When it comes to the wildebeest migration it’s hard to conceive the scale of the event. This underrated wildlife species shows its true tenacity, and a will to survive against all odds, during this annual ritual.
It is much more than the just the river crossings that challenge these animals constant battle for survival on the great trek, the meanderings across the plains count just as much.
This is their story.
When the Dutch Colonialists arrived in southern Africa they marvelled at these creatures and named them ‘wildebeest’ which literally translates to ‘wild beast’, due to their unkempt appearance. Fossil evidence suggests that wildebeest began grazing on grasslands more than a million years ago. Countless hooves have trodden this earth, and if there is such a thing as generational wisdom then – although they may not be the most intelligent of creatures – some secrets of the savannah must surely be trapped within them, and it is perhaps these secrets that lead them unfailingly on their circular route across the African plains.
The annual migration heads south during the rainy season. The heat haze distorts the view as the sun pounds the earth. A growing number of wildebeest and zebras flood the plains. It is a time of relative calm for the herds. But not for long: in the south of the Serengeti everything is about to change.
No one knows what triggers the migration. Is it the rain, or is it some instinctive call only the wildebeest can hear? The rains appear to be the obvious answer, but naturalists and scientists alike have not been able to conclusively uncover this mystery. Perhaps part of the magic is that we cannot know the answer; it is lost on us. But what we do know is that the call must be stronger than the dangers the wildebeest know so well, for they risk the journey year-on-year.
When the two million strong herds make their way across the plains, they appear oblivious to the tourists hovering on the edges, marveling at the spectacle as these shaggy creatures take center stage for the greatest show on earth. Whether it is true grit or pure instinct that drives them, the wildebeests’ commitment to the journey is unwavering as they make their way to the river crossings that form part of the circular route they will be traversing.
The herds move in a clockwise direction from the south of the Serengeti, through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Grumeti Reserve into the north of the Serengeti.
Most of the migration takes place in the far larger Serengeti than in the Maasai Mara.
Tragically for the herds, much of the route is fraught with danger; for the predators, the migration signals a feast. The rivers are teeming with crocodiles; lions and other big cats stalk the plains. And the hyenas are no laughing matter either.
As the wildebeest head across the Serengeti, they are joined by great herds of gazelle and zebra. Their strength lies in their numbers for it is much harder for a predator to launch an attack on a mass stampede of animals. Together they will walk and run over a 1000 km in the coming months, and twice cross the border between two countries. Starvation, disease and exhaustion cause many deaths along the route, providing a veritable feast for opportunistic creatures such as vultures and hyenas.
It is important to note that not all the animals of the savannah are migratory, and devoting some time to spotting lion, elephant, giraffe and the primates the bush has to offer is deeply rewarding too. In fact, there is a trick in moving counterclockwise to the migration which both allows you less crowds, and more affordable travel. The magnificence of the Serengeti goes beyond the migration, and there is always more to discover. But this does not mean you have to miss out on the river crossings.
The wildebeest regroup at the rivers and the streams, instinctively aware that the river crossings provide the most serious challenge. The banks are steep and the water level often low, and even a stampeding herd doesn’t’ always deter the crocodiles. The powerful reptiles simply wait for a straggler to be separated from the herd, often from the ranks of the elderly beasts or the newborn, which are easily disorientated in the chaos. These creatures are the most vulnerable, an easy meal for the river-dwellers. And the herd doesn’t wait for those who get lost or are tired; Mother Nature created an unsympathetic camaraderie to ensure the survival of the toughest, at the expense of the weak and the frail. The African bush is a beautiful but harsh environment for those who dwell in it.
The wildebeest always follow the same pattern: the females of the herd carry calves as they make their way to the birthing plains, and when they reach their destination, up to 8000 calves are born a day. On wobbly legs the new arrivals find their feet; not getting trampled by the herd is the first challenge they face. And a mother wildebeest will do her utmost to protect her young from predators, fending them off with her horns.
WHERE TO BE AT WHAT TIME?
In January, the first rains begin to fall in the southern Serengeti, just as the herds start heading off to the Ndutu area. You also want to scout out Naabi Hill and Lobo. February sees the herds crossing over into the area around Lake MAEK and Lake NDUTU.
By March the herds can be found in Ndutu and the Kusini Maswa region, in the southwest of the park, and they are now moving at a much slower pace as they give birth and to accommodate their young. Predators of the Nudtu area have a feast on their doorstep making for incredible but sad sightings.
Come April when the big rains come and the herds move through the Ndutu Region, past Simba Kopje, in the direction of Moru, splitting into large groups instead of a single herd, where the park plays host to the lions and the lesser cats, the serval and the caracal.
May the big rains continue in the Serengeti and the herds move between Moru and Mokoma and toward Lake Magadi. June finds the herds rearranging themselves into a long line. The rains have settled down somewhat and the herds have spread themselves out. The leaders reach Mbalageti River, while those who form the tail end can be found as far back as Lake Magadi, or in the southern parts of the Simiti and Nyamamu Hills.
July is mating season. The Grumeti Reserve in the west of the Serengeti provides the ideal location as the herds start passing Fort Ikoma. Crossing the Grumeti River is next, an event somewhat less spectacular than the Mara River, but a challenge, nonetheless. This forms part of the pull northward, to the Masai Mara in Kenya.
During August, the herds move up the northern Serengeti. Here they will face their biggest challenge: the Mara river. This fast-flowing river connects the Masai Mara to the Serengeti, crossing borders at the spot that exacts the highest death toll of the migration. Sometimes jumping off the steep banks to escape a lion and plummeting to their death or being crushed by the stampede trying to scale the other side of the bank, stragglers, and those that are injured, are picked off quickly by the waiting predators. Submerged below the waterline with only their eyes visible, the crocodiles strike swiftly, capturing their prey in their powerful jaws and dragging them into the depths where they meet a watery death. A wildebeest’s best chance at survival is to thunder through the water as fast as possible, hoping to avoid the death traps in their way.
September presents the last of the Mara crossings, and by October the grass is plentiful, a feast well deserved by the migrating herds. The ‘short rains’ start in November and the herds leave Kenya and move south to the Loliondo and the Lobo areas of the Serengeti. Herds disperse into smaller groups and start grazing with purpose. December the siren begins to beckon the wildebeest south.
Seasons and what to pack for your great migration adventure?
First and foremost, pack your camera. This is an essential piece of equipment, whether it be a small point and shoot, or a professional kit, you will want to capture the action. And a map of the route will help to orientate yourself as the herds move along.
When on safari you can never go wrong with a fly deterrent skin cream (Pure Beginnings makes a natural insect repellent you can apply directly). Mosquitos nets are normally available at camp, and a natural mosquito spray (Pure Beginnings Insect Repellent Spray is another useful product). Occasionally mosquitos have their way anyway, so remember to pack an antihistamine to treat those pesky bites.
Expect some rain in January. And perhaps pack an umbrella too, for your dash from your vehicle to the camp. Keep a rain jacket handy and wear layers.
Expect afternoon rainfall towards end March, the so-called long rains. By April a proper rain jacket will be needed, as the long rains continue. May is the last month of the long rains.
By June the rains will have mostly stopped, except for the odd shower here and there. Pack light clothing. This is the very beginning of the dry season.
In July the dry season starts in full force. You’ll want summer clothing, and sun hats.
During August the dry season brings the savannah heat, and you’ll want to spend midday reclining in the shade. September is still hot and dry. Pack your hat, and sunscreen. October is the very last month of the dry season. In November the short rain starts, and you’ll want to be prepared with warmer clothes. For December the rains will continue and while the savannah turns to a lush green, you’ll still need that fleece jacket.
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