Tracking the Great Migration: A Game Plan
Africa: The ultimate game plan for witnessing the Great Migration in Kenya's Masai Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti
The stage is set: 40,000 sq km of tawny savannah, flushed green in places by recent rains and scattered here and there with acacia woodland and jumbled rocky outcrops. A few rivers claw their way across the plains, while distant hills and volcanoes pimple an otherwise unblemished horizon, stretched taut beneath towering African skies.
Enter the leading cast: 1.5 million wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson’s gazelle, and 200,000 plains zebra. Waiting in the wings, lion, cheetah, hyena and crocodile prepare for their killer cameos. The supporting cast completes the scene: everything from the hippo to the dung beetle has a role to play in this wildlife extravaganza. Just don’t expect a big curtain raiser.
The Great Migration is more fringe theatre than West End blockbuster. It has no fanfare opening or edge-of-seat finale. Instead, you can drop in, any time you choose, to witness a small but utterly transfixing part of this perpetual performance. The big question is where to go and when. To answer that, you need to know the script, the game plan for the Great Migration – but be warned, wildebeest are notoriously bad at learning their parts, while the vagaries of seasonal rains can also play havoc with your carefully planned safari.
Essentially, the Great Migration is an endless search for food. The grazers move to where the grass is freshest – and that depends on where the rains have fallen. It’s the weather that controls the herds, spinning them in a giant clockwise rotation through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Red tape is trampled under some eight million hooves as the ungulate legions cross back and forth between Tanzania and Kenya. Nor do they respect the boundaries of the two flagship reserves in the area (the Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve), instead spilling out into neighbouring conservancies to mingle with Maasai cattle.
Don’t run away with the idea that this is some kind of irrepressible stampede, a wave of wildebeest flooding the savannah in a single amorphous mass of clattering hooves and tossing heads. When the herds are on the move they break up, threading single-file for miles across the plains, and where grazing is good, they speckle the land for as far as the eye can see.
That’s not to say, however, that the pilgrimage isn’t punctuated by drama. Far from it. When the herds reach the legendary crossing points of the Grumeti and Mara rivers, they bottleneck in nervous, skittish hordes, well aware of lurking crocodiles and strong currents. The urge to migrate, however, is overpowering and it only takes a single bold zebra (or gung-ho gnu) to wade in before the rest follow, churning the river to a boiling stew of flailing legs, straining necks, leaping white water and reptilian lunges. A feast for predator and photographer alike.
Wherever (and whenever) you witness the Great Migration, however, it is the sheer wonder that such a wide-ranging natural spectacle still exists in our crowded world that ultimately leaves the most lasting impression. Spend a few hours in the midst of a 100,000-strong herd of wildebeest and zebra, striped flanks and bearded faces ebbing around you in ceaseless currents, and you’ll almost feel part of the show.
The migration settles in the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti, near Lake Ndutu. The short rains usually fall here in November and December, (sometimes as early as October), luring herds from the central Serengeti in search of fresh pasture. Nourished by phosphorous-rich volcanic soils, the grasslands offer nutritious grazing. Wildebeest, zebra and gazelle begin calving at the end of the month.
Seasonal camps, including Olakira Camp, Serengeti Safari Camp and Serengeti Under Canvas, pitch up near Lake Ndutu, while permanent accommodation includes Ndutu Safari Lodge.
Calving continues, with up to 500,000 wildebeest born on the southern plains during a two- to three-week window. Far from being static, the wildebeest move around the plains.
You should be in easy driving distance of the herds from Ndutu and Kusini. Due to its central position in the Serengeti, Seronera can be used as a base for viewing the migration from about November to June.
Several weeks of grazing have taken their toll on the southern plains. There are rumblings of thunderstorms to the north and west; soon the herds will be following their noses in search of rain and fresh grass.
The Ndutu region is still the best base.
The migration moves towards the Western Corridor of the Serengeti National Park as the long or heavy rains set in. It’s a slow plod through patchy woodland and long-grass plains, the herds streaming past Moru Kopjes and the Mbalageti River.
Tucked into the Moru Kopjes, Dunia Camp has a lion’s eye view of the plains, while the Serengeti Serena Safari Lodge has an equally panoramic outlook.
As the long rains dwindle, columns of wildebeest continue to enter the Western Corridor of the Serengeti. There is a sense of expectation as the migration piles into the narrow wedge of land between the forest-lined river courses of the Mbalageti and Grumeti.
Properties in the Seronera region are still a good bet, while Mbalageti Camp is well placed near the entrance to the Western Corridor. As the month progresses, everyone wants to be based near the Grumeti River.
By June the rains have stopped and the wildebeest rut is well underway. The grasslands reverberate to the bellows and grunts of testosterone-fuelled males as they chase rivals and round up females. The migration begins to coalesce into a ‘mega herd’, bunched up along the southern bank of the Grumeti River. Crossings can start early in the month, herds splashing through what is usually a series of pools and channels rather than a continuous, flowing river. As the frequency of crossings intensifies during June, Grumeti’s large crocodiles enjoy their annual glut of wildebeest and zebra flesh.
Prime spots for Grumeti River crossings, Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp and Kirawira Camp are located in the Serengeti National Park, while Faru Faru River Lodge, Sabora Tented Camp and Sasakwe Lodge are three stylish Singita properties in a 138,000ha private concession to the north of the river.
With the Grumeti River in their wake, the herds push northwards, the sweet scent of the Mara grasslands in their nostrils. They spread out on a broad front that extends from the Grumeti Game Reserve and Ikorongo Game Controlled Area to northern reaches of the Serengeti National Park.
The migration can enter the Mara as early as mid June; in other years wildebeest can linger in the northern Serengeti well into August and September. You can stake out likely Mara River crossing points in both the Serengeti and Masai Mara throughout July and August. The northern Serengeti, between the Mara River and Kenyan border, the Lamai Wedge is easily accessed by Sayari Camp and Lamai Serengeti. Serengeti Bushtops is also located near the Mara River, while seasonal camps include Lemala Mara, Olakira and Serengeti Under Canvas.
The northward thrust continues. In a typical year, you can expect the migration to reach the Masai Mara by early August. River crossings often reach their frenzied climax this month as large herds take a leap of faith into the Mara River, sometimes doubling back on themselves a few days later – much to the delight of waiting crocs and lions.
Kenya’s finest wildlife sanctuary has plenty of superb camps and lodges, both in the national reserve itself and in neighbouring conservancies. If you’re here specifically to witness the migration, Serena Lodge, Mara Intrepids, Rekero Camp and the Governor’s Camps are located in the western half of the Masai Mara National Reserve, within easy reach of river crossing points. All camps and lodges in the wider Mara can organize day trips into the national reserve.
The focus of the migration is firmly in Kenya where the wildebeest edge slowly eastwards through the Masai Mara. They’ll wander wherever there is fresh grass, so you can also expect to encounter large herds in the conservancies surrounding the reserve.
Choice picks for (top end) places to stay include Kichwa Tembo and Bateleur Camps, Basecamp Masai Mara, Fig Tree Camp, the Governor’s Camps, Kicheche Mara and Bush Camps, Mara Plains Camp, Mara Bushtops, Mara Porini and Porini Lion Camps, Naibosho Camp, Ngerende Island Lodge, Rekero Camp and Sanctuary Olonana. For budget options, you can camp near the Oloolaimutiek and Talek gates.
The herds begin to move with renewed purpose. Any week now, rains start falling on the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti and the wildebeest need to be there when fresh green shoots have pushed to the surface. And so begins the long trek south.
Perched below the Kuka Hills in the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, &Beyond’s Klein’s Camp often has a grandstand view of the migration, while Nomad’s Serengeti Safari Camp and Nduara Loliondo Camp are also well placed at this time of year. Further south, Lobo Wildlife Lodge and Migration Camp both make good bases.
The herds pick up the pace as the short rains lure them southwards. They form long columns stretching from Lobo to the Serengeti’s central Seronera area.
Lobo Wildlife Lodge can still be a good option, but as the month progresses look more to the south. Serena’s Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp and Bilila Lodge Kempinski are near the migration corridor.
The herds reach the southern Serengeti, completing the cycle.
Lodges and camps in the Seronera and Ndutu areas once more become the focus of migration viewing.