My Budget Safari to Kenya’s Maasai Mara Wildlife Haven

Budget Safari on Kenya's Maasai Mara

We were up before the sun, expectant and excited about the day ahead.

Tip-toeing through the Wildebeest Eco Camp, careful so our movement didn’t awake those in neighboring tents, we gathered our belongings and went to meet our safari guide.

Peter arrived in a green land rover.

We threw our bags on, then jumped in to start our adventure.

I was shocked that we were the only passengers onboard. With the super price we paid for our two day safari, I expected a packed vehicle. Instead, we had a personal excursion for a price that rocked!

A friend and I were visiting Kenya for my birthday and we’d had a uber crazy itinerary so far. I’m not sure what I was thinking packing so many cities and activities into one trip.

But, we had survived and the safari was the last item on our itinerary.

Great Rift Valley Viewpoint

The Long Drive to Massai Mara

The trip started slowly. And we enjoyed a peaceful, although hot sleep through Narobi’s morning traffic jam.

When the driver woke us for our first stop, the Great Rift Valley Viewpoint, I gawked at the scene.

It’s the perfect place to start your picture memories while on safari. You get spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley from 7,062 feet up and the chance to browse stores filled with neat keepsakes.

While the view is beautiful, the ride immediately after is a bit nerve-racking.

When you’re taking pictures at over 7,000 feet it’s a lovely site. When you’re driving along the edge of a cliff that’s over 7,000 feet, it’s an entirely different experience. And so, my heart jumped a bit every time we went around a corner until we got to the flatlands.

You pass through several small towns on the trip to Masai Mara and it’s fun to people watch and check out the cool ways that buildings are painted and labeled.

If I had to guess the most important commodity in Kenya based on the building signs, I would say soft drinks and mobile phone minutes. Those signs are everywhere!

Masai Warrior

A Complimentary Massage

Two hours into the drive, Peter told us that as a “thank you” we were scheduled for a free massage. I was so excited.

What could be better after a long drive?

A few moments later, we drove off the asphalt and started along the very bumpy, unpaved half of our journey. My travel companion smiled at me through a look of humored realization. This was our massage!

As the dust started flying, we rolled up our windows and created a sauna to go along with our massage treatment. Luckily, we had plenty to keep us entertained.

Impalas and antelope appeared across the plain. Masai farmers sauntered along the roadside or in the middle of it, walking cows and sheep.

Our driver was an expert herder and navigator. Somehow, he drove through masses of animals without running them over!

Even more surprising were the children herding animals as expertly as the adults.

The Masai fabrics of red and blue offered a cheerful contrast to the browns, tans and greens of the land. The herdsmen’s stance boldly staked claim of the land.

Right at the point where I couldn’t take another bump in the road, we pulled onto a dirt path. In the distance I spotted dusky green tents.

They reminded me of the circus and I eagerly awaited the chance to see what was concealed beneath those festive colors.

AA Lodge Mara

The AA Lodge Camp

We pulled into the AA Lodge Mara* and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Our hosts greeted us with cool hand towels and orange juice – both refreshing after a long and dusty ride. We agreed to meet our driver back in the lobby in two hours to start our safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

We were escorted to our tent, which was more like a hotel room with a tented roof. In other words it was awesome. Zebra print decor fit the safari theme nicely, as did the canopy bed with mosquito netting.

Once we dropped off our luggage, we went to find lunch.

The dining facilities reminded me of a banquet hall in a conference center except the food was much better. I had to make myself stop eating!

Giraffes on My Budget Safari

The Maasai Mara National Reserve

The Maasai Mara National Reserve is one of Kenya’s largest game reserves and a popular location to see wildlife including the “Big Five”.

The land is named to honor the Masai people who traditionally used the land and who live in the surrounding area.

Managed by the Narok County government, the park covers 583 miles of south-western Kenya. And we were ready to see a stunning slice of it.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when the trip started. I imagined a safari to be something like a National Geographic special.

It’s similar, but nowhere near as intense. Unless you get lucky.

That’s one of the reasons that taking a longer safari can be a good thing. You have more opportunity to see hunting or mating or birthing.

Wildebeest on My Budget Safari

Safari: Day One

That evening, our guide expertly pointed out animals along the way and paused for us to take pictures. He seemed to have a second sense for figuring out which path to take to see the next herd.

Wildlife like zebra, antelope, gazelle, giraffe, elephants, lions, wildebeest, and cheetah made grand appearances. Seeing these animals in their habitats was so different than seeing them in a zoo.

Along the park paths, other vehicles escorted people on their safaris and at times told us about new animal sightings or converged together for spectacular views of wildlife.

This is what happened when the lion pack was spotted.

It was right before sunset and all the vehicles formed a semicircle around the tree-lined waterway where the cats were resting. As the lions become more active and the park’s closing neared, we captured beautiful pictures of the sun making its way towards the horizon.

For dinner, the AA Lodge served yummy barbeque with a side of bonfire and music. The food was delicious and I devoured local favorites, including ugali. During my stay in Kenya, I became an expert at eating ugali with and without utensils!

It was beautiful to sit under the night sky and have the pleasure of seeing the stars – a rare treat for a city girl. Sleep was peaceful and came quickly.

Elephants on My Budget Safari

Safari: Day Two

Our next day started bright and early.

In the morning, we caught our first glimpses of elephants feeding. These intelligent animals continued to enjoy their breakfast without a care of our presence.

During the second day, we explored paths that we’d missed.

Even when you’re not straining to spot animals along the horizon, taking in the scenery offers such a needed change to the hustle and bustle of city life. I could actually stretch out and relax and enjoy the journey – something that we must remember to do every day.

As our safari ended and we drove back into Nairobi, I couldn’t help but create a mental wish list of my next adventure.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is at the top of my list, as well as a longer safari. The budget version was amazing for an idea of what a safari is and to see lots of animals. The longer version gives more scenery and the chance to see the landmarks shown on National Geographic, like Mt. Kilimangaro and Lake Amboseli.

One of the highlights on the way back to Nairobi was a pack of baboons walking along the road. Baboon babies seemed unphased by our presence as they peered at us from their momma’s back.

Not only did we slow down for baboons, but we also had our share of road blocking cow and sheep herds, many herded by Masai children.

At those times I wished that I could be a part of a National Geographic crew and spend time with these families learning more about their culture.

My Budget Safari

Your Turn

If you’re ready to take a safari, I would wholeheartedly recommend Kenya Walking Safaris. They are an awesome company that make safaris affordable to everyone.

During my search for a safari that fit my budget, I was shocked by the lack of options. I was also nervous about the experience I would get for a budget price.

Thankfully, Kenya Walking Safaris was just as awesome as I’d hoped!

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*Staying at lodges will increase your safari price. If you stay at the large tented camp instead, you’ll save hundreds!

I told the owner how much I enjoyed myself and that I would write about my experience on my blog. He was nice enough to offer readers 10% off your trip! Click here for more info or to start the booking process. Just mention Awe Inclusive for an super-great price!

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Photos by: Ashleigh Chobe, Christopher Michel, AALodgerabbit.HoleSoin Africa Safaris, and Jean-Pierre Fontaine.