Often described as the greatest of nature’s stages, the Maasai Mara, with its huge dramatic skies, is perhaps the most popular of all Kenya’s game parks. The landscape, which is mostly savannah, is home to around 500 lions, and 3,000 elephants.
Every year, since the beginning of time, the Maasai Mara has been center stage for the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth, the Great Wildebeest Migration.
Mara, meaning ‘dotted’, ‘patchy’, or ‘chequered’ in the language of the Maasai, the park was designated as a national reserve in 1974. The vast savannah plains are speckled with riverine forests, mountain ridges, and natural springs. It is part of the greater Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, home to the largest conglomeration of wildlife in the world.
From the dry plains of the southern Serengeti in Tanzania the promise of rain and fresh grass brings more than 1.3 million Wildebeest together into a single massive herd which then moves its way across the border into the Maasai Mara in Kenya, between July and October (although the timing and exact route changes from year to year), before returning to the Serengeti to start the cycle all over again.
They create a spectacular sight as the surging column of life stretches from horizon to horizon and, with the wildebeest, come attendant herds of zebra and Thomson’s gazelle between 600,000 strong – and of curse the predators follow.
Waves of plains zebra arrive first, mowing through the tall, coarse grass stems that shot up during the rains and exposing the green leafy grasses preferred by the wildebeests following behind them.
At the Mara River, they mass together at crossing points on the banks before finally plunging in, sometimes in immense herds of 10,000 animals at a time, stirring up the waters as they struggle against the currents and waiting crocodiles.
The Maasai Mara offers the best view of the last of the great migrations left on the planet during the months of August and September.
At other times, warthogs, lions, elephants, buffaloes can be seen along tracks off the main roads east of the park; while amongst the dense Croton bushes, soft silvery leleshwa – used by the Maasai as a deodorant – antelopes such as Grant’s gazelles, impalas, and the common eland, as well as the park’s black rhino prefer this habitat. Kirk’s dik-diks and steinbucks are also common in this habitat. Towards the west, lone euphorbias, balanitis, and flat-topped acacias – browsed by the distinctively marked Masai giraffes – dot the landscape. Kongonis, topis, and Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles are present all year round.
Maasai giraffes, buffaloes, elephants, topis, kongonis, elands, defassa waterbucks, impalas, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, hippos and black rhinos.
Leopards and spotted hyenas are commonly encountered, cheetahs less so, and striped hyenas and hunting dogs rarely.
Smaller attractions include black-backed jackals, servals, caracals, and mongoose.
The Mara boasts 540 bird species including 57 raptors; sought-after specialties include Denham’s bustards, rock cisticolas, and Jackson’s widowbirds. Birds of prey range from the snappy little grey kestrel and other species hovering above grasslands, to large eagles and six species of vulture wheeling in the thermals.
Birdwatching at the Mara is excellent and features several unique species rarely seen at other parks such as magpie shrikes and African penduline tits. Kestrels – grey, common and lesser – hunt rodents over the grasslands; white-bellied go away birds mock from the top of trees; and Yellow-mantled widowbirds, purple grenadiers, and Cinnamon-breasted rock buntings all feed along the tracks.
Large grassland birds include common ostriches, secretary birds, southern ground hornbills, and three species of bustard; and dark chanting goshawks, vultures, and eagles nest in the trees. The grasslands also support a rich community of small birds, including 12 species of cisticola, quail, francolins, and red-necked and yellow-necked spurfowl; drably colored larks and pipits, Yellow-throated and almost neon-bright rosy-breasted longclaws; and many finches, weavers, and widowbirds.
African fish eagles hunt along the rivers, which attract resident and migrant waterbirds, while fruiting trees attract Schalow’s turacos, African green pigeons, laughing parties of green wood-hoopoe and black-and-white-casqued hornbills.