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The Mara - Africa

Kenya’s Maasai Mara is the world’s most popular safari destination and a perennial backdrop to wildlife documentaries, but how best to experience it for yourself? Join leading safari writer Emma Gregg in the 4x4 as she guides you to the perfect trip

The Mara

If you’re a documentary fan who’s familiar with Nineties TV, you’ll recognise Kenya’s Maasai Mara straight off the bat. The BBC’s wildlife-reality series Big Cat Diary was filmed here, making stars of its lion, leopard and cheetah dynasties.

When the Maasai Mara National Reserve was created, just north of Serengeti National Park in 1961, these dynasties were on the brink of collapse, ravaged by early 20th-century big game hunters. Fortunately, they recovered, and the Mara – the reserve and the conservancies adjoining it – became Kenya’s most popular area for photographic safaris. Legendary for its wildlife, it’s also a region where local traditions continue, fostered by progressive conservation policies. Many Maasai, unmistakable in their beads and scarlet shuka blankets, still follow a simple pastoral lifestyle; if you stay at a camp on a responsible lodge or conservancy, they benefit financially.

The region is particularly busy in the dry months between July and October, when it’s the stage for one of Africa’s most dramatic wildlife spectacles, the Great Migration. Thousands of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles flood in from the Serengeti and attempt to cross the Mara and Talek rivers, which twist alongside the conservancies and through the reserve, making this a time of plenty for big cats, hyenas, vultures and crocodiles. It’s unforgettable, but the herds of tourist vehicles spoil the magic for some; if you’ve been on safari before or would just like a less-crowded experience, try November or January to June, when room rates plummet by more than half and you’re still pretty much guaranteed to see zebras, Maasai giraffes, Thomson’s temperatures hover around 25C all year, the nights are always cool and even the rainiest months (April and May) can be beautiful, with clear light, vegetation, plentiful birdlife and baby antelopes galore.

Accommodation in the Mara has mushroomed in recent years but old-school safari fans still love it here, since tented camps rich in heritage, be it European or Maasai, are more common than modern lodges. This is Kenya’s priciest protected area but, overall, Kenyan safari holiday prices compare well with South Africa and are considerably lower than Botswana, Namibia or Zambia, all of which require longer international flights. It’s easy enough to find a one-week trip which includes the Mara for under £2,000pp, including flights from the UK.

True to safari tradition, most standard itineraries tour several parks, spending a couple of nights in each, but you could choose to make the Mara your focus for several days, allowing time off from wildlife- watching drives to enjoy a spot of hot air ballooning, bushwalking and fly-camping or a visit to a Maasai community to learn about traditions. Though be aware: some of these local ‘villages’ can be a little touristy and inauthentic, so check with your guide for recommendations.

While independent travel isn’t as common as in southern Africa’s blockbuster self-drive safari destinations such as Kruger National Park in South Africa or Etosha in Namibia, it is possible to hire a 4x4 and head west across the Great Rift Valley.

It’s a bumpy six-hour ride and one that we wouldn’t necessarily recommend. Camping in public campsites such as those found in the Mara Triangle is available from as little as £21 per night, but is incomparable to the experience offered at a lodge and the education it provides. Another option is to hire a driver or simply book a group tour from a Nairobi-based safari company such as Uniglobe or Gamewatchers sharing a minibus with a pop-up roof that affords a good view. This can be fun, with an element of adventure, and you’ll see and learn about far more wildlife with a keen-eyed guide than you would going it alone on a self-drive tour. For a group of six, four-day trips from Nairobi in high season start at approximately £712pp.

However, the quality of guiding on minibus tours is no match for the expertise you can expect from the highly qualified KPSGA (Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association) teams based at the top camps, where wildlife-watching in well-equipped safari vehicles with excellent 360-degree sightlines is almost always included in the room rate, along with park fees (£58pp). Most camps call these excursions, rather quaintly, ‘game drives’, a throwback to the days when safaris were all about shooting animals with guns rather than cameras. They love to throw in old-fashioned luxuries, too, from Maasai blankets to keep you warm on chilly mornings to sundowners and snacks at classic viewpoints (each camp has its favourites). Your vehicle will be open-sided; wear neutral colours, a hat and sunblock to stay inconspicuous and dust-stain-free. Pack a warm jumper, too.

Most safari holidays include flights instead of road transfers, whisking you from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport to the airstrip nearest your chosen camp in around 45 minutes. Safarilink offers several scheduled departures daily in turboprop airliners. These range from 13 passengers to 52. The smaller planes fly lower and afford a better view, so plump for these if you can. Either way, you’ll need to travel light – a 15kg baggage allowance is standard, and light aircraft usually only accept soft bags – but you’ll have top views followed by a mini game drive to camp.

As for where to stay, luxury lodges and camps provide the best experience. They have access to the best drivers and guides who will not only spot the animals, but provide an education about local ecosystems and bush life. It’s natural to assume that the accommodation inside the national reserve offers the best wildlife-watching opportunities, but don’t dismiss those in the conservancies and private concessions, which give experiences connected to the local community and give something back, too.

A safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it’s a false economy to cut corners. Extra costs add up quickly, so be sure to know exactly what you are paying for, with whomever you choose to book.

Lions In A Tree

Travel Details

Angama Mara - Tried and Tasted The Mara

Opened two years ago, Angama is the culmination of a dream by Nicky Fitzgerald and her late partner Steve, safari industry veterans. The manifestation of this dream is simply stunning. Spread across two kopjes (rocky outcrops) on the Great Rift Valley, each with 15 tented suites, your views across the savannah some 300 metres below stretch all the way to the Tanzanian border. Each kopje has its own restaurant and lounge building with decking, complete with sunken fire pit and a telescope to view the game below. Suites are cleverly designed to give maximum privacy and are spaced well apart to make you feel like the only people there. Your veranda fronts an 11m window of personal luxury – think roll-top baths, parquet flooring, stylish colonial furniture and a well-stocked bar (with spirits of your choice), topped off with home-made cookies and spiced cashews. Angama also provides each suite with a pair of high-quality binoculars and the 4x4 vehicles have full ‘bush bars’ and provisions for impromptu drinks and lunches. UK power points are in the Jeep, so there’s no fear of your camera running out of juice.

Restaurant service is polished and professional and, unlike other camps, you have your own table and a full à la carte menu, rather than communal seating. Our knowledgeable guide Daniel was at our disposal all day to spot the game and give valuable insights into the flora and fauna and wildlife found in the Mara Triangle.

On a third kopje, which was the setting for Out of Africa, you can experience an authentic Maasai adumu (jumping dance) around a fire (Angama works closely with and supports the local tribe) or relax with a sundowner and drink in the view. It really is the ‘Bellagio of the Bush’.

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Travel Details

From £857pp per night.

Oloololo Escarpment, 01865 981 311,

Serian, The Original - Tried and Tasted Serian

This lodge, set on the banks of the Mara River, is one of just 11 camps located in the Mara North Conservancy, a 30,000ha private wilderness.

Your welcome by Adrian, Roisin and team is warm and you slip quickly into the role of a guest at your best friend’s house. Cool towels and drinks are dispensed and introductions exchanged with campmates as Roisin outlines the options and recent game sighting, when a warm face nuzzles up – it’s Wifi, the friendly camp dog and, incidentally, the only Wi-Fi available.

The five large tents that make up Serian are set on wooden decking and house four-poster beds and thatched ‘en-suite’ bush toilets with baths carved out of local rock. This is ‘glamping’ at its best. Our vast family tent was positioned above the river bank and a stone’s throw away from a crash of 30 hippos that wallowed on the bank. Obviously, the focus is the game but a real surprise was the fantastic food: fresh salads (much of it grown in the lodge’s nursery garden), heart-warming soups and delicious fish curries. It’s all heightened when shared around a communal table under an elephant pepper tree. Heading back to camp from a morning drive, we were greeted with breakfast in the bush followed by an impromptu walking safari.

Each tent has its own guide and spotter who can expertly find a cheetah stalking a hare, spot the white-tipped tail of a leopard, or introduce you to a newborn giraffe. But the highlight was going on night drives, when the big cats shake off their daytime stupor to hunt.

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Travel Details

From £450pp per night.

Mara North Conservancy, 00 254 202 663 397,

Photography tips... On safari

  • Take extra memory cards. Go for fast-read cards above 150MB/s, which decrease the camera’s buffering time. Ditto batteries (if required), and don’t forget the charger
  • Sort your camera settings before you head out – animals are unpredictable so you need to be on the ball: you don’t want to be fiddling with a dial when the illusive rhino comes into frame
  • Bigger is better when it comes to lenses – arm yourself before you travel and don’t go for anything less than a 200mm full-frame lens, no matter what camera you use
  • An iPhone camera just doesn’t cut it here and an SLR is highly recommended. Although, if you’re using a point-and- click, make sure you’ve got good 10x to 20x (or above) zoom
  • Bush life is fast. Set a high shutter speed to avoid blurry shots. Crank ISO up to 400 or higher, which reduces jumping
  • Keep the white balance set to daylight to ensure sharp shots
  • Don’t underestimate the ‘Golden Hour’, which creates a beautiful soft, warm light in which to capture the animals – it’s around two hours before sunset. Sunrise is perfect, too
  • Invest in the best binoculars you can afford. Even the best lodges (like Angama) only lend one set per tent
  • Unless you’re a pro, remember that most of your shots will be taken from the Jeep, so tripods are unnecessary
  • Look up! Sure, the big five are the priority, but there’s a whole wild world in the trees. Vultures perch on low-slung acacia trees, while leopards and lions are also tree-dwellers
  • And... put the camera down. Take time to soak up the experience, look around and appreciate the majesty

Tips courtesy of Mark Parren Taylor, Food and Travel photographer.

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Travel Details

More top Mara lodges

Cottar’s 1920s Camp
Steeped in family history, Cottar’s has superb guides and transports you back to a time when a camp was a place to hand your boots to the butler and sip gin and tonic to crackly gramophone records. £1,634. Ol Derikesi Conservancy, 00 254 733 773 378,

Elephant Pepper Camp
Established camp evoking the early days of safari, with welcome modern enhancements such as solar lighting. Specialities include Italian cuisine and expert-guided bushwalks. £772. Mara North Conservancy, 00 254 730 127 000,

Encounter Mara
With impeccable responsible tourism credentials, the tents here, connected by elephant-dung paths, have a true immersed-in-the-bush vibe. £900. Mara Naboisho Conservancy, 00 202 324 904,

Kicheche Bush Camp
Co-owned by Paul Goldstein, a professional wildlife photographer from the UK who regularly uses it as a base for tours, Kicheche is immaculate, with a loyal following. £1,115. Olare Motorogi Conservancy, 00 254 202 493 569,

Little Governor’s Camp
Sister to Governor’s, a favourite of BBC film crews including the makers of Big Cat Diary. It’s in a handy location for hot air ballooning, a quintessential Mara experience. £736. Maasai Mara National Reserve, 00 254 727 062 530,

Mara Plains
Camp Intimate seven-tent camp that’s conservation- focused and highly luxurious, with thoughtful extras such as top-end binoculars and cameras for guests’ use. £2,534. Olare Motorogi Conservancy, 00 27 873 546 591,

Porini Mara
A camp which pioneered community-owned Mara tourism, with a relaxed feel and excellent wildlife-watching, from elephants to lion cubs. £2,378. Ol Kinyei Conservancy, 00 254 774 136 523,

Sanctuary Olonana
Relaunching in June with 14 all-new glass-walled suites, this luxury lodge epitomises bush style on the banks of the Mara. Its eco credentials are strong and it has won numerous awards. £1,242. Oloololo Escarpment, 00 254 202 487 374,

Tangulia Mara
Rustic camp allowing easy access to the wildlife-rich Musiara Marsh and Rhino Ridge. Co-owned by Maasai naturalist and guide Jackson Looseyia, who worked on the BBC’s Big Cat Live. £886. Maasai Mara National Reserve, 00 254 206 000 457,

Wilderness Camp
A back-to-nature experience with comfortable touches. Good base for village visits and fly-camping safaris. £548. Mara Naboisho Conservancy, 00 254 733 333 909,

Duba Plains Main Area Evening Library

Travel Details

Rates quoted are per night for two people sharing a double safari tent, including full board, activities and transfers, in high season (typically July to September and late December to early January). At other times, most camps offer significant discounts

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