Here’s what to expect from a Masai Mara safari in Kenya:
A safari in the Masai Mara (also sometimes spelled Maasai Mara) is one of the most popular things to do while visiting Kenya. This is the region that inspired Disney’s The Lion King–any childhood fan of the movie will immediately have “Circle of Life” in their head upon arrival.
The good news about Masai Mara safaris is that they can be booked affordably (especially as part of an overlanding tour from Dragoman or the like) or they can be five-stars, and the only major difference is the level of accommodation and the food served. In February 2016 we took part in a 2-night safari from Nairobi as part of Dragoman’s Africa East and South tour. If our Masai Mara safari hadn’t been pre-arranged by Dragoman, I think I’d have started by consulting an old-fashioned travel guide from Lonely Planet or Fodor’s, simply as a way of narrowing down all the results you’ll find online. It can be overwhelming to start by consulting a large travel forum like Trip Advisor for this purpose.
The important thing to know for booking a safari tour operator is that you want one that runs the tour in 4×4 jeeps–NOT large overlanding trucks. The roads en route to the Masai Mara and within the park are full of potholes, so you need to be in vehicles that can transverse these easily or maneuver around them. We saw many overland vehicles stopped by the side of the road in East Africa, waiting to be serviced, with many bored, hot, and uncomfortable tourists standing around waiting for the issue to be dealt with. 4×4 jeeps are also important for game spotting–guides can quickly and quietly find groups of animals in a smaller vehicle. Lastly, 4×4 jeeps outfitted for Masai Mara safari’s usually have a convertible top that raises so that the passenger can pop their head out (rather than hanging out of a window, which is very dangerous on a safari). If you are on a package overland tour that includes a Masai Mara safari, ask about this before booking–it will have a huge impact on your time in the park.
It took about six hours to drive from Nairobi to the Masai Mara passing through the Rift Valley and deeper into the southwest corner of Kenya, close to the Tanzanian border. You’ll likely be on main roads until Nakuru (which is actually to the northwest of Nairobi), then you’ll start making your way south on smaller dirt roads. Well before you get to the camps surrounding the park, you’ll start seeing giraffes, zebras, and wildebeasts. The drive will be bumpy and is not very pleasant for those prone to motion sickness. Bring water and snacks, too. One of the jeeps in our party had car trouble and ended up not arriving at our camp until well after dinner. (Another note: Use the bathroom in Nakuru–it’s dangerous to get out of the car and use the bathroom by the side of the road as you get closer to the camp. You never know which animals might be lurking, and you don’t want to surprise any of them!)
We stayed at Acacia Camp in covered huts, each outfitted with twin beds and clean, though very well-used, bed linens. The bathrooms and showers are shared, but they were not electrified, so at night you must use a headlamp or flashlight. Each had a porch seating area and space to dry or air out clothes and gear. Your safari or tour guides should be taking care of your food needs while you are in camp since the camps will not likely have food on site for purchase. Acacia had a kitchen area for our tour’s cook as well as patio dining area for eating and hanging out. You should store any snacks you brought with you wherever your cook is storing the rest of the food–otherwise it attracts wild animals to your hut. Acacia Camp also sold beer and sodas for about $1 each, but they ran out quickly (so BYO if this is important to you!), and they weren’t able to make change. I would also recommend bringing some more water for camp, just in case something happens to your filtered water supply. You won’t be near any stores–this is a very remote part of the world, despite its popularity.
These are the questions I’d consider before booking a Masai Mara safari:
- How long will I get to be inside the park? For example, a 1-night safari likely means only 1 morning game drive before returning back to Nairobi or another hub. If the game spotting is thin on that 1 drive, you’ll wish you had another.
- How long can I really spend in a jeep with 6 other people? Conversely, after 3 game drives in the Masai Mara, I was cagey and ready to move onto a new activity. There are no walking safaris in the Masai, so all this time spent in the park is spent sitting down.
- What are we eating, and how is it being cooked? Some safaris are staffed by a chef and servers; others are participatory, where passengers need to help chop vegetables, wash dishes, and lug water.
- Where are we sleeping and showering? Many camps are extremely basic.
- Will we tour the park in a jeep with a knowledgeable guide? This is almost always the case, but again, overland tours might use their own large vehicles to save costs.
You’ll be getting up around 4am to get ready, have breakfast, and set out on a morning game drive by 5 or 5:30am. Game drives have to happen in the early morning or at dusk since these are the times of day when animals are on the move–mid-day is when it gets the hottest, and lots of the big hunting game like lions use this time to rest, and blend into the surroundings. Bring your camera and wear shoes that can slip easily on and off–you’ll likely end up standing on a seat to see out of the raised jeep roof, and it’s rude to have your dusty shoes on the seats. You should also bring water, since you won’t be back to camp until 10:30am or so. Don’t bring snacks–these have the danger of attracting animals.
The Masai Mara National Park has an entrance gate where your guide will stop to purchase permits–there are a limited number of these to protect against too much traffic. Safari operators should have booked a reservation in advance to avoid the possibility of not being able to get a permit upon arrival. The cost should be included as part of what you booked. A local guide–someone who works directly for the park and knows the landscape and roads intimately–might join your jeep. Some jeeps are stocked with binoculars and wildlife books. I found myself referring to the books quite a bit, despite not being much of an outdoors enthusiast before the trip.
Entering the Masai Mara National Park, you’ll likely see giraffes, zebras, wildebeasts, and antelopes right away. Within just fifteen minutes, we saw an antelope giving birth to a foal. It’s not uncommon for people to be incredibly moved on their first siting of this kind of wildlife–almost everyone in our jeep was stunned into silence, and at least 2 people had tears in their eyes. After people acclimated, everyone got busy taking tons and tons of photos. Everyone will likely move around the jeep a lot so that everyone can get good angles–be mindful to be generous with the view!
When you get deeper into the park, near more of the trees and bushes, you’ll see elephants eating their breakfast.
My favorite part of game driving was listening to the guides speaking Swahili over a short wave radio from jeep to jeep. We were ambling along, admiring the rolling hills that so perfectly matched the animations in The Lion King, when I heard a frantic voice across the airwaves say, “Simba!” Any die-hard fan of The Lion King knows “simba” means lion! And lions are among the most coveted, exciting spottings in the Masai. Our driver shifted gears and tore across the park to where the lion had been seen. It was a jeep rally around the site.
Once we arrived, we were deathly quiet, hoping not to scare off the lionesses and their cubs we were watching. It is horrible safari etiquette to yell or be rowdy in any way in the presence of these animals. A good safari driver will be careful for how close they get, but most guides work off tips, so they also want to do their best to help passengers get amazing photos. Don’t forget that you are visiting these animals in their homes, and they will stand their ground if they feel threatened. Listen to your driver when he tells you to sit down or close your window.
Spotting a male lion is even more rare than a lioness, because it’s the lioness that is out and about, hunting. But we saw one taking a stroll along the road, checking us out.
In fact, on all of our 3 game drives in the Masai Mara, we found lions, some close enough to admire their cubs’ sweet faces.
Your driver will usually politely wait for you to take as many photos as you like, so when you’re done, just thank him and he’ll move along to a new spot.
Evening game drives are less active that morning ones. For these you’ll be in the park from about 4:30pm through sunset. Evening drives are a great chance to take landscape photos since the lighting is so perfect. Your guide can be fined if they don’t leave the park by a certain time (I think 7pm). Our driver, who was trying in vain to find a rhino he’d heard was on the far edge of the park, almost didn’t make it back to the gate, and ended up speeding through the park at breakneck speed. It was thrilling!
DO NOT forget to bring any of these items with you on a safari:
- A headlamp! Camps rarely have electricity or enough lighting to navigate safely at night.
- An aluminum water bottle. Most safari and tour operators will bring large jerry-cans of filtered water for everyone to share.
- Extra water and snacks for the drive to and from camp.
- Warm clothes–it gets very cold at night and in the early morning.
- Sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen. The sun is very bright during the day.
- Insect repellent or wipes
- Hand sanitizer and wet wipes
- Toilet paper and plastic bags for storing it until you find a wastebasket
- A towel–unless you are on a luxury safari, a towel won’t be provided for the shower
- A nail brush–this was the thing I wished for the most. It is dusty out there, and your nails will get dirty easily.
- Travel alarm–you’ll need this to rise early for sunrise game drives.
- A good camera. Even those who don’t take many pictures in their regular lives will want to capture the experience.