Every year roughly 1.2 million wildebeest and 600 000 thousand zebra follow an age-old route of about 800 kilometres through the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya – this is famously known as The Great Migration, one of the world's most well documented and visited migrations. The herds face constant, daily challenges from droughts, floods and large predators to the dramatic river crossings. With nearly a thousand animals per square kilometre, the channels of animals can even, on occasion be seen from space.
This is one of the largest movements of animals in the world and is definitely on top of many travel enthusiasts' bucket lists, however, it can often be difficult to know when and where to go to give you the best chances of seeing the herds en masse. The herds seem to follow the rainfall between Tanzania and Kenya in search of new grazing opportunities, and the location of the herds at different times of the year is very dependent on these rainfall patterns. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult to predict herd movements as climate change leads to changes in precipitation predictions.
When planning your visit to East Africa in search of The Great Migration, it is important to know what experience you are in search for and plan accordingly, however, the location of the herds and the timing is very dependent on the rains and is rarely the same circuit and timing from year to year. With that being said, the migration is a year-long, circular feat, and can be seen all year round, in different locations along its path. To make your planning easy and educated, we have put together a rough guide to "Experiencing The Great Migration" and what you can expect depending on the time of year.
The Calving Season (December to March):
As the end of the year approaches, signalling the end of the East African short rains (late October into November) the great herds finish their long journey southwards, which takes them from the Mara River, along the eastern edge of the Serengeti, toward the short grass plains of Ndutu and the Southern Serengeti and by January, they arrive en-masse. Here, the plains are rich in nutrients which creates an ideal environment for raising their young. During this first quarter of the year, the rainfall in the southern region of the Serengeti tends to be infrequent with occasional large bursts of rainfall, keeping the temperatures moderate and the landscapes lush and green.
From January to March, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra can be found on the plains of the southern Serengeti, Ndutu and the lower northern slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater highlands and Olduvai Gorge. Here an estimated 400 000 calves are born in a two to three week period in February, which equates to roughly 8000 calves being born a day.
The high numbers of wobbly-legged wildebeest calves being born in such a short period of time naturally attracts high numbers of large predators, who lurk in close proximity to the herds, ready to take advantage of an opportune moment. This strategy of flooding the system with newborns, allows the majority to survive with only a few casualties in comparison to the large numbers born. This area is well known for its iconic cheetah sightings, and witnessing a hunt is not uncommon.
The Trek North and The Rut (April to June) :
As the rains come to an end in the southern Serengeti and the ground begins to dry, the herds begin to make their way north into the central Serengeti. Here, the grass is fresh, ideal for grazing while tending to their young. During the months of April and May, impressive columns of wildebeest stretch for kilometres on route to Moru Kopjies. Rainfall in the central Serengeti now falls and due to the wet weather, it is often considered as the low season, with few visitors trailing the herds.
Mating season, referred to as "the rut," begins toward the end of May and male wildebeest can be seen in head-to-head duals, fighting for mating rights and dominance. All the while, the herds continue at their leisure north and westwards.
By June, the herds gather momentum as they enter the western corridor of the Serengeti. The long, dry season falls between mid-June and late October, and the herds congregate in the western corridor. It is here that they face their first challenge of crossing the crocodile-infested water of the Grumeti River. The herds gather in huge numbers along the pools and channels of the river, which they have to cross to continue their journey north. The crossing along the Grumeti River is not as spectacular as those along the Mara River, later in the season, but it still makes for a unique spectacle.
River Crossings (June to July & August to October):
As June moves into July, the herds gather more momentum and huge herds are now spread out across the western Serengeti as they continue the journey north. As they move, they are fast approaching their biggest hurdle, the Mara River.
The first scene that often comes to mind when mentioning the great migration is the river crossings, where thousands of wildebeest and zebras are faced with crossing treacherous, crocodile-infested waters. These river crossings are arguably some of the most exciting wildlife events on earth and it is something that you have to experience in person to understand it fully.
Crossings generally begin in July, however, the exact time is dependent on the rain, as herds can typically be found in the northern Serengeti, crossing into the Maasai Mara. Once the herds have faced the challenge of crossing the Mara River, by August, they can mostly be found in Kenya, congregating in the Maasai Mara National Park, the Mara Triangle and the surrounding conservatives. Here they enjoy their hard-earned reward of fresh new grazing grounds.
At this time of the year, guests can experience almost daily crossings of the Mara and Talek Rivers, as the wildebeest contemplate which side of the river holds the greenest pastures. By September the chaos of the crossings have ended with the largest portion of the herds found well into the Maasai Mara, at the northernmost part of the migration route.
The Trek South (October to December):
From late September through to November, the seasons start to shift, and the herds start heading south, back into Tanzania from Kenya, crossing the Maasai Mara River in search of soil that has had a chance to regenerate since their departure at the beginning of the year. In October, the herds face the swollen waters of the Mara River once more as they cross south.
During the festive season, over November and December, the rainfall starts to accumulate and the temperatures begin to soar, this time of the year is known as the short rains. The herds move toward the rejuvenated grasslands and the most eastern limits of the Serengeti. The wildlife and landscapes burst to life after the long-awaited rain and this signals the process to start again, with the first few wildebeest and zebra calves being born in Ndutu.
Depending on whether you are looking for thousands of wildebeest calves or if you are wanting to experience the dramatic river crossings, make sure that you plan your trip accordingly.
Some top tips while preparing for your East African Escape:
- Plan ahead: Always give yourself 12 - 18 months to plan, as this is one of Africa's most popular regions, so to ensure you get your choice of accommodation and location, planning is key.
- Give yourself time: The longer you spend in the Serengeti or Maasai Mara, the better your chances at witnessing the migration, and spreading your trip over 2 or 3 camps, in varied locations will give you an even better chance of getting lucky.
- Consider your budget: when the wildebeest are crossing the big rivers, camps are usually the most expensive. Travelling outside of this season, you can still witness the beauty of the migration, at a lower cost and with fewer travellers around.
- Get a private vehicle: the migration can throw a lot of surprises at you and having the freedom and flexibility of a private vehicle allows you to move at your own pace and on your own terms.
For any expert advice and knowledge from first-hand travel experience, get in touch with our team at Escape Safari Co. and we can tailor your ultimate Migration Safari.