The Maasai Mara is hands down one of the most spectacular places on earth. With over 1,600,000 wildebeest, zebra, impala, lions and cheetahs migrating through its surreal landscape annually, this Kenyan park offers a safari experience like no other. The Maasai Mara and the Serengeti are the same contiguous landmass, separated only by the crocodile-infested Mara River that straddles the border between Tanzania and Kenya, but one thing that makes the Mara so special is the culture. The name Maasai Mara refers to the fact that this isn’t a government-run park but the land of the Maasai tribe and that they govern and protect it, just as they always have.
We pulled up to the upscale Mara Leisure Camp on the local hoopty bus (likely the first guest-drop off its kind), dusted ourselves off and checked into our tented hotel. Run by a virtually all-Maasai staff, the 25-room camp embraces the Mara with campaign-style tents that only have a thin zip-up screen separating you from the outdoors.
The next morning we loaded up the Land Rover with our trusty guide Bernard and ventured into the 200-square mile Mara. (Mara means “spotted land” in Maasai, named after the large number of animals roaming its wide open plains and the occasional acacia tree dotting its landscape.)
Driving by the airstrip, we could see that it wasn’t just the buses that have trouble entering the Mara. Wildebeest are everywhere this time of year, even the tarmac.
Vultures are scavengers fighting for scraps the world over, but during the Great Migration and the predator feast that follows, they also get to eat like kings.
You know you have a good animal sighting when you can see the plaque on a lion’s massive incisors. Each safari in Africa got us up-close and personal with the animals, but the Maasai Mara seemed to be that much more intimate.
The following day Mara Leisure Camp organized a private encounter for Anne and I with a local Maasai tribe. We learned the history of their dances, heard a few stories passed down from generation to generation, and listened to the music of the antelope horn.
We fell in love with this family of giraffes after watching them take in a few drinks at the pond. When you’re 20-feet tall, lapping up water from a hole in the ground is no easy or graceful task. To get their six-foot long neck closer to the water, they have to spread their skinny legs and bow their head between them, then sip as fast as they can before too much blood rushes to their head. Whipping their neck up every so often, their mouths splash water and slobber around in the best possible way.
On day two, Bernard could sense our anticipation to experience the Great Migration so he had the kitchen prepare some picnic lunches for a full-day game drive to the Mara River, where the real action happens. When we arrived at the river its shores were packed with wildebeest and zebra nervously waiting their turn to cross—-and rightfully so. These wildebeest had the scare of their lives when a croc came out of nowhere as they were exiting the other side.
After watching the frenzy of wildebeest and zebra darting back and forth across the river, crocs nipping at them underwater, and leopards waiting for them on the other side, we didn’t think any more action was possible…but in the Mara there is no cap on the adventures in a day. Enter the greatest cheetah encounter ever!! We found a mother and baby cheetah relaxing in the shade of a shrub and were totally content enjoying this peaceful moment but then they set out for the hunt. The mother moved with incredible grace and efficiency as she sought out a better vantage point, while the baby scrambled to follow. The mound (see top) she was using was not cutting it, so this cheetah found a new lookout spot…the roof of our car!!!! While we might look calm and collected, our hearts and minds were racing, thinking that her hungry gaze could turn on us at any moment. (VIDEO: Watch this beautiful beast makes its way towards Anne’s head and down the hood of our safari vehicle.)
The Maasai Mara may be one of the most touristy African safari parks but anything you have to endure to get here or experience it is completely worth it. To see a single acacia tree spring up from endless golden grasslands, the Maasai women dripping in homemade jewelry, and a million wildebeest stampede around you…these are things that only the Mara is made of.