Masai Mara is "The" park of parks in Kenya. Its grass-carpeted smooth hills, the chocolate Mara river waters with frisking hippos, as well as the rich faunal diversity, fulfill the expectations of any visitor searching the African landscapes portraited in motion pictures such as "Out of Africa" or "Mogambo". Save particular tastes or special requirements, this is the park on top of the "must" list in the country: no trip to Kenya would be complete without a visit to Masai Mara. True that it's not the best park for birdwatching, and true that some species are not easily found. However, leopards and rhinos abound, and with more than 450 bird species, the reserve should not be envious of Samburu or the great Kenyan bird sanctuaries. Albeit, in an area only slightly smaller than the State of Rhode Island and with a diverse and complex geography, getting lost is far easier than finding a leopard or sighting a given bird species in its multiple woods.
The Maasai Mara gazetted in 1961, is located west of the Rift Valley and is a natural extension of the Serengeti plains, in Tanzania. The Mara river, the reserve's backbone, traverses north to south heading for its westbound way unto lake Victoria, through the Tanzanian park. This course is the natural barrier crossed every year by the large migratory herds of wildebeests and zebras which march across the two parks. As explained below, more than one million wildebeests and 200,000 zebras move in a quest for the best pastures, finding along the way the crocodile-crowded river. When the herds ford the stream, many animals die flattened or drowned and leave their bones by the Mara banks. From July to October, Masai Mara is at its peak, with the seasonal visitors populating the vast grasslands.
The Reserve is often called simply "The Mara" which is the Maa word meaning "Mottled" - a reference to the patchy landscape. Both spellings "Masai" and "Maasai" are acceptable although the latter is more usual when referring to the people. It 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 tribespeople 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 Maasai are a proud semi-nomadic cattle-rearing people with a fascinating culture. They are divided into a number of sub-tribes some of which share the Mara region. They have a very special relationship with cattle which are essential to their life-style. The Maasai have survived a troubled history but are under increasing pressure to conform with modern society.
The general location of animal communities depends on the habitat. Vegetation varies according to the type of soil and drainage but is also influenced by fire, rain and grazing animals (including destructive elephants). "Grassland" is most common, especially in areas of poor drainage, frequent fires or heavy grazing - supporting a wide range of herbivores which all prefer different grasses and shoots. "Bushland" is particularly vulnerable to fire and foraging elephants - the favourite place of rhino. "Woodland" is often populated with acacia trees (with rich edible leaves) - where you might find monkey and giraffe. The Rivers are home of hippo and crocodile.
Much of the wildlife can be divided into mammals, birds and reptiles. Many of the mammals can be divided into carnivores, primates and ungulates (hooved animals). Carnivores include cheetah, genet, hyena, jackal, leopard, lion, mongoose, serval and wild dog. Primates include baboon, bushbaby and monkey. Odd-toed ungulates include rhino and zebra. Even-toed ungulates include buffalo, giraffe, hippo, warthog and antelope (bushbuck, dik-dik, duiker, eland, gazelle, hartebeest, impala, klipspringer, kudu, oribi, reedbuck, roan antelope, topi, waterbuck and wildebeest). The so-called "Big Five" are Buffalo, Elephant, Leopard, Lion and Rhinoceros. The "Big Nine" extends this to include Cheetah, Zebra, Giraffe and Hippo.
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.
This is one of the most spectacular and most popular game reserves in Kenya. Rich in game, the rolling grasslands and acacia savannah have frequently been captured on film, with "Out of Africa" being the most famous. The reserve borders Tanzania and the two countries share the vast Serengeti plains, with wildlife free to roam between Kenya and Tanzania in search of food. The concentration of game in the Mara during the mass migration is mind blowing, and this is one of the few areas where you are likely to see the big five - buffalo, elephant, rhino, lion and leopard.
In fact lion are ridiculously common and as they have grown accustomed to cars, you are quite likely to see them feeding on a kill during your visit. This is also a good place to see cheetah, sitting majestically on a termite mound watching the world.
Other animals include zebra, spotted hyena, black backed jackal, hippo, giraffe, eland and of course wildebeest. The Mara-Serengeti ecosystem is famous for the annual migration of over one million wildebeest and thousands of zebra. The incredible spectacle of them crossing the Mara river into Kenya happens in late July or August. Thousands of animals die in this dramatic crossing and predators and crocodiles have a field day. In October the animals return again.
Kenya boasts a phenomenon that every lover of Africa and its wildlife should get to see,
It is a story that has been told, filmed and read on numerous occasions: of the million-plus wildebeest that every year make the trek north from Tanzania's Serengeti to Kenya's Masai Mara. More than a million grunting, horned and hairy creatures march in single file on plains pulled taut across the horizon.
Starting any time from late July the wildebeest follow the rains and grazing to the wide and open grasslands of what has become known as "the Mara". They may be late, but they will always make the trip, driven by dry conditions in the Serengeti and led by the lightning and thunder to the north. Come November they start the homeward leg, bound again for the Serengeti.
Not thousands, not yet anyway, but a good many hundred, all moving in the same direction. Constantly grunting (very nasally) and chewing, they were living up to the name given to them by the English - the gnu.
An instinctive, massive movement, the migration, which happens to be one of the most filmed events in the wildlife calendar, is also surprisingly ordered. The beasts are driven by instinct, like the flashes of lightning and rolling thunder in the north (and in this instance unseasonal rains in the Serengeti, which delayed their progress).
The attraction of the Masai Mara lies in the vast plains characteristic of the East African savanna. The spectacle is the migration of the hairy hordes driven by a common purpose. The drama is provided by the crocodiles preying on the creatures as they ford the Grumeti and Mara rivers on their journey northwards.