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.
For more on our walking safari experience with the Maasai, check out our post, Walking Safari in Kenya’s Masai Mara.
Largest Concentration of Lions
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.
The African Conservation Experience has a great guide to lion behaviour.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.