The endless plains of East Africa are the setting for the world’ greatest wildlife spectacle – the 1.5+ million animal ungulate (wildebeest) migration. From the vast Serengeti plains to the champagne colored hills of Kenya’s Masai Mara over 1.4 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebra and gazelle, migrate in a clockwise fashion over 1,800 miles each year in search of rain ripened grass.
Tanzania’s 5,700 square mile Serengeti National Park makes up 97% of the ecosystem whilst Kenya’s Masai Mara, the northern boundary of the Serengeti, makes up 3% of the ecosystem. The Loliondo private community area borders the Serengeti in the east and the Grumeti Game Reserve borders the Serengeti in the west. The ecosystem can be divided into three areas: the southern grass plains, the Western Corridor and the northern Serengeti / Mara. The southern grass plains have endless, almost treeless, wide-open plains; the Western Corridor has rock kopjes and the Grumeti River, and the northern Serengeti / Mara is largely open woodland and rolling hills.
Many people believe that they can visit any part of the Serengeti, or Mara, and have great wildlife viewing regardless of the time of year (and lodges and camps do little to dispel this belief as they would love year round clients rather than to be busy for only 2 or 3 months of each year when the wildebeest are “in town”). Over the past 20 years I have spent many days looking across the Serengeti’s vast grass plains spying little more than a solitary antelope or journey of giraffe. Even when I put myself where the migration should be, they were often not there. Guides would talk about how the migration had not yet arrived due to rain showers in a nearby region or how the megaherd “was just here a week ago”. There are typical movement patterns but they can, and do, vary month by month, year by year, as the herds follow the rains, and the new grass. The times that I have found myself in the middle of the wildebeest migration it has been simply amazing. I find myself smiling at memories of the sheer spectacle. The endless mooing of more than a million wildebeest can drive you mad… and when the herds move on the silence is shocking.
Is it worth it to travel ½ way around the world and gamble on catching the migration? My answer is an emphatic yes! There are certain times of the year where your odds of being smack dab in the middle of the migration are much better than others. We know those times.
To learn more about the migration’s movement throughout the year please read below:
January / February / March – During the period January through March the seemingly unending short grass plains of the southern Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (not the Ngorongoro Crater), are inhabited by enormous herds of wildebeest and zebra. Pregnant female wildebeest are attracted to the calcium and magnesium rich grass which is good for milk production. Calving occurs late January through mid March when over 80% of the female wildebeest give birth over a period of a few weeks. An estimated 400,000 wildebeest calves are born during this period. I really like this time of year for the migration. Not only is the area gorgeous with its many flat topped acacia tortilis trees, the concentrated herds around the Ndutu and Salei plains attract the attention of lion, good numbers of cheetah (not normally found around lion as they are competitors) and hyena. In the woodland, giraffe, elephant and buffalo are pretty easy to find. To give you an idea of how good an area this is professional filmmaker Hugo Van Lawick (one time husband to Jane Goodall) set up his base here back in the day.
As things dry up throughout March the herds might split into smaller groups focused on areas with the best conditions. In late March the long rains begin.
Where to stay During the months January through March the migration is best observed from a luxury mobile camp as there are no permanent high end properties in this area (unless you count Lake Masek Tented Camp which is decent). We have run into problems with flies (the common household variety) at several camps over the years. The simple, but personality packed, Ndutu Safari Lodge is a great value for those willing to compromise a bit on comfort. For those of you who must have luxury Mwiba Lodge is a great option this time of year. It is quite a ways from the wildebeest action but they offer private vehicles for all guests and a day trip from the lodge can be made to the Ndutu area to catch the migration.
April / May – From late March through early May Tanzania’s long rains are in full effect with regular downpours. It is considered off season for wildlife viewing and many lodges and camps close down. Grass can grow past the roof of your Land Rover and roads are often impassable. I remember one year standing outside my Land Rover which I had left in low gear. The wheels were slowly spinning but the car didn’t move an inch. The volcanic soil was as slippery as, and not unlike, chocolate cake frosting! With few spying eyes the wildebeest begin breeding at this time.
By May the depleted short grass plains are unable to sustain the endless herds. The migration sweeps west and north, to the Serengeti’s Western Corridor and almost to Lake Victoria, where there is long grass and more dependable water. Not all the wildebeest and zebra will follow the same route – whilst parts of the migration head to the Western Corridor and Grumeti before proceeding north, significant numbers simply head north via Seronera.
We do not advise traveling during April or May.
Where to stay During April you may have some luck catching the migration at Ndutu Safari Lodge. Kusini Camp would be a better bet. During May the centrally located Serengeti Serena Lodge offers good resident game however we won’t touch it – they are known to overbook leaving guests without rooms. There is also considerable crowding in this area. I once counted over 55 vehicles at the airstrip and drove past over 100 vehicles lined up on the road trying to view a single leopard about 250 yards off in the tall grass (driving off road is not allowed here). No thanks… not for me.
June – By early June things are drying up. The herds continue westwards, towards the Grumeti River. The riverine forest harbors plentiful buffalo and elephant, while there are many hippo and huge, hungry crocodiles in the river waiting for the wildebeest as they come to drink.
A few other things to consider for travel during June – some parks, such as Tarangire, will still be “recovering” from the rains with tall grass and limited wildlife viewing. The crater is fine at this time. Insect wise the western parts of the Serengeti and Grumeti area are home to some pretty serious tsetse flies… we refer to them as flying teeth. Fortunately if you find yourself in the midst of the wildebeest megaherd the flies tend to focus on the animals more than tourists! When the migration moves on – watch out!
Where to stay Singita Grumeti Reserve with the highly sought after luxury properties – Faru Faru River Lodge, Sasakwa Hill Lodge, and Sabora Plains Tented Camp – can be incredible for the migration during June. A big plus is the ability to partake in wildlife viewing walks, drive off road in open 4×4 vehicles, and do night drives in this private area. &Beyond’s Grumeti River Camp and Kirawira are also good options for viewing the migration at this time however you cannot drive off road, partake in night drives or walks from these properties.
July / August / September / October The wildebeest rapidly deplete the grass and water in the Western Corridor and Grumeti and start to move on. The migration may still be found in the Singita Grumeti Reserve during July but the odds become slimmer as you move through the month. In a typical year the migration can be spread over huge distances, with the first zebra herds arriving in the northern Serengeti by early July and big herds of wildebeest following later in the month. In a dry year, the first wildebeest could be near the Mara River (the only decent permanent water in the eco-system) by early July; in a wet year, by mid-August. If conditions are very good, i.e. there is plenty of grass and water, the herds will be spread out all the way from Seronera to the Mara River.
Typically from late July to mid October the wildebeest reside in the northern Serengeti and Masai Mara. The dry season is well under way and the herds congregate near water, especially the Mara River filled with hungry crocs.
In terms of timing I would shoot for late August through late September to maximize my changes of seeing a river crossing… of course crossings, and recrossings, occur before and after this time period. The areas that the wildebeest cover are vast and finding a group on the brink of crossing is not a given. Crossing are often elusive, rapid experiences.
Mid to late October dramatic thunder clouds herald the onset of the short rains and call the migration southward. Wherever rains fall the change is dramatic with thousands of animals arriving almost overnight.
Where to stay Most travelers are not aware that 80% of the Mara River is bordered by Tanzania on both sides. Only 20% of this river is located in Kenya. As Kenya’s Masai Mara now has over 3,700 beds we suggest clients stay in the northern Serengeti where there are only 11 safari lodges and camps. For all out luxury Singita’s Mara River Tented Camp is our favorite… Sayari Camp is a very close second with perfect tented rooms and a superb location only minutes away from a number of common wildebeest migration river crossing points. Bushtops has some really nice rooms but is an hour’s drive from the river. Nomad’s Lamai Camp is a bit closer. Migration Camp is worth considering (if you can’t get into Sayari or Singita) but the tsetse flies in the area can drive one insane! If you wish to save some monies a mobile camp in the Kogatende area works well. A bonus to staying at many of the lodges and camps in this area is that unlike other areas of the Serengeti and the Mara you are able to drive off road in open vehicles and walk with a professional guide.
If you wish to stay in the Mara there are a few gems that are really worth considering. Cottar’s 1920s is in a superb private location sandwiched between the Serengeti and Masai Mara and has several of Kenya’s top guides. Governor’s Camp, made famous by the BBC’s “Big Cat Diary” has very good resident game and you might even have a cheetah jump on top of your safari vehicle!
November / December As the rains continue during November the herds move south and east. Heading into December long lines of wildebeest can be seen moving back to the southern Serengeti and its short, rich grasses. The circle of life is complete as they begin to arrive late December into early January. Elsewhere in the Serengeti the grass grows fast and tall making wildlife viewing more difficult. We do not advise traveling at this time of year.
Where to stay You might catch the wildebeest migration from Klein’s Camp… or not. This area, which has some jaw dropping scenery, is home to some pretty feisty tsetse flies. Namiri Camp is a great option with loads of lion and cheetah in the area, although, with the wildebeest on the move this time of year, you may or may not see large herds.
Professional safari guide Richard Knocker summarizes the migration quite well:
Disregard any pretty map you may have been shown that has a nice flow of animals going around in an annual circle. It is driven entirely by standing water, grazing, and local weather conditions. The wildebeest want to be in the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti but the water and grazing cannot support them year around. This is where they choose to give birth to their young (usually February to March), with the rich grass to support them. Within a relatively short space of time, perhaps 4 – 6 weeks, several hundred thousand calves will be born and this is where we see much of the dramatic predator action. The Migration will then move off in search of sustenance in response to periods of dry weather, but they will leave this area as late as possible and come back as soon as they can. This means that every year is different, and, in fact, every week can be different.
The Migration is not a continuously forward motion. They go forward, backwards, and to the sides, they mill around, they split up, they join forces again, they walk in a line, the spread out, or they hang around together. You can never predict with certainty where they will be; the best you can do is suggest likely timing based on past experience. You can never guarantee the Migration one hundred percent.