For a long list of reasons, Maasai Mara is the best game reserve in Kenya. Set at nearly 2000m above sea level, the reserve is a great wedge of undulating grassland in the remote, sparsely inhabited southwest of the country, right up against the Tanzanian border and, indeed, an extension of the even bigger Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. This is a land of short grass and croton bushes (Mara means “spotted”, after the yellow crotons dotted on the plains), where the wind plays with the thick, green mantle after the rains and, nine months later, whips up dust devils from the baked surface. Maasai Mara’s climate is relatively predictable, with ample rain, and the new grass supports an annual wildebeest migration of half a million animals from the dry plains of Tanzania.
At any time of year, the Mara has abundant wildlife. Whether you’re watching the migration, a pride of lions hunting, a herd of elephants grazing in the marsh, or hyenas squabbling with vultures over the carcass of a buffalo, you are conscious all the time of being in a realm apart. To travel through the reserve in August or September, while the wildebeest are in possession, feels like being caught up in the momentum of a historic event. There are few places on earth where animals hold such dazzling sway.
With its plentiful vegetation and wildlife, the reserve’s ecosystem might at first appear resilient to the effect of huge numbers of tourists. However, the Mara is the most visited wildlife area in Kenya, and the balance between increasing tourist numbers and wildlife can’t be maintained indefinitely. Off-road driving kills the protective cover of vegetation and can create dust bowls that spread like sores through the effects of natural wind and water erosion and become muddy quagmires in the rains.
Human population increase is also a threat: the animal numbers in the Mara are still huge by comparison with most other parts of Africa, but the enormous herds of every species – not just wildebeest – that were here after independence are gone, as Kenya’s population has quadrupled. With the land subdivided and sold off, the old ecosystem, in which the Maasai and their herds mingled with the wildlife, is beyond being challenged: local people no longer tolerate lions and hyenas near their homes, or buffalo where their children are walking to school, or elephants raiding their corn. The answer, in an imperfect world, is wildlife conservancies for the wildlife and ranching and settlement areas for people.
Originally, it was The Marsh Lions, by Brian Jackman and Jonathan Scott, first published in 1982, that captured the public imagination with its tales of the characters in the Kichwa Tembo, Miti Mbili and Marsh prides living in the Musiara and Mara North areas. Given names like Notch, Scar and Shadow, the anthropomorphism provided a hook for readers into the lives of big cats that a traditional natural history account might have struggled to achieve. The makers of Disney’s 1994 film The Lion King, who visited Kenya on safari during their research phase, seem to have had the same idea, keeping their movie grounded – as far as the cartoon world allows – in the lives of real animals, and making The Lion King into one of the biggest-grossing animations of all time.
Presenting real lion behaviour, while treating the cats as the subjects of a reality TV show – and later as celebrities – was the concept behind the BBC’s Big Cat Diary, which started airing, more or less live, during the migration season of 1996. Feeding, and then indulging, a huge audience appetite, Big Cat Diary – later Big Cat Live – followed the fortunes of the Mara’s lions, leopards and cheetahs and ran until 2008, becoming one of the network’s most popular shows, regularly viewed by ten percent of the UK population. Safari met soap-opera in another feline film phenomenon in 2011, Disney’s African Cats, a much hyped cinema release that blends remarkable documentary footage with a part-fictional storyline – the equivalent of The Hills or The Only Way is Essex, but with real manes.
The intense fascination with the minutiae of the lives of a few individual lions has clear conservation benefits for the future survival of big cats in Kenya, especially in the most touristed areas. Because of their international fame, the Mara’s big cats are recognized as important (and adorable) characters worthy of protection, not persecution. The risk is, however, that it may divert attention away from the wider conservation story of Africa’s lions, leopards and cheetahs that will never have their own television show.
The Maasai Mara is the one part of Kenya where the concentrations of game that existed in the nineteenth century can still be seen, even if it’s true numbers have hugely diminished overall. The panorama sometimes resembles one of those wild-animal wall charts, where groups of unlikely-looking animal companions are forced into the artist’s frame. You can see a dozen different species in one gaze: gazelle, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, topi, kongoni (Coke’s hartebeest), wildebeest, eland, elephant, hyena, jackal, ostrich, and a pride of lions waiting for a chance. The most interesting areas, scenically and zoologically, tend to be westwards, signalled by the long ridge of the Oloololo Escarpment. If you only have a day or two, and you’re inside the reserve, you could do worse than spend most of your time here, near the Mara River.
It sometimes seems, however, that wherever there are animals there are people – in minibuses, in Land Cruisers, in rented Suzukis, often parked in ravenous, zoom-lens-touting packs around understandably irritable lions, leopards and cheetahs (the official limit is five vehicles around an animal at any one time). This popularity is highly seasonal, and can be overbearing around Christmas and during the migration, but it need not spoil your visit. If you aren’t driving yourself, encourage your driver to explore new areas (obviously not off-road) and perhaps stress you’d rather experience the reserve in its totality than tick off animal species.
Big brunette lions are the best-known denizens of the Maasai Mara. There are now between six hundred and eight hundred in the greater Mara ecosystem, but their numbers are believed to have dropped significantly in the past thirty years, thanks to hunting and the reduction in the number of wildebeest and other game they depend on for survival. They are relatively easy to find, however, and there are usually several prides firmly in possession of their territories in the Musiara and Sekenani sectors, as well as in the Triangle. Instinctively, they use the Mara’s river and stream meanders and many confluences as “lobster pots” to corner their prey in ambushes, and it is sometimes possible to watch them hunt, as they take very little notice of vehicles. The Mara Lion Project and Mara Cheetah Project work across the ecosystem, following in the footsteps of the ground-breaking Mara Predator Project, whose “Living With Lions” database made use of visitors’ photos and observations.
While lions seem to be lounging under every other bush, finding a cheetah is much harder (they can sometimes be seen on the murram mounds alongside the Talek–Sekenani road). These are usually solitary cats – slender, unobtrusive, somewhat shy and vulnerable to harassment by wildlife-watchers. Cases of cheetahs using vehicles as look-out hills – first noted only in the 1990s – have become common, as they lose their fear and adapt to close human scrutiny. Their natural hunting times are dawn and dusk, but some cheetahs prefer to hunt during the middle of the day, when the humans are shaded in the lodges. This is not a good time of day for the cheetah, which expends terrific energy in each chase and may have to give up if it goes on for more then thirty or forty seconds. When they move, cheetahs exhibit marvellous speed and agility and, if you’re lucky enough to witness a kill, it’s likely to take place in a cloud of dust a kilometre from where the chase began.
Leopards, are seen increasingly often in the daytime, and there are plenty of them. Leopard Gorge, in the Mara North Conservancy, is an obvious place to look. Their deep, grating roar at night – a grunt, repeated – is a sound which, once heard, you carry around with you.
By the early 1990s, wild dogs were thought to have been extinct in the greater Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, but in 2013 a couple of packs were spotted in Olare Motorogi and Mara North conservancies. Sightings remain rare though.
The Mara has the country’s only indigenous black rhino population – meaning that it has not been affected by translocations to and from the region – though numbers are small and every calf born is a victory. Finding them is often difficult, but rangers and lodge staff are certain to know their whereabouts and point you in the right direction.
Maasai Mara’s other heavyweights are about in abundance. The Mara River surges with hippo, while big families of elephant traipse along the forested river and stream margins and spread out across the plains when there’s plenty of vegetation to browse.
Among all these outstanding characters, the herds of humble grazers can quickly fade into the background. It’s easy to become blasé when one of the much-hyped “big five” (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard) isn’t eyeballing you at arm’s length – but those are the hunter’s trophies and not necessarily the photographer’s. Warthog families like rows of dismantled Russian dolls, zebra and gazelle, odd-looking hartebeest and slick, purple-flanked topi are all scattered with abandon across the scene. The topi are particularly characteristic of the Maasai Mara, being almost confined in Kenya largely to this reserve: there are always one or two in every herd standing sentry on a grass tussock or an old termite mound. Topi and giraffe – whose dream-like, slow-motion canter is one of the reserve’s most beautiful and underrated sights – are often good pointers for predators in the vicinity: look closely at what they’re watching.
Of all Kenya’s peoples, the Maasai have received the most attention. Often strikingly tall and slender, dressed in brilliant red cloth, with beads, metal jewellery and – for young men – long, ochred hairstyles, they have a reputation for ferocity fed by their somewhat arch superiority complex. Traditionally, they lived off milk and blood (extracted, by a close shot with a stumpy arrow, from the jugular veins of their live cattle), and they loved their herds more than anything else, rarely slaughtering a beast. They maintained rotating armies of spartan warriors – the morani – who killed lions as a test of manhood. And they opposed all interference and invasion with swift, implacable violence. The Maasai scorn of foreigners was absolute: they called the Europeans, who came swaddled in clothing, iloridaa enjekat or “those who confine their farts”. They also derided African peoples who cultivated by digging the earth – the Maasai even left their dead unburied – while those who kept cattle were given grudging respect so long as they conceded that all the world’s cattle were a gift from God to the Maasai, whose incessant cattle-raiding was thus righteous reclamation of stolen property. Cattle are still at the heart of Maasai society. There are dozens of names for different colours and patterns, and each animal among their three million is individually cherished.
Some of this noble savagery was undoubtedly exaggerated by Swahili and Arab slave and ivory traders, anxious to protect their routes from the Europeans. At the same time, something close to a cult of the Maasai has been around ever since Thomson walked Through Maasai Land in 1883. In the early years of the colony, Governor Delamere’s obsession with the people and all things Maasai spawned a new term, “Maasai-itis”, and with it a motley crop of romantic notions about their ancestors, alluding to ancient Egypt and Rome, and even to the lost tribes of Israel.
The Maasai have been assailed on all sides: by uplands farmers expanding from the north; by eviction from the tourist/conservation areas within the Maasai Mara boundaries; and by a climate of opposition to their traditional lifestyle from all around. Sporadically urged to grow crops, go to school, build permanent houses, and generally settle down and stop being a nuisance, the Maasai face an additional dilemma in squaring these edicts with the fickle demands of the tourist industry for traditional authenticity. Maasai dancing is the entertainment, while necklaces, gourds, spears, shields, rungus (clubs), busts (carved by Kamba carvers) and even life-sized wooden morani, to be shipped home in a packing case, are the stock-in-trade of the souvenir shops. For the Maasai themselves, the rewards are fairly scant. Few make much of a living selling souvenirs, but enterprising morani can do well by just posing for photos, and even better if they hawk themselves in Nairobi or down on the coast. For further information, see wmaasai-association.org.
In terms of structuring your visit, think of the national reserve in three parts. In the west you have the Mara Triangle, between the Mara River and the Oloololo Escarpment. This lush, green area is only accessible from Oloololo Gate in the north, or by crossing the Mara New (Purungat) Bridge in the far south. It’s administered by the Mara Conservancy on behalf of Narok County Council. The rest of the national reserve, the Narok side, is administered directly by Narok County Council and consists of the Musiara sector in the north and the Sekenani sector in the centre and east. The Musiara sector, bounded by the Mara and Talek rivers, is the location of Governors' Camp and MaraIntrepids and has some of the most photogenic wildebeest river crossings. The Sekenani sector, the largest portion of the reserve, is bordered by the Talek, Mara and Sand rivers, and has Keekorok Lodge – the oldest lodge in the reserve – in its centre.
Outside the reserve, roughly a dozen conservancies, group ranches and private game ranches, usually run in partnership with the local Maasai communities, offer wildlife-viewing that is often the equal of what you’ll see in the reserve proper – increasingly reflected in their management practices, conservation work and prices. Some of them, including the Mara North and Mara Naboisho conservancies, only permit game drives for visitors staying at their camps and lodges, the aim being to limit visitor numbers and exclude drive-in minibus tours.
It is the annual wildebeest migration, often billed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, that has planted Maasai Mara so firmly in the popular imagination. The numbers are far down from their peaks of over a million wildebeest in the 1960s and 70s, but still an average of nearly half a million animals swell the Mara’s sedentary population ever year.
With a lemming-like instinct, the herds gather in their hundreds of thousands in May and June on the withering plains of the Serengeti to begin the long journey northwards, following the scent of moisture and green grass in the Mara. They arrive in July and August, streaming over the Sand River and into the Sekenani side of the reserve, gradually munching their way westwards towards the escarpment in a milling mass, and turning south again, back to the Serengeti, in October and November. Never the most graceful of animals, wildebeest seem to play up to their appearance with unpredictable behaviour; bucking like wild horses, springing like jack-in-the-boxes, or suddenly sprinting off through the herd for no apparent reason.
The Mara River is their biggest obstacle. Heavy rains falling up on the Mau Range where the river rises can produce a brown flood that claims thousands of animals as they try to cross. Like huge sheep (they are, in fact, most closely related to goats), the brainless masses swarm desperately to the banks and plunge in. Many are fatally injured on rocks and fallen branches; others are skewered by flailing legs and horns. With every surge, more bodies bob to the surface and float downstream. Heaps of bloated carcasses line the banks; injured and dying animals struggle in the mud, while vultures and marabou storks squat in glazed, post-prandial stupor.
The migration’s full, cacophonous impact is awesomely melodramatic – both on the plains and at the deadly river crossings. This superabundance of meat accounts for the Mara’s big lion population. Through it all, spotted hyenas scamper and loiter like psychopathic sheepdogs: a quarter of a million wildebeest calves are born in January and February before the migration, of which two out of three perish in the Mara without returning to the Serengeti.
One diversion you’re likely to be offered, especially if travelling on an organized safari, is a visit to a Maasai enkang, usually incorrectly called a manyatta (an enkang is an ordinary homestead, a manyatta a ceremonial bush camp). Forget about the authenticity of tribal life: this is the real world. Children and old people are sick, young men have moved to the towns, and everyone wants your money. Unprepared and uncomfortable, most visitors find the experience depressing or a bit of a rip-off, or both. You’ll pay around $30 per person if organized by your lodge, camp or safari driver, or around Ksh1000 per person if you arrange it yourself, for the right to have a look around, peer inside some dwellings, and be on the receiving end of a determined sales pitch to get you to buy souvenirs. Because of the supposed sales opportunity, safari drivers have for decades paid a tiny fee to the headman of their chosen village and kept the bulk of the cash for themselves. A number of initiatives are now changing this, however, and the best operators and camps have worked hard to make the experience less mercantile and more worthwhile for both parties. Visitors can play their part, too, by not just standing and staring, or snapping away on a camera, but by actually sitting down and talking to the Maasai (there will always be people who speak a little English), which may well transform the interaction into a shared experience full of interest and laughter.