Masai Mara

In all honesty I don’t even know where to start with this post. If you’ve seen our Instagram stories lately then you know that after spending about a month in South America, we hopped on a plane and headed east to Kenya. It took us about 34 hours to finally reach Nairobi (14 hour flight to Paris, 12 hour layover in Paris, and 8 hour flight to Nairobi) so we were exhausted, but we knew it would soon all be worth it.

When Perry and I started talking seriously about this adventure over 1.5 years ago, one of the first places that we put on our list to visit was Kenya and specifically the Masai Mara. We had seen TV shows and YouTube Channels talk about the incredible landscapes and animals of the Mara, and we knew we had to get there. Everything we read and saw about the Mara drew us in to this place. So when I say we had high expectations, I mean we had HUGE expectations about our time here. But I will say that the last week exceeded those expectations on all accounts. As I sit here writing this and processing, I am struggling to comprehend just how wonderful our time was last week.
As icing on the cake for our trip to the Masai Mara, Perry’s family decided to join us there! It was so much fun getting to see them and share this amazing experience with them. And I think they were quite happy to join along as well. We had a wonderful time catching up and spending time together, and most importantly, making memories that we will all treasure for the rest of our lives. We’re also already trying to figure out when we can go again :)

For some background on the Masai Mara: the area that we were in was along the foot of the Aitong Hills in the Masai Mara National Reserve, just north of the Serengeti National Park. It was about a 45 minute flight from Nairobi to the airstrip (i.e. dirt field where they have to run off impalas, zebras and giraffes before planes can land) to reach our lodge for the week: the Fairmount Mara Safari Club. More on this place in a bit, but for now all I can say is that we can’t recommend it enough. From the moment we were picked up at the airstrip and driving to the Fairmont, we couldn’t believe our eyes: zebras, impalas, gazelles, hippos, all just along the roadside…the looks on our faces had to be so funny to our guide. The part of the Mara that we were in is one of the only areas that you can go off road to see and explore so you can literally pull up as close to the animals as they (the animals) will let you. As we planned this trip, we of course wanted to see all of the animals that live in the Mara, but we honestly thought they would be far off in the distance and we would need binoculars to see them. Little did we know that we would be 10-15 feet away from a huge male lion this week…what?!

The Masai Mara is named for the people that live in the land: the Maasai people (you spell the tribal name with two a’s and the land with one a). Masai is named for the people and Mara means “spotted” in Maa (the language of the Maasai people) because from the Aitong Hills looking down, you can see the “spots” of the balanite trees throughout the savannah. So Masai Mara means “the spotted land of the Maasai people”. The Maasai tribe owns the land and kindly allows places like the Fairmont and other camps to operate on their land. There are thousands of Maasai villages throughout the Masai Mara, some big, some small, but all uniquely amazing. We had the incredible opportunity to visit one of these villages during the week, and we loved it. More on that in a minute too :)

For now, as Perry says, “give the people what they want to see”: the animals...oh my goodness...we were blown away by what we saw throughout the week. When I say we have photos galore, I mean we have over 4000 pictures from our 7 days in the Mara. Don’t worry, we’ve worked really hard to narrow them down, but it wasn’t easy :) 

We saw so many different animals. I think every day we found something new, which was incredible.

There are three “big cats” in the Mara: the lion, the leopard and the cheetah. And of course, everyone wants to see all of them but the #1 to see is the lion. And I think we saw a lion almost every day that we were there…crazy, right?? There is one pride of lions that lives in the area where we stayed: four female lionesses, one male lion and seven cubs. Our hearts melted every time we saw the cubs. The female lionesses were breathtaking. And the male lion was unbelievable. To be so close to them was simply amazing.

The Mara grasslands are full of herbivores of all kinds (zebras, antelope, wildebeest, etc.). It was amazing seeing them literally everywhere. The ones that I really loved seeing were the giraffes. They are so graceful and beautiful to watch as they eat the leaves of trees and walk through the savannah.

Another group of herbivores in the Mara are the antelopes. The antelope family is made up of so many different kinds: the Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, the topi antelopes, the elands, the impalas, the reedbucks, the Coke's hartebeest, the dik-diks, and the waterbucks to name a few. We saw them almost everywhere we went, and it never grew old.

Perhaps one of the funniest herbivores that we saw in the Mara was the warthog. Pumba from the Lion King is quite funny, and the real life warthogs are really funny to observe as well. They aren’t the brightest animals and would always make us laugh as they scurried through the grass when anything came near them. And their little piglets were so cute :)

One day, our game driver asked us what our favorite animal was in the Mara, and we all had a very difficult time coming up with an answer. It honestly seemed to change every day depending on what we saw. For me though, I think I finally settled on the elephant. To see these amazing creatures up close was breathtaking. As we learned about them, over and over I was amazed by how intelligent they are. Their loyalty to one another as a herd is incredible, and the emotions they show is amazing. They are known to actually mourn if an elephant in their herd dies, and they are even able to cry. And their ability to remember things is unbelievable. They are truly incredible animals.

One of the animals that we definitely saw every day was the hyrax. If you had asked me before this trip what a hyrax looked like, I would have had no idea, but the Fairmont has a resident pair of hyraxes who are so cute and would spend their day on lookout as we walked between our tents and the lodge each day. Also- interesting fact: the hyraxes closest relatives are the elephant and the manatee. They all have tusks! Weird, right?

The smallest of the big cats in the Mara is the cheetah. Cheetahs spend all of their time on the ground, and their fur acts as an excellent camouflage so to find them isn’t exactly easy. Despite this, the area of the Mara that we were in actually has a famous cheetah that we were so lucky to see three different days of our trip. Her name is Kisaru, which means “lucky one”, because she is the mother of SIX cheetah cubs that she has somehow kept alive. The survival rate of cheetah cubs is not great, especially when the mother has to take care of many cubs, but Kisaru is an amazing mother, and her cubs seem to be thriving! The first time we saw all seven of them, they were basking in the sun hiding in the grass. The next two times, they were chowing down on impalas that Kisaru had caught for them to eat. It wasn’t exactly my favorite thing to watch, but I tried to focus on the needs of the cubs to stay alive. Oh how I hope they all grow up! They were simply the cutest.

The Mara is home to over 200 species of birds of all shapes and sizes. So many of them are so unique and colorful. Some of our favorites to see were the hammer corp, the guinea fowl, the Egyptian goose and the crested crane. But my very favorite is the lilac breasted roller- the national bird of Kenya. It is the most beautiful bird you have ever seen. Its feathers are made up of seven vibrant colors. Absolutely beautiful.

The largest of the Mara’s birds is the ostrich. And throughout our game drives, we kept coming across ostriches just walking through the savannah. It was so neat to see them outside of a zoo. The ostrich is a bird that I had hoped we would see in the Mara, but I never knew we would get to see so many!

Another of the herbivores that are in abundance throughout the Mara are the zebras. They too were another animal that I had hoped to see, but I never imagined that they would be almost everywhere. The zebras are beautiful, and several of them had given birth recently so there were babies all around! Not many things are cuter than a baby zebra.

An animal that everyone loves seeing in the Mara was the mongoose. There are four different types of mongoose in the Mara: two that are diurnal and two that are nocturnal. Mongoose feed mostly on snakes so we were pleased to see them around, keeping any and all potentially poisonous snakes away :)

If you have read or heard anything about doing a safari, you’ve probably heard the phrase “the Big Five”. When people go on safari, this is usually a list they are trying to check off to see. This phrase actually came from hunters about the five most difficult animals to hunt: the lion, the leopard, the rhino, the elephant and the cape buffalo. While hunting of these animals is no longer allowed (thank goodness, right?!), the term stuck around as the animals to see on safari. Sadly because of hunting, many of these animals struggled to survive, but they are slowly making a comeback. The one that is doing the best though is the cape buffalo. And they are HUGE animals. Cape buffalos can be highly aggressive and protective of each other. Thankfully in large herds, they feel pretty safe around one another, and we were able to get pretty close to these amazing creatures and their giant horns.

While cape buffalos can be extremely dangerous, the most dangerous and deadly of all the animals in the world are hippos. They actually kill the highest number of people each year, more than any other animal. They are fast in and out of the water (they can actually run up to 30 mph out of the water) and if you get in the way of them, they have no issue moving you. They are humongous and spend all day in the waters of the Mara River, and each evening they come out and eat 80-88 pounds of grass per night before returning to the water. We loved hearing their snorts as they came in and out of the water. Our tents all faced the Mara River, and we could hear and see them throughout the day and night- always fun to have a hippo snort to wake you up in the morning :)

One of the animals that we weren’t sure that we would find but were pleasantly surprised to see was the jackal. Size-wise, they are somewhere in between a fox and a coyote, and we loved seeing them scavenge the grasslands looking for food. They travel in pairs (male and female) and usually if you see a third, it’s one of their pups.

One of the most well-known scavengers of the Mara is the hyena. Even though they typically are nocturnal animals, we saw numerous spotted hyenas usually in the early hours of the morning. The way they run (they kind of gallop like a bear- which is the animal they are actually most closely related to) and “whoop” as they call out to one another is so unique. During one of our sunrise game drives, we came across a hyena mother who had just given birth to cubs. Based on their look and size, our guide said they were probably only about ONE HOUR old! They made the cutest sounds, and we were even able to watch the mother start to move them to safety into the bushes. It was amazing, and something I will never forget. While hyenas aren’t the best-looking animals as adults, their cubs are adorable.

We also came across a few different reptiles like the monitor lizard and several terrapins who enjoyed laying in the puddles in the road. Thankfully, we saw no snakes so the mongoose must have been doing a good job :)

The area of the Mara that we were in is home to three different primates: the olive baboon, the vervet monkey and the Sykes monkey. The baboon is the largest and most dangerous, while the vervet and Sykes monkeys are smaller and very mischievous. Throughout the day, we would hear these two monkeys jump and run along the tops of our tents as they leaped from tree to tree.

The most elusive of the big cats and “Big Five” animals is the leopard. Leopards are very shy and like to spend their time in the bushes or hiding in trees. Similar to cheetahs, their patterned fur is excellent camouflage and makes them very difficult to see. Our guide said that for this reason, when people come on safari, the animal that they often do not see is the leopard. We were so lucky in that we were actually able to see two leopards during our time in the Mara! The first we saw was hiding in a tree. It was a female, and she was stunning to see. The second we found on our last game drive, the morning that we left. We were driving around mostly looking for lions, when we spotted one in the woods. It was a male leopard, and he was so cool to see! Male leopards are about the size of a female lioness so they can be quite large. We were thrilled to find him on our last day!

Aside from the warthog, the other animal that we thought was funny was the wildebeest. These herbivores are not the prettiest to look at, but they are everywhere. They really aren’t very smart and kind of just have a blank stare most of the time, unfortunately making them an easy target for the predators. Our guide told us a funny folktale that his grandmother used to tell him growing up that the wildebeest was supposedly the last of the animals that God created so it’s just made up of spare parts like the beard of a goat, the face of a grasshopper, the body of a horse, the tail of the lion, and the horns of a buffalo. Poor wildebeests.

During our time in the Mara, we had so many unforgettable moments, and one that ranks very close to the top was walking with two white rhinos. Our guide told us that we were going up into the Aitong Hills and do a short guided walk with one of the rangers to look at birds and see the landscape, but he didn’t tell us that we were going to turn a corner and see two AMAZING white rhinos grazing in the grass. I was speechless. It was the coolest thing EVER. The Mara has two white rhinos (one male and one female) that are under 24 hour protection by rangers because of poachers. To see them in person, on foot, very close, was incredible and something that will always be amazing. And the sneakiness of our guide not telling us was pretty clever and neat too…well done, Tony :)

You may be wondering how we were able to see all these animals. When we arrived at the Fairmont, we were paired with an amazing guide named Anthony (“Tony”) who took us out daily on safari drives. Typically we would do two drives per day- a sunrise drive around 6:30 am (that lasted about 2 hours) and an afternoon drive around 3:30 pm (that lasted about 3 hours). The animals are most active during the cooler parts of the day so to see them, you have to plan around their schedules :) Some days we would combine our drives and do longer ones that would allow us to travel further and see different areas away from the Fairmont. No matter where or when we went, we loved it. The drives take place in a Land Cruiser where you can lift the top to stand up or sit in seats without windows. It has been raining a lot in the Mara lately so the ground is extra wet and made for some fun roller-coaster-like rides. Also because of the rain and mud, sometimes the vehicles get stuck. We were stuck only once all week, but a tractor came and pulled us out which was pretty entertaining. Honestly every game drive was a blast.

One night, we opted to do a night safari where Tony took us out along with another staff member who had a spotlight to explore the area at night. It was neat seeing how the animals behave differently at night, and we were even able to spot a few nocturnal animals that we hadn’t seen during the day. One of the coolest parts was seeing the hippos out grazing in the grasslands. They were everywhere, and with them out of the water, you could really see their size.

Seeing the animals on our game drives was incredible, but even if you didn’t see any animals, the views in the Mara are unbelievable. To look out over the savannah and see the hills is breathtaking. While we had a lot of rain several days, we were able to catch a few sunrises and sunsets. We were in awe of the beauty of the Mara. One evening, Tony took us to an area where the balanite trees are in abundance, and we watched the sun go down behind them. We couldn’t believe our eyes at how amazing it was. Again, the animals are amazing, but the lands of the Masai Mara will leave you breathless.

As I mentioned above, one day we were able to visit a local Maasai village. The women and men greeted us in their beautiful, colorful clothing and performed a traditional song and dance. We saw how the Maasai still make fire today without matches. The people set up a small market for us to purchase jewelry and other handicrafts from them. And the chief of the village took us into a home and talked about what Maasai culture is like and how the people live day-to-day. He patiently sat and answered our questions as we were all so curious about what life is like as a Maasai. He has been chief for 28 years- almost half his life (he was elected chief when we was 30 years old). The wisdom that he has and the heart he has for his people is unlike anything I have ever seen. And he is so smart! He has learned fluent English without ever taking a class! He learned just by hearing it spoken. Our guide, Tony, said he is so well respected in the community, and I can see why. He has taken great strides to do anything he can to take care of his village. And he has even had a school and church built in the village for his people. The school serves grades Pre-K to 6th, and he took us over to see it and meet the children and teachers. It was amazing. And of course, I cried at seeing how proud he was of his people, and how proud the people were of him, as well as how proud the school kids are of their education. It was truly a beautiful thing. Our time in this village is one that I will treasure forever. The Maasai people are amazing, and I’m so thankful that I could spend even a short amount of time learning from them.

Our experience at the Fairmont Mara is definitely something worth mentioning. From the moment we landed on the airstrip in our tiny 18 passenger plane, we were greeted by the staff with welcome juices and smiles. The Fairmont grounds sit on the bank of the Mara River, and each guest tent overlooks the River. There are incredible plants and flowers everywhere making it beautiful. They have an amazing garden were they grow a lot of the fruits and vegetables that they serve in the restaurant. The food was delicious for every meal. There’s a swimming pool and an amazing lodge to relax in after a game drive. Our tents were so cool and made for some definite “glamping” (glamorous camping). They were technically tents without heating and air, but you didn’t need it as there were screened windows all around. There was also running water with a toilet and shower so that was wonderful. It was fantastic, and probably the neatest and most unique place we’ve ever stayed before. We absolutely loved it and are dying to go back some day soon.

While everything about our time in the Masai Mara was wonderful, as Perry and I reflected yesterday, we talked about what we would miss the most. It’s funny because when you come all the way to Kenya to do a safari, you expect to love the animals and the sights, but we didn’t expect to love the people that we met so much. In all my years traveling and meeting other people and cultures around the world, only two times can I think of that I fell in love with the people that it brought me to tears to leave them: in China at New Day Foster Home and in India at Sarah’s Covenant Homes. Now I can add a third place. The people that we met were the most kind and genuine people that we have ever spent time with. 

Our safari guide, Tony, was incredible. He was so smart and patient and kind. He shared his vast knowledge about his country with us, and we learned more than I ever imagined we would. And each day, he would greet us with a smile on his face and “ready for another adventure?” We were all so grateful that we could get to know him and spend time with him, and it was hard to say goodbye.

For breakfast, lunch and dinner, we ate in the lodge restaurant where we had the same server each day and for each meal. Dennis is someone who does everything with a smile on his face, and we loved getting to form a friendship with him during our time at the Fairmont. He would make us laugh and smile with his stories, and he did his best to teach us some Swahili, even with our southern accents. His 5 year old daughter’s name is Hailey so that was extra special too :) Our last night, he tricked us and we were led out to an porch overlooking the Mara called “Hippo Corner” where he and the chef had set up a private, special meal for the five of us to eat together. We had the most wonderful and memorable evening. And the next morning, we cried as we told him bye as it felt like he had become part of our family.

Our room attendant, Ntaiya, also made our time at the Fairmont so special. His kind, gentle heart and warm greeting each day as he brought us coffee and tea each morning was a wonderful way to start our day. He had seen our Bibles sitting out in our room, and as a Christian himself, he talked with us about his family and told us ways to pray for him and for Kenya. To be able to share that with him was so special. And again, I cried as we told him goodbye our last day.

Even the people at the hotel we stayed at in Nairobi one night on the front end and back end of our time were all so strikingly kind. And again, our time in the Maasai village was so very special.

Perry and I keep trying to wrap our heads around the aching in our hearts these last few days since we left Kenya. Staying at the Fairmont was really, really nice. The place is beautiful, and the Masai Mara is the most incredible place I’ve ever been. But we just keep coming back to the idea that we knew we would love the Mara and the animals when we arrived, but we had no idea that we would fall in love with the people so much. It probably sounds so weird to anyone reading this- how could you love people that you’ve only known one week? And I really don’t know the answer, but I can tell you that Kenya stole a piece of my heart and impacted me in ways that I never knew it would. It reminded me of just how beautiful this world and its people are. And that no barrier should ever be able to keep us from loving one another. Oh how I hope that you might one day get to experience this amazing place and let it steal your heart too.

So for today, I’m treasuring the moments and memories of our time in the Masai Mara. I’m thankful for the amazing animals and sights that we experienced and that we got to enjoy them with family. And I’m holding close to my heart the people we’ve met and those that we’ve come to love. May we always allow our hearts be stolen by other people and cultures and may no barrier ever get in the way.


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