Ultimate Safari Guide: Masai Mara on a Budget
Masai Mara on a Budget
Have you ever dreamt of seeing a pack of lions hunting in the wild? How about a baby elephant joyously splashing around in a mud puddle? Or what about experiencing the greatest outdoor show on earth, the great migration of wildebeests, with front row seats?
As far as bucket lists go, going on an African safari is near the top for almost everyone.
But is it possible to experience this once in a lifetime thrill on a budget?
I’m happy to say yes, we did it and so can you!
Why the Masai Mara?
When it comes to choosing your safari location, you definitely have a lot of options. There are seemingly endless parks in Africa that you can visit but the most famous ones include the beautiful Masai Mara in Kenya, the vast Serengeti of Tanzania, and popular Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Each are home to the “Big 5” but each also come with their own pros and cons.
Kruger is well established and is famous for its ability to offer a comfortable self-drive option with many roads actually paved but because of this it is the least “wild” of the parks.
The Serengeti is many travellers’ favourite and for good reason. It’s incredibly vast and is world famous for its huge collection of wildlife and is also one of the two parks where you can watch hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra migrate toward the greener pastures of Kenya beginning in May and finishing in August. The downside to this park is that it’s incredibly expensive. Even on a very tight budget option you would be looking at a cost of at least $200 USD per person per day excluding park fees putting it out of range for many budget travellers.
In our opinion, the Masai Mara is the best all around park for the quintessential African safari. It’s essentially an extension of the Serengeti so there are many similarities in the landscape and it offers the same assortment of wildlife while also being home to the Great Migration in July and August. The great thing about this park is that you can do the Masai Mara on a budget!
Where to Stay
First of all you absolutely need to stay at a place outside the reserve otherwise you will have to not only pay your hotel but the park fee every day. It’s easy to see to see why many people feel the Masai Mara is out of their budget as virtually all of the accommodation options in the area are geared towards mid-range and luxury travellers. Thankfully there’s an option available for the rest of us.
Based on their prices and 5 star Trip Advisor rating, we chose to stay at Mara Explorers Camp, which we highly recommend. At this time they have the budget market locked down but expect similarly priced options to pop up in the future.
Here you can choose to stay in a few different sleeping options (tent or banda) based on your budget. If you choose to bring your own tent you can stay here for as little as 700 KES ($7 USD) per person per night, a phenomenal deal for the Masai Mara!
We chose to stay in one of their dome tent options which included sleeping bags, pillows and mats for 1500 KES ($14 USD) per person per night.
How to Get to the Masai Mara
You have two main options to get there from Nairobi. One is cheap and long and the other is expensive and fast. It’s important to keep in mind that it takes approximately 5 hours to drive from the Nairobi airport to the Masai Mara and the roads are unpaved and very dusty after leaving Narok.
It’s also important to note that if you take the public transport option, timing is essential. Miss a connection and you’ll need to spend a night in Nairobi or Narok.
Step 1) There are many buses and matatus (share vans) that leave from the airport and travel into the city which shouldn’t cost any more than 100-200 KES ($1-$2 USD). You can also take a taxi but expect to pay up to $25 USD.
Step 2) Take a bus from Nairobi to Narok (the closest major town to the Masai Mara). Take a Narok Line matatu from Nyamakima in Nairobi CBD making sure to arrive by 7am. Many travellers recommend “Easycoach” (offices next to Nairobi railway station) as a reliable bus service. They have three morning departures, 07:30, 08:30, and 08:45.
This bus journey should cost you about 400 KES ($4 USD) and take anywhere from 3.5-4.5 hours depending on traffic.
Step 3) Once in Narok walk five minutes or catch a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) to the central bus station (opposite Naivas supermarket). Once there, book a seat on a large matatu or shared taxi to Sekenani, departing Narok at lunchtime.
This journey should cost about 500 KES ($5 USD) and take around 3-4 hours to get to Mara Explorers (ask the driver to drop you off at the main road within 300 metres from the entrance).
Mara Explorers will arrange for their driver to pick you up from the airport and drive you directly to the camp for 10,000 KES ($95 USD).
Hire Your Own Car
This of course will vary depending on what type of vehicle you get but it is imperative that you hire a 4 x 4 as the roads to the reserve and especially the roads within the park can be treacherous when it rains.
Another major cost to consider is your food budget during your time in the Masai Mara. Again Mara Explorers is great as you can either choose to cook your own food with a well appointed outdoor kitchen with gas stove, purchase some of your meals a la carte or pay for full board.
Cook Your Own Food
This is by far the cheapest option but you’ll have to plan ahead a little as there are no supermarkets close to the reserve. We got our supplies in Narok (although you can do so in Nairobi as well) for your stay. We managed to squeeze five days worth of meals for two for about $27 USD.
Mara Explorers charges 500 KES ($5 USD) per day for the use of their self-catering kitchen with gas stove.
Purchase Food at the Camp
You can either opt in for the full board option to have all three meals included for 3000 KES ($30 USD) per person per day or purchase meals as you need for 1000 KES ($10 USD) per person per meal. The food here is very good, so if you decide to opt in for either the full board option or buy a meal or two, you won’t be disappointed.
The safari cost is what puts most parks out of range for most budget travellers and although the Masai Mara may seem a tad expensive, it is without a doubt the best bargain of any safari park in Africa.
You have two major expenses to consider here: the safari vehicle/guide cost and the park entrance fees. It’s important to note that Mara Explorers offers a pretty solid value with their safaris as their vehicles have both a guide/spotter and a driver. Some of other safari companies, even the luxury options, will only have a driver who is expected to be a spotter as well.
Suzuki 4×4: 10,000 KES ($95 USD) can accommodate 2 people.
Land Cruiser: 14,000 KES ($133 USD) to be split between up to 6 people.
Pop Top Van: 14,000 KES ($133 USD) to be split between up to 6 people.
As you can see, if you have a full landcruiser (6 people) the cost can be as low as 2,333 KES ($23 USD) per person which shows you that you can do the Masai Mara on a budget.
Park Entrance Fee
This is subject to change but when we went (August 2015) it was $80 USD per person per day for adults ($45 USD for children). Make sure to have exactly $80 USD as they will often not have change at the entrance.
Cheapest Option for the Masai Mara on a Budget
Accommodation (2 nights): $7 USD per night X 2 Nights = $14 USD
Transport (Public transport Nairobi return): $12 USD each way = $24 USD
Food (Self catering 2 nights): ($8 USD per day for food + $5 USD per day for kitchen) X 2 Nights = $26 USD
Safari: $80 USD for Park Fee + $23 USD for Vehicle Share = $103 USD
TOTAL = $167 USD
As you can see, you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy nature at its finest; the Masai Mara can be done on a budget. If you go for the cheapest option: staying in your own tent, taking public transport, self-catering and sharing the Land Cruiser amongst a large group it should cost you less than $170 USD!
We’ve now done multiple safaris in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and without question the best variety of wildlife encounters we had were in the Masai Mara. The sheer volume of wildlife (particularly during the Great Migration), the intimate encounters with majestic animals like lions, elephants and cheetahs and the sheer beauty of the landscape are unmatched.
The Masai Mara is as incredible as advertised and with this post as your guide, you will be able to experience it for yourself even on a tight budget.
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Ross & Alyse
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