There is a trip of a life time every traveller should undertake at least once: a safari trip to Kenya’s Masai Mara. This is a great opportunity to discover all the best of Africa’s wildlife. Being able to watch all the animals present at this National reserve park is nothing short of a miracle, considering the difficult survival conditions that some of them face nowadays. Watching them roam freely and not being bothered much at the amount of attention they are given is truly a memorable humbling experience.
Below, you will find a detailed report of a 3-day safari trip to Masai Mara plus an extra day spent when you arrive to Kenya. There is information about visas, transport, accommodation, things you need to be careful with and ways to save money.
1. DAY 1 – arrival to Kenya and 1-night stay at Nairobi
Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya and it is served by the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (named after Jomo Kenyatta, first Prime Minister of Kenya between 1963 and 1964 and then first president of independent Kenya between 1964 until his death in 1978). The airport is located 15 kilometres south-east of the capital’s business district, Westlands. This is the district where we chose to stay at.
We arrived from Abu Dhabi airport to Nairobi in a small Etihad aircraft. Flying time was almost 5 hours and from London to Abu Dhabi approximately 6.5 hours.
1.1 Visas and entry documents
On arrival, you must fill up the yellow entry form given to you either on the aircraft or you can get them at the airport.
In terms of visa, some people had already applied for the electronic evisa but if you don’t have it you will need to fill up the blue application form (on the picture this form looks almost white, but it is a rather light blue colour). It is totally fine for you to apply for the visa on arrival. I have seen some information online where people say that visas are no longer granted at the airport. We travelled in November 2018 and we had no problems whatsoever in getting one.
The visa fee for single entry and less than 90 days is US$50 dollars. It is best if you have the exact amount of money ( Note: I have now – December 2018, checked information about visa fees here and the price for the single entry is US$51 ). According to the Kenyan Airports Authority website, passengers travelling under any of the following passports will need to apply for a visa in person at the Kenyan Embassy in their country of residence: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Palestine, Senegal, Somalia, Syria, Tajikistan.
For the full list of countries authorised to apply for e-visa online please go to this link.
1.2 Currency exchange
After airport security you will find lots of currency exchange shops and a cash point. It is best to withdraw money from the cash point and to avoid using the exchange rate offices at airports as the exchange rate given is extremely low. I usually change some decent amount of money prior to my trip, enough for me to get by during the first day and then once settled a bit more I will usually get some more money from a cash point.
1.3 Yellow fever
The yellow fever card was never asked when entering the country.
The yellow fever card is valid for 10 years.
However, when the Kenyan passport control officer was questioned about it, she mentioned that we should have been asked to produce proof of vaccination and it didn’t happen because the person who was supposed to do it was just being lazy. This shows the easy-going approach from Kenyan authorities concerning yellow fever. On the other hand, though, it must have been because we arrived from Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates is not on the list of high-risk yellow fever countries (see table below).
The number 2 on the table above shows countries which are not holoendemic, but the virus is present in some areas in that country.
In London you can get the yellow fever vaccination through several medic centres, but I did get mine through boots. It is compulsory to book an appointment for the vaccination. You may have to buy some malaria tablets and get some other vaccinations as well depending on your own personal circumstances and the characteristics of your trip. In total I paid £70 for the vaccine and for 60 malaria tablets (doxycycline) which I had to start taking 2 days before my trip, every day while I was away and then for 40 days after I arrived back to the UK. There are some side effects linked to the yellow fever vaccine such as fever, head ache, confusion, tiredness, muscle pain, weakness, light-headed feeling amongst others. These side effects do not affect everyone. I did not suffer from any of them. Vaccination has to be provided 10 days prior to the first day when you intend to be in Kenya.
To book an appointment use this link.
1.4 Transport airport – hotel
A taxi from the airport into town is about 25 dollars. I arranged mine through the hotel and was only 20 dollars. If you are on a budget, you can take the bus 34 (bus ticket is less than 1 US dollar) which runs from a stop 15-20 minutes away from the airport’s main exit. The walk from the airport to the bus stop, under the African heat is not the most pleasant one, especially if you are carrying heavy suitcases. Bus runs roughly every 20 minutes from 6:00 am to 21:00pm and it takes about 45 minutes into the city centre depending on traffic. The bus will only stop at the Ambassador and Hilton hotels, so if you are staying elsewhere you will need to change buses at some point. I am not someone who wants to splash money around but the 15-20 minutes’ walk at the airport and all the fuss with the changing of buses was something I did not want to invest my energy in.
1.5 Accommodation in Nairobi
We stayed at the Ibis hotel in Westlands, us$100 per night for a triple room with breakfast included. Beds are comfortable single beds. Rooms are clean but rather small. However, for a one-night stay it was more than enough. Wi-Fi worked well throughout the hotel and there is a roof terrace bar which offers quiz nights on Tuesdays; great opportunity to mingle with the locals and tourists
Westlands is meant to be a safe neighbourhood in Nairobi but nevertheless the security measures to enter the hotel were quite strict, almost as if you are going through security at any airport: x-ray scan machines for your luggage, mirror bomb detectors for all vehicles on entry and body search for all guests and visitors.
2. DAY 2 – drive from Nairobi to Masai Mara and half day safari inside Masai Mara park.
2.1 Drive Nairobi – Masai Mara by private transport
After breakfast at the Ibis hotel, the driver from the Masai Mara camp picked us up at 7 am. The driving time between Nairobi and Masai Mara was almost seven hours and it is split in almost two halves. First one goes all the way down to a town called Narok through a decently kept highway (Mai Mahiu-Naivasha highway) and then from Narok to Masai Mara through an unpaved and dusty road which is being built by Chinese contractors as I type this post. During the first half and as soon as you start driving on the high-speed motorway you will have access to some magnificent views of the Great Rift Valley.
This gigantic geological formation which runs from Lebanon all the way down to Mozambique is approximately 6000 kilometres in length (see picture below).
If you are travelling on a privately rented car, most likely your driver will make an obligatory stop along this road in one of the viewing points, so you can stretch your legs, take some photographs, drink some nice hot Kenyan coffee or buy souvenirs at one of the many “Curio” shops as they are called in Kenya.
During this trip, you can also see one of the smallest Catholic churches in Kenya (4 wooden pews sit only 12 people), also known as the Travellers chapel and a very popular worship place for truck drivers in transit from Mombasa to central African countries. It is said that more than half a million Italian Prisoners of War during the Second World War built this pentagon-shaped Catholic Church. British colonialists supervised the construction of the church after they quickly realized that in order to keep their prisoners happy and engaged with the forced labour to which they were inflicted, they needed to provide the Italians with a place of worship as they both shared different religious beliefs. A piece of land was given to the prisoners, so they could start building their place of prayer. The church was finished in 1942 and it has remained under Italian supervision ever since along with some Kenyan financial support.
A couple of myths around the church make the visit to this place even more interesting. Story goes that there are sounds of a ticking clock that can be heard but has never been seen. It is also believed that those who built the church hid some personal treasures and even their wills within the church’s concrete columns.
2.2 Note to budget travellers
There is one option to travel between Nairobi and Masai Mara by using public transport and this will save you a substantial amount of money. Disclaimer: Most of the posts I write are based on my own personal experience. In this case, I used private transport to reach Masai Mara but in order to keep things informative I have decided to include details of using public transport between Nairobi and Masai Mara, so readers can choose between these two options. To read this post please click on this link.
2.3 Arrival to Masai Mara and first glance of the wild game
After almost 7 hours’ drive between Nairobi and the Masai Mara reserve we were finally at one of the park gates, the Sekenani. (The other three most famous gates are Talek, Alemptia and Musierra).
Although we were staying right by the Talek gate at Talek Bush Camp, the road was flooded due to some rains on previous days and the only way to gain access to our camp was via this alternate route and driving through the park. Our first experience once inside the park was awe inspiring. The number of animals we managed to see between these two gates was almost if we had fulfilled all our expectations for a Kenyan safari within the first hour. We were greeted by zebras, prides of lions, huge amounts of wildbeests, hyenas, wild boars, Thomson’s gazelles, topis, towers of giraffes, elephants, hippopotamus and many more.
As mentioned above, we had chosen to stay at Talek bush camp with Talek gate being just 5 minutes’ walk from the camp.
There was some confusion between another camp which thought we were staying with them, so they sent their driver to pick us up from the hotel in Nairobi. We ended up doing the whole Nairobi-Masai Mara trip with a driver from a camp where we didn’t stay. In the end our camp paid the driver who picked us up and everything was sorted.
Please make sure that if you are negotiating prices and enquiring at several camps to get the best price, you make it very clear to all of them via email whether you will be staying with them or not. In our case, one of the camps thought that because we had asked for prices and exchange some emails, we will be staying and doing the safari with them.
The situation at our “real” camp was quite uncomfortable as two camp owners and the three of us had to sit down and explain what had happened. The other camp insisted we had confirmed via email our decision to stay with them, but we were adamant we had not done such thing and that this email didn’t exist. In the end, they couldn’t find any proof of our alleged confirmation (because it was never sent) so they couldn’t get anything from us.
They were trying to make us pay the whole reservation price (almost us$600 dollars per person) because their policy of cancelation with less than 24 hours of notice was 100% of the full reservation price. To avoid all these nuisances, do make sure you cancel all your pending bookings with every potential camp you have spoken to and not only that but also do make sure to send emails to them confirming your decision of not using their services. Furthermore, please always keep copies of these emails with you. This may be a common practice within camp owners.
2.5 Entrance to the park and half day safari
Entrance to the park is 80 dollars per person and runs for 24 hours. Since we entered the park at around 13:30 pm the ticket will be valid until the following day at the same time.
Towards the end of our first experience inside the park, we saw Koboso, a female leopard seating peacefully by the river Olorok, patiently waiting for her cub to arrive and then she disappeared amongst the bushes.
After this we headed home not before witnessing a beautiful sunset in the Masai Mara with nothing more spectacular than a gracious giraffe walking away from us and in the distance sun going down.
3. DAY 3 – Full day safari inside Masai Mara park
The day starts very early in the morning. Wake up time was 5 am to be ready to leave by 5:45 am. At 6 am we set off and we went to a smaller gate rather than using Talek which is very busy at that time in the morning.
Since this was our second day of safari and our tickets from the day before were valid until 13:30 pm that day, there was no need to buy another entrance. At least not quite yet. The camp’s manager had to buy a new set of tickets at Talek’s gate and through the radio in our car he would call our guide and provide the new set of codes which will allow us to leave the park at the end of the day. Please read the following recommendation which is related to this topic.
We had the feeling that this second set of tickets was never purchased. On the first day of safari as we were leaving the park through one of the gates a park ranger asked for our tickets to be provided. Our guide showed them, and we were authorized to leave. On our second day, however, the guide did not use any of the gates and instead he left through a place where there was no-one patrolling. Tickets were never asked. Also, the camp manager was supposed to call our guide/driver to provide a second set of ticket numbers for us to leave on that evening, but we were inside the car the whole day and the radio was never used to communicate between our guide and the camp’s manager as it was initially said it will happen. The only people our guide was talking to all the time were the other guides.
Make sure that if you enter the park on the first day after lunch time, you demand your camp to buy tickets for the second day or else you end up paying US$80 dollars to your camp for entrances to the second day of safari and they will never really buy them. Basically, you are paying for a service they are not providing as the Masai Mara park is not getting your US$80 dollars from your camp.
In our case, this situation was even worse. On the day we left, we noticed our driver did not take the same route which was initially taken by the driver who brought us from Nairobi. Nairobi-Narok-Sekenani-Talek was the route taken and it was done that way because the road to Talek was flooded and to have access to this town it was necessary to drive to Sekenani first and then by driving inside the park we made it to Talek. On the way back to Nairobi, and since the situation with the road through Talek was still the same, the driver would have needed to enter the park through Talek gate, drive through the park and then leave through Sekenani to then continue towards Narok and finally Nairobi. This did not happen.
Again, he never used any of the gates. Instead he drove through some privately-owned lands and at some point, we were stopped by a gang of machete-armed Masai farmers. It was evident that we should have never driven through those lands and that the terms of the conversation ensuing between driver and farmers were rather tense and far from amicable. We do not speak any Swahili but judging by their body language and the tone of their voices, we were in some serious trouble. Situation got a bit more agitated as we guessed the reasons why the driver took that shortcut and that made us feel angry towards him and the camp’s manager. After a good 20 minutes of altercation between the parties involved, our driver pulled out from his pocket some Kenyan shillings and handed them out to one of them. He reluctantly accepted them, and we were finally granted permission to continue our journey back to Nairobi.
Food during a full day of safari is prepared by the camp, packed and kept fresh in portable fridges and served inside the park. Dishes were basic, but portions were decently sized. Breakfast was served at around 10 am and lunch after 13:00 pm. Those were the only times when we could get off the car and stretch our legs. The places our driver chose for us to stop for both breakfast and lunch were postcard worthy. Breakfast by a lone acacia tree and lunch by a river meters away from the Tanzania border.
3.3 Safari action
As we drove inside the park we were greeted by ostriches, the beautiful sunrise in the background and a couple of hot air balloons grazing the horizon.
Picture by @santanamancito on IG
Our full day of safari was packed with adventure. We were lucky that our camp was very close to one of the gates and our van did not have to queue to enter the park. Some of the animals in the park blend well with their surroundings and our guide Alfred had to be very vigilant not to miss any opportunity to spot all the wild game there is to be seen. He was very intuitive and knowledgeable of the park and all the spots where different animals seem to gather at different times of the day. Another fact that helped massively to the success of our safari was the constant communication kept amongst all the drivers/guides from other safaris. If one of the drivers from a different camp spotted one of the big 5, he would tell all his friends on the radio about the exact spot where this animal was and within minutes several vans would gather around this animal.
Interesting fact is, Masai Mara animals seem to be totally detached from the paparazzi frenzy they provoke, and they would continue with their daily lives as if nothing is happening around them.
3.3.1 The five Musketeers of Masai Mara
In our case, our day continued in a very positive note. After breakfast we were lucky to witness the world-wide famous coalition of 5 musketeers in full action. The Cheetah brotherhood of the Masai Mara are an incredible hunting unit. No-one seems to know where they came from, but they tend to roam the areas surrounding the Mara North conservancies and the Talek river. When it comes to hunting, their success rate is hugely increased because they can bring down prey almost every time they try to catch something: once one of them has managed to latch onto often larger prey that would be otherwise almost impossible for only one to kill, the rest of them would come in and help to finish with the task. In our case, the 5 musketeers took their time to choose their prey and like I mentioned earlier on, they could not care less about all the fuss given by the huge number of tourists and vans parked in front of them. The chase of the cheetahs once they decided to go full-on for their prey was exhilarating. We had to hold onto the car’s roof as tight as we could and in the end because they were so incredibly fast, we missed the exact moment when they hunted their prey. When we arrived one of the cheetahs was already holding a baby zebra by her neck and not long after the other four came in to start munching on their hunt of the day.
3.3.2 Iman and her cub
We also had the chance to see Iman, a female cheetah and her cub hunting together.
In this case, we witnessed something truly touching. Cheetahs are incredibly fast, they run at speeds of more than 100 kilometres per hour. However, baby cheetahs can’t run as fast as their parents. So, when Iman, the female cheetah had her eyes fixed on a baby gazelle and went for it, her cub got lost and could not keep up with the run. Once the hunt was over and the prey was dead, Iman can be seen seating by a bush and impatiently waiting for her cub to show up.
She gazes at every corner of the Masai Mara and still her cub is nowhere to be seen. We then hear Iman roaring on a rather high-pitched tone like that of a bird chirping. That was Iman’s way to call her cub. After no longer than 5 minutes, we hear a similar noise coming from a different angle and that is Iman’s cub who is now in the right track. Iman then repeats her call and her cub now sees where she is at. Finally, mother and cub are reunited, and it is now time to eat.
The day came to an end, but we had seen so much wild game that our hunger for it was fully satisfied. The intense heat of the Kenyan savannah had also taken its toll in our bodies and we were exhausted. Just before the sunset we started driving towards the camp as visitors are not allowed to be inside the park after darkness sets in.
Just after 6:30 pm we arrived back to our camp where dinner was waiting for us. Then back to our tents to pack our bags to be ready to leave the following day.
Talek Bush Camp is a budget camp set outside the Masai Mara’s Talek gate and about 100 meters from the Talek river.
Location here plays an important part when it comes to choosing your camp. We chose it because of its vicinity to one of the gates as we had previously read that gates in the morning get extremely busy and vans queue for long periods of time before they can make it inside the park. For professional photographers this is vital, especially during migration season as the river crossings are the spots where they need to be should they want to capture the best images. Arriving late to these river crossings during the big migration may mean poor chances of getting any good shots, if any at all. Another obvious reason why we chose it was because of the prices they offered. We compared prices from at least 4 other budget camps in Masai Mara and Talek Bush Camp had the best offer. Also, they were the only ones who maintained a clear and responsive correspondence throughout. This gave us a lot of confidence and helped us made our minds.
Guests stay at simple but good quality en-suite tents with mosquito-net beds
There is also hot water supply, electricity and Wi-Fi connection within the restaurant area. Electricity runs until 10pm same as the hot water and the Wi-Fi.
For more information about other accommodation options in Masai Mara please read my article “9 things you need to know when visiting Kenya’s Masai Mara for a safari trip”.
3.5 Masai Village visit
One more thing was due just before we headed back to Nairobi and that was the unmissable visit to a Masai village. There are rumours that tourists are being taken to fake Masai villages so before you book your visit to one of them, do make sure you will be taken to a real one. I guess it is something you don’t have much control of, but you can mention it to the people at your camp, so they know you are aware. In our case, it was evident that the Masai people who greeted us lived within the compound as we saw lots of kids going in and out of the houses and men and women doing daily chores
Entrance fee to a Masai village should be US$20 – 25 dollars. We had arranged this visit through our camp and paid to the camp manager. However, on arrival, and after being greeted by the Masai village chief, we were asked to pay US$30. We had to explain to this guy we had already paid but it was strange he tried to charge us again even though we had already done so through our camp.
The Masai are a very famous warrior tribe in Kenya whose lives revolt around herding cattle. They live in small settlements of 8-15 huts per kraal. Their settlements are surrounded by a thorn bush fence as an added form of protection.
On arrival to the village, a group of male Masai farmers started coming out from the fenced compound and gathered in front of us on a straight line.
Then they started singing and dancing towards us almost as if the group was embracing us and inviting us to come inside the village. We started walking inside and once inside the Chief explained what the agenda for the visit was. Then another group of villagers but this time all females formed in front of us and sang a Swahili song.
We then were showed how to make fire.
One of the things that can’t be left out during a Masai Village visit is the “jumping dance”. The famous adumu dance or “jumping dance” sees a group of Masai men jumping as high as they can while they hold in their hands a long thin wooden stick.
For the Maasai, the adumu is just one in a series of rituals that make up the Eunoto, the ceremony in which the junior warriors, or morani, graduate to the ranks of manhood.
We were taken inside one of the houses (Inkajijik is the Maasai word for a group of houses) which are made of mud, sticks, grass, cow’s dung and cow’s urine. Despite some of these materials used, there isn’t any unpleasant odour once you step inside. In Masai society, women are responsible for building the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family.
Only pregnant and elderly women are excused from building duties. However, they need to provide guidance to younger generations in this task.
The loaf-shaped houses are made without windows so the predators from the Masai Mara can’t see what’s inside.
They are rather low and dark inside, with enough room to provide shelter to parents who sleep in one of the rooms and the children in the second room.
It is hard to believe though that in such small rooms they can fit up to 4 to 5 children from the same family. The entire house is not larger than the size of a double room. The roof is plastered with cow’s dung and then covered with grass. The cow’s dung makes the roof water-proof. There is also room inside the house to give shelter to some of their cattle to protect them from predators at night time.
Due to the nomadic nature of the Masai people, houses are built to be temporary, so they can move around whenever it is needed.
Finally, we were taken to the handcrafts market at the back of the village.
After our visit to the Masai Village we were finally ready to head back to Nairobi and thus our Masai Mara safari trip came sadly to an end.
We had an amazing time in Kenya and I highly recommend this experience to anyone willing to witness some of the most incredible animals on this planet and to amateur and professional photographers as the amount of inspiration you can get in Masai Mara is almost endless.
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