THE MAGICAL MASAI MARA
Situated in the southwest of Kenya along its border with Tanzania, the Masai Mara National Reserve consists of 1,510 sq. km (589 sq. miles) made up of three group ranches — the Mara Triangle, Musiara, and Sekenani — under the control of local county councils. All around the National Reserve, the wildlife dispersal area continues into several other community-owned ranches, unfenced Maasai-owned ancestral lands where free-roaming wildlife commingle with semi-permanent human settlements. Here, too, concessions have been granted for the establishment of private game lodges and tented camps where it’s possible to experience a safari without the crowds.
Within the conservancy areas, however, the Maasai are entitled to graze their cattle (which is illegal within the National Reserve), so don’t be alarmed to find herdsmen, their cows (often with tinkling cowbells audible for miles around), and various other signs of human habitation.
By Road — Most visitors come to the Masai Mara as part of an all-inclusive safari package, commencing with a cramped drive in a minibus from Nairobi. If you want to get there by road, opt to be driven in a 4X4 (preferably a Land Cruiser), which will then be used as your game-drive vehicle throughout your stay; count on spending around $250 to $350 per day for the privilege. Narok is the main point of access to this region and is a 3-hour drive from Nairobi; from Narok, the transfer to your lodge will take between 2 and 4 hours, depending on which part of the park you’re staying in and also on weather conditions. If you’re counting your shillings, you might want to know that regular buses and matatus arrive in Narok from Nairobi and other destinations.
By Air — A far better option — and the only one if time and comfort are of any consequence — is to fly directly into the Mara. Most lodges and camps are within 45 minutes of the nearest landing site (there are several), and a few places have private airstrips, too. There are daily scheduled flights from Nairobi (Air Kenya and Safarilink have two flights each), the coast, and Nanyuki (for connections from Laikipia).
Private charters also use these strips. Most lodges will provide transfers from the airstrip, meaning that your game drive begins shortly after you touch down. Generally speaking, your tour operator, who will book all your accommodations, will reserve your flights and ensure that you touch down at the correct landing strip.
The reserve has an extensive network of dirt roads that are maintained by park authorities. You will hopefully be driven around by experienced guides trained to look for clues telling them where animals are most likely to be found. It is also possible to sign up for hot air balloon safaris, horse safaris, bush walks, and scenic flights. Several safari operators can arrange specialized tours, treks, or hikes in this area.
When to Go
The migration of wildebeest from the Serengeti commences in July and continues through to October; it’s when accommodations are at a premium and when the Mara is most crowded with visitors. Many camps close during the rainy seasons; the “short rains” happen in November, while the “long rains” fall in April and May. The rainy season is the best time to come if you prefer the solitude and verdant green of the quiet season. The birthing season — known as “Toto Time” — starts in December and continues into February; it’s a popular time for visitors (accommodations are again at a premium) who come to witness infant wildlife staggering to their feet and skittering as they take their first steps — it’s a magnificent scene, often accompanied by thunderous storms. March and October tend to be the hottest times of the year, but the Mara is seldom oppressively hot, and some of the higher-altitude lodges can get cold at night.
The Great Migration
Time your Mara visit accordingly, and you can prepare for one of the world’s great wildlife dramas — a hoofed mob of a million-plus gnu (known here as wildebeest) moving en masse across grass-filled plains, over hills, and through rivers besieged by hungry crocs and watched by salivating lions and excitable hyenas. Pounding up the dirt in a splendid display of obedience to some powerful biorhythmic clock, it’s a riot of wild, unbridled energy and fierce determination as hordes of wildebeest and other, less clunky hangers-on — some 360,000 Thomson’s gazelle and 191,000 zebra — move across the border from Tanzania, filling the Mara with the primordial sounds, smells, and lumbering charm of their bovine feeding frenzy. So what’s the story?
After the long rains in April and May, the Mara’s sweet, tall, red ort grass, much loved by wildebeest, starts to grow, and, having exhausted the pastures of the Serengeti National Park, two million animals respond to some inexplicable instinct that ultimately brings them together into what looks like a single massive herd and steadily drift northward. Visually it’s breathtaking, although it’s a myth that these animals come bounding along as though this were some kind of goal-driven marathon — in fact, this “annual” migration is an ongoing circuitous event with no real start or end point. Sheer force of numbers creates the spectacular effect of a single surging column of life that stretches across the horizon.
With little more than grass (and an inkling of survival) on their minds, they continue to pour across the border, and as they fill the Mara, the ensuing action is relentless. Lurking by the wayside, prides of magnificent Mara lion — some numbering up to 40 strong — prepare to ambush their lumbering victims. And like kids in a candy store, Nile crocodiles wait along the rivers that will prove the undoing of tens of thousands. Leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas pick off unfortunate stragglers. The gruesome sight of predators pulling a struggling wildebeest apart is not for the faint of heart, but for those who can stomach the savagery; it’s a thrilling open-air lesson in survival of the fittest.
Navigating by instinct and memory, the beasts — in their eagerness to reach the long grass that covers the northerly plains — must cross the swirling waters of the Mara and Talek, rivers encountered along their circular route. It’s an awesome, inexplicable sight. One animal will raise its head as if testing the air and bound into the water, only to immediately be followed by thousands more. Diving and dashing into the waters with marauding predators waiting to pounce, these river crossings give visitors the chance to witness nature at its most brutal and bloody. Thousands of the animals drown, and the body pile-ups attract a motley assortment of scavengers. Instinctively — as if part of a natural ritual culling process that will weed out the weak and make room for future generations — the migrating herds inevitably choose terrifically dangerous fording points and attempt to cross near-impossible points in the river. The result is a mass drowning coupled with attacks by ravenous jubilant crocs and other predators. These grotesque and spectacular migration pile-ups may easily see up to 1,000 wildebeest dead at any particular point — but freak events, where the frenzied lemming-like wildebeest surge into fording points that are dangerously steep, or where the river current proves too fierce, can see the death toll rise to several times this number.
But the Migration is really not about death, but part of an endless, ongoing cycle of life. Drive into the midst of the herds, and you are immediately aware of the constant movement and ceaseless activity, and at night there’s a veritable concert of grunting gnus, barking zebras, roaring lions, and laughing hyenas against a backtrack of chorusing cicadas.
Finally, having grazed their way across the Mara over a 3- or 4-month period, the survivors steadily return south, usually before the onset of the short rains in November. By December or January, they will have reached the Ngorongoro highlands in time for their calving season that sees as many as 8,000 wildebeest calves dropped each day. Six months later, these newborn wildebeest will be strong enough to tackle the long march back toward the Mara. Such is the constant theater of primal, primordial Africa.