Every year in East Africa there’s the opportunity to see one of the most extraordinary displays of wildlife on earth, the annual migration of over two million wildebeest and zebra. This can’t-believe-your-eyes scene is pure honeymoon gold but tracking down such a large herd can be harder than you’d think. So, Y&YW asked Kay Durden at Abercrombie & Kent her top tips for catching this David Attenborough-style documentary in the flesh, so you can make your adventure honeymoon dreams a reality.
Where does the migration take place?
“The migration covers a vast area and takes place in two countries: Tanzania (Serengeti) and Kenya (Maasai Mara).”
Whydoes it happen?
“The herds of wildebeest are driven entirely by standing water and grazing, and the dynamics are created by local weather conditions. Generally the migration is active in Tanzania’s Serengeti for nine months and it’s active in Kenya’s Maasai Mara for three months during August, September and October.”
How does it work?
“The southern plains of the Serengeti are very fertile but they need rain to ripen the grass for a massive population of grazers. The short and light rains fall in November and December. This draws the migration rapidly south from Kenya’s Maasai Mara down the eastern side of Tanzania’s Serengeti (Ndutu, Gol and Southern Loliondo) into these sweet short-grass plains. Depending on local rainfall, they might be anywhere from Moru Kopjes through to the slopes of Ngorongoro Crater at this time. This is also where they choose to give birth to their young (usually February to March), with the rich grass to support them. Within a short space of time, around four to six weeks, several hundred thousand calves will be born and this is where you can see much of the dramatic predator action. The migration will then move off in search of sustenance in response to periods of dry weather, but they will leave this area as late as possible and come back as soon as they can.”
When’s the best time to see the migration in Tanzania?
“The wildebeest settle in the southern plains between about December and April, which is usually the easiest time to see the migration in Tanzania. In April and May the long, heavy rains set in. The depleted southern plains are less attractive than the long grass plains up in the western corridor and the migration starts moving north again.”
When’s the best time to see the migration in Kenya?
“The Maasai Mara is usually at its best in August, September and October. After May, the rains stop and the herds gradually start moving: generally, as the plains of the south and east dry out, there is movement to the north and west, where there is more grass and more dependable water. Large river crossings on the Grumeti and Mara River occur as the migration heads back into Kenya’s Maasai Mara as the season dries out and fresh grazing and water can be found in the far north.
The famous river crossings that happen at this time of year are elusive yet unforgettable experiences. Wildebeest fear crossing a river because they know crocodiles lurk there and watching them take the plunge is incredible.
These crossings carry on till October/November, when the herds will start thinking of heading back. Again this will be dependent on the rains.”
Does the migration follow the same pattern every year?
“The migration is not an exact science as it is not a continually forward motion. The herds go forward, back and to the sides, they mill around, they split up, they join forces, they walk in a line, they spread out, they hang around. You can never predict with certainty where they will be; the best you can do is to predict likely timings, based on past experience – but you can never guarantee the migration 100%.
There are always different factors that play a role:
Not all the wildebeest and zebra will follow the same route: this means that, while part of the migration will head to the western corridor and the Grumeti River before proceeding north, significant numbers may also go up through Loliondo, or via Seronera and Lobo.
In a dry year, the first wildebeest could be near the Mara River (the only decent permanent water in the ecosystem) in early July; in a wet year – mid August. If conditions are very good, i.e. there is plenty of grass and water; the herds will be spread out all the way from Seronera to the Mara River.
The Migration as a whole might not all pass into Kenya and many stay behind or cross and re-cross the border areas.
In 2013 for instance, the short rains set in a bit sooner than usual and made the migration come back down to Southern Tanzania, to the delight of guests staying there that had been told the migration would not be there.”