cheetah or leopard. However, it is almost late afternoon, when the land is at it warmest. Any lions or leopards are sure to be hiding, sheltering from the heat. Even under the shade of our jeep’s open roof, the sun’s balmy rays enter to warm our skin. Along with the vehicle’s gentle rocking motion and the uninterrupted landscape, we soon start to feel sleep creeping upon us.
Dusk over the Masai Mara
We begin to make our way back to our lodge, leaving the Greater Mara and the Mara Triangle behind, to enter the private conservancy of Mara North. The landscape here is much the same, one of open grassland and undulating hills dotted with the occasional acacia tree. There seems to be no other vehicle aside from ours on these lands. It is just us, and the animals of the Mara.
The sun has now begun to sink. It’s still an hour before sunset, but already, the bright blue sky of the afternoon has started to darken, and shades of lilac tinge the horizon. Although we have given up on finding a big cat, our guide has not. Soon he notices one lone jeep a few kilometres away. The vehicle is stationary, and it looks like the people inside are observing something on the Mara plains.
The family of cheetahs was a mother and her four grown cubs. They watched us as we arrived, but seemed mostly unconcerned. They were resting among the tall grasses, their light-coloured, spotted bodies well camouflaged on the savannah. The mother and her cubs are long, lean and incredibly graceful. If not for the rustling of grass as they passed, we would not hear they were there.
It is now when the savannah is at its quietest. We turned off our jeep’s engine and allowed the tranquillity of the wilderness to fill our senses. There was only the gentle breeze, the song of a distant bird and the silent cats, walking away from us, into the horizon.
Sunset over the Masai Mara
The sun was now beginning to sink fast, and the sky was soon covered in vibrant hues of deep orange, vivid red and dark purple. The land was set on fire, cast in a rich, golden glow. But this breathtaking moment would not last forever, and soon it would be dark. It was time to go home.
We enter the shaded forest of our lodge, the Royal Mara Safari Lodge. This lodge is uniquely located along the banks of the Mara River, right by a hippo pool filled with hundreds of these semi-aquatic animals. There are no fences around the lodge, and wild animals come and go as they please.
Stories by the Campfire
The warm day has now given way to a chilly night, and we are glad to sit by the campfire for dinner and tell stories of the day’s encounters. The manager is happy to regale us with tales of the cheetah family we met. He tells us that these cats are from a famous lineage, featured in BBC’s The Big Cat Diaries, which was filmed in the Masai Mara. The mother we saw was Kisaru, the grand-daughter of “Malaika”, which means “Queen” in Swahili. Unusually for cheetahs, for whom infant death is common, each successive generation of females in this family has raised her entire litter into adulthood.
Animals at Night
Warmed by the story, our bellies full, we walk back to our tent accompanied by an armed Maasai Ascari. After all, lions do come through the premises while hunting prey – although they never linger. But tonight is a peaceful night. The only animals around are the resident herbivores that live in the safety of the lodge’s gardens and lawns. On our way to our tent, we spot Africa’s smallest antelope, the dik-dik, and a jumping creature that resembles a small kangaroo. It is the African springhare, and is not related to the Australian marsupial, no matter how similar their movements may seem.
We bid our Ascari good night and walk up the wooden steps which lead to the deck where our tent is pitched. This tent, however, is no ordinary tent. Under its canvas roof is a four-poster bed with ample room for even the most restless of sleepers. We end our evening dreaming of the African savannah, and the adventures that will arrive with the coming dawn.
An enchanting retreat in deepest nature, the Shimba Hills Lodge is a place where you can get away from it all. Here, you will find, there is nothing except you and nature…
To get to the Shimba Hills Lodge, you have to walk down a rustic wooden ramp, which winds and dips through a dense forest of trees in the very heart of the Shimba Hills National Reserve. The lodge is built right among the trees, its wooden facade camouflaged in the vegetation surrounding it. It is an enchanting place, and there is nowhere else on Earth like it.
An Oasis of Calm
As we entered the lodge, we found ourselves on an open deck, with a view up into the blue skies above. The architects built the lodge around a central stairwell, filling it with plants and palm trees. It felt like we had entered a tree house – or rather, a tree palace. Its main structure is on high stilts, hovering over the muddy banks of the large lily covered watering hole, which is the main attraction for both guests and animals.
The tranquillity is astounding. Here, the sounds of nature blanket us entirely, from the rustling of leaves and branches as monkeys rush through the treetops, the sound of water lapping against a shore, to the sound of insects and birds calling out in the forest. Most of all, we loved feeling the forest breeze on our skin and the sweet smell of fresh air that one can only find in a place like this.
The Rooms of the Shimba Hills Lodge
All the rooms come with decks overlooking the watering hole, and I spent many hours leaning over the bannisters, feeling the wind and marvelling at the paradise before me. Many of the guests who visit the Shimba Hills Lodge come for precisely this, the experience of being surrounded by nature.
The rooms themselves are simple, rustic and comfortable. I thought the decor was done well and conveyed the atmosphere we were here to experience. The large sliding doors and glass panes looking out into nature reminded us of where we were, providing a clear view of our incredible surroundings. All the time we were there, we felt like adventurers on an expedition.
Shimba Hills Lodge Forest Walk
One of the best things about the Shimba Hills Lodge is its forest walk. Exit from the bar, and you’ll find an extended deck which winds its way into the forest, almost at the height of the tree canopy. Tree branches hang over the side and curve above the walkway. The light here filters through the green and golden leaves that hang above your head. It is like walking through a wild and magical garden.
Around you, squirrels timidly rush through the trees and scamper along the bannisters of the walkway. Sometimes they look up expectantly at you. After all, for them, humans mean high-calorie, tasty food.
The walkway ends on a large platform built on a clearing, around a large tree. Once the clearing ends, there is a dense jungle wall with no more than a few metres of visibility. There are animals in there, and you might hear them. Seeing them, though, is another story. You’ll have to wait till they leave the forest cover to come out onto the watering hole for a drink.
Many small monkeys dash through the golden-green leaves. They are almost impossible to catch sight of, being so well camouflaged. But with patience, you could get a good photograph of these adorable creatures.
The Watering Hole at the Shimba Hills Lodge
The main attraction of the lodge is the watering hole which all the rooms overlook. Large, beautiful lilies fill the pond, and there is an ethereal quality to it. It is like something from the paintbrush of an impressionist painter.
The watering hole is where it all happens. The lack of cover means animals don’t linger on its banks for long. But it’s easy to spend an entire day on the decks of the Shimba Hills Lodge, observing the pond’s visitors and residents.
Monitor lizards prowl its banks and hunt in its waters, large kingfishers wait on branches by slender reeds, diving into waters when they see prey. As late afternoon arrives and the day cools, bushbucks, antelopes and other herbivores that live in the surrounding forest come out for a drink. Life is slowed down here, and things happen in their own time – but happen they do, and it is magical to sit and watch as nature’s patterns unfold before you. It is a place to sit and meditate before nature.
Strange Noises at Dawn
One morning, we were awoken by a din of scrambling, banging and other most peculiar noises that seemed to have penetrated the serenity of the forest. Curious, we got out of bed and went to investigate. We were surprised to find that the culprits were a family of Colobus monkeys going about their morning routine on the lodge roof.
The sun rises towards the Shimba Hills Lodge, bathing the rooms in a warm golden dawn light. The monkeys enjoy warming up on the roof here, which is the best place to take in the morning sun… if you’re a monkey. They run and jump and tumble each other on the roof, occasionally dashing into the forest, perhaps to get food, and returning to relax in the sun. It is a fantastic sight, to see how these creatures have claimed this part of the lodge for their own.
Lunch with Squirrels and Dinner with Bush Babies
One of the main attractions of the Shimba Hills Lodge is the fantastic restaurant. The restaurant, like the rooms, overlooks the watering hole. But it’s not just the view that should give you a reason to enjoy a meal here. Squirrels and the otherwise impossible to spot bush babies also come out for a taste of your meal.
The squirrels tend to come out during the day, at breakfast and lunch. They are shy at first, but once you start feeding them, they become bolder. At the end of our stay, they were practically coming up to us, getting food right from our hands.
Bush babies fill the forest around the lodge, although it is almost impossible to see one. Sometimes, we would hear the leaves rustling and look into the tree canopy, hoping to see one. Only on one occasion, in the early pre-dawn hours, did we see one outside our room. However, there was one brave bush-baby who approached us as we were being served dinner. She was quite a bold one, coming right to our table and reaching out for the bread. She was no problem, however, calmly accepting our offer of bread until she was full, and then keeping mostly to herself at the other end of the restaurant.
This was the only time we saw bush-babies up close on our trip in Kenya, and we have to say there is nothing quite like it. Seeing them from afar, with only their eyes illuminated red in the dense bush isn’t very satisfying. But here, up-close, they are something else. These are truly incredible looking creatures, and there was nothing else quite like them on safari.
The Staff at the Shimba Hills Lodge
We stayed at the Shimba Hills Lodge in September 2020, when the capable lodge manager, Catherine, had recently taken responsibility for this truly unique property’s operations. The lodge had moved on from foreign ownership to a local one, and we feel it was all the more better off for it.
Catherine and her team were warm, welcoming and attentive. They took care of our every need and prepared delicious Kenyan meals on request. Catherine herself planned our trips into the Shimba Hills National Reserve, Sheldrick Falls, the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary and more. Her staff made sure we had enough food and water for the day, for all of these trips.
We also enjoyed long chats with her and her general manager Eva, and her housekeeping head, Grace. Getting to know the people who live and work in the lodges and national parks was a big part of our travels in Kenya. Through their stories, we learned a lot that cannot be gleaned from guidebooks, and formed a better understanding and appreciation of their beautiful country and the stunning natural wilderness they worked in.
Her staff noticed how much we loved Kenyan food and our interest in it, and offered to demonstrate how to make one of their staples, chapati. One afternoon, the chef took some time off to showcase how he did it. The chef made making chapati seem so easy and effortless and impressed us with his skill. We know making chapati is anything but simple.
Our Rating of the Shimba Hill Lodge
Shimba Hills Lodge is a place you should stay in if you get the chance. It is such a unique place, with nothing else quite like it in Kenya. It would be a real pity to miss it if you were in the area. If you are looking for a meditative retreat in nature, staying here is an absolute must. Many of the guests come to Shimba Hills to stay here and soak in nature. There is no better place for a “forest bath”. Surprisingly, despite how dense the forest is, and how warm the surrounding parks can get, the Shimba Hills Lodge is always calm and breezy. Mosquitos are also not a problem here – not one mosquito bit me while I was in the lodge.
Although the rooms are simple, they are comfortable and done well. Their rustic decor continues the impression of being an adventurer in the jungles of Africa.
Before we end this post, we’d love to give a shoutout to Catherine, the manager of the Shimba Hills Lodge. During our travels in Kenya, we met many inspiring Kenyans who, from humble beginnings, built up so many great things, inspired others and elevated their communities. Catherine is one of these people.
She made our visit to Shimba Hills a truly special one. Because of her, we got to meet and befriend many interesting people who worked on interesting conservation projects in the nature reserve. Each meeting was a priceless experience. We visited in 2020, which was a trying year for everyone. Despite difficult times, Catherine and her superb team made sure everything was perfect. Thanks to this capable woman, we departed Shimba Hills Lodge with warm hearts and many new friends.
Eagle View Camp in Mara Naboisho, a conservancy in the Masai Mara ecosystem, is one of the world’s most celebrated ecolodges. The camp is positioned on an escarpment, overlooking the spotty Mara plains. Right below it is a watering hole which animals come to drink from throughout the day…
As the sun sets, its golden glow casts over the plains of Mara Naboisho. All through the landscape are hundreds of acacia trees, their crowns tinted red under the evening sun. The watering hole below Eagle View Camp reflects the colour of the fiery sky, its still, glassy water taking on vivid hues. The sunset at Eagle View is an incredible one. A view worth travelling to the Masai Mara to see.
However, there’s so much more than the view at Eagle View Camp. The camp is located in the wilderness, hidden among thick bushes. Plenty of animals pass through the camp premises, day and night. The lodge combines the comfort of a top-tier hotel with the experience of camping in the bush. Out here, you not just surrounded by nature, you are in its very heart.
Exclusivity Through Low-Density Tourism
If you want to experience the Masai Mara without the crowds, we recommend staying a few nights at Eagle View Camp. The camp is located in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy which is next to the Masai Mara National Reserve and part of the same ecosystem. Unless you have a bed at one of the lodges within Naboisho, you cannot enter the conservancy. Because the number of beds is limited, you will not encounter many vehicles during your game drives in Naboisho. For visitors to the Masai Mara craving a more private experience, a few nights in the Mara conservancies (e.g. Naboisho and Mara North) is a must.
We feel this is especially important for photographers who don’t want to always have other vehicles in their shot. If you are visiting the Masai Mara during peak season, when the great migration takes place, it might be a good idea to stay in Naboisho. It has one of the best ratios of beds per acre of land, and remains uncrowded even during the busiest of seasons.
Privileges of Staying in Eagle View Camp
On top of the exclusivity afforded by staying at Eagle View Camp, several other privileges also come with a night’s stay here. In Naboisho, it is possible to do walking safaris and night drives. It is also possible to follow big cats off the road (you can also do this in Mara North and the other Mara Conservancies).
It is worth mentioning here that Eagle View Camp is part of a more extensive operation called Basecamp that owns a few lodges in Naboisho and the Masai Mara area. Because of this, they can do whole day walking safaris that take you from one camp to the next. Even if you choose to stay put and not move from Eagle View Camp, you can still do a walking safari. The camp can arrange this for you, with their Maasai guides.
The Maasai will take you safely through the bush and enrich you with plenty of information along the way. We did a morning safari walk with them and have written about it here – Walking Safari in Kenya’s Masai Mara. It’s an experience you shouldn’t miss if you are staying at Eagle View Camp. I wished we had more time to do a whole day walking Safari. We’ll be back to Naboisho to try this activity.
Photographing Big Cats Off-Road
One of the significant advantages of staying in a conservancy is that you’re allowed to go off-road to get closer to a big cat. We did this in both Naboisho, while staying at Eagle View Camp, and Mara North while staying at the Royal Mara Safari Lodge.
Eagle View Camp had a dedicated and talented tracker while we were there. Wilson accompanied us on a night drive, and also an early morning ride. Both times, he took our guide, Joseph Mbotte, and us off the road, leading us right into a pride of lions. We got close to them, and this made for some truly incredible photographs.
Early Morning Drives and Evening Drives
Because the game drive starts right outside the lodge in Naboisho, you can see nature as it is in the wee hours. There’s no long wait to get into a reserve, which will rob time off those precious golden hours. During peak season, sunrise is around 6:20 A.M. The entry gates to the Masai Mara National Reserve open at 6 A.M., unless you are fortunate, you won’t get that sunrise shot on the savannah. The same goes for sunset – you need to leave by 6 P.M. from the Masai Mara, and the sunset is usually around 6:20 P.M.
One of the highlights of staying at Eagle View Camp was the night drive. We did this with their dedicated tracker, Wilson, who took us around the Naboisho plains well after dark. Despite there being almost no visibility, he managed to find a pride of lions with three cubs in the pitch darkness. The combination of being able to do night drives and a talented tracker is priceless. The entire experience was incredibly unique and memorable. You cannot do night drives in the Masai Mara National Reserve (unless you stay in one of the hotels in the Mara Triangle, which is a conservancy owned by Narok County).
At Eagle View Camp, we met the outgoing manager, Tony Musembi, who filled our days with plenty of activity. When we told him we were interested in conservation efforts in the Masai Mara, he recommended we visited Basecamp Explorer. Basecamp Explorer is a lodge and conservation project beside the Talek River, located in the Masai Mara ecosystem. This camp is famous for its extensive reforestation efforts, and its “Obama Forest”, which is the forest planted in his honour in the land surrounding the campsite.
During our trip to Kenya, we would get to meet many local and foreign conservationists, working to preserve the country’s natural wonders. We highly recommend visiting conservation efforts during your holiday in Kenya as it rounds off the safari experience. By visiting the conservation efforts at Basecamp, we got to understand the monumental tasks Kenyans face when it comes to maintaining their natural environment. We also got to see how intimately connected the Maasai are to nature, compared to us from the west. It was a truly eye-opening experience.
Review of Eagle View Camp
We were glad we stayed at Eagle View Camp for three nights and wished it could have been longer. There was not a moment spared while there. We had something to do every hour we were there, and each moment was special.
The Premises – Restaurant, Lounge, Terrace
The facilities at Eagle View Camp are fantastic. The main area sits on the highest point of the escarpment, overlooking the never-ending Mara Naboisho plains. The site faces west, so it is a fantastic spot for sunsets. In my opinion, it was the most breath-taking sunset we experienced on our entire trip. However, the sunset over Shimba Hills on the Godoni Cliffs comes a close second.
There is a lovely fireplace set into the floor of the terrace, and staff light a fire there every evening. It’s a great place to have a drink and catch dusk as it falls.
The restaurant is right beside the terrace, and also has the same magnificent view. There’s always tea, coffee and home-baked cakes and biscuits during the day, which I liked. It was nice to have a little something before pre-breakfast game drives and before the late-afternoon game drive.
Basecamp is a Norweigian company and the decor of the tents had that simple, Scandinavian look. I liked it because it was uncluttered and there was enough shelving for clothes and luggage. The bed was comfortable and provided a good night’s sleep.
Because the tent is high on an escarpment, it can get quite windy, so its best to put down the tent flaps at night. There is no working desk in the tent – if you have a lot of camera gear, you might have trouble getting organised. However, it is a minor inconvenience and would not deter us from returning to Eagle View Camp in a heartbeat.
The staff at Eagle View Camp are a stellar lot. Basecamp hires the majority of its staff from the surrounding communities (I think the only exception was the manager, everyone else was born within the county). They were friendly, personable, and open. We had a few long chats with them by the campfire which we treasure greatly. These conversations provided insight into their daily lives and their communities. Of particular interest to us was how their communities have evolved over decades, as the role of conservation in their communities continues to grow.
The Food and Chef
Eagle View Camp’s head chef, Benson, can cook up a real feast. Initially hired as an Ascari (a Maasai guard), he found his calling as a chef over the years. It took lots of perseverance and hard work, but he eventually rose to the level of head chef for one of the world’s most prestigious lodges. He’s perfectly at home cooking both western style dishes and Kenyan cuisine. The meals at Eagle View Camp are on the level of international five-star hotels in Europe.
The staff surprised us one evening by organising a bush dinner on the premises of Eagle View Camp. It was a unique experience. They had set up a table among some bushes overlooking the Naboisho Plains. The table was lit with oil lamps, giving the scene a cosy, warm glow. Surrounded by bushes, it was an intimate yet wild, setting. The food served was traditional Kenyan cuisine, which gave the experience a real sense of place.
We would return, in a heartbeat, to Eagle View Camp. The price per night is on the upper limit for lodges in the Masai Mara, but we felt it was worth it. The exclusivity on game-drives through Mara Naboisho, the ability to do night drives and safari walks, and the stunning view were all truly priceless experiences.
Returning to our lodge in the Mara North, we were fortunate to catch sight of one of the Masai Mara’s famous dynasties – the cheetah Kisaru and her three grown cubs…
The Masai Mara is famous for its big cats, including its cheetahs. The BBC have returned to the Mara many times, especially after their success with Big Cat Diaries in 1996. Visitors to this picturesque savannah know the cheetahs of the Masai Mara by name, thanks to this show.
While on a game drive in Mara North, we encountered the cheetah Kisaru and her grown cubs. There were three of them with her during the sighting. However, the lodge manager at Royal Mara later told us she had raised her entire litter of six cubs successfully into adulthood. The ones we didn’t see had left their family to strike it out on their own. The cubs still with Kisaru participate in hunting alongside her.
The Masai Mara Cheetahs: Through the Generations
This family of Masai Mara cheetahs were particularly interesting because Kisaru and her cubs are descendants of the famous cheetah Malaika, who often jumped onto tourist vehicles. Cheetahs do this because the jeep gives them a vantage point from where they can spot predators and prey. Safari goers and guides all throughout Africa have seen these this behaviour. The Masai Mara cheetahs are not the only ones to do it.
However, Malaika was particularly fond of it, and she passed this preference along to her children. That said, park authorities have told guides and rangers that they should discourage this behaviour, and the current generation of Masai Mara cheetahs are not jeep jumpers.
It was late in the afternoon when we found Kisaru and her three cubs. The sun was almost setting, and the air was getting cooler by the minute. When we observed the cheetahs, they were relaxed but active, walking around in a leisurely manner among the long grass.
New Research on Cheetah Hunts
Until recently, we believed that cheetahs hunted exclusively during the sunlit hours. Researchers believe that the black stripes under their eyes prevent glare during the brightest hours of the day. That said, recent research has shown that up to one-third of their hunts happen after dark. The success of these hunts depends partly on the illumination available by the moon. The Netflix documentary, Night on Earth, filmed this behaviour for the first time on the plains of the Masai Mara.
Observing Cheetahs in the Mara North Conservancy
The Masai Mara is famous for its big cats, including its cheetahs. Over the decades, the BBC have returned to film the Masai Mara cheetahs many times, through numerous cheetah generations. Programmes by the BBC featuring the Mara cheetahs are the Big Cat Diary (1996), Planet Earth (2006) and The Hunt (2015).
Where to Spot the Masai Mara Cheetahs
Cheetahs have one of the largest ranges for the big cats. That they have an extensive range is unsurprising. After all, they are the animal kingdom’s fastest runners. The average home range for a cheetah can reach up to 2,727 square miles, compared to a lion’s 400 square miles.
Although cheetahs have such an extensive home range, when prey is plentiful, like in the Masai Mara, they tend to establish stable territories within a small area. This high density of cheetahs means that visitors are very likely to see a cheetah on their safari in the Masai Mara.
In recent times, there are two famous groups of cheetahs on the Mara. The fast five, a coalition of five brothers, and Malaika’s dynasty. Safari goers often spotted Malaika near Sala’s camp, in the Masai Mara. However, when we visited, we sighted her grand-daughter Kisaru, and her three grown cubs, in the Mara North Conservancy. Nobody has seen Malaika herself since 2018.
How to Photograph the Masai Mara Cheetahs
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” goes the quote from Robert Capa, the Hungarian-American photojournalist. Luckily for us, we had spotted the cheetahs in the Mara North Conservancy. On the Mara Conservancies, safari-goers are allowed to go off-road to look for and observe a big cat. We recommend staying in a conservancy for this opportunity. Although safari-goers can expect to sight a big cat in the Masai Mara, the cat might not be close enough for a good photograph. So to increase your chances of getting the perfect shot, book a night or two in one of the Mara Conservancies.
However, there are limits within the Conservancies. Going off-road is only possible if you are following a big cat and not any other animal. Also, only five vehicles are allowed at a sighting at any one time. This is for the good of the cheetah as too many jeeps can seriously stress them out.
Malaika was the cheetah featured in BBC’s The Hunt. She was one of the most successful cheetahs ever to grace the Masai Mara, and the locals love to talk about her. The lodge manager of the Royal Mara Safari Lodge, in the Mara North Conservancy, told us that she had raised almost all her litters into adulthood. Her skills were passed down to her daughter and then to her grand-daughter Kisaru, the cheetah we sighted.
When we saw Kisaru, she was with three grown cubs. However, the locals told us she’d raised the entire litter of six into adulthood – a rarity for cheetahs. Usually, only one or two cubs of the whole littler would survive to be fully grown. Undoubtedly, cheetahs learn valuable skills from their parents, and good cheetah parents are more likely to raise successful cubs.
The Masai Mara Cheetah Who Jumped on Cars
Malaika was famous for jumping on cars. Guides and safari-goers all over Africa have observed cheetahs doing this, but Malaika was very fond of it. She used the jeeps as a vantage point to spot prey and predators. Cheetahs are the smallest of the big cats on the Masai Mara, and they are sometimes smaller than hyenas. Because of this, they need to be wary of other predators. Jeeps are plentiful on the Mara and provide excellent lookout points; this was likely the reason why she liked jumping on them.
Her children copied this behaviour, and safari-goers loved it when a cheetah jumped on their car. However, this behaviour, understandably, worried the park authorities as it placed humans in very close proximity with a dangerous wild animal. No harm ever came to any safari-goer from a Masai Mara cheetah, but the Kenyan authorities asked guides and drivers to discourage this behaviour. When we visited, our guide, Joseph Mbotte, told us the cheetahs no longer did this.
When we spotted Kisaru and her three cubs, it was late in the afternoon, around 5 P.M. We were returning to the Mara North Conservancy from a game drive in the Masa Mara when our guide spotted another jeep at a standstill, far in the distance. On closer inspection, he saw they were observing a family of cheetahs. We drove to meet the animals. Although it took some time to get to them, they were still in the area when we arrived.
When Are Cheetahs Active?
Although cheetahs are diurnal (they are active during daylight hours), they are most active during the early morning and late afternoon hours. This timing is similar to other top predators in the Masai Mara – lions, leopards, and hyenas. When we met Kisaru and her cubs, they were quite relaxed, although they got up and walked around in the long grass quite often. In contrast, the cheetahs we saw in Amboseli at mid-afternoon were resting in the shade and did not move. Like us, cheetahs don’t like to do much when it gets too hot.
Do Cheetahs Overheat During the Hunt?
There’s a common belief that cheetahs do not hunt at high noon because of the heat. However, this has been disproven. Despite the enormous speed and acceleration undertaken by the cheetah, the increase in internal temperature when hunting is negligible. However, their temperatures increase significantly in the next 40 minutes if they have caught prey. This increase in temperature is a stress response, as the noises of the hunt might attract other predators like lions and hyenas, who will attack the cheetah for its prize. To prevent their food from being stolen, cheetahs either have to start eating immediately or drag their kill to a more secluded spot. Cheetahs usually opt for the latter 65% of the time.
What Do Cheetahs Eat?
The dietary requirements of cheetahs are a fascinating area of research. Unlike lions and leopards, cheetahs cannot eat carrion. They can only eat freshly killed animals. Furthermore, they do not like to eat livestock. Research has shown that cheetahs in captivity have health problems related to eating domesticated animals due to the high-fat content in these animals.
Out in the wild, cheetahs hunt and eat small to medium-sized game animals. In the Masai Mara, these can be hares, small antelopes, gazelles, impalas and wildebeest calves.
Our sighting of Kisaru and her cubs was an excellent example of how cheetahs organise themselves socially. Female cheetahs are mostly solitary, except when they have cubs. It is not uncommon for a mother cheetah to live with her female children for some time after they are fully grown. Hunting in a pack is more likely to bring success than hunting alone. Grown male cheetahs are chased away or abandoned by their mother when she comes into heat – this is to prevent inbreeding.
As we understand it, Kisaru’s cubs were grown but still young. We were unable to identify the sex of those with her, but they were likely females. The mother was behaving slightly protectively around them, watching them, and us, carefully.
The cubs stayed close to each other, often sitting together and brushing across each other. At one point, the three cubs got tired of the attention from us, and slowly took their leave from the scene. Their mother lingered for a few moments longer. At one point, she came towards the vehicle, brushed her body against the side, and “marked her territory” on the back wheel before moving off to join her cubs.
FAQs for the Masai Mara Cheetahs
How many cheetahs are in the Masai Mara?
There are around 123 adult cheetahs in the Masai Mara. This number was arrived at by identifying individuals from 25,000 images.
Who are the famous Masai Mara cheetahs?
The famous ones are The Fast Five (still alive) – a coalition of five males, Malaika (not seen since 2018), a very successful cheetah featured in BBC’s The Hunt, and Honey and Toto (passed away), featured in Big Cat Diary.
Who was the Masai Mara cheetah that jumped on cars?
The Masai Mara cheetah who liked jumping on cars was Malaika. Cheetahs no longer jump on jeeps in the Masai Mara since authorities started discouraging this behaviour.
How do we identify cheetahs?
Cheetahs are identified by unique patterns among their spots.
An experience of walking on the savannah takes us back into our evolutionary past. Here, we encounter nature in the raw, with nothing between us and the wild…
During our time in the Masai Mara, we had the opportunity to go on a walking safari when we stayed in Eagle View Camp, in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy. Naboisho is not technically part of the Masai Mara National Reserve, however, it is part of the same ecosystem. While you cannot do walking safaris in the Masai Mara itself, you can do so in the Mara Conservancies.
What is a Walking Safari
A walking safari is a guided walk, out in the African bush, with nothing between you and nature. The walking safari is not a physically demanding activity, although participants need to be moderately fit, as the terrain is uneven and there will be gentle uphill climbs. Walking safaris can be short strolls around your tented campsite or longer ones that take you further out into the bush.
Walking safaris enable safari-goers to see nature from a different perspective. Firstly, on a walking safari, your viewpoint is lower and at a more natural angle. This was how humans had experienced nature for aeons – on foot, with nothing but our wits and some simple weapons to protect us.
Secondly, the safari experience is incredibly tranquil without a jeep’s noisy diesel engine which can bother some animals. Finally, there is the incredibly liberating sensation of being on foot in the savannah. After all, we did spend millions of years evolving in this environment, and we did it all on foot. I think the experience does touch something very primal within us and is an adventure that everyone should try at least once in their lives.
Are Walking Safaris Safe
All walking safaris will have guides leading the guests. As long as you stay with your guides and follow their advice, you will be safe. Wild animals behave predictably and do not attack humans unless provoked. While we were on our walking safari, our guides stayed close to us at every moment. Everyone in the group had one Maasai assigned to them. Even if you fall behind the group, your guide will ensure your safety.
The Maasai guides with us have walked freely through their lands since they were children and know how to avoid danger. They also know how to deal with threats. Many of them have been in dangerous situations before and lived to tell the tale. The truth is, most animals only attack as a last resort, as any attack brings with it some measure of risk. However, the first step is always avoidance. For example, if the Maasai see a lion, they will steer well clear of it.
Our Walking Safari Experience
Our Maasai guides walk on ahead of us, their colourful shukas floating above the tall, yellow grass. The dry blades rise to my knees, and it is as if I am walking in a sea of grass. This landscape stretches out all around us, reaching towards the horizon. Dotting the pale green fields of tall grass are many woody bushes, characteristic of Mara’s Naboisho conservancy.
The tall grass worries me – most certainly, there are snakes, hidden in the thick vegetation. Our Maasai guides tell us this is not something to worry about. The snakes will sense vibration from our footsteps and slither away before we get too close.
Beginning the Walking Safari
It is mid-morning, and the day is beginning to heat up as we start our walking safari out into the African bush. There is an excitement in the air, a sense of play, as we venture out from the premises of our lodge, Eagle View Camp. We are accompanied by six Maasai Ascari, three of whom were once lion hunters, as was the tradition of the Maasai. Today, they are all conservationists belonging to the community that looks after the grasslands of Naboisho.
Safari goers to the Masai Mara usually undertake an expedition in a 4×4 vehicle. Wild animals are accustomed to these large, sturdy jeeps and, for the most part, pay them no heed. As long as you are in the car, you’re safe. You can get quite close to top predators like lion, leopard, cheetahs and hyenas and be secure knowing they will not attack.
Safety First, Weapons Second
A walking safari is different. It’s just you, out in the wilderness, on your own two feet. There is nothing between you and nature. The Maasai that guide you are your lifeline. They are fearless and have known the land and its animals since childhood. Fearless, but not foolhardy. These men do not take unnecessary risk. They can spot a lion from miles away and will avoid getting too close. On the African savannah, the best way to prevent dangerous encounters is to go around it altogether.
A few of them laugh and talk among themselves in Maa, their local language, as they scout ahead of the group. Their colourful dress and relaxed demeanour set the tone for the walk. As long as nobody does anything foolish, there is nothing to be afraid of. As we walk along, we marvel at their courage. These Maasai do not carry modern weapons. Instead, each wields a spear and a throwing club. These weapons, along with their fearless attitude, have been their defence against predators for millennia, and continue to protect them today.
A Lesson on The Mara’s Flora and Fauna
As we continue walking, knee-high grass gives way to recently grazed, green plains. Our guide leads us unhurriedly through the land, stopping us when he sees something interesting.
As we pass an orange croton bush, he tells us about its insect repellent properties. Animals, especially lions, like to relax in its shade because it rids them of annoying flies. He also alerts us to the sandpaper plant, with leaves are like sandpaper. The Maasai use it to polish their spears and clubs.
Then, there’s the sodom apple, named after the famed biblical city near the Dead Sea. This poisonous fruit is as ancient as civilisation itself, dating back to the time of the prophets. Throughout history, the fruit and its plants have had many uses. Today, the Masai continue to use its anti-bacterial stems as toothbrushes and make tea from its roots to relieve stomach pains.
We also encountered some peculiar while balls, drying out under the sun. These are hyena droppings, and they are white because of their high calcium content. Hyenas, after all, consume bone. Luckily for us, these droppings were made quite some time ago, and there were no hyenas around.
Unexpected Encounters in the Bush
As the Maasai walk, they occasionally thump the butt of their spears into the ground. There’s no real reason for this; perhaps it’s merely a way to distribute weight while walking. However, once, an Ascari’s spear landed near a low bush, startling a furry creature resting among its leaves. The animal, a bat-eared foxed, jumped out in surprise and ran away at an incredible speed. It was not our intention to surprise the resting creature, but all the same, we were glad to see it. After all, bat-eared foxes are nocturnal and almost impossible to spot on safari.
Up ahead, we can see trees clustering along a riverbank. Unlike the woody bushes and thorny acacias that cover most of the landscape, these trees have thick green leaves and provide dense shade. Many are enormous fig trees with sturdy, thick branches. It is just the sort of tree leopards love. A grown fig tree’s branches are strong and broad, sufficiently robust for a leopard to haul her kill into. High up in the tree, her meal is safe from thieving by other predators like lion and hyena.
The Most Dangerous Animal on the Savannah
There are no leopards today, or at least none we could see. The river, however, is filled with pods of hippo taking shade from the warm African sun. We approach them cautiously, careful not to cause alarm. All of them are in the water, so staying by the river banks is enough to ensure our safety. Nevertheless, we have to make sure we do not get too close. A Maasai Ascari takes a tentative step down the gentle slope leading into the river. Unbeknownst to us, there is a hippo right below him, and it rears its head up and grunts a warning. We back off after that, keeping our distance.
We continue along the riverbank, observing the hippos go about their day. During the heat of the afternoon, not much goes on. Mostly, they stay in the river, their heads bobbing up and down the mud-coloured waters. Once, we observed a large hippo marking his territory with a spray of excrement, fanning the waste across the banks with a vigorously flipping tale. Even from fifty meters away, the stench was significant.
How Scary are Crocodiles?
We leave the hippos and make our way to a drier part of the river. One of the Maasai have spotted a crocodile on the far bank. It’s almost too far away to see with the naked eye, its light brown scales the colour of the sandbank it lay upon. Through the long lens of a camera, however, we were able to catch sight of it. The creature was huge, and we approached it cautiously. Even from a distance, it sensed our approach. In a blink of an eye, it scampered down into the dry river bed and came out the other side. It was a reminder of how even the most fearsome creatures of the savannah are more wary of us than we are of them.
Let Nature Set the Pace on Your Walking Safari
It was nearly high-noon, and the sun had climbed almost directly overhead. We had walked many kilometres out into the African bush, and it was now time to make our way back. Assuming we set a good pace, and we did not stop along the way, it would still take us an hour to return to camp. But we were in no hurry. In Kenya, there is a saying people are fond of. “Pole, pole”, meaning “slowly, slowly”. After all, nature is never in a hurry, so why should we be?
A Demonstration of Masai Weapons
We make our way back, leisurely crossing the golden-green savannah. Along the way, our Maasai guides demonstrate how they use their primary weapons, the stick and the spear. We were surprised to learn how powerful their simple stick was – this tool, a mere foot and a half long could be used to defend themselves against large animals.
In the distant past, the Maasai also used it in warfare. All it took was good momentum, and a well-placed aim between a creature’s eyes, and the animal would be knocked out. That said, these Maasai no longer hunt animals for sport. These days, they only use their weapons in self-defence.
Our guides show us how they use their spears. These weapons are longer and more massive than the sticks. Some almost as high as their bearer. Throwing them far, and with accuracy, takes skill and strength. Two of our guides, Wilson and Johnson, demonstrate the technique.
There is an art to it – first the body has to be positioned in a slight crouch, giving momentum to the run, which will add speed to the final throw. After a few leaps, they twist their bodies, placing all their power in their shoulders and arms. Then, with great accuracy, the Maasai makes the throw. Despite the spear’s weight and its bearer’s lean frame, the Maasai can launch them far into the distance.
A Lion in Our Midst
Entranced by this fascinating show, we did not notice the sudden disturbance in the nearby bushes. It was not until an entire herd of zebras and wildebeest came dashing out we realised there was a predator in our midst. From the way the animals were running, our guides surmised it was most likely a lion.
The animals, about two hundred of them, came running out into the open field, making a wide semi-circle around us before stopping. We looked around, hoping to spot the predator that had disturbed them, but did not find anything. Soon, the animals, previously alert, began to mill about once more, grazing calmly at the grass under their hooves. It seemed their attacker had given up for now.
Our Walking Safari Concludes
It was now beginning to get late and quite warm. We were all eager to make it back to the comfort of our lodge for a nice lunch and a cold drink. Together, we trundled our way across the rolling green fields that stretched out into the distance. Soon, we notice the short, green grass give way to the tall golden meadow which surrounds the campsite. As we wade into the long grass, we know we are almost home.
FAQs for Walking Safari Kenya
What is a walking safari?
A walking safari is similar to an easy hike out in the African savannah. The only difference to a hike is that you will see plenty of wild animals during your walk.
Is a walking safari safe?
A walking safari is safe as they are always conducted with experienced guides. These guides, who are armed, know how to avoid conflict with wild animals and deal with danger should any arise.
Can I do a walking safari with lions?
Lions are wild animals and you cannot do walking safaris with them. Our Maasai guides explicitly told us if we encountered lions we would make sure to walk some distance around them. This is what the Maasai do themselves when they encounter lions out in the bush.
We witnessed a jackal hunt on the Masai Mara. The hunt was an incredible showcase of how jackals communicate and use teamwork to take down larger prey…
The black-backed jackal is one of the Masai Mara’s most prominent carnivores. It is an omnivore and has a varied and flexible diet. In general, jackals are not picky eaters. They will eat anything, from carcasses scavenged from other predators on the savannah, insects, to even berries and grass. However, they are opportunistic hunters. Jackals do not go out “on the hunt”. They do not look for or stalk for prey. The jackal hunt happens when they see an opportunity present itself. When that happens, they will seize the moment and go straight for it.
A Family Portrait
It was late in the afternoon, and we were returning to our lodge at Eagle View Camp after an afternoon visiting the Obama Forest and the conservation efforts at Basecamp Explorer. The sun was already low on the horizon, and the skies were beginning to darken. The long drive back through the Masai Mara had been uneventful and lulled us into complacency. All around us was the bush, occasionally populated with nothing more than an antelope or two.
“Jackals, with a cub”, our guide, Joseph Mbotte, pointed out. He slowed the vehicle down so we could look at the young creature, who was sitting right outside its underground den. Its parents were not far, trotting to and fro around their cub.
It was a great family portrait, a tribute to family life on the savannah. The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate, and it seemed the cool weather had brightened everyone’s spirits, both the jackals and us. The cub even seemed to be smiling, with a slightly curious, alert expression directed our way.
We rose from our seats to marvel at the little creature. Wild baby animals are always a hit, even when they are doing nothing. We began snapping photographs of the cub, who stayed in his place, right at the edge of his den. His father began to settle down not far from him.
An Unexpected Turn of Events
I scanned the area for the other jackal we had spotted earlier, most probably the mother of the cub. She was trotting back around the bushes near the road, where a mother impala and her young calf were grazing. The mother was twice the height of the jackal, and her calf was lithe and sure-footed. Both did not think the jackals were much to worry about. They were alert, but not wary.
The female jackal carelessly walked in front of the impalas, glanced at them, at us, then trotted back towards his cub and mate. Then, in a few seconds, it all began. The jackal hunt was on.
Communication and Teamwork on the Jackal Hunt
The female jackal, having caught her partner’s attention from about five meters away, gestured at the impala and her calf with his head. She alerted him to her intentions without uttering a sound.
A split second later, both jackals dashed towards the impalas, with the father having a lead of a few feet. The female jackal was not far behind. The calf alerted to the danger sprinted chaotically. Its mother, immediately aware there were two jackals after her child, gave chase, attempting to head-butt the male hot on her baby’s heels.
It was incredible watching the teamwork put on by the pair of jackals. They were co-ordinated at every moment. The father was focused on grabbing the calf by the neck while the mother busied herself with harrying the grown impala with bites to her body, to keep her attentions busy.
Jackal Hunt Larger Prey with Teamwork
The impalas put on a good fight. The calf, who was still relatively young, leapt in confusing bounds with no direction, misleading the jackal in pursuit. At one moment, the jackal caught its neck in its jaws and toppled it to the ground, but it managed to leap back to its feet after a moment of confusion.
The impala tried her best to fend off the jackal attacking her and did everything she could to put her body between her child and its attackers.
However, the jackals we were observing were experienced hunters. The male jackal once again managed to topple the baby impala to the ground and grab its neck. It was soon dead.
The impala mother, not sure if her child was alive or dead, continued to attack the jackals.
They dispersed, leaving her for a moment with the body of her calf. When she realised it was too late, she began to walk away, despondent. She crossed the dirt road and watched balefully as the jackals attended to their evening meal.
Reflection on Life and Death
Watching a hunt out on the African savannah for the first time can be a challenging experience. This scene was incredibly hard because there were two losses: the calf who lost her life, and the mother who lost her calf. However, the jackals also had their own little family, which included a relatively large cub which they had to feed.
It was a challenging moment, but an event we were, nevertheless, fortunate to witness in the flesh. Not only was it a successful hunt (the majority of hunts end in failures), it was also a great showcase of teamwork on the African plains.
Scavengers in Africa – The Savannah’s Clean-up Crew
Africa’s scavengers are a keystone species on its vast grasslands. These fascinating creatures clean up the savannah and prevent disease from spreading. We explore key scavenger species and their threats…
Scavengers often get a bad rep – portrayed as conniving, thieving, greedy creatures that feast on the misfortune of other animals. However, many of the scavengers in Africa are keystone species crucial to their environment.
They do the essential work of cleaning up the savannah, preventing the build-up of rotting bodies on the grassland. This “clean up” is especially important during the season of the great wildebeest migration, as thousands of grazers die along the way. Without the scavengers of the savannah, rotting carcasses would spread bacteria and other pathogens to wild animals, livestock and humans.
A Typical Scene of Scavengers Around a Carcass
The marabou stork looked up from the feast in front of it. With its bald head, spotted neck, and legs crusted with its own feces, it isn’t the most celebrated of creatures. Neither are the other animals whose company it keeps.
Around the carcass of the gnu, a fresh lion kill made in the pre-dawn hours, a stunning variety of African scavengers have gathered. At the top of the food chain are the hyenas, who themselves have their hierarchy.
Waiting on the outer ring are the leatherback vultures, jostling out the marabou stork, who stands near the prize but is prevented from dipping into it by the hyenas. Instead, it waits for bits to fly off during the frenzy and catches them as they come.
The only creatures which can be said to have some charm are the petite black-backed jackals, who hunt as a mating pair. Low in stature, crowded out by the hyenas and overshadowed by the birds, they circle the carcass opportunistically, hoping for their moment to drive in and grab a piece.
Evidence of a Healthy Ecosystem
We can easily witness such a scene on the plains of the Masai Mara. Often, it is more likely we see the result of a hunt, rather than the hunt itself. After all, hunts happen in a flash, as most predators on the African savannah rely on surprise rather than endurance to snag prey. Most kills take place within a matter of minutes.
However, consumption of the entire carcass by both predators and scavengers do not take a long time either. Nature is surprisingly efficient, attending to the cycle of life. Out on the Masai Mara, we watched how an assortment of scavengers in Africa stripped down a carcass in under an hour.
Hierarchy of Scavengers in Africa
Observing scavengers consume a carcass completely was a fascinating activity. It revealed how each animal at the banquet table has its niche. It also showed how, in nature, there is always order among chaos.
Hyenas are at the top of the food chain when it comes to consuming fallen prey animals. If there are hyenas in the area of a carcass, you can bet they will be the first ones there. Of the scavengers on the Masai Mara, they are the biggest, meanest, and most aggressive. They are also one of the most important species on the savannah and the great recycle bins of the African grassland.
Their jaws can crunch through bone, which their stomach acids are capable of digesting. We can see evidence of this in their poo – when it’s fresh, it is green, the colour of their digestive juices. Once the excrement dries, it turns white, the result of the high calcium content in their diet due to consuming bone.
After the hyenas usually come the lappet-face vultures, one of the longest winged vultures on the African savannah. Quite often, the vultures get to a carcass before the hyenas. When this happens, it’s usually up to the lappet-faced vulture to tear upon the skin of the dead animal. Only then can the other scavenging birds get to the meat.
Then, there are the Marabou storks. These creatures usually wait on the fringes of the frenzy as the hyenas squabble among themselves and tear apart bone and flesh. While the chaos is ongoing, bits of meat often fly out onto the perimeter of the buffet. The Marabou stork stands in wait on the outer ring, snatching up these scraps as they fly towards them.
Jackals are some of the most opportunistic African scavengers. These animals wait at a distance while the hyenas feed, as entering the tightly packed circle of hyenas can mean injury or death. These animals are incredibly cunning and sly and can take the smallest opportunity to go in for a piece. Usually, they wait till the feeding frenzy has abated, and the tightly packed hyenas start to dissipate.
Scavengers who Are Also Opportunistic Hunters
Scavengers often get a bad rep as the thieves of the African savannah. Television shows often feature hyenas “stealing” the kill from a lion or cheetah. Such a scene paints an unfair portrait of the hyena, as most predators will attempt to steal a kill from another animal, given a chance. After all, it is easier to poach a carcass that is already dead than to hunt one down yourself, using up your energy stores and risking injury from a well-placed kick.
The Hyena, the Hunter
Recent research has shown that most of the prey they consume is the result of their hunting efforts. Hyenas can run up to 50 kilometres per hour and maintain the chase for up to 24 kilometres. Furthermore, their clans can get pretty large – the one we observed had members numbering up to 40. With speed, stamina and numbers on their side, they beat the lion when it comes to the rate of successful kills. One-third of hyena hunts are successful, as opposed to one-forth for lions.
The Sneaky Killer – Africa’s Black-Backed Jackal
In the Masai Mara, we were astonished to see a pair of black-backed jackals suddenly deciding to hunt the baby of an unsuspecting impala. The impalas and the jackals were near each other, with the jackals tending to their one young cub. The impala was alert but did not think the jackals posed much danger. However, all that changed in the blink of an eye. Within thirty seconds, the jackals had successfully hunted the impala’s baby.
Scavengers are a vital part of the food web on the African savannah. This importance is especially true of hyenas and vultures. These animals have incredible immune systems that prevent them from getting sick when they consume pathogens that are in carcasses. If dead bodies on the savannah are not consumed by nature’s primary clean up crew, other less suitable animals will take the role. In India, an accidental poisoning of a large number of vultures by the anti-inflammatory medication, diclofenac, resulted in the explosion of feral dog populations which ended up spreading rabies and costing the country millions of dollars in healthcare.
Threats to Africa’s Scavengers
Scavengers in Africa might have excellent immune systems against bacteria and natural pathogens. However, they are helpless against modern chemicals. Human-wildlife conflict is the main culprit for the wide-scale deaths of hyenas, vultures, and other carnivores that feed on dead livestock. As mentioned, medication has killed countless vultures in India. Fortunately, after this catastrophe, African governments banned diclofenac in veterinary products on the entire continent. However, there may be other medications with adverse long term effects on African scavengers we do not know about.
The biggest threat to the scavengers in Africa is poisoning through the usage of bait. Two groups are responsible for this, livestock farmers and poachers. Livestock farmers consider animals like lion, leopard and hyena pests and seek to kill them with the use of poisoned bait. In this scenario, the farmer poisons a carcass and waits for a predator to eat the poisoned meat, which will weaken, and eventually kill them. Scavengers will, in turn, eat both the body of the poisoned predator and the poisoned carcass as well. This threat is, therefore, a double whammy to scavenger populations in Africa.
Poachers also use this technique to kill vultures en-mass as the birds are used by rangers to discover the dead bodies of elephants or rhinos. Poachers often have to leave their dead elephants out in the open for a few days to rot, before they can remove their tusks from their faces. In this time, their “prize” is vulnerable to exposure by vultures.
The Need for Awareness
Although the scavengers in Africa play such a vital role in the well-being of the ecosystem, they often fall by the wayside when it comes to conservation efforts. This is a great mistake as these scavengers compete with disease vectors like blowfly, rats and feral dogs for the same food source. By “getting there first”, they prevent epidemics that can have devastating consequences.
FAQs for Scavengers in Africa
What animals are scavengers in Africa?
Some common scavengers in Africa are the hyena, several species of vultures, jackal, marabou stork.
How are scavengers important to the ecosystem?
Scavengers are keystone species. They are able to eat rotting meat, keeping the African savannahs clean of dead animals. Furthermore, they are less susceptible to disease – a hyena can eat diseased carrion and it will not get sick, thus it will be less likely to transmit disease.
Do scavengers hunt?
Some animals that are considered scavengers are hunters. Jackals are opportunistic hunters – they do not plan to hunt, but if the opportunity presents itself, they will seize the moment and hunt prey. Hyenas on the other hand hunt actively and most of their food comes from their own hunting. It is a misconception that hyenas only eat what they can steal or scavenge.
One of the most memorable lodges we have stayed in, the Royal Mara Safari Lodge is a unique hotel like no other. From our tent, we had unparalleled wildlife viewing, observing hippo families, monkeys, zebras and Africa’s smallest antelope, the dik-dik…
Relaxing on the veranda of my tent in the Royal Mara Safari Lodge, I notice there is no one else here, save the bloat of hippos on the river bank across. Their splashes keep us company as they go about their daily routines. This routine mostly consists of sunbathing in the early morning, as the entire pod warms up in the cold dawn light, snuggled tight among each other. As the day warms up, they begin to enter the water, one after the other, starting with the biggest ones first.
Life moves slowly here. “Pole, Pole”, they say in Swahili. Slowly, slowly, it means. Nothing is ever in a hurry along the banks of the Mara River, so there’s no need to rush. After all, the wild animals operate on their own schedule, not according to our timetable of game drives.
The Royal Mara is one of those magical places, hidden away from the world, and a true retreat into nature. The rooms are inside well-appointed tents pitched onto great wooden platforms. Built along the banks of the Mara River, it is both a retreat from people and a haven for the many small herbivores that live in the Mara North Conservancy.
Armchair Safari in the Royal Mara Safari Lodge
Walking through the lodge, we saw several zebras munching on the soft green grass that grows on the lawn. On the day we checked in, there was a zebra right outside our lodge.
These zebras can get boisterous and once we saw the local family running right through the premises of the lodge. Perhaps they had sensed some danger? Many of the other animals on the lawns were also quite restless that afternoon.
Spotting Hard to See Animals
There’s also the small dik-dik, an elusive herbivore due to its petite size, which keeps it well hidden in the bush. Out on the savannah, they are challenging to see, but here in the gardens of the Royal Mara, they are easy to spot. Often, they are only a few feet away from the paved pathways that lead from the tent to the restaurant.
Many of the animals here are residents, as they know the Maasai guards keep them safe from predators. However, lions do, on occasion, enter the lodge while chasing prey late at night. But fear not, for the majestic beasts never linger. On the rare occasion that they do, firing a gunshot into the air is enough to get the lions to leave.
One of our Maasai Ascari is also trained as a ranger by the Kenya Wildlife Services, and we felt perfectly safe under his watch. He tells us that the dik-dik are great alarm systems – alerting him to the presence of lions when they enter the lodge premises.
Tales from the Bush: Rescuing a Lion
Our Maasai Ascari told us about the time a small pride of lions, six of them, entered the Royal Mara late in the night while all the guests were asleep. They were trying to hunt a baby hippo. In general, hippos are bad news, especially for lions. They are aggressive and their huge jaws can cause serious injury. Nevertheless, the lions tried their luck. They managed to kill the baby hippo, but not without first having to fight with its mother. All the animals then left, except one lion, who was injured. The Maasai Ascari called the Kenya Wildlife Services who arrived as soon as they could, fixing him up on the spot. After some time, when the lion felt better, she got up and left the Royal Mara Safari Lodge.
Resident Animals Living in the Royal Mara
The walks back to the room after dinner are always eventful, for many of the creatures here are most active after sunset. As we walk back to our lodge after dinner one evening, our Ascari waves his hand and tells us to stop. “Hippo”, he alerts us. Shining his torchlight straight ahead, he catches a large hippo in its spotlight. Startled, the animal freezes momentarily before readjusting to the glare and moving on.
Another night, we encountered a small animal resembling a kangaroo, jumping away from the path as we approached. Upon closer inspection the next day, we realise a pair of African spring hares have made their home under the solar panel of tent number three.
The spring hares are not the only creatures who have made the Royal Mara Safari Lodge their home. Among the animals that have dens here are a family of red mongoose and a warthog and her hoglets.
Tales From the Bush: Forgetful Warthogs
The personable lodge manager, Benjamin, has known the warthogs living in the Royal Mara for some time and told us about their history in the lodge. The female warthog denning not far from the manager’s office was also born in the very same den. However, her sister was eaten by a lion when they were both hoglets. Nevertheless, she still chose to have her babies in the same hole. We didn’t know this before, but it became apparent on our trip that warthogs do not have the best of memories.
Predators Across the River
One afternoon, walking along the main path through the lodge premises, we hear a low grunt. Our Ascari immediately becomes alert and takes us toward the river bank. Standing on the other side of the river is a large male impala. There are other impalas around, partially hidden in the bush. The animals are attentive and rigid and have stopped grazing. Their attention is trained on something we cannot see. It is something in the trees perhaps, or the dense bush around.
“Its a leopard”, the Ascari tells us. “He’s hidden, but he’s there”. We follow the attention of the impalas for some time, trying to pinpoint the spotted cat. Eventually, with the herbivores on high alert, the leopard gave up. Sadly, we were unsuccessful this time, but it was nevertheless fascinating to watch the scene unfold before us, right on the banks across our lodge!
Hippo Watching from the Deck Beds
We also spent many hours lounging on the comfortable deck beds on the verandah of our room. We saw the most hippos of our entire 45 days stay in Kenya during our time in the Royal Mara.
Right across our deck were a family of hippos, consisting of one male, his harem, and one adorable, young baby hippo. Watching the baby hippo interact with his mother and his surroundings was always entertaining. To the baby hippo, the entire world around him was always new and fascinating.
We also observed some dramatic hippo fights, something we did not see on our game drives. The fights we observed seldom last long. They were mostly only a few seconds. I think it’s because the hippos find it tiring to fight and prefer to give up if there isn’t much at stake.
“Beware” of Monkeys
One of the first pieces of advice we got was to keep the tent flaps closed at all times. Dozens of black-faced vervet monkeys live in and around the lodge, and forgetting to close the tent flaps can spell disaster for your belongings especially if you have expensive camera equipment!
However, as long as you make sure they can’t enter your tent, their presence is a joy to have around. Along with the hippos, they make for fascinating wildlife watching.
The monkeys here are quite shy and will scatter away when you take notice of them or approach. However, when you are unaware, their curiosity can compel them to come quite close to you.
Safari Walk Around the Royal Mara Safari Lodge
During our stay, we had the opportunity to go on a safari walk around the Royal Mara. Animals make no distinction between the lodge premises and the rest of Mara North. This “walk around the block” was a walk in the wilderness of the bush.
Finding Africa’s Smallest Antelope
We started our walk on the Royal Mara’s grassy lawns, in search of the resident dik-diks. Dik-diks are difficult to spot out on a game drive due to their small size, so we thought our best shot of getting a photo of one was here, in the lodge garden. We had noticed a couple of regulars hanging around one particular area; in fact, we had photographed them on a previous day.
However, it was always quite late in the evening when we saw them, and we wanted to get a photo of these animals under better lighting. It did not take long before we caught sight of one of them. However, the creature was feeling particularly flighty at that moment and kept itself well hidden from us, always moving farther into the distance as we approached.
Understanding the Environment Trough Signs Left Behind by Animals
Eventually, we gave up following the antelope and focused our attention on some baboons along our path. They led us farther away from the lodge and deeper into the bush. Eventually, we came upon a hippo print. The heat of the day had dried it out, so we knew it had been there for some time.
The hippo probably made it on his way out of the river, when she came to graze on the grass around the Royal Mara. The lawns of the lodge are watered and have extra soft green grass, which all grazers love, including hippos.
Further on, we arrived at a branch of the Mara River. We were there in the dry season, so there was not much water here. However, when the rains arrive, the branch fills up, and the resident hippos have room to expand their territory.
The Hippo Lagoon
The walk then continues on to the other end of the lodge premises, where we can find their famous hippo lagoon. Over a hundred hippos live in the lagoon. Hippos are very territorial and organise themselves into pods of one male to a harem of females. We noticed that all the hippos had grouped themselves, so this was very likely, one pod of hippos. All females, save the one large, dominant male at the end of the island in the middle of the lagoon.
Sundowner in Mara North
On our last evening with the Royal Mara, the staff of the lodge surprised us with a sundowner in the bush. It had already been a a fantastic evening – with a sighting of a family of cheetahs on our way back to the lodge. The sun was beginning to set and our guide, Joseph Mbotte, told us he knew the perfect spot for a photograph.
We drove quickly over the plains, hoping to reach the location in time – the African sunset happens quickly. Blink, and you might just miss it. As we were rushing towards the spot, which was marked by an acacia tree, we noticed a group of people and two other jeeps gathered in the area. One was most certainly an armed Maasai ranger.
As we got closer, we realised it was the crew from the Royal Mara. They’d set up a sundowner, just for us. It was a truly lovely affair. There was a nice, warm fire going and good selection of drinks to choose from. The best part of it all, of course, was the incredible sunset. It was a moment to be remembered – the warming wood fire, the fiery sunset and new found friends.
Watch Out for Safari Ants
Unfortunately for us, there was a troop of safari ants marching right through our seating area. There’s nothing you can do about these ants – we were told that when they arrive at a Maasai village, the villagers leave, letting the ants consume everything in their path. It was a way of spring cleaning for the Maasai. But they did not spoil our experience. After all, we were on their territory, and not the other way around!
We had a great time in the wilderness, having our drinks and listening to stories from the crew about the resident animals in Mara North. But all too soon it was over as the sun set, plunging the savannah into darkness. When the fire died down, we packed up and made our way back to the Royal Mara for dinner.
Tales From the Bush: Barbecued Hyena
One of the stories Benjamin, the Royal Mara manager, told us, had to do with a hyena who invaded a barbecue at the lodge. As it goes, they were having a barbecue on the lawn in front of the restaurant. The guests were seated at tables, al fresco style around a campfire. There was a good grill going on, with lots of meat. Or as they call it in Kenya, “Nyama Choma”. Out of the blue, hooves were heard rushing towards the direction of the barbecue. In a blink, an impala rushed towards them, jumping over the fire. The hyena followed suit before realising she had stumbled into the midst of a number of humans. Startled she took the straightest path into the bushes, which was through the campfire. Benjamin told us the hyena was so fast she did not get hurt. Only a little burnt on the outer edges of her fur, perhaps.
Our Review of the Royal Mara Safari Lodge
We loved our stay at the Royal Mara. We initially chose it because it was located on this fabulous bend in the Mara River – little did we know, this bend was home to hundreds of hippos.
Architecture and Interior
The architecture and interior of the lodge are unique. Over two years, about a dozen of skilled artisans carved thousands of pieces of wood to construct the tents, their decks and the restaurant.
The artisans of the lodge have filled each tent with incredible detail. The furniture is a showcase of excellent craftsmanship. The animal motifs in the rooms set the tone for our safari in the Masai Mara.
There is also an engaging collection of traditional African masks decorating the walls of the restaurant. For an authentic, African experience, we thought this was the best place to have it. The artwork does make the place truly unique and memorable.
Attentive and Personable Staff
We truly enjoyed talking to and getting to know the staff at the lodge. We interviewed with the lodge manager, Benjamin Njau, and got to know him over our three-night stay. He was excellent company and is a true wildlife lover. The lodge is one of those places that is a home for the animals first and for humans second.
The kitchen and waiting staff were attentive to our needs and took on special requests to make Kenyan dishes for us. The chefs always prepared delicious food with care and skill.
We especially enjoyed our time with our Maasai guards, Simon and Samuel, who walked us to and from the restaurant to our tent. They were both very knowledgeable and provided us with a lot of information about the animals we saw daily in the lodge. They also knew we wanted to take as many wildlife photographs as we could during our stay, and went out of the way to ensure we got the shots we needed.
We would return to the Royal Mara Safari Lodge again. Although you have to pay more for a night at the Royal Mara’s, we felt it was worth every penny. On top of being a pure luxury, the place is a real paradise for animal lovers. It is one of those places where the safari comes to you.
Climate change is affecting Kenya in a profound way. The monsoons of the Indian Ocean, influenced by El Niño and La Niña disrupt rainfall patterns on the Masai Mara. However, the climate on the savannah remains very pleasant, sunny and cool…
Weather in the Masai Mara follows the same patterns as the rest of Kenya’s central and southwestern regions. That said, the weather patterns in the semi-arid region of the Masai Mara are more pronounced as it receives less rainfall than other areas. The seasons are divided into two rainy seasons, the long rains (March to June) and the short rains (October to December), and two dry seasons in between. The monsoons of the Indian Ocean influence the rainy seasons. Therefore El Niño or La Niña years are incredibly disruptive to the ecosystems of Kenya and the Masai Mara.
El Niño results in heavy rainfall on the west coast of South America while there is drought in the countries influenced by the Indian Ocean. La Niña creates the opposite effect.
Global Warming and the Masai Mara
In 2020, a La Niña year, the local Maasai tribe in the Masai Mara noticed confused migration behaviours in the wildebeest herds. This is because the herds migrate according to rainfall. A cooler than normal Indian Ocean meant a shorter dry season with light rains, and the early arrival of the short rains, which did not stop properly in the dry season. This resulted in the migration starting a few weeks sooner than expected.
Effect of Weather on Game Viewing
Rains tend to have pronounced effects on semi-arid regions, and the Masai Mara is no exception. Prolonged unexpected rainfall can transform dry savannah into lush green fields in a matter of days. Too much rain, in turn, affects animal behaviour.
One of the reasons to visit the Masai Mara during the dry season is because animals congregate around waterholes. These gatherings provide a better game viewing experience. However, when water abounds, the animals disperse. Furthermore, predators are less likely to make a successful hunt when their prey is well fed.
The Masai Mara experiences slightly cooler weather during the middle of the year and somewhat warmer weather at the beginning and end of the year. Because the Masai Mara is located at an elevation of around 1550 meters to 1650 meters above sea level it stays cool throughout the year.
Because of this elevation, the Masai Mara stays cool and comfortable throughout the year. Average nightly temperatures are around ten degrees Celcius in the winter months and 15 degrees in the summer months. Daytime temperatures are around 25 degrees in the winter and up to 30 degrees in the summer.
As you can see, it can get chilly in the evenings and early mornings! Because of this chilly weather, the traditional Maasai shuka is heavy and dense, to protect its wearer against the cold of the night.
What to Wear in the Masai Mara
The Masai Mara is hot in the day and cool at night. Because it is semi-arid savannah land, the air is dry and does not retain heat well. The nights get cool fast. It’s best to pack a few thin layers like t-shirts and ultra-light long-sleeved shirts along with a warm cardigan. You can also purchase warm Maasai shukas from your lodge’s curio shop if you start to experience extra chilly mornings. There was one morning when I found myself using two shukas on top of my merino wool cardigan – those open-top 4x4s do get nippy when they are on the move! Pre-breakfast game drives are the coldest times, and the locals wear fleece coats in the early morning, along with the shukas. If you’re from northern Europe though, 12 degrees in an open-air vehicle might simply feel like summer so… to each their own.
FAQs for Masai Mara Weather
What is the Masai Mara weather like in July, August and September?
The weather in the Masai Mara during the “dry season”, which is from July to September, is cool in the evenings and hot during the day. Temperatures are around 10 to 13 degrees in the early morning before sunrise, and around 25 degrees in the late afternoon. It gets hot in a stationary safari vehicle however, up to 30 degrees at mid-day.
What is the Masai Mara weather like in December?
The period of the “short rains” goes from October to December. It is slightly warmer on the Masai Mara, with temperatures getting up to 30 degrees in the afternoon. Night time temperatures are still cool, ranging from 13 degrees to 15 degrees. The Masai Mara stays cool in the summer due to its high altitude of at least 1550 meters above sea level.
The Masai Mara grassland is one of Africa’s most fascinating and diverse ecosystems. Its long ecological history, along with wildlife conservation by the local Maasai tribe, ensures its status as one of the Earth’s top ten bio-diverse locations…
Think of the African savannah, and the Masai Mara ecosystem and landscape will come to mind. This vast grassland is a pristine example of the savannah, and one of the best-protected reserves on the African continent. It is home to many charismatic large mammals, and successful conservation efforts have ensured stable population numbers of animals like lions, cheetahs and leopards.
The Landscape of the Masai Mara
The Masai Mara is famous for its “spotted” vistas. Amidst fields of golden grass are several varieties of acacia trees dotting the landscape. This unique vista is the result of millions of years of co-evolution between flora and fauna of the Masai Mara.
Step into a time machine and go back 30 million years, and you’ll arrive into a thickly forested area filled with trees. Over the aeons, grazing mammals have turned the forests into the savannahs of today. Over the centuries, the animals of the Masai Mara, and its landscape, have evolved hand in hand.
Trees and Shrubs in the Masai Mara Ecosystem
The trees and shrubs on the savannah are all thorny, the result of natural selection between the plants and the animals that eat them. There are over 40 species of acacia trees in Kenya. However, popular culture credits the umbrella acacia for the classic image of a tree silhouetted against the setting sun on the African savannah.
The vegetation throughout the Masai Mara and its adjacent conservancies (for example Mara North and Naboisho) vary in density and type. Open grassland is more common in the Greater Mara and the Mara Triangle. Entering Naboisho, the land becomes bushier.
Animals of the Masai Mara Ecosystem
The Masai Mara is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, especially when it comes to mega-fauna and grazing animals. The Mara-Serengeti migration is the most species diverse migration to occur year on year. It is home to the big five, the little five, and an incredible number of bird, reptiles and insects. Observing wildlife in the Masai Mara will undoubtedly raise appreciation for how all these creatures exist in an intricate web of interdependence.
We will cover all the animals we spotted on the Masai Mara in a separate post: Wildlife in the Masai Mara, so stay tuned.
The Great Migration
Often the Great Migration is referred to as the Great Wildebeest Migration. However, this is inaccurate as many other ungulates migrate with them, taking advantage of there being safety in numbers. Altogether, over a million animals make the yearly clockwise circle within the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.
The animals that migrate with the wildebeest include zebra, impala, Grant’s and Thomson gazelles, eland, topi and a host of other hoofed animals.
Spotting the Big Ten in the Masai Mara
Everyone knows the big five, but what are the big ten? Although lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino remain in the top positions, there are others that content for the remaining slots.
The Big Five
The lion, elephant and buffalo are common in the Masai Mara. Herds of elephant and buffalo are easily spotted. It is common to have multiple sightings of individual animals on a single game drive.
Elephant herds can be seen gathering in shady spots and watering holes (preferable both) during the day. These pachyderms find mud irresistible and will plunge into a cold pool whenever they can.
The Masai Mara is home to the black rhino, although sightings are rare and we did not see a single rhino, or even a rhino midden during our entire week in the Mara.
Lions, although common, are difficult to spot. Being naturally lazy, they spend most of their time sleeping in the long grass. However, with a local tracker who knows where they den, sighting them is almost guaranteed, particularly in the early hours of the morning or late in the evening.
There are many leopards in the Masai Mara. However, these are extremely difficult to spot. You only get to see a leopard when it wants you to see it. Twice, we found ourselves in the presence of a leopard. However, both times, we were unable to spot her.
The Other Animals that Make up the Big Ten
There’s no definitive list, but the most popular candidates are the cheetah, the giraffe, the hippo, the crocodile and the zebra.
Masai Mara is known for its cheetahs. A number of them in the past have been featured in BBC’s Planet Earth and Big Cat Diaries. Cheetahs are diurnal and tend to hunt during the day. However, recent research has shown that 30% of cheetah hunts happen at night. Under the light of the full moon, these fleet footed cats are successful night-time hunters.
The silhouette of a giraffe beside an acacia tree is a a classic image of the Masai Mara. The most common species in the Mara is the Maasai giraffe. Giraffes are easily seen, leading us to believe they are not endangered, but unfortunately, they are.
The hippo is the most dangerous animal on the Masai Mara. The Maasai tribe consistently rate it as the number one killer on the savannah. However, as long as you stay out of their way, they are unlikely to attack.
The Mara River is infested with crocodiles. They can go for months without a meal, lying in wait for the right moment. During the Great Migration, they wait for the herds to plunge into the Mara’s cool waters. When the opportunity arises, they strike. Getting eaten by crocodile is one of the risks wildebeests take when they attempt the crossing.
Zebras are truly majestic creatures. Unlike the horse, they have never been successfully tamed. Researches believe the zebra remains unpredictable and aggressive because it co-evolved with Africa’s greatest predators. The Masai Mara has great zebra herds, especially during the migration season.
The Little Five of the Masai Mara
The little five are the elephant shrew, the ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver and the leopard tortoise. Of these five, we only photographed the buffalo weaver and the leopard tortoise. The others are abundant in the Masai Mara, but were too small for us to notice.
We found the red-billed buffalo weaver mostly on buffalos and wildebeests. In fact, buffalos almost always come accompanied by these birds. The leopard tortoise, on the other hand, is not so easily seen. It keeps hidden on the ground amongst the tall grasses. However, we did manage see one on the compound of Eagle View Lodge in Naboisho. The leopard tortoise was there to use the watering hole nearby, and take advantage of the safety on the grounds.
Birds in the Masai Mara
Birding is unparalleled in the Masai Mara. The Mara is home to the largest number of bird species in all of Africa, especially from October to February.
During these months, birds from Europe, Russia and North Africa come to the Masai Mara for winter. Don’t be surprised to find European Swallows in the Mara during this time!
But apart from migratory birds, the Mara is home to many fascinating resident birds too. Some of the most charismatic being the ostrich and the elegant secretary bird.
Also, let’s not forget the vultures. These scavenger birds play a crucial role in keeping the Masai Mara clean and free of rotting carcasses, especially during July to September, when wildebeest die in droves as they migrate.
The Maasai Tribe
The Maasai play the largest role in maintaining the well being of the Masa Mara ecosystem. The tribes people are traditionally nomadic pastoralists. Herding animals is their primary economic activity because their homeland, the Masai Mara, is semi-arid. Because of the dry climate, these lands can’t support agriculture all year round.
In areas where year-round agriculture is possible, communities have switched from herding to agriculture as a primary source of income. However, cattle keeping remains as Maasai culture continues to value it greatly. Furthermore, raising livestock functions also as an insurance policy against uncertain environmental conditions.
Culture and Conservation
The local Maasai communities play the most significant role in conserving the land of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Herding livestock is core to their cultural identity, and conflict with wildlife for grazing land is ever-present. Despite this, the Maasai also acknowledge it is essential to preserve the savannah. They have made significant compromises towards maintaining the wilderness of the Mara. We have heard of some herders switching to ranching, although this is not yet common practice.
One of the reasons why the Mara has wildlife aplenty is because the Maasai do not believe in killing wild animals for trophies or meat. They have plenty of livestock, so killing for bushmeat is unnecessary. The Maasai also believe that to kill a wild animal is to bring a curse on one’s livestock.
In the past, Maasai men used to kill lions during their Morani phase. The communities living around the Masai Mara have phrased this out in the mid-nineties. The last generation to have killed lions as a rite of passage are now in their forties. Many understand that lion hunting is unsustainable and see the financial benefits of preserving them. Adequate compensation, along with career opportunities in tourism further encourage conservation efforts.
It is vital to note the most critical factor in lion conservation in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem is community participation.
The Climate in the Masai Mara
The weather in the Masai Mara is unique due to its high elevation. Located at 1550 meters above sea level, it stays comfortably cool year round. During the “winter” months, June to October, the temperature ranges from 10°C to 25°C. However, the interior of a jeep under the sun can get quite hot when it is stationary. In the “summer” months it is only slightly warmer. During this time, the minimum temperature is 13°C and 30°C in mid-afternoon.
To find out more about the weather in Masai Mara, and how climate change is affecting it, check out our post Masai MaraWeather.
A guide to help plan an epic safari to one of Africa’s greatest savannahs, the Masai Mara…
The Masai Mara Safari is, without a doubt, a top tier bucket list activity. Together with the Serengeti, it is one of the, if not the ultimate destination for an African safari.
Although the Masai Mara is heavily touristed during the Great Migration, it continues to remain a natural wilderness. The Masai Mara and its Conservancies (like Mara North and Naboisho) continue to be a sanctuary to the world’s dwindling megafauna.
What is the Masai Mara?
The Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, along with the Serengeti plains, is one of Africa’s greatest savannahs, and a natural wonder of the world. It is part of the Mau-Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. The Masai Mara is also home to the earth’s most charismatic animals.
This unique ecosystem is also the homeland of the Maasai people, who are the custodians of the reserve. Their vibrant culture, colourful fashion, and deep connection with nature have contributed significantly to the appeal of the Masai Mara.
What is the Masai Mara Famous for?
Think of the African savannah. What came to your mind? Was it an elephant, silhouetted against the pink sky of the African dawn?
Or maybe, it was an image of an endless grassy plain, filled with great herds of wildebeests, dotted with towering giraffes feeding on acacia trees. Or perhaps, a fiery sunset and a pride of lions, walking amongst the tall, golden grasses as they begin an evening hunt.
Children and adults the world over have been captivated by the African savannah through great television programmes, and many come to the Masai Mara to experience the magic for themselves.
The Great Wildebeest Migration
The Masai Mara safari is popular in the summer months because of the Great Migration. There are many incredible parks on the African continent. Still, only the Masai Mara and the Serengeti can offer this spectacular phenomenon. The largest land mammal migration in the world, the wildebeests, zebra and other antelopes number in the millions as they move in search for greener grazing.
Watching the Great Migration can be a real test in patience. If you’re a photographer, you’ll also need to be prepared for what to expect. We’ll be writing a guide on how best to see and capture this extraordinary event. Also, if you’re interested in our experience when the park was almost empty, you can read about it here: Kenya’s Wildebeest Migration.
The Maasai People
The Maasai are one of the most charismatic, friendly and open people you will meet. Their culture remains one of the best preserved on the African continent, and their incredible fashion sense is world famous. The Maasai straddle two worlds – their traditional pastoral ways, and technological progress coupled with conservation awareness. They are the custodians of the East African savannahs, and their image is associated with grassroots wildlife conservation.
TIP: Walking Safaris with the Maasai
One truly unique activity we recommend is a walking safari with the Maasai. Eagle View Camp in Mara Naboisho organised our walking safari, and it was an incredible experience. We felt it was one of the best ways to completely immerse yourself in nature and get a glimpse into local Maasai culture. Not all lodges organise walking safaris and you can only do them in the Conservancies. You can’t do them in the Masai Mara National Reserve.
The largest concentration of lions in the world can be found in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy. No safari is complete without a lion sighting (let’s not kid ourselves), so on your Masai Mara safari, you should consider a couple of nights in Naboisho.
It was here in Naboisho we had our most intimate lion sighting. Lion prides have a vast range, and they can be found anywhere in the Mara area, but the largest pride, consisting of 20 lions, have made Naboisho their home. With a Masai guide from the area, you are sure to spot several of these magnificent cats!
Planet Earth and The Big Cat Diaries
Without a doubt, BBC’s Planet Earth and The Big Cat Diaries did a lot to promote the Masai Mara. Blockbuster nature documentaries like it play a large role in promoting wildlife parks and greatly influence people’s decision on where to go for safari.
The BBC documentaries feature the Masai Mara’s most charismatic cats, and people do visit hoping to see some of the animals they’ve seen on screen.
When you go on your Masai Mara safari, talk to your guide and lodge staff about the televised animals. Most of them are familiar with these superstar cats and will regale you with stories of sightings. Lions and cheetahs don’t live very long in the wild, so many of these animals have passed on. However, some have left incredible legacies.
On our safari, we met a family of cheetahs, a mother and her cubs. The mother was the grand-daughter of one of the cheetahs featured by the BBC. If you want to spot some of the dynasties, find a local Maasai guide familiar with the area who will know best where to find them.
When to Go for Your Masai Mara Safari
The seasons used to be predictable in Kenya, but this is getting less and less so. For example, the Great Migration usually happens from July to September, but this seems to be moving up the calendar. But nevertheless, there are some general rules. For more on the seasons, weather and how climate change is impacting the Masai Mara, check out The Weather in the Masai Mara.
July to September, “Peak Season”
The great wildebeest migration takes place from July to September. The wildebeest begin to arrive in the Masai Mara from the end of June onwards, munching their way through the taller grasses. They are also accompanied by thousands of other grazers like zebras and antelopes. These follow in the wake of the wildebeests to get at the young, green shoots the wildebeests leave behind.
Migration season is expensive, but if you’re planning a once in a lifetime trip, this might be the best time to come as the spectacle can be truly incredible. As the last remaining multi-species migration on earth, it is an event worth experiencing at least once in your life.
A bounty of prey and short grasses make this the perfect time to catch predators in action, with unobstructed views.
October to November, “High Season”
On the back of the Great Migration, wildlife season is an exciting time. Prey continues to be plentiful, and the grasses of the Masai Mara have been trimmed short by the wildebeest. The short grasses mean excellent visibility when it comes to spotting predators and observing them hunt.
Furthermore, this is when different migratory herds of wildebeest begin to gather in unbelievable numbers. When we visited, the rains had started early, and we witnessed this gather – it is a truly incredible event, with an uncountable about of wildebeests stretched over an endless plain.
April to June, “Low Season”
The green season is called the way it is because these are the months of the long rains. During this time, the savannah is transformed into a lush paradise with lots of wet green grass. During this time, there is the synchronised birth of hundreds of baby antelopes, impalas, waterbucks and kudus.
This baby bounty, in turn, attracts a variety of predators. During this time you’ll have a good chance of spotting the hunt, and not just by the big cats. Hyenas and jackals also do their fair share of hunting and we had the opportunity to observe a jackal hunt.
This period is also ideal for bird watching on your Masai Mara safari, as there will be plenty of migratory birds from Europe and North Africa still around. But even without these migratory birds, there there is no shortage of variety when it comes to birds on the Masai Mara.
How Much does a Masai Mara Safari Cost?
Due to its fame and the fact that it hosts the Great Migration, the Masai Mara is one of the most expensive safari destinations in Africa. However, prices vary greatly between the seasons. The following is a breakdown for a four day safari – the minimum amount of time we recommend for a safari in the Masai Mara. They are for “budget” hotel options with a 4×4 Land Cruiser. If you want pricing for the “comfort” and “luxury” options, check out the website of Natural World Kenya Safaris, a local tour operator offering prices that can compete with booking a safari on your own.
In the low season, it is $227 per person, per day for two people sharing. It is $180 per person, per day for four people sharing.
In the high season, it is $252 per person, per day for two people sharing. It is $207 per person, per day for four people sharing.
In the peak season, it is $265 per person per day for two people sharing. It is $212 per person, per day for four people sharing.
Where to Stay for Your Masai Mara Safari
Choosing where you wish to stay is critical to your Masai Mara safari experience. There is a vast array of hotels catering to a wide variety of budgets. Still, extra cash can buy you exclusive access to a front-row seat at the Conservancies.
As a rule, we highly recommend staying inside the Masai Mara, or inside the Mara Conservancies. These lodges are more expensive, but they save you precious game drive time as the wait at the gates to enter the Masai Mara can be frustratingly long. Many lodges claim to be “inside the Masai Mara”, but this is not always true. Make sure to double-check that you do not have to pass a gate to enter the reserve.
Masai Mara National Reserve vs the Mara Conservancies
The title Masai Mara is often used to encompass both the Masai Mara and the Mara Conservancies. Where the wildlife is concerned, there is no distinction as the animals do not care about land boundaries. However, for the safari goer, it is important to know the difference.
The Masai Mara National Reserve consists of The Greater Mara and The Mara Triangle. Adjacent to the Masai Mara National Reserve are various Conservancies, including Mara North and Naboisho. The Mara Triangle is a sort of Conservancy, owned by the Narok County (the local area) while the Greater Mara is government owned. Mara North and Naboisho are privately owned.
You can pay to enter the Masai Mara National Reserve – both the Mara Triangle and the Greater Mara. In order to enter Mara North or Naboisho, you need to book at least one night in one of the lodges in these Conservancies. For a full day of game drives, you’ll need two nights. Because the Conservancies limit visitor numbers by beds, you’ll have a more relaxed experience if you decide to stay there.
Considerations for Picking a Lodge
When considering a lodge, always check with your guide about road accessibility. Some lodges have better accessibility than others, especially during the wetter months as roads do get flooded.
Depending on how you want to organise your game drives, this can have a big impact. For example, some lodges in Mara North get “rained in” during the wetter season. If you want to get from a lodge that has been isolated because of rains, and into the Masai Mara, it might take you more time than expected.
The lodges located along the Mara River and inside the protected areas are an excellent spot for wildlife and wildlife photography. The lodges often plant trees and bushes on their grounds and protect them from predators. The greenery and safety attract grazing animals and smaller creatures. Hippos are common along the banks of the Mara River, and you might see them from your room.
Photographing and Observing Big Cats
One of the main benefits of staying in a conservancy, and this is a big one, is the ability to follow big cats around. For example, If you’re on a game drive in Mara North or Naboisho, and you spot a cheetah, your guide is allowed to take you off-road to get close to the cheetah. You can also follow the cheetah around in your land cruiser for as long as you want. If you have a local guide who knows how to get back to your lodge after dark, there’s also the possibility to follow the cat well after sunset.
Opportunities for Night Drives
Another important consideration is whether or not you want to do night drives. These are only possible if you stay in the Conservancies. Not all lodges have the capacity to do night drives, so check before you book. I was initially sceptical about animal watching in complete darkness. However, my scepticism was unfounded. Our night drive ended up yielding one of the most incredible wildlife encounters we had on our safari.
Where to Stay in the Mara Triangle
Our guide recommended the Mara Serena Safari Lodge for its incredible view and location. This lodge is right in the middle of the Mara Triangle, which means your game drive starts the moment you exit the lodge grounds.
Where to Stay in Mara North
We stayed at the Royal Mara Safari Lodge (and will always choose to return to it for future safaris). This lodge has an excellent location, and the accessibility is good. In fact, this is probably our favourite lodge for the entirety of our 45 days visit to Kenya.
The Royal Mara Safari Lodge is located in a fabulous bend in the Mara River, right by a hippo lagoon with over a hundred hippos. There is an incredible amount of wildlife here, and every walk from the room to the restaurant is a safari walk. Many of the animals have made their dens on the lodge grounds.
Where to Stay in Naboisho Conservancy
There are very few lodges in Naboisho Conservancy, as the conservancy is focused on low-density tourism and limited the number of beds per acre of savannah. We stayed in the world-famous Eagle View Camp, which has consistently been voted as one of the most amazing hotels in the world.
The view from the camp is truly spectacular, and it was here we witnessed the most breath-taking sunset, And this is in the land of incredible sunsets. The camp also has dedicated Maasai guides for safari walks and experienced trackers to help find the local lion prides.
How to do Game Drives in the Masai Mara
Two items on our Masai Mara checklist were 1) Capture the Wildebeest Migration 2) Photograph Big Cats (lions, cheetah and leopards).
For the most part, animals are less active the hotter the day gets, so we don’t always find all-day game drives useful. The best times are around the “golden hour”.
As photographers, we prefer starting with a pre-breakfast game drive, around 15 – 20 minutes before dawn, so we are on the open savannah for sunrise. Then, we would continue on until lunchtime before heading back. You can get your lodge to provide a packed breakfast and lunch.
We head back out again around 4 PM until sundown for the evening game drive. Our most exciting encounters were during this period.
Witnessing the Great Wildebeest Migration
The Wildebeest Migration, however, happens in the afternoon, usually any time between 10 AM and 4 PM. It seems that as the day gets hotter, the more likely they are to cross the river. The crossing points get crowded, so you will usually have to come much earlier to get a good spot.
Lions hunt at night and get more active the closer it comes to sunset. Early evening is best for observing interactions between lions. We had our best lion encounter around 20 minutes after sundown. If a pride has cubs, they are most likely to be playful around this time. The later it gets, the more likely they are to set off for hunting. Therefore, it is better to do night drives not too long after sunset, as there will be a higher chance of finding the lions hanging out in their favourite spots.
Lions are also easier to spot early in the morning when they are more likely to be out in the open, taking in the warmth of the sun.
Cheetahs are diurnal, and it is commonly believed that they hunt during the day. That said, recent advancements in night photography have made it possible to observe cheetahs hunting at night. The newest research shows that 1/3 of cheetah hunts happen after dark. They seem to be more active in the early morning and early evening. We had our best cheetah sighting about an hour or so before sundown.
Photographing Other Carnivores (Scavengers)
The Masai Mara’s scavengers are often overlooked by visitors, in favour of the big cats This is a real pity as they form an important part of the Masai Mara Ecosystem. Because of this, they are fascinating to observe. Like the big cats, they are most active in the early mornings and evenings, when it is cooler on the savannah. We observed a large hyena clan feasting on a wildebeest under the dawn light of the Masai Mara one morning, it was a truly incredible spectacle. We immediately assumed that the hyenas had stolen the kill, however this was an unfair conclusion as recent research has shown most of the prey consumed by hyenas are the result of their own hunting efforts. For more, check out our post: the scavengers of the Masai Mara.
How to Book A Safari in the Masai Mara
Even if you’re only interested in booking a safari in the Masai Mara, we would still recommend going with a tour operator. We met others who self-booked their safari, but we think this route can come up more expensive. If you self-book, check the price per game drive with your lodge. Ask if the price includes both a driver and a guide or just the driver.
How Many Days in the Masai Mara
We recommend, at the very least, five days, four nights in the Masai Mara and the Mara Conservancies. This will give you three full days. Note that if you go during the Great Migration, you’ll spend most of one day waiting for the wildebeests to cross the Mara River.
Drive-in Safari vs. Fly-in Safari
Safaris to the Masai Mara are organised as “drive-in” or “fly-in”. Flights are not expensive relative to the cost of a Masai Mara safari, and they come in around €100 from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport to the Masai Mara Musiara Airport. Driving in can be an adventure, especially from Nairobi. However, driving in from the capital will give you a chance for some spectacular views of the Rift Valley, and also an opportunity to see a bit of everyday life in Kenya’s towns.
Booking With a Tour Operator
We would recommend, especially for first-timers, to book with a tour operator. There are plenty of operators to choose from on Trip Advisor and Safari Booking. Take some time to read through different itineraries. Also, don’t forget to read the reviews for the operator, read all of them – the good, average and one-star reviews. They will help inform your decision. Take a look at the photographs, especially of the vehicles you will be using since you’re going to spend a lot of time in them.
Safari Vehicle Limitations in the Masai Mara
Kenya is planning to ban minivans from their parks soon. Currently, all the Mara Conservancies do not allow minivans. To access a conservancy, make sure you have a green 4×4 jeep. In general, we do not recommend minivans for the Masai Mara park terrain (or any park terrain for that matter). The park is sprawling, and you can be in real trouble if there’s a break-down.
Crossing from the Masai Mara into Serengeti
I’m going to end with a note on considerations for getting from the Masai Mara in Kenya into the Serengeti in Tanzania. This was something we had considered doing but decided against.
Kenya and Tanzania have been working for a while on a cross border treaty in these two parks, which are adjacent to each other. The idea is that vehicles can come and go between borders within the parks, but cannot leave them. However, this has not yet happened and it is unclear when it will.
To enter the Serengeti from a lodge in the Masai Mara, you will have to drive out of the park to the Isebania border which takes half a day. It takes another 6 hours to get from the border to a lodge in the Serengeti. Adding in border hold-ups, which can be significant, you would lose between one and a half to two days of your safari holiday travelling.
We found the whole affair to be too complicated and decided to save the Serengeti for a trip dedicated to Tanzania alone.
Health and Safety on the Masai Mara
The Masai Mara is a safe place to visit. Kenya is a safe and stable country with plenty of foreign investment and tourism contributing a large share of its annual GDP. In the past (i.e. in 2013) there were concerns over terrorist groups, but those days are long gone and the government has been very successful with its no-tolerance policy towards terrorist groups.
The Masai Mara and its conservancies are policed by skilled Maasai rangers from the region. Furthermore, the local Maasai communities in the area do not allow trespassing of their land. There is no threat to tourists from poachers or terrorists on the Masai Mara.
Malaria Concerns in the Masa Mara
Your travel doctor will likely advise you to take antimalarials when you visit Kenya. If you are visiting Kenya for a short time you should take the prevailing advice and use an antimalarial. You should also use DEET on exposed skin, and sleep inside a mosquito net.
That said, malaria is not prevalent in the Masai Mara. We did not get bitten by a single mosquito during the peak season (September, which is a cool and dry month). We spoke to an expatriate who lived in Nairobi where there is a higher risk of malaria than the Masai Mara – he suggested that for long stays, travellers are better off risking malaria over long-term consumption of antimalarials. This is because malaria is easy and cheap to treat and is preferable to long-term consumption of antimalarials.
Safety Precautions when Observing Wildlife
Observing wildlife in the Masai Mara, from your vehicle, is very safe. Predators like lions, leopards and cheetahs are not interested, and do not feel threatened by safari vehicles. In general, staying in your vehicle will ensure your safety. You can get out of the vehicle if you need to answer the call of nature, however wait for your guide to pick an appropriate and safe spot first.
Elephants on the road are the only animals that may present a possible danger while in the vehicle. A trained guide and driver will know what to do in this case. As long as the vehicle does not come between an elephant and her calf there should be no trouble. If the elephant starts walking towards the vehicle, the vehicle should reverse and try to maintain distance until the elephant gets off the road. However, elephants on the road are not common in the Masai Mara.
What to Wear on Your Masai Mara Safari
The Masai Mara is usually cool in the early morning and evenings, chilly at night, and warm during the day. We recommend packing light long-sleeved shirts for game drives. The sun is incredibly strong in the savannah, and if you are prone to sun-burn, sun cream protection may not be enough protection. If burns are not a concern, t-shirts are fine for the day,
The Masai Mara can be quite chilly in the mornings, especially during the peak and high season months (July to September). Temperatures are around twelve degrees just before dawn. Most Kenyans use a warm fleece sweater, but if you are more tolerant to the cold, a good cardigan might be enough.
FAQs for the Masai Mara Safari
What is the Masai Mara?
The Masai Mara is a vast African savannah in southwestern Kenya, adjacent to the Serengeti in Tanzania. Together, they form one of the world’s most unique grassland ecosystems. It is one Africa’s best preserved savannahs, home to the wildebeest migration and filled with predators like lion, cheetah and leopard.
Where is the Masai Mara safari taking place?
The Masai Mara safari takes place in the area known as “The Mara” which includes surrounding conservancies like Mara North and Naboisho, along with the Mara Triangle and The Greater Mara.
Is Masai Mara safe?
The Masai Mara is a very safe place to visit and there are no threats from terrorists, poachers or thieves. Lodges have their own private armed guards trained by the Kenya Wildlife Services. There is minimal risk of malaria on the Masai Mara.
How to book a Masai Mara safari?
You can book with a local tour operator or book directly with lodges in the Masai Mara. Lodges can arrange game drives with guides and trackers at extra cost.
What to pack for a Masai Mara safari?
Pack light clothing for the day and moderately warm clothing for the evenings and early mornings. Bring DEET. Make sure you have binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens.
When is the Masai Mara migration?
The Masai Mara migration takes place between July to September, Kenya’s “dry season”. This is when great herds of wildebeests, zebras, antelopes and other ungulates pass through the Masai Mara National Reserve.
A hike through the dense coastal forest of Kenya’s Arabuko Sokoke forest enables us to find the petite and elusive Sokoke Scops Owl…
The dense forest surrounded us, filling the car with a soft green light. We were driving through the largest dry coastal forest in all of East Africa, in search of the elusive Arabuko Sokoke Scops Owl.
This small owl, who makes its nest in the hardwood tree, the Brachylaena Huillensis, was only discovered in the 1960s, when it was caught in a mist net set up for birds. At present (2020) there are around 3000 owls in Arabuko Sokoke, along the coast of Kenya, and a small population in North Eastern Tanzania.
In Search of the Sokoke Scops Owl
The forest around us is unbelievably dense and unlike anything I’ve seen before. The ground beneath us was damp and bright red, in stark contrast to the emerald leaves and vines that cocooned our path. Looking into the thick forest canopy, I didn’t think we had a chance of spotting the owl. On our last visit to Arabuko Sokoke, we did not have any luck finding these little critters.
We had been driving for some time when our guide, Willy, stopped the car and got out. “I’m going to look for the owl”, he told us. With that, he ducked under the low branches of a tree and disappeared into the jungle beyond. We stood around our vehicle, wondering how he was going to manage to find this elusive owl, given its petite size. The Arabuko Sokoke Scops Owl, when fully grown, weighed a mere 50 grams and stood about six inches in height.
Hiking Through Dense Forest
After twenty minutes, he returned. “I’ve found them”, he told us, excitedly. “Come”, he said, once again entering the forest. This time, we followed suit. The entrance to the path was partly grown over and obscured with leaves and branches. We struggled through the vegetation, being careful not to get our clothes caught on the branches that brushed our arms and legs. The path was narrow and not more than a foot wide, although the bright red soil did make it somewhat easier to see. For the most part, it was impossible to pass without crouching and making ourselves as small as possible.
I started to wonder about those gorilla treks, which sometimes can take hours before a family is found. Ten minutes into the thick of it, we felt our camera bags weighing down on us and our knees buckling from having to keep them bent as we walked. The air was saturated with water, and our perspiration had nowhere to go. Soon, we were soaked in our own sweat. As we continued, I prayed that the owl wouldn’t have flown off in the meantime.
Finding the Owl
“It’s there”, Willy said, coming to a stop in a bend on the path. He was pointing to a branch low in the forest canopy, with leaves that shaded it like an umbrella. Right there, perched on it, was a mating pair. Both owls were fully awake, their eyes glinting, forest green reflected in their bright sclera. They were pressed up against each other, eyeing us carefully, one with its gaze on us and the other, at Willy. Owing to the recent rains and the relatively cooler temperature, both owls had puffed up their feathers for warmth and snuggled against each other.
“How did you find them?” I whispered to Willy, amazed at our luck.
“I called to them”, he whispered back. “And they called back, so I knew their direction. I had to do this a few times until I knew for certain where they were.”
We stood with the owls for some time, taking as many photographs as we could. They scarcely moved, standing stock still, with only their gaze shifting occasionally from one human to another. Although they were near motionless, it was a joy nevertheless to watch them, both safe in the company of each other.
The Future of the Sokoke Scops Owl
As we walked back to our vehicle, I contemplated the uncertain future of this charming little creature. Its elusive nature has made it difficult to study, stalling progress on breeding programs. Although researchers have managed to tagged a number of them, the owls always managed to remove the tracker. Because of this, we still don’t know how the owls breed. The only clues have been the empty shells left in holes of hardwood trees like the Brachylaena. The only way at present to ensure the continuity of this species is to preserve the natural forest and refrain from chopping down its hardwoods.
Finding a Guide for Arabuko Sokoke
Getting an experienced guide is key to finding the Sokoke Scops Owl. As mentioned, our visit some years back did not yield any results because we did not have a guide with the much needed knowledge.
This time we went with Willy, a birder and guide who was part of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Guides association. He is also a specialist for all of East Africa. We were able to find the owl and some other hard to spot birds because of his incredible knowledge and sighting ability. It would have been impossible otherwise. You can contact his on WhatsApp at: +254 723 31 4416.
Lion Cubs spotted on our Mara Naboisho Safari Night Drive
A safari night drive might seem silly since visibility is bad in African bush after sundown. However with an expert Masai tracker and a bit of luck, we spotted lion cubs in the dark…
African sunsets happen in a flash. Within a matter of minutes, the sky turns from bright blue to red-gold, before fading out into a deep violet. From there, it soon turns into night. There were four of us in the jeep, including Wilson, our Masai tracker from Eagle View Camp. As the surrounding bush turned pitch black, and visibility was reduced to the cone of our jeep’s headlights, I wondered why I wasn’t back at camp, enjoying a sundowner by the fire. Instead, I was out in the endless African bush on a safari night drive, hoping to catch sight of lions from the famous prides that live in the area.
Trying to Spot Wildlife on a Night Drive
Occasionally, we would hear the rustle of leaves and see the hazy silhouette of an eland or some other antelope a few feet ahead, but nothing more. Beyond that, all we could make out were the dark shadows of acacia trees against a starlit sky. We’d been looking for lions all day, under bright sunlight when visibility was good, yet we hadn’t found any. What were the chances of finding one now?
The drive dragged on as we traversed the bushy landscape of the Mara Naboisho Conservancy in the dead of night. Mara Naboisho, adjacent to the Masai Mara, is said to have the highest density of lions in the world. For two days, we’d set out to find members of the large prides that roamed its plains, only to return home empty handed. Now, that we could barely see into the bushy landscape, what were our chances?
A Local Masai Guide was Essential to the Night Drive
But Wilson, being a Masai, was confident. He expertly guided us off the main road into a large thicket. Off-road, the driving became challenging, and I marvelled at our guide, Joseph Mbotte’s, handling of the car. I had long lost track of where we were in the park and was content to marvel at the otherworldly shadows of the surrounding bush.
At some point we made a turning and found ourselves on a small road crossing a clearing. I was looking intently out my window when the car came to a slow stop.
“Lions.” Wilson whispered, “With cubs.” I could not believe my ears. My eyes scanned the dark landscape outside the window of the passenger seat, wondering where they were. “You’re looking the wrong way, they are on the road. Right there, in front of us.” The Masai directed.
I turned my head and my heart leapt at the sight in front of me. In the spotlight of the jeep were three cubs, rough-housing with each other. They seemed to have scampered out of the night, like magical beasts from another world. They were so close to us I could see their mischievous expressions from where I was sitting.
The Masai have a word for such moments. “Enjoolata” describes a sensation of awe, of the joy of the unexpected. It was the perfect word for this moment.
The cubs continued to play, only vaguely aware of us. The light from the jeep didn’t seem to bother them, although I thought they were squinting a little bit when our headlights found them.
The Best Time to Observe Lions
I was astonished at how active the cubs were, and it was then I understood the point of a night game drive, especially in Mara Naboisho. This was when lions ‘started the day’, after hours sleeping under the searing savannah sun.
The cubs played with each other, walked around in the bush and climbed the trunk of a small acacia tree. They took cues from one another and stayed close, even though each had an independent spirit and did whatever it wanted. Be it sharpening its little claws on the trunk of an acacia tree or stalking small prey among the tall grasses.
We stayed with them until their mother retreated into some bushes. Hungry, the cubs followed suit. From the distance, we could see they were beginning to settle down to feed on their mother’s milk. We soon decide to leave these beautiful animals be, unwillingly saying our goodbyes and hoping to be able to find them again come dawn.
Getting a chance to watch the crossing of the wildebeests in the Masai Mara can be a a true test of patience, but the final payoff is exhilarating and a true lifelong memory.
The mid-afternoon sun scorched our backs through the open rooftop of our Land Rover. A friend had told us she’d seen “the crossing”, the Mara-Serengeti Wildebeest migration, after waiting six hours. We had only been waiting for two at one of the Masai Mara’s main crossing points, located inside the Mara Triangle. Resigning myself to many more hours of unfulfilled anticipation, I contemplated opening the lunchbox our lodge, Royal Mara Safari Lodge, had packed for us. All morning, the wildebeests had played us for fools, going back and forth across the multiple crossing points along the Mara River.
The First Move
“They are going to cross.” Our guide, Joseph Mbotte from Natural World Kenya Safaris, said, his voice excited. I took my attention away from the bee-eater I’d been watching and turned towards the herd. A large male at the front of the train was kicking up dirt, looking ready to plunge into the water. I was skeptical – we had seen this behaviour a few times before, when the animal did not, in the end, enter the water.
A Feast for Crocodiles
I was wrong. In a sudden flurry of motion, the beast, compelled by instinct, leapt into the air plunging into the mud brown Mara River. Inspired by their brave compatriot, the surrounding beasts began to follow suit, taking turns, one after the other. The many crocodiles, camouflaged along its banks came to life. It wasn’t long before we caught sight of one of these magnificent reptiles reaching for its victim. The crocodile’s jaws snapped over its victim’s neck, dragging the wildebeest down into its watery world.
The sudden flash of activity took me by surprise, especially after hours of nothing happening. It was a pattern I began to realise with each passing day being on safari in Kenya. This seemed to be the way of nature. Hours may pass with absolutely nothing happening, despite your best efforts. Then, just as you’re about to give up, something spectacular happens, making the long wait worthwhile.
“Had we known then that whole species could not withstand man’s heartless extermination…”
Some years ago, we visited Kenya and were awed by the diverse animal and plant life we saw. East-Africa is one of the most biologically rich regions on Earth, second only to the Indonesian islands. It is one of the few places left where megafauna still walk the land. As city dwellers, the incredible sight of elephant herds, rhinos and big cats living in the wild was a dream-like experience. Up till then, all of our encounters with large mammals were in the artificial environments of city zoos.
Travelling in their territory, I finally understood that we were not alone on this planet. It is one thing to know that such creatures exist through BBC documentaries and something else entirely to encounter them in nature. I realised then, in a visceral way, that we share this Earth, a lifeboat in the vast vacuum of space, with a multitude of other species.
The Greatest Show on Earth – The Great Rift Valley and Evolution
The Great Rift Valley stretches through Kenya, a fertile corridor running from north to south. Nowhere is this phenomenon better observed than in Hell’s Gate. Here, we found an other-worldly valley dominated by towering lava cliffs.
This unusual landscape holds a unique place in the evolutionary histories of many modern species, including us humans. The rift valley’s volcanically active land, with its rich soil and radioactivity, gave birth to a flourishing of life 25,000 years ago. High rates of speciation occurred here, leading to a proliferation of flora and fauna.
From the Mountains to the Seas
When we think of Africa, we often conjure images of its vast savannahs and deserts. But, there’s so much more.
East Africa’s unique geography has everything from montane forests on the slopes of Mount Kenya, grasslands in Amboseli to swamps on its coast. Each of these landscapes is home to endemic species found nowhere else on the planet.
Nature’s Last Frontier
The African continent is the only place on the Earth where there is still a diverse range of large mammal species. Many, like the elephant, rhino, leopard and lion are popularised in everyday culture. They continue to represent what remains of a time before humans over-reached our influence.
Industrialisation arrived late to Africa, after the concept of conservation was invented. For much of Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australia, it was too late – we had already pursued many of these creatures into extinction.
Those that remain, on the African continent and elsewhere, face a steep battle for survival within an ever-shrinking and increasingly hostile environment.
The Battle for Survival
The flora and fauna of East Africa face a constant battle for land and resources. Climate change and resource exploitation have pushed these living things into precarious positions within their ecological niche. Further exacerbating the issue are demands for ivory, rhino horn and big-game hunting which significantly threaten keystone species.
When the last two remaining white Rhinos pass away, we will see the extinction of their species. The last of their kind, these two females live under armed guard in a protected Kenyan reserve, as scientists attempt to regenerate this subspecies with IVF.
Asian demand, mostly from China and Vietnam, is the main culprit. Every year, poachers kill 1,400 rhinos to cater to an industry based on superstition. Many Chinese believe rhinos shed their horns, like deer shed their antlers, and know nothing of the industry’s cruelty. Education efforts, like an initiative by the Jane Goodall Institute, are underway to raise awareness and curb demand.
Kenya was the first country to use the “sanctuary approach” to protecting rhinos. This approach places rhino populations in fenced-off areas under the watch of armed rangers equipped with thermal imaging cameras and drones. Other countries like South Africa and India have followed suit. Such drastic measures are necessary as long as there is demand.
Rhino horn can cost up to USD$100,000 per kilo. This staggering price is the reason vast amounts of criminal resources are poured into the poaching and killing of rhinos.
“When you consider the criminal resources behind this illegal trade, you would not want to be the ranger who stands between the gun and the endgame. The syndicates are ruthless.”
Winnie Kiiru, from the group Stop Ivory
Elephants, like rhinos, are under threat from poaching. This threat has been so systematic that most elephants alive today no longer have long tusks. There are only 30 of these “Great Tuskers” left, most of whom live in Kenya’s protected reserves.
Every year, poachers kill over 20,000 elephants for their ivory. More are also killed in land conflicts with pastoralists and farmers. This staggering number of deaths have a long-lasting impact on family groups, whose members depend on each other to survive and thrive.
These sensitive creatures live in closely knit, inter-generational herds. The success and longevity of a herd depends on the knowledge and skills passed down through the generations. Each calf is greatly treasured, not just by its mother but also all her sisters, cousins and the matriarch.
The elephants of Amboseli are fortunate to live in a relatively undisturbed area, where they are protected and cared. Scientists have used the herds here to study and understand natural elephant behaviour. They’ve observed that the elephants of Amboseli can respond to social threats collectively, in a way that elephant populations decimated by poachers are incapable of doing.
Although the giraffe is a common sight throughout the African plains, many giraffe subspecies are critically endangered. The Masaai giraffe, which can be identified by its vine leaf-shaped patterns, can be seen all over East Africa – in parks, protected reserves, on pastureland and quite often, by the roadside. Their prevalence gives the illusion that there are plenty of them when in truth there are only 35,000 Masaai giraffes left. In total, there are fewer giraffes than elephants living in Africa today.
“Giraffes are the forgotten megafauna. These iconic creatures are really not getting the attention they deserve.”
Giraffes face the dangers of poaching, hunting and habitat loss. Their bone marrow is believed to be a cure for HIV/AIDS, and their tail hair is used to make jewellery and other crafts. Because the giraffe doesn’t get the same publicity as other big fauna, there’s less regulation around products made from giraffe parts, making these creatures more vulnerable to poaching.
One of the most charismatic animals of the African savannah is the cheetah. In 2006, the BBC immortalised the little cheetah cub, “Toto” in their documentary series, “Big Cat Diary.” The episode showed the harsh realities of a cheetah mother trying to raise cubs in the wild.
One of the most significant pressures facing cheetahs is habitat loss and dwindling prey numbers. The world’s fastest animal, unsurprisingly, needs to roam over large areas of land. Unfortunately, the land available in protected areas is barely sufficient to support even one-third of the current cheetah population.
Out in the unprotected areas, cheetahs often come into conflict with pastoralists, who fear the cheetahs may eat their livestock. This fear is mostly unfounded, as livestock is not part of a cheetah’s normal diet and eating it often will shorten its life.
“As much as the human wants to survive by wanting more land, and leaving little or none for the wild animals, the cheetahs also must have their lands to survive, as they too have families.”
Right behind the grassy horizons of the Nairobi National Park, we could see the capital’s industrial silhouette. These desolate buildings stand in stark contrast against the park’s northern, eastern and western borders. Human encroachment into nature is most apparent here, where people live right up to the very edge of the park.
Lions in the park are safe as long as they stay within the protected area. However, its southern border, being part of a wildlife corridor, is unfenced. Beyond that is land where farmers graze their livestock. Because natural spaces and large prey are in continuous decline, the lions are regularly left with no choice but to enter farmland and to kill livestock for food. In retaliation, farmers kill the offending lions. Often the lions that hunt livestock are the ones that are old or injured and unable to pursue their regular prey.
Although the government offers compensation to mitigate such retaliatory killings, it is not enough, and the human-wildlife continues to intensify year on year.
Into the Future
Increasing conflict between man and beast is inevitable as countries industrialise and modernise. On the other continents (Asia, Europe, The Americas, Australia), we have decimated the megafauna populations that once roamed their lands. Today, great effort is put into the conservation of human-managed habitats that continue to support wildlife, like meadows and renewable forests. But, for the megafauna on these continents, it is already too late.
In Africa, however, people continue to share the land with a vast array of wildlife. Tribes like the Maasai and the Samburu continue to exist in harmony with the large wild creatures of the East African plains. This is, in part, possible because of tourism, which makes preserving these creatures and their habitat sustainable despite a growing human population sharing the same land.
But it would be a mistake to think of conserving nature solely because the lion, the cheetah and the elephant are economic assets. The land they live on is also part of this Earth that we all share. Their losses will inevitably be ours.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is hitched to everything else in the Universe”.
Canyoning in The Azores is not only an exciting activity, it is also a a great way to see hidden parts of the island of São Miguel…
Another fun activity to do on Sāo Miguel is canyoning. This was our second time canyoning – the first time we did it was in Jordan. This time, it was a lot more exciting and also a little less scary – mostly because we knew we were in good hands – in Jordan, we were mostly left on our own.
We went with a couple of guides from the Azores Adventure Island Tours, and I can say they were truly amazing. The guides were all very experienced and also super fun to be with. They were also part of the island’s mountain rescue service – which certainly helped made us feel safe during our trip.
A Different Perspective of The Azores
Canyoning is a a really great way to get to see some parts of nature we otherwise would not. It also gives us the opportunity to experience it from a different perspective.
Our experience was the half day Nordeste tour at easy to medium difficulty level. Personally I thought it was pretty easy – I wasn’t very experienced out in nature when we did it, and I still managed without getting into any accidents.
A Confidence Building Activity
Personally I felt this canyoning experience brought up my confidence level out in nature – I initially thought I would have a hard time doing the jumps and I was quite scared when it came to my turn to abseil beside one of the waterfalls, but I did it – although they looked difficult at first, with proper direction, they really were quite manageable.
Our guides of course were doing all sorts of hair raising tricks, like jumping off a ledge and bouncing off cliff faces and such. Like most people from the Azores, they were born and bred in nature and spent their lives adventuring and this activity was second nature to them.
Exciting Moments to Remember
There were two points on the hike through the canyon I remembered very well. One was a jump from what felt like three stories – I think it was actually only 6 meters – and another was an abseil beside a gushing waterfall. The jump was scary because, well – it was a jump into a dark pool that was pretty far down below. As for the abseil, how shall I put it… you basically have to trust a length or rope tethered to a rock and tied around a harness on your waist as you lean back and start descending, parallel to the waterfall. To be honest, it looked scarier than it actually was. The hardest part was the first few seconds between gathering the courage to lean back into the abyss and actually doing it. Once I did it, the rest came pretty easily.
Would I Go Canyoning in The Azores Again?
Canyoning in the Azores was one of the most fun things I’d done in my life – it really made me feel alive and pushed the limits of my courage. If I was ever back in the Azores, I would certainly do more canyoning activities with our guides from the Azores Adventure Island Tours.
We enjoyed capturing the relaxed pace of island life in Bali. I loved the lush tropical greens under bright blue skies that are so characteristic of the tropics. I feel the warm tropical heat and that “lazy afternoon” sensation comes through in all these island photographs.
We enjoyed capturing the relaxed pace of island life in Bali. I loved the lush tropical greens under bright blue skies that are so characteristic of the tropics. I feel the warm tropical heat and that “lazy afternoon” sensation comes through in all these island photographs.