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Safari on a budget – how to go to the Maasai Mara without spending thousands

Sunset at the Maasai Mara National Reserve

Sunset at the Maasai Mara National Reserve

There’s no better way of discovering Africa’s wildlife than by going on a safari (which, by the way, means “journey” in Swahili). Being able to see so many beautiful animals living free in the wild and watching them look for food, shelter and rest is, in my opinion, a one in a lifetime experience. I wish many of my friends and family could come to Africa and enjoy such amazing sights, but an African safari does not come cheaply or easily. As a matter of fact, I’m happy that safari trips are expensive, or else the Maasai Mara and other incredible African parks might turn into the next Las Vegas. But anyway, there are a few ways that normal people, like me, can go on an African safari without having to sell a kidney on the way.

On this post I intend to describe, through an itinerary and costs, how my wife and I went on a budget safari to the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Most people book their safari tours through agencies abroad, but these packages are the most expensive ones. A good package to the Maasai Mara in Kenya usually consists of a three-day itinerary (you don’t need more days) starting with an early pick up at Nairobi Airport. You are taken to lunch and then transferred to the Maasai Mara National Reserve for an afternoon game drive. After the park closes you go to your accommodation for dinner. The following day you enjoy two game drives, a morning and an evening one. The last day you wake up early for a morning game drive and around noon your transportation takes you back to Nairobi. By booking a similar package, you really only spend in average 14 hours game viewing, even if your safari package is three days long. The price of these packages with international companies ranges from 400 USD up to 1,500 USD per person, depending on the type of vehicle, meals, accommodation and the group size.

Maasai Mara's Sekenani Gate

Maasai Mara’s Sekenani Gate

Now that you know what a normal safari package is like, I will tell you how we, budget travelers, went on a 12-hour safari in the Maasai Mara without having to stay at fancy camps and going bankrupt.

 

Step 1: Find a camp outside the Maasai Mara

Long before arriving in Kenya, contact one of the budget camps located OUTSIDE the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Most of them are located a couple of kilometers before Sekenani, the small town located next to the Maasai Mara’s gate. All camps inside the reserve are very expensive and if you book one of these fancy hotels you might as well book the whole package through one of the many Western agencies offering trips to the Mara. The key to success is booking a camp around the Maasai Mara, not inside.

After much research we found the Mara Explorers camp, located merely 3 kilometers from the Sekenani Gate. This place is amazing and offers cheap safari tours to the Maasai Mara, and you can contact them through their website. Book a night and ask for a one-day safari trip, preferably sharing with other tourists. The camp caters to all budgets. Since it is the cheapest option I found, from now all prices mentioned will be based on this camp.

Find a cheap camp near the Mara, not inside

Find a cheap camp near the Mara, not inside

 

Step 2: Travel from Nairobi to Narok (500 shillings)

Travel from Nairobi to Narok, the closest city to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Easy Coach is a reliable company that runs this route. They have their main offices next to Nairobi’s railway station (coordinates: -1.289103,36.828631), and the staff there are really helpful. A one-way ticket to Narok costs 500 shillings and takes around 3 hours on paved road. There are about three daily morning buses; we chose the one that left for Narok around 08:45 hrs, but there is an earlier bus that departs at 07:30 hrs and another at 08:30 hrs. I recommend you leave your hotel very early because Nairobi’s traffic is an absolute nightmare. If you arrive early, Easy Coach has a nice waiting room where you can spend your time reading the newspaper or watching the TV. Apparently, you cannot book ahead of time, but if you arrive before 07:30 hrs, it is almost guaranteed that you can find a seat in any of the three scheduled departures.

Easy Coach Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Easycoachbus

Easy Coach website: www.easycoach.co.ke

 

Step 3: Travel from Narok to your budget camp (500 shillings)

If you arrive at Narok’s matatu stage before 12:30 hrs, immediately set out to find a matatu or a Probox going to a town called Sekenani, which is right at the entrance of the Maasai Mara (this entrance is actually called the “Sekenani Gate”). A “Probox” is a Toyota vehicle that is used as a shared taxi; it usually seats up to 5 people but expect to meet 9 other souls inside. The fare for a Probox to Sekenani is usually 500 shillings per person. If you arrive after 12:30 hrs, you’ll have to stay the night at a cheap hotel in Narok. We arrived before 12:30 but opted to overnight at the city, since we like to take things slowly. You can find more details about our accommodation and stay in Narok on our next post.

The matatu to Sekenani is actually a medium-sized bus (but locals insist on calling it a “matatu”) named “Talek Express”. The cost of a ticket is 400 shillings and the ride takes about 2 hours, although it can take up to 4 hours depending on road conditions. Beware that the first 25 kilometers of the road are paved, but that disappears right after passing the junction to Maji Moto, then you must endure a murram road with lots of dust flying everywhere. Before arriving in Narok, I feared this road with all my life. I found no information on the internet about the transportation and I had no idea what to expect. Now I can say that I enjoyed that journey like no other: sitting in an overlarge African matutu while listening to my iPod and sticking my head out of the window like a crazed muzungu (“foreigner” in Swahili), watching beautiful landscapes that I can only describe as purely African, and observing the local Maasai people with their beautiful garments getting on and off every couple kilometers is something that I wouldn’t even exchange for a private limo ride to the Maasai Mara.

Get ready for the dust!

Get ready for the dust!

There is also the option of taking a private taxi from Narok to the camp, but it will increase the cost of your trip. A one-way trip will cost approximately 5,000 shillings (55 USD). Go for public transportation!

Tip: if you are really on a short budget I suggest you buy some groceries for the camp because they have a self-catering kitchen and it will help you safe loads of money. There is no supermarket in Sekenani as the town is very small, but in Nairobi and Narok there are several places where you can buy groceries. If you decide not to buy groceries, plan on spending around 25 USD or 2,000 shillings per day for meals at the camp (800 shillings per meal). We bought groceries in Narok at a Naivas supermarket: tuna cans, mayonnaise, peanut butter, cereal, milk and a bag of bread.

Talek Express, matatu from Narok to Sekenani

Talek Express, matatu from Narok to Sekenani

 

Step 4: Stay the night at the camp (from 650 shillings a night – camping)

Most matatus going to Sekenani know where the Mara Explorers camp is. You should ask to be dropped off at the camp, which is 3 kilometers before Sekenani (camp’s coordinates: -1.49305555556,35.3608333333). The camp’s facilities are very beautiful and the staff is very friendly. The camp offers accommodation for all budgets, including space for pitching your own tent (650 shillings a night), a tent with mattress and sleeping bag (1,000 shillings a night), a dorm bed (1,200 shillings per night), and other more expensive options such as small dome tent for two with bed (2,500 shillings a night) and a tent with private bathroom (8,000 shillings per night).

Long before your arrival you should have already arranged your safari trip with the camp. It is best to travel with other people so you can split costs. For example, the camp offers for game drives a Suzuki 4×4 that costs 100 USD or 8,000 shillings per day (including guide, driver and fuel). The Suzuki can accommodate up to 3 people, so each would end paying 33 USD for a full-day game drive. They also have a Landcruiser that seats up to 6 people, but it costs 175 USD or 14,000 shillings per day and each passenger would be paying 29 USD. If you are travelling alone, then kindly ask at the camp if there is another safari game drive organized with available space for you. Since we were travelling as a couple, we decided to book the Suzuki for ourselves and paid an additional 20 USD so that we could enjoy 12 hours of safari instead of the normal 9-hour trips the camp organizes.

Small dome tent for two with bed at the Mara Explorers near the Maasai Mara National Reserve

Small dome tent for two with bed at the Mara Explorers near the Maasai Mara National Reserve

 

Step 5: Maasai Mara day (from 113 USD or 10,000 shillings)

Enjoy your safari trip! The camp’s vehicle rental includes your driver’s entrance fee but not yours. The park has an entrance fee of 80 USD per visitor (2014). Remember to tip your guide and driver as most of them try really hard to find the Big Five for you.

The Mara Explorer's Suzuki 4x4

The Mara Explorer’s Suzuki 4×4

 

Step 6: Go back to Narok (500 shillings)

You will probably be back at the camp before sunset.  If you decide that you don’t want to stay that night at the camp, because you find it expensive, ran out of food or you have other plans, your only option to get back to Narok is by private transportation. A taxi, arranged through the camp, can cost anything from 3,000 to 5,000 shillings. If you prefer public transportation, then you have to stay the night at the camp as the matatus leave early in the morning, around 04:00 hrs. You can also take a Probox back to Narok, as we did. It cost us 500 shillings per person, including our very first African flat tire!

Our Probox got a flat tire on its way back to Narok

Our Probox got a flat tire on its way back to Narok

And that is how you can come to Kenya and enjoy a safari game drive in one of the world’s most beautiful reserves without having to spend thousands of dollars. If you add up each of the steps above you will see that you can spend, if travelling with others, as little as 11,816 shillings or 135 USD per person including transportation from Nairobi to Narok, from Narok to the Mara, a full-day game drive, a night of camping with your own tent and transportation back to Narok. If you want to eat at the camp, then you’ll have to add an additional 800 shillings per meal. If you travel alone without a tent and decide to book a whole vehicle for yourself, expect to spend around 17,500 shillings or 200 USD, including transportation from Nairobi to Narok, from Narok to the Mara, a full-day game drive in a vehicle for yourself, a night in one of the camp’s tents and transportation back to Narok.

I hope this information is useful to you and that it encourages you to come to Africa! Going on a safari doesn’t have to be expensive, just stick to public transportation (which is fun) and budget camps and you’ll be fine 🙂

Good luck!

One of the many landscapes you'll see on your way to Narok

One of the many landscapes you’ll see on your way to Narok

Written by Daniel

Please leave your comments below 🙂

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16 comments on “Safari on a budget – how to go to the Maasai Mara without spending thousands

  1. Michelle
    May 28, 2015

    Your information is invaluable. I am a U.S. expat living in Nairobi. I am planning a trip with my husband to Masai Mara to view the migration. I could never get a straight answer on costs of game drives. The sites are horrendously lacking solid information. The costs of staying inside the reserve were criminal. After 3 intense days looking for a fair deal, I found you. It is sad that the average person cannot afford to stay in accommodations close to the migration and experience the magic of “up close and personal.” Even with that said, you offered a stunning option. A travel agent brought a Deal to us at a luxury tented camp near migration viewing…all inclusive, except meals. Another, profit making “pull the wool over the foreign tourists eyes.” Crackers, cookies, and soda were included snack food. My husband and I laughed out loud. I had to ask our travel agent about cost of meals. Why would I have to even ask??..An unbelievable cost of $84 per person, per day. She extolled the luxury tent camp’s chef for offering inspired food. Really!!…Total cost $3000…..3 nights. We can afford it, but I refuse to be taken advantaged of. Besides, I enjoy the company of many “walks of life.” When family and friends visit, I know where to stay with the assurance we will have a remarkable time without breaking the bank. Thanks, again….Michelle

    • mamaafricablog
      January 21, 2016

      Michelle, thanks for your message! I hate dealing with travel agents, it’s like they’re trying to squeeze every penny out of you. The reality is that going to the Maasai can actually be quite affordable. I’m happy my post helped. Cheers!

      Dan

  2. Diana
    June 12, 2015

    Thanks so much

  3. HOBOinkaps
    September 25, 2015

    Loved your blog Daniel. Very useful information. My friends and I have been thinking about traveling to Kenya for some time now. We are thinking Oct/Nov, if not this year then the next maybe..what would you suggest is the best time to visit Mara (from the great migration into Mara POV)?
    Also, did you cover Lake Nakuru while you were in Kenya?

    • mamaafricablog
      January 21, 2016

      I’m glad you liked it! Yes, you MUST go to Kenya (if you haven’t yet), it will change your idea of the whole of Africa. Kenya is an extraordinary country. Have you already travelled there? If not, I believe that the best months to see the migration is from July to September, but it can vary. Cheers,

      Dan

  4. mattwicks
    October 16, 2015

    This is by far one of the best and most complete procedural posts I’ve seen on budget safaris in Maasai Mara. I’ll be following a very similar route. Thank you for your help!

    • mamaafricablog
      January 21, 2016

      Hello Matt, I’m happy this post helped! It can be so difficult finding valuable info on the net, especially about budget safaris. Are you still planning your trip or did you already travel to Kenya? Cheers!

      Dan

      • mattwicks
        January 21, 2016

        Whoops, I commented to this thread above, on Diana’s post. Same difference!

  5. Gabe
    April 20, 2016

    Hi Daniel, Awesome post, very helpful! The additional 20 USD for 12 hours of safari, was it per day or for the whole stay? Thanks!

    • mamaafricablog
      May 23, 2016

      Hi, Gabe!

      The 9-hour safari had a cost of 100 USD, and we paid 20 USD more to increase it to 12 hours. So we paid 120 USD for a 12-hour safari. This price excludes accommodation and meals.

      Hope that helped!

      Dan

  6. Mindy Harris
    May 9, 2016

    Hey Daniel – thank you so much for this amazing blog post. It’s so helpful. I am really trying to spend some time out in the bush, but don’t want to pay a million dollars either to a tour operator or flying. I’ve read that matatus can be dangerous, and buses also have a bad history – I’m okay with the trip from Nairobi to Narok (Easy Coach) – but I’m a little wary of the trip to camp outside the Mara. Do they have to go slow because it is unpaved? Also – where do you find the matatus and buses to Sekenani in Narok…are they located near the Easy Coach stage? Do you happen to know? I’m just trying to find more info online, and the internet is not helping me, once I reach Narok.

    • mamaafricablog
      May 23, 2016

      Hi, Mindy!

      It’s great that you’re planning on going to the Mara. I’m sure you’ll love it. The road between Narok and Sekenani is unpaved. And no, the bus doesn’t go slowly. It actually goes rather fast, but it is such a beautiful place. The landscapes and wildlife are amazing. You can see what the road looks like in one of the pictures above (the one with the caption “Get ready for the dust!”). When I went on the trip it was very flat and neat. I remember sticking my head out of the window and enjoying the ride so much (it was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip). I wouldn’t consider that trip dangerous as there are virtually no other vehicles on the road. These are the coordinates for the bus station: -1.088427, 35.870338 (just copy and paste them in Google Maps). It’s right in front of the Naivas Supermarket. The Easy Couch bus does not arrive at the main bus station. I can’t remember exactly where it arrives, I think somewhere on the main road. Please let me know if I can help you with anything else 🙂

      Cheers and enjoy!

      Dan

  7. Atiende Florence
    June 9, 2016

    Thanks so much for this very helpful piece, I am a Kenya born, bred and living in Kisumu but never been to the MARA,, how sad, I need to visit this time, like I am dead serious about this… Thanks

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This entry was posted on August 2, 2014 by in Kenya and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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