ILKELIANI CAMP, Masai Mara
The area: This evocatively beautiful expanse of open plains mottled with woodlands prompted the local Maasai to give the area its name. Mara means “mottled.” Situated in the Great Rift Valley the Maasai Mara is Kenya’s largest national reserve with an area of 320 square km, although it it is actually the northern most part of a larger ecosystem encompassing Kenya’s Loita plains and Tanzania’s Serengeti, which make up an area of 25,000 square km. The largest river, the Mara River, runs north to south through the reserve, heading towards Lake Victoria through Tanzania.
Flora and fauna: Wildlife is abundant in the area and game-viewing is good any time of year, peaking during the annual wildebeest migration from July to October. As well as large numbers of other plains game including zebra, different species of antelopes, giraffe and warthog, there are many prides of lions,which follow the migrating herds, but some are resident in the area all the year round. The Mara is a perfect kingdom for these lions, the most powerful of hunters, who dominate the grasslands. Cheetahs, spotted and striped hyena, and smaller predators including all three types of jackal also roam the Mara area. Leopard tend to be solitary, but territorial and thus our guides know where to find them. To complete the “big five” list, elephant, buffalo and the shyer rhino can also usually be found. Hippo and crocodiles abound in the Mara and Talek rivers. The dense riverine forest which fringes the banks is home to many bird species, and refuge to many mammals including monkeys and leopards. There is also a wealth of bird-life: Over 550 species have been recorded, including the migrant species who visit during the European winter. Raptors are abundant including some large and magnificent eagles. The scavengers clean up after the big cats, and flocks of several species of vultures are a common sight on a kill. Meanwhile a colourful profusion of smaller birds continue to delight amateur ornithologists, while rarer species impress the experts. Butterflies, many species of insects and arachnids, including the Golden Orb spider are also interesting, even to the amateur entomologist. There are also many species of trees, shrubs and grasses, many of which are used medicinally by the local Maasai. After the rains the wildflowers dot the plains and forests with colour, many of them rare species.
Background: Several hundred years before the coming of the first Europeans in the late 1800’s the Maasai had migrated into Kenya down the Nile valley. It wasn’t until 1948 that the Mara area was designated as a National Game Reserve. Today the Maasai Mara and the surrounding Conservancy areas are under control of the local Narok County Council, the Mara and Olare Orok Conservancies and local community Group Ranches.
The Maasai: Karen Blixen, writer of Out of Africa, wrote home to Denmark early last century full of admiration for “the tall handsome Masai.” Another early white settler, writer Elspeth Huxley described them as “the tribe that shared these enormous, sun-drenched plains with the wild animals.” The Maasai have remained dominant in the Mara area, while increasingly being encouraged to protect the ecosystem and wildlife. Your visit to the Mara will re-enforce and promote the necessity for this. The Maasai, who have a reputation for being fierce warriors, have largely remained very independent people, many of whom still adhere to their traditional values and lifestyle. The Maasai never hunted, but lived peacefully alongside the wildlife in harmony. This continued co-existence makes the Maasai Mara one of the world’s most interesting and unique wilderness regions.
The Maasai Mara remains most famous for its annual migration: Undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary natural events on the planet the Great Migration involves a mass movement of ungulates, most notably the wildebeest. Towards the beginning of every July vast numbers of these curious looking creatures move en masse from the southern plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania to cross the Mara River and head north in search of the green flush of grasses watered by Kenya’s long rains of April and early May. It is estimated that more than half a million wildebeest enter the reserve each year, followed by large numbers of zebras - and of course the opportunistic predators. Those who haven’t drowned in the river, been torn apart by crocodiles, or brought down by the big cats will dutifully return south around October to the now-greener pastures of Tanzania, leaving the Mara’s dusty plains to recover with the onset of the short rains in November.
As millions of hooves annually trample a circular route around the Mara Ecosystem in search of greener pastures and water, this powerful migratory instinct overrides any fear of the dangers of crossing the Mara River. During the migrations the river banks witness daily dramas as the wildebeest wrestle rapids and currents. Even more probable than drowning is ending their journey in the cruel jaws of the crocodiles, who lurk beneath the mud-brown surface of the churning waters, awaiting their chance.