Say the 'Wildebeest Migration' and most travellers picture hundreds of thousands of grunting gnu and elegant zebra, braving predators and charging into croc-infested rivers in an ancient cycle, often literally covering the vast plains as far as the eye can see...
This is what most of us think we know about the Migration, one of Africa’s truly wondrous natural spectacles. And while you'd be perfectly correct in leaping to these mental images, the event involves a whole lot more wildebeest than you can shake a traditional fly switch at! The heaving herds do fill the plains, often to the horizon, and they do make thrilling crossings of rivers like the Mara and Grumeti, but here are a few little-known facts from travellers who've witnessed the spectacle first-hand.
1. The Migration is predictable – except when it’s not
The animals – wildebeest and zebra – are triggered to move by one simple meteorological phenomenon: rain. In East Africa, the ‘long rains’ generally soak the ground in April and May (this means camps are often closed because the roads turn into impenetrable, tyre-sucking mud). Once the soft, soaking rains stop, the so-called ‘short grass plains’ of the southern Serengeti spring to life with masses of sweet, delicious grass. This is the signal for wildebeest and zebra, who have returned here from the previous year’s Migration to start moving north, hoovering up the abundant tender grasses along the way. By the way, wildebeest and zebra travel together and graze in perfect harmony because they eat different parts of the grasses.
By July, the herds ought to reach the northern Serengeti, ready to perform thrilling river crossings into the Masai Mara. Broadly speaking, this is exactly how it works… except when the rains are late… or early… or if it rains again unexpectedly and some or all of the herds turn back to the feast on the fresh new grasses. In 2014, for instance, the rains were considered ‘early’ and thus the whole schedule was slightly out of kilter, and the animals were arriving far north much earlier than 'usual'. Then, suddenly, it rained again and they turned back.
The point is, like so much in nature, it’s safest to throw off the idea of a firm schedule when it comes to the Migration and stay flexible and informed by those in the know.
2. The animals leap blindly and madly into the water – except when they don’t
River crossings are considered the highlight of the spectacle: few other sights beat them for sheer drama and adrenalin value. Will crocodiles snatch the courageous wildebeest that leaps in first? Will the animals be able to scramble up the increasingly treacherous and slippery river bank? Will weak or injured wildebeest be able to swim across at all?
Popular perception is that the wildebeest are galloping along at top speed and just crash into the water, following a sort of autopilot herd instinct. This isn’t the case at all. Often, a herd will reach the river at a casual, leisurely pace… and then hang out on its banks for days, frustrating the crocs and tourists alike. No-one knows how and why they suddenly decide to cross but some sort of primeval signal is given and the first intrepid pioneers scuttle down the often very steep sides and rocky banks. You will naturally be rooting for these brave forerunners, and witness the heart-breaking moments when an animal breaks a hind leg trying to climb a bank or loses its precarious grip and falls back down onto others, injuring them all. This is what makes the Migration a true spectacle - the ecstasy and the agony of survival, unedited, unfiltered, in raw true life.
Predicting river crossings is one of Africa’s most inexact sciences: you can be in the ‘right place at the right time’ but until the wildebeest decide they are ready, nobody gets wet.
3. The Migration is full of adorable baby gnus and zebras – so cute!
The calving season usually begins at the end of January and the first two weeks of February are considered peak birth season (about 400 000 births happen in an intense 3-week period). Because the babies can run as fast as their moms within 48 hours, there are very touching scenes of tiny wildebeest speeding along and of zebras nuzzling their foals.
But be warned: no aspect of the Migration is for the squeamish. Predators feast on newborns and you'll likely witness scenes of fawns being run down by cheetah or snatched by lions. The pressure of predators is one of the reasons why nearly half a million of them are born so close together - it is nature's numbers game, and while many become the prey that sustains lion prides, enough survive to secure the future of the great herds. It may be a well-worn cliché but the Wildebeest Migration is truly what ‘the circle of life’ is all about.
4. A million wildebeest on the move together, in one group
Yes, it’s a million gnu on the move but they don’t travel all together all the time, or half the group would starve. They split into what are known as ‘mega herds’, which consist of thousands and thousands of individuals travelling on slightly different routes in more or less the same direction. After the rut, which is mating season, those that did not mate often break away from the others and form their own herd that travels through the Seronera Valley.
Members of mega-herds can be quite spread out, with the forerunners arriving at a new place sometimes a day or two ahead of the stragglers – a kind of an early warning system for guides.
5. If you miss the river crossings, you might as well go home
This is probably the most pervasive and incorrect myth about the Wildebeest Migration. Yes, the river crossings are exciting but they’re only a small part of this epic journey. The other thing about the crossings is that everyone wants to see them so accommodation becomes unavailable very early and – unless you’re in a private conservancy – your guide will have to compete with lots of other vehicles for a good view.
Don’t overlook the unsung joys of the low season. For starters, the animals spend September to March returning to their starting point in the southern Serengeti (the Migration is circular and perpetual, after all), meaning you will still be treated to epic scenes of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra crossing the wide open Loita plains of the Masai Mara on their return to the Serengeti. No matter when you see it, the sight of mega-herds on the move is always exhilarating.
Secondly, rutting, mating and calving are immensely thrilling: males fight for dominance and the right to mate; wobbly young calves learn to run; moms and babies bond in a very 'Disney' way. Of course, predator action is guaranteed during calving and involves heart-stopping chases (the predators don’t always ‘win’ either: zebras can deliver a kick powerful enough to crack a lioness’s jaw and wildebeest can out-run their hunters). And, alongside predator action, comes scavenger action: it’s a great time to see vultures out in force as they perform their critical job of wilderness housekeeping.
Every true adventurer should witness at least one aspect of the Wildebeest Migration at least once in their lifetime. For sheer scale, there is no other animal phenomenon on the planet that beats it. And, although there is a traditional high season, the truth is that the Migration never stops, the ebb and flow of the mega herds following the rains happens throughout the year. That means you can see the Migration at any time during the year, so choose the season and destination that best suits you and let your African Safari Expert tailor-make a safari for you.
Most importantly, remember that this incredible spectacle takes place in legendary wildlife destinations. There are plenty of resident animals, including the Big 5, all year round in settings like the Mara and Serengeti. This is premier Africa - witnessing the Migration is truly a cherry on top of an always superb safari experience!