Best places to see wildlife
spectacles in Africa

The Collins dictionary defines a spectacle as ‘a strange or interesting sight’ and also as ‘a grand and impressive event or performance’. When it comes to African wildlife, sometimes both descriptions apply.
In Africa, wildlife spectacles are always fascinating, but they can also read as extraordinary performances, in which huge numbers of animals come together, to feed or hunt or drink, in vast, seemingly choreographed glory. The drama of hundreds of wildebeest plunging over the Mara River, dodging enormous crocodiles, in their perpetual pursuit of fresh pasture; the sight of millions of bats descending on a tiny scrap of forest in Zambia to feast on its fruit trees; the huge herds of elephants that drink at the Chobe River in Botswana – these are some of the continent’s most memorable wildlife spectacles, but read on to discover a few more. And just to be clear, we mean wildlife spectacles; not wildlife in spectacles. If you want the latter, you can just stick your reading glasses on your dog and stay at home.

The Great Migration, Tanzania & Kenya

The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of nature’s biggest wildlife events; a never-ending movement of 1.5 million wildebeest, plus zebra, gazelle and eland, which circles the vast Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Tanzania and Kenya, chasing the rains in a constant search for food. The journey is loaded with risk as the legendary Serengeti lions – some 3,000 of them – lie in wait, along with leopards, cheetahs and hungry hyenas. It reaches its riotous crescendo when the mega herds cross the Mara River, usually in July and August, where enormous crocodiles lurk. Around 10,000 wildebeest can cross in a single day, but 100,000 have been recorded. Quite a sight.

Wildebeest migration, Zambia

The huge herds of wildebeest that flow into the Liuwa Plains in Zambia from Angola each November could be known as the Second Great Migration. This is the second largest gathering of these animals in Africa, after East Africa’s celebrated Great Migration, and yet it’s virtually unknown. While you won’t get the drama of the Mara River crossing, you will still see huge numbers of wildebeest – around 45,000 – and barely any other tourists watching them. There are no permanent lodges in Liuwa, which lies in the far west of Zambia, so travelling here is a true expedition to pristine wilderness.

Bat migration, Zambia

The Great Migration of wildebeest in the Serengeti and Masai Mara may win the attention and the fancy name, but the largest mammal migration in the world actually takes place in Zambia, when every November and December as many as 10 million straw coloured fruits bats take up residence in Kasanka National Park, to feed on seasonal supplies of fruit. The bats migrate from the Congo Basin to a single stand of forest in search of certain trees that come into fruit with the start of the rains. Seeing the bats fly out each evening from their roosts to feed is an extraordinary spectacle. Birds of prey swoop in, too, in huge numbers, looking for an easy meal.

Enormous elephant herds, Botswana

The Chobe River, which flows through Chobe National Park in Botswana, supports the largest concentration of elephants anywhere in Africa. During the dry winter months from June through to October, you can watch huge herds that sometimes exceed 100 elephants, head to its shores, to drink, wallow and take a dust bath. In addition, there are vast quantities of zebra and buffalo here. If you choose a safari holiday that includes wild camping, you will be treated to the electrifying experience of hundreds of animals pouring past your tent in the twilight as they head for the river. As the light fades, the chorus of buffalo moos, zebra whinnies and elephant trumpets continue, followed by the splash of hooves in water as they cross the Chobe River.

Gelada monkeys, Ethiopia

Head to the Simien Mountains of northern Ethiopia and you can gaze out on the rare sight of thousands of monkeys, grazing on the lofty grasslands. These are geladas, the world’s only grass eating monkey. It’s not uncommon to see them gathered together in huge herds of 1,200 monkeys, but while they seem to form one huge group, this monkey mass actually consists of lots of small harems, with a dominant male and up to a dozen females plus their young. These harems tend not to know the other monkeys in their herd – a bit like humans living in the suburbs. Another fascinating sight to note here is the Ethiopian wolves that are permitted to wander through the gelada herds. The wolves ignore the baby geladas, which would make a tasty meal, in favour of rodents, which they can catch more easily when the monkeys are present. Primatologists believe this unusual pact resembles the way dogs began to be domesticated by humans.

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Wildlife watching in Africa – practicalities

Travelling to Africa is never a budget option and you’re best off allowing two weeks to take in its landscapes and wildlife, and also catch one of its great wildlife spectacles. Joining an organised tour is easiest way to travel, with all transport, park permits and accommodation included, plus the expertise of local naturalist guides.

The elephant herds of Chobe in Botswana feature on many standard safari itineraries, with the dry winter months the best time to see mega herds. The Great Migration is at its most dramatic in July and August when the wildebeest travel from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara, crossing the treacherous Mara River. Since the herds are always on the move, you can also catch the Migration in the southern Serengeti in March, as it begins to move north, or in December as it circles back south after feeding in Kenya.

If you’d like to see Zambia’s bat or wildebeest migration you’ll need to join a specialist trip, with the latter involving true expedition travel over three weeks, since Liuwa Plains where the wildebeest congregate is so remote.

Geladas
are present in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia all year, but the best time to go from a traveller’s perspective is November to March, when there’s little rain and long hours of sunlight.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dave3006] [Intro: Make it Kenya] [The Great Migration, Tanzania & Kenya: Make it Kenya] [Enormous elephant herds, Botswana: i_pinz] [Wildlife watching in Africa – practicalities: Alastair Rae]
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