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The Maasai Mara-Kenya’s premier wildlife sensation
The fabulous Maasai Mara is named in honor of the legendary Maasai. It is considered to be Africa’s greatest wildlife reserve by its very description and synonymous with the word safari in every sense. Its proximity to the plains of the Serengeti has made it a very celebrated venue of the spectacular Great Wildebeest migration. Also dubbed the 7th wonder of the world, according to a poll of experts conducted by ABC Television, this phenomenon is one of the most impressive natural events worldwide.
Fondly known as the Mara because of the landscape’s scattered features when viewed from a distance, it is a wonderful composition of breathtaking open plains, woodlands and riverine forest. Featuring a wonderful array of browsers and hunters. The vast grassland plains and Acacia forests abound with myriads of birds and delightful primates. As the rivers brim with lounging hippos and crocodiles while lumbering elephants and buffalo wallow in its wide swamp.
The Maasai Mara National Reserve is without any doubt a premier wildlife park. Yet unlike most other national parks in Kenya this game reserve is not administered by the Kenya Wildlife Service. When it was originally established in 1961 as a wildlife sanctuary, the Mara covered only 520km2 of the current area. Much of this region had been allocated to agriculture during the colonial era and some of the Maasai were even moved completely from their homelands.
The area was then converted to a game reserve when it was extended further eastwards to cover a 1821 km2 area. A large portion of the reserve was gazetted as a National Reserve in 1974 and the remaining area of 159 km2 was restored to the local communities. An additional 162 km2 was later removed from the reserve in 1976 before it was reduced to about 1510 km2 in 1984.
The eastern part of the park is currently under the custody of the Narok County Council .The Mara Triangle, in the western part, is now managed by the Trans-Mara county council which was formed in 1995. Later on in May 2001, the Mara Conservancy,a local nonprofit organization took over management of the Mara Triangle. It was formed by the local Maasai as a measure to protect the assailable wildlife and tackle the growing menace of marauding poachers .
The outer borders known as the Maasai Mara Conservation area is administered by the Group Ranch Trusts of the Maasai community who also have their own rangers for patrolling the park area.
The Mara is situated in South West Kenya about 270 km from Nairobi at 1500-2170 m above sea level. The western border is small part of a system of rifts over 5,000 km long, stretching from Ethiopia through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and into Mozambique. Its is primarily open grassland with the Talek river and Mara River as the major rivers draining the reserve.
The Mara-Serengeti ecosystem itself covers some 25,000 km2 at its northern-most section between Tanzania and Kenya. Whereas the Maasai Mara National Reserve is only a fraction of the Greater Mara Ecosystem. The area includes around a dozen group ranches bounded by the Serengeti Park to the south, the Siria escarpment to the west and Maasai pastoral ranches to the north, east and west. The south-east region is mostly comprised of clumps of the distinctive acacia tree.
The vegetation in the reserve is primarily grassland and riverine forest. It not only varies according to the type of soil and drainage but also influenced by fire and destruction from elephants and other grazing animals. The grasslands form the main vegetation layer interspersed with few trees and shrubs in the drier areas. These are the areas which are most susceptible to frequent fires and herbivores which prefer different grasses and shoots.
The evergreen bushland cover patches particularly vulnerable to foraging elephants and rhinos, as acacia trees dominate the woodland which is mostly preferred by giraffes and monkeys. With its forests of wild cedars, olive trees and different varieties of acacias, the gorges and valleys in the north of the reserve are a wonderful setting for those interested in learning traditional medicine. The area around here has a very interesting variety of pristine flora which allude to how the Mara ecosystem was before permanent settlements were established in the region.
Rainfall in the ecosystem increases markedly along a southeast–northwest gradient where shrubs and trees fringe most of the drainage lines and cover the hill slopes. This environment makes it an ideal home to hundreds of mammals and birds that naturally tend to be most concentrated around these areas. The swampy ground means access to vital water where tourist disruption is minimal.
All members of the popular Big 5 can be found in good numbers in the region and wildlife are permitted to roam freely across both the Reserve and Conservation areas. It has been duly noted that the Maasai Mara Ecosystem holds one of the highest lion densities and is world famous for its exceptional population of big cats. This can be largely attributed to the annual wildebeest migration involving some 1,300,000 wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson’s gazelles, 200,000 zebras, 97,000 topi and 18,000 elands.
As in the Serengeti’s case, the wildebeest are the dominant inhabitants of the area. Their numbers are naturally estimated in the millions among thousands of zebra and Thomson gazelle that also cross over from the south. Along their annual, circular route, these migrants attract other hungry predators, most notably lions. Other pursuers include leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, jackals and the nocturnal bat-eared fox.
Hippopotami and Nile crocodiles can also be found in large heaps along the Mara and Talek rivers. There are plenty of other reptiles as well in the game reserve that often go unnoticed. Many include a large variety of snakes like the African rock python, black-necked spitting cobra and puff adder. Some are rare lizards such as the intriguing Red-headed rock agamas, the venerated leopard tortoise plus chameleons.
Numerous other antelopes can be found in the reserve apart from the Thomson’s gazelle such as Grant’s gazelles, impalas, elands, duikers and Coke’s hartebeests. Its unfortunate the population of Black rhinos that was also fairly numerous until the early sixties, severely depleted by poaching in the seventies and early eighties, dropped them to merely fifteen! Since then numbers have been slowly increasing, but the population was still only up to an estimated twenty or so until the beginning of the millennium.
Many of the 500 species of birds which have been identified in the park are also migrants. The ones that call this area home for at least good part of the year include almost 60 species of birds of prey. Marabour storks, Secretary birds, hornbills, Crowned cranes, ostriches and the Lilac-breasted roller,which is the national bird of Kenya, are also common in the region.
Explore the Mara
Spending your time among the traditional people of this region is the best way to gain an insight into local beliefs and customs. The Maasai, who are native speakers of the Maa language,belong to the Chari-Nile branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. They are proud nomadic pastoralists with a fascinating culture that has survived the test of time under relentless contemporary influences. According to history, these Maa speaking peoples migrated into their current territory around the 16th century.They divided over time into a number of sub-tribes some of which still share the Mara region.
Around 2005 the visionary conservationist Jake Grieves-Cook leased parts of the land from the Maasai who owned the areas adjacent to the Reserve. They are as agreed being paid rent in turn for these areas and many families are benefiting from employment at some of the eco-friendly camps that have been set up.
You will always get to see a variety of wildlife within the reserve apart from the areas inhabited by the Maasai tribes. The sheer volume and diversity of life in the Mara will certainly not disappoint you if the prime interest for visiting is to see its fauna. A safari through the Mara gives visitors a chance experience several different habitats in a single day.
Taking your time to enjoy the Mara as a whole will give you a much better appreciation of the mixture and intricacies of this fascinating eco-system. Tourist numbers and safari vehicles are strictly limited, which translates into a much better safari experience all around.
The best time to see game in the Mara is early morning and late afternoon. In the midday heat, most animals generally retreat to the cool of thick undergrowth and become concealed. Sometimes specialized hide-outs and viewing platforms are erected on the grounds of lodges or camps to enhance your game viewing experience.
Morning and afternoon game drives also allow you to witness the unforgettable African dawn and sunsets. The plains between the Mara River and the Siria Escarpment are probably the best areas for game viewing, especially for spotting lion and cheetah.
You can also usher in the dawn in a hot air balloon for a truly unique perspective of this spectacular wilderness. These balloon safaris are carried out daily from several lodges and can be booked through most safari companies. This incredible once in a lifetime experience offers visitors a fantastic view of the great plains of the Mara and the chance to drift quietly over the oblivious wildlife below.
You should also take the opportunity to witness the Great Wildebeest Migration if visiting the Mara from July through October. The herds calve in January to March, before the young are born ready to make their first, in preparation for the epic journey. Usually the central migratory herds of these wildebeest spend much of the year grazing throughout the plains of the Serengeti. In June, as the dry season withers the grasslands and a distant scent of moisture brings promise of rain in the north, they begin to gather, massing together to form a single vast herd.
On the southern plains of the Mara the herds make a spectacular entrance pouring northwards in a massive, surging column of pulsing life that makes a breathtaking spectacle. The sound of the approaching herd is a deep, primal rumbling of thundering hooves and low grunts. This endless grey river of life is checkered with black and white as zebras join the masses, drawn on-wards in their quest for the rains and fresh life giving grass.
The banks of the Mara River is one of the best vantage points where you can see the herds making their exodus through the wild, crocodile jammed waters. It is this remarkable event that saw the Mara ranked as one of the new Seven Wonders. The sheer spectacle of this event draws excited spectators to one of the world’s largest and most fascinating marvels that is regarded as the planet’s greatest natural spectacle.
On the wide open grasslands you can travel through huge herds of zebra, giraffe, gazelle and topi. There are also excellent river views of hippos and crocodiles as you travel along the banks of the Mara and Talek, while the riverine forests abound with birdlife and monkeys. Elephants can always be found seeking refuge from the heat around the waters of the Musiara Swamp.
Some safari companies offer all day game drives, stopping for a riverside picnic in the midday heat. Other lodges and camps can arrange escorted walks through the bush. This is an ideal way to explore this wilderness and experience the wildlife up close. Walking in the Reserve itself is strictly controlled and any attempts must be arranged through your lodge, camp or safari operator. There are many options of course for hiking and trekking outside the Reserve.
The Mara is equally popular with birders and specialist birding safaris. The notables consist of the Corncrake, Grey crested Helmet Shrike, Lesser Kestrel, Madagascar Squacco Heron and Saddle Billed Stork. Resident raptors include the White headed Vulture, Martial and Crowned Eagles with other more common species like the Yellow billed Ox pecker. You can always look for a safari operator who can offer you tailored guides and services to suit your needs if you have a particular wildlife or birding interest.
Herbs have always played a major role in the Maasai culture for those with an interest in herbal knowledge of the community. Families are often able to care for their own health as traditional practitioners known as the “laibon” conduct rites spells and ceremonies mostly. Visitors are always welcome to learn more and visit with traditional healers and herbalists. Some of the camps, lodges and private ranches in and around the Mara can arrange for guests to learn more about the herbal medicines and rites of the Maasai.
Horseback Safaris are now being offered in some areas outside the main reserve. These safaris are a unique way of viewing game that allows you to move easily through herds of plains game.These safaris can cover a great deal of country and are best suited for experienced riders.
Other attractions near the Mara
Serengeti National Park
The reserve is situated in the Rift Valley with Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains running along its southern end. It covers approx. 14,763 km2 of savanna grassland plains including riverine forest and woodlands. The endless, almost treeless grassland of the south is the most typical scenery of the park. This is where the herds of wildebeest breed, as they remain in the plains from December to May.
Although this national park is situated in the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania, the name Serengeti is actually borrowed from a Maasai word describing the area as ‘the place where the land is endless.’ The Serengeti as it is commonly known has an appreciative heritage as Tanzania’s oldest national park. It is now World Heritage Site that has also gained fame through the annual wildebeest migration and for its numerous Nile crocodiles. Apart from the migratory wildebeest and zebra, the bushy savannah is the best place to find elephant giraffe and dik dik.
Special fishing expeditions to Lake Victoria can be also be arranged from the Mara. These include return flights from the Mara to Rusinga Island, a fishing resort that provides boats, tackle and fishing guides. Guests can either spend the night in the well-appointed lodge or return to the Mara the same day.
According to many suggestions, Olkaria, Naivasha Stadium and Egerton University are four of the best of four most recommendable cultural attractions near the Mara. There are two other art and cultural attractions one being the Gusii Stadium in Migori Town about 40 km from the reserve and the other is the Kisumu Museum which is around 51 km away.
Practical Travel information
The eastern regions are normally the most visited by tourists since the easternmost border is closer to Nairobi at about 224km. There are also a series of well maintained roads throughout the reserve. The Mara Triangle has well serviced all weather roads as the rangers patrol the area regularly ensuring that there is no poaching, contributing to further to excellent game viewing.
There is also strict control over vehicle numbers around animal sightings, allowing for a better experience when out on a game drive. Entry fees are currently at about $80 for adult non-East African residents and $30 for children staying inside the park per day. The tourists and visitors can also cater for their own expenses unless previously arranged by their agencies and tour operators. In general, you should budget an all inclusive cost of about $500 per person per day excluding travel expenses especially if you are flying.
Important things to carry are your sun-screen cream, binoculars and camera equipment. Also bring along updated travel books and field guides which will prove most useful during your safari. You are always expected to pay in cash if you purchase souvenirs or items at the camp. It is however recommended to make payments preferably in dollars to avoid surcharges.
How to get there
Accessing the Mara area is difficult without private transport. Most visitors come to Maasai Mara as part of a safari package from Nairobi or on a privately hired vehicles.
Some people choose to fly to the Mara, which is serviced by several airstrips and it takes about 5-6 hours by road or 40-50 min by air. There are daily scheduled flights from Nairobi and the coast to the Mara Serena airport, Musiara airport and Keekorok airport which are all located in the game reserve. The Mara Shikar airport, Kichwa Tembo airport and Ngerende airport are located in the Conservation area of the Maasai Mara.
Where to stay
There are a number of lodges and tented camps for tourists inside the Reserve and the Conservation area borders. The Mara Triangle has only one lodge within its boundaries in, comparison to the numerous camps and lodges on the Narok side. Lodges and camps that are available inside the Reserve include the Keekorok lodge, the first lodge built in the Mara in one of the best spots to view wildlife without ever going for any game drive. At the height of migration, the lodge is surrounded by a swarming mass of animals and guests can watch a lions hunt from the bar. Most of the options for budget accommodation in the Masai Mara area are however confined to basic campgrounds.
Other lodges and campsites are also of equal value for visitors to the Masai Mara Reserve area include;
It is one of the best safari holidays camp in the region where you can enjoy the real African wildlife in comfort and style. The intimate eco-lodge is in a fantastic location on the edge of the Siria Escarpment overlooking the Maasai Mara. The Mara Serena Safari Lodge is the ultimate safari destination. Set high on a bush-cloaked hill with long views over the savannah and down to the winding coils of the hippo-filled Mara River, it is located at the very center of the famous ‘Mara Triangle’ of the world-renowned Masai Mara National Reserve.
Fig Tree Camp
Fig Tree Camp is located on the banks of the Talek River. The Camp is situated on the northern border of the game reserve and its central location makes all the areas of the luxury tents located on the private park accessible to game drives.
To make an evening a real adventure, one can choose to stay in a tent or a chalet giving the best of both worlds. The rooms are spaciously lined up along the Talek River with private balcony overlooking the plains of the game reserve.
Your day is designed to be as exciting or relaxing as you wish. There is a variety of activities from which to choose – escorted bush walks, day and night game drives, sundowners, full days out with delicious picnic lunches into the very heart of the Mara, bush dinners down by the hippo pools, visiting the rhinos and cultural visits to Maasai villages – all tailor made to ensure a rewarding safari of a lifetime. You can also enjoy balloon safaris offering scenic flights over the Maasai Mara and day trips at an extra cost.
The Mara Serena Safari Lodge
Set high on a bush-cloaked hill with long views over the savannah and down to the winding coils of the hippo-filled Mara River, it is located at the very centre of the famous ‘Mara Triangle’ of the world-renowned Masai Mara National Reserve.
Styled to echo the circular motif of a traditional Maasai manyatta, the lodge blends international sophistication with raw African beauty, while featuring twin rows of individual rooms, each with its own view of the famous Mara River. The central bar and dining areas enjoy spectacular views, as does the rock-surround swimming pool. Each luxuriously-presented room is accommodated in its own stand-alone modular unit, with uninterrupted views, private balcony and spacious seating area.
There are over 20 campsites in and around the Reserve but few of them are listed and some are extremely basic making them little hazardous. Most campsites are located near the gates grant access to their toilet and water facilities so you don’t have to go too far. You can also try asking for information at any of the gates to the reserve if you can’t make any bookings in advance. Public campsites used to be payed for right at the reserve gates now everything should be payed in advance through the new Smartcard system.
Among those available that are run by local Maasai are the Oloolaimutiek Camp site near the Oloolaimutiek gate and the Riverside Camp, west of Talek Gate. The one near Oloololo displays a nice view of the mountains while the Musiara campsite is very popular for being a safe area, shaded and with plenty of wildlife including lions. There are ten campsites located near Talek, east of the gate which border the river at the north bank. Several of them are nearly always booked up by safari companies. Still outside the reserve near the gates, in Sekenani there are four campsites, placed half a kilometer from the gate. There is also the Sand River Campsite, next to the gate of the same name that is located by a waterhole usually visited by animals at night. The Sand River Campsite is equipped with toilets and running water.
There are other campsites in addition to those located by the gates such as the Crocodile campsite, a private site close to the outer limits, Naunerri Campsite, 3 km off Sand River Gate; and the Mara River Campsites. Four of them are by the east riverbank outside the reserve and is located right south of Mara Camp. Lastly, near the closed Olkurruk Mara Lodge there is another accessible site which overlooks the plains from the mountains.
Whatever the case, it is advisable for you to check the available sites with local authorities since campsites vary. They may and actually do change gradually and it is cumbersome to keep accurate track of them. The best way to enjoy a budget camping safari in the Masai Mara is to book with a tour operator. Many tour operators offer quality camping safaris starting at $270 per person which includes camping, food, park fees and transport.
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