Last Minute Mara: Luxury For Less

It’s that time of year again. Lanky, bearded herbivores in their hundreds of thousands are grunting, grazing, plunging and leaping their way across the Greater Masai Mara, consumed by the lure of greener pastures. For a few more months, these frenzied herds of wildebeest will mow down what’s left of the Mara’s rich red oat grasslands, before marching back across the border into the Serengeti. It’s an incredible spectacle, and it’s no wonder the migration has made this corner of Kenya so famous.

The downside of this fame, of course, is that in the peak of the migration season, the busiest spots of the Mara feel as crammed with jostling minibuses as wildebeest. In July and August in particular, it is not unusual to share river crossings with dozens of safari vehicles, angling aggressively for the best views for their camera-laden passengers. But I’ve found that these situations can easily be avoided by doing a bit of research on the movements of the herds, and on the available accommodation options across the Mara.

With fewer tourists and lower prices, September, October and November are great months to plan a trip, while the herds are still making their way down south. I recently learnt about a fantastic tool called HerdTracker – an application that plots the daily movements of the migration across the entire ecosystem. By following their live feeds on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, you can get a better idea of the precise locations of the herds, and make an informed decision about where to stay. To ease the booking process, you can also go through www.lastminutemara.com, a new online platform with great deals on high-end lodges and camps.

I recently spoke to Last Minute Mara’s General Manager, Nicole Hankar, to learn more about the platform. She said that the idea stemmed from an overreliance of lodges and camps on long lead time bookings from foreign tourists, through a travel distribution network crammed with intermediaries. The local market has been poorly served as a result, with high prices usually adapted informally, and with limited referral-only type access to resident rates.

Through the website, travellers can book package deals with lodges and camps in the Mara, including flights from Nairobi, provided the trip is within 30 days of the booking. It is aimed predominantly at East African residents and business visitors planning to include some last-minute leisure travel, and Nicole hopes that it will ensure steady demand for the Mara’s top lodges all year round.

The properties currently listed on the website are scattered mainly across the conservancies to the north and east of the Masai Mara National Reserve. At first glance, some that stand out are Angama Mara on the Oloololo Escarpment of the Mara Triangle, Saruni Wild in the Lemek Conservancy, and Encounter Mara in the Naibosho Conservancy. The conservancies surrounding the reserve are great options during the high season in particular, because tourist densities are purposefully kept low. In contrast to the typical melee of minibuses in the reserve, vehicle numbers around sightings are also limited.

The conservancy principle was first introduced in the region to avoid overcrowding and other problems that have occurred in the reserve. Because of the small camp sizes, low visitor numbers and grazing management plans in these areas, the wildlife habitats and animal densities have vastly improved. The conservancies are also all divided into several hundred plots with identifiable owners, from whom the land is leased for wildlife tourism. So the Maasai owners receive a guaranteed monthly rental, regardless of occupancy rates.

So if you fancy treating yourself to an impromptu trip to the Mara, check out the deals at www.lastminutemara.com.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation