1: Serengeti Safaris: From the Wildebeest Migration to Year-round Game Viewing
Home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of wildlife and the majority of the Great Wildebeest Migration, Serengeti National Park is Tanzania’s flagship conservation area and a must-do for first-time and returning safari goers alike.
Translated from the Maa language as, ‘The Land that Moves on Forever’, the Serengeti’s vast rolling grasslands and golden savannah give travellers a soul-stirring sense of space and support millions of wildebeest, as well as sizable populations of zebra, buffalo, elephant and giraffe and myriad gazelle and antelope species. And where there are plains game aplenty, predators – like lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyena and wild dogs – are sure to follow. The Serengeti is definitely a photographer’s paradise!
Witness the Annual Wildebeest Migration
The majority of the fascinating and dramatic Great Wildebeest Migration takes place in the Serengeti. From about January to March, they are in the far Southern Serengeti. In April and May, they usually begin to move to the Central Serengeti. The herds generally continue moving north and west in June and July. From approximately August to October, they are crossing rivers into Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. By November and December, the forerunners are mostly back in the Serengeti, ready to start the circular cycle all over again.
- Mobile camps move regularly to stay as close to the herds as possible.
- Accommodation options with easy access to traditional river crossing points.
- Rutting is very exciting as males fight for mating rights.
- Calving results in plenty of bittersweet predator action.
How the Wildebeest Migration Works
The two biggest misconceptions that travellers have around the Wildebeest Migration are as follows:
1. That river crossings can be predicted
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 them 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.
2. That the Migration only takes place between July and October
The Great Migration is a year-round phenomenon, with different but equally exciting elements occurring at various times of the year. The river crossings usually coincide with peak safari season, hence the perception that this is the only time of the year that the wildebeest are on the move or can be seen.
With climate change, the long and short rainy seasons over 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 breakdown of more or less where the herds are during the year, bearing in mind that the entire Migration is triggered by rain, which can be early, late or ‘on time’.
A Month-by-month Breakdown
JANUARY: The herds are in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, moving back down south from the north-east region and into the area of the Southern Serengeti, Lake Ndutu and Ngorongoro Conservation Area (they do not enter the Ngorongoro Crater – those are resident wildebeest). 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 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 – prepare yourself for lots of wobbly babies… and lots of heartbreak as predators swoop in. If you want productive big-cat action, the Southern Serengeti supplies it with lions, brown hyenas, leopards and even wild dogs taking advantage of vulnerable calves.
FEBRUARY: The good grazing of the Southern Serengeti, Ndutu and Ngorongoro Conservation Areas means the herds remain in the far south. The rut is generally in full swing with males jousting for the right to mate with receptive females.
This means that when the fertile females finally reach the Mara, Talek and Grumeti Rivers many months later, they are heavily pregnant, making their feat even more incredible.
MARCH: They are generally still in the south but the grasses have all been munched up, the last calves born and the herds are starting to gather in preparation for the next leg of their journey.
APRIL: The wildebeest generally begin their northward journey, and many have left already and are in the central and even western Serengeti.
MAY: Wagons roll! The massed herds are on the go, huge columns of up to 40 kilometres / 25 miles in length can be sometimes be seen as the wildebeest funnel up into the central and western Serengeti. Water sources are starting to dry out as the dry season begins to bite, hence the march towards the Mara River.
JUNE: Head for the central and western Serengeti – the herds are usually there and getting ready for the toughest part of their odyssey. The weather is cooler and much drier and while there are fewer bugs, there is more dust so prep your camera equipment accordingly.
JULY: Book early – it is the Big Event: the start of the major river crossings. The herds have reached the western Serengeti and Grumeti Reserves and are peering closely at the brown waters of the rivers they have to cross. Why? Huge Nile crocodiles, that is why!
As mentioned, it is impossible to predict crossings. Book 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.
AUGUST: The survivors celebrate by feasting in the northern Serengeti and begin crossing into Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. You need a passport to cross; the wildebeest are exempt. The national reserve is open to members of the public so for a more exclusive experience, head for the many community-run conservancies that border the reserve.
SEPTEMBER: The herds break up into smaller groups – about half of the animals remain in the northern Serengeti, the rest are swapping stories in the Masai Mara (‘Did you hear that Nigel didn’t make it across the Grumeti?’). The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is just that – one system that has been artificially divided by humans. The herds will be spread out, making the most of water and food.
OCTOBER: Your best bet is 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 conservancies in the Mara are much less crowded and, not only will you still be able to witness the Migration, you will also be benefitting the Maasai communities who have lived there for thousands of years.
This is when the lack of rain really starts to show: animals don’t move far from the few remaining water sources and the vegetation is at its lowest and thinnest, making game easy to find and see.
NOVEMBER: In a ‘normal year’ the short rains have begun, propelling the wildebeest to leave the now denuded grasslands of the Masai Mara and back into the rejuvenated Serengeti. Bear in mind that the rain can be ‘late’ or ‘early’, which is also unpredictable.
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, times of day when the sun is at its weakest. Take at least one pair of trousers, closed shoes that can cope with mud (Crocs are lightweight for your limited luggage space and dry quickly although they don’t meet many travellers’ aesthetic demands!) and a fleece or waterproof jacket.
DECEMBER: Fresh grazing sees the wildebeest clustered in the north-eastern Serengeti (around Lobo in particular) as well as the southern Serengeti. Calving begins again, the predators move in again, and the cycle of life begins all over again.
Best Time to Go
Best Time to Go on Wildebeest Migration Safari
Now that you know how the Migration works, you can easily see that the best time to go depends on what you are personally interested in seeing. Remember that other wildlife is always present although migrant birds arrive for summer (about November to April) and depart for winter (about May to October).
If you want to see:
|Calving||January to March (low season)||Southern Serengeti|
|Intense big cat action||January to March (low season)||Southern Serengeti|
|Rutting||January to March (low season)||Southern Serengeti|
|River crossings||July to October (high season)||Northern Serengeti – Masai Mara|
|Private game viewing – Tanzania||June to August (high season)||Grumeti|
|Private game viewing – Kenya||August to October (high season)||Mara conservancies|
*As with anything on safari, these are approximate dates and places.
- The bulk of the Migration takes place in the Serengeti.
- It is a year-round, circular journey.
- River crossings cannot be predicted but generally occur from about July to October.
- The animals are strung out across a large area – there are always fore-runners and stragglers.
- Your best chance of seeing river crossing may involve spending all day at a site where the wildebeest have massed. If you are a keen photographer, make arrangements to have to shoot at midday when the sun and glare are at their harshest.
Best Places to Stay
Accommodation for the Great Wildebeest Migration can be divided into two broad categories: permanent lodges and mobile camps. They each have different advantages and which you choose to stay in depends on what is important to you:
|Mobile Camps||Permanent Lodges|
|Bathrooms||En suite tents with flush toilets Usually bucket showers Basins may use jug water There may not be running water||En suite with hot-and-cold running water Plumbed showers Flush toilets Maybe bathtubs Maybe outdoor showers|
|Power||Solar Generator||Solar Generator|
|In-room charging||Generally communal charging point||Usually|
Excellent Year-round Game Viewing
Such is the density of wildlife in the Serengeti that it provides a spectacular safari experience no matter what time of year you visit. Although some of the wildebeest, zebra and antelope migrate to fresh grazing, not all do and none of the predators move with the herds either. The open plains, wide grasslands and temperate climate mean that the vegetation is never too dense or thick to see the animals, and the weather is very seldom too inclement to venture out (short-lived thunderstorms generally occur in the late afternoon and the animals don’t move away when it’s raining).
- Off-roading, walking and night game drives are possible in the private conservancies that border the national park.
- The Green Season is much quieter and calmer, giving you much more space and time to absorb the beauty of the rain-replenished landscape.
Suitable for First-timers and Returning Safari Lovers
The Serengeti is a bucket-list item and many first-time visitors to East Africa want to tick it off. But such is the diversity of the wildlife present here that the area is suitable for those who’ve travelled to Africa many times before. If you have already seen the Migration, then branch out into a different time of year or one the private concessions – travelling in Green Season, for example, will be lusher and quieter, with far fewer other visitors. More and more lodges are now able to offer vegetarian and even vegan meals so those with special dietary requirements can be accommodated.
Plenty of Activities besides Only Safari and Top Accommodation
The Serengeti is a pre-eminent safari area but there is far more to it than twice-daily game drives. Although game drives (in vehicles with closed or open sides, and with roofs or without – Tanzania has a wide variety) form the backbone of most itineraries, more and more lodges are branching out into other activities.
- Go on immersive nature walks with top guides.
- Spend a night fly-camping with just a back-to-basics set-up.
- Exclusive safari villas may offer tennis or archery.
- Try mountain biking or horse riding in some private areas.
- Sign up for mobile camping if you’re adventurous.
Setting the Scene for Serengeti Celebrations
Because it is such an iconic destination, many travellers choose the Serengeti to celebrate all sorts of milestones in their lives. Our Africa Safari Experts have helped clients plan a Serengeti honeymoon, engagements, birthdays and even the occasional wedding ceremony. Logistics are easy, transfers are generally short by Africa’s standards and English is widely spoken. The staff enjoy being part of a special occasion and can arrange private dinners, romantic sundowners, fun-filled evenings with Maasai dancers and drummers, and even birthday cakes.
- Many lodges have special honeymoon suites that offer romantic turndowns, outdoor showers or tubs, and petal-strewn king-sized beds.
- Secure family suites or interleading tents as soon as you can since there are limited numbers of them and they are very popular.
- Let your consultant know if you are travelling with mobility impaired guests so we can arrange accommodation close to the mess tent so they don’t have to walk long distances.
- Many camps are unfenced to allow animals to pass through. There may be an age restriction on unfenced camps.
- Some lodges have special programmes and activities for younger children who may not want to go out on every game drive.
Tips for choosing safari accommodation
- Book as soon as you know you want to go – don’t procrastinate! Lodges and camps are small and fill up very quickly.
- The river-crossing season is the most popular so start planning at least nine months to a year in advance.
- If you want inter-connecting tents or family suites, book as early as possible as there are very limited numbers of these available.
- If you are travelling with very young children, consider fenced accommodation, babysitting services and your own private game-drive vehicle.
- If you have mobility challenges, ask for rooms as close to the mess areas as possible to avoid long walks, often on soft sand.
- If you are on a budget, choose good-value accommodation so that you have extra time on safari. This increases your chances of seeing births, kills or crossings.
There is more to a Migration safari than just game drives to see the herds. Other optional activities will help complete your experience of Africa:
- Hot-air balloon safari getting up way before dawn to go on a balloon ride is a good way of seeing the sheer scale of the herds below. If you’re in Kenya, you’ll get a view of the last remaining sections of riverine forest along the Mara River.
- Village visits Facilitated by the lodge, a village visit will give you insight into life beyond your accommodation. You may meet teachers at the school, speak to elders, visit clinics and do forth. Remember, wildlife and humanity have lived cheek-by-jowl here for thousands of years and continue to do so.
- Fly-camping Some lodges offer a night of ‘fly-camping’. This is literally a mattress swathed in mosquito netting out in the bush, under the watch eye of your armed guide. It’s a brilliant way for adventurous travellers to immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and smells of nocturnal Africa.
- Walking A walking safari means leaving the 4×4 game-drive vehicle behind and setting out on foot. Although you won’t travel as far, you will have sensory overload as you take in all the little details you miss in a vehicle. This is a great option if you enjoy hiking at home.
2: Masai Mara Safari
The Masai Mara National Reserve has unfenced borders with a number of private conservancies, including Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. This vast protected landscape is one of the top wildlife destinations in Africa, and Kenya’s flagship conservation area.
Game viewing in the Masai Mara is excellent all year around thanks to the diverse population of resident game – including lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo – plus popular species like zebra, giraffe, hyena, eland and gazelle. The Mara’s big cats are even the stars of a popular wildlife TV series.
From July to November one of nature’s greatest spectacles, the Wildebeest Migration, reaches the Mara – the sheer number of wildebeest arriving in the area is staggering. The migration is a dramatic mass movement of almost two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle in a seasonal annual cycle driven by rainfall. To reach the Mara’s fresh grazing, wildebeest make dramatic river crossings, facing enormous crocodiles to feast on the Mara plains and regain their strength. November’s short summer rains trigger the last leg of the migration, when the wildebeest move south to their Serengeti calving grounds. The calving season also happens in the Mara between December and January. Known as the green season, it’s a time when surface water is plentiful and wildebeest, zebra and antelope give birth to their calves, foals and fawns. With so much easy prey around, it is also a good time for predators to raise their cubs and pups, making for wonderful photographic opportunities.
The Masai Mara and its neighbouring private conservancies offer a range of accommodation, from child-friendly to romantic. The park can be crowded in high season, which is why we recommend staying in one of the neighbouring private conservancies where you’ll enjoy the advantage of easy access to the Mara for the superb game-viewing and migration scenes, but can also retreat to the conservancy’s crowd-free setting where off road game viewing, night drives and guided nature walks are permitted. We highly recommend taking a hot-air balloon flight and experiencing an authentic cultural interaction with the Maasai people. Chat to your safari expert about combining a Mara safari with Kenya’s other top destinations, such as Amboseli National Park or a beach break to the glorious sun-drenched islands of the Seychelles.