The Masai Mara National Reserve is 1510 sq km of open rolling grasslands that extend northward from Tanzania's Serengeti. It reaches its pinnacle every July and August when over a million wildebeest and herd animals migrate here in search of lush grass, only to turn south for greener pastures in October and November.
A natural wonder
The Great Migration is the largest movement of animals on the planet. Numbers vary annually, but it's estimated that herd sizes can reach 1.5 million wildebeest, not to mention just under a million zebras, topi and eland. Waves of zebras 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.
While the exact route changes every year, the herds will inevitably have to cross the Mara and Talek rivers. Upon reaching the banks, the herbivore ranks stall hesitantly, knowing full well that Nile crocodiles lie waiting. While there is safety in numbers, the herd will be thinned as thousands are eaten, crushed or drowned in the crossings. Those that do make it to the other side are not in the clear. Lions wait in ambush, with scavengers such as hyenas and jackals eying good pickings. There are also cheetahs hiding out in the short grass plains, and leopards silently waiting in the treetops.
Kills are common during the migration, especially in the early morning, late afternoon and during the shelter of night. But no matter how many safari videos you may have already seen, nothing can prepare you for this raw display of nature. The hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention, and an emotional mix of awe and sympathy takes hold. Often the prey is not aware that it is about to lose its life. Other times, the struggle to survive is fierce and even inspiring. But when death does take hold in the wild, it is anything but a pretty sight.
The Sekenani Gate in the east leads into the rolling Ngama Hills, dominated by stands of thorny acacias that are often picked clean by giraffes. Plenty of animals beyond the seasonal migrants can be seen along the side tracks including warthogs, elephants, buffaloes, hartebeests and gazelles. Troops of vervet monkeys and olive baboons are also commonly seen fanning out to forage. Less common are the dik-diks, a tiny species of antelope that hides out in thickets. Even rarer is the endangered black rhino, a few dozen of which can be found in the south-eastern corner of the reserve.
The Mara boasts no less than 540 different species of birds. Huge vultures can easily be spotted wheeling in the thermals or gorging on the remains of a kill. Large grassland birds range from the familiar common ostrich and hornbill to the lesser-known secretary bird, a large eagle-crane hybrid that hunts on foot. The skies are home to 57 types of raptors, the most famous of which is the African fish eagle. If you're an avid birder hoping to expand your checklist, the Mara has plenty of colourful specialists including yellow-mantled widowbirds, purple grenadiers and cinnamon-breasted rock buntings.
An uncertain future
The delicate balance between economic development and environmental conservation is always difficult to properly manage. Yet there are times when personal and political ambitions appear to trump collective reason and sound logic. At the time of writing, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete seems determined to build a new highway through the northern reaches of the Serengeti in order to foster development in rural and highly marginalized communities.
While his development ambitions seem admirable, there is scientific evidence to suggest that the proposed road would negatively impact the migration. Scientists, conservation groups, the Kenyan government and Unesco alike are loudly protesting the construction, and have even proposed viable alternative routes that swing south of the Serengeti. But it remains to be seen whether President Kikwete will bow to foreign pressure or follow through on a campaign promise.
Domestic flights and private charters touch down at the various airstrips in the Mara. By vehicle, it's a bumpy 270km ride from Nairobi as the tarmac disappears after Narok. Self-drive safaris are permitted, though the vast majority of travellers prefer to arrange guided drives through their accommodation. All budgets are catered for in the Mara, from budget camping trips to all-inclusive luxury lodges. Advanced reservations are highly recommended, and absolutely essential during the migration.