Masai Mara National Reserve – All The Practical Stuff!

When we began our research for the Masai Mara National Reserve, we found information to be scattered across the Internet. Climate information at one place, visa at another, what to carry at yet another… We made a mental note then itself that we would list down the useful bits at one place when we got back!

So, without much preamble, listing down the top 10 things you need to keep in mind if you are planning a trip to the beautiful Masai Mara.

‘Spotted Land’

1. Best Time to Go – We will not get into what the Great Migration is. But just suffice to say that it is the BEST time to visit the Mara if you want to see thousands of animals. July – September is the time when the wild beasts move from Tanzania to Kenya; they return to Tanzania in January – March.

Jul – Sep is the busiest time of the year for the National Reserve. So, make your bookings well in advance. The costs will be inflated in this quarter, but if you delay, there is a likelihood of not getting accommodation/ vehicles at all. We finalized our trip in June to travel in August! <facepalm>

2. Getting There – There is no direct connectivity to the Reserve. The closest international airport is Nairobi. For Indians, while there are direct flights from Mumbai to Nairobi, this does not hold for New Delhi. There are innumerable options available for hopping – either through Mumbai or to one of the many cities in the middle east.

big 5, cape buffalo
Our first Big 5 sighting! The Cape Buffalo, a distant cousin of our very own Bhainsa!

We chose the route of New Delhi – Muscat – Nairobi by Oman Air.

3. Visa for Indians – Kenya has a convenient e-visa system. Go to the visa website, create an account, fill out the application form, & pay the visa fee online. Once your e-visa is approved, you can download the PDF on your handheld device to use during immigration.

As a tourist, you will be eligible for a Single-Entry Visa.

african bush elephant
It’s said the African Bush Elephant has ears resembling the map of Africa. We can see why it’s so…

4. Yellow Fever Vaccination – The Yellow Fever Vaccine is needed by those traveling to certain African countries. There are specific places that are authorized to give this vaccination – a simple google search will throw up the names. However, note that each of these places have either a booking system or a specific day/ time when they give this vaccine. So, it is not like you can simply walk in & get this done.

We got ours done at Public Health Lab Building, Delhi. There is a registration window lasting till 10:30 AM; the vaccination begins at 11 AM. If you are aware of your allergies (especially egg – related allergies), please let the officer-in-charge know upfront.

Please note – you have to carry your passport for the vaccination.

sunset
Suckers for sunsets – that’s what we are!

5. Weather – Being close to the Equator, the weather is cooler from July to September. It is cold in early morning & late evening. For our sunrise & sunset safaris, & for our dinners, we would step out with a jacket.

We recommend carrying a light jacket at least; it will be useful in the Savannah (the temperatures can be even lower there). Typically, these months also see a bit of rainfall but we were lucky to have avoided it.

The Jacuzzi looked inviting as the Sun shone overhead. But the moment we got in, we froze to our bones & emerged promptly with chattering teeth.

african hoopoe
The African Hoopoe asked us to say ‘hi’ to the Eurasian Hoopoe found in India.

6. The Sun – The weather is pleasant but the direct Sun is strong. Walking in the Sun made us sweat like pigs. But the moment we entered the shade, it became nippy. Also, the wind was never hot. We recommend carrying a cap/ hat & sunglasses.

7. Travel Agency – As it was our first trip to Africa, we were unsure of what to expect. We felt it practical to use a travel agency. We found agencies ranging from INR 3L to INR 10L! So, irrespective of your budget, you will be able to find an agency.

We availed the services of Kiboko Kenya Safaris; read our review here.

masai giraffe
“Where are you going sister?” “Don’t you know? There’s a sale going on in Zara!”

8. Accommodation – There is no dearth of accommodation in & around the Masai Mara National Reserve. Unlike India, where staying inside forest reserves is not allowed, the Masai Mara has plenty of options inside the reserve itself. In terms of quality, there is no difference. However, the camps/ resorts within the national reserve come with an added bonus of animal noises at night!

We stayed at Sentrim Mara -& had a great time there.

9. Food – A complete nonissue! Many people are wary of traveling to Africa as they have preconceived notions about the food. If you have any such notions, dispel them immediately. We did not have any problem of finding food suitable to our palate. African, European & Indian foods are available aplenty.

rhinoceros
A rhinoceros crossed the road & attempted to climb back up on the other side. It was a struggle for the rhino, but for us, it made an amusing sight…

Kenya has a sizable Indian diaspora; thus, Indian food is extremely common. Plenty of vegetarian options available too!

10. Clothing – Like with any wildlife safari, it is better to wear earthy, muted tones. Wear fully-covered clothing to prevent insect bites & sunburn/ tan. We wore full-legged pants on all the days, yet got bitten by microscopic insects.

11. Bio Breaks During Game Drives – We were worried about the loo aspect as we are high water drinkers. The sunrise/ sunset safaris last for two hours typically. That is a manageable time for not using a loo. In a full day game drive, the driver makes two stops, at intervals of about three hours.

migration, wildebeest, zebra, tanzania, kenya
Wildebeest & zebras had started making their way from Tanzania to Kenya. Zebras are the smart/ opportunistic ones in this scheme… They follow the wildebeest’s lead to get to Kenya, & once here, abandon the wildebeest (who have the memory of a goldfish & sometimes end up going back the way they came)!

For us, one of the stops was in a lodge where the loo was clean & easy to use. The other stop was in a public facility, which was basically a hole in the ground! We dehydrated ourselves a bit to avoid getting our bladders full.

But we will advise against not drinking water at all, because the Sun will compel you to. Drink in moderation, so that you do not end up uncomfortable.

12. Safety – We traveled during daylight hours. Our driver stopped at respectable places. Safety was not a challenge for us, neither should it be for you.

cheetah, grassland
See the cheetahs lazing in the grassland…

In the reserve & the camp, pay heed to security warnings issued by the guide/ management. You are in wildlife territory. Leopards & hyenas are known to wander into human areas. Maybe they are as curious about us as we are about them!

13. Game Drive – Drives are carried out in two kinds of vehicles – vans & Land Cruisers. While both are customized for game watching, we feel the Land Cruiser is a more comfortable, more spacious, & thus, a better option.

Also, you can opt for a dedicated vehicle or a shared one. The dedicated vehicle is expensive undoubtedly, but it is value for money. We had a dedicated vehicle with just the two of us in it! It made our movement within the vehicle to take photos from different angles extremely easy.

There’s no bigger source of GK than travel! We figured how a Land Cruiser could be converted into a safari vehicle, with a detachable top.

There are three kinds of safaris – sunrise, full day & sunset. The sunrise & sunset game drives last for a couple of hours. The full day drive is from 8 AM to 3 PM.

a. Sunrise Safari – You enter the Masai Mara National Reserve a little before the sun rises. Witness the sunrise against a backdrop of wildlife & acacia trees. The hot air balloon rides take place at this hour, & make for pretty photographs.

The sunrise game drive is the best time to see the big cats in action, as well as nocturnal animals heading home. We saw a hyena, a jackal & a serval cat slinking away after a night of notoriety. We then saw a display of ‘Might Is Right’ between a honeymooning lion & lioness, and a cheetah. Read this story here.

african pied wagtail
An African Pied Wagtail refuses to turn its head.

i. Birds Spotted – Common Ostrich, Yellow-Fronted Canary

ii. Mammals Spotted – Plains Zebra, Cape Buffalo, Thomson’s Gazelle, East African jackal, African Bush Elephant, Cheetah, East African Lion, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest

b. Full Day Drive – Alfred got our lunch packed & we headed out for a day of wildlife spotting. This safari is great to see the most number & variety of animals.

lion, lioness, grassland, camouflage
Quite difficult to ascertain lions & lionesses in the grasslands, so perfect was the camouflage

i. Birds Spotted – African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-billed Ox-pecker, Common Ostrich, Rufous – Naped Lark, African Wattled Lapwing, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, Greater Blue-Eared Starling, Yellow-Fronted Canary, Slate – Coloured Boubou, Hildebrandt’s Starling, Egyptian Goose, White-Bellied Bustard, Scaly Francolin, White-Backed Vulture, Lilac Breasted Roller, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Superb Starling, Abbott’s Starling, White-Faced Whistling Ducks, Yellow-Billed Stork, Maribou Stork, Lappet-Faced Vulture

ii. Mammals Spotted – Thomson’s Gazelle, Black Rhinoceros, Impala, Plains Zebra, Wildebeest, Hippopotamus, Common Eland, African Bush Elephant, Olive Baboon, East African Defassa Waterbuck, Warthog, Coke’s Hartebeest, Masai Giraffe, East African Lion

iii. Reptiles Spotted – Agama Lizard, Nile Crocodile

yellow billed ox pecker
Yellow-billed Ox-pecker neighbors look on enviously

c. Sunset Game Drive – This afternoon/ early evening drive is the time when birds are returning to their nests & herbivores have stuffed themselves full! The afternoon Sun is not conducive for the Big Cats; you find them hidden under bushes (lion), hidden in the tall grass (cheetah), or plain hidden (leopard)! So, do not expect to see great action from the Big Cats now. However, the sunset hour is a good time to see raptors.

i. Birds Spotted – Lilac – Breasted Roller, Superb Starling, African Hoopoe, Tawny Eagle, Ruppell’s Vulture, Bateleur, African White-backed Vultures, Ring-Necked Dove, Anteater Chat, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Bare-Faced Go-Away-Bird, African Wattled Lapwing, Little Bee-Eater

ii. Mammals Spotted – African Bush Elephant, Plains Zebra, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest, Common Eland, Cape Buffalo, East African Lion

rufous naped lark
A Rufous – Naped Lark ready to take off

14. Road Condition – From Nairobi, if you take the road to the Masai Mara National Reserve (the alternative is an aircraft), be prepared for bad roads. When we say bad, we mean ‘India of the 80s’ bad. The last 50 kms to reach the Masai Mara are nightmarish.

Kenya is sparsely populated. So, you do not see many human beings, but certainly Chinese trucks. Thanks to the rapid construction, trucks ferrying goods can be seen. You can spot under construction highways, railway lines etc.

While we did not see any animals on our way to the Mara, but the day we left from there, in the early morning hours, we kept spotting wild animals for many kilometers, even after we had exited the reserve area.

cinnamon chested bee eater
A Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater had to be clicked!

15. Tipping – Kenyans expect a tip, & can be blunt about asking for it. Ensure you have adequate change on you.

Phew! We believe we have covered all the practical aspects that we wished we knew before going. If there is anything more you would like to know, please feel free to leave a comment; we will answer it to the best of our knowledge.

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MASAI MARA TALES

For somebody who has grown up watching the nature & wildlife channels on television, the Masai Mara National Reserve was a must-have on the bucket list. Thus, when an ex-colleague, now working in Nairobi, asked us to come over, specially as the migration season was on, we did not have to think twice. It also meant that our planning & reservations were being done at the last minute, implying fewer options and/ or higher fares. But we knew we might not get a chance again anytime soon. Before we could digest the fact that we were (finally) visiting the Masai Mara, we were on a plane bound for Nairobi via Muscat.

Getting to the Mara from Nairobi is possible both by air & by road. We chose road as we have been lifelong believers of ‘the best way to see the country is by road’. But if you want to save time, you can choose the flight option. Tiny air crafts land on airstrips made inside the national reserve, giving a chance to see the vast land aerially. But, do note, as these are the small air crafts, there are luggage restrictions. Check before you book!









A Common Eland reminded us of the Indian Blue Cow. #InternationalCousins

Within the reserve, as well as right on the periphery, there are innumerable accommodation options available. The ones within have an added advantage of the visitor being able to sleep amidst the wilderness, listening to the wildlife sounds all night long. We chose a camp at the periphery, thanks to, well, our last-minute booking. But we do not regret it, as our hearts were full with all that we saw during the daytime. Speaking of accommodation, camps are available in both luxury & mid segment, to suit all budgets.

With the details out of the way, let us come to the Masai Mara National Reserve itself. Imagine an unending stretch of land in front of you, with golden grass swaying in the breeze, a blue sky overhead, and here & there a spotting of acacia trees! Turn left, or right, or around, & the same vista greets you. The golden grass reminds you of wheat fields. The clouds twist & turn into different shapes. And a giraffe chomps on the thorny leaves of the acacia tree! Remembering our first sight of this vast grassland, & writing about it, still gives us Goosebumps!

So, Mara stands for ‘spotted land’ in the Masai language. Rightly so, as the monotony of the flat savanna is broken by the spotting of the flattop acacia trees. When the light is right, clouds cast their shadow on the land, causing a spotting of a different kind. And when the migration is underway, animals spot this gorgeous grassland.

Enough & more has been said about the Masai Mara. So, instead of the generic, we would like to share a few experiences we had.

A leopard had hunted a wildebeest & hung it on a tree for some leisurely eating later. As the day was too warm, the leopard had receded into the shade. When we chanced upon the carcass hanging from the tree, we noticed a White-Backed Vulture sitting next to it. Around the vulture flocked many Lilac-Breasted Rollers. But none of the birds touched the carcass. The birds were waiting for the leopard to finish eating the wildebeest. When pieces would fall on the ground, the vulture would snag its share. And when the carcass rots, the rollers would move in to eat the maggots. There could not be a better example of animals working on the principle of symbiosis.

The second realization for us was the ‘survival of the fittest’. Such an oft-used term, and still when we saw it being played out, it gave us chills. Once July begins, the Kenyan side of the Mara River becomes greener. Herbivores cross the crocodile-infested river and come over to the Mara to give their young ones a better chance at survival. This phenomenon is called The Great Migration. Now, imagine, a river teeming with brutal, hungry Nile Crocodiles. A herd of wildebeest anxiously stand on the edge of the river, debating whether or not to cross. The choices are being eaten by the crocodiles if they do, and death by starvation if they don’t. They take a chance & dash through the river. In the process, the slow and weak ones get snapped up by the crocodiles, & a few get caught in the stampede. But most cross! Nature eliminates the weak, & the fittest survive. Ruthless, but natural!

A White-Bellied Bustard tried to blend in with the grass but… caught you!

On a sunrise safari, we missed a hunt by a few minutes. A cheetah stood tall over a dying impala. Ideally, it should have sat down & feasted. But its ears were pricked up. The cheetah was, rightly, on high alert. A lioness had smelt the blood and was making her way towards the cheetah. The fastest animal in the world was no match for the Big Five member. It scooted, leaving its prey for the lioness. She staked claim on the impala, lapped up a little blood, but did not eat either. What was the matter? It turned out she was on a honeymoon, & was waiting for her mate to partake the food first. The king of the jungle walked in with a swagger, & dragged off the impala into the bushes. The lioness looked on, forlorn. At a distance, the cheetah rested its tired limbs, brooded over losing its meal, but glad to be alive! We had heard stories of the dominance of the Big Five; we now had one of our own.

There were so many more such eyeopeners. The ink may run dry, our national reserve stories would not. Stories of the Elephant calf mocking us, the Rhinoceros casually strolling on the path, the beautiful Zebras running along with our vehicle, the Giraffes cocking their ears at us, the Wildebeest walking in a straight line, the Ostrich looking for water, the Lion cubs cuddling, the uncountable varieties of birds posing readily for us, the Hippopotami sunbathing, the Agama Lizards darting around us, the Warthog hiding on seeing us, the East African Jackal being curious about us, five Cheetahs popping out of the grass when we expected only one…

If you have the time, try to go for all the kinds of game drives – sunrise, full day, & sunset. Each has a USP. E.g., the sunrise drive is the best time to catch the Big Cats in action. The sunset one is most suitable for seeing the raptors. We also chose a private vehicle, which meant we were the only ones in it. Sure, it was expensive, but we wanted an unhindered view of the savanna & the wildlife.








We like beings like these – bruised but not broken… Go Lioness!

Lastly, a visit to the reserve is incomplete without visiting the Masai village. You can meet the tribes people, understand their customs, see their distinctive outfits, buy traditional handmade beaded jewellery & participate in their traditional jumping dance. It is not something one can forget!

Ever since we returned, we have encouraged everyone, specially those with kids, to go to the Masai Mara National Reserve. The beautiful land can teach us a thousand lessons on why the environment must be respected. The timelessness of the Masai Mara, the vastness of the grassland, & the coexistence of different species – if these are not what dreams are made of…