cub playing with mama's tail in the Masai Mara

Safari in the Masai Mara – Day 1

So nine years ago, almost to the day, I went on a safari in Tanzania with some friends.  It had always been on my bucket list, but I would never sign up to go because I was afraid it wouldn’t meet my expectations if I didn’t see everything I’d hoped to see.

Our trip included driving from Arusha to Tarangire to Manyara to Ngorongoro Crater and to the Serengeti.  We literally saw just about all Africa had to offer: A cheetah kill an impala, a lion hunt, the wildebeest cross the river, the big five including the rare black rhino, and even three of the small five (which I didn’t know there was such a thing).

It was such an amazing experience that I have turned down Rootie’s invites to go on safaris ever since as I didn’t think it could be topped.  Then I realized, the safari in Tanzania was my all-time favorite trip, so why not go back.  And go back I did, this time to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya with Mike, Rootie, Rozy, Jake, and Martha.

About the Masai Mara

The Masai Mara is a national reserve, not a national park.  As such, it is privately owned and managed by the Maasai Tribe rather than the national government.  The reserve was created in 1948 while the areas to the north and east remained as group ranches for grazing cattle.  Eventually, these areas were turned into conservancies which are leased for wildlife tourism from individual Maasai owners. 

As a result, the Maasai receive a guaranteed monthly income and follow a grazing management plan which has resulted in a better lifestyle for the tribe as well as improved wildlife habitats.  In addition, many of the Maasai are hired to work at the camps and as safari guides.

The Masai Mara National Reserve borders the Serengeti in Tanzania.  When we were in the Serengeti years, we straddled the border so we could enjoy the fun of being in two countries at the same time, but that is as far as we made it into the reserve.  I was very happy to finally return, and on a side note pleased to learn the difference between Masai and Maasai. 

The variation in spelling has always perplexed me.  Typically, the “aa” is used when referencing the people who speak the language Maa.  Who knew? Though having said that, I’ve still seen it spelled both ways regardless of references.

How to Get There

Anyway, visiting the Masai Mara National Reserve was the last part of our trip to Africa, and for me, the most anticipated.  While the gorilla trekking in Rwanda was awesome and visiting the orphan elephants in Umani Springs was special, I was ready to see the cats!

I couldn’t wait for Kelvin and Japhet with Absolute Vantage to retrieve us from the Macushla House this morning and drop us off at the Wilson Airport where our adventure began.  The small airport, on the south side of Nairobi, is utilized specifically for flights to the bush.

Our flight to the Masai Mara was scheduled to depart around 10:30am.  As such we arrived at Wilson Airport about one-hour prior, quickly passed through security, and checked in at the only desk in the one room waiting area for our flight.

With our colored boarding pass in hand, our group of six, joined the other forty or so people waiting for their flights to different places in the bush.  Two people in the group of forty were friends of mine from Dallas.  What are the odds of running into them in Nairobi?!?  They were headed to a conservancy just north of the Masai Mara and would be landing in the Mara the day we were leaving.  Had we run into them again, I would have bought a lottery ticket!

We managed a quick hello just before they were called to board.  Thereafter, our group patiently waited to embark on our surprisingly large prop plane while sifting through the upstairs gift shop and having a coffee at the cafe. 

With two seats on either side of the aisle and around twenty rows, SafariLink’s plane held nearly eighty people.  If only we were the first of the passengers to deplane.  We were the third of four stops in the bush, and after about 2.5 hours, we finally landed on a dirt runway where tour companies waited for their clients. 

Ilkeliani

After making a pit stop in the outdoor bathrooms and with the help of our guide purchasing our park permits at the tiki hut for $70 per day per person, we climbed into our safari vehicle for our drive to Ilkeliani, the camp in which we would be staying the next three nights.

Ilkeliani is located on the banks of the Talek River on the northern border of the Masai Mara National Reserve.  The permanent tent camp features an east and west wing with 17 tents.  The “tents”, which include a porch with a view of the river, a bed, bedside tables, a trunk, a desk and chair, a hanging rack which functions as a closet, an in room safe, and a bathroom with plumbing for a shower, sink and flush toilet, are more like hotel rooms in the forest.  They exceed “glamping.”

The six of us were assigned tents E1, E2, E5, E6, and E8, with E1 being closest to the reception, gift shop, lounge, viewing deck, and dining area.  The welcoming staff explained it was important to remember our tent number for any extra charges to our room and for night-time escorts, required in the dark to keep us safe from any wild animals. 

Having arrived to Ilkeliani just at the end of lunch hour, instead of going to our tents first, we ventured to the dining room for a preset, three course meal.  While the starter and dessert were fixed, the menu provided a choice for the main course, vegetarian or non-vegetarian.  We finished our tasty meal with a little time to explore camp and to unpack our belongings before our 4pm game drive.

Evening Game Drive

At 4 o’clock, we crossed the footbridge, loaded into our photographic safari vehicle whose canvas sides rolled up, and were promptly greeted by a herd of elephants who meandered out of the brush and onto the savannah.  The babies hung tight with their moms and nursed while others squirted themselves in mud and sand.  We snapped some photos, but didn’t linger too long, as we had been with elephants for the last two days and were eager to see more.

Interestingly, on my safari in Tanzania, we never had a destination, like let’s go see lions, in mind.  We just drove and stopped at every moving creature, and for that matter at carcasses too!  This time, we said we’d like to see cats.

As a result, after an hour drive with a few short stops to snap photos of topi, Thompson’s gazelles, giraffe, waterbuck, zebra, a hyena, warthogs and more, we came to three lionesses with six cubs on a kill!  We were the first on the scene with the best view, though several more vehicles joined us over the next mesmerizing hour.

Lots of Lions

The two-month old cubs chomped on the wildebeest in the protection of a shrub.  Then they sauntered to their moms who rested just a few feet away to wash down their dinner with milk as they nursed.  With full bellies, they played amongst their siblings, pouncing and clawing and even sitting on each other’s faces.  Their mom’s tail was also quite an attraction.

Eating

Nursing

Playing

Other

The fun ended upon spotting an approaching ranger.  Vehicles are not supposed to be off road, so suddenly we, along with all the others, raced to the nearest approved location.  After about 15 minutes while watching some eland and giraffe, we circled back in time to see one of the females stalk an oblivious warthog.  The playful cubs interfered, however, and Pumba as we liked to call it, caught on.  With its tail straight up in the air, it trotted to safety.

We were a distance from camp at dusk with a massive storm threatening.  Required to be back by dark, we rolled down the sides to the safari vehicle and zoomed over the roads back Ilkeliani as lightning lit up the black sky.  We were the last group at camp to make it to dinner, another preset, three course meal with a vegetarian or non-vegetarian option for the main course.  Though a limited menu, the food was pretty good.  In addition, the limited menu promoted fast service, which we preferred over drawn out meals.

dark skies in the Masai Mara

As night fell, beneath stormy skies, we wondered if we’d even be going on our all-day drive in the morning.  With significant rain, the roads can get muddy and impassable.  Not to mention, the rivers flash flood.  Upon preparing for bed, I actually heard the Talek River go from calm to raging!  Fortunately, the showers ended before midnight and a sunny morning awaited us. To be continued…ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

3 thoughts on “Safari in the Masai Mara – Day 1

  1. Enjoyed reading this article!!.It really explains everything in detail and in a very interesting and effective way.Thank you and good luck for the upcoming articles. Cheers!!

    1. Thank you. I don’t usually put quite so many details but I know a lot of people who probably like a safari if they knew how easy it was to go!

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