Self Drive Safari in Masai Mara vs Pilanesburg

elephant masai mara

A little over a year ago Drew and I did our very first self-drive safari in Pilanesburg National Park, not far from Johannesburg. In that post (linked in the previous sentence) we laid out all the reasons we enjoyed our self-drive safari.

Now that we’ve just wrapped up our self-drive safari in Masai Mara National Park, I feel like there are a few key differences I need to point out.

To self-drive or not to self-drive?

To be honest, despite a few things making this self-drive a bit more…adventurous…I really do still believe that self-drive safaris are a perfectly acceptable option for people wanting an affordable safari.

However, Masai Mara is very different from Pilanesburg, so there are a few extra caveats I’d include when suggesting that option.


Cheetah in Masai Mara


1.) Firstly, Masai Mara is enormous compared to Pilanesburg.

Masai Mara National Reserve is more than two and a half times bigger than Pilanesburg National Park. Drew and I felt like we covered a significant amount of Pilanesburg NP in our one day there and we saw 4 of the big 5 in that one day. With Masai Mara, the savannah feels endless and the animals have an incredible amount of space to roam. We had a great first day at Masai Mara, finishing it off by watching a cheetah chase down some impala just as the sun was setting. But I would never recommend trying to dedicate just one day to Masai Mara.

With that in mind, we really appreciated having a place to stay right inside the park. We lost zero time in transit and got to experience dawn and dusk (the best animal sighting times) in the park every single day of our safari. Technically 7:00 pm is curfew (when you need to either return to your lodge or exit the park) and it was nice knowing that we didn’t need to make our way all the way to an exit by 7. Also, our lodge simply gave us gentle reminders when we returned a bit late.

I’m sure you could spend a similar amount of time cruising the park if you found a place just outside the park too. But the point is that in order to see as much of the park as possible and as many of the animals as possible, I would definitely recommend staying very near or inside the park. Nairobi is very far- a 5 to 6 hour drive on sometimes awful roads. Nothing like the 2-ish hour drive we made from Johannesburg to Pilanesburg the day of our safari.

This leads into my next point…


2.) Masai Mara’s roads are much rougher.

When we were in Pilanesburg NP we saw people cruising around in a little Mercedes sedan and it almost made us feel silly for renting the truck we had. The roads were smooth as can be and we really didn’t have any issues at all.

In Masai Mara on the other hand…I feel like you’d really want a 4WD vehicle just to make it TO the park, let alone navigating the roads within it. (You absolutely need a spare tire…two if you can…but that’s another story.)

Really the roads are rough enough in Masai Mara and there are enough sightings that happen on the smaller off-road-type trails that you really may want to consider 4WD, even though they’re more expensive. We got a Toyota Rav4 for $65 a day and though it was 4WD…it was not without its issues. So…just know that you’ll have rough roads. Whatever makes you comfortable with that…go for it.


3.) Masai Mara’s animals have more space to roam and to hide…

I kind of mentioned this already in the first point. The savannah has many portions that are covered in tall grass. This is where the lions like to hide. We definitely still got to see lions, but there were long stretches in the heat of the day where we saw only elephants and impala. Pilanesburg has a fair amount of white rhinos that can be seen even during the hot parts of the day, so you’ve really got something to look for all day.

Masai Mara only has black rhinos, which have become much more shy. One Masai man explained to us that their long horns made them popular for poaching. As a result, they are very shy of vehicles and spend most of the day hiding in thickets.

In some ways the animal sightings in Masai Mara feel a bit more like an adventure because the reserve is not fenced in, is extremely vast, and the animals can require a bit more patience to find.

I really enjoyed that feeling of being in the wilderness of the savannah, but this is yet another reason I’d never tell someone to spend just one day in Masai Mara.



A semi self-drive compromise…

If you don’t want to spend the money it requires for a group safari, but you don’t trust your own animal-finding or rough-road-driving skills within the park, you can always do a “game drive” where you pay a guide to join you and drive your car. The guides within the park not only have radios or cells to contact one another when sightings are made, they also just know where things are, or at least, know where they’ve been spotted recently.

While this too could get expensive, it’s always an option for someone who needs that sort of compromise. And if you are interested in that kind of thing, tap me on the shoulder and I’ll give you the contact details for the guide I’d recommend.



Honestly, this trip was expensive by our standards. But a safari was absolutely the way we wanted to take advantage of our Kenya mistake-fare and we didn’t want to pay the money for a group safari. We definitely had some adventures (or rather…misadventures), but I would still definitely say that a self-drive safari is absolutely an option for someone who doesn’t feel they can afford a group safari. It’s not super cheap nor is it super easy like our Pilanesburg safari was. But it can still be a fairly affordable version of the safari experience.

But my recommendation of a self-drive safari in Masai Mara would come with more caveats and disclaimers than was the case for Pilanesburg. For instance know that the roads are intense, even to the park and rent whatever vehicle makes you comfortable with that. And expect to spend multiple days in the park, especially considering it’s a 5 to 6 hour drive from Nairobi.

I would also say that our “maps with me” app was extremely useful because we didn’t have a park map. That combined with asking locals and other drivers where the sightings are being made is a pretty sure bet that you’ll see something interesting.



18 Comments on “Self Drive Safari in Masai Mara vs Pilanesburg

  1. It was really interesting to read about your self-drive safari in Kenya. I haven’t heard much about that option. We did self-drive safaris in S. Africa (Kruger Park) and Swaziland, staying in the parks. But we supplemented them by some ranger-led evening/night game drives that we joined at the lodges/rest camps. We had fun and saw a lot on our own, but we the expertise of the rangers added immensely to our enjoyment, as well as allowing us to be out after dark.

    • Ya I definitely think that can be a good way to go. One of the evenings we went on a game-drive with one of the Masai hotel staff we’d befriended. It was mostly just fascinating watching how well he knew the landscape and how to listen and watch for animals. A night game-drive is an excellent idea.

  2. HI ,

    my name is amara ,me and my partner are planing a visit it masai mara on september we will have 4 days guided tour to see the crossing and beside that we would love to have a self drive (with a guide) it can be also in his car do you have a nay guide and a lodge you can recommend?

    • Yes definitely!

      I recommend a man named Joshua Loonkushu as a day guide. (I will email you his contact information.) And the lodge we stayed at (and very much enjoyed) was the Keekorok Lodge. It’s still to this day one of my favorite accommodations we’ve ever stayed at.

  3. Hi Carrie,
    We are planning a sort of impromtu safari for next week. We plan on dself drive hopefully with a guide. Could you please share Loonkushu’s contact information please.

    • I believe we paid $32 for him to accompany our group for the morning. I’m not sure if this represented his normal rate or not- I just can’t remember, but I do think it was cheaper than if he would’ve provided the vehicle. And I can’t remember if we received a discount since it was only a morning drive or not.

      I’ll email you his contact information now.

  4. Hi Carrie,

    Nice post!

    We are planning to self drive around Kenya at the end of May and we think, as you suggest, that hiring a guide to drive our car in the Masai Mara park would be the best option. Any tips on where to find and hire a guide?

    very much appreciated

    • All of the lodging places will have guides so it might be easiest to just connect with whatever guide is available at your hotel or lodge, but I like to recommend the guy that we used from Keekorok Lodge. I’ll email you his contact information, though I can’t guarantee he’s still doing it.

    • My pleasure! So pleased to hear that folks have been enjoying your Masai Mara tours!

    • Yes, I’m happy to do that! Expect an email from me shortly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *