Although “great migration” sounds fairly generic and could refer to any mass of living creatures moving between areas in response to environmental change, in an African context, it refers to one thing specifically, and that is the wildebeest migration of Kenya and Tanzania.
Well over a million of these antelope (yes, they are antelope) move in a big clockwise circle through the year, following the rains between the southern Serengeti in Tanzania, up to the Mara Triangle in south-west Kenya, then swinging south again to calve once more near Lake Ndutu and the surrounding plains. It is truly one of nature’s greatest spectacles.
On many photographers’ and safari-goers buckets lists, the great migration is highly accessible to travellers, but before deciding where or when to go, there are a few things to consider:
This first point may seem obvious, it being a migration and all, but the key thing to remember is that the huge herd/s is/are never in the same area for more than a couple of months. The cycle they follow, the depletion of resources and the renewal of resources elsewhere keeps them on the move, so that it is vital to know exactly at what point in their journey the wildebeest are at what time of year in order to plan your safari. There is no point booking a safari along the Mara River in Kenya when the herds are hundreds of miles away in Tanzania. Be informed as to where the herds are, and you are in for the experience of a lifetime.
It Has Specific Points of Interest
The river crossings tend to be the highlight of the migration, and the main reason people want to see it, but they certainly aren’t the only thing the migration offers. Specific times of the year offer specific behaviours; February for instance, sees the herds at the southern end of their migration, in the lush areas around Ndutu in the southern Serengeti, which is where the cows calve most of their young. An estimated 8000 calves are born a day during the peak of the birthing period, and as a result, predator encounters are rife at this time of year. You won’t see the dramatic river crossings during this period, but what you do see is in many ways equally spectacular.
It Changes Year to Year
Although one can say with a fair amount of certainty which part of the migration the wildebeest are going to be in in which month, seasonal variations in rainfall and grazing may well mean the herds are slightly ahead of or behind their projected location in any given year. Exact routes of the migration may also vary, and the great herd may well be further west in one year than it was the year before, and further east the next year.
It is an Emotional Experience
Few people witness the Great Migration and feel the same way about wildlife afterwards. It is an utterly breath-taking, awe-inspiring, moving experience that can leave you feeling completely drained after a prolonged sighting. Watching a group of 30 000 animals surging across the Mara River, fighting desperately to reach the other bank where a pride of lions may well be lying in wait, each wildebeest struggling – often in vain – to avoid the jaws of the enormous crocodiles that lie dormant for most of the year simply waiting for the annual return of the herds, is something no photograph or video can accurately capture the experience of.
It’s NOT the Only Reason to Visit
Whilst the wildebeests’ annual movements are certainly up there as most people’s main reason for visiting this part of the world, the beauty of the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem is that it is a phenomenal wildlife destination whether the herds are around or not. The wildebeest migrate (accompanied by a quarter of a million zebra), but the large predators (who are largely territorial) and the rest of the antelope inhabitants do not, meaning there is a constant wildlife presence across the grasslands when the wildebeest have moved on. The big cats in particular are seemingly everywhere (over 3000 lions inhabit the Serengeti – reportedly Africa’s largest population), and each rocky outcrop or termite mound should be scrutinised for the tell-tale sign of a pair of ears sticking up above the skyline.
The open plains of East Africa is one of the greatest wildlife destinations on earth, even if there was no migration.
Our Iconic Africa consultants have a number of spectacular camps that we recommend in both Tanzania and Kenya from which you can gain access to the migration, so if this is a trip you are considering, or you just want to find out a bit more, be sure to visit our enquiries page…