Indulge me for a moment and picture the wildebeest migration in your mind’s eye. What do you see? Quietly grazing herds? Or is the silence shattered by rampaging lions? Perhaps images of river-crossings with nightmare-sized crocodiles come to mind.
Whatever your imagination is of the Masai Mara/Serengeti wildebeest migration, one thing is for sure: you’re going to be disappointed if you make the journey there and don’t see it.
Locked into a seasonally dictated cycle, the world’s most dramatic wildlife migration is a fluid one: if you want to see what you think you’re paying for, it helps to know what happens where and when.
Use our tried-and-tested wildebeest migration guide to point you in the right direction.
Calving Season: Predators and Prey
They’re called the mvuli – Tanzania’s short rains – and their arrival in November triggers the patiently waiting wildebeest in Kenya’s Masai Mara into heading south in big numbers, desperate for fresh grazing. The snorting herds disperse into the Seronera Plains – the central and eastern region of the Serengeti – and home to typical Serengeti country: vast open plains studded with rocky outcrops.
The animals move quickly and between January and March they have reached the Southern Serengeti and the vast Ngorongoro Conservation Area – the Ndutu area and the Ngogongoro Plains are particularly rewarding.
While it’s true that visitors are unlikely to see the classic images of huge columns on the move, herds are large enough and – more importantly for some – predator concentrations are at their peak because between December and mid-March, the wildebeest are calving at a rate of 8 000 wobbly-legged babies a day. This abundance of easy-to-grab prey means that it’s the best region to see large predators – lion, spotted hyena, cheetah and leopard – and your chances of seeing a kill are excellent.
That said, it might not be the best place for those of a sensitive disposition or families with young children: with all this helpless, Bambi-like prey around, things can can get pretty ugly.
Ask our safari travel consultants for the best-located accommodation for the calving season.
Mass Action: The Big Herds
As April draws to a close, the herds begin massing on the southern Serengeti Plains … the time has come for them to make the 800km northward migration. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact departure date – it could be any point between late April and early June – but when they move, they move.
With columns of animals – wildebeest, zebra, gazelle – up to 40km long funnelling into the western Serengeti, this is the time for those classic big herd moments. It’s dusty, noisy and smelly but it’s one of the world’s most impressive natural phenomena and there’s an interesting catch: the Grumeti River lies directly in the path of the herds.
The Main Feature: The River Crossings
If you thought the Age of the Dinosaurs was over, think again: the outsized crocodiles of the Serengeti/Masai Mara rivers are about as close to a monstrous dagger-toothed reptile as you’ll ever see and they’ve been waiting all year in the coffee-coloured waters for the wildebeest to arrive.
From June to early July it’s the Serengeti’s Grumeti River that takes first bite; the herds milling on the southern banks know full well what’s in store, and the tension at the major crossing points is palpable. Indeed, it can take up to 2 weeks for the crossings to begin, and by that time hundreds of thousands of wide-eyed wildebeest have crowded into the Western Corridor before spilling across the Grumeti.
Then things get really scary. In August and September the Mara River offers even more gruesomely spectacular action as the herds nervously funnel into crossing points and once again plunge into the churning river, helplessly locked into their return to the Masai Mara.
You’ll need patience and a strong stomach in equal quantities: the wildebeest don’t cross the croc-infested waters on cue (would you?) but when they do the scenes are scarily primeval with panic-stricken wildebeest and zebra running a gauntlet of snapping jaws. Oh, and those that survive the crossing have yet another challenge: big cats and hyenas lurk on the periphery waiting for the walking wounded.
If you want to see Nature at its most raw and savage – this is the time.
Homecoming: Back to the Masai Mara
After the trauma of the river crossings, the herds disperse. From mid-July to October, about half the animals drift back into the Masai Mara with the remaining animals populating the northern and western Serengeti.
With the break up of the wildebeest migration for the year, the spectacle is somewhat reduced but the northern Serengeti is a wild and remote region and a welcome contrast to the high number of visitors during the more dramatic months.
And come November, the cycle begins again.