The Masai Mara, or the Mara, as most Kenyans call it, is a beautiful national reserve in Kenya that borders the Serengeti in Tanzania. For first-timers, it can be difficult to understand how the Mara ''works'' - which entrance gates to use, which roads to avoid, and what fees to pay.
In this Masai Mara self-drive travel guide, we take you by the hand so you can explore this world-class Kenyan safari park prepared and with peace of mind.
Entrance gates to the Masai Mara ecosystem
The greater Masai Mara ecosystem is comprised of three large sections and several smaller private conservancies:
- Masai Mara National Reserve: Most visitors access the reserve through the Sekenani gate from Narok town. Additional entry points include Oloolaimutia Gate and Talek Gate (east), Musiara Gate (north), and Purungat Mara River Gate (south). Permits can be obtained upon arrival at any of these gates, with payment options including credit card or MPESA Mobile Money.
- Mara Triangle: The primary gateway is the Oloololo Gate, where you must pay your entry fees. However, a transit permit must be secured at Sekenani Gate.
- Mara North Conservancy: Situated to the north of the Mara Reserve, this conservancy mainly offers luxurious camps primarily tailored for all-inclusive game drive packages, making them less suitable for self-drivers.
- Private Conservancies: Bordering the three main sections are various private conservancies, of which Naboisho is the largest. Should you stay in one of the lodges inside a private conservancy, then conservation fees will be added to your hotel bill automatically. Should you camp in one of the conservancies, then an entrance fee is still required when visiting the National Reserve or the Triangle, where most of the wildlife is found.
Safari trips in the Mara are not easy on your wallet. For an overview of all entrance fees for the Masai Mara, we recommend checking out our National Parks of Kenya blog.
Can I explore the Masai Mara on a self-drive trip?
Yes, self-drive safaris are allowed in the Masai Mara. The Masai Mara and the Serengeti in Tanzania are probably the best-known safari parks in the world. Nevertheless, some of the roads leading to these touristic highlights are the worst roads you will experience in Kenya. Also, for a first-timer, it can be quite complicated to understand where to go as the tracks inside the Mara Reserve are not marked, making it easy to get lost.
So, while we allow self-drive visits to the Mara, we recommend exploring the Mara with a local driver-guide. Our team at Roadtrip Africa works with well-trained and truly lovable driver-guides who know everything there is to know about Kenya and the Masai Mara. Alternatively, most lodges in the Mara also offer game-viewing packages, which can provide you with guided safari tours. You can also ask one of the rangers at the gates to guide you on a trip. Do note that these rangers are not designated drivers from Roadtrip Africa, and therefore not allowed to drive our vehicles.
Driving times and road conditions to the Masai Mara :
- Nairobi to Narok (gateway town to the Mara Reserve): Approximately 4 hours on a smooth tarmac road.
- Narok to Sekenani Gate (main gate to Mara Reserve): Allow 2 hours, with the recommended and fully tarmacked route being the C12. Avoid taking the C11, even if directed by Google Maps while en route to Sekani gate, as it is a rough road, detrimental to your vehicle, and significantly extends travel time. Instead, stick to the C12 and, if interested in visiting Maji Moto, branch left at the signpost to Maji Moto Eco Camp.
- C13 Route: This route leads to Oloololo Gate of the Mara Triangle and the Musiara and Talek Gates of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Expect a journey of approximately 7 hours. However, the road is in poor condition and we strongly recommend you to avoid it when you can.
For the best possible self-drive experience in the Mara, we recommend concentrating on the Mara Reserve and the Mara Triangle exclusively.
Are there campsites in the Masai Mara?
Camping inside the Masai Mara is an unforgettable wilderness experience, and we strongly recommend it.
The Maasai Mara Triangle offers three public campsites—Oloololo, Eluai, and Iseiya. No advance booking is required for these public campsites. Additional information about camping in the Triangle can be found on this website.
Within the Mara Reserve, public campsites are not available. Camping options can be sought just outside the park, close to Sekenani, Talek, or Oloololo Gate.
Mark Davies, a fellow roadtripper, shared his camping experience in the Mara Triangle:
“Camping in the Mara Triangle is truly exceptional. I highly recommend a self-drive here, as it offers a more manageable and straightforward navigation compared to the main Masai Mara National Reserve. While Eluai lacks facilities, Oloololo provides a small cooking area, showers, and toilets. The rangers are remarkably friendly, and everyone is willing to pass on game information."
Want to know more about camping in Kenya? Visit our camping-blog for all you need to know about camping gear, campsites and tent-options!
When to visit the Masai Mara?
The Masai Mara offers superb wildlife viewing year-round. The best time to visit the Masai Mara depends on what you want: wildebeest migration or wilderness feel. Your preferences will guide you through the seasons:
- Peak Season (Mid-June to September): This period marks the Mara's peak season, coinciding with the popular wildebeest migration. While witnessing millions of wildebeests can be captivating, it draws a significant amount of tourists to the area. Mobile Camps near the river become expensive, and the landscape is filled with countless safari vehicles. And even though we understand the wish to capture iconic moments - such as a crocodile seizing a wildebeest - such an event is highly unpredictable and impossible to time with your visit.
- High Season (October to February): This is the Mara's high season, offering abundant wildlife and a steady flow of visitors.
- Low Season (March to May): This is the time of the year with the most rainfall, so prepare to get stuck in the mud. However, for the self-reliant adventurer, this period presents an excellent opportunity to explore the Mara with good wildlife viewing and fewer crowds. Lodges within the Masai Mara reduce their rates, requiring less advance booking, and the landscape during this time turns beautifully green.
It's worth noting that the Mara Triangle, especially its western part, receives the least number of visitors, improving the potential for a more exclusive and peaceful wildlife experience.
Where can I get fuel in the Masai Mara?
Securing fuel during your self-safari in the Masai Mara is essential. Here are the options:
Narok Town: The nearest Total and Shell fuel stations are located in Narok Town.
Talek and Sekenani Gate: Smaller, and also pricier, refuelling stations are available at Talek and Sekenani Gate.
Inside the Masai Mara Reserve: Fuel can also be obtained at Sarova Mara Lodge or Serena Hotel within the Masai Mara Reserve.
For a stress-free safari experience, Roadtrip Kenya Landcruisers boast an impressive action radius of 1100-1300 km. By refuelling at Narok Town, you can indulge in several days of game driving without concerns about running out of fuel.
Can I cross from Masai Mara to the Serengeti?
Do you want to visit the Tanzanian Serengeti National Park? Although the Serengeti and the Masai Mara are part of the same ecosystem, they are separated by a land border. To enter the Serengeti, you must drive around both parks, using the Namanga, Isabania, or Loitokitok border. This detour adds at least 1,5 travel days to your journey.
As applies to any African roadtrip, less is more. We truly believe it is more rewarding to explore a small number of National Parks in-depth, engaging in various experiences such as nature walks, night game drives, sundowners, and lion tracking. This approach is far more rewarding than trying to tick off all the boxes and rush from one safari park to the next. Both the Masai Mara and the Serengeti ecosystem provide very similar safari experiences, also reducing the need to visit both parks in one trip.
What other Kenyan highlights can I combine with the Masai Mara?
Depending on the time that you have, there are wonderful itineraries and routes available in Kenya that include a visit to the Masai Mara. At Roadtrip Africa, our well-planned routes and Kenya safari tours range from a short 9-day circuit to an exciting 16-day safari and beach roadtrip, showing you all the marvels and diversity that Kenya has to offer. For roadtrip inspiration, view all our Kenya itineraries here.
Taking off on your Kenya self-drive adventure
Are you ready to rent a car and explore Kenya and the Masai Mara on a self-drive trip? Get in contact with our experienced team at Roadtrip Africa to check availability, and secure your 4x4 now!