This is Africa: On Safari in the Masai Mara Reserve – An Experience of Many Firsts

Getting a drink in the Maasai Mara Reserve, Kenya

Last Updated on 01/08/21 by Rose Palmer

Our first trip to Africa started with a safari in the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. The game drives in this vast landscape provided the first views of many of the classic African animals we were hoping to see, along with many other memorable experiences.

Day 1 – Our First Game Drive in the Maasai Mara

Friday, July 6, 2018

After landing in Nairobi, our eleven day Kenya and Tanzania safari started with a visit and stay at the Maasai Mara Reserve. Our guide Benjamin with Pollman’s Tours picked us up at our Nairobi hotel, and for the next six days we were in his expert hands as he showed us around his beloved Kenya. Our group was small – just six of us in total for this portion of the trip – four Americans and an Australian couple.

We spent our first morning in Africa driving from Nairobi through the Great Rift Valley to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. It was about a six hour drive, initially on paved roads and then the last few hours on rough, bumpy dirt roads. (We did have a few comfort breaks along the way with quite clean bathroom facilitates and coffee and snacks available for purchase). Throughout the drive, Benjamin provide colorful and instructive commentary about the sights we were passing.

Driving the dirt roads to the Maasai Mara
Our guide Benjamin was an expert at maneuvering the dirt roads to the Maasai Mara

We finally arrived in the early afternoon, and after checking in to the Maasai Mara Sopa Lodge, and grabbing a quick lunch, we headed out into the Maasai Mara Reserve for our very first game drive in Africa. With only six of us in the Land Cruiser, we each had perfect views out the window and out the top of the truck when the top was up.

The Maasai Mara Reserve covers an area of almost 700 sq. miles in Kenya and is connected on the Tanzania border with the much larger Serengeti Park. The reserve is named for the Massai people that call this area home, and who still live on the lands of the reserve (which is why it is not a National Park). The Mara River runs through this land and is famous for the chaotic crossing of millions of wildebeests, zebras and gazelle as they migrate from the Serengeti and back, following the rains and the resulting greener grasses.

As we drove down from the highlands into the flatter plains of the reserve, it wasn’t long before we saw our first game animals – one of the many antelope species on the savanna – an impala, with its graceful ringed, curved horns.

Not far was another group of gazelle, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle this time. Over the course of our eleven days in the various parks of East Africa, we saw many Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle. Eventually we learned to easily tell the difference. The Thomson’s gazelle is smaller and has a black stripe along its side while the Grant’s gazelle (front left in the photo below) is a bit larger and doesn’t have the black stripe.

herd of gazelles
herd of gazelles

A little further on and we saw our first wildebeest. Like the gazelle, we would see very many over the next few weeks, but this first one, staring us down, was special.

A wildebeest stare down
A wildebeest stare down

It wasn’t long before we had our first elephant sighting also – a family group that included an adorable baby elephant. Our guide told us that if a  baby elephant fits underneath its mother’s belly, it is less than a year old.  This little one looked like it had not celebrated its first birthday yet.

A little more driving and we had our first giraffe sighting…….

Giraffes having dinner
Giraffes having dinner

……..and our first zebra sighting………

First zebra sighting
First zebra sighting

……and our first sighting of cape buffaloes. Catching a ride on the back of the cape buffaloes were a number of oxpecker birds. The birds have a symbiotic relationship with the buffaloes – they eat the insects and parasites on these large herd beasts.

Next, we saw a large male ostrich, strutting his stuff, spreading his large wings, trying his best to attract and impress a nearby female ostrich. Couldn’t tell if she was interested – she seemed ambivalent despite all his hard work.

A male ostrich trying to impress a nearby female ostrich
A male ostrich trying to impress a nearby female ostrich

Driving through the park, the broad savanna continued to spread out before us. The hills in the distance marked the border into the connecting Serengeti in Tanzania.

The expansive views of the Maasai Mara .
The expansive views of the Maasai Mara .

As we started to head back toward the lodge, our guide heard about a lion sighting, so we quickly drove in that direction. From far away, we got our first glimpse of a female lion and her older cub – not the best photos as the light was fading, but such a thrilling sight.

We had some more lovely elephant sightings as we continued our drive back to our lodge. I never got tired of seeing elephants.

We sped along the dirt roads, trying to get out of the park by its 6:30 PM closing time. That was also the time of sunset, and we were rewarded with a truly beautiful one, a classic African safari sunset.

A classic African sunset over the Maasai Mara

Our first two hour game drive and we had already seen so many animals in their natural habitat. I couldn’t imagine how the next ten days could be any better.

Day 2 – Another full Day in the Maasai Mara

Saturday July 7, 2018

The only separate optional excursion that was not included in our trip cost was a hot air balloon ride over the Masai Mara Reserve. My husband and I both chose to do this, though I was a little apprehensive going into it because I am normally quite afraid of heights. We left our lodge at 5 AM and were getting into the balloon by about 6 AM and up in the sky when the sun came up around 6:30 AM.

Sunrise balloon ride over the Maasai Mara
Sunrise balloon ride over the Maasai Mara

The balloon rose slowly and gently up into the air, and the one hour ride was so smooth that my fear of heights did not kick in at all. We had some animal sightings from above, including another lion sighting. Most impressive though, was the sight of the expansive savanna from horizon to horizon. It was so peaceful floating quietly above the African plains – I did not want it to end. Despite my initial fears, this ended up being one of my favorite experiences from the whole trip. (I will be posting a longer story about the balloon ride next).

A ribbon of green along the river in an otherwise dry sea of grass

After coming back down to earth, we were treated to a complete champagne sit down buffet breakfast in the middle of the savanna, which included make to order eggs or omelets. It was quite an impressive spread with great food in a fantastic setting with very attentive service. A memorable ending to a special event.

We were then driven back to meet up with our guide Benjamin and the rest of our safari mates who had already been out on a game drive since early morning. Of course we saw more wildlife on the way as well.

A wildebeest stare down
Another wildebeest stare down

Benjamin drove us to the Mara River and the sight of the well known crossing of the wildebeests as they migrate from Tanzania to Kenya in search of literal greener pastures. The migration and crossing usually starts in July, but this year had seen a lot of rains so the beasts were a bit behind schedule since their green grasses in Tanzania weren’t gone yet.

Mara River Ranger Station
Mara River Ranger Station has some interesting skeleton examples as well as a warning that should not be ignored
View of the Mara River
View of the Mara River
Another view of the Mara River
Another view of the Mara River

An armed ranger guided us around the Mara River area and pointed out the sights and the animals. Why the guns? Crocodiles patiently wait on the bank for dinner to arrive. The crocs blended in very well as they lay basking in the sun – we initially did not see the one laying on the bank just 25 feet away. When the guide pointed to a big 14 footer on the other bank, the croc was hard to distinguish from the surrounding rocks at that distance, much less accurately gauge his full size.

Even though we weren’t seeing the wildebeest crossing, the Mara River was far from being lifeless.  Besides the crocs, we also saw at least two large family groups of hippos in the water, happily grunting away. This is when I first discovered that hippos are hard to photograph in an interesting way since most of the time they are under water.

Hippos in the Mara River
Hippos in the Mara River

A few hippos were also lazily lounging on the banks of the Mara River. Now we were able to really see their true size.

Hippos lounging on the banks of the Mara River
Hippos lounging on the banks of the Mara River

We also discovered another smaller and less dangerous reptile, the mwanza agama lizard. We saw the brightly colored male showing off during mating seasons, trying to attract the attention of the much less flamboyant female. With his stubby tail, this little guy may have had one too many encounters with a predator.

From the Mara River, we continued to explore the Maasai Mara Reserve as we took the long way back to the lodge for a late lunch, and had another first sighting, a family of warthogs rooting for food.

Warthogs – hello Pumba.

…..And more zebras. Did you know a group of zebras is called a Dazzle? It’s easy to see why. Even though the zebras stick out in the savanna like a sore thumb, when a group of them are together, it’s hard to distinguish the individual animals.

A line of zebras
In a line of zebras, the individual is hard to distinguish
A dazzle of zebras in the Maasai Mara
A dazzle of zebras in the Maasai Mara

…..And more giraffes. One of the most interesting sightings was watching a giraffe trying to get a drink of water. The long neck and legs which makes it so perfectly adapted for reaching juicy green leaves in high trees make it awkward to bend down for a drink.

Why does giraffe cross the road?
Why does a giraffe cross the road? To get a drink of water.

This turned out to be one of the few times that we saw giraffes with other animals around them. It can be hard to gauge the full size of a giraffe without other animals nearby as a point of reference.

We also had a quick glimpses of topis, a larger species of antelope with very characteristic dark colored markings on their hindquarters.

Topi antelopes
Topi antelopes

…..And more elephants – loved seeing the elephants, especially the babies.

Not too fast junior!
Slow down junior!

After a late lunch at the lodge, we spent the afternoon visiting a local Maasai village and school – stories about these experiences to come.

The Mara Sopa Lodge

The Mara Sopa Lodge is located in the Oloolaimutia Hills and was one of the first lodges built on the reserve. The buildings are built in the traditional African round house style with thatched roofs. The amenities included a pool, a large reception and lounge area with a central floor to ceiling fireplace, large dining room, a gift shop and a small market with local crafts. The best part was the high view into the Maasai Mara Reserve.

View from the lodge into the Massai Mara

I was quite impressed with our first lodge experience in Africa, especially considering its highly remote location, hours from the nearest paved road. Our room was spacious, very comfortable and very clean and the bathroom up to date. Electricity is provided via a generator, which is turned off during the middle of the day and the middle of the night (so no hot water either). Not a problem – we just had to remember to charge up any electronics and batteries during the evening before we went to bed. (Our vehicle was also equipped with outlets for charging during the drives). Wi-fi was available and sufficient for checking emails, social media and any messages from home (though not necessarily fast enough for any website work). Surprisingly, cell phone service and text messaging worked as well.

Food was served buffet style at all meals and there were plenty of options for all tastes and dietary restrictions at each. Even for a buffet, the food was very good with lots of fresh fruit, salad choices, vegetable dishes, soups, three choices of meats and sea food, other proteins such as lentils and an array of deserts. No lunch or dinner drinks were include in the cost of the stay, so we just ran up a tab for our beer, wine, sparkling water or sodas, which we paid at check out. Breakfast included juices, coffee and tea. Note that we had plenty of bottled water – two new ones in the room every day as well as a cooler full in the vehicle.

The service during our whole stay was friendly and attentive. The employees, many of them Maasai, work for tips, so they carry your bags, take drink orders, make up the bed with mosquito spray and netting at night, and in general, were there to be helpful.

Our first two days of our safari experience in Africa had been amazing already. What would the next days bring?  Up next were the Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha parks.

More to come.

Thanks for visiting.



Pin this!

Our first safari experience in the Maasai Mara in Kenya #safari #kenya #maasaimara #safarianimal
Maasai Mara safari in Kenya
A fantastic first safari in the Maasai Mara in Kenya #safari #kenya #maasaimara #safarianimal
Maasai Mara safari in Kenya
Discover the array of animals on a safari in the Maasai Mara in Kenya #safari #kenya #maasaimara #safarianimal
Maasai Mara safari in Kenya