Tracking the Great Migration
Updated: Mar 2
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania & Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
By William Gray
Mid-August in the Masai Mara. Our Land Cruiser is parked beside a river, no more than 100m wide and flowing in shallow rapids between low banks of crumbling sand. At any other time of year, we’d barely have given it a second glance – pausing only, perhaps, to look for
hippo or the iridescent flash of a kingfisher. Today, however, the Mara River has us transfixed. The reason is overwhelmingly clear: we have a front-row seat for one of the most spectacular wildlife events on earth: the Great Migration.
Milling around in restless herds to our left are several thousand wildebeest and zebra – a fraction of the two million-plus animals that take part in the annual trek through the plains of the Serengeti and Masai Mara. To our right, hundreds of vultures crowd the riverbanks like rows of leering, hunchbacked fans at some macabre gladiatorial show.
It’s hardly surprising the wildebeest and zebra are reluctant to cross the river – it’s littered with carcasses. Bloated wildebeest, legs protruding like cocktail sticks in fat party sausages, are strewn across the rapids – casualties from earlier river crossings. Marabou storks pace between the vultures, while enormous Nile crocodiles lie motionless in the shallows, watching and waiting.
The wildebeest and zebra gradually swell in number as more animals drift in from the plains. There isn’t a purposeful surge towards the river – it’s more of a slow, irresistible massing, like a kettle building a head of steam. Sooner or later, something has to give. A few dozen wildebeest turn tail and walk away from the river in single file – a loose thread unravelling from the main ball. Then a lone zebra stallion cautiously makes his way to the water’s edge, ears pricked forward; his entire body rigid with concentration. Others jostle behind him; a frisky, jittery mass of black and white stripes. Water starts to froth beneath their hooves and there’s an almost unbearable sense of anticipation as vulture, crocodile and camera-toting tourist wait with baited breath...
Several months later and it’s a quite different scene in the southern Serengeti. Our camp, Serengeti Under Canvas, has been pitched in shady grove of acacias a short distance from the Ndutu Plains where, from January to March, the wildebeest gather to give birth.
The first coral-streaks of dawn have barely permeated the copse before we are driving out onto the savannah for a bush breakfast. Wildebeest and zebra are everywhere, peppering the grassland in their tens and hundreds of thousands. As the engine noise of our Land Cruiser dies, all we can hear is the grunting of the gnus and the whisper of wind over endless seas of grass.
We sip fresh coffee as mini-dramas unfold around us: a newly born wildebeest calf, still wet, tottering beside its mother; hitchhiking oxpecker birds fussing over zebra manes; swallows weaving dizzy paths through the herds, picking at insects disturbed by the scuffing of a million hooves.
Later, we find a female cheetah with three almost fully grown cubs lying up in asparagus scrub on the edge of the plains. A herd of skittish Thompson’s gazelle wanders past and the cats are instantly alert, four spotted heads turning in unison to follow their progress. But the gazelles are wary; they sense danger and keep their distance.
We join the cheetah’s vigil, watching them and their prey from a respectful few hundred metres. An afternoon passes. The cheetah never get quite close enough to launch an attack, but it’s still a privilege to spend five or so hours in their company, synching with the natural rhythms of the Serengeti: shadows of clouds passing over the plains; wildebeest trailing past, head to tail, like columns of ants...
From adrenaline-charged river crossings in the Masai Mara to lazy days in the Serengeti, the Great Migration is the ultimate natural history blockbuster – an epic story full of action, intrigue and drama.
Travel by road to the Masai Mara (5hrs from Nairobi) or take a light aircraft flight. From Kilimanjaro airport, fly or drive to the Serengeti.
&Beyond moves its low-impact, luxury Serengeti Under Canvas camp to prime migration spots throughout the year.
See the Migration Calendar here.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for all travellers visiting Tanzania.