Masai Mara National Reserve – The Masai Mara National Reserve is Kenya’s premier wildlife park. It was established in 1961 to protect wildlife from hunters. The Masai Mara is the reason many visitors come to Kenya and its beauty and abundant wildlife won’t disappoint. This guide to the Masai Mara will tell you what animals you can expect to see, the topography of the area, where to stay, how to get there, and what there is to do beyond the game drives.
Where is the Masai Mara National Reserve?
The Masai Mara is in southwestern Kenya on the border with Tanzania. The reserve is situated in the Rift Valley with Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains running along its southern end.
The Mara River runs through the reserve (north to south) hosting plenty of hippos and crocodiles and making the annual migration of over a million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras an extremely dangerous undertaking.
Most of the Masai Mara is made up of hilly grassland which is fed by plentiful rain, especially during the wet months between November and June.
Masai Mara's Wildlife
The Masai Mara reserve is Kenya’s most popular game park because it’s relatively small (a little smaller than Rhode Island) yet it hosts an amazing concentration of wildlife. You are almost guaranteed to see the Big 5. Lions abound throughout the park as do leopards, cheetah, hyenas, giraffe, impala, wildebeest, topi, baboons, warthogs, buffalo, zebra, elephants, and of course hippos and crocodiles in the Mara River.
The best time to go is between July and October when the wildebeest and zebra are at their highest number and offer plenty of food for lions, cheetahs, and leopards.
The best time to view animals is either at dawn or dusk. For more tips on spotting wildlife see my tips for a successful safari. Because the reserve has no fences you can actually see as much wildlife within its boundaries as outside in the areas inhabited by the Maasai tribes. In 2005/6 a visionary conservationist, Jake Grieves-Cook approached the Maasai who owned the land adjacent to the Reserve and offered to lease parts of it from them.
In exchange, the Maasai promised to vacate the land and not graze their cattle on it. The land quickly reverted to dense grassland and wildlife is thriving. The Maasai are paid rent, and many families are benefiting from employment at some of the eco-friendly camps that have been set up.
Tourist numbers and safari vehicles are strictly limited, which translates into a much better safari experience all around. (More on Conservancies in the Mara). Within the reserve, it’s not unusual to see 5 or 6 safari vehicles full of tourists taking photos of one lion with its kill. For more details about the mammals and birdlife in the reserve see Kenyaology’s page about the Mara’s wildlife
Things to Do in and around the Masai Mara Reserve
Game Drives. If you have flown straight to the Masai Mara Reserve then your safari package will usually include several daily game drives. If you’ve rented your own vehicle then it is recommended you find a map of the reserve or take an askari (guard) with you.
Walking Safaris. If you enjoy a little adventure try a walking safari with a Maasai guide. The best ones are outside the reserve boundaries in the Conservancies.
Cultural Tours with the Maasai. Visiting a traditional Maasai village is frequently included in a safari package to the Masai Mara. While not really an authentic experience you may learn something about the Maasai.
Hot Air Ballooning is a popular pastime that provides an expensive but unique experience. Every lodge and camp will be able to set up a flight for you. The balloons usually fly at dawn and last about an hour. Upon landing most balloon companies offer a champagne breakfast.
How to get to the Masai Mara
The Masai Mara Reserve lies 168 miles from the capital city of Nairobi. The trip takes at least 6 hours by car because the roads are quite poor and should not be attempted unless you have a 4WD vehicle. If you do plan to drive, avoid the rainy season since many of the roads become totally impassable. For further information on road routes see Kenyaology’s very comprehensive guide to driving to the Masai Mara Reserve.
Many tourist choose to fly into the Masai Mara National Reserve because of the poor quality roads. But flying makes your safari quite a bit more expensive (since you have to then add the game drives to your tour) and you miss out on some of the adventure of traveling in one of Africa’s more remote areas.
Many safari packages include air but you can also purchase a ticket locally. Safarlink offers two scheduled flights a day from Wilson Airport; the flight takes 45 minutes.