The Masai Mara is one of Africa’s most iconic safari destinations. Its reputation is based on the fact that the annual Great Wildebeest Migration passes through the Mara (as it’s popularly known). If you’ve seen incredible images of courageous antelope leaping into the water and trying to avoid the snapping jaws of giant crocodiles, then the chances are that those were pictures of Mara River crossings.
There’s more to the Mara than the Migration, however: even when the giant herds have moved on, the resident wildlife of the Masai Mara region is more than sufficient. The scenery is straight out of every African movie you’ve ever seen — think undulating plains, isolated flat-topped acacia trees, and small, rocky outcrops. As the name suggests, this is the homeland of the legendary Maasai people and respectful cultural encounters and exchanges are included in most Mara itineraries.
When to visit the Masai Mara
Unfortunately, the Masai Mara area has been a victim of its own success, to an extent. During the long dry season (June to October), the Mara is justifiably very popular. Availability in safari lodges can be extremely tight, with premium rates charged all around. This is especially true during July, August, and September when the migrating wildebeest are passing through.
Conversely, there are other times of year when rates are lower, and availability is much higher. During green seasons (April – May, and November), bargains are plentiful, and fellow visitors much thinner on the ground. This is when the Mara is at its most beautiful, and there is very little chance of having to share a sighting.
Conservancies: a new approach
In an effort to reduce the tourism pressure on the Masai Mara National Reserve, in recent years a number of private conservancies have been established. These are all part of the greater Mara ecosystem, and most of them adjoin the Reserve itself. The land in the conservancies is owned by the Maasai, but rather than graze their cattle there year-round, they rent their land to private safari companies, while still retaining occasional grazing rights.
This gives local communities a more sustainable revenue stream and helps maintain the conservancies in a pristine, wild state – which, of course, attracts more wildlife. The conservancies play a vital role as a “buffer zone” between the National Reserve and community farmers and now account for 2/3 of the protected areas within the Mara ecosystem. Not all of the conservancies offer tourist accommodation, but those that do are helping the Masai Mara to rewild itself.
During the peak dry season, the conservancies act as natural “dispersal areas” for wildlife searching for precious water – and for the predators which pursue them. This means that make a real contribution to the health of the entire ecosystem.
With lodges and safari camps operating in some of the 14 Masai Mara conservancies, visitors can choose to either spend their time in the National Reserve or in the neighboring areas. So, when it comes down to the Masai Mara versus Masai Mara Conservancies, which should you opt for?
The advantages of conservancies
Guest numbers in the conservancies are strictly limited, on a number of acres per guest tent basis. Additionally, and unlike in the National Reserve, no day visitors are permitted, so the conservancies can feel much less “crowded”.
By staying in a conservancy, you can still make daily visits to the National Reserve.
Conservancies offer a more flexible approach to safari activities where off-road driving, walking safaris, and night drives are all permitted. This allows for closer wildlife encounters and a greater variety of experiences. Several of the conservancies have earned excellent reputations for sightings of predators, in particular. Indeed, the BBC now films Big Cat Diary in the Mara North Conservancy.
At the same time, Masai Mara conservancies are subject to one important rule that does not apply in the National Reserve. That is, there is a limit of just five vehicles per sighting, which can make for excellent sightings and less pressure on individual animals.
No reserves about the Reserve
As the heart of the Mara ecosystem, the Reserve contains some of the most spectacular scenery and is the setting for some of the most dramatic wildlife action (such as river crossings). The Mara, Talek, and Sand Rivers are some of the most beautiful locations in Kenya and are found exclusively within the Reserve.
As the Reserve is five times the size of even the largest conservancy, even with the greater numbers of visitors, the Reserve need not feel crowded in the slightest – especially outside of the peak season, when you may not see another game drive vehicle all day.
Even with the growing reputation of the conservancies, the Reserve is still one of the best places in East Africa to see big cats. It is also the only place in the Masai Mara ecosystem where rhinos can be seen (for security reasons, these creatures have not been released into the conservancies).
The Mara Triangle – incidentally a rhino hotspot – operates on some of the same rules as the conservancies, including the five vehicles per sighting regulation (although off-roading is not permitted).
The Masai Mara National Reserve and the Masai Mara Conservancies are in essence two sides of the same coin. They have their own advantages, but whichever you choose, you can be certain of the incredible safari experiences in this iconic region of East Africa.
For advice and assistance on making the choice between the two, contact Alluring Africa today.