Journeys Discovering Africa’s 6-point guide to the Serengeti-Mara migration

September 24, 2014

As wildlife spectacles go, a mass migration of large herbivores is hard to beat. The annual migration of about 1,500,000 Common Wildebeest and 100,000 Burchell’s zebra, a round trip of about 300 miles across the Mara and Greater Serengeti Ecosystems in Kenya and Tanzania is a phenomenon that should be in every safari goers bucket list. These few tips should help you to properly plan the safari of a lifetime.

1. Know your ecosystem

The migration is a year-round event. It takes place in a huge area (see map) that is comprised of the Masai Mara in Kenya, and the Serengeti, Loliondo and Ngorongoro Conservation Areas in Tanzania. This is one of the greatest ecosystems on earth, characterized by 12,000 square miles of short grass, interrupted occasionally by riverine forest, woodland and rocky outcrops called “kopjies.”

Serengeti Mara Map

Map of the Greater Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem

2. Know your migration

The migration is driven by rainfall patterns. The Wildebeest prefer to remain for as long as possible on the southern plains of the Serengeti, but the eventual shortage of grass and water from May to October drives them north. Wetter conditions allow them to return to the southern plains from October to May.

Calving and the Long Rains

The “Year of the Wildebeest” begins in February. The short rains that take place in October to December ensure that there is rich pasture in the south, and this is when the wildebeest produce 90% of their calves, one each for the 750,000 cows in a 4-6 week period. This is a very active time for predators, who take many hundreds of calves.

Mating and the move north

In May, after the long rains, the dry season sets in and the herds move north and west to the longer grass and permanent water of the Mara. Coinciding with the movement north is the “Serengeti Rut”, one of the world’s most incredible wildlife spectacles, with 250,000 bulls servicing 750,000 cows. The attendant noise, chasing and mating has to be seen to be believed.

Wildebeest in Kenya's Masai Mara

Wildebeest cross the Mara River

Crossings and the dry season

In July to August, the herds arrive in the northern Serengeti and Mara. Most females are accompanied by a 5-6 month old calf. This is when the spectacular crossings of the Mara and Grumeti rivers can take place, with hundreds of animals at a time braving the crocodiles, the water and the general panic that accompanies these events.

The short rains and the move south

As the short rains commence in October, the short grass plains in the south regenerate and welcome the herd back again for the cycle to begin anew.

3. Plan ahead

Depending on where the herd is at any time, accommodations become fully booked months in advance. A migration safari should be planned at least a year or more ahead so that you are in the right camp at the right time.

4. Choose the right accommodation

There is a considerable variety of tour operators and lodges to choose from, with widely varying standards of service and ethics. The eastern two thirds of the Masai Mara is notorious for its proliferation of unregulated lodges and vehicles, and this can detract from the experience as “traffic jams” can build up at the river crossings. The southern Serengeti can also become quite busy at times, as it is an easy drive here from Arusha.

However, in this vast area, it is remarkably easy to get away from the crowds. Be sure to choose a lodge or camp that trains its guides not to harass the animals when taking guests out, and one that respects the fragility of this area with a light environmental footprint.

The western third of the Masai Mara, known as the Mara Triangle, is now a private concession, and is extremely well run and regulated. There is only the Serena Lodge inside this restricted area, although the best way to experience it, to our mind, is in a private mobile camp.

Wayo Africa’s simple Walking and Green Camps offer a back-to-nature experience in the northern Serengeti. Nomad’s Serengeti Safari Camp and yurt-based Nduara Loliondo are more luxurious and move twice a year to follow the migration. If you would like a permanent camp in July to October, Lamai Serengeti on the Mara River is a fabulous choice, and for those who want the ultimate luxury experience, Singita’s four Grumeti Lodges (June to August) and Mara River Tented Camp (July to September) are the last word in opulence.

Lion Eating a Wildebeest in Kenya's Masai Mara

Wildebeest migration in the Serengeti-Mara

5. Budget the right amount of time

If this is one thing you are going to do next year, do it properly. There is so much potential for wildlife action, that 3 nights is required as a minimum, with 5-7 nights being better. You can always split your time between 2 camps or lodges to break it up a little.

6. Patience is a virtue

This is not the Discovery Channel, and things do not happen on cue. The wildebeest migration as a whole is so unpredictable, that in rare wet years it hardly reaches the Mara at all. The herds go forward, backwards and off to the horizon. They mill around, split up, join forces again, walk in single file or fan out. You can never predict where they will be and you can never be guaranteed a sight of the migration.

River crossings are fleeting, and seeing them is a combination of lots of patience and sheer luck. Wildebeest are easily spooked, and often ponder a crossing for hours, only to turn around and disappear. Crossings, when they do happen, take place in a matter of minutes and are soon past.

The good news is: migration or not, this magical part of Africa always has something to offer the discerning (and deserving!) visitor. We feel that it’s always better to adopt a Zen approach to wildlife viewing, whether on foot or in a vehicle: relax and it will come to you.

Wildebeest in Kenya's Masai Mara

Wildebeest migration in the Serengeti-Mara

Posted by Patrick Shah

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