Safari in The Masai Mara, Kenya: Our Quest For The big 5

“Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is worst of all.” – Brian Jackman [2004 travel writer of the Year]

When we were planning our budget Masai Mara safari in Kenya, the thought remained in the back of our heads that it was going to cost us a lot of money and we had already seen lots of of the African “Big 5” in South Africa.

Was it worth it to do such an expensive safari just for the thrill of camping out in the reserve?

When we entered the gates to the great Masai Mara game Reserve all those doubts were put to rest. The sheer size of the great plains of the Rift Valley, and the indescribable density of the animals who graze, hunt and find sustenance in this fertile savanna, made it evident that this was an entirely different African experience than we had ever had before.

entering the Masai Mara

our safari van – best camping Kenya
the great Rift Valley

us with the Rift Valley in the background
The low, rolling hills stretched on and on for as far as the eye can see. The enormous, impossibly blue sky was so stretched out over the horizon that it put the sky above the prairies of Canada to shame, and amongst all this were hundreds of thousands of grazing wildebeest, zebra, kudu, gazelle, impala, and just about every other antelope you could imagine.

We had about 2 hours of sunlight before the great cliffs of the Rift Valley which surrounded us turned a golden orange as the sky turned pink and the animals came out in the relief from the heat of day.

In that first 2 hours of game driving we identified a huge herds of elephants and 2 prides of lions with cubs. Plus, we saw plenty of giraffes wandering around with their normal slow, confident saunter — unlike the cheetah, which is the fastest land animal in the world. Luckily, when we saw them they weren’t running and were lazing in the grass, allowing us to get some photos. 

a big lion yawn, Masai Mara
2 cheetahs, Masai Mara

a pair of cheetahs lounging in the late sun, Masai Mara
sun setting over the Masai Mara

By the time we arrived at our camp we were already buzzing with a familiar safari excitement. The campsite was exactly as we had expected, basic tents with thin mattresses, a great campfire and lounging area, a kitchen, dining room, and (surprisingly) hot showers.

After considerable research, we booked our budget safari through best camping Safaris in Nairobi.

The reason we booked with them was because the Manager, Imraan, seemed like a trustworthy person (and lived in Calgary for 10 years) and best camping Safaris (Kenya) was the only safari company which seemed to have sincere reviews on trip Advisor, not just self-made acclamations by safari operators themselves like lots of others had.

There were a few sincere reviews describing that the food was ok, the beds were thin, but the service and game drives were excellent.

It was these, successfully critical reviews that set our standard, and gave us an idea for how the safari would be. and they were generally spot on.

The beds were thin but comfortable, the food was okay, but our crew of cooks, our guide, and watchmen were superb. There were two Masai Warriors who enjoyed over the campsite every night.

As budget backpackers, this was a best safari for us. They even have a a lot more luxurious style of safari as well if that’s what you’re into. That first night, as we fell asleep to the sound of hyenas and jackals cackling in the great valley, our Masai Warriors kept watch.

our tent with best camping Safari
a Masai Mara tribal man – he kept enjoy over our camp at night

Our Safari was 4 nights total, 3 nights spent in tents in the Masai Mara game Reserve, and 1 night in a hotel outside of Lake Nakuru national Park.

For the curious travellers reading this blog, it cost $1400 for 2 of us, including food, guides, accommodation, some water, soft drinks and park fees.

Although that would usually be way out of our budget, a proper safari in one of Africa’s greatest and best parks was an essential element of our visit to the continent… and we didn’t regret it for a minute.

Our safari automobile was just a van with a pop-up roofing where we could stand up and have a full 360 degree view of the park. It could hold up to 8 passengers but we were very lucky to only have two other people on our safari with us, Marcus and Patrick.

In fact, it was only us four in the entire campsite as well.

We had three game drives per day, each one enduring between 2 and 3 hours. One in the morning, mid-day, and late afternoon, the former and latter being the best for spotting big cats, hyenas and the most interesting of the parks game.

us with our fellow safari go’ers…and our guide

Every time we stepped into the van and put our heads out of the roofing with the anticipation of spotting something new, we weren’t disappointed. Every drive used something we had never seen before. It would be impossible to describe in a blog the feeling we had when our van crawled past a pride of lions or through a herd of gigantic elephants.

How could a person put into words the surreal pink, blue and orange colors that the massive sky projects above the plains as the sun creeps below the towering cliffs of the Rift Valley?

The entire time we spent in the Masai Mara was like a dream, complete with all the African life and death dramas of a national geographic special. The reality of being there, however, brought in smells and sounds with the breeze that a cam and a blog could never capture.

I could write page after page to list the great things we saw in those four days but I’ll save you people the reading. There were a few points on our safari drives that stick out above all and are worth mentioning.

We saw our first ever Black Rhino (the a lot of endangered African Rhino) on day 2 and he came within 10 feet of the vehicle.

the rare Black Rhino, Masai Mara
That same day during our mid-day game drive we stopped and turned off the van and sat for 15 or 20 minutes as a huge herd of elephants slowly grazed and walked ideal past us. They were keeping a close eye on us and never letting the baby elephants stray too far, slightly wary of our presence.

a family of African Elephants, Masai Mara
a baby elephant, Masai Mara

looking at some elephants, Masai Mara
On day 3 we saw our first hyenas, although we had heard them a lot at night.

Seeing as we had seen dozens of lions every day, the king of the jungle lost the excitement to be a highlight by himself, until the afternoon drive on day 3 when we came over a hill and saw an entire pride of lions feasting on a full-grown giraffe that they had taken down a day or so before!

The smell was so pungent it was hard to breath without gagging and it was nearly impossible to imagine how the cats could take something so huge to the ground.

The males and full-grown female lions were sleeping, stuffed full, about 10 meters away from the carcass, lazily surrounding it and guarding the kill while the cubs and adolescent males practiced tearing and pulling at the decaying flesh with their newly formed teeth and claws.

There was a lot more playing than eating but as our guide John explained, they learn a lot from enjoying their parents when making a kill.

close to a hyena
sneaky hyena, Masai Mara

cubs picking at a dead giraffe, Masai Mara
lions eating their kill, Masai Mara

Even though every day, and every drive was so amazing, somehow the best was still saved for last. On the final game drive in the Masai Mara, on the afternoon of day 4, John took us to the middle of nowhere. For the three days before we had been bugging him to find us a leopard, the most elusive of the African game in the Mara.

We hadn’t been lucky enough yet, and we had already expected not to see one because they are very hard to spot. They only normally come out when the sun has set and they don’t like to give tourists the privilege of parking close and taking lots of pictures. So as our van drove additionally and additionally into the empty savanna, and the grazing antelopes became a lot more scarce, John explained that we were entering leopard territory.

No radio calls had been made about a leopard spotting so John said we were unlucky and probably weren’t going to see one. There were a few other jeeps patrolling the area and whenever John stopped and spoke to them they would shrug and say something in a disappointed Swahili tone. John made a decision to do one a lot more swing around the treeline before giving up.

We were slowly creeping through the lawn when Marcus yelled from behind me “THERE!!” and John slammed on the brakes. immediately my heart started pounding and all I was thinking was “this better not be a zebra or something”, but sure enough, just 3 meters from the van, laying nearly absolutely camouflaged in the grass, was a best specimen of a male leopard.

a beautiful cat – leopard at Masai Mara

Not only had we identified the most beautiful and elusive of Africa’s cats, but we were the only car around for miles. John pulled up close and turned off the engine and we just enjoyed as the stunning cat played in the long grass. He did everything we could have hoped for. He rolled around, swatted at flies, yawned, got up and walked a bit, and laid down again. just enough time for us to get about a thousand photos and a few videos.

majestic leopard, Masai Mara

leopard, Masai Mara
leopard walking through tall grass, Masai Mara

big leopard yawn!
Then, after John made the call on the radio and other jeeps pulled up, the big, muscular male cat hungout for a few a lot more minutes before retreating slowly and proudly into the jungle as if he was saying “okay that’s enough, nothing a lot more to see here”.

The leopard is the star celebrity of anyone’s African safari and as he left the great stage of the Masai Mara, we all had the feeling he knows where he stands in the hearts of his fans.

He only ever shows up long enough for a quick sighting and at a lot of a few photos, then normally just disappears back into Africa. The appeal of his spots is matched only by the allure of his demeanor and any individual who sees him is awed by his presence.

The whole way back to camp we were talking about how amazing our leopard spotting was, but Africa had one a lot more treat in store for us. As we neared our camp we saw dozens of giraffes slowly walking, their long necks like construction cranes on the far horizon.

giraffes on the horizon at sunset

We told John to turn off the van and we just sat enjoying in silence as 10, then 20, then 30 giraffes appeared across the grassy panorama. They slowly walked past us, some coming as close as 5 meters, all in a slow sad-looking procession.

We joked that they were walking in a funeral ceremony for their friend that the lions had taken down the day before, but their effortless, un-rushed stroll did seem to have some kind of deep meaning.

It felt like we were experiencing something not seen often and John even said he had never seen so lots of together like that. It was a great ending to a best day, and a best 4 day safari trip through the Masai Mara.

Yet another experience that only the great mother of all continents can offer, and although Africa can be hard to travel some times, it’s these moments that make it all worthwhile.

(see below for some traveller’s ideas on safari)

vultures picking away at a carcass, Masai Mara

a lioness at Masai Mara
a pride of lions lounging in the morning, Masai Mara

hyenas, jackal and vultures battling over a carcass, Masai Mara
animals grazing on the horizon at sunset, Masai Mara

colourful lizard, Masai Mara
wildebeest, Masai Mara

hippos in the river, Masai Mara
eagle circling above in the afternoon sun, Masai Mara

hawk, Masai Mara
colourful crowned crane, Masai Mara

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