Masai Mara : 7 Days in the 7th Wonder
Masai Mara will forever hold a special place in my heart. It was the first place my wife Gina and I went on an expedition together. That was back in 2004 when I was throwing darts at her. I returned there last August, eleven years later, to experience the beauty of Mara once more, this time with Joe Makeni and Kelvin Shani, brothers from Onetouch.
Prior to making the trip to the 7th wonder, we’d spent four days in Meru National Park with Paul Obuna, sharpening our wildlife shooting skills and it paid off. Key lesson: patience and anticipation go a long way in getting the perfect shot.
After bursting an exhaust when driving on the rough C13 leading to the Ololoolo Gate, we delayed our entry into the park by a day. We were told that this road was smoother than the C12 Sekenani one but it still took it’s toll on our Forester. We got into Masai Mara National Park the following morning through the Talek Gate and immediately knew we were in a special place.
Less than ten minutes of our arrival, we spotted a cheetah (see what I did there?) with her cubs resting in the shade, with wildebeest grazing nearby. We decided to wait and see what would happen. After about 30 minutes of waiting with tour van after tour van coming and leaving the scene, the cheetah got up and gave chase to one of the wildebeests. It grabbed it by the neck but after a couple of seconds of fighting, the wildebeest broke free from the chokehold and the cheetah lost it’s lunch.
The lilac breasted roller is Kenya’s National Bird.
The communication masts within Mara have been fashioned to look like trees. Notice the many bird nests on the perimeter fence?
This being the migration season, we found the Mara river littered with carcasses from animals that didn’t make the crossing. The stench meant breathing was through the mouth.
Masai Mara is actually two parks in one: there’s the Masai Mara National Park which is managed by Narok County, and Mara Triangle above which is managed by Mara Conservancy on behalf of Trans-Mara County Council.
“No photos please!! This isn’t my good side!”
This was our first sunset as seen from Ololoolo Gate Campsite. It has decently clean showers and toilets. It’s one of the better places you can camp in while still inside the park. On the first night, we had hyenas come to camp. No we weren’t scared. No we didn’t hold our pen knives tight. No we didn’t shake and shiver in our boots. No we didn’t recite Psalm 91 over and over. No we weren’t scared. Not one single bit.
The following morning, we set out in search of more wildlife.
We were making our way back to camp when we found a herd of elephants with a few calfs grazing by the roadside. We clicked away as they had their evening meal. They grazed closer and closer to the road, and then started crossing it. The matriarch paused a little while as she crossed and stared us dead in the face, then raised her trunk towards us. She held it up in the air for a while, moving it from side to side.
We sensed danger.
She looked ready to attack to protect her young.
It was a tense moment.
We didn’t move an inch.
We didn’t breathe a bit.
None of us had showered that morning so sensing no foreign scents, the elephant decided to move on.
It is important not to shower when camping in a National Park as this goes a long way in ensuring your safety.
Team Mafisi mascot.
Not everyone who comes to the Mara gets to witness a river crossing. You can be camped by the river for days on end and only see waters flowing downstream. The wildebeest, zebra and other grazers can keep postponing their crossing or cross at a different location inaccessible to you.
So before we went on our stakeout of the Mara River, Gina my wife prayed that we would witness a crossing. Indeed the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective.
Within an hour of us getting to our stakeout point on the Mara Triangle side, zebras started crossing…
…and crocodiles started swimming in for the kill.
One foal wasn’t lucky and became lunch for the hungry crocs.
We later spotted the foal’s mother looking for her missing child on the other side of the river. She was running wild calling out to him but with no response. It was the saddest scene we saw.
I’m accepting offers to ride in one of these balloons. I can only imagine the view from up there.
Right where those hills are is Serengeti (Tanzania), and these grass-filled plains are in Masai Mara (Kenya). Animals cross freely between Kenya and Tanzania and vice versa. But as a tourist, you can’t. When in Mara, you’ll have to drive to Narok, Nairobi, Namanga, Arusha and then make your way to those hills.
Talk about being forced to tour so you can tour.
One of the highlights of our expedition was getting to spot a leopard. It was my second time seeing one up close, the first being in Lake Nakuru in 2008. And despite it napping for all the time I saw it, it was the last box checked in our sightings of the Big Five in Mara.
The sunset put on a show and the following morning…
…the sunrise brought it’s A-game.
As we took in the last sunset at Ololoolo Camp, we knew we were leaving Mara satisfied that we’d taken in all we could of the Mara with time we had. We’d seen the big five (though the lions were asleep each time we saw them) and had witnessed a river crossing. We got back to Nairobi tired but smiling, looking forward to our next visit to the Mara.
Planning for Our Trip
We were three people in one car for this 7-day expedition that cost us around Kshs30,000/- each. That covered fuel costs, park entry fees (Kshs1,000/- per day for citizens), entry for the vehicle (Kshs300/- per day) and meals. There were key things we put into consideration to make it a success.
We all have tents so this helped a lot. We camped at Ololoolo Gate Camp which is inside the Mara Triangle and at Aruba Camp which is near the Talek Gate to Masai Mara National Park. Aruba Camp has more facilities and even hot showers and a restaurant. You can also sleep in one of their semi-luxurious tents. Ololoolo is quite basic but clean. It was our preferred campsite.
Using our own tents, camping rates per person per night were Kshs1,000/- at Ololoolo and Kshs700/- at Aruba Camp.
We planned our movements inside the park depending on where we were to get our next meal. This was usually at Mara Serena Cafeteria which is frequented by tour drivers. They open early and close late and have decent meals with good portions throughout the day for about Kshs300/- a meal including a soda. Here, you can also make friends with tour drivers who will give you pointers on where to spot wildlife you may be looking for.
We also had meals in Talek town which has a variety of restaurants to pick from. Here, meals are about Kshs200/- including a drink.
We’d also carried lots of snacks with us – biscuits, nuts, juices, water – to keep us energised on long drives within the park. Carry lots of water – minimum three litres per person per day. It will go a long way in keeping you hydrated especially since most days are very hot and shade is very scarce.
C. Transport and Travel
I’m a Subaru evangelist and so relied on my Forester to get us there and back. Apart from the broken exhaust and a flat tyre, we didn’t have any issue with the car. You however don’t need a 4WD as all roads are gravelled. Extra ground clearance does come in handy in many places where the roads need maintenance. There are also some tracks that you can access only with a 4WD.
For fuel, Mara Serena has a fuel station that is open to the public. Fuel has a Kshs7/- premium for unleaded which is understandable because of proximity to civilisation. Prices are about the same in Talek town. You’ll also find places to repair punctures in both places, and burst exhaust pipes in Talek and Aitong.
To get to Mara from Narok, take the C13 highway, about 20km after leaving Narok. It’s about 90kms of gravel to the Ololoolo Gate. If you want to enter through the Talek Gate, take a left onto C14 at Aitong.
The big cats spend most of their day napping, hibernating from the heat so it can be hard to catch them in action when the sun is overhead. Start your day early before it heats up to get the best shots. The sun is also lower then and not too bright making for better shots. Evenings are also great for photography thanks to diffused sunshine. As said earlier, make friends with tour drivers. They will point you into the direction you need to go to spot the animals you’re looking for. They helped us spot the leopard and some lions, though the lions were asleep.
For lenses, a telephoto will get you the reach you need. Not having one shouldn’t limit you though. Think creatively and compose differently for what you have.
Finally, be patient. Don’t be in a rush to spot many animals. You can easily miss out on a great shot if you move from place to place instead of waiting it out with the animal you’ve already spotted. This is how we got to see a cheetah hunting – NatGeo stuff!
As always, respect other park users and observe park rules. Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.