The Masai Mara is a place so rich in beauty and depth of feeling that you can scarcely believe it actually exists. A visit to the Mara can be life-changing as you experience the surreal geography, wildlife, human culture, and immersive activities in this singular landscape.
The Masai Mara is a 1,510-square-kilometer national reserve along the southern border of Kenya, sometimes called “the jewel atop the Serengeti.” It is a land with incredibly diverse geography and wildlife, home to most of the species of large mammals in Africa along with countless birds, reptiles, and other creatures. When Disney animators were preparing to draw The Lion King, they were sent to the Masai Mara.
“Masai Mara” means “spotted land” in the language of the local Maasai people, named for the giraffe-pruned acacia trees that dot the landscape. It is bounded by the Oloololo Escarpment to the west and bisected by the Mara River, eventually rolling into the Siana Plains to the east. To the south of the Masai Mara is the enormous 14,750-square-kilometer Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, an extension of the rolling open grasslands of the southern Mara.
The so-called Mara Triangle in the southwestern corner of the reserve—situated between the Oloololo Escarpment, the Mara River, and Tanzania—has some of the most diverse terrain, richest soils, and most abundant wildlife in the Mara. The Oloololo Escarpment is part of the East African Rift, a 5,600-kilometer series of rifts that are sinking and widening as Africa literally pulls apart at its seams. The escarpment and surrounding areas were featured in the 1985 Academy Award-winning film Out Of Africa, based on the acclaimed 1937 book of the same name by Karen Blixen (writing under the pen name “Isak Dinesen”), as well as Ernest Hemingway’s classic nonfiction adventure novel “Green Hills of Africa.”
The Masai Mara’s equatorial position and 6,000-foot elevation create a fairly mild year-round climate. Visitors from the northern hemisphere also get to enjoy a few southern-hemisphere treats, such as, for example, joining a night safari to view famous constellations such as the Southern Cross that are not visible at home.
For most visitors, The Masai Mara is all about the wildlife. Along with giraffes, cheetahs, hippopotamuses, and countless other creatures, the Mara is home to Africa’s “Big Five” game animals: the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo. Now popular with camera-wielding tourists in Land Cruisers, this group was so named by early big game hunters because of the difficulty and danger of hunting them on foot.
One of the spectacular events you might get to witness if you visit the Masai Mara between approximately August and November is the so-called “Great Migration” of approximately 2 million wildebeest, gazelles, zebras, and other herds. If you can, try to catch the herd as it crosses one of the regional rivers for a truly National Geographic-worthy spectacle.
Birds also abound in the Mara, with over 470 species that have been identified in the reserve, including ostriches, secretary birds, storks, numerous raptors, and brightly-colored beauties such as the lilac-breasted roller and little bee-eater.
The Masai Mara has been inhabited by the Maasai people for hundreds of years, with many Maasai villages continuing to live traditional lifestyles. Maasai life centers on their herds of cattle, which provide a primary source of food and other resources. Grazing the cattle on the grasslands of the Mara and surrounding regions is integral to Maasai life but can cause conflicts with wildlife and the agencies supporting ecotourism in the area. However, many Maasai villages are welcoming to visitors, and certain safari companies are able to facilitate village visits. As more and more Maasai experience the benefits of sharing their natural wonders with foreign visitors, the drive to protect these treasures will continue to grow.
Visits to the Masai Mara are usually dominated by game drives, which allow visitors to get very close to wildlife on specialized Land Cruisers and move through extensive stretches of the landscape. However, some safari companies provide numerous other activities, including walking safaris, hot-air balloon rides, and visits to local towns. Safari guides maintain networks of cooperating groups who inform each other of important wildlife sightings so that more guests are able to enjoy animals when they are spotted. Be sure to investigate all of the activities provided by your tour company and look for ways to engage the Mara outside of your four-wheel drive vehicle. Balloon rides are particularly magical, allowing you to glide silently over the landscape and peek into the lives of herds of astonishing creatures from above.