Head to Masai Mara, a game reserve to savour the true African experience.

Have you ever watched Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet, and wondered what it would be like to actually visit those vast African plains and watch the wildlife in action? Are you the type of person who wishes to directly see and feel the thrill of a lion snaring its prey? Then Masai Mara is the place for you.

Teeming with wildlife

Located 224 kilometres from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, the Masai Mara National Reserve is probably the most famous and most visited Reserve in East Africa. It offers breathtaking views with its rolling grasslands and wide-open savannah (as seen in various documentaries and films like “Out of Africa”, “I dreamed of Africa” and “Walking with the Lions” to name a few) and an extraordinary density of animals. Two countries, Kenya and Tanzania share the expansive Serengeti plains. The Masai Mara reserve is unfenced and borders the Serengeti National Park, leaving the wildlife free to roam between Kenya and Tanzania in search of food.

The Masai Mara Game Reserve is often called simply “The Mara”. This comes from the word ‘Maa' which means ‘mottled' — a reference to the patchy landscape. The term Masai or Maasai, refers to the proud semi-nomadic cattle-rearing people who live in the Mara region. The Maasai are strong and independent people with fascinating cultures, who still value tradition and ritual as an integral part of their everyday lives. They have a very special relationship with cattle which are essential to their life-style. Traditionally, the Maasai rarely hunt and living alongside wildlife in harmony is an important part of their beliefs.This unique co-existence of man and wildlife makes this Maasai land one of the world's most unique wilderness regions. As a part of our guided tour, we were privileged to visit a Maasai dwelling site. They live in small huts made of mud and cow-dung. The inside is very cool- almost like an air-conditioned house. The huts have thatched roofs and surprisingly, they do not smell. Cooking is usually done outdoors. Maasai are traditionally clothed in red cloth and they adorn themselves with beads-hundreds of them, as ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets, etc. With the increase in tourism, Maasai women now sell their various artefacts and handicrafts. Almost every night, the tribesmen and women gather round a fire and stories are shared as the young ones listen wide-eyed. The Maasai dance is quite famous and a few Maasai visit lodges and camps to dance for the tourists.

The Masai Mara is a Game Reserve (sometimes called a National Reserve) although an inner area is treated as a National Park. Reserves are normally managed by local authorities and allow lodges, camp sites and the settling of some tribes with their cattle. National Parks are normally managed centrally and do not allow any human inhabitation other than for Park Rangers and people on safari.

The Masai Mara Reserve is rich in Africa's biggest attractions, where predators are abundant and are encountered around every corner. No African safari is complete without viewing the Big Five. The famous “Big Five” include the lion, leopard, elephant, wild buffalo and the black rhinoceros — Africa's most dangerous, yet majestic animals. Numerous antelopes can be found, including Thomson's and Grant's gazelle, impala, topiand Coke's hartebeest. Large herds of zebraare found through the reserve, with cheetahs hot on their tails. The plains are also home to the distinctive Masai giraffeas well as the common giraffe. The large Roanantelope and the nocturnal bat-eared fox, rarely present elsewhere in Kenya, can be seen within the reserve borders. The Masai Mara is a major research centre for the spotted hyena. Additionally, over 450 species of birdlife have been identified in the park, including vulture, marabou, secretary bird, hornbill, crowned crane, ostrich, long-crested eagle, and pygmy falcon.

An impressive feature is the annual migration of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles from the plains of the Serengeti that cross the Tanzanian border and rivers to reach the Mara's grasslands from late June, tracked by predators: lion, leopard, cheetah, and hyena, and circled by vultures as their journey unfolds.

Their dramatic river crossings are a reality for tourists visiting in early July-August.

At the Mara River they mass together on the banks before finally plunging forward through the raging waters, in a frenzy as they fight against swift currents and waiting crocodiles and hippopotamuses. The migration is said to have been in existence hundreds of thousands of years ago and the cycle plays out year after year. Several million hooves treat the Masai Mara as an inter-country pit stop. Arriving exhausted by their desperate passage, they refuel, enjoy three or so months (roughly August to October) of grazing and relaxing on the Mara, and then set off once again for the freshly rained-on southern Serengeti plains.

Spot the game

The guided tour includes a stop at the Mara River where we are permitted to leave our vehicles and watch the hippos and crocodiles. Armed rangers are stationed around for security reasons. We travelled in a “combo van”, a common tour vehicle which resembles an omni van with a sun roof (one that can be opened and closed at will. This enables us to take better photos/videos). The tour guides know where to find good game and their experience enables them to judge how much distance to maintain between the animals and us.

Certain rules have to be strictly followed though — absolutely no littering; no leaving the vehicle; except when the guide tells you that you can, keep away from lone elephants; they are usually the raging or ‘mad' elephants; never go near or attempt to pick up cubs or other young animals because no matter how cute they seem, the dangerous, protective mother is never far and overall; never ever feed the animals, even the ‘friendly' chimps who try to share your tents with you.

Apart from the seasonal migration, game viewing is excellent year round. The Mara is a permanent water source for the area's wild inhabitants and so even during the migration, massive resident herds remain, offering visitors everything they could want to see on an African safari.

This wonderful array of wildlife and scenery can also be viewed from above. Masai Mara provides Hot Air Balloon rides to tourists and you can view the Mara in a whole new perspective. The accommodation in the Masai Mara is as varied and rich as the wildlife experience that awaits you. It also caters to every budget. From large lodges to exclusive tented camps, your stay will be made that much more special by the people that welcome you here. The wooden and stone lodges have a homely feel about them and are more suitable for families with young children. On the other hand, the campsites are very exciting and are suitable for groups of teenagers and young adults. Some of them have nature walks, horse riding, etc. which adds to the whole ‘living in the wild' experience.

The Mara is an awesome natural wonder, a place of mighty herds, tireless predators and timeless cycles of life, death and regeneration. Probably the best serviced of all Kenyan Parks and Reserves, the Mara is six hours away from Nairobiby road, or just half an hour by air from Nairobi Wilson Airport.

After three to four days in Masai Mara, one can truly agree that we have savoured the best of Africa.

Stay put

Lodges and camps inside the reserve include:

Mara Serena

Governor's camp

Siana Springs tented camp

Mara Simba

Keekorok

Sarova Mara

Outside the reserve borders are:

Mara Sopa

Elephant Pepper

Royal Mara Safari Lodge

Sekenani camp

More about the Mara

Area: 1510km

Location: Kenya, Rift Valley Province

Nearest city: Nyeri, Kenya

Best time: July, August and September (although there are resident wildlife year round)

Wildlife: Wildebeest, zebra, Thomson's and Grant's gazelle, "Big Five" (lion, African elephant, Cape Buffalo, leopard and Black Rhinoceros), Hippopotamses, Cheetah, impalas, topis,Coke's hartebeests, Masai giraffe, common giraffe, the large Roan antelope, bat-eared fox, spotted hyena.

Birds: vultures, marabou storks, secretary birds, hornbills, crowned cranes, ostriches, long-crested Eagles and African pygmy-falcons

For more details on planning your trip, visit www.maasaimara.com

Cassandra is a III B.Sc Psychology student at WCC