Host to the Big Cat Diary and the African Cats by Disney, Maasai Mara is a natural wonder of the world. Have you ever been enthralled and your gaze captured by the beauty of nature? Or gotten to witness an adrenaline thrashing kill; a predator hitting on its prey right before your eyes? This and more is what you expect to see whatever the season you get to visit the great Mara, a part of the greater Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem. January to December, through the dry and rainy seasons, something majestic is happening here.
The greater Mara ecosystem is set on a wildlife rich Savannah landscape, about 3,000 km² of Savannah plains and dotting acacia trees. This African wild panorama is set between Loita Hills to the East and the Oloololo Escarpment to the West, right on the floor of the Great Rift Valley. It is served by the Mara River and Talek and Sand River plus an addition of other seasonal rivers. The plains between Mara River and Esot Siria Escarpments are the best locations for game viewing, especially of the wildebeest’s migration.
To the South East, the system is endowed with the distinctive acacia shrubs while the Western border has Siria or the Esoit Escarpment, a portion of the East African Rift – from the Mau escarpments to Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. The escarpment makes a part of a collection of rifts running from Ethiopia’s Red Sea through Kenya, to Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. They follow the Great Rift Valley fault line, making for the best wildlife frontier, South of the Sahara. Swampy grounds provide for good access to water and the ever endeared minimal if any interruptions from humans.
The Great Migration
A natural annual occurrence, this gloriously beautiful 8th Wonder of the World should make it to the bucket list of every human being. From late June to October, over 1.5 million wildebeests, zebras, elands and gazelles cross over from Serengeti in Tanzania, northwards into the Mara in search of water and pasture. They cross the crocodile strewn and hippo infested Mara river and march forward into the plains where other predators lurk in waiting for a quick kill.
Infinite varieties of different species follow the rules of Mother Earth. They spend their lives wandering without ever wearing out. Following routes pre-planned by weather patterns, always in the pursuit of water and greenery. Their arrivals mark the festive season for the predators of the Mara, with the big cats thriving the most. The excellent feeding in turn gives way to a reproduction season for most of the predators: lions, cheetahs and the leopards. Here, the thin line between life and death is openly explored as you watch. Following their herd instinct, the wildebeests run from their predators all the while striving to protect their young and weaker ones.
Pointer: The calving instincts of the wildebeests are timed to coordinate with the movements of the moon, resulting to a 3-weeks, birth festivities period every February, on the Serengeti plains. Their gestation period is about 257 days.
Following lines, they move in hordes to the scent of better grazing lands. Each behind the other’s foot prints and paths but within Western Mara only to turn right and cross the Mara again into Sekenani. Others from Serengeti head Northwards to the Mara, crossing the narrow Sand River then turning left to cross the Mara or Talek Rivers. Swimming further up north, they cross and re-cross the predator filled river, enjoying the lush green environs until their sojourn back to Serengeti as from end of October.
The Species in the Mara
Home to over 95 mammals, reptiles and amphibian species, plus over 460 bird’s species, the Maasai Mara has established itself as the grand safari destination or do we call it wildlife viewing location, the world over? About 4-5 hours’ drive from Nairobi or 45mins by flight, this picturesque entity also plays as a key point for the Big Cats during the dry seasons of December through to February.
Ever seen any of the Big Five? The Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo and the Leopard are all set to make for a heart stopping adventure. Crocodiles basking on river banks after a hearty meal, hippos snoring away, the roaring lions and the cheetah with their cubs after making a kill. It is a thrill to watch this natural phenomenon. And did you know that the largest concentration of the African lion – the black maned lion is found here at the Mara? Also, that lions mark their territories by peeing on a specific zone, such that no other lion can cross over?
Spotted leopards, jackals, antelopes, dik diks, huge elands, serval foxes, oribi, impala, reed-buck, bat eared-topi, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, buffalos, the Maasai giraffe and the Burchell’s zebra are all found in the Mara. Mr. Lion, the king of the jungle and his fellow regal kinsmen rule these grasslands. The powerful hunters will prey even on a fellow predator like the cheetah.
What of the bird species. Many of which are migrants too, about 60 of the species are raptors. They are the marabou storks, hornbills, Jackson’s bustards’ vultures, orange buffs, cranes, ostriches, african pygmy falcons, pel’s fishing owls and the crested eagles. Also, the ross turacos, guinea fowls and lilac breasted rollers – the unofficial national bird of Uganda.
We all have an idea about the Big Five, right? But, did you know that there are also the Ugly Five? Come, let us reason together on this one…..
- Also dabbed the ‘undertaker bird’, the view of the marabou stork from its back, has the wings resembling a cloak like that of the grim reaper. They have skinny legs, with a head that is just not snapshot friendly, forever looking like it is rotting.
- The limping spotted hyena with its slopping back, and ugly laugh especially in the night, these nocturnals are traditionally associated with witchcraft and treachery. They are believed to be conniving and thieving, always in the shadows of other predators. Thanks to Lion King, Shenzi and Banzai rubber stamped this mentality.
- Warthogs love to wallow in the mud. They have facial warts and ugly spotty hair on their rather elongated face. One is forgiven to think the barber passed them by at creation and so did the orthodontist follow suit.
- Vultures are bald headed, with ugly feathers. They feed on carcasses and rats, forever squabbling, they pass for harbingers of death.
- The wildebeests have skinny legs, curved horns, short necks and a box-shaped face resembling the inter-breed of a horse and an ox. Nothing close to their cousins the impalas and gazelles. They are quite repulsive even to the camera.
The Maasai Mara National Reserve
Covering 1,500 km² of rolling short grass plains, Mara and Talek rivers meander through dividing the reserve into three sections. There are only two bridges serving as motor crossing points over the Mara with most vehicles managing to easily cross Talek river. The first is the Mara Triangle, between Oloololo Escarpment and the Mara River; that is run by the Mara Conservation Trust. The second is the Musiara section, between Mara and Talek Rivers. Then Sekenani, found to the south-east of Talek and Mara Rivers.
Most conservancies lie outside the reserve area although most of the areas are not as heavily fenced up. It is on these pasture lands that migration is ever so immense. The rest of the national park is run by the Narok County Government.
From Ol Choro, Lemek and Koiyak conservancies, to Siana, Naikara, Kerinkani, Oloirien, and Oirowua ranches among many more.
The warriors herding the cattle out in the wilderness and most of their people still dressed in their traditional regalia, The Maasai are among few of the Kenyan communities that have jealously guarded their traditional culture and ways of life. Covered in the proverbial red Maasai shukas, a panga hanging from their waists, mostly in akalla sandals and red-painted hair, these tall ever feared warriors of Nilotic origin have for years lived at peace and harmony with the animals.
Traditional cattle herders since time in memorial, they are originally from South Sudan, and only hunted in ritually instigated scenarios. They only engaged in killing lions as a test of manhood. With population increase, over time, came land challenges. Then game safaris began and they had to reinvent the wheel. Many have in the process become great tour guides, managers in the hotels and lodges around and others conservationists.
The Maasai Mara River basin falls right at the heart of the Maasai culture, and thus touching and affecting their ways of life. A visit to the cultural villages earns one a chance to stock up on collectibles, gifts and souvenirs, many handcrafted by the Maasai women, in their villages. They tell the tales of yonder and engage one in dances and pictorial experiences you are gonna treasure for a lifetime.
Whether staying in a lodge or a tented camp, until you pose with the Moran’s, you still have a lot on your plate as a serving from the Mara. Keep shuttering away. An early morning balloon ride will take you to the heavens and back in the most exhilarating experience, gliding over the plains, watching the hordes graze and having moments of your life under open clear skies. This will surely blow your mind away. How about enjoying your breakfast served in the balloon basket, right in the heartland of the wild? You will tell me about it later.
Besides game viewing, camping, bonfires, night game drives – hunting after the sights and sounds of the night, dinners, sipping sundowners or picnics in the bushes, horseback or walking safaris, the options are endless. Then nature lovers get an extra gift – a destination wedding or photography session. Whoever said that ‘safaris were made in Kenya’ …
Thought you should know:
Joseph Thomas walked through ‘Maasai Land’ in 1883.
Maasai territories were first demarcated in the 1940’s, then still called Maasai Land and the language then was ‘Maa’.
Mara is Maasai for spotted, pointing to the circles of trees, savanna grassland, shrubs and cloud shadows in the vicinities.
Thundering hooves of the wildebeests resound, announcing the awe-inspiring arrival of the hordes. And as one fathom the stunning view of the grand arrival, the realities of the Mara come to life.
The beauty of magical Kenya beckons. Welcome to my motherland.