Masai Mara National Reserve
The Place of the Spotted Plains
‘All the time, when on the move, the wildebeest emit harsh grunts, something like the sound of frogs, something like that of old men clearing their throats. People have called them ungainly because of their high shoulders and sloping hindquarters; and also clowns because of their long pale faces and white beards, but in fact they move with grace and sometimes playfulness, leaping and cavorting with apparent joie de vivre'.
Last Days in Eden
Elspeth Huxley and Hugo van Lawick
World renowned for the breathtaking spectacle of ‘the greatest wildlife show on earth', the awe inspiring annual migration of the wildebeest, the Mara is Kenya's most visited protected area. Technically an extension of Tanzania's renowned Serengeti National Park, the Mara constitutes only 4% of the entire Serengeti ecosystem but its rolling grasslands, meandering rivers and towering escarpments offer one of the world's most rewarding and evocative wildlife arenas.
Altitude: 1,500-2,170 meters above sea level.
Area: 1, 672 sq km.
Location: Rift Valley Province, Narok and Transmara Districts.
Distance from Nairobi: 270 km.
Climate: the Reserve receives the highest rainfall (average 1000 mm pa) in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Rain falls throughout the year but peaks in December, January and April.
Vegetation: rolling grassland, riverine forest, acacia woodland, swamps, non-deciduous thickets, and Acacia, Croton and Tarchonanthus scrub.
Wildlife: the Mara ecosystem hosts over 95 species of mammals. Highlights include: elephant, buffalo, hippo, Masai giraffe, topi, Coke's hartebeest, Grant's and Thomson's gazelle, zebra, impala, Kirk's dik-dik, bushbuck, waterbuck, red duiker, baboon, vervet monkey, blue monkey, red-tailed monkey, nocturnal bush baby, and tree hyrax.
Birds: more than 550 recorded species (5 globally threatened).
The Masai Mara is a National Reserve, an area where wildlife is protected and takes precedence over human activities, but where human habitation and domestic livestock is also permitted. Correctly referred to as the Masai Mara, the area is also known as the Maasai Mara: both spellings are technically correct but ‘Maasai' is more correctly used when referring to the Maasai people.
The geography of the Reserve
The Mara is divided into four topographical units: the Ngama Hills to the east of Keekorok and the Sekanani Gate; the Siria Escarpment, which forms the western boundary; the Mara Triangle, which lies between the Mara River and the Siria Escarpment; and the Central Plains, which lie between the Mara River and the Ngama Hills. The permanent Mara and Talek Rivers and their tributaries flow through the Reserve.
Arena for ‘the greatest wildlife show on earth'
Between the end of July and November, over one and a half million wildebeest accompanied by half again as many zebras and gazelles, migrate from the short-grass plains of the Serengeti to fresh pasture in the grasslands of the Mara; thus creating one of nature's grandest spectacles. Moving in groups of up to 20,000 at a time they thunder across the plateau hesitating only briefly to cross the Mara River, where many fall prey to the waiting crocodiles. Towards the end of October they begin crossing back into Tanzania. The actual timing of the migration, however, is dictated by the weather and does not always run to schedule. The migration is a comparatively recent phenomenon, prior to 1969 only a few wildebeest spilled over from the Serengeti in exceptionally dry years.
Offering an abundance of herbivores, the Mara makes the ideal hunting ground for Kenya's famous ‘big cats' and hosts her largest population of lions. It also offers the best chance of spotting a leopard in the wild. Other predators include cheetah and spotted hyena.
The rest of the wildlife cast
Historically teaming with wildlife, the Mara is famous for the large herds of elephant and buffalo that meander its plains; also for the fat pods of hippo that wallow in its mud-brown rivers. Other stars include the distinctive Masai giraffe, topi, Coke's hartebeest, Grant's and Thomson's gazelle, zebra, impala, Kirk's dik-dik, bushbuck, waterbuck and red duiker. The Reserve also boasts plentiful Nile crocodile, monitor lizard, baboon, vervet, blue and red-tailed monkeys, nocturnal bush babies, and tree hyrax.
One of Kenya's most important bird areas
Boasting over 550 resident and migratory species, the Mara shelters an incredible array of both regionally and globally threatened birds. Easily spotted on the plains are the common ostrich, secretary bird, ground hornbill and bustard (Kori, black-bellied and white-bellied). Also plentiful are crowned plover, red-necked spur fowl and helmeted guinea fowl, while along the rivers African fish eagle, Egyptian geese, yellow-billed stork, sacred ibis and blacksmith plover abound. The Reserve also boasts 53 species of raptors, to include augur buzzard, black-shouldered kite, bateleur eagle and 6 species of vulture. The Reserve is the only place in Kenya where you can see the rare Schalow's turaco.
The golden plains of the Mara
The Mara's plains are dominated by Themeda triandra (red oat grass) and following the rains the lush grasslands burst briefly into brilliance with a glorious array of small flowering plants, such as the charming pink, orange or mango-coloured Crossandra subacaulis, the so-called ‘tissue paper flower' (Cycnium tubulosum), the stunning fire ball lily (Scadoxus multiflorus) and the glorious pink and white striped pyjama lily (Crinum macowanii).
Perhaps the best known of Kenya's tribes, the Nilo-Hamitic Maasai are a nomadic people whose style of life has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. The daily rhythm of life revolves around the constant quest for water and grazing for their cattle. Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai are distinguished by their complex character, impeccable manners, impressive presence and almost mystical love of their cattle. The latter is based on the Maasai belief that the sky god, ‘Enkai ‘, was once at one with the earth. When the earth and the sky were separated, however, Enkai was forced to send all the world's cattle into the safekeeping of the Maasai where, as far as the Maasai are concerned, they have remained. Brave and ruthless warriors, the Maasai instilled terror in all who came up against them, most especially the early explorers. ‘Take a thousand men' advised the famous explorer Henry Stanley when speaking of the Maasai, ‘or write your will'.
Today, cattle are still the central pivots of Maasai life and ‘I hope your cattle are well' is the most common form of Maasai greeting. The milk and blood of their cattle also continue to be the preferred diet of the Maasai people, while the hides serve as mattresses, sandals, mats and clothing. Cattle also act as marriage bonds, while a complex system of cattle-fines maintains the social harmony of the group. Visually stunning, the Maasai warrior with his swathe of scarlet ‘Shuka' (blanket), beaded belt, dagger, intricately plaited hair and one-legged stance remains the most enduring icon of Kenyan tourism. That said, many a modern Maasai dons a suit for work, but come the weekend, and he'll be back in his beloved traditional dress.