Small Crowds, Big Game: A November Safari in the Maasai Mara

“Safari” is a Swahili word, and when people think of safaris the first image that comes to mind is often vast herds of animals migrating across the grassy plains of the Maasai Mara in southern Kenya. Often missing from this vision are the large groups of 4x4s on game drives that follow the migration.

I’ve wanted to see the Mara since watching nature shows as a child, but the thought of crowds always gave me pause. One of the best parts of a safari is the sense of peace while traveling in large isolated natural areas, and encountering animals as wild as you will find in our globalized world. That is why I started looking into an early November trip to Kenya.

November is shoulder season, which falls right after the peak of the great migration in August through October. The crowds are smaller and prices are significantly cheaper because you risk getting rained on. However, as long as there is no threat of El Niño, November often has short showers as opposed to the torrential rains that can occur from March to June.

Sanctuary Olonana

After checking the forecast, which was tending toward La Niña, I booked a four-night stay at Sanctuary Olonana as part of the second leg of our safari. We flew direct on a small AirKenya plane from the Samburu reserve to the Maasai Mara. Herds of wildebeest and acacia trees dotted the landscape below as we approached the Kichwa Tembo landing strip.

Bush flight into the Maasai Mara - Scott Dubois
Entrance to the Maasai Mara - Scott Dubois

The Sanctuary driver greeted us and loaded us in the Land Cruiser for the short drive to Sanctuary Olonana, which sits outside the reserve near a Maasai village. We were greeted by management and an enigmatic flute player and given an overview of the camp. The main dining area and lobby are adjacent to a hippo pond, and the loud grunts proved to be an entertaining distraction during our orientation.

Game Drives

As expected, the wildlife was spectacular. You are given two options on the timing of your game drives. I recommend taking the longer late-morning-through-lunch option, because the late afternoons were often rained out. We were usually headed in by the time most of the rains would come, and the scattered showers made for some great lighting for photography.

Elephants on the Maasai Mara - Scott Dubois
Male lion on the Maasai Mara - Scott Dubois

The wildlife viewing was excellent during our trip due to better grazing conditions in the area. The tail end of the great migration had come back across the border from Tanzania, so we were lucky to see vast herds of wildebeests and zebras late in the season. With an almost complete lack of other cars in some of the areas of the park we explored, we had the animals all to ourselves.

Our driver was interested in finding a leopard, but we never saw it. However, we still managed to view every other mammal in the guidebook including spectacular sightings of lions and cheetahs hunting and an unusually large group of rhinos.

A green season safari in the Maasai Mara I can recommend without hesitation. After all, it’s not often you have one of the natural wonders of the world almost completely to yourself.

By Scott Dubois Hideaway Report Contributor