How to get to the Masai Mara Game Reserve?
Updated: Aug 21, 2019
Whether you choose to fly or drive, getting to the Mara is an adventure.
The flight takes about 45 minutes from Nairobi, and 1.5 hours from the Kenyan coast, while driving can take anywhere between 5 and 7 hours depending on where in the Mara you're heading to and how wet the terrain is. Both experiences are vastly different, so what you choose to do depends on the experience that you're looking for. Remember, if you would like to experience the best of both worlds, you could even choose to drive there and fly back to Nairobi or the coast after your Masai Mara safari.
The 'by road' experience:
A question that pops up often is 'can I hire a car and do a self-drive there'? From a safety perspective, we do not recommend this. Road conditions, signage, and directions are quite different from what you're used to in the West. Additionally, once you are in the park, you are going to need someone who knows both wildlife and the terrain well to ensure you get some great wildlife sightings. Go in a safari-vehicle (both 4x4 Land cruisers and the safari vans have pop-up roof hatches) with an experienced driver/guide who will stay with you through the duration of your trip there.
Leave Nairobi early to miss the Nairobi traffic, and to give yourself time to stop along the way. There are some interesting sights and towns to see en-route to the Mara. Your first stop would be at the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley - a valley that extends 6000 Km across the Middle East and Africa from Jordan to Malawi. Looking down into the valley on a clear day, you can see a vast array of topographic diversity including flat desert landscapes, volcanoes, and lakes. As you drive further down and hit the floor of the Rift Valley, the first town you'll go through is Mai Mahiu – the Kikuyu name for 'hot water' – as plenty of hot springs can be found in the area due to the volcanic activity it experienced. Over the years, Mai Mahiu has become a trucking town for cargo trucks heading to the inland countries, and you'll start to get a feel of rural Kenya once you've driven through it.
The next large town (and the last one you'll drive through before you get to the Mara) is Narok. It is the perfect place to stop for last-minute supplies or a restroom. The town has grown over the last decade with a new shopping mall, larger supermarkets, and some decent clothing stores too. Pick up a fleece if you have forgotten to bring one with you as the Mara can get cool in the evenings.
If you are heading towards the Sekenani Gate entrance of the Mara, the first hour of your drive from Narok is on a beautiful new tarmac road. When the tarmac ends, brace yourself though for what the Kenyans have fondly referred to as the "African Massage". The road changes to rough, bumpy and dusty. Getting to your camp could take 2 hours or more on this rough road depending on which camp you're going to. In spite of the road, make sure you keep an eye out for the Masai kids herding cattle, for elephants and giraffe, and admire the beautiful dappled hilled landscapes around you.
Going to the Mara by road is a cost-effective way to travel there, especially if there are 3 or more of you in a vehicle. Remember, the car and driver/guide that drives you to the Mara will stay with you throughout your stay there, and you will also do your game drives in the same car so make sure you've booked a 4-wheel drive vehicle if that is what you would prefer on your game drives. Though it works out a little more expensive than the safari vans, they're great, especially in the rainy season, for getting around the rough terrain.
The 'by air' experience:
Getting to the Mara from Nairobi by air is a quick 45-minute flight to the first airstrip. Most of the airlines operate 2 flights a day - a morning flight that leaves Nairobi's Wilson airport at 10 am and an afternoon flight that leaves at 3 pm. If you're flying to or from Diani, there is only a daily flight. There is a good chance that you may not be on the first stop as the flights stop at several different areas within the Mara depending on their demand for the day. If you have the second or third landing, keep an eye out the window for animals - the plane flies low within the Mara so it is a great opportunity to get some great aerial shots. The aircraft are generally smaller 12-seater single engine caravans, although some twin-engine 35 and 50-seater aircraft do fly to the Mara, but are limited to using only Keekorok and Ol Kiombo airstrip because they have longer runways. The airstrips are fun - none have tarmac runways, and be prepared to get close to landing but pulling up as the pilot spots some animals on the runway. When this happens, the vehicles waiting for you may race out to chase the animals away to allow the plane to land. It's certainly a sight you won't get anywhere else. Some airstrips do have restrooms, but most do not. Being there takes you back in time to the days where 'airports' were nothing but thatched huts in the middle of nowhere.
On arrival at your destination, a camp vehicle and driver/guide will be there to meet you. Remember, there are cabs or Uber in the wild – so you’ll need to ensure that you have a ride. Some of the camps and lodges have completely open 4-wheel drive vehicles with no windows or doors. It is a great way to see game unhindered and fantastic if you are an avid photographer. Unfortunately, if you're driving, for safety reasons these vehicles do not do the long-distance journey from Nairobi with clients. It could take you anywhere up to an hour to drive to your camp, but the time flies as you stop to see wildlife on the way. If you're very lucky, you may get your first glimpse of a herd of elephants, or even a pride of lions.
If you prefer to 'fly in style', you also have the option of chartering a helicopter directly to your camp in the Mara, with some low flies to see the wildlife below you!
Whichever way you choose to get there, everything about the Masai Mara Game Reserve is outstanding. The wildlife is abundant and the gentle rolling grasslands ensure that animals are never out of sight!