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Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Masai Mara is a special place and one that I had heard of prior to visiting Kenya. Masai Mara is named in honor for the people which have lived there for many many years, the Maasai. Mara is a Maasai word meaning spotted which accurately describes the vegetation in the region. With the combination of Maasai and Mara, you have Masai Mara.
The area is in fact quite spotted and is mostly wide open plans with rolling hills. There are some large hills throughout the region which offer some breakup of the geography and the Mara river.
What had me excited for Masai Mara was the real chance to see Lions, Leopards, and Cheetah in the mix with all of the, dare I call them, “typical” animals such as Elephant, Giraffe, Antelope, etc. I wanted to see them in action!
During our safari, we went on three different game drives – an evening drive, a full day drive, and an early morning drive. The combination of these three drives was an incredible experience. Masai Mara knocked it out of the park with not only tons of animals, the big animals (lions, cheetah, etc.), the situations we saw, but also in just how close we could actually get to the animals – it was incredible!
The Reserve is located in the Southwestern region of Kenya on the border with Tanzania and the Serengeti National Park. I added a map below to show you where Masai Mara is and also its relation to the Serengeti. We stayed near and used the Ololamutiek Gate located on the right-side of the map.
I have grouped the animals below so that you can really get a feel for one type of animal at a time. Enjoy the photos below and try to imagine yourself in the park. Pretend that you are standing up in a safari vehicle creeping towards the animal, keeping quiet so as not to disturb them, and preparing your camera to capture the moment!
We saw hundreds of antelope while in Masai Mara and although perhaps not the most interesting animals, they are a significant part of the ecosystem. I also found it interesting to watch the different herds as they would graze together, fight for control, stand on high alert, and follow each other with any sign of a predator.
Masai Mara certainly had the most Ostrich that we had seen on a safari. Ostrich are interesting animals as they just look so awkward, right? Their size is even bigger than I had originally thought as they generally stood as tall as I did while standing up inside our safari vehicle – impressive.
Birds, birds and more birds. The only animal that probably has more quantity than the antelope were perhaps the birds. The birds ranged in size and color and I have shared the most interesting (usually the most colorful), below. My favorite of the group is the very first, the Saddle-Billed Stork.
We had seen buffalo prior to Masai Mara, but we had yet to see them in a big herd. Well, now was the time. At one point, we sat parked watching lions across a small ravine while being surrounded by hundreds of buffalo. And these guys (and gals) are NOT small! Just as a tip, the male buffalo has horn which extends over the top of his skull while the females horns are more narrow and do not have the “top-piece”. In other words, the mal buffalo has almost a full helmet with horns coming out – look out!
I wasn’t sure if we would see wildebeest in Masai Mara or not, but we did! Wildebeest are most famous for following what is called the Serengeti Migration which is a circular route following food and water throughout the year and throughout Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara (primarily in June, July and August).
So, why did we see wildebeest in Masai Mara if we were there in February? Well, some wildebeest actually reamin in the park year round and are called “resident” wildebeest.
All I know is that after seeing the Serengeti Migration and hearing the stories of them being chased by lions and snapped up by crocodiles in the Mara river, the “resident” wildebeest are the smart/luck one’s!
Elephants were pretty much everywhere in Masai Mara, certainly no shortage here! And, we saw them in different groups – males by themselves, small families, and large herds.
One thing that I certainly learned while in Masai Mara was that Elephants are extremely protective. They were the one animal that the driver constantly stayed alert for. When we drove near a herd, the driver would position our van so that we could quickly move and escape if necessary.
This certainly added to the thrill of the safari and we had a couple of elephants trumpet and start to charge at us – good times from inside a vehicle! Although given the size of some of the elephants, I’m pretty sure they could have turned over our safari van.
Giraffe were also quite common in Masai Mara. The giraffe are beautiful animals and nice to watch as their movement is so graceful – especially if you get to see them run. However, I must say that the giraffe may wine the award for the most boring animal … sorry guys!
Zebra, zebra, zebra. We saw zebra throughout the reserve and they seem to mix very well with other animals, particularly the wildebeest and antelope. In fact, in one of the pictures below, you can see some warthogs near a few zebra as well.
Crocs and Hippos
The Mara River runs through Masai Mara and during the Serengeti Migration is the focal point of the park. Here is where over a million wildebeest and zebra make their way from Serengeti National Park and into Masai Mara during the months of June and July. To do this, they must cross the Mara River which is littered with crocodiles chomping at their legs and hippos harassing their every move.
Odds and Ends (before the cats!)
We saw many other animals in the park, but two that I specifically wanted to share before we get into the big and popular cats, are the jackal and the baboon. The jackal is a fox looking animal that is a scavenger. And the baboon is of course a type of monkey. They are also looking for leftovers across Masai Mara and we saw them traveling in large groups up to 50!
Alright, hold it right there! How many of you skipped down to this section without reading or even looking at the others. Shame on you. Kidding, kidding. I would have done the same!
We saw lots of lions in Masai Mara and in various groups doing different things. We saw lions sleeping, lion cubs playing, and lioness hunting. The lion is an incredibly interesting animal and the one that we hunted the most, but was the hardest to find.
One of the most incredible things we saw in Masai Mara was what started out as a small pack of lions (4) looking towards a giant herd of Buffalo. While our van was parked in the herd of Buffalo, we were teeming with excitement that the lion might suddenly go after one of the hundred or so buffalo! Oh, to see a kill, that must be some kind of experience.
What ended up happening was nothing I would have predicted. The lion were very still for several minutes, but finally the female decided to creep up. Perhaps for a better view, perhaps because she was tired, I’m not sure. At this very moment, there was a stir in the buffalo herd and it was apparent they had now seen the lions.
Suddenly, dozens of male buffalo began joining forces into a sub-herd as if an alarm siren had rung and actually started moving directly towards the lions! I was shocked. About a minute later, the buffalo were closing in on the lions who sat calmly waiting – would they attack?
Within 10 feet of the lions, a brave buffalo lowered his head and charged towards the lions finally making them rise to their feet and scurry away. Did that just happen? Did a buffalo herd just scare off lions? Yes! This was very cool to see in person and perhaps the highlight of our entire time in Masai Mara.
Spotting Cheetah was generally a challenge, but we got fairly lucky a few different times in Masai Mara! Our first sighting was a nearly camouflaged cheetah. It was very cool to see just how camouflaged they can be. In fact, we thought they were sleeping, but when they finally stood up, it was clear they had been feeding.
Our final morning game drive in Masai Mara is where we really hit the jackpot. We spotted the small family of cheetah from afar and drove closer and closer to them until we were within a “short enough” (if you know what I mean!) distance. There they were, a mother and her three cubs waking up from a nights rest. They stayed cuddled together stretching, hugging, and playing for some time … what a sight!
Masai Mara is an incredible park! Brad’s Dad, Brad, and I had a fantastic time exploring Masai Mara and trying our best to capture everything we were seeing.
I would rank Masai Mara as the second best park for animals in Africa. You’ll have to wait and see what ended up being the best park or you may already be able to take a guess! Regardless, the amount of animals, the types of animals, and the proximity in which you can get to the animals is jaw dropping and put any park I had been to before completely to shame.
So, should Masai Mara be in the AbsoluteVisit Top 100? Well, that is a hard question! We have quite a few parks already in the list, but we certainly lack this type of park that is over-flowing with animals. We’ll let the question linger for now, but it is no doubt a contender.