Often described as the greatest show on Earth, the annual migration of over a million wildebeest (and hundreds of thousands of zebra) is a natural phenomenon like no other. We sent our Africa specialist Harry out to Tanzania to experience this awesome event first hand…
As the largest migration of mammals in the world, the great wildebeest migration is a spectacle that I had wanted to see for a long time. This year I was lucky enough to be in the northern Serengeti in early September accompanied by endless herds of wildebeest and zebra, with many predators in tow too! To catch sight of wildebeest crossing the Mara River is regarded to be up there as one of the all-time, ultimate safari experiences, and I was hoping my luck might be in.
As we drove from central Serengeti up to the north, we could slowly see the density of wildebeest increasing. By early September the wildebeest have made their way from the north-west of the Serengeti up to the very north, where they cross into the Masai Mara in Kenya. This is the perfect time and place to catch a river crossing, as the wildebeest gather in huge numbers to cross the Mara River in an attempt to find new pastures to graze on during the dry season. Wildebeest are creatures of habit, as their annual migration would suggest, and they tend to congregate by a river crossing area they have used before so that they known the lay of the land, so to speak. They will often stay on the top of the riverbank for some time, before one of the wildebeest makes the executive decision to cross.
Eager to catch sight of one of these legendary crossings, I waited patiently with my guide under an acacia tree near the crossing point, watching as more and more wildebeest joined the herd, which was a promising sign. Many of them popped down to the river for a drink and to assess the crossing to see if it was safe; a few made dummy jumps into the shallow bank of the river, before changing their mind and retreating. We had been waiting for a good 25 minutes now but still no crossing.
The wildebeest all started to leave this particular crossing spot and head towards the next crossing area along. We followed and waited under another tree, this time for another 30 or so minutes as hundreds of wildebeest gathered on both sides of the river, most of them just standing around and grunting, which is quite an orchestra in itself! After a few herds had been riverside for a while, the first wildebeest dipped its hoof in the river and started to run. Without a moment’s hesitation, ALL the rest follow – hundreds and hundreds, crossing in a frantic, survival manner!
This is where it all gets really interesting… the current is often quite strong and sometimes claims a few of the weaker calves. Most often they are left on their own to cross the river, with their mothers only looking for them once they have made it across to the other side. As they approach the opposite riverbank hoping to make a safe exit, there are usually a few hungry crocs snapping away at the wildebeest legs in the hope of an easy meal… either that or they’re bored and lurking merely to wreak havoc! Sometimes you get the odd lion waiting by the riverside too – this really is easy pickings for predators!
During this crossing most of the wildebeest make it across unscathed, but the sheer panic that springs into the wildebeest as they enter survival mode is quite a display! Some even lose their nerve and climb up onto the rocks in the middle of the river, but rocks and wildebeest hooves are never good together – they can get stuck up on the rocks for ages before figuring out how to get down. After approximately 35 exhausting and exciting minutes this particular herd had finished their crossing, but WOW, what an amazing thing to witness, and definitely worth the wait!