The Loita Hills
To the northeast of the Masai Mara National Reserve are the little-known and spellbindingly beautiful Loita Hills. When accessing them from the Mara area, the hills start out dry and unimpressive, but if you bounce along for enough hours (and we mean hours and hours – the roads here are some of the worst in Kenya), things start to change. The vegetation becomes greener and much more luxuriant, eventually turning into a tangled jungle. The mountains also grow ever bigger, peaking at a respectable 2150m.
This is the most traditional corner of Maasai land and change, though it's coming, is way behind many other parts of the country. Despite the number of Maasai living here, it's also an area of unexpected wildlife – colobus monkeys swing through the trees, turacos light the skies with colour and huge numbers of buffaloes, forest pigs and bushbucks move through the shadows. What makes this area so extraordinary is that it's not covered by any official protection and yet the forests remain fairly untouched. The reason is that there are many places in the forests sacred to the Maasai and the elders tightly control the felling of trees and grazing of cattle. It's a brilliant example of how traditional cultures can thrive alongside wildlife without outside aid.
For the most part, accommodation out here is restricted to a few basic boardings and lodgings in some villages. But there are exceptions. Based in the beautiful and low-key Jan's Camp, Maasai Trails organises hiking trips that take you out into some of the more remote reaches of Maasailand where few travellers ever reach, from day hikes out of Jan's Camp to the 12-day Great Maasailand Trail. The longer options take you completely across and over the Loita Hills and down into the Rift Valley near Lake Magadi.
Prices for walks depend on the number of people and length of hike. Stays at Jan's Camp are normally included in the walking package rates.
The Masai Mara Area Conservancies
Changing the face of conservation and tourism in Kenya are the private and community conservancies, many of which now border the Masai Mara National Reserve. Each conservancy operates in a slightly different manner, but the general idea is to make tourism, conservation and the rights of local peoples work hand in hand to the mutual benefit of all. Most conservancies involve the local Maasai landowners leasing their communal lands for an average of 15 years at a time to several high-end lodges. The Maasai are still allowed to graze their cattle in the conservancies and receive a guaranteed income from each camp. In addition, all camps have to contribute to community-development projects.
In return the wildlife is allowed to live in peace and the lodges can offer their clients an exclusive kind of safari with minimal other visitors, as those not staying in the conservancies are not allowed to enter. Visitors also get the opportunity to partake in activities not allowed in the reserve itself, such as walking safaris and night drives.
Entry fees to the conservancies are covered in the nightly cost of accommodation. The costs and the necessity of keeping things quiet and exclusive preclude the availability of budget accommodation. However, prices include all meals, drinks, safaris, guides and other activities – things not always included with top-end places in the reserve proper.
The Northern Migration
The Loita Hills are important for what's known as the northern migration, a smaller version of the mass migration of wildebeest from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara. During the northern migration, as many as 250,000 wildebeest and zebras migrate down onto the Mara plains from the Loita Hills, bringing prey in abundance into Mara North, Olare-Orok, Naboisho and the other conservancies, as well as the northern reaches of the reserve itself. The northern migration usually begins with the first rains in March, although in some years these rains – and the migration itself – may not begin until May. The herds generally remain until rains fall in the Loita Hills, which could be in November, but also as late as the following March.
There are concerns that growing human populations in the Loita Hills area and the growing number of fences will seriously threaten the migration's future. The northern version may also lack the drama of the main migration, due to the absence of significant river crossings. But as long as it continues, it can still be quite the spectacle during months otherwise known as the low season.
The Ugly Five
Many travellers to Kenya do so on a mission to see the Big Five (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo), but it can also be good, unscientific fun to try and track down what's known uncharitably as East Africa's safari 'Ugly Five'. By general consensus, though not without dispute, the Ugly Five are:
- Marabout stork No arguments from us.
- Warthog Now that's ugly.
- Wildebeest As some Africans like to say, it looks like it was made using the parts left over by other animals.
- Vulture They may be necessary, but no vulture would win a beauty contest, except maybe to another vulture; the lappet-faced vulture is surely the king of vulture ugliness.
- Spotted hyena In our view, this one is deeply unfair; The Lion King has a lot to answer for.
A large, handsome, reddish-brown, shaggy-coated antelope found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) is seen throughout Kenya, although what you see in Tsavo isn't necessarily the same as you'll see in the Mara. East of the Rift Valley, the waterbuck is present as the common waterbuck, while western Kenya is home to the Defassa waterbuck; the former is considered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to have a 'Least Concern' status, but Defassa Waterbuck is classed as 'Near Threatened'. Aside from geographic range, the way to tell the difference between the two subspecies is simple, but you may have to ask them to turn around: the common waterbuck has a target-like white ring encircling its rump, something that is lacking in the Defassa waterbuck. But if a target on its backside is an unfortunate evolutionary development, one other adaptation has the hallmarks of evolutionary genius: particularly where sexually aroused, the waterbuck secretes a greasy sheen that waterproofs its coat and a strong musky odour that predators find unpleasant. In other words, waterbucks don't taste good, which may just be a prey species' most effective defence of all.
Waterbucks are commonly seen in the Greater Mara region, Tsavo East National Park, Laikipia and Lake Nakuru National Park.