The Wildebeest Migration

Don’t be fooled into thinking the Wildebeest Migration is a one-time annual event in the safari calendar. It is, in fact, a year-round continual movement of over 1.5 million wildebeest, zebra, eland and gazelle across the great plains of the Serengeti and Masai Mara as they chase the rains in search of food. Dramatic scenes of animals chancing their lives among the Mara River crocodiles, made famous by almost every BBC wildlife documentary ever made, is just one, admittedly iconic, moment in the Great Migration story.

Governed by the seasonal rains, the relentless march is both unstoppable and unpredictable. The herds move at roughly the same time each year, but exactly what they will be doing during your two-week holiday is impossible to say. Happily, a Great Migration safari will take you through some of Tanzania’s best wildlife areas – so you’ll still enjoy excellent opportunities to spot big game while you search out the herds. With patience and flexibility, the Migration itself is the cherry on top of an already delicious safari cake.

The Great Migration – the basics

For around 10 months of the year, the Migration takes place in Tanzania. In January and February, thousands of calves are born in the lush, short grasslands of the southern Serengeti, then as the plains dry out, the rains draw the herds north. Between July and September, when the southern Serengeti is at its driest, the herds cross the Mara River to reach Kenya’s Masai Mara. This is peak tourist season, although thanks to the sheer scale of the migration, Tanzania offers many opportunities, and places, to see the vast herds at other times in the year.
While the wildebeest follow the same general migratory pattern, there’s no set schedule and timings and maps of their movements are estimates at best. Dictated by the seasonal rains and with millions of animals on the move, the herds split up and meander, following the call of the fresh grasslands. Some will head north through the Serengeti’s Western Corridor towards the Grumeti River crossing, others via the Loliondo area, or the central Serengeti and the Seronera Valley. Whatever the direction, there’s no avoiding the Serengeti’s 3,000 lions, or its hyenas, cheetahs and elusive leopards. Even the river crossings aren’t simple. Herds will cross and re-cross multiple times as they seek out fresh pastures. Here huge Nile crocodiles, which only eat during the migration times, lie in wait. During October and November the wildebeest leave the Masai Mara and begin the long and perilous journey south to start the cycle once again.

What does a Wildebeest Migration holday in Tanzania entail?

Patience and flexibility are key if the Wildebeest Migration is your goal. The herds don’t follow a timetable or map; you’ll be governed by their movements, not the other way round.

Safari operators will track the migration and monitor movement of the herds as they travel and the best way for you to catch up is overland. You’ll need to be prepared for long, bumpy game drives in 4x4 vehicles, but with plenty of other wildlife to spot on the way. If you’re watching the Mara River crossing in August then you need to be prepared for up to 200 other jeeps to be parked up alongside you. This isn’t untouched, exclusive Africa – although if you want a quieter experience you can see the herds at other times of year, in other parts of the Serengeti.
Responsible Travel’s Tom Gibson shares his experience of the Great Migration:
“We caught up with some of the wildebeest herds grazing on a hillside across the valley from us; they stretched to the horizon and as far left and right as we could make out. There were so many of them that it was difficult to actually process what we were seeing. Truly breathtaking.”

Great Migration safaris in the Serengeti are typically combined with game drives in the Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara National Park and northern Tanzania’s other reserves. Additionally, a few days of relaxation on a powder-white Indian Ocean beach, the perfect antidote to those early morning safari starts, is only a short, light aircraft flight away.
Andrew Appleyard, from our supplier Exodus, shares his Wildebeest Migration travel advice:
“It is incredible to see the huge migrations lines. When I led one of my last safaris down there we saw the Big Five within a few hours and so I asked the group what they wanted to do. They asked me ‘what would you do?’ I said I’d park the vehicle up in the middle of the migration, turn the engine off and sit there for two or three hours and just watch it pass. I’d also ban photography for an hour. Too many people just shoot Africa through a lens and come back with 7,000 images – but don’t actually just sit there and take it all in. So I make everyone put their cameras down and sit there and watch it with their engines off.

Our top Tanzania Holiday

Tanzania Migration safari, South Serengeti

Tanzania Migration safari, South Serengeti

The wildebeest migration in the Southern Serengeti

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Wildebeest Migration highlights

The River Crossings

Huge Nile crocodiles lie in wait for the migration in the Mara River, separating the Serengeti from Kenya’s Masai Mara. In July to September the sight of thousands of wildebeest risking their lives to cross is one of nature’s most raw and powerful spectacles, but be prepared for swathes of other safari trucks. Herds reach the more western Grumeti River slightly earlier in the year, at the very start of high season.

The Southern Serengeti

The nursery of the Great Migration; during January and February thousands of newly born wildebeest and zebra graze the lush southern Serengeti plains. This is the place to see baby animals, and a whole host of predators including lions, cheetahs and the elusive leopard, who take advantage of the easy pickings to fatten up before the herds move north. Numerous kopjes, rocky outcrops, provide excellent viewpoints often used by lions.

Ngorongoro Crater

A 25km wide bowlful of over 30,000 animals, this collapsed Rift Valley volcano is one of the best places to see the Big Five in Tanzania all year round. Views from the crater rim to the plains 600m below are simply outstanding, the steep forested sides protecting a unique, self contained ecosystem home to massive bull elephants, one of Africa’s highest densities of lions and critically endangered black rhinoceros. The migration won’t pass through here – but it’s just a short hop away, and so is included on most Wildebeest Migration holiday itineraries.

Best time to see the
Wildebeest Migration

The year-round movement of the Serengeti’s vast herds is entirely governed by the rains, and the instincts of the animals themselves.
In general you’ll need to travel during July to September for a chance to witness the dramatic Mara River crossings. To avoid the worst of the safari crowds which usually descend in August consider late June, when the crossings start, or September once the school holidays have finished.

In May, as the long rains come to a close, the animals are moving north through the central Serengeti so this can be a good time to witness the vast herds on the move. They reach the Grumeti River in May to June.

If the peak season prices are too eye-watering, then the January to February dry period after the short rains have ended can be a good alternative. At this time the herds congregate in the southern Serengeti to give birth to thousands of young in the newly lush grass. The easy pickings make this an excellent time of year to spot predators including lions and cheetahs.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: paulbanton] [Intro: Daniel Rosengren] [The basics: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen] [Tom Gibson Quote: Ben & Gab] [The River Crossings: Make it Kenya] [Best time to see the migration: Make it Kenya]
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