When the safari bug bites, the words that comes to everybody’s minds is Africa. Heaped with vast plains and savannahs that stretch for hundreds and thousands of kilometres, the African continent is one of the most inspiring destinations where nature’s forces collide and create marvellous phenomena that leave most of us speechless. However, when you come down to the business end of planning a trip to Africa, there are quite a lot of choices to be made. While it might seem that any safari might entail the same overall experience, it would be shortsighted to think so; every national park and region within Africa is known for specific features, terrain and wildlife that accompanies each of them. Two of the most famous national parks that are part of most travel magazines offering insights into Africa’s natural beauty are the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. With limited time at hand, it might not be possible to visit both these national parks at the same time. While both national parks have their own unique sense of beauty and sublimity, this guide will provide a little more insight into either parks’ features and might help you pick the national park you might want to experience first!
WITNESS THE GREAT MIGRATION
People take the African safari experience for myriad reasons, one of the major attractions being the great wildebeest migration. If that is the case, the Serengeti is the heart of the great migration. While the entire migration is not bound to a singular national park, the natural route that these wildebeest and zebra take cuts right through the Tanzanian savannahs. The cyclical nature of the migrations is based in breeding patterns while also battling the natural climate. Consequently, the migration begins south of the Serengeti, moves through the Serengeti and culminates at the Masai Mara situated just north of the Serengeti across the Kenyan border. Thus, the Serengeti might be pitted above the in terms of hosting the great migration, but you might not be able to see the wildebeest migrate if you visit the wrong place at the wrong time. Moreover, not only is the great migration a sight to behold in itself, it is a natural ritual that is accompanied by a lot of animal activity. The migration, in a sense, defines and causes a lot of the animal interaction that takes place in the great plains. The predator-prey cycle that defines most animal interaction in the Serengeti and Masai Mara is a consequence of the great migration. Read on to understand the inter-relation.
TIME OF THE YEAR
While the Serengeti might host a large chunk of the great migration, things get a little dicey based on the time of the year. The experience of a safari experience might be elevated if a little thought is given to the timing of the trip. While it may not be possible to take time off at any point of the year, it might be worth basing your choice on the time of travel; there are months where more might be be happening at one national park than the other. As discussed earlier, the Serengeti is the most known place to watch the great migrations. However, if you plan to visit Africa in August or anytime after that, the Masai Mara has some of the most ideal camping sites and lodges overlooking the Masai plains where the great migrations culminate. So the Masai Mara might serve you better in those months if you are looking for the great migrations. The Mara river also adds a sense of mystery as the Wildebeest go back and forth the meandering river, which happens to be infested with crocs! Don’t be surprised if you’re privy to a battle of these beasts.
LANDSCAPE AND TERRAIN
The type of landscape that is preferable is a personal choice, and there is no better or worse when it comes to these relief features. Giving insights into the characteristic landscapes of both these national parks might help you come to a more informed decision pertaining to the experience you are looking for. The as-far-as-the-eye-can-see savannahs are characteristic of the Serengeti, especially the southern and central parts of it. One can literally watch the sweeping plains dance to the call of the winds, disturbed only by predators stalking prey. As you move northward, the terrain includes hilly outcrops known as Kopjes along with a more diverse variety of vegetation including the famous Acacia trees. The Serengeti is also considerably drier as a whole; it becomes much more lush in the north as the Mara river feeds the lands with some much needed perennial water, also leading to the migratory routes that are adopted by Wildebeest and Zebra. In the eastern Serengeti lies the Ol Doinyo Lengai – an active volcano that spots the relatively flat terrain. The Masai Mara, on the other hand, has its fair share of plains as well as forests and hills. The Mara river hosts certain patches of dense forest at some parts while the frequency of the Kopje also increases in comparison to the Serengeti.
AN ISOLATED EXPERIENCE
The name ‘Serengeti’ means endless plain. A quick peek at a map would reveal the endlessness that typifies these plains. Covering a total area of 30,000 square kilometres, covering the entire national park might take much more than a single trip. The Masai Mara is much smaller in size – the official national park area is calculated to approximately 1500-square kilometres, with a lot of smaller reserves and conservation areas lined along the same ecosystem. Owing to this vast difference in size, one generally encounters crowds much easier as the Masai Mara as against the Serengeti. Consequentially, the safari experience is much more isolated and personalised in the Serengeti as you hardly encounter another human other than those that might be sharing a campsite with you occasionally. However, the difference of human population might not come into the picture if you are part of the more popular tourist routes that are lined with different expedition groups congregating in the same general area. It also often happens that sightings of big cats like prides of lion are lined with vehicles of different parties, all of them sighting big cat based on shared knowledge by the locals. Thus, you might see lesser people in the Serengeti as compared to the Masai Mara, but they are both equally scant when it comes to human population when compared to the cities.
The Serengeti has built its reputation as the prime locale to view the great migrations. Moreover, the lavish hospitality that many private camps and lodges have in this area is unmatched. While some of these places boast of serving some of the most exotic meat, others are known for inexplicable experiences like open showers overlooking the watering holes filled with hippopotamus and zebra. With all the limelight and the marketing, the cost of a trip in the Serengeti is certainly higher than a trip in the Masai Mara. Therefore, if costs are a consideration, it might be relatively cheaper to gather the whole safari experience in the Masai Mara as against the Serengeti. There are expensive and extremely lavish places in the Kenyan plains as well, but one can find cheap and basic accommodation in the Masai Mara more frequently as compared to the Serengeti.
ABUNDANCE OF WILDLIFE
If there is anything that both these national parks share in abundance, it is the variety and number of wildlife. The Serengeti and the Masai Mara national parks fall within the same ecosystem and collectively account for the highest concentration of land mammals anywhere in the world. Not only will you see elusive yet famous creatures like the cheetah and lion, you will also come across creatures you have never heard of, leave alone seen on television or in magazines. The experience of watching these majestic beasts in their vast and expansive playground is almost beyond comprehension. The safari experience is also one of patience and calm – something that brings that soothing sense of life slowing down as a consequence of the appreciation you develop watching these creatures wander and survive. The landscape along with the forces of natures play a significant role in harbouring these intricate predator-prey networks at these national parks. While animals such as the wildebeest and zebra chase the rains, other mammals maintain their territory. Antelopes like Thomson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, impala and eland are abundant in these grasslands along with other animals like the hartebeest, hippopotamus, elephant, giraffe and topi. Given the abundance of these herbivorous animals, the predators are generally never too far behind! And so begins the awe-inspiring interplay of natural forces; the ruthless entropy that defines nature as predator and prey collide, battle, perish and co-exist. As the rains bring lush grasses for the herbivores to feed on, the cheetah, leopard, lion, hyena, wild dogs and the crocodile stalk their respective prey and wait for the right moment to attack. Amidst all this happening around you, it is highly likely that you find yourself as a non-participant observer, watching these raw and merciless events unfold in front of your eyes.
Owing to the shared ecosystem in which the Serengeti and Masai Mara national parks are based, there is hardly much that separates both these national parks when it comes to wildlife. Once again, based on the time of travel, you might be better off at one place than the other. The Serengeti, through the early months of the calendar year, is heaped with predator and prey. It is the breeding season for Wildebeest and many other land mammals. Opportunistic predators loom in the shadows waiting for the fragile calves and newborns to be separate from the pack. February to April is a great time to visit the southern and central Serengeti as hoards of wildebeest and zebra move northward. June and July is when the herds reach the northern Serengeti plains where things get a little risky – river crossings en-route the Masai Mara come at a hefty cost as opportunistic crocodiles silently wait in the waters. It makes for a sight to behold as visibly nervous Wildebeest brave the murky waters. A lot of them lose their lives, but it is a cost the population pays for their collective survival. It is a welcome change in terrain for the visitors too, as the endless grasslands give way to river systems, dense forests in patches as well as the kopjes on the horizon. August to October is when the wildebeest bask gloriously in the lush Mara plains and grassland, having crossed the river and survived. They feed on the lush grasses that are nourished with the recent downpour. The herds are considerably smaller owing to the smaller size of the plains, but still make for a spectacular sight. Therefore, it might be difficult to differentiate both the national parks when it comes to housing wildlife. One could say that the only difference is in the fact that the Masai Mara hosts a greater non-migratory resident game whereas the Serengeti hosts a lot of migrating game.
Having gone through the aspects of most importance during your safari experience, it is safe to say that one national park is not better than the other. Elements that go into making your safari a memorable experience are present in both the national parks. The choice of picking one national park, in conclusion, hinges on the time you plan to make the visit. Anytime from November-December to April-May might be great to visit the Serengeti. Thousands upon thousands of antelopes graze the serene grasslands, the calm disturbed only sporadically by the stealthy attacks of beast-like predators. Couple this with the rising and setting sun peeking through a kopje in the horizon is almost beyond words. June to October is the ideal time to visit the Masai Mara – a much more condensed and power-packed game viewing experience. A more varied landscape with rivers and hills cutting through the plains hosts a variety of animals. What’s more, the great migration culminates in the Mara plains, all of which can be viewed from your campsites. Both the national parks are immensely beautiful and calling one better than the other might just be some sort of poetic injustice