A Guide to Visiting Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve

The Maasai Mara National Reserve is one of the great wildlife-watching destinations
The Maasai Mara National Reserve is one of the great wildlife-watching destinations | © Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images
Joel Rabinowitz

The Maasai Mara National Reserve is one of the prime safari destinations in Africa, covering 1,510sqkm (583sqmi) in the Great Rift Valley in southern Kenya and bordering the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The grassy plains, riverine forests and acacia woodlands are home to the Big Five – lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo – and an array of other species, including wildebeest, zebras, hyenas and giraffes. Considering a trip? Our guide to visiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya points you in the right direction.

A two-night stay at a luxury safari lodge in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, including several game drives, is included as part of Culture Trip’s exclusive seven-day Kenya adventure, led by our Local Insider.

A brief history of the Maasai Mara National Reserve

The Maasai Mara is named after the local indigenous people

The Maasai Mara National Reserve was established in 1961 during the colonial era as a wildlife sanctuary spanning just 520sqkm (200sqmi). Later that year, it was expanded to the east and converted into a game reserve under the control of Narok County Council, covering 1,821sqkm (703sqmi). “Maasai” is the name of the indigenous people here, while “Mara” translates to “spotted” – a reference to the landscape, dotted with acacia trees and bushland.

Between 1974 and 1984, the reserve was cut down to its current size, with more than 300sqkm (116sqmi) returned to the Maasai communities displaced by the original formation of the park, significantly impacting their pastoral way of life. In 1994, the Trans Mara County Council was formed in the western part of the reserve, while the area known as the Mara Triangle came under the control of the not-for-profit organisation, Mara Conservancy, in 2001.

Today, Narok County Council is the main governing body, managing the eastern part of the reserve and overseeing work done by the Mara Conservancy group in the west, while Group Ranch Trusts, operated by local communities, administer the outer regions of the reserve. It receives around 200,000 annual visitors and is one of most important tourism income streams in Kenya, generating around £13m per year (prior to the Covid-19 pandemic).

Which animals live here?

The reserve is a great safari destination if you want to see the Big Five

Although the Maasai Mara National Reserve only makes up 0.01 percent of Africa’s total landmass, it contains more than 40 percent of the large mammals on the continent. All the Big Five roam in the wild here, including an estimated 850 to 900 lions, around 2,500 elephants, 35 to 50 black rhinos and more than 9,000 buffalo. The reserve is also home to one of the largest leopard populations in Africa – although these beautiful creatures are notoriously difficult to spot, given they typically hunt at night and spend a lot of time in the trees.

Rhinos are one of around 90 mammal species you could see in the reserve

Roughly 90 mammal species live in the reserve, including giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, hippos, hyenas and honey badgers. Wildebeest, meanwhile, take part in a spectacular phenomenon during their annual migration from the Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, in which more than 1.5m animals journey hundreds of kilometres in search of water and fresh grass to graze on.

Zebra join wildebeest on their annual migration from the Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara

The reserve is also a bird watcher’s paradise, home to more than 500 species, including the fischer’s lovebird (instantly recognisable by its bright green, yellow and red feathers), the kori bustard (the heaviest flying bird in the world) and the acrobatic bateleur eagle.

When should you visit?

Aim for the dry seasons when visiting the park

As Kenya sits directly on the equator, seasonal changes in temperature are relatively minor and, with such an abundance of wildlife, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is an excellent safari destination throughout most of the year. However, the dry period between late June to early October offers the best conditions for wildlife viewing. This also coincides with the Great Wildebeest Migration, which tends to be in full swing in August and September – although the exact dates are unpredictable, varying year to year.

There’s another dry season from December to early March, when you can take advantage of considerably cheaper rates and fewer crowds. Late March to the end of May, and late October to the start of December, are the rainiest months of the year, which can interfere with safaris, as dirt tracks can become unusable and many animals are harder to spot.

How do you get there?

Aim for the dry seasons when visiting the park

Flying is by far the quickest way to get to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. From Nairobi Wilson Airport, there are regular flights with airlines, such as Airkenya and Safarilink, to several air strips in the Maasai Mara, from which you can be picked up and driven to your accommodation. The journey only takes around 45 minutes and return tickets cost roughly £279 ($370), depending on the time of year.

The cheaper alternative is to drive, which takes around five to six hours from Nairobi, depending on which entry point you want to access. The journey, which is around 225km (140mi) from the capital to the nearest gate, affords spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley and an insight into rural Kenyan life as you pass through numerous remote villages.

The route itself is fairly straightforward: follow the A104 out of Nairobi and then turn on to the B3 heading west towards Narok. The Sekenani, Talek and Oloolaimutia gates are accessed via the C12, the Musiara and Oloololo gates via the C13. For the first half of the journey, the roads are generally well paved – but prepare for a bumpy ride in the latter half, as the road becomes a lot rougher the closer you get to the reserve. It’s sensible to hire a 4×4 vehicle if you plan to drive.

Where should you stay?

A luxury tent is a comfortable yet thrilling place to sleep in the reserve

There’s no shortage of accommodation options within the Maasai Mara National Reserve and many of the private conservancies nearby. Options range from ecofriendly, boutique-style tented camps to five-star luxury lodges, strategically located close to the prime wildlife-viewing spots. Most include full board within their rates, and provide experienced rangers who’ll take you on 4×4 game drives.

Sala’s Camp, Rekero Camp, Little Governors Camp and Elephant Pepper Camp are among the outstanding tented camps, offering maximum comfort and style in an idyllic, wilderness setting, alongside unforgettable safari experiences. If you’d rather stay in a lodge, opt for Angama Mara, which overlooks the Mara plains from the edge of the Oloololo escarpment; Mara Serena Safari Lodge, close to one of the main wildebeest river crossing points; or Keekorok Lodge, which offers private balconies with every room.

Not bothered about luxury amenities and just looking for a convenient base to venture into the reserve? Fisi Camp, Olmoran Tented Camp and Crocodile Camp are much more rustic, but have everything you need for a fraction of the price.

Make sure to book a 4×4 if you plan on driving to the Maasai Mara

Entry to the Maasai Mara National Reserve costs £52.88 ($70) per 24 hours for adults if you’re staying within the reserve or £60.43 ($80) if you’re staying outside the reserve. It’s possible to do a self-drive safari, though this isn’t recommended as your chances of spotting wildlife are much greater when accompanied by a ranger, kitted out with a radio system to communicate with others about potential sightings.

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