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Trips of a lifetime: Maasai Mara

Kenya’s fabled Maasai Mara, home to the Great Migration, is a wildlife wonderland. Buckle up for a safari drive across the savannah to steal glances at hyena, wildebeest, zebra, elephant and even the rare white rhino.

By Farida Zeynalova
Published 12 Jun 2019, 08:00 BST
Maasai warrior on the shore of lake Magaddi
Maasai warrior on the shore of lake Magaddi.
Photograph by Getty Images

Chuk chuk chuk chuk chuk. And silence. 

Joseph Koyie, my guide, turns off the engine and rummages for his binoculars all without breaking his stare. His eyes are wide, his mouth ajar, and he flutters his free hand to signal that there’s something up ahead. Suddenly, everything is very still.

“I can’t believe this. It’s been such a long time since I last saw one,” he whispers. It takes me a few seconds to clock what he’s in awe of. And then I see it. A few yards from our car, grazing under the shadow of an acacia tree: a white rhino. For the next few minutes, we watch in awe. The rare mammal — nearing extinction due to rampant poaching — couldn’t be any less interested in us if he tried. But, he’s no less mesmerising for his indifference.

It’s dusk in the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya, and I’m out on my first ever safari drive. On this balmy November’s day, the last rays of sun are slowly ebbing away, the clouds now puffs of purple and red. Out here in the vast expanse of the savannah, it’s just us, the rhino, and the odd impala. It’s serenity I’ve never felt before. 

“There are only nine white rhinos left here,” explains Joseph, snapping me out of my hakuna matata moment. Being this close to Africa’s plethora of storybook animals feels both magical and lucky, and Joseph knows just when and where to go to witness this vast wonderland at its wildest.

The 30-something guide and head naturalist at Sanctuary Olonana is also a Maasai warrior, and lives in the nearby village of Loita with his wife and children. Today, he’s swapped his traditional tribesman’s shuka shawl for the lodge’s all-beige uniform. When I ask him if he’d ever leave this place, he restarts the engine, puts away his tattered map and replies with an unyielding shake of the head. 

The next day, it’s an early start and as we head off, Joseph promises big things. “We won’t go longer than 10 minutes without seeing an animal here,” he grins proudly. 

A few minutes into our morning, a pack of mongooses emerge from the red oat grass up ahead, running around and squealing. A little further on, we see a dozing spotted hyena and I stretch over the side of the car to get a closer look. He grumbles. 

Up ahead is a wildebeest: the bulky icon of the annual mass-migration that moves north through the Serengeti, over the Tanzania-Kenya border, and into the Maasai Mara. “This animal was made using the leftovers of all the others,” Joseph jokes. “He has the face of a locust, the tail of a zebra, the belly of a cow and the beard of a goat.” 

And just moments later, we spot a family of elephants. They trudge across the road, almost within touching distance of our car. We follow them to a muddy pool where, for the next 30 minutes, we watch them fill up their trunks with water and douse each other’s thick, wrinkly skin. 

In these last few moments of my first safari, the Maasai Mara seems the ultimate cliche — a dreamlike expanse of animals, sunset and vast, rolling savanna. But it couldn’t be more real. As the light drains from the plains, the elephants retreat; their water party over, they begin their journey home. Joseph restarts the engine, and we follow suit. Chuk chuk chuk chuk chuk. 

Great Wildbeest Migration.
Photograph by Getty Images

Safari in style

Beauty & the wildebeest
It’s Africa’s most iconic wildlife spectacle: the migration of around 1.4 million wildebeest, zebra and eland crossing the Kenya-Tanzanian border, as they chase better grazing. The journey covers around 1,800 miles, and usually happens between July and October. 

Up, up & away
There’s something magical about seeing the Maasai Mara from above. Get up at the crack of dawn to watch your balloon being fired up, then hop on board for an hour-long flight. Back on solid ground, a cooked breakfast with Champagne awaits.

Local life 
Get a feel for Maasai culture by heading to the village of Olonana. Here, villagers teach local customs: from the adumu, a traditional jumping dance performed at coming-of-age ceremonies, to making a fire using stones and sticks. 

Rolling on the river
The Mara river can be a frontier of life and death for wildebeest during the Great Migration — thanks to the world’s largest crocodiles roaming its banks. Flowing 245 miles through Kenya and Tanzania, it’s also the stomping ground of some 4,000 hippos, and your guide will know the best viewpoints.  

Walk on the wild side
A walking tour with a naturalist will help you appreciate the smaller things — like signs of animals you’d fail to notice otherwise, bird calls and the creepy crawlies living around the wetlands. You can even plant a tree before heading back home. 

Raising a glass
After a game drive, guides usually finish the day at one of the vantage points overlooking the plains. This is the time to kick back with sundowner, admire the searing hues of the Kenyan sunset and momentarily forget your worries. 

The deck.
Photograph by Sanctuary Olonana

A lodge reborn
Sanctuary Olonana’s recent refurbishment is quite extraordinary. The lodge’s 14 new suites feel like something picked from the pages of a traditional African storybook blended with modern elements — think floor-to-ceiling glass doors with views of the Mara River (accompanied by the roars of the hippos), canopied king-size beds, plus a communal dining zone with fire pit, library area and sundeck. The renovation also celebrates the handiwork of the local Maasai women, who replicate the methods used in their own homes to create the internal walls of the sanctuary. Perhaps the most extravagant element of the revamp is the all-new Geoffrey Kent Suite, which includes two bedrooms, a deck with an infinity pool and a private dining area. Among all this, the sanctuary continues to offer its guests unrivalled access to the best of the Maasai Mara’s natural wonders, including guided safaris, nature walks and themed dinners in the bush with private chefs. Hakuna matata indeed.

How to do it: offers one night at Giraffe Manor in Nairobi and three nights at Sanctuary Olonana in the Maasai Mara on an all-inclusive basis, including internal and international flights with British Airways. From £5,995 per person. 

Click here to see our full list of the 20 unforgettable places for 2019 from our Trips of a Lifetime cover story.

Published in the July/ August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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