Experiencing the Great Migration

Experiencing the Great Migration

Neither words nor photos can capture the chaos of the great migration. It is a wildlife spectacle that needs to been seen to understand the scale on which it unfolds. Every year an estimated one and a half million white-bearded wildebeest travel over 300 miles in a giant loop across Kenya and Tanzania in search of fresh grass. Along this trek they birth their young; attempt perilous river crossings where many wildebeest drown or are eaten by crocodiles; and they fall prey to awaiting lions. The entire display is filled with drama and suspense and was something I had wanted to see since I moved to South Africa.

In order to maximize our chances of witnessing the wildebeest crossing the Mara River, I scheduled a trip to see the great migration in mid-August and planned on spending time in the Masai Mara (Kenya) as well as the Northern Serengeti (Tanzania). Because the wildebeest and other animals, including zebra, gazelles, and topi (an antelope subspecies of tsessebe) migrate year round, if visiting at a different time of year you will want to find a camp near to where the animals are. From late July through September all the action occurs along the Mara River and we were perfectly positioned to see a crossing.

Truthfully I expected the crossing to appear as it does on wildlife documentaries where the wildebeest amass steadily above a crocodile infested river. Then seemingly without warning a wildebeest charges down the banks of the river and the others mindlessly follow in a cloud of dust. They pause on the banks, their fallen comrades’ bloated bodies in the river isn’t a deterrent and suddenly a wildebeest valiantly leaps into the river and they all make a go for it in bunched-up lines, their wet coats glistening in the high noon sun. They continue like this for hours. While there is an element of truth to this scenario, in reality the wildebeest are as likely to leisurely meander toward the river pausing on the banks waiting for one to make a fateful move. They hesitate and when no one makes an attempt, they turn back to graze some more.

On one occasion we watched the wildebeest run down the banks, tear along the river kicking up dust, only to decide to struggle back up an extremely steep bank. Nary a wildebeest crossed despite all the commotion. On another occasion the zebra led the herds to edge of the river. Their movement triggered everyone else to move until chaos erupted and wildebeest scattered in all directions alarm calling. A lioness was hunting in their midst and her presence ended the crossing. Waiting for a crossing takes hours and we found that half of the fun was narrating the wildebeest movements while swatting away tsetse flies. The herds’ movements seem hapless instead of deliberate and their memories seem to be as long as that of a goldfish. Watching them, they do appear like the least intelligent animal that lives in the bush. I am sure this assessment is a bit unfair, but given that their survival mechanism depends on birthing 500K babies every year, there may be some truth in the statement.

While the chaos of thousands of wildebeest traversing a flowing river is stunning, what is equally impressive is driving for hours upon hours through herds of wildebeest. As soon as I felt as if I had seen every wildebeest in existence, we drove through a few hundred more. It is more difficult to describe or photograph the sheer numbers of wildebeest that we saw grazing and steadily moving toward the river.

While the great migration is a magnificent display to behold, I had the feeling that humans were interfering with how events transpired. The human migration seemed almost as large as the wildebeest one. I have become accustomed to game viewing on private reserves where sightings are limited to three vehicles, but in most national parks there are not similar regulations. In addition there are many, many vehicles on hand to see the great migration. Most guides are sensitive and experienced, but others are careless and reckless, something to keep in mind when choosing a camp or tour provider. Since the exact crossing point is unknown, guides make an educated guess as to the best position and as soon as the wildebeest indicate where they might traverse, the vehicles migrate, careening through the bush to ensure their guests catch a glimpse. There appeared to be fewer rules in the Masai Mara where we saw a vehicle plow through the herd while they were moving toward the river. On the Serengeti side, the vehicles have to wait far from the river until the wildebeest start traversing. That was their cue to jockey for a spot, but the problem is that wildebeest change direction on a whim and their access can be blocked by humans and vehicles. It is possible to experience a private crossing provided the a larger herd has gathered at another crossing and a smaller one at another. Wildebeest cross at many points, but some are more popular than others and most guides will hedge their bets on the larger herds and popular crossing. I didn’t take into account how busy the great migration feels and I was rather off put by the vehicle migration.

Despite the negatives and the fact that I think the great migration will have to be regulated in order to ensure it continues without interference, it is one of the most amazing spectacles I have ever seen. Wildebeest were never an animal that I had an interest in watching for hours upon hours and this is coming from someone who would eagerly watch impala for hours. After this trip, I have a new found appreciation for their journey and survival mechanisms. The great migration is something that any safari enthusiast should experience.