Stephen Bailey
What the Great Wildebeest Migration is Really Like
What the Great Wildebeest Migration is Really Like
Stephen Bailey

I’d like to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes about the great wildebeest migration — and to tell you when to go and where to stay to witness this unique wildlife event.

I’m very fortunate in that I lived for a while in Moshi in Tanzania, which is a six-hour drive from the Serengeti — and I lived also in Kenya, in a place called Naivasha, which is about seven hours from the Maasai Mara.

And it’s in the Serengeti-Maasai Mara ecosystem that the great wildebeest migration takes place.

It’s the same ecosystem — it’s just split across a country border. When you’re planning a safari, you can visit both sides, but it’s a logistical headache to cross the border.

One, because of the famous Mara River, which separates the two areas. Your Jeep isn’t going to cross it, so you will have to go round.

Second, because you’re going to have to go through customs — you will have to leave the safari experience and deal with bureaucracy and real-world things like passports, before returning to the animal kingdom.

So I’d say it’s better just to focus on one of the areas.

Which one you go to depends on the time of year and what you want to see of the great wildebeest migration.

People have told me, “I’m going there and I don’t want to miss the great wildebeest migration. So I’ve heard that I have to go in March — or, I’ve got to go to the Maasai Mara in July — because if I don’t, I’ll miss the wildebeest migration.”

And I always said to them the same thing as my guide said to me — there are one and a half million wild mammals involved in this migration. They don’t vanish. There’s not one month of the year where they suddenly disappear.

These animals are always there — it’s just that they are in different places at different times of the year.

The wildebeest start their journey in the southeast of the Serengeti on what’s known as the Ndutu Plains. That’s where you find some of the most mineral-rich grass in the world — volcanic ash created this grass, and it’s incredibly good for the wildebeest. They grow twice as fast there than they do anywhere else in Africa.

So the wildebeest travel there around December and January, and the females have their calves. At the same time, the females get pregnant with next year’s wildebeest. Of course, all the males join them on those same plains. So until around March, all those wildebeest are in the same place, fattening up for the migration ahead. There are wildebeest everywhere — you cannot go for seconds without hearing or seeing them.

There are also predators everywhere, because there are so many easy meals — baby wildebeest is a great meal for hyenas, cheetahs, leopards, lions. Then there are all the smaller predators that hang around, picking up the scraps.

It’s absolute chaos on the plains. It’s a great time to see a real-life hunt, when predators take down a wildebeest. It’s a great time to go off road as well.

Usually you cannot travel off the main tracks in the Serengeti or Maasai Mara, because it ruins the grasslands, and this is not a land for people — it’s a land for the animals. You’ve got to stay in set vehicle trails. But because that season in this part of the Serengeti is so short, you can go off the road. So you can be just a few metres away from a lion or a leopard chomping into a wildebeest.

It’s a really intense experience.

So, this all takes place in southeastern Serengeti. Then, around March or April, as the rains come into Tanzania, the wildebeest start moving. They follow the rains.

Now if you search online, you’ll find a number of charts and maps showing the movement of the wildebeest, and the path they take through different months of the year.

My guides always taught me to ignore these maps.

One, because they’re oversimplified. One and a half million wildeeest do not move at the same time. They move in big herds, that form super herds, that in their turn form clusters of super herds. So there may be 400,000 together, 200,000 leaving a week later, then 300,000 a few days later.

They all move to fresh pastures, so the next group follows a different route to the group before. And it all depends on the rain. If the rains come earlier, they move early. If they come later, they move later. The rain dictates exactly where they go. So they don’t follow the same pattern. They follow the grass. Mostly they travel north from March or April to around July or August.

During this time, it’s really important to have a safari that’s flexible.

Because if you’re booked into a lodge a year in advance, you cannot change lodge when you find out the wildebeest have migrated through a different area of the park.

You need that local knowledge. You need a guide who knows where the wildebeest were 10 days ago, so they can tell the area the wildebeest are going to be at in 10 days. The guides know how fast the wildebeest move, how they travel in circular patterns — so they’ll know where you should camp. That’s what the great guides do.

During this time of year it’s also the rainy season, and parts of the park become inaccessible. So it’s a nightmare if you’ve gone to the western corridor in May, because that’s where all the maps tell you to go — and actually the wildebeest went through the western corridor in April, so you’ve already missed them. Now they’re in the centre, the paths are all muddy and you can’t get through.

To avoid missing the show, it’s important you have that local expertise during this time in the migration.

It’s also important to be in a small camp — a semi-permanent camp or a mobile camp.

Those camps move with the wildebesst, so they’ll be in a different location in Serengeti National Park depending on the wildlife movements. Unlike the bigger lodges, these camps are flexible. The lodges are fixed there, so if you’re there — well, that’s where you are. And if the wildebeest are going in a different way, then that’s it, you can’t follow them. Whereas with the mobile camps, you can.

It’s around July or August that the wildebeest make their famous crossing of the Mara River.

Hundreds of thousands of them charge across the Mara River to get to the Maasai Mara. And one thing I’d recommend is not to focus your safari around the Mara River crossing. You can watch documentaries and it is incredible. You can see it in real life and it’s incredible — but it’s pretty boring.

Because what happens is, the wildebeest gather on one side of the river. They gather and they gather and they gather, for three, four, five, six days — waiting for one brave wildebeest to show his virility, to be the front runner, to cross this river of crocodiles. To cross from where lions are waiting on one side, to where the lions are waiting on the other side.

And some people go, watch the river for four days — and see nothing.

So don’t make the Mara River an integral part of your safari. If you see it — great, you are fortunate. But it’s just one part of the show. When there are one and a half million animals, the show continues all the time, in all directions.

I’ve driven through 50,000 zebra. It just goes on and on and on. I remember driving at 10 kilometres an hour through the migration. The wildebeest were spread out, all moving in one direction, and we drove for an hour and never got to the other side of the herd.

I remember opening the tent and seeing more animals than there seems to be specks of sand on a beach. The animals are everywhere. They are not only at the Mara River.

So, in July, August, September, the wildebeest migration is in the Maasai Mara in Kenya. That’s also peak season, especially because it’s summer holiday time, so visitors come from Europe.

It can get pretty busy there at that time, so I’d recommend staying in one of the private conservancies of the Maasai Mara. You’re still going to get to see the migration, to see all that volume of animals — but you’re not going to have to share it with 20 other Jeeps.

After September, around a quarter of the animals just haven’t made it. They’ve been eaten by lions on the way, or they died of starvation and were eaten by hyenas. They were taken by crocodiles or leopards. A lot set out, but not all make it back. And in September, October, November, December, they tend to take an eastern route back through the Serengeti towards their carving grounds.

I think this is an underrated time of year.

It’s low season, but the weather is still good. The rains are short. It’s easy to see the big animals here, and you do have the lushness that comes with the short rains.

People say, “Oh, it’s not the migration”. It is the migration. It’s just a different part of it. It’s not all the animals in that energetic run forward. It’s all those tired animals, waiting to go home to where they’re going to give birth. It’s the mothers’ quite slow and laborious pace, because they’re soon going to give birth, meaning they are easy prey for the lions and leopards.

One thing that’s a myth about the migration is that lions and leopards and all other predators actually follow the wildebeest. This is not true.

Lions, leopards, cheetahs — the big cats do not have the stamina to follow the wildebeest. No predator has the stamina to follow the wildebeest. They are incredible animals. Every morning, they are jumping up and down to do something called rutting, where they gallop enthusiastically and lock horns. It’s a show of virility. They’re showing the females, “I’m the strongest male here. Even though we’re on this migration, I can gallop and run around and play every single morning, because I’m the strongest. So meet with me in six months’ time.” That is what the wildebeest are doing.

Zebra do follow the migration. And what zebra do is, they huddle together, so they’re just one giant black and white stripe when seen from a distance. They move in unison, and they usually travel three or four days behind the wildebeest. This is because the wildebeest eat the top of the grass, and the zebra eat what’s closer to the roots. So it’s a harmonious journey.

As they travel, it’s impossible not to see the predators. Lions protect their territory, and they really do hang out on rocks that look just like The Lion King.

The difference being that the lions in The Lion King are very friendly and want peace on earth for all the other animals.

Well, the lions in the Serengeti, they don’t want that. They kill when they’re hungry. And especially when the migration comes through their territory, they take the opportunity to fatten up. The lions and other big cats time their reproduction, so that their young ones can fatten up on the migration that passes through.

Isn’t that amazing? The lions and the Maasai Mara and the lions in the Serengeti will give birth at different times, because that’s when the food is most available.

And one thing I want to emphasize is this — you don’t miss out if you go to Serengeti or Maasai Mara, and don’t see the huge herds.

Those lions are always there. The elephants, buffalo, giraffe, gazelle, Thompson’s gazelle, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them, they don’t vanish. There are hippos in the river, hippos in the small waterholes. The animals are always there. You always can experience them.

And the only thing you need is the time to do so.

Because the Serengeti is bigger than Belgium. This is a wild landscape, bigger quite a few European countries, home to more large, wild, land mammals than anywhere else on earth.

So you can’t go for a day, take some photos of an elephant, take a photo of a wildebeest, and then go home. That’s just not how you do it. You need to go for three, four days. If you went for three or four months, I can guarantee you would see something different every single time. I’ve been three times and every time has been completely different.

Yes, it’s expensive to be there — but it’s 24-hour experience. In the Serengeti, you don’t pay for two safari activities a day, which is the general way of doing things in most safari destinations around Africa.

In the Serengeti, you’re likely to be on a game drive all day.

It’s going to be up at sunrise, out with the first light, tracking the big cats, staying out with a picnic, following animals across the plains, a real 12 hours in the vehicle bumping along. It gets sandy, it gets dusty—but it’s adventurous, a real expedition.

You feel like a wildlife documentarian, creating your own path, following those animals, getting closer to wildebeest, seeing a carcass and waiting for the hyenas to take it, watching lions on a hunt.

It’s those — and so many other — stories that make the experience of the great wildebeest migration.

I want to repeat that experience forever. I’m sure you will also want to repeat it for the rest of your life.

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