The Masai Mara Migration – Visit Kenya
In many respects, Masai Mara National Reserve (and encircling conservancies in the Mara Ecosystem) is without doubt Kenya’s crown jewel faunal sanctuary. As far as ace safaris are concerned, few destinations top the Mara. Ecologically, the Mara is part of the Serengeti Ecosystem just over the border in Tanzania. As it goes, the Masai Mara scenery is timeless, but the wildebeest migration is not.
In many respects, the Masai Mara National Reserve is among the most popular national reserves in Kenya, and between June and September hotels record 100 per cent booking. “It is a reserve not a national park meaning it is unfenced and run by the Local County and not the National Government”. There’s something for everyone at the Mara, from crawl-in tents to first-rate resort. More than any other reserve and park in Kenya, the Masai Mara is dotted by numerous luxury lodges, tented camps, and campsites. It has around 42 resorts and safari camps, mainly set up in the conservancies adjoining the Mara. As far as luxury safaris go, few places top the Mara. These conservancies are found chiefly around the Masai Mara N. Reserve and serve as dispersal and migratory corridors. Some of the largest conservancies are Pardamat, Mara North, Mara Naboisho and Siana.
About the Wildebeest
It is probably the commonest antelope on the plains, regularly gathering in herds numbering many hundreds. Its grey body, long beard, buffalo like horns, shaggy mane and odd cavorting gait makes the ‘Gnu’ one of the ungainliest looking creatures in Kenya. It can live up to 40 years and walk 1,000 kms in one year.
1. Rough Ride into Masai Mara National Reserve
Unlike going to a zoo, going on safari often implies heading out to remote and difficult to access places. The Masai Mara National Reserve is no exception. The 220 kms expedition from Nairobi to the Mara takes up to 6 hours. The first 150 kms from Nairobi to Narok Town is a smooth ride in splendid scenery. It’s the hop of 67 kms from near Narok Town to the Mara, on an all-weather road, that is most memorable. A dusty, jerky ride, with a lot of bumping on the windows, which can last 2 hours! assuming it doesn’t rain. Paradoxically, this state of the road is a means of rationing access to this environmentally fragile Reserve, and is synonymous with practically all National Parks and Reserves. Assuredly, the Government has no plans to tarmac these sections leading to the Reserves. Ask who you may but this bone-rattling patch is in and of itself an experience one ever forgets. Anyone in a hurry can get to it by flight. Masai Mara, and abutting conservancies, are now in contact by air to Nairobi, reached by numerous daily scheduled flights in no more than an hour, and most spectacular of all, landing on either of twenty two all-weather airstrips around the Masai Mara Ecosystem.
2. Masai Mara’s Quick Rise to Fame
The exalted Mara is both a place of beauty and quick rise to fame. Before 1948, what we now call the Masai Mara National Reserve was no more than a Maasai grazing area. It is under British control that the Wildlife Sanctuary covering the Mara Triangle was established, and much later the Sanctuary became a Game Reserve. Today, Masai Mara National Reserve (1,510 km²) is under the aegis of Kenya Wildlife Service while the surrounding 4,566 km² belongs to the Maasai Community and managed and supervised by Narok and Trans-Mara Councils. Trust land, like Maasailand around the Mara, supervised by county councils on behalf of the locals, makes up a large portion of land in Kenya. Of a more recent development, the Maasai trust land in Narok and especially at hand with Masai Mara has experienced an increase in conversion to individual ownership, where the individuals who obtain rights to the land are not necessarily members of the community. As a result, dispersal areas and migratory corridors are being lost to human settlement, blooming urbanization, expanding agriculture and fences.
3. The Magic 3% of the Serengeti Plains
Kenya has a lot to be grateful for if you consider that the Masai Mara National Reserve makes up only 3% of the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem. Talk about having the luck of a leprechaun! And as far as the migration goes, only 20% of the Mara River is situated in Kenya. It’s not hard to see how the annual migration would altogether avoid Masai Mara, but, as it unavoidably happens, it is literally the cliched “right time at the right place”. Tanzania’s 5,700 square mile Serengeti Park makes up 97% of the ecosystem. The Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem can be divided into three areas: the southern grass plains, the western corridor and the northern Serengeti/Mara area. The southern grass plains have endless, almost treeless, wide-open plains; the western corridor is marked by rock kopjes; and the Mara is by and large an open woodland. This was not always the case. Four decades ago the Mara was heavy bush, much of which was tsetse infested. Since then elephants have been at work. Under their onslaught the heavy thickets and woodlands of the Mara and northern Serengeti have thinned and retracted until most is now rolling grassland. This has meant more grassland for varied grazing animals and they have responded, none, perhaps, on the scale of the wildebeest.
4. Lots of Room in Amazing Lodges
The least of anyone’s worries when heading out to Masai Mara is a place to stay. The greatest wildlife show on earth has brought with it a great deal of attention from hotel developers. Nearly 290,000 travellers visit the Masai Mara each year and during the migration peak at least 8,000. That is to say, there’s something for everyone at the Mara, from crawl-in tents to the finest tented safari camps in all of Africa. There are over 100 camps and lodges within the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem with at least 45 of the Kenyan side. Permanent camps and lodges are on the rise, particularly along the outer perimeter of the Mara where a handful of privately-run conservancies, importuned to the colophon of ecotourism, have developed some of the most exclusive, unashamedly-beautiful, boutique camps.
5. Boom, Boom, Boom – The Number of Wildebeest
There’s no need to curse God if you’re an ugly duckling, or the gnu, because God is surely on their side. The unprecedented growth of the wildebeest has defied all odds. It was predicted the wildebeest population would “crash” as early as 10 years ago. Since 1977, following the eradication of rinderpest, their number has grown at an unprecedented six fold (300,000 to 1,700,000). Incredibly, just a few decades ago, one din’t go to Masai Mara to watch the migration. When they numbered only 300,000 they came across the border during the migration; but only just. Now, this epic phenomena has extensively taken over the Masai Mara National Reserve, perhaps the best ever, from which to witness the spectacle of the migration. In the past century the wildebeest number had been decimated several times by rinderpest and, its having reached an unprecedented size now, the time is ripe, as experts warn, for another catastrophe. “A severe drought and the plains will be littered with corpses. When this happens it will come as a tidal wave upon other species. The predators whose numbers have been built upon the wildebeest will fall on hard times. The Thomson’s gazelle who rely on the wildebeest to open up tall grassses and maintain a habitat suitable to them will also have a very rough time” Graham Hancock. For now its boom, boom, boom.
6. The Sounds of Nature in Masai Mara
Nothing quite prepares anyone for the noises of the wilderness, not least, the endless mooing of more than a million and a half wildebeest. These unfamiliar sounds and elaborate call-ups bring the Mara – and other wilder places around the world – to life, and there’s hardly ever a dull moment as far as outré noises go. Night times are not quiet either, but particularly imbued with all manner of wails and mysterious animal sounds, giving thoughts to their esoteric after-dark world. Still and all, it is the wildebeest that bring you appreciably close to the most emphatic and reverberating noises, that would move even the very skeptic to the brink of awe and fear. Embracing groups of close to five thousand, many of them incredibly vocal, the wildebeest constitute, by sheer weight of numbers, the most maddening, stirring and exhilarating noises across the Mara! The sort of noise that remains in your head long after you move away from the scene, or the wildebeest move away, then the deafening silence seems almost too surreal.
7. Unpredictable Annual Migration Times
None knows better the pitfalls of crossing the Mara than the wildebeest, and it takes a long time for the wildebeest to make their decision. For which reason no one should be fooled to going to the Mara just to watch the migration. It is very unpredictable. The great wildebeest migration is only a steady forward motion up until the Mara River, at which point they split-up, go forward, backwards, sideways, meet-up again. It doesn’t help either that wildebeest have no natural leader and therefore herds split up and head in different directions. Eventually, the wildebeest realize there is no another way to cross the Mara River, and all things fall in place. Showtime! What follows, words do little justice, but, simply put, arrant frenzy! If the mooing hadn’t gotten to you, the stampede surely will.
8. Fly, Fly, Fly – The Nugging Flies of the Mara
The Mara has more flies than lots of honey and vinegar can catch, for the simple reason that nothing attracts more flies on Africas’ wilds as does the wildebeest. “Where there are wildebeest and lions, you will find flies – in abundance”. And considering there are no less than a million wildebeest lurking around the Mara during the great migration, it is the math of flies that can be above one’s head. Lucky for us, humans are not their foremost target in lieu of other prospects in Masai Mara Plains. Rather interestingly, just a few decades ago, it wasn’t these flies that travellers worried about but of the dreaded tsetse flies – whose bite is destructive to the animal (not humans), and whose presence seems to curiously disappear with the advancement of human settlements. The Masai Mara was once dominated by acacia bush which also houses the tsetse fly, the carrier of ‘sleeping sickness’ disease. In fact, local Maasai detested grazing their animals here. What’s more interesting was the chicanery on how to deter the notorious tsetse. One of the apposite, even an appealing method of dealing with tsetse was wearing light colored clothes, which oddly seemed to ward-off the flies, and best of them all, avoiding wearing blue. The tsetse vanished altogether as more and more people encountered the Mara. The common fly on the other hand hasn’t wavered and no doubt will prevail with conviction so far as the migration exists.
9. Wildlife in the Masai Mara National Reserve
The Masai Mara Reserve is well worth your visit all year long, save for the rainy season when the roads are somewhat impassable. If you cannot make it for the Masai Mara Wildebeest Migration, any other time will still rank way up among your adventures-of-a-lifetime. It is estimated that some 250,000 non-migratory wildlife graze in the reserve and surrounding area. The Masai Mara – described as a microcosm of Africa – single-handedly hosts almost 75% of all wildlife in Kenya’s Game Parks and with a little help from the exotic narratives of ‘Out of Africa’ and the fine camps it’s a fairland full with grand views and great wildlife.
10. The Last Overland Migration
Our planet is on the verge of overload as humans take up ever more space. The order of things has changed, sadly in disfavor of wildlife. The large scale animal migrations once common-place around the world, with no greater example than the 30 million bison in the Great Plains of North American which enthusiastic hunting drove its number to just a few thousands. The Saiga antelope migration of Central Asia declined from almost one million strong to just about 200,000. And closer home, the migration of vast herds of zebra and Thomson’s gazelle between the Lake Nakuru – Elementaita region and Lake Baringo disappeared in the early part of the 20th century due to over-hunting, habitat loss and other human disturbances. In the Kapiti plains, just a few miles south of Nairobi, the wildebeest declined by more than 90%, from almost 30,000 in 1978 to under 2,000 by 2011 – as a result of increasing urbanization, fencing, settlements, mining and other developments. So, go see the Mara Migration while that lasts.
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