Budget and safari don’t often go together, still less in the Maasai Mara during migration season. But it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, as Catrina Stewart finds out.
The guard has the measure of us. He’s bored, probably hasn’t seen another visitor all day. It’s starting to drizzle, a chilling, seeping rain that reminds me of Scotland where I grew up. As the wind picks up, gusting over the desolate moorland, I wonder what on earth we’re doing here.
Brian, the photographer accompanying me on this trip, hasn’t been camping in years, and he says glumly, “I just thought it’d be, well, nicer.” I nod, and briefly consider blowing the budget on the luxury lodge we passed some 20 minutes back. Surveying the rubbish strewn alongside the gate, and the guard who doesn’t seem to want us here, I picture guests staying in lavishly-furnished tents sitting down to a three- course meal.
“Two thousand each,” the guard says, looking speculatively at the skies, rapidly darkening with every moment we dither. “And you’ll need a ranger.” I argue that it should cost 1,000 shillings, and point to the noticeboard with the advertised prices. We’re right, but argument at this point is futile.
We’re at the furthest, most remote edge of the Maasai Mara at Sand River gate, ordinarily a Mecca for the seasoned campers shunning expensive lodges. Although still, barely, in Kenya, I feel as if we could touch the wide expanse of Tanzania and the Serengeti.
Like most, I have typically experienced the Mara in a conventional way: flying in, staying at a luxurious tented camp and surrendering my independence for a couple of days to experienced Maasai guides armed with an intimate knowledge of the reserve and the animals within.
But a stay in a plum Mara lodge usually requires a hefty chunk of one’s savings. There are ways to slash costs, not least by piling into a crowded minibus with a bunch of sweaty tourists. Or, you can DIY it, driving your own car, picking your own lodges, and even camp. But would the wildlife experience be anything like as good?
As my battered Toyota Prado jarringly hit a ditch in the middle of the rock-strewn, corrugated road to the Mara, I mentally counted the cost of booking the car in for an extended service back in Nairobi. By the time we pulled into the Aruba Mara camp, a campsite a hundred metres outside the Talek gate, the car was making the first of its ominous, clanking sounds that would dog the trip.
Neither Brian nor I were particularly expert in pitching tents, and certainly not in the darkness. The first we found to have no fly sheet, the second became a tangled mess. Luckily, I had a couple of spares, and Edward, our Maasai host, quickly took us under his wing, and showed us how the experts do it. Sweat pouring down my brow, I suggested we retire to the bar for some food and drink. “Closed now,” he said. “You should have rung ahead.”
Instead of heading out on a game drive the next morning, we watched a mechanic wriggle into position underneath the car, and solder broken parts together. I parted with 500 shillings, and we hit the road again. We meandered through the park, marvelling at the plethora of wildebeest, which had in earlier weeks started their arduous journey to the Mara, braving the treacherous rivers with gaping crocodiles lying in wait.
Spotting big game – particularly the cats – is something of a science. An experienced guide will notice an empty clearing where droppings indicate that plains game were recently grazing, and surmise a big cat might be lurking in the undergrowth nearby. We had no such innate sense, and instead used our observation skills to spot a cluster of minibuses that might suggest something interesting nearby.
Lost in the Mara
En route to our our next night’s lodging, Julia’s River Camp, a budget lodge situated in a prolific wildlife-viewing part of the reserve, we lost our way. The Mara is short on signs, and maps are of little use when dozens of unmarked tracks criss cross the plains. It was 7 pm, and dark, not a twinkling light to be seen, and we were driving around in circles. The wildlife was the least of my worries – far more concerning was the prospect of a zealous ranger catching us breaking the golden rule of never driving at night.
I called the lodge, and James, the manager, asked us to describe where we were. “Um, somewhere near the river, but it has opened out a bit,” I faltered as a hyena slunk in front of our headlights. “Stay where you are,” said James, “and we’ll drive out to find you.”
The next day, I asked a ranger who to call if lost in the Mara at night. “You shouldn’t be driving in the reserve at night,” he admonished. “I know that,” I said, “but say you do get lost, and it gets dark, who do I call?” He looked at me unsympathetically, and said, “You shouldn’t drive in the reserve without a guide if you don’t know the way.”
After a night on stony ground, Julia’s offered a spot of luxury. We had a simple dinner, chatted around the camp fire, and retired to a fairly spartan, yet comfortable, furnished tent which I didn’t have to leave to go to the loo.
The next morning, we ditched the car for a game drive in one of the camp’s vehicles. I hadn’t yet seen any cats, and I wondered if a budget safari means economising on the wildlife experience. But my doubts were soon dispelled. James stopped the car, and smiling broadly, said, “Cheetah.” We watched the group of male cats prowl just metres away from the vehicle. As I fiddled with my camera, James whispered, “Watch, they’re going to hunt.”
All my adult life I have dreamt of seeing a cheetah give chase, reaching the incredible speeds (100 kph) that make it such a successful predator. And now we watched breathlessly as a cheetah launched itself into the chase at full pelt, the wildebeest in its sights vainly trying to outrun it. Within moments of the kill – while the cheetah were still catching their breath – a pair of hyenas arrived on the scene, and snatched the wildebeest from under the cheetahs’ noses. They burrowed their snouts in the unfortunate beast, tearing at chunks of flesh, bone and entrails, raising their blood-coated faces only to snarl at the gathering vultures and jackals, all longing for a bit of the kill. What we’d witnessed was the whole, bloody spectacle of death in the Mara, with not a minibus of tourists in sight.
Missing the Migration
Later, we hit car trouble again, the near front wheel starting to emit a high-pitched screeching sound of metal on metal. A colleague holidaying in the Mara texted us excitedly, giving us a blow-by-blow account of the wildebeest crossing the river, crocodiles snapping at the beasts plunging ungainly through the surging waters. Come quickly, she urged, while it’s still going on. But the car was going nowhere, and nor were we. “I can’t believe we’re here during the migration and we missed it,” I muttered to Brian.
And so here we were, at the ends of the earth – or so it felt. After his lukewarm welcome, the guard led us away from the gate to a charming spot under a tree on the river bank, and our spirits started to pick up. We pitched our tents and huddled next to a camp fire, set up by the rangers who would keep us safe for the night.
I awoke early, and surveyed our surroundings in an entirely new light. The sun started to edge its way over the horizon, spreading a golden, ochre hue over the boulders and surrounding moorland. Hundreds of campers before us had woken to the same view and I started to appreciate why Sand River is considered one of the country’s more magical wild campsites.
Back at the gate, we fell into an argument with the guard, who refused to give us a receipt, saying he had none. As campers and guard eyed each other warily, each of us knew that he had charged too much, but we also knew he would never admit it. As we left the reserve, however, we appealed to the warden, and were refunded the difference.
A minor spot of corruption did little to spoil the mood. We may not have been the best-equipped campers, but waking on the edge of the Mara to a view that few get to see will stay with me. Money assuredly buys fine food and a comfortable bed. But does it have the monopoly on an experience? I’m not so sure.
Five Ways to Cut Costs in the Mara:
- Travel in low season, particularly January to early April, when lodge rates are slashed across the Mara. Avoid peak season times such as the great migration in July and August, and the Easter and Christmas holidays.
- Stay outside the park to avoid paying extra in park fees, and for a wider range of budget options.
- Self-drive and camp. If camping is your thing, this is undoubtedly the cheapest way to experience the Mara. There are several public campsites in the Mara Reserve, and the adjacent Mara Triangle. Beware, though, that extras, such as rangers for security, or guides hired at the gate, can start to push up costs. The journey can also be tough on your car.
- Join an organised tour. A plethora of travel companies, some more reputable than others, offer budget trips of two or three nights from Nairobi, with discounted accommodation options. Others, such as Jumia Travel, also offer discounted lodge rates.
- Visit travel fairs, such as the one at Sarit Centre every spring, to bag good deals from hotels and lodges. Check out lodges’ websites, too, for special deals outside of peak season.
Like what you read? Read our other articles on the Mara here.