The main actors in this 3000-kilometer journey are the wildebeests. Almost 2 million of them along with 250,000 zebras, antelopes, and warthogs. For them every year is one endless journey chasing rains and pasture in a race for survival.
The action is set across 160,000 square miles of savannah grassland, woodlands, open plains, and hills. A massive wilderness that includes not only the Serengeti national park in Tanzania but also the enormous Maasai Mara game reserve on the Kenyan side of the border.
Rainfall is the engine that drives the wildebeest migration. It dictates where the herds will be and at what time of the year. In Kenya, July and October are the best times to catch the show. This year unusually dry conditions in northern Tanzania have prompted them to head north earlier than usual.
The rainy seasons which generally runs from October to April sets in a period of hot sunny days that end with brief torrential thunderstorms. They peak in May, a period to avoid getting into the game reserves as most camps are closed, and the plains become quagmires.
The annual cycle can be said to start in the south of the park where around half a million calves are born between January and March of every year. Gestation takes places during the heavy rains in April and about a third of the calves perish due to predators, the tough, wet and cold conditions, and inability to manoeuvre in the mud. But when the rains disappear in May, the land dries quickly, and the grazing wildebeests’ populations expand in size due to plenty of foliage. This is the time to get ready to move on, heading toward new pastures and leaving the drier lands.
When the signal for short showers set in in late October, it is time to turn back from the Mara to Serengeti, and this is the right time to position yourself anywhere from the north of the park between the Lamai Wedge and Klein Camp. When the herds emerge from the northern woodlands in December, they pass through Seronera to congregate on their calving grounds once more, and the circle is complete.
Watching herds of wildebeest cross the Mara river is an unforgettable experience. The previous evening, while sitting on the terrace of your luxury safari lodge, you can chance to see vast swathes of black moving slowly across the plains. In the morning, the first battalions that now look like locusts will start assembling on the banks of the now swollen Mara river from the plains of the Serengeti.
From the vantage point where you’ve parked your jeep, you’ll notice a sea of dark hides, shaggy beards and carved horns and loud honking.
The animals now start pushing along the banks waiting for one of them to take the first plunge. One brave animal will then step closer sniffing the water, look left and right, and suddenly leap into the river. More will follow in a hail of splashing and noise.
The ever-hungry crocodiles will now emerge from their hibernating caves and stealthily swim towards the herd. Unaware of the approaching predators, the wildebeest will gallop merrily toward the opposite bank until one or two unlucky ones land straight on the open jaws of the crocodiles. The jaws will then snap with massive force equalling 1000 pounds. As the trapped prey is left behind, the rest of the herd hastily climb the bank and head to safety. Lucky to live until the next crossing.
For more information read our article Serengeti National Park.