One of the most sought-after experiences for wildlife and nature enthusiasts, the Great Migration is the ever-moving circular migration of over a million animals across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The constant movement of columns of wildebeest, joined by a host of companions, follow an age-old route in search of grazing and water.
After calving in the southern part of Tanzania’s Serengeti near the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the animals journey through the Serengeti up and around in a clockwise direction towards the Masai Mara in Kenya, before returning once again near the end of the year. Along the way, high drama is always present, as thousands of animals are taken by predators and thousands more are born, replenishing the numbers and sustaining the circle of life.
There is no single time of year to see the Great Migration since it is an eternal annual cycle from place to place, year in and year out. However, depending on either the aspect of the Great Migration you want to witness (such as river crossings), or the time of year that you prefer to travel, your safari can be tailored to give you the best chance of seeing what you desire. The Great Migration can be summarised in this way as having these four seasons.
Alternatively, you can learn more about when to travel via through this month-by-month breakdown of the Great Migration.
Whether the great herds are calving in the south or on the move north in search of greener pastures – and then back again – there is a huge variety of astounding scenes unfolding before you.
|Calving (Birthing) Season||February to March||Southern Serengeti|
|Rutting (Breeding) Season||April to May||Western & Central Serengeti|
|Grumeti River Crossings||May to June||Central Serengeti|
|Mara River Crossings||July to August||Northern Serengeti & Masai Mara|
|On the Move||November to January||Masai Mara & Northern Serengeti to Southern Serengeti|
No, not even the wildebeest know when they’re going to cross! Some arrive at the water and swim over immediately; some arrive and spend days hanging around grazing; some arrive and turn back to where they came from. We wish we could predict the crossings, but no-one can. This is why it is best to have as much time on safari as possible if you hope to see a river crossing.
Most people think that the Wildebeest Migration only takes place between July and October, but it’s actually an ever-moving, circular migration with various but equally exciting events that occur year-round. The popular river crossings usually coincide with safari’s high season (June to October), hence the perception that this is the only time of the year that the wildebeest are on the move or can be seen.
Because the Great Migration is a fluid, year-round movement of about two million animals across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, there are no defined start or end points. The Gnu Migration is triggered by East Africa’s rains and the animals follow an age-old route in search of fresh grazing and water. This epic journey takes the wildebeest across the Masai Mara plains in Kenya, all the way south into Tanzania’s Serengeti and the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, before circling up and around in a clockwise direction.
It is generally believed that the Great Migration in Africa is dictated primarily by the wildebeest’s response to the weather. They move after the rains and the growth of new grass, essentially following a natural instinct to find food to stay alive. Some experts believe that the wildebeest are triggered by distant lightning and thunderstorms, but there is no scientific proof of it.
With climate change, the long and short rainy seasons in Tanzania and Kenya are no longer as regular or predictable as they once were. The rains can be late or early, which will throw the whole wildebeest calendar out of synch. This is, once again, why it’s important to plan for as much time on safari as possible. You cannot fly in for two nights, see a river crossing and fly out again – nature simply doesn’t work that way.
This is a very general guideline for where the herds are during the year – bearing in mind that the entire Gnu Migration is triggered by rain, which can be early, late or on time:
The herds are in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, moving south from the north-east region and into the area near Lake Ndutu. The Serengeti is not fenced, so the herds are free to move where they can find grazing. Remember that although up to two million wildebeest, zebra and antelope form the Serengeti Migration, they are not all in a single herd. The animals break up into mega-herds of thousands or hundreds of individuals at time.
It is calving season (over 8 000 wildebeest babies are born each day!) so prepare yourself for lots of wobbly calves… and lots of heartbreak as fearsome predators swoop in. The Serengeti’s big cats take the lion’s share, but hit-and-run jackals, packs of wild dog, and hyena clans add to the spectacle. It’s a bittersweet ballad; the circle of life played out as a live action drama.
If the short rainy season (Nov–Dec) produced good grazing, the herds feed frenziedly and remain in the Serengeti’s southern plains until they slowly start moving west in March.
It’s the start of the long rains (Apr–May) and the herds generally move in a north-westerly direction towards the Moru and Simba Kopjes. The action-packed rutting (breeding) season is in full swing, featuring testosterone-fuelled jousts between males competing for the right to mate with receptive females.
Wagons roll! The massed herds are on the go, huge columns of up to 40 kilometres (25 miles) in length can sometimes be seen as the wildebeest funnel up into the central Serengeti. Everyone’s moving a little quicker now that the calves are stronger.
The wildebeest are usually in the central Serengeti and getting ready for the toughest part of their odyssey. The herds may have split up, with some already crossing the Grumeti River.
The Great Migration have reached the Grumeti region and northern parts of the Serengeti and are peering closely at the treacherous waters of the Mara River they have to cross into Kenya. Why? Huge Nile crocodiles, that’s why!
As mentioned, it is impossible to accurately predict river crossings – they depend entirely on the rains and the often unpredictable wildebeest themselves. It’s vital to book your Wildebeest Migration safari in Africa up to a year in advance to get a lodge on or as close to the river as possible – this cuts down on travel time to lookout points. The wildebeest do have historical crossing areas and you may spend days staked out in the hope of seeing the action. We recommend choosing a mobile safari camp that moves with the Migration to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time.
August is generally considered the best time to witness the dramatic river crossings from the northern Serengeti into the Masai Mara. You’ll need a passport to cross into Kenya; the wildebeest are exempt. The Masai Mara National Reserve is open to members of the public so for a more exclusive safari experience, head for the private conservancies that are contiguous with the reserve.
The herds break up into smaller groups, as not all the wildebeest migrate into Kenya. Less than half of the animals remain in the northern Serengeti, the rest are swapping war stories in the Masai Mara. So you could still see wildebeest in the Serengeti (just not the mega-herds) but as a general rule of thumb, the Masai Mara is the best place to witness the Migration in September.
Your best bet is still the Masai Mara, but bear in mind it is a far smaller reserve than the Serengeti and there may be a lot of other visitors. The neighbouring private conservancies are much less crowded and, not only will you still be able to witness the Migration, you will also directly contribute to the Maasai communities who have lived there for thousands of years. Plus you can enjoy off-road game viewing, night drives and walking safaris – activities not permitted in the national reserve.
In a ‘normal year’ the short rains have begun, propelling the wildebeest to leave the now denuded grasslands of the Masai Mara and head back into the rejuvenated Serengeti. Bear in mind that the rain can be late or early, which is also unpredictable.
The herds are generally on the move, but can be seen around the north-eastern parts of the Serengeti where they may split into smaller groups for their journey southward.
Tip: although many people think of Africa as a hot place, the rain can cool things down dramatically. You’ll be out on early morning and late afternoon game drives – the sun is at its weakest during these times. Take at least one pair of trousers, closed shoes that can cope with mud, and a fleece or waterproof jacket.
Fresh grazing sees the wildebeest move south, covering the northern and eastern Serengeti to feast and prepare for yet another death-defying, 3 000-km (1 900-mi) odyssey.
Accommodation for a Great Migration safari can be divided into two broad categories: permanent lodges and mobile camps. Each have different advantages, but choosing one depends on what is important to you:
|Mobile Camps||Permanent Lodges|
|Power / Electricity|