$800 5-day Kenyan Safari: Maasai Mara, Hell’s Gate, Nakuru and Naivasha National Parks

In my last safari blog, I explained how safaris do NOT have to be expensive, and how, typically, other than excursions, East Africa is very cheap.

Flights can be cheap as well– my one-way ticket to Kenya was only $420 on Delta/KLM airlines, during peak season, because I booked 2 months in advance.

This safari, like the last one I did, was $800, including everything. However, the cheapest tours start at $200, and you can even drive your own car and camp if you really want to save. I can’t wait to try that someday!

You can read about that here: $800 5-day Safari: Serengeti, Tarangire, Manyara and Ngorongoro National Parks

I find that mid-level safari experiences are great for wildlife and pretty comfortable, without breaking the bank. Any cheaper, and you’re not going to be happy or see everything you want– so why waste your time, when you can pay a little more and stay a little longer?

If you can afford it though– go private. It’s usually 6-8x the cost, if not 10+, but worth it if you like to go slow, have specific animals you want to track, or have done a safari before.

After having done my first safari in Tanzania this past January, during calving season, which was full of birth and lush green parks, I decided to do my second in Kenya during the dry season.

The hope was to see the Great Migration, in which over 2 million wildebeests and half a million zebras travel from Tanzania to Kenya and back every year. I was also hoping to see some big cats in action. (Spoiler alert: I did. LOTS of action!)

The main difference for me was the weather– August is the Kenyan winter, so it was in the 50s for most of our safari, but got as hot as 80 during the afternoon.

Compared to Tanzanian Summer in January, this was quite cool and refreshing.

Day 1

I met my guide at 7:30am in downtown Nairobi. We picked up a Ukrainian couple, a French couple, and a Swiss man, and then began the long drive to the Maasai Mara. One of the reasons I like joining group safaris is because you get to spend a lot of time in the car with people from other countries, but the main reason is that it’s cheap. This safari was about 1/3 the cost of a private tour. Though, and I’ll explain later why, I don’t think I’ll do a joining safari ever again!

We arrived in Maasai Mara around 3:30pm, having stopped twice, once for a view of the Rift Valley, and again for lunch– stewed lentils, chapati, rice, and mixed vegetable curry. Kenya food has a lot of Indian influence, but more on that in my next post.

Before we were even inside the park, just driving along the highway, we began to spot zebras, ostriches, elephants and giraffes!

We checked into our camp, a collection of a dozen luxury tents, before heading out for an evening game drive. We got incredibly lucky and saw a CHEETAH after about an hour driving through seemingly endless herds of wildebeest.

The cheetah very slowly slunk to a strategic spot behind a dead tree, then suddenly, took off like a flash into the herd. The wildebeest scattered, and so did the 10 Land Cruisers, which were all full of screaming tourists, creating a huge cloud of dust.

When it all subsided, the cheetah was gone, and its wildebeest victim, torn open and bleeding. It was still alive, and writhing around on its side in hopes of scaring off the three advancing hyenas, but to no avail.

We were all speechless, watching as its organs were removed one by one and devoured. The hyenas’ entire heads were caked in thick red blood.

It was a gruesome sight, but, this is part of the brutal circle of life.

My heart was racing all the way back to camp, and I could hardly touch my dinner. But, if this was just the first game drive, this was going to be good!

We spent the rest of the evening chatting with other groups around a large fire, tended to by the friendly Maasai staff.

Day 2

Our wake-up call was at 5:30am, and we left around 6:15, after a light breakfast. We’d picked up two Swedes somehow, and had a completely full car — 8 people!

We entered the dark in total darkness, and were amazed as the sun rose over the savannah, over a family of elephants and what seemed like armies of wildebeests in the distance. It was adorable to see a curious baby elephant nursing and trying to approach our car curiously, but his mother stopped him from getting too close!

The highlight of the day came early, around 10am, when we spotted a leopard in a tree. During my entire 5-day safari in Tanzania, I didn’t see any cheetahs and leopards, and here I was, seeing them both within less than 24 hours in the Mara! I was beyond impressed.

The leopard had dragged a gazelle up into the tree, and eaten/mangled most of its body except its head, which hung limply from a branch. The leopard laid quite satisfied, smugly, across a long branch, only occasionally glancing up to see if we were still there.

This is perhaps the most beautiful creature on the planet.

From there we continued towards the Mara river, to see the famous river crossing, in which the wildebeest dare to swim through croc-infested waters, past deadly hippos, and climb up the banks to the other side. Sadly, we just missed it, it had happened 10 minutes or so before we arrived.

Still, the river was full of hippos, probably 30, including several babies/juveniles, which cutely hobbled around its immovable boulder-like parents, who paid no attention to them. There were also many nile crocodiles basking in the sun, mouths agape.

As we continued and came closer to the Tanzanian border, the landscape changed from rolling hills to endless plains, like in the Serengeti.

From 1pm until we reached our camp around 5pm though, we didn’t see anything except wildebeest!

After a full day in the park, I was exhausted and went to bed early.

Day 3

Having learned my lesson on my first safari, I booked TWO FULL DAYS in the Maasai Mara this trip. (Last time I only booked one day in the Serengeti, and we didn’t see everything we had hoped for.)

This way, I had another chance to see the river crossing. I switched groups, since my all-European group was continuing to Lake Nakuru. However, since my new group had just arrived, we couldn’t just do a stake-out at the riverfront. They wanted a full-game like we’d all had the day before.

They were a great group, and more mixed: an Indian family with a two year old son, two german backpackers, and an Egyptian guy who I really hit it off with. Having only 6 adults in the car was much better than 8, we actually all had room to move around without being in each others way too much, though it was still a little tight.

While initially I was peeved, it ended up being another GREAT day. The highlight was seeing a cheetah gnawing on a baby gazelle.. then suddenly shooting off like a rocket, grabbing another baby gazelle, biting through its head and consuming it all before our very eyes.

Like a house cat, it was proud of its kill and posed for us; it did not seem to mind us at all, in fact, seemed to enjoy the audience, if anything.

The guide got a call that the river crossing would be happening soon, judging by the way they wildebeest were moving, so we motored over to the river and made it just in time to see it— but not early enough to get a good spot. Before the crossing began, there were already dead wildebeest bodies just floating in the water.

We were wedged between two cars, so I could only see it though a narrow slit. Still, I managed to get some decent shots.

Easily 200 wildebeest (and this was a small crossing) raced down the hill, through the deep brown water and clamored up the other side, though it was so steep I was afraid they wouldn’t make it! At one point, they were all stuck, desperately trying to get up, the entire cliff face became a big grey wave of scrambling wildebeests.

I was pretty annoyed about that though, for the rest of the day, and if I ever do another safari here, it will 100% be private, so we can just sit at the river and wait for it to happen! The river crossing is THE main attraction this time of year, but a lot of people and guides still don’t seem to really care.

Continuing on, we saw a lion couple, walking around looking for a nice patch of grass to mate on. The male approaches her a few times, she growls and even lunges at him, scratches and bites him during this courting ritual. Even from a distance, we could tell he had some fresh wounds.

Eventually, she gave in and he pounced, pinning her down and attempting to inseminate her. The act only lasted for 5 seconds or so, but happens every twenty minutes until she becomes too violent, and the male too tired, to continue.

‘When it hurts’, according to the guide, ‘that’s when it’s works.’

There were even MORE wildebeest today, marching in pairs like soldiers, creating a never-ending, winding border between us and the expanses of the Mara, like ‘the Great Wall of China’ said one of the Germans.

We drove to a less crowded area and were able to get out of the car for a nature walk with a park ranger. Our ranger, Penet, was a young man (maybe 20) from the Kalenjin tribe, and greeted us with a big smile. He was really happy to meet us, he hadn’t seen any tourists in weeks.

Because of COVID, numbers inside the parks are at record lows. To me, it seemed crowded, so I can only imagine how frustratingly busy it is normally!

Penet showed us to the river, where we got very close to some wading hippos– a little too close for comfort in my opinion. These aggressive animals kill more people than lions, leopards, etc.! Their long tusks (he showed us a skull later) will go right through your entire body and pierce your organs while their sturdy jaws break your bones.

We thanked him for the walk, and got back in the car for another 3-4hour ride back to camp, again seeing nothing but wildebeests. All of the action is in the morning SO if you can afford it, I HIGHLY recommend staying in a centrally located campsite, not one on the edge of the park like mine, and staying for more nights.

That way, you can do more morning game-drives, and spend the afternoons in the pool or doing cultural activities, because after lunch there’s really nothing to see.

Day 4

This day was a long drive from Maasai Mara to Nakuru, broken up by a visit to Hell’s Gate National Park. Hell’s Gate is not really that interesting as far as wildlife is concerned; what makes it special is that it’s bike-able. It also has a dramatic landscape that is often compared to the American West. I cannot confirm nor deny this, as I still, embarrassingly, have never been to Arizona or Utah.

While there aren’t any big cats or rhinos in the park, it’s still pretty cool biking alongside zebras, warthogs, baboons, and the occasional giraffe. Hell’s Gate gives you the opportunity to get really close to wildlife, though for the most part they kept their distance.

That is, other than this rock hyrax!

But don’t get too comfortable, these cute little nuggets DO bite.

The park is a nice way to stretch your legs for an hour or two, but I wouldn’t plan a trip to visit Hell’s Gate specifically. We got back in the car and reached Nakuru two hours later.

Day 5

Lake Nakuru is famous for its rhinos and flamingos, but our guide refused to make any promises on the rhinos. They were the only member of the big 5 I hadn’t seen up close on EITHER safari; I’d only seen them in the distance in Ngorongoro. So we entered the park around 7am, fingers crossed.

Unlike Maasai Mara and Hell’s Gate, Nakuru is a lush, green paradise, with miles of dense forest surrounding the lake. It’s also much chillier than the Mara, and was in the 50s the entire time we were there, so be prepared for that!

The drive down into Nakuru was gorgeous, we sped down the hill through the trees, and the lake seemed to stretch wider and wider as we approached. There were easily 300 white, somewhat pinkish, flamingos wading, we were allowed to get out of the car and photograph them from the shore.

The true pink ones, apparently, migrated somewhere a few years ago and never returned, but that’s just the word on the street. Maybe you’ll get lucky!

While the flamingos were cool, the highlight was seeing a family of rhinos grazing only 30ft away or so. I was speechless. Their powerful grey bodies moved so slowly across the fields, their heads hanging down, and massive horns sticking up. The baby was so small, it didn’t even have a horn, just a bump, and looked like a strange mix between a hippo and an elephant– not a rhino!

We must have sat there for 20 minutes in awe, just watching them meander about. The green landscape and yellow acacia trees were the perfect backdrop.

While I would’ve stayed there all day waiting for one to put its head up and show off its horn, our guide was ready to get going back to Nairobi (via Naivasha) so we had to continue.

Lake Naivasha was the lamest part of the trip, and was also freezing cold. We saw hippos, but they were in front of a public toilet. There were some waterbucks swimming around eating lake-plants, and an African fish eagle in a tree, but as far as wildlife was concerned otherwise, wasn’t that exciting.

The scenery was the best part of it, the lake is surrounded by blue rolling hills, and there are these eerie dead trees floating in the water.

If you choose to include Lake Naivasha in your safari.. make it the first or second day. After 4 or 5 days of incredible sightings, your standards get pretty high!

From there, we drove back to Nairobi, which took 4 hours.


If there’s anything to learn from my experience it’s as follows:

-If you can afford it, or have a few friends, do a private safari.

-If you’re solo: don’t book the cheapest one, opt for a mid-level $500-1000/pp

-Spend at least two full days in the Mara so you can see the migration!

-If you can afford it, stay within the park, and as centrally located or close to the river as possible.

-Skip Hell’s Gate and Naivasha if you’re short on time

-If you have time, book directly once you’re in Kenya for the best rates. If you are on a tight schedule, book 2+ months in advance if not longer for the best rates.

-Remember: Safaris don’t have to be expensive. 5 days was $800, but 3 days is only $500, etc.

-Plan around the weather or season– African seasons and animal migration seasons are different that North America and Europe’s.

Thanks for reading!

If you have any questions, contact me @tristans_expeditions on IG

or email me tristan_davis2@yahoo.com if you’d like help planning your trip!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s