Complete Guide to the Wildebeest Migration

The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the last mass terrestrial wildlife movements left on the planet and the chief reason why so many safari-lovers venture to the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem, especially at mid-year.

The Migration is one of nature’s greatest paradoxes: your timing is absolutely everything but there is no way to predict the timing of the animals’ movement. We know that the wildebeest (and a smattering of zebra and antelope) will cross the Mara River – but we don’t know exactly when. We know that rain will trigger those same plains game to move onto fresh grazing – but we don’t know when that rain will come.

A huge herd near Tipilikwani Camp in the Masai Mara.

 

Fortunately, we’ve been planning Great Migration safaris since 1998 so we have decades of experience in putting you in the best possible place at the best possible time for the best possible cost – read on to find out how to avoid the pitfalls of a Migration safari to Kenya and Tanzania.

"Most exciting holiday we have ever experienced"

The lodges, travel arrangements and even the weather turned out to be just… absolutely top-notch… Serian Serengeti was in the middle of the Migration with millions of animals and all the predators… It was a complex, tailored journey but everything just worked as planned – no delays – no problems at all. All the guides and drivers were always on time and very pleasant. Even the weather was perfect with just a few hours of rain during the whole trip. So, thank you Maureen – not even a tiny detail might be improved – it was all perfect.
- Jorgen

How It Works

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’.

Wildebeest near Porini Cheetah Camp at Ol Kinyei in the Mara.

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.

Well-fed lionesses near Serengeti Bushtops.

 

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.

Spotted hyena stalking a wildebeest near Mara Plains at Olare Motorogi.

 

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:

APPROXIMATE TIME PLACE
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.

A juvenile male near Noana Moru in the Serengeti.

Best Places to Stay

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
Wi-Fi
  • Not always
  • Usually
Power
  • Solar
  • Generator
  • Solar
  • Generator
In-room charging
  • Generally communal charging point
  • Usually

There is a diverse collection of mobile camps, lodges and tented camps in the Serengeti and Mara. Your personal Africa Safari Expert will be able to guide you as to which is right for your preferences and budget.

 

Serengeti Accommodation Ideas

Masai Mara Accommodation Ideas

Near the Mara of Talek Rivers

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.
Best Tour & Safari Ideas

 

Best Wildebeest Migration Safari Tours

Our tour ideas are exactly that – sample itineraries to give you an idea of costs, flights and how different destinations work together. All are completely customisable to your personal timing, budget and preferences.

Add-on Activities & Destinations

Best Add-on Activities and Destinations

Ballooning with Governors’: a great way to see the scale of the herds.

 

Other Activities

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 4x4 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.

Walking the Serengeti with Wayo.

 

Other Destinations

With enough time and money, you can add any other countries in Africa onto a Migration safari. Here are the most popular add-ons:

  • Gorilla trekking Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa and so are all of the world’s best gorilla-trekking destinations. We can arrange treks to Uganda, Congo and Rwanda.
  • Diving and snorkelling The coast of East Africa has stunning islands and beaches like Zanzibar, Pemba, Mnemba, Mafia and Thanda. Further afield, recover after your safari on the Seychelles or Mauritius.
  • Cape Town Pop down to Africa’s most-awarded city for superb food and wine, fine art, great shopping, beautiful beaches, plenty of history and culture, and lots of natural beauty spots.
  • Victoria Falls The world’s biggest waterfall lies to the south. Fly down for white-water rafting, swimming in Devil’s Pool and taking tea on Livingstone Island.

"We saw everything we came for"

The drivers and spotters were outstanding, especially Nelson and Wilfred at Lion Camp. One of the main things we came for was to see the Wildebeest Migration across the Mara River. Everyone told us that because of early rains the Migration was over but based on the direction from Nelson and Wilfred we did see a smaller Migration. It may not have been in the 100 000s, but the 1 000+ that we viewed was more than enough. The ability to know where to park for the best viewing was a top priority and all the drivers and spotters knew exactly where to go… I would recommend this trip to anyone who is a true animal lover.
- William