Masai Mara National Reserve
To many people the Masai Mara represents the classic African Safari. Most visitors to Kenya will include this iconic area of Kenya. But it can also represent one of the worst examples of mass market Safari tourism, with severe overcrowding in some Masai Mara areas during the July to September peak season. The seemingly endless grass plains dotted with acacia trees, and the endless skies above, reflect all that one expects to find in the African Savannah, and are a truly spectacular experience. The game viewing here is superb all year round! The Masai Mara is especially good for big cat sightings and it is no coincidence that the famous BBC Big Cat Diaries was filmed here. But there is an abundance of other wildlife here, including zebra, giraffe, elephant, buffalo, rhino, hyena, jackal, wildebeest, and many species of antelope. There is also a variety of accommodation in and around the Reserve ranging from large budget hotels to small, intimate, high end camps.
As if all these attractions were not enough, the Masai Mara is also the scene of the Great Migration, possibly the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth! Every year over a million wildebeest and other plains game arrive in the Masai Mara during the annual migration round the Serengeti/Mara in search of fresh grass. These herds are always hotly pursued by predators. The river crossings during the migration are some of the most photographed wildlife spectacles on earth as the herds cross back and forth, braving the hungry crocodiles that wait for them. The Mara river is one of the major rivers they will cross and many of these crossing points will be in the Masai Mara. The exact time of arrival of the migration herds in the Masai Mara varies each year but generally they will be there from about July to September.
It is not surprising then that the “Mara” is one of the most popular and most famous Safari Reserves in Africa. Nor is the Masai Mara that big compared to other Safari Reserves in Kenya. This inevitably leads to severe overcrowding during the peak migration season. During this time the Mara can seem more like a car park than a Safari Park as hundreds of cars and minibuses jostle for space at the best sightings or migration river crossing points. This can certainly lower the quality of your Safari experience. It may not be possible to avoid the crowds totally at certain times of the year but there are various strategies that can help. We advise our clients about these strategies, and we discuss them further below!
Where to Stay in the Masai Mara National Reserve
The Masai Mara National Reserve covers 1500km², which is small compared to other premier Safari Reserves. But the Masai Mara is part of a much vaster ecosystem, including private conservancies that border the Reserve, and the Serengeti. To the south of the Masai Marais the Serengeti on the Tanzanian side of the border - which in comparison covers 15000 km²! To the north and east are various private reserves or conservancies which we will discuss in more detail below. There are no fences around the Mara Reserve, although the Sand & Mara rivers form a natural boundary between the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. Wildlife is free to roam over this vast area. Unfortunately, movement in this area is not as easy for humans! It is not possible to cross directly between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara as there are no legal border crossings. But there are no restrictions moving from the Masai Mara Reserve to the private conservancies that border it.
There are 2 major rivers in the Masai Mara Reserve. The Mara River is the main one, which flows all the way through the Masai Mara and into the Serengeti. Then the Talek river is a tributary of the Mara River. This neatly divides the reserve into 3 main sectors - the area to the east of the Mara & Talek rivers, the Musiara Sector between the Talek and the Mara River, and then the Mara Triangle to the west of the Mara River. There are very few crossing points over these rivers, so generally lodges will only do game drives within the sector that they are in. We recommend lodges in all these sectors but there are certain areas that we would recommend more.
The Musiara sector is a real favourite of ours. This sector offers some of the best game viewing in the whole Masai Mara Reserve. The long-established Governors' Collection of camps offers excellent accommodation options. These camps are very close to some of the best river crossing locations during the migration season. Relative to other areas, this area is also less busy during the peak season months.
The Mara Triangle area is also a good option - there are fewer lodges here compared to other areas of the Reserve, so it will be less busy.
The area of the Masai Mara to the east of the Mara & Talek rivers is where we are more selective. There are several good camps on the east bank of the Mara River. This area can get very busy, but prices can be more reasonable than the Musiara Sector and Mara Triangle. The outstanding location of these camps both for game viewing and for access to some of the best river crossings during the migration season means they are worth considering.
Right in the south of the Masai Mara on the Sand River, near the border with the Serengeti, there are also 2 superb high-end options - Sala’s Camp and Elewana’s Sand River camp. This area is very peaceful. These are the first camps to see the migration as it arrives in the Masai Mara, but their high prices may be beyond many clients’ budgets!
In the north of the reserve around the Talek Gate entrance there are a large number of lodges. This area offers some of the cheapest accommodation in the Masai Mara but the area does get very busy indeed. So we would only recommend this area really if a client’s budget was not high enough to stay in other sectors of the Reserve.
In the far east of the Reserve you will find the budget accommodation options in the Mara. Here you will find several large lodges with 70+ rooms including the Keekerok, Sopa and Sarova lodges. If you have booked a budget Safarito the Masai Mara then you will probably be arriving in a minibus from Nairobi and staying in this area. Not surprisingly this is probably the busiest area of the Reserve and we really do try to avoid it!
Avoiding the crowds in the Masai Mara region
At certain times of the year the number of vehicles in the Masai Mara can be a real issue. It may not always be possible to avoid this in the National Reserve itself but there are certain things clients can do that will help.
It should be remembered that the Reserve is only very crowded at certain times of the year. The peak season from July to September, when the Great Migration is in the Reserve, and the period over Christmas and New Year are the busiest times. If you are traveling with children, you may only be able to travel during these periods. But if you have a choice then definitely consider avoiding travel at these times. So much of the marketing about the Masai Mara focuses on the Migration that many clients think that this is the only time worth going there. But that is simply not true!! The Masai Mara has abundant resident wildlife all year round. Whenever you go it offers a fantastic Safari experience with game viewing that is as good as or even better than what you would have in other premier Safariareas like the Okavango Delta or South Luangwa Park during their peak season!
At certain times of the year there is the risk of rain but January to February, or June, are great times to visit the Mara, when it should be dry and less crowded. And of course, avoiding the peak season months has the added advantage of cheaper prices!
Avoiding staying in the busiest areas of the Reserve will also help. We would be lying if we said that any part of the Masai Mara Reserve will be quiet during the peak season, but some areas are busier than others. As we noted above the areas around the Talek Gate entrance and in the east of the Reserve are the worst areas for overcrowding. So, if budget permits we would always avoid these areas.
Perhaps the best way to avoid crowds even during the peak season months is to stay in one of the private conservancies that border the National Reserve. Unlike the actual National Reserve, where anyone can enter, the private conservancies have strict limits on who can do game drives in their area. Generally only lodges located inside each conservancy can operate in that area. There are also strict rules limiting the number of vehicles allowed at sightings. So at any time of the year the private conservancies will be much less crowded. We discuss these private conservancies in much more detail in the “Masai Mara Private Conservancies” section of our website under the “Kenya” heading.
Activities in the Masai Mara National Reserve
The main activities offered by all lodges are morning and afternoon game drives. These will always be included in the rates. Some lodges may also offer various cultural activities including visits to local Maasai communities.
Walking safaris are not permitted inside the National Reserve so most camps will not offer this, but a few camps can arrange walking activities in private conservancies bordering the reserve.
The other activity that all camps can arrange is hot air ballooning. This is a truly spectacular and iconic experience! Ballooning is always at an additional cost. We strongly recommend booking this experience in advance as it is extremely popular!
No water activities are possible on the Mara or Talek Rivers.