"The longing for Africa, is an incurable condition, once contracted, like malaria, recurs again and again".
This was another of the really big events of our trip, we were finally heading for the Masai Mara. We had last visited a savannah type conservation area at Kidepo NP in Uganda a long 3 weeks previously. Seeing the animals of East Africa and experiencing the classic game conservation areas was the centerpoint of our trip and the Masai Mara was certainly, with Serengeti, at the top of our list.
First to try to clarify a point which I understood poorly and hopefully now have some insight into. What is the difference between the Masai Mara Game Reserve and the Masai Mara Conservancy also known as the Mara Triangle? They are administered by 2 completely seperate bodies and as I understand it the Masai people have some rights in the reserve for grazing etc, but not in the conservancy. Neither fall under the Kenya Wildlife Society, the national body. Neither of these are national parks and are administered independantly.The conservancy/triangle has the reputation of being better run and maintained. The eastern boundary of the Triangle is the Mara River as it runs from north to south here and is also the western border of the adjacent Game Reserve section. The Triangle's boundaries to the west are triangular in shape hence its name, whilst to the south it borders Serengeti (as does the Reserve further to the east). Thus the southern border of both is the border between Kenya and Tanzania which is completely unfenced.
There are no fences anywhere here and especially the wildebeest migrate freely and continuosly, following the rains and the good grazing. In January to March the wildebeest herds are to be found in the south of Serengeti, in the plains and Naabi Hills area and this is where they calf. They then slowly work their way north past the Seronera and Lobo Hills areas in about May to July. The migration is in a clockwise direction, not only south to north, but later east to west. They cross into the Masai Mara in about August moving westwards into the Mara Triangle a little later as they start for the south. The movement south back into Serengeti is even less predictable but usually begins in late September and the whole cycle begins again. Usually when people ask if you "have seen the migration" they are in fact asking if you have seen the herds crossing the Mara River. As explained above this first occurs in a south to north drection, then in the opposite direction a few months later. The Mara River runs initially east to west along the border between Tanzania and Kenya (and also between the Serengeti and the Mara), before turning north between the two areas of the Mara as detailed above. At this time of year we were hoping for 2 things. To see the herds in concentrations on the plains of the Mara Triangle and also to witness the dramatic crossings of the Mara River where it runs from the south to the north. Our chosen campsite Eluai was perfectly positioned for this. The website Herdtracker (www.discoverafrica.com/herdtracker/) was reporting impressive river crossings here and also massive herds on the plains towards the Kenyan/Tanzanian border. Our friends had a splendid experience in the area only 3 weeks earlier. We had seen the herds in the north of Serengeti some 2 months earlier but had narrowly missed seeing a crossing. Another fact worth remembering is that large groups of zebra also follow this migration and we were very pleased to witness the same with topi to some extent.
We had really struggled to obtain clear directions into the Mara Triangle. There had been considerable changes to the minor roads from the north to the Oloololo Gate but even to locals these were an unknown factor. Many warned against taking the more direct route via Narok and the Sekanani Gate as the final stretches of road were rough dirt. As it turned out we took the Oloololo Gate route in and Sekanani Gate out. Our first 3 nights were in Eluai Public Campsite in the Triangle and the last night at Sand River Campsite in the Reserve.The detailed routes and the road conditions will be posted in the Geeks section for those really interested. Our friend Wayne J. had been delayed in Uganda a little and we were making efforts to join up in the Mara, it is always a pleasure sharing these experiences with others, especially someone as enthusiastic as Wayne. We had also missed out joining our friends Wazungu Wawili in the Triangle a few weeks earlier due to time constraints as explained earlier. We hoped to experience at least some of the game viewing experiences they had reported.
Our chosen route was very scenic on the route west, ascending the Mau escarpment and then driving through the very picturesque tea plantations in the Kerio area. When we were filling up with fuel in Sotick an off-duty tour guide came across to speak to us. He advised us on the best route to Oloololo Gate, the one with the most tar, some of it fairly new. The last bit of road was bumpy dirt, but not nearly as bad as the approach road into Serengeti via Ngorongoro. I really fail to understand how these governments can treat some of their most valuable assets so shabbily.
At Oloololo Gate the duty rangers were most helpful. As this is not a National Park no smart cards with their complicated administration, are required. There are 3 public Campsites in the Mara Triangle. One at Oloololo Gate close to the ranger post that did not appeal. The next was at Iseiya in the center of the park, but it had been described as quite thickly wooded with no view. We were keen on Eluai Public Campsite, various sources of information had been uncertain whether this was a private (special) or public site. This is definately a public campsite We first enquired whether any of the private campsites were vacant. They were very helpful and were able to establish that the site we had missed out on, Dirisha, was vacant for the next 2 weeks, as was Ndovu. Both these sites are right on the Mara River and I was sorely tempted. These camps are usually booked out well beforehand and there was some confusion as to whether they could book them for us at the gate, or not. However it turned out that they could do an immediate online booking for us if we really wanted one. What finally scared me off was the cost. The entry fees and camping fees were exactly the same but there was a very expensive booking fee of KSh 40,000 (US$400). This was too much for Anne to stomach, but the final clincher came from Wayne. Whilst we were still dithering he messaged to say that he had just arrived at Eluai.
The fees we paid were: (certainly not cheap, but we booked 3 nights).
- Foreign registration vehicle entry fee per day KSh400 (US$4).
- Entrance fee US$70 pppd, 24hr rule applying.
- Camping fee US$ 30 pppn.
- Official map of the greater Mara area US$10.
We were immediately impressed with the Mara on our drive to the campsite. Within minutes we had seen giraffe, elephant, warthog, zebra, impala, eland, topi, kongoni, hippos, wildebeest and ostriches. When we arrived at Eluai it was to find that Wayne had pitched his tent and gone for a game drive. Shortly thereafter a young German honeymoon couple arrived in their rented vehicle, but they spent only one night there. Wayne texted us the GPS points of an imminent crossing of the Mara River. We could just make out his vehicle down in the valley and see the gathering of game viewing vehicles on the Reserve side. We made our way there post-haste. However most of the fairly large herd of wildebeest jibbed at the last moment and turned away from the river. This experience was later to repeat itself a few times during our stay. However a few lone wildebeest did swim across from the opposite side which was impressive enough and then a few swam in the reverse direction. This hopefully was only going to be a foretaste of what was to come. That night in camp there were plenty of lions grunting in the near distance as well as plenty of hyenas. Anne provided a slap-up meal as she was convinced Wayne was starving, a surrogate son to spoil! It was great to have Wayne back.
The Eluai campsite is a very nice site indeed. Its only fault is the lack of shade, but being high on a hilltop it has a cooling breeze. It has fantastic views down onto the plains and the Mara River a couple of km away. From camp we could see if there were vehicles gathering at a potential wildebeest crossing point and could drive down to have a look. We usually could get a decent view as most of the vehicles were on the opposite side of the river from all the lodges on the Reserve side. There are absolutely no facilities at the camp but we managed comfortably with our wild camping routine. We far prefer digging a hole and using our toilet seat, to smelly public facilities. We were visited just after dark by the ranger patrol in their vehicle. They just wanted to check that we were fine and that we did not want a guard but at no stage was there any insistance on one. It was great to be living amongst lions again!
Main. A very typical view of a topi on a termite mound.
1. The view of the park from the escarpment just before Oloololo Gate.
2 and 3. Oloololo Gate.
4 to 7. Some of the animals seen on the way in, the antelope in no 5 is a kongoni.
8. The minor wildebeest crossing of the Mara River, minor but very exciting.