Here’s what you might already know: The Great Wildebeest Migration involves millions of wildebeest, zebra and antelope moving around the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem in search of fresh grazing. The animals cover vast distances and are never in one place for too long. All of nature’s momentous events happen en route, including rutting, mating and calving.
The vast majority of the Migration occurs in Tanzania’s Serengeti and the short period that it moves into Kenya’s Masai Mara coincides with peak safari season. Both countries offer equally thrilling – but different – aspects of the Migration. The overlapping portion of their journey is the crossing of the Mara River at various points, which we explore in more detail below.
Having been to each of the Migration destinations listed here, we know that each lodge and camp offers a unique experience and atmosphere. It’s our job and our pleasure to give you independent advice and match you with the perfect lodges and itineraries. Here are some things to keep in mind when booking and planning a Migration safari – but don’t hesitate to chat to us for one-on-one advice.
The famous river crossings
From the northern Serengeti, the herds must take to the water to get back to the lush and replenished grasslands of the Masai Mara. This usually starts in about June (at the Grumeti River) and continues into July and into early August (at the Mara River), although these timings depend entirely on East Africa’s rainfall, which may vary from year to year. Stragglers may still be crossing much later in the year.
Not all the wildebeest cross at the same place. There are several famous crossing places, like ‘Paradise Crossing’ and ‘Crossing #4’, that are used every year – this is how guides know where to more or less position their vehicles and wait for the first wildebeest to cross. Naturally, if you’re on the Tanzanian side of the Mara, you will see them ‘leave’; if you’re on the Kenyan side, you will see them ‘arrive’.
If you want to see the river crossings, the most important thing you need to know is that the best lodges fill up months in advance. We recommend booking up to an entire year ahead of your visit to ensure you your first choice of accommodation.
One of the benefits of travelling to Africa between June and August for the river crossings is that this period is considered to fall in Africa’s peak game-viewing season. Less rainfall at this time means that vegetation is sparser (so visibility is better) and animals are forced to concentrate around the last remaining water sources (so wildlife is easier to locate). It is Africa’s mild winter so the weather is also cooler.
How to do it
The Mara River crossings can be viewed in Tanzania or Kenya, and we usually recommend going from mid-July to August and splitting your safari between northern Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya. This will give you the best chances of seeing the crossings at some point.
Note that the Mara River is surrounded by Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara National Reserve, both of which are open to the public, and the drama of the river crossings inevitably attract plenty of vehicles.
In Kenya, there is an option to stay in a private Mara conservancy (with excellent crowd-free game viewing) and then travel into the national reserve for the day to see the river crossings. Some of our top luxurious picks include Sala’s Camp, Sand River Mara and Bateleur Camp.
The Grumeti River crossings in Tanzania start around June but the window period is shorter than that of the Mara River crossings. You can enjoy total exclusivity at Grumeti Game Reserve – it is a privately-owned reserve home to just five luxurious lodges.
Mega herds in the Masai Mara
Once the herds have run a gauntlet of strong river currents, Nile crocodiles and predators in ambush, they arrive on the plains of the Masai Mara and remain in Kenya for about August, September and October, although there are always stragglers bringing up the rear. Prepare to be blown away by the sheer scale of the herds as they concentrate in baffling numbers in a relatively small area. This period also falls within the peak game-viewing season and is considered among the best times to see big cat predation in the Masai Mara. All this results in a rather crowded Masai Mara National Reserve…
How to do it
To avoid the crowds, we recommend staying in a private Mara conservancy, like the Mara Triangle. Besides the exclusivity of sole-use game-drive areas, you can also enjoy night drives and bush walks (which are unavailable in the Masai Mara National Reserve). If the mood strikes, you’ll still be able to enter the national reserve with your guide on a day trip. It’s advisable to book for this period in the Masai Mara at least six months in advance (around December to travel at mid-year the following year). Some of our favourite private conservancy lodges include Angama Mara and Serian Nkorombo.
If you’re travelling with your family or a small group and want total flexibility, check out private safari villas like Topi Mara Bush House and Acacia Mara Bush House. You’ll be able to go on full-day game drives with a private guide, increasing your chances of seeing some of the Migration’s jaw-dropping drama.
Calving Season in the Serengeti
By November the herds have generally begun moving out of the Masai Mara and by December they are usually spread out on the eastern and southern plains of the Serengeti. Wildebeest continue to move south, and some leave the confines of the unfenced national park into the Ndutu and Ngorongoro Conservation Areas.
Toward the end of January or in February, all the wildebeest that will give birth that year do so within two weeks of one another. Needless to say, it is an incredible sight to behold and of course, predators take full advantage of easy prey during the calving season. This is a rewarding time to travel to East Africa – summer rains have transformed the landscape into a green paradise, there are all kinds of baby animals everywhere, fewer travellers and rates are lower.
The wildebeest herds enjoy the Serengeti’s Green Season and continue grazing for some time. Around April they begin to gather together and start travelling north into central and western Serengeti. By May, wildebeest have amassed into herds of up to 40 kilometres / 25 miles in length and are steadily moving north.
How to do it
It’s important to note that all of the above timelines are based on historical data. Because movement is propelled by rainfall (which changes from year to year) you can’t predict too far in advance exactly when calving will begin and when the herd will arrive in various locations. The Serengeti is famous for its excellent selection of mobile camps – these camps move up to three times a year allowing you to always be close to the herd, wherever it may be. Some of our favourites include Serengeti Migration Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas, Olakira Camp and Serian’s Serengeti Mobile.
November to May is considered low season in Africa so you can get away with booking just a few months in advance. We recommend booking at least three to four months ahead of travel to give yourself plenty of time to consult with an Africa Safari Expert and ensure you get the best value.
Speak to an Africa Safari Expert
Each traveller is different and hopefully now you have a better idea of what kind of Migration safari is suited to you. If you’d like to find out more detail about the Wildebeest Migration or are ready to start building a tailor-made itinerary that suits your travel dates and budget, our Africa Safari Experts are ready to chat.