How to Do Safari to Masai Mara on a Budget
Safari to Masai Mara was everything that it promised to be, without the crazy price tag. It was a surprisingly cheap affair. How? Well, we organised the whole process independently – renting the car, organising tents on a campsite, and feeding ourselves. On top of this, we all managed to blag residents’ rate, despite two of us not holding this status. The whole trip was just over $100 per person; a bargain rate in order to witness one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth.
What follows is a guide to spending a full day in one of the best safari spots in the world, on a budget!
The first step is to find a safari-suitable car. Any decent 4×4 will do, but if there’s a group of you and you want the authentic safari experience, then you can’t beat a safari Land Cruiser with a pop-up roof for improved animal-spotting potential. This is the quintessential safari vehicle and adds a lot to the experience, as well as proving to be a trusted choice for tough terrain.
I once went to Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya in a Toyota Corrola… In retrospect, I’m not sure what we were thinking. We almost spent the night in the park after getting stuck in a muddy pit. I was actually thrilled at the prospect, but my Kenyan friends were horrified and visibly relieved when the park rangers found us and dragged us out.
We found our awesome ride through Joep of Expat-to-Expat. It cost just over $100 per day and we ended up paying $120 for petrol, after travelling from Nairobi and back. That Land Cruiser was thirsty! There were 5 of us, but you could easily fit seven in the car, further reducing the price.
We set off from Nairobi super early, so that we could spend the afternoon and early evening in the park. The long seven-hour drive only added to our hysteria. If you love a good road trip, then this journey won’t disappoint!
The Cost of Masai Mara Budget Safari
About one hour from the Mara is the town of Narok – the final place along the route that you’ll find a supermarket. We took advantage of this and piled bags and bags of food and drink into the car. We were heading to a self-catering camp and planned to make good use of the communal kitchen to minimise costs.
We spent about 6000 Kenyan Shillings ($60) on two lunches, dinner, snacks, alcohol and an overly cautious amount of water. That’s $12 per person for two days’ worth of food and drink.
We stayed at Mara Explorers, roughly 3km from the Masai Mara’s Sekenani gate. It’s much cheaper to stay outside of the Masai Mara Reserve, and a day pass into the Mara is valid for 24hrs, so you can hop in and out as you please.
It’s KES 1000 ($10) per person per night to rent a tent. There are slightly more glamorous options if you’re willing to pay extra, including en-suite tents and cottages. Everyone has access to a communal kitchen and bathroom/showers. There’s also a bar and pool table if you’re feeling sociable.
Masai Mara Entrance Fees
Undoubtedly one of the largest costs if you’re not a resident or citizen of East Africa:
- Non-resident adult staying outside the park – $80
- East African resident staying outside the park – $12
- Vehicle 5 seats or less – Ksh. 400
- Vehicle 6 seats but less than 12 – Ksh. 1,000
The above costs are for 24hrs in the park.
The Masai Mara Safari Experience
After lunch at the camp, we drove our safari-style Land Cruiser to the park gate with The Lion King soundtrack for company. I spent most of the time poking my head out of the roof window, amazed at the inconceivable amount of animals that were grazing on the endless plains.
We soon realised that we were at a disadvantage. The guides and drivers that frequent the park not only know the 580 square mile Reserve patch by patch, but they are equipped with radio communication allowing them to better locate the animals that the safari goers most want to see. We adopted a strategy of stopping the passing vehicles so that they could point us in the direction of anything interesting. This plan took us directly to a two leopards relaxing in a tree. We had succeeded in finding one of the most elusive of the ‘Big 5’, but so had everyone else in the Reserve. There were 8 cars crowded around the tree at one point (as a rule, the maximum is 5 cars) and so we swiftly moved on, leaving one exasperated driver as he tried to move closer to the tree to satisfy his demanding customer who was adamant, in a very loud voice, that she needed the perfect shot.
After a while, we found the lack of a radio exhilarating. If we came across any animals then it was purely by chance; a thrilling surprise. This was adventure.
After an afternoon game drive and a mountain of pasta cooked in the bush kitchen, we went to sleep to the not-so-soothing whooping of hyenas and the knowledge that all that was separating us from them was a flimsy tent and a Masai guard who appeared to be about 70 years old.
All of the animals seemed decidedly frisky. Maybe it was the season for horniness. We saw both mating lions and mating leopards, but the incident which remains permanently etched into our brains involves an excited baboon. Let’s just say that he ‘released a lot of tension’ whilst intensely staring us all in the eyes. Far too much at 6:30am…
It seemed as though we were the only ones roaming around early that morning, until we came across three heavily armed rangers sauntering down the path. We offered them a lift to their HQ, next to the border with Tanzania. And so we sat, too many of us crammed into the back of the Land Cruiser laughing and joking with them. Their rifles were casually slung over their shoulders, pointing threateningly at the heads of two of our crew who now regretted taking up prime position in the front seats.
One of the rangers offered us a short walking safari, which consisted of creeping around the riverbed to spot crocs and hippos. One mud flat looked more like an animal graveyard; the bones of the unlucky wannabee migrant wildebeest and zebras built up into an ominous tower of skulls and rib cages. At this point we became thankful for the rifle.
We saw 4 of the ‘Big 5’ in the Masai Mara – lions, leopards, elephants and buffalos – but it was the unexpected moments, such as the impromptu walk by the river bed with a ranger, that made the trip truly special. I think it’s much easier to have an authentic experience if you have the freedom of a self-drive, with the added benefit of lowering costs; it’s a win-win situation.
Written by: Hannah Rollings Hannah has been living in East Africa for over three years now, making the most of free time to travel in the region, and beyond. Currently based in Ethiopia, she works in the world of development and takes any opportunity she can to get out and explore the beautifully diverse country that she resides in. After travel, writing is her second love and she is a keen and regular blogger.