Things to see & do in the
Masai Mara, Kenya

One of Africa’s smallest reserves is also one of Kenya’s oldest and best loved safari destinations. The Masai Mara not only shelters healthy populations of big cats and plains game within its compact boundaries, it’s a key home of the charismatic Maasai people, whose ownership of private conservancies has allowed them to preserve their age old relationship with the landscape. It also gives travellers the chance to view this unique corner of East Africa through their eyes.
The Masai Mara National Reserve stretches along the Tanzania border, adjoining the Serengeti, and wildlife flows back and forth between the two with no regard for border formalities. This free movement ratchets up to biblical proportions from June until October each year, when around two million wildebeest, zebras and antelopes stream north in search of fresh pastures. The treacherous Mara River crossing is the most dramatic leg of this Great Migration, with hundreds of lions and crocs lying in wait as the wildebeest plunge down the banks and through the treacherous waters.
The Masai Mara was established first as a game reserve in 1961, so it’s had many decades to perfect its tourism offer, with numerous lodges and camps available and good infrastructure. It’s also one of the most family friendly places to go on safari in Africa, with accommodations that cater effortlessly for families, providing swimming pools, family rooms and kid-friendly food, and wonderful wildlife experiences designed to inspire young minds. The chance to meet the Maasai and learn about their daily life, from milking goats to throwing spears, is another treat for junior travellers.

Maasai heritage

Meeting the Maasai people, the custodians of this epic landscape, is a not-to-be missed highlight of visiting the Masai Mara and their involvement in tourism produces enormous benefits for you, for them and for wildlife. The Maasai own private reserves around the Masai Mara National Reserve itself, which they lease to safari companies. This means they can earn money while continuing to keep cattle and practice traditions on their ancestral lands. You can stay in lodges and camps here, go on game drives and walks with the Maasai and visit Maasai cultural villages, to learn more about their traditional pastoralist lifestyle and try your hand at cattle herding or celebratory dancing. Any money you spend here goes straight back to the Maasai.
In addition, the Mara Conservancy runs the Mara Triangle, an area that covers about a third of the entire Masai Mara Reserve. This not-for-profit management company is a cooperative partnership between conservationists and the local Maasai community, working to improve the conservation and management of this section of the Reserve. The Maasai have their own rangers who patrol the land and the conservancy has successfully created a safe haven for wildlife and almost eradicated poaching here, as well as creating sustainable, local employment. It’s a superb place to see wildlife, with strict controls over vehicle numbers around sightings, creating a wonderful game drive experience.

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Wildlife in the Masai Mara

The Mara is pretty much the only place in Kenya where you can see animals in the same glorious abundance as a century ago, and the reserve and its surrounding conservancies contain a range of landscapes, each with its own wildlife speciality. The central plains that dominate much of East Africa spread across a big chunk of the reserve. This classic grassland landscape, dotted with dense thickets of scrub, acacia woodland and boulders is grazed by huge numbers of plains game and the lions, leopards, cheetah and hyena that hunt and feed on them.

All of the Big Five are present in the Masai Mara. It’s home to the largest population of lions in Kenya and also one of Africa’s most endangered species, the black rhino – Kenya’s only indigenous population lives here. Poaching continues to threaten this species and only a few remain, mostly in the Mara Triangle and the Ngama Hills, to the southeast, where the vegetation is denser. There are also hippos and buffalos, large herds of topi and a small population of roan antelopes, which aren’t found in many other Kenyan reserves.
Although there’s good wildlife spotting all year round in the Masai Mara, its wildlife populations swell during July, August and September when the Great Migration thunders onto the plains. During this annual spectacle, around 1.5 million wildebeest, accompanied by zebra, eland and antelope travel north to find new grazing. This mass movement reaches its dramatic climax as the animals cross over from the Serengeti at the Mara River. Big cats stalk the banks and enormous Nile crocodiles, who rely on these river crossings for their biannual meal, lurk in the muddy water waiting for the wildebeest to stampede through. It’s an eye-watering spectacle which, unsurprisingly, attracts thousands of tourists each year.
The Masai Mara supports 470 species of birds, too, from petite starlings to enormous ostriches. From daybreak to sunset, birdsong fills the air and the avian life of the reserves is a delightful complement to its abundant wildlife. By rivers and swamps, herons, storks, ibis and egrets feed, while fierce looking secretary birds stalk the savannah grasslands, waiting to stomp on any passing lizards or snakes. Many other birds of prey soar the skies above the Mara, including kites, eagles and scavenger vultures, while guineafowl, spurfowl and quail will be your companions on game walks, skittering through the undergrowth as you pass.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ninara] [Top box: Heather M. Edwards] [Maasai people: Sho Hatakeyama] [Wildlife: Katie Hunt]
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