The Mara is a bucket list destination and there are few places on earth where photographers will fill their cards faster than these rolling green hills with their abundant herds and large numbers of lions and cheetah. The wide-open plains and flat-topped Acacia tortillis trees of the Mara made famous by films such as Out of Africa are spectacular with rolling green hills, open plains and forested rivers. The Mara is only 1300 square kilometres—but it’s a seamless part of the 27 000 square kilometre Serengeti Mara Ecosystem, which includes Tanzania’s Serengeti and Maasai land where herdsmen graze their cattle alongside wildlife. Mara North, Olare Orok, Mara Triangle and other concession areas have also been created as seamless extensions of the park. They are administered separately and have strict rules regarding the number of vehicles at sightings. They offer limited road driving, but night drives and walks are other privileges that guests can enjoy in the private concessions.
When to go
The annual wildebeest migration, from June to October, when up to 3 million wildebeest arrive from Tanzania and follow the rains across the Mara River to find grazing on the fertile soils of the Mara is probably the most desirable wildlife event in the world. Sometimes the herds are heading north and sometimes south – it’s a moving target triggered by the rains. Crossings can occur quite early, but typically they build up towards the middle of the day and then commence as it gets hotter. But, the herds are skittish, and sometimes a croc, a vehicle or even a bird, can set them all running off in another direction. It’s jaw dropping seeing a crossing – and made the more impactful because of the long wait and the drama of the experience. It’s best to accept the fact that you may need to endure sitting beside the river for some hours (take a book) to be early enough to get a good spot and also that you’ll likely be irritated by rather loud and sometimes badly behaved tourists who are all jiggling for a good spot. But seeing a crossing is worth the wait. Afterwards, the pressure is off, and many prefer to spend their time enjoying quieter and more peaceful experiences. For me, having seen crossings, I would personally prefer to visit the Mara when it’s quieter, either in October or November or March and April when it’s lush and green.
Memories of the Mara and moving forward
I do remember with some amusement my first visit to the Mara in 1994 when a German visitor wearing full safari gear – including a pith helmet and a walking stick that doubled as a spear – demanded to know vot time the leopard is coming. The answer was, I am sorry to say, soon after 7 pm, as it was at this time that the lodge left out a carcass for the sorry beast. Fortunately, feeding leopards is no longer on the agenda anywhere on the Mara, and I am reminded just how far the safari industry has come. Even today, the Mara has opted for mass-market consumerism, and some of the hotels in the reserve have more than 100 rooms.
It was the Gramaticas family who were the true pioneers here and set up their string of camps bordering the Marsh in the 70s in the same spot where English Governors used to come and camp and hunt during the colonial era. While Main Governors is a large camp even today, it does offer one of the most phenomenal launching pads to view wildlife. It is situated right alongside the Marsh — an area made famous by the BBC Big Cat Diary and a place where action never stops. If you want to fill cards, you will fill them faster in this area than anywhere else in the Mara. It also has a neighbouring camp called Il Moran, which is much more private and exclusive than its big sister and also a private camp and cottage that can be booked out by groups. For those wanting privacy, then Little Governors (in the Mara Triangle) is probably the ultimate Governors property and more of that later. Wilderness Safaris has purchased 50% of Governors, and I do hope that it brings back the “wilderness” to this very special part of the Mara.
The future is outside the park
As occurred in Botswana, the wildest areas in the Mara occur outside of the main reserve in private conservation areas where numbers of vehicles are controlled. For many years, Porini Lion Camp, which is based in the fantastic Olare Matorogi Conservancy, has been my very special base for my trips. This has some of the best predator game viewing you will find anywhere. Morning and evening, it’s a matter of deciding which predators to target. Porini is an eco-camp with a laid back atmosphere and run by Maasai. Don’t expect ice with your gin and tonic, nor a laundry service, but big smiles, great game and excellent vehicles are guaranteed. It’s also great to know that you are supporting a company which really invests in the local community.
Mara Plains, which is owned by Great Plains, is in the same fantastic game viewing area as Porini Lion and offers exceptional tented accommodation decorated with old fashioned period furniture and brass collectables and offers outstanding food and service. Guests here have free usage of Swarovski Binoculars and a Canon 7D with a 100 – 400 lens. Mara Plains twin sister Mara Explorer, is a hop away down the Olare River and offers a simpler but equally wonderful experience.
Within the same conservation area, and fitting roughly between the two above-mentioned camps in terms of price and standards, is Kicheche. It is also an impressive camp owned and run by photographer Paul Goldstein and has a projector and drop down screens, plenty of power points and places for viewing images. Manager Darren Geary is a baker and produces excellent meals such as glazed pork using ingredients from his small herb garden. The guides are highly experienced at running photographic tours and the camp is proud of its reputation and number of silver rated guides and gold rating by the ecotourism board of Kenya.
All about family
Another notable camp from the old days is Cottars. It lies far off the beaten track on the border with Tanzania and is run by the Cottar family, which are now in their fourth generation. The guiding here is probably the best in Kenya, and the experience for guests is truly authentic and stylish. Imagine bathing in a copper bath, or being picked up by a game drive vehicle that dates back to the 30s. These are the sort of original experiences you can have at this camp.
Another notable Mara family are the Beatons. The Beatons were also responsible for Rekero Camp, which is a Mara favourite on the north side of the Talek River in a shady forest and extremely well positioned for crossings and predators, including leopards. Guests dine al fresco on the lawns and often see crossings right outside the camp. It has a great team of staff, and the high numbers of return guests reminded me that this was indeed a very special camp.
Topi House, situated on a hillside overlooking the Olare Orok, was built by the Beaton family and now expertly managed by Asilia Lodges has a happy atmosphere and is ideal for families and small groups wanting that special something, especially privacy and slow time. The house has three double rooms, lounge, kitchen and a team of 6 who look after you like family. If you like the idea of a house of your own, they also own two other houses further away from the river, which are even more remote and quiet.
Close by to Rekero and with its own crossing point is Entim Mara. It too has been set up specifically for and hosts numbers of photographic groups. The tents were small and shade was limited, but the large dining tents equipped with Macs and projectors were well designed for sharing images and discussing pictures.
Across the Mara
On the opposite side of the Mara River is the Mara Triangle. The triangle is separately managed, and restraints on off road driving have created a more pristine environment and better controls at sightings. On my recent trips we saw rhino, lion, elephant, vast herds of buffalo, cheetah and a great deal more. It was also interesting to see eland in large numbers – a species not usually seen in the other areas of the Mara. On this side of the river, leopards are relatively difficult to find.
Little Governors is a great place from which to explore the Triangle. It shares the same forests for which Governors is so famous, but on the quieter side of the river. If you want to go on a balloon ride over the Mara, this is the place to do it as you will have staggering views of the river below.
Kitchwa Tembo is another Triangle favourite. It is owned by And Beyond so has plenty of style and drama but it now has a total of 40 tents, which makes it a much larger camp than it was previously. Those who prefer more intimate lodgings can stay at Bateleur, which is its smaller annex lodge.
The Fitzgerald family, who were pioneers of CCAfrica, which later became And Beyond, have themselves gone beyond and opened their own camp in the Mara Triangle called Angama Mara. It means suspended in the air in Swahili and is surely one of the most beautiful lodges that I have visited. Perched on the cliffs overlooking the plains of the Mara, you will be tempted to miss the morning drive here and watch the balloons drifting below over the Mara and pick out the herds as they move this way and that.
We had dinner in the library and chose from the quickly prepared or slow cooked menus and delighted in the excellent French and South African wines. We could have finished off with a cognac and a cigar and it would not have put a dent on the price.
The lodge is a 15-minute drive from the game viewing areas down a steep pass. But it’s worth the drive as it’s a gob-smacking view.
So where would I spend my next safari, I wonder? Lodges tick the boxes for different people, and everyone has their own preferences.
The Mara Triangle is a peaceful place to visit with great game. And the drama of Angama Mara is pretty hard to match. I am also a huge fan of Olare Motorogi and my friends at Porini Camp. Its all about choices – and in the Mara they come in herds – and whether you choose any of the camps listed here, you will not go wrong. One thing is for sure: the Mara is an amazing wildlife destination for photographers and everyone should go there.