The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the last mass terrestrial wildlife movements left on the planet. It's the chief reason why so many travellers venture to Kenya and Tanzania for a Migration safari, especially around mid-year.
The Migration is one of Nature's greatest paradoxes: timing is absolutely vital, but there is no way to predict the timing of the animals' movements. We know that the wildebeest (and a smattering of zebra and antelope) will cross the Mara River – but nobody knows exactly when. We also know that rain will trigger the wildebeest to move onto fresh grazing – but nobody knows exactly when the rain will fall.
Fortunately, we've been planning Wildebeest Migration safaris since 1998. We've helped thousands of travellers to be in the best possible place at the best possible time for the best possible price. If you're looking for expert planning advice, look no further. We've compiled all our specialist tips in this handy beginner's guide to a Wildebeest Migration safari...
"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.
How the Wildebeest Migration Works
Common Misconceptions About the Wildebeest Migration:
1. The 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 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.
2. The Migration Only Happens Between July & October
Most people think that the Wildebeest Migration only takes place between July and October, but it's actually a year-round phenomenon – with various but equally exciting events that occur at different times of the year. The river crossings usually coincide with safari's high season (July 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.
What Happens When: A Month-by-Month Breakdown
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 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:
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 until about March – prepare yourself for lots of wobbly babies... and lots of heartbreak as predators swoop in. If you want productive predator action, the Southern Serengeti supplies it with lions, brown hyenas, leopards and even wild dogs taking advantage of vulnerable calves.
The good grazing of the Southern Serengeti, Ndutu and Ngorongoro Conservation Areas means the herds remain in the far south. The action-packed 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.
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.
The wildebeest generally begin their northward journey, and many have left already and are in the central and even western Serengeti.
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 and western Serengeti. Water sources are starting to dry out as the dry season begins to bite, hence the march towards the Mara River.
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.
The herds have reached the western Serengeti and are peering closely at the brown waters of the rivers they have to cross. Why? Huge Nile crocodiles, that's why!
As mentioned, it is impossible to predict crossings – they generally occur any time between May and September. Book your Wildebeest Migration safari 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.
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 private conservancies that border the reserve.
The herds break up into smaller groups. About half of the animals remain in the northern Serengeti, the rest are swapping war stories in the Masai Mara ('Did you hear that Nigel didn't make it across the river?'). 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.
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 around the Mara 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.
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.
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 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 on a Migration Safari
Now that you know how the Great Migration works, you can easily see that the best time to go depends entirely on which events you're personally interested in seeing. Remember, the Serengeti and Masai Mara's abundance of wildlife and wide open landscapes make them fantastic year-round safari destinations.
|Calving (Birthing) Season||January to March||Southern Serengeti|
|Intense Predator Action||January to March||Southern Serengeti|
|Rutting (a period of sexual excitement, reproductive activity and mating battles between males)||January to March||Southern Serengeti|
|Grumeti River Crossings||May to July||Western Serengeti|
|Mara River Crossings||July to September||Northern Serengeti|
|On the Move||October to December||Northern Serengeti & Masai Mara|
Note: the above are approximate dates only. The Wildebeest Migration is a year-round, circular journey and the river crossings cannot be predicted. Sometimes the herds stay put for two weeks, other times they could cross four times in one day!
Key Facts to Remember
- 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 between May and September.
- 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, your best opportunities may occur around midday when the sun and glare are at their harshest, so make preparations to accommodate this.
Get in Touch With One of Our Experts
Best Places to Stay on a Migration Safari
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||
Tips for Choosing Migration 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 a year in advance.
- If you want inter-connecting tents or family suites, book as early as possible as there are 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.
Our Recommended Serengeti Accommodations:
Our Recommended Masai Mara Accommodations:
Best 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.
Tips for Planning Your Migration Safari
1. Book Early – At Least a Year in Advance
Lodges and camps fill up fast, especially for a Great Migration safari from June to October. Remember, this is safari's high season and when the popular river crossings happen, but you can see the herds any time of the year.
2. Arrange Your Timing Carefully
The Migration is a fluid, often unpredictable affair. It's important to know where to go and when to go on a Wildebeest Migration safari to ensure your expectations are met. Choose and arrange your timing according to what you want to see and experience.
3. Avoid the Crowds
The Masai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park experience high visitor and vehicle numbers during safari’s peak or high season (about June to October). The private conservancies adjoining the Masai Mara offer exclusivity, luxurious accommodation and excellent game viewing in sole-use areas. You'll also be offered activities not permitted in the main reserve, such as night drives, bush walks and off-road game viewing.
There are camps in the Serengeti that are located a little further away from the Migration hot spots – meaning you can easily get to all the action, but also retreat to tranquility.
4. Diversify Your Game Viewing
A Wildebeest Migration experience can get busy, noisy, smelly, and far removed from a general Big 5 safari. We highly recommend ending at a lodge or camp that's located away from the herds to enjoy a bit of tranquility and a diverse game viewing experience.
5. Add on More
The Masai Mara and Serengeti combine easily with each other, and each can also form the focal point of a larger safari itinerary. We recommend combining the Masai Mara with Amboseli and Laikipia, or adding the Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire and the Rift Valley Lakes to the Serengeti. You can even go further afield and easily add top destinations like:
- Uganda, Rwanda or Congo for the world's best gorilla-trekking experiences.
- Zanzibar, Seychelles or Mauritius for stunning tropical beaches and fantastic diving locations.
- Cape Town 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, for white-water rafting, swimming in Devil's Pool and taking tea on Livingstone Island.
Ready to Plan Your Migration Safari?
Chat with someone who's been there. Get in touch with one of our Africa Safari Experts to help tailor-make a Wildebeest Migration safari based on your travel wishes: