The Greatest Show on Earth: Africa's Great Wildebeest Migration
Our East Africa team explain why the migration of wildebeest around the Serengeti and Masai Mara is one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles, and how you can plan your safari to include it.
A lion tackles a wildebeest in the Masai Mara
Observing the migration herds is quite an experience, but to witness a river crossing is something else entirely.Audley Kenya specialist, Joanna
East Africa's 'Great Migration' is not to be missed. Watching the herds of wildebeest, as they plunge across the hazardous waters of the Mara River in their tens of thousands, has inspired safari goers for generations.
However there’s far more drama to the Migration than just the crossings, with amazing sights to be seen year round; from the birthing season on the southern Ndutu Plains to the seemingly endless lines of animals winding their way north through the western Serengeti in search of the best grazing.
On an annual cycle, the herds, which can number in the region of 1.4 million wildebeest and some 200,000 zebra and gazelle, embark on a perilous journey that takes them clockwise through the expanse of Tanzania’s Serengeti into Kenya’s Masai Mara on a journey of survival. Sensing the distant rains, the herds move across the plains in search of fresh grass but attracting the resident predators, ready to pick off the weak or unwary.
For the intrepid traveller, witnessing this natural performance unfold is a sight that will remain with you for a lifetime.
The trick with the Migration is all in the timing and location. If the Migration is your priority, our recommendation is to stay in one of the mobile camps in the Serengeti.
These move every couple of months to ensure guests are in the best spot to see the action as it unfolds. And before you say "I’m not sure about camping," this is a far cry from a dome tent in the Lake District. Whether you’re in a simple, no-frills camp like Kati Kati, or a more luxurious property such as Dunia or Serian, you will have a spacious walk-in tent with beds and duvets along with an en suite bathroom with loo, basin and bucket shower.
As well as being in a prime location, staying in a tented camp offers you all the romance of a traditional safari – sharing stories around the campfire with other guests, dining under the stars, and waking to the birdsong as the first rays of sun hit the savannah. There’s no better way to experience the Migration.
The Great Migration month by month
January to March
The story begins in the latter half of January as the herds converge on the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti and the neighbouring Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Here the females give birth to their young in the safety of numbers that millions of animals bring, gorging on the nutrient rich ‘super grass’ fed by volcanic substrate formed long ago. February moves into March and the herds begin to exhaust the short grasses and move northwest to the southern and central Serengeti areas of Kusini and the Seronera Valley. The young animals are growing stronger.
April to June
As March moves into April and May the 'long rains' fall, drawing the herds towards the Western Corridor and the first of the river crossings. While a breakaway group of animals, often comprised of young males, move north, by June the majority of the herds are stomping and snorting on the banks of the Grumeti River. The numbers continue to mass, until the first of the animals plunge into the river to risk the teeth of the crocodiles gathered in anticipation and the strong flow of river waters that have been swollen by the floods of the rains.
The rain becomes a distant memory and the herds continue north, converging on the final barrier of the Mara River, the geographic boundary between the Serengeti of Tanzania and the Masai Mara of Kenya. This is the famous time of multiple river crossings, when the herds crowd into the confined space of the Masai Mara, turning the grasslands into a shifting mass of hides, fly-blown and chaotic. The wildebeest, zebras and gazelles are driven by their primal instinct to keep moving to find fresh grazing, while remaining alert enough to avoid the big cats that lurk, waiting for their next meal.
August to October
Throughout this time, the herds remain in the Mara and the northern Serengeti, repeatedly splitting into sub-groups that cross and re-cross the Mara River, seemingly forgetful of the danger, driven purely by instinct.
November to December
As the grasses are exhausted and the birth time approaches, the herds will cross the Mara for the last time and wander back south, through the Serengeti. From here, they’ll continue on to the short grass of Ndutu and the place of new beginnings.
How to see that exclusive river crossing
Observing the migration herds is quite an experience, but to witness a river crossing is something else entirely. Watching the animals hurtle themselves into the crocodile infested Mara River is both dramatic and incredibly exciting, and the sheer numbers are difficult to fathom even as you witness them with your own eyes.
To be a part of this remarkable event you must truly be in the right place at the right time. While we can never fully predict when and where the animals will cross, there are times and areas that are most advantageous.
From late July into mid-August is a perfect time to witness the animals crossing the Mara River as they head north into Kenya’s Masai Mara. The animals will then spend much of August, September and early October in this area, crossing the Mara and Talek rivers multiple times before heading south again to the Serengeti in Tanzania.
For the best chance of witnessing a crossing, I would recommend spending a few days in both the Masai Mara and the Serengeti at this time of year, using the flights which link the two parks.
The Great Migration, Kenya
The Great Migration as seen from Rekero Tented Camp, Masai Mara
Wildebeest congregating for a river crossing
Lion couple in the Serengeti, Tanzania