Just Back From

Dispatch from the Maasai Mara

Indagare's senior director of travel product, African safari, Rose Allen Taylor recently returned from exploring the Maasai Mara with her husband Jeff, prior to meeting up with Indagare colleagues for a longer scouting trip around Kenya (read more here). Below, Rose shares highlights from her itinerary and the lodges she visited.

I had always wanted to visit the Maasai Mara, but I was a bit wary of its commerciality—as one of the longest established and most popular safari destinations—and of what I’d heard about higher vehicle densities in the Mara National Reserve (in comparison to more remote, private experiences I've had in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia). To be honest, I wasn't sure whether I’d love it. After spending a week in the region, I can now say with full confidence: I was blown away. The Maasai Mara offers an unparalleled combination of jaw-dropping landscapes, absolutely incredible game-viewing, knowledgeable, warm and perceptive guides and a great variety of really special lodges in varying locations. Our time there will stick with me forever, and Kenya has firmly taken its place tied for first (with Botswana) as my favorite safari destination.

Over seven nights, we stayed at five different lodges (and visited two more) and surveyed diverse locations all across the Mara. Two things are clear—there is something for everybody, and location is key—but no matter where you stay, the game-viewing is sure to be spectacular. Cottar’s 1920’s Camp offers a very private location—as well as a family-friendly vibe and incredibly experienced guides—where you are unlikely to see any other vehicles. A newcomer to the Mara National Reserve, Ishara Mara, is set in a busier location but offers epic game-viewing, and the owners have poured such passion into this project that it has resulted in an exceptional guest experience, complete with a top photography program. Mainstay Angama Mara’s location on the escarpment means that it boasts the best view there is—and game-viewing in the Mara Triangle is quite exclusive, as vehicle density is controlled. andBeyond Bateleur's unique location on a private concession offers the opportunity for bush walks and night drives, as well as access to the adjacent Mara Triangle and Mara Reserve (via a private entrance). And there are also soulful lodges like Mara Plains, which is located on private conservancies within the Mara, a necessity during the peak season.

The wildlife viewing in the Maasai Mara is some of the continent's most diverse—we saw the "Big Five" (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo) as well as countless other species, great and small–but the sheer density of animals is even more impressive. It feels like there is more of everything in the Mara—more lions in a pride (twenty-five instead of a handful), and more prides in general; more elephants in a herd, and five calves seeking the safety of their mothers instead of just one. We saw a huge herd of hundreds of buffalo–always staring you down (guides often say they look at you as if you owe them money)–and caught the tail-end of the Great Migration of wildebeest and zebra, as it moved back south into Tanzania.

One morning, we even saw two kills–from start to finish–in the course of three hours, which is rare even for the most seasoned safari guides. The first was a lone lioness, who was tired when we found her from spending the night pursuing a warthog she had cornered into a hole. After watching her work at the hole for an hour, we saw that she had finally dug just enough (with an injured paw) to lunge head-first in the hole. All of the muscles in her body flexed and worked together to drag the screaming, terrified warthog out for a brutal five-minute fight above ground. Words cannot describe the sounds—nor the deep feeling of discomfort that filled me watching an animal with terror in its eyes fight for its life, and eventually succumb and take its last breaths. I had such mixed feelings watching the circle of life play out, and they were only further complicated when, mere minutes after the lioness had caught her breath, a group of three male lions came running in, stole the warthog from her and scared her off. She ran into the distance, all her hard work for naught. Still shaky and processing the first kill, just a few hours later, we stumbled upon another solo lioness, seconds before she bounded in front of our vehicle and right into a dazzle of zebras. Alarmed, one of the zebras ran straight over a hill and into a small pond. Surprised by the water, he turned to jump back out of the pond—right into the arms of the lioness. The zebra, which turned out to be a male stallion, fought for over twenty minutes, but the lioness persevered. It was another emotional loss of life to witness, but our guide reminded me that this lioness had a few cubs, hidden somewhere up the hill, to feed.

Despite the Mara’s vastness, the game-viewing is up close and personal.

Photography by Rose Allen Taylor. Photos featuring Rose are courtesy of the Angama Mara and Ishara Mara photo studios.

INDAGARE RECOMMENDS

Where to Stay: Rose's Maasai Mara Itinerary

Plus: Discover more lodges, activities and travel advice in the Indagare Guide to Kenya.

Image Ishara Kenya 1

Ishara Mara

Opened in March of 2022, Ishara is the passion project of the Kenyan Madhani family—led by their son and young co-founder, Azhar, and born from his friendship with the local Maasai. After many years of camping with his Maasai friends along the Talek River, Azhar set out to build a lodge that would benefit the local community for many years to come—and share the magic of this special part of the Mara with others. The family spared no time, energy or expense in pooling their passions and interests to collaborate in dreaming up and then bringing to fruition an incredibly special 10-tent lodge that redefines the classic safari and creates a truly special guest experience. Named for the Swahili word for "sign," Ishara invites guests into a special home in the bush and encourages travelers to relax, listen to and embrace all of the signs that nature gives us. 

Perched along the Talek River, Ishara's location endows the camp with its very own private watering hole, and the animals often come to drink, so guests can watch them from the comfort of their private decks. Beyond, the game-viewing is incredible—as the lodge is located in a very wildlife-rich area. It would not be uncommon to see both a leopard and a cheetah, among other animals, in a single game drive. The trade-off is that this part of the Maasai Mara (the Maasai Mara National Reserve) has a higher vehicle density, especially in the peak season of June to September. If you can get past that, the game-viewing will make up for it.

Ishara further enhances the experience by providing guests with a wonderful and innovative photography program, which includes use of their Canon cameras, access to their photographers-in-residence for photography lessons and pointers (they will even join you for a game drive to provide live instruction, if you’d like) and a beautiful photo studio for editing and printing photos. This program takes the guests’ attention off of the other vehicles at a sighting, and refocuses it on wildlife photography—and getting that perfect shot. And by providing private vehicles for all guests, Ishara ensures that all game-viewing experiences and schedules can be customized to your preferences.

The public spaces are well-located, welcoming and charmingly decorated, and they foster social interaction with other guests while also making room for a few private dining spots for memorable meals. The tented rooms are the perfect size, layout and design—exactly where you want to be for your midday and evening respite. They have luxurious touches like large double-basin sinks in the bathroom, a beautiful open rain shower (both indoors and outdoors) and an outdoor copper tub with a privacy screen. The curation of design elements is impressive, from the hand-crafted wooden furniture from the island of Lamu off the Kenyan coast to the custom Ishara birdlife coloring book and the personal Nespresso machine. Nothing is over-the-top or grandiose, and the luxury is really in the details. All of this contributes to Ishara feeling more like a home than a lodge—a sanctuary in the Mara. 

The camp has two beautiful elevated bridges connecting one side of the river with the other, creating a treehouse feel, but the property is connected by a network of sandy pathways through the trees (there is always a friendly Maasai warrior to walk you to your room). Among the 10 accommodations are a pair of two-bedroom family suites, as well as a villa suite, made up of two separate suites and an adjoining entertainment area with private plunge pool, fire pit and dining area (perfect for families or groups of friends). 

Within a cluster of trees is a relaxing spa zone with a welcome tent, pool, dining area, gym and elevated treehouse spa tent for treatments. There is also an observation deck and starbed for a sleep-out experience.

The menus are à la carte and the food is fresh, delicious and satisfying. To the delight of someone on a multi-stop safari, the portions are smaller, and there are lots of healthy options. Whether you’re in the mood for a craft cocktail or freshly brewed espresso, a local curry dish or a cheeseburger, they can do it all.

Akin to many other Indagare-favorite lodges in Kenya, like Segera and Finch Hattons, Ishara shines because of the Madhani family's personal vision, and their careful attention to detail in bringing that vision to life. They are also conservation-focused—and not only was not a single tree cut down in the building of the lodge but, in fact, over 12,000 trees have been planted at Ishara since construction. They are fully solar-powered, employ an extensive rainwater harvesting system and tend their own shamba (garden) to grow a lot of their own foods to eliminate waste (and guarantee quality). And most of all, the warm and fun Kenyan staff truly find joy in sharing the Ishara experience with their guests. By the time you leave, you, too, feel like family.

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Angama Mara

Kenya's super-elegant Angama Mara safari lodge offers a sophisticated experience in the Masai Mara and lots of amenties like a pool, gym and boutique.
andBeyond Bateleur Camp sundowners

andBeyond Bateleur Camp

Originally opened as an andBeyond property in 1998, this mainstay in the Masai Mara is located on one of the film sites for Out of Africa, at the foot of the Oloololo escarpment, and it is known for its veteran staff, great access to the best private game viewing and more social safari lodge atmosphere.

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Contact your Indagare Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to start planning a safari trip to Kenya. Our team can provide expert travel advice and assist with custom itinerary planning, lodge recommendations and more.

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