Masai Mara, Kenya (2017)

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Named after the indigenous Maasai tribe that have inhabited the area for well over four hundred years, and the Mara River that runs through the region, the Masai Mara National Reserve (optionally spelt Maasai Mara as the people), situated in Narok County southwest Kenya, is the northern contiguous extension of the massive Serengeti National Park in neighbouring Tanzania. The combined geographical area of both reserves is officially known as the 'Mara-Serengeti ecosystem'. It has a total area of around 25,000km2 (9,700 square miles), with the Masai Mara portion in Kenya being only a small fraction of the total at 1,510km2 (580 square miles), which is quite astonishing when you drive through and see how expansive an area it is.

The Mara, as it’s more commonly known locally, can be broadly separated into three parts - the popular Masai Mara National Reserve; its adjoining area to the west, beyond the Mara River, known as the 'Mara Triangle’; and the northern and eastern surrounding conservation trust areas that increase the total protected lands even further. The region as a whole, including the outlying conservancy areas is often referred to as 'The Greater Masai Mara’.

Whilst highlighting the Mara North Conservancy area, the following map shows the entire Mara as previously described.

Greater Masai Mara
 

At the time of writing, there are ten outlying privately-managed conservation areas (Olare Motorogi, Mara North, Lemek, Ol Chorro, Enonkishu, Ol Kinyei, Siana-Olarro, Isaaten, Naboisho and Ol Derikesi), with the larger Mara North Conservancy being one of the most well known and visited as it’s situated immediately to the north of the National Reserve alongside the Mara River with easy direct access via the Musiara Gate.

In fact, Mara North, is one of the largest privately-owned wildlife conservancies in the world. Established at the beginning of January 2009 as a ‘not-for-profit’ organisation, MNC has a longterm commitment plan for protection of both the environment and the wildlife, as well as the local Maasai community. Today it operates in partnership with eleven member camps and over 800 Maasai landowners from whom the land is leased. Working together, the MNC and the community leaders implement sound land management policies including controlled grazing areas for the Maasai’s cattle and, very importantly, an overall ‘low-impact tourism’ objective that limits the number of member camps and vehicles in the area. The rangers work closely with the community in order to discourage, and hopefully prevent, any form of retaliation if predation occurs. Our Maasai guide confirmed that this approach was working well as there is a far more peaceful coexistence between the local people and the big cats now than there was previously. One of the key factors in achieving this is that If a lion attacks and kills a cow that is in the specified grazing zone, the owner receives compensation. The areas in which cattle can graze are rotated so if a herder has taken his animals to an unauthorised area, or they’re within a dedicated zone at the wrong time, then they forfeit compensation. This ‘blueprint’ is very similar to that being operated in all the other conservancies.

A solitary large elephant in the wide expanse of the Masai Mara National Reserve
A solitary large elephant in the wide expanse of the Masai Mara National Reserve
 

Although we'd previously shunned the general ‘Mara-Serengeti’ region (see '2017 - Q1 diary' entry) due to its popularity, we took an unexpected opportunity to visit the quieter northern area in February 2017. We stayed at two small tented bush camps; the first was Nkorombo in the western part of the National Reserve alongside the Mara River relatively close to Paradise Plain, and the second being its sister camp Serian in the Mara North Conservancy, which was again situated close to the river. Both camps are owned and operated by Alex Walker. We flew in on a Safarilink light aircraft from Nairobi’s regional Wilson Airport landing at the Mara Musiara airstrip, which is just south of the National Reserve border with Mara North. The flight took around 45mins stopping off at two other airstrips en-route. We the drove down to Nkorombo for four nights. We transferred up to Serian as part of an extended morning game drive, where we again stayed for four nights. And, on our final day, we had a convenient late afternoon flight back to Wilson from the Mara North airstrip, which is much closer to the camp than travelling back down to Musiara. Another point to note is that visiting the Mara is a lot easier than many other destinations in Africa that often require additional flights and/or overnight stays as, with a bit of planning, you can get a direct overnight flight to Nairobi, landing early morning with plenty of time to transfer out to camp. Similarly with your return trip, albeit due to our late booking our return leg involved flying from Nairobi to Amsterdam and then another short flight to London.

Obviously, with only the one trip, I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the whole area or indeed what you’re likely to encounter at other times of the year. But, there is no doubt that if you go in high-season to witness the great migration you will almost certainly have a completely different experience than the one we enjoyed. I was extremely dubious about the first part of our trip in the reserve due to its infamous popularity and restrictions for off-track driving. I’d seen photos of dozens of vehicles all jostling for position alongside a solitary lion and had read plenty of horror stories of how busy it can get at certain times. Notwitstanding our feelings regarding how this sort of situation impacts on the wildlife, this is not why we go on safari - we seek out small traditional camps in quiet areas where we can enjoy private game drives with minimal contact with other vehicles. However, given that this was a hastily arranged, last-minute booking, to an area we’d previously avoided, we wanted to see what it could offer in low-season. Enough to say that we were pleasantly surprised to the point that we are almost certainly going to make a return visit at some time. After spending a few days in the reserve we knew that the conservancy would be even quieter since, as noted above, the number of camps and vehicles are more controlled. And, you can drive off-track, which of course has distinct benefits in many situations. We were not disappointed.

The Mara lies within the Great Rift Valley, which runs through the length of East Africa from the Red Sea down to Mozambique. The wide valley is characterised by the Oloololo or Siria Escarpment far to the west. The habitat is surprisingly varied in places, although dominated by extensive plains and rolling grasslands for which it is famous. However, along the two main rivers, the Mara and the Talek, and their tributaries there is riverine forest, in addition to acacia woodlands, deciduous thickets, scree slopes and boulder-strewn kopjes, and a few swampy areas such as the well known Musiara Marsh, home to the well-filmed 'Marsh Pride' of lions. Days are usually hot, but due to the elevation of the plains, which are 1500-2200m above sea level, early mornings can be relatively cold.

Tributary of the Mara River
Tributary of the Mara River
 

Rainfall can vary year to year, although in general there are two periods - the ‘short rains’ that usually arrive in October and typically finish by the beginning of December, and then the more persistent ‘long rains’ that arrive in earnest towards the end of March and extend through to early June. Consequently, there’s a period of mild weather early in the year, and then a then a further more prolonged dry season from mid-June through to October, which coincides with the migration and the accompanying hoards of people that want to witness the event.

Whilst the main attraction of the ‘Mara-Serengeti’ ecosystem is the migration, the Masai Mara actually experiences two separate events. Most famous, is the 'great migration' of the Serengeti wildebeest that travel around 800km (500 miles) every year from their breeding grounds in the southern Serengeti and adjoining Ngorongoro Conservation Area where calving takes place around February time. They then move northward in a clockwise direction in huge numbers accompanied by countless thousands of other plains game such as zebra and various antelope species. Subject to the local weather conditions, and drawn by the promise of greener pastures and availability of fresh water, the herds slowly make their way across the Serengeti, up through the Grumeti Game Reserve, before crossing into the Mara around July time. They then continue their journey up through some of the conservancy areas during August and September before making their way south again at the end of the year, so that they’re back in the southern Serengeti by the following January. The other smaller migration is carried out by the Loita Wildebeest, which are silvery-blue in coloration and slightly larger than the browner Serengeti species. They drift down from the Loita hills in the east and through the Mara in a smaller anti-clockwise loop where, again dependent on the rains, they will be found through the early part of the year.

A small strung-out herd of wildebeest slowly trudge across an open plain
A small strung-out herd of wildebeest slowly trudge across an open plain
 

In addition to the common game species - white-bearded wildebeest, plains zebra, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelle, impala and topi you’ll also encounter, although in smaller numbers, cape buffalo, elephant, Masai giraffe, eland, Coke’s hartebeest and Defassa waterbuck to name the most likely. And, away from the more open grasslands, Bohor reedbuck, Kirk’s dik-dik, bush duiker, bushbuck and possibly greater kudu. Other relatively common species are warthog, spotted hyaena, jackals (black-backed and side-striped if you’re lucky), olive baboon and plenty of banded mongoose. There’s also an outside chance of much rarer species like the black rhinoceros, wild dog or pangolin. And, of course, plenty of Nile crocodile and hippopotamus in the main Mara and Talek rivers.

But, it’s the cats that everyone wants to see and photograph. You’ll certainly encounter lions as there are a number of resident prides within the region. We had plenty of time with three different prides during the course of our stay - the 'Rekero Pride' down in the reserve, and the ‘Offbeat' and ‘Cheli' prides in the conservancy. Cheetahs are not so easy due to their large territories and the fact that, unless they’re female with cubs, they’re usually solitary. However, with a good guide and a bit of luck I think you’d be unfortunate not to have at least one encounter. We saw the well-known female, Malaika, together with her latest offspring, every day when we were staying at Nkorombo, and were also lucky enough to encounter her sub-adult daughter, Malkia, up in Mara North on two separate occasions.

A lioness from the Rekero Pride
A lioness from the Rekero Pride
Malaika - the beautiful female cheetah
Malaika - the beautiful female cheetah

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The other big cat is the leopard and, although they are far more numerous than cheetahs, you’ll be lucky to see one in daylight as they’re solitary, secretive and primarily nocturnal creatures. Again, we were fortunate, as we did find one large male sleeping in the shade, who also made a half-hearted approach up to a totally unaware, and very lucky, warthog, who despite the leopard getting within 4m or so, simply wandered off oblivious to the danger!

A large, well-fed male leopard
A large, well-fed male leopard
 

Apart from the ‘big three cats’, there are two smaller and far more elusive species that many safari goers have never seen; being the serval and the caracal. We’ve had a couple of brief sightings of serval before when in Tanzania, but with only photos of their rear ends as evidence, so they were high on our list for this trip. We didn’t see one, but much to my surprise we did have a remarkable sighting of a caracal hidden in the bushes that somehow our guide had spotted through binoculars from over half a mile away!

And, finally, there are the birds, with not far short of 500 different species being recorded in the Mara, albeit many of which are migrants that you’ll only stand a chance of seeing at certain times of the year. But, there are plenty of resident species such as the ostrich, secretary bird, marabou stork and grey crowned-crane, together with hornbills, the lilac-breasted roller and many vultures and other raptors that are here all year round. We certainly saw and photographed a great many birds with over twenty new species for my 'World Bird List', most notable being the black-chested snake-eagle (with a small snake), kori bustard (the heaviest flying bird in the world) and the superb Schalow’s turaco.

Grey Crowned-Cranes in early morning sunshine (an 'endangered' species)
Grey Crowned-Cranes in early morning sunshine (an 'endangered' species)