I’ve always dreamed of going on a safari in the African wild. I did always love The Wild Thornberrys.
But a Google search for safari packages is enough to make a young millennial hopeless about seeing that dream come to life. Most prices start in the thousands, and I just couldn’t swing that on top of the already OTT plane ticket.
A couple years of research, though, and I found some millennial-friendly budget safari packages in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The Serengeti is probably better known, but fun fact: they’re the same park!
…Or more accurately, the same ecosystem. They flow into each other, spanning parts of both Kenya and Tanzania. Our trip was on the Kenya side.
My safari expectations were met and exceeded! The company we used, Sojourn Safaris, delivered the experience of my dreams and then some.
I compiled and am sharing that research with you, so you can manifest those safari dreams ASAP! Like, seriously, make haste! Honestly, being that close to wildlife and observing the natural circle of life was a transformative experience for me.
Here’s everything you need to plan a budget safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Where to stay:
Our choice: Simba + Oryx (directly outside the park, which saved us money) – $540 pp for 3 days/2 nights.
The packages are super flexible, so if you want to stay elsewhere you can request the lodge/campsite of your choice and just pay the difference!
Other options that passed my rigorous TripAdvisor scrutiny lol. These are all inside the park:
- Ashnil Mara – $570 pp for 3 days/2 nights
- Sarova Mara – $650 pp for 3 days/2 nights
- Mara Serena – $850 pp for 3 days/2 nights
- these options aren’t listed visibly online anymore, but these are the prices I was sent previously.
Package prices include food and nonalcoholic drinks for the entirety of your stay, plus game drives and park entry fees. It also includes transport to and from your Nairobi hotel(s). It’s pretty much all-inclusive! The only money we spent outside of the package was $4 glasses of wine at dinner, and a small donation-purchase (~$25) at the Maasai village. #BudgetQueens
Pro tip: With Sojourn Safaris, you have the option of paying only 30% up front, then cash for the rest in person. So, you can save up if needed! Broke millennials wya 🎉.
A few things to keep in mind that kept this experience so inexpensive:
- This isn’t a private safari; the van holds 8 passengers total, and it will probably be full.
- The tent camp is luxurious af for a “tent camp”, but a resort lodge it is not. So, there was no pool, extensive grounds, nor scheduled onsite activities…but with full days in the park, who needs that? Lol. Might be nice for longer stays, but we were more than satisfied.
At 8:30am, we were picked up at the Intercontinental in Downtown Nairobi by Robert, the Operations Manager of Sojourn Safaris. He was in touch via WhatsApp the night before, so we knew exactly when to be in the lobby. He then drove us about 5 minutes away, where the safari van was parked and already partially full with other passengers. Our bags were loaded into the back, and we were off!
About two hours into the drive, we stopped to take in the gorgeous views at the Great Rift Valley View Point. This is a chance to look around, use the restroom if you really must (but, bougie pro tip: try to wait until lunch), and take photos. There are also plenty of gift shops to peruse/avoid lol, which you’ll notice is a common trend on this trip. Everything is priced for tourists, so be sure to haggle if you do see something you like.
Around 1pm we arrived at a sort of transit stop for safari groups. They serve a buffet lunch, have really clean bathrooms, and–you guessed it–a gift shop! Haha.
The lunch buffet and water are included in your safari package. If you want soda or anything like that, you’ll need to pay for it in shillings. I was never disappointed by one meal in Kenya–so flavorful! This was no exception. Lots of veggies, rices, and spiced or stewed meats. They even had a few yummy vegetarian options.
After an hour here, we began the very bumpy part of the drive. I remember thinking many times about my friends who get motion-sick…not sure the drive would be doable for them without medicine. So be prepared!
The final leg is about 2 hours: half on decently paved roads, and half pretty much off-roading.
Finally, we arrived at our camp. We were given a short tour from the staff, then led to our beautiful tent!
Hardly qualifies as a tent, right? I recommend this place so highly because of the gorgeous wall-to-wall glass. You just go outside and unzip the sides of your “tent” to expose these stunning views!
The others in our safari group had actual tents at their nearby nature camp, and they didn’t sound very impressed with the sleeping area nor the bathrooms. They complained daily about hot water, or not having water at all. No such problems at our place!
The Safari Experience:
Wow. Wowowow. Words still escape me when it comes to this part of the journey. Mother Nature really killed the game with this one, didn’t she?
So first of all, everyone talks about seeing “The Big Five.” Apparently the term was coined by game-hunters, and refers to the five hardest animals to hunt on foot.
Anyway, I assumed The Big Five was just like, the top coolest animals that live in the reserve…? Lol! You know, the ones you think of when you think “safari.”
So I figured The Big Five would be lions, elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, and zebras. Duh.
Turns out The Big Five is actually: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and buffalos. Hehe, oops. Promise I have a college degree.
That makes sense, because zebras definitely couldn’t be too hard to find or hunt. They were basically the pigeons of the park…of all the animals, by far the most common on our game drive was zebras!
We saw 3 out of 5 of the Big Five: lions, elephants, and buffalos. And plenty of other animals too, like antelope, hippos, ostriches, warthogs, and meerkats.
Luckily, we did see all five of my unofficial Big Five lol.
A few things I saw on safari that I never thought I’d see:
- A lion climbing a tree–our guide had never seen it either! He said there must’ve been an animal in the tree to hunt, and even then, it’s extremely rare to see.
- So many flies. Omg. It was a blessing that we weren’t in a fully exposed safari truck, because I couldn’t stick my head out for long. The buzzing! I already admitted to being bougie, so, don’t come for me.
- These beautiful views! Because nobody warned me! Because we were lied to about Africa! No one in the west talks about this type of experience when they talk about the continent. I want to see that change.
Overall, I found myself really moved just watching the animals live their lives. Maybe it’s the influence of only seeing animals in zoos my whole life…but I never imagined that zebras and elephants and lions etc. would all share the same space so closely. Animals coexist so naturally! Only humans separate so fixedly by type. Fascinating to watch…and makes you think.
Kikitu! What a guy! It’s no secret that your company when traveling can make or break the experience. We were in luck to have great company for the safari–particularly, our guide Kikitu (also known as Douglas). I can’t thank him enough for his humor, lighthearted attitude, and genuine love and insight for the animals and the reserve. We learned so much just listening to him share his knowledge throughout the day. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide!
Finally, I just have to mention the night sky there. I’ve never experienced anything like it. With Kenya being on the southern hemisphere, we were looking up at an entirely different sky than usual. And with the Maasai Mara Reserve being–well, a reserve–there was a pitch blackness for miles and miles that allowed the sky to completely light up with stars. I felt so close to space…we could see the Milky Way with our bare eyes 😍 I get emotional just thinking about it.
Meanwhile, one of the Maasai men who worked there as a guard was so amused lol. He sees that every day! Such a different world.
Maasai Village Experience:
Speaking of the Maasai, we had a chance to visit a Maasai village on our way back to Nairobi. We spent about 1 hour there, and were able to join a traditional dance, see the inside of a hut, and just generally observe village life.
I’m a little torn about this experience, since it is very clearly a tourism ploy. I’m sure they perform the same dance for a similar group every day, and they weren’t shy about insisting on a purchase or donation before we left. But, they do live a completely different life than the one I know, and whether or not the experience was curated, it was a glimpse into something different.
I also believe you can make any experience authentic (or at least, draw some authenticity out of it) by simply asking your own genuine questions, and being curious and kind. Nonetheless, many travelers avoid the village stop like the plague and get agitated by the unsubtle requests for money at the end.
But I disagree. I’m not offended by the idea of giving them money after they clearly provided an experience. So, I guess it’s up to you! Some of our fellow safari passengers did choose to stay in the car, and no one hassled them about it.
We were given a tour of this particular Maasai village by the chief’s son—the middle son of 41 kids! He was given the honor guiding tours, as he was one of the few who spoke fluent English and had been to school longterm.
How does one man have 41 kids, you ask? Apparently it’s typical for Maasai men to have anywhere from 2-7 wives…though in talking to the younger generation, one wife isn’t uncommon for them. One of the guards at our tent camp joked that one wife was more than enough for him lol! He may be onto something…
- Visit during off-season to keep prices low. For all the online forums debating the best time to go in terms of rain and animal sightings, we ignored most recommendations and went near the end of the rainy season. Turns out we enjoyed cool, dry temperatures, low prices, and a near-empty park with lots of animal activity. Maybe we just lucked out, but I highly recommend the May/June season.
- Pack snacks and anything you might want to do in the evening. There’s nothing nearby once you’re in the Mara, so the best way to perfect your experience is to come prepared.
- Say yes to everything! Earlier wake-up because your guide recommends a certain route? Sure! Take a nature walk at lunch? Why not? Stop at a village on the way home? No problem! You won’t regret it.
- Make friends with your co-passengers. It turns a “shared safari with strangers” into something fun. 🙂
- Bring dramamine if you get carsick.
- GO! 🙂 what an amazing experience. For the price of 1 night at a fancy Napa hotel, or one weekend at Coachella. Or 3-5 months of avocado toasts.
Be sure to contact Robert to personalize your experience! Even those looking for a private safari could probably do so at the lowest price through him. He’s friendly, professional, and put up with me and my bajillion questions 🙂 – reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell him I sent you! And tell me if you plan to go…I might want to join! Lol.
(photos by me)