Photo of Hyenas during a night drive on the Big Cat Safari
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In my early safari days, Kenya and the Masai Mara was not appealing as I'd heard stories and seen photos of huge numbers of vehicles at a sighting, to the point where it prevented the behavior of the animals. I subsequently have learned the ways to take advantage of the unrivaled animal concentrations of Tanzania and Kenya but yet avoid crowds and have stellar wilderness for surrounds.
My Big Cat group trip was a huge measuring stick to see how well I have mastered these principles as four members of the group had a whopping 60 or so safaris between them but of that mighty number only one person had done a safari in East Africa and that was just a single visit many years ago. Like me, these folks are aficionados of enjoying their wildlife in pristine wilderness and unencumbered by other vehicles and thus confined their annual visits to Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. In the end all confessed to being overwhelmed by the classic East Africa safari that we did, surprised by the quality of the guiding as well as the staggering numbers of animals and the immense landscapes that we often had all to ourselves.
East Africa Safari Philosophy
Photo of a leopard cub in a tree on the Big Cat Safari
One core philosophy I have for East Africa is you don't have to do the circuit. The Serengeti and the Masai Mara have unrivaled quantities of game and thus that's the region I like to concentrate on. Most itineraries run from park to park, following the crowds and then have only 2 or 3 nights in the prime areas.
For the deep wildlife enthusiast, especially photographers, it can make sense to concentrate in the best wildlife area. Thus for our trip we flew right to the Serengeti. Instead of splitting time between a number of parks, I divided our time between three prime locations in Tanzania's portion of the Serengeti ecosystem. With the game drives between those locations we covered the majority of prime territory for the season. Then we flew to the Mara region which is really just the northern extent of the same Serengeti system but was a very different and complementary environment to the parts of the Serengeti we experienced. The safari was 10 nights in total (half stayed on for a 11th) but every single day was within a prime wildlife area.
Utilizing a mobile camp is a terrific way to have large swaths of the Serengeti to yourself. It requires a party of 4 to make the costs approximate the excellent seasonal camps but what could be better than having your own classic safari camp for just your party that moves locations with you and allows you access to campsites that are far away from anyone else.
We had a mobile in two different locations and they served different purposes. The first was in the heart of the Serengeti, the enchanting Moru Kopjes, where there was some vehicle traffic around but because they all had to sleep somewhere away from our area we would have it all to ourselves early and late in the day - the prime hours.
Our second camp was out on the Eastern plains and from the time we exited the Naabi Hill Gate we would not see another vehicle for close to 2 days, providing us with an amazing exclusivity with only the company of thousands of animals and a local Massai boma, home to the elder in charge of our spectacularly private campsite at Nasera Rock.
Avoiding Crowds in the Masai Mara
Photo of Cheetah Siblings Taken During the Big Cat Safari
In the Masai Mara Reserve the crowding can be downright scary and definitely not the quality that I like to deliver on safaris. However, in recent years the creation of low density tourism conservancies adjacent to the Mara Reserve has provided the ideal opportunity for those who value the quality of having exclusive wildlife viewing.
Utilizing these areas it is absolutely possible to experience the splendor of the Mara quantities of animals and its exquisite landscapes but have your game viewing largely to yourself, all the while supporting an outstanding conservation initiative.
Mara Plains Camp, Offbeat Mara Camp
The Olare Orok Conservancy has been particularly productive for me with Mara Plains Camp. The neighboring Mara North Conservancy is excellent and I particularly like Offbeat Mara Camp as it has the ideal position within that Conservancy and is one of the best value safari camps anywhere in Africa. Now an additional conservancy, Naboisho is going to offer a similarly high quality experience. Within the conservancies you can off road and night drive making it a very similar quality experience to what is found in Southern Africa.
We Were Able to Avoid Situations Like These...
I stayed on for extra nights at Mara Plains and as we had to enter the Mara Reserve to drop guests at the airstrip we went for a quick look for one of the Big Cat Diary (TV series) leopards named Olive and her six month old cub who are normally nearby. Sure enough we found them instantly, with a paparazzi like horde of vehicles lined up to view them. Vehicles constantly arrived and departed but the total number fluctuated between 25 and 30. We felt like we could not even breathe as the wind rocked a tree back and forth with this little cub holding on for life and not confident to descend to his mother as the carloads of humans gawked at him. After a brief visit off we went and tried to forget what would have been a highlight sighting in many other locations but would be a lowlight for this safari.
Flip forward half a day to my final game drive at Mara Plains. We come across a pride of six lions feasting on a zebra. We share the sighting only with hyenas and jackals that look to run off with a piece of the meal whenever they can get away with it. It is the pinnacle safari experience, seeing magnificent species displaying their natural behaviors and interacting with one another as if we do not exist. This trip was a resounding demonstration that such glorious safari quality can be achieved in East Africa's popular areas, it just has to be planned with care.
Photos from just the Mara Plains portion of the safari are here.