Have you ever watched the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ – the Serengeti Park National Wildebeest Migration - on TV? The thundering, crashing wild spectacle of the natural cycle of migration of nearly 2 million wildebeest, and tens of thousands of zebra, Thompsons gazelle and other buck. All chasing lush grazing and the elixir of life – water – along the wild and beautiful open plains of Africa.
Even on a screen, it is an incredible sight to behold, the full and mighty cycle of nature, captured by professional film makers, photographers and commentators speaking in awed, hushed tones at the majesty of what they are witnessing. No wonder it has been dubbed the 8th ‘Wonder of the World’. Photographs and films are powerful, but nothing quite matches the magnificence of seeing, hearing and experiencing this natural phenomenon first-hand.
Imagine witnessing this for yourself? It takes the amazing excitement of a safari adventure to quite the next level. It is within reach, and something that you and your family or travelling companions will NEVER forget!
Let’s start the fact-gathering and put it all together so you have all the information you need to take yourself into the sphere of the wild, the great wildebeest migration, in unforgettable style!
Not only can you soak up the beauty of ‘real Africa’ in unbelievable comfort (no matter what your budget,) but you can soak up the knowledge and experience of the world’s most experienced and knowledgeable guides. Whether it’s a dawn drive, or an afternoon or dusk drive, the expertise and radio links between guides will ensure you get to see what you came for – the wild African bush in all its glory! Your likelihood of seeing the Big 5? Really high. Your comfort, wellbeing and sustenance – off the charts! All in the constant presence of the astounding beauty of the Serengeti Plains.
What is The Great Migration in Africa?
It is the astounding mass migration of wildebeest (primarily), zebra, eland and gazelles from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, to the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya. It is a rhythmic cycle, that spans around 3000kms from start to finish, in a clockwise direction. The animals have an innate herding mentality, and no one can tell you exactly what the trigger is, but when it happens, it is outrageously spectacular. While no one can tell you an exact date and time of when it starts happening, it is utterly reliable, it WILL happen, just like sunrise and sunset. At ‘around’ the same time every year. Nature is just awesome like that!
This migration follows the true laws of nature – only the strong and the lucky survive, many animals are eaten by predators, suffer from exhaustion and die, or are drowned by the panic at particular river crossings, due to crocodiles, stampeding, crushing and lack of great swimming ability.
Even the great number of deaths is part of the perfect cycle of nature. When around 6000 wildebeest and other carcasses die in the river, their soft tissue attracts scavengers such as vultures and crocodiles. Their bones and horns decompose and commit phosphorous into the rivers, that grow algae and bacteria that contribute to a natural diversity and eco-system of aquatic life.
What time of year is the wildebeest migration?
Well, to answer that in detail and effectively, let’s look at the entire cycle of the great migration in Africa.
The Life Cycle of the Serengeti Wildebeest Migration
The wildebeest are usually around the central part of the Serengeti Nature Reserve, waiting for rain to show on the more southern parts of the Serengeti. The herds move around rapidly in January, as many pregnant females are just about to give birth, all within a few days of each other. Like all Moms, they are searching for the very best for their liddle ‘uns, in terms of the most nutritious grass to give sustenance to their young. If watching ‘the show’ in January, it is best to stay in a central location of the Serengeti in Tanzaniaand be ready to move with the herd.
There are no shortages of beautiful accommodation options in the central region of the Serengeti National Park. The herds could move all the way from Lobo in the north to Ndutu in the south in just a few days. We recommend staying in as central a location as possible and then move north or south from there, depending on the circumstances at the time.
With a bit of luck, you’ll be right where you need to be, for your migration safari to the Serengeti in January. Accommodation in the central Serengeti is astounding, from value, to deluxe to premier. Think about soaking up those vistas from a spa, using only solar energy for your hot showers, choosing where you would like to enjoy your bush breakfast or sunset cocktails. Barbeques, a balloon safari over the Serengeti, or hearing the ancient and soothing sounds of the Masai tribe singing at sunset are all part of the Serengeti safari experience.
What about staying in a premier ‘tent’ that is built into the surroundings, yet still has the pure colonial splendour of a dining room, butler, laundry service and swimming pool? And Edwardian furniture, copper fittings and convenient telescopes for stargazing? All while overlooking this vista that you cannot see anywhere else in the world.
This is when the migratory animals (wildebeest, zebra and gazelle) give birth. It’s not a time of great movement (for obvious reasons) but your chances of witnessing a wildebeest giving birth is very high.
As with the cycle of nature, the likelihood of witnessing predators will be high too, as lion and leopard slink in for the kill on the young. The best places to stay in the Serengeti in February are near theLakes Ndutu and Masek, where you will enjoy exquisite lodges and camps with full amenities and catering to all budgets.
In March, you get to see the adorable calves, around one month old. Like all babies, they need to feed all the time, and the wet month of March provides them with the sustenance and green grasslands they (and the herd) need. While there is no major migration in March, the presence of calves (easy prey) makes for excellent lion and leopard encounters. No-one said the wild ever rests.
In March, the best places to stay are in the Ndutu region of the Serengeti National Park, and excellent mobile camps are in operation, so you can move with the herd.
April is a lush feast of evening rains and clear days. The feasts have fattened the calves and they start to get ready to travel. The most lucrative places to stay during April are the Simba Kopjes, Kusini and Moru regions, also well-known for abundant cat populations, including lion. Plenty of opportunity to witness predator and prey.
If fabulous photography is your goal, then May will gladden your soul as the herds start moving quickly in the wet weather. The calves have strengthened by now and start to run as fast as their parents by only two months old. They also feed at longer intervals, making it easier for the herd to start moving.
The wet roads in May make travelling difficult, and there are no mobile camps because of this. Moru is the best camp to stay at in May, and ensure you still see the migration and lots of other sights.
In June, the herds are very dispersed, due to the grasslands being lush and green at the tail end of the rainy season. The herds do not sit on their laurels, and move great distances, so you can enjoy rewarding, lengthy game drives. Usually, the herds cross the Grumeti River during the month of June. The water levelof the Grumeti River is fairly low in June, so river crossings are calmer than they start to get in the next two months.
June is definitely a good time for the explorer – on both sides of the Nyamuma and Simiti Hills.The restaurant deck at Mbalageti yields some spectacular views.
The warmer weather and impending dry season begins the Mara river crossings, as well as mating season in the Serengeti. As the landscape becomes more arid, the herds start picking up the pace for the elixir of more water and greener grass.
The best place to stay in July might be The Grumeti River. Accommodation here is delightful but limited – so book early. Later in July, you could do best by staying as close as possible to the Mara River, where the Sayari Mara, Olakira Camp and Singita Explore offer amazing vantage and travel points for the start of the river crossing, and LOTS of crocs!
The month of August is THE perfect time to watch the dramatic crossing of the herds from Tanzania to Kenya – Serengeti to Masai Mara. The dry season is making its presence known and the herds will stick their necks out to cross the Mara River – crocodile infested and dangerous. They need lush, green grass, however, and will risk anything for it.
In August, you can stay either side of the Mara River – Tanzania or Kenya, and experience spectacular migration spectacles. The Sayari Mara, Mara River and Olakira Campmobile camps are idealplaces to watch the greatest migration in Africa.
Now is your opportunity to catch the wildebeest migration river crossings before they are done for the year. The climate is hot and dry, so the last of the migration is making its way through the Mara River. It’s perfect to look at the Kenyan side, and the wildebeest are generally seeking their lush grasses in the Greater Masai Mara areas and getting ready to head further north to private reserves such as OlareOrok and Mara North.
September is another spectacular month (much like August) when herd sightings are predictable. Early September is still good for the Serengeti accommodation options, but later in September, its best to look at the Masai Mara Reserve. The Olakira Camp or the Mara River mobile camps are unrivalled migration safari options.
Like we discussed earlier, the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ of the wildebeest migration is more of a cycle than a one-off show. There is always something to see! In October, the herds start moving back toward the Serengeti, as the dry season reaches its peak. The herds will be predominantly in Kenya and the Masai Mara, but remember, these are man-made boundaries. The animals only see the winds of change, the smell of rain and the promise of food to continue their survival. They general path is to gently start making their way back to the Serengeti via Loliondo, in an eastward direction. Fabulous places to stay in the Masai Mara in October include Lemala’s Kuria Hills and Nomad’s Lamai.
November brings cooler weather, as the early rains start to fall in the Serengeti.
The wildebeest herds are now in the Serengeti, stationed in the Lobo, Seronera Valley and MbuzeMawe areas, where water is flowing. Staying in the Serengeti in November is best in the migration safari spots of Sala’s Camp and Lobo mobile camps.
December is wet and humid, and the herds are making fast tracks southward toward the Serengeti’s southern plains. They are serious about what they are doing and move fast. Still a fantastic time to experience the herds, especially from Kleins Camp, Migration Camp and the Lobo Mobile Camps.
And the cycle continues, with more calves being nurtured and born in January and February again.
I think you will realise from the description above, it is less of a migration, and more of a nomadic cycle. There are times that are far more dramatic than others, and those are the times that have been recorded the most by nature lovers the world over.
Which is understandable. Do you want to watch the wildebeest thundering across the plains? Or the dramatic river crossings full of awe, inspiration and heartache as they gather on ledges in urgency and anticipation? Is the calving of hundreds of thousands of new wildebeest your perfect vision?
The wildebeest migration answers to the call of nature and the call of the rains and something mysterious that only the animals know! While it can be generally predicted, the best chance of seeing and exciting river crossing is to book as much time on your safari as you can. There is no shortage of amazing experiences and sightings. Some animals get to the river and cross immediately, some get there and hang around on ledges for days and some get there and turn back! With the attendant prey, big cat presence and more, there is plenty to see no matter what stage the river crossings are at.
As a general rule, these are some of the best times and places to see the wildebeest migration:
- January – March (low season)
Intense big cat presence, rutting and calving – Southern Serengeti
- June to August (high season)
Private game viewing Tanzania - Grumeti
- July to October (high season)
River crossings – Masai Mar – Northern Serengeti
- August to October (high season)
Private game viewing Kenya – Mara Conservancies
Accommodation during the Great Wildebeest Migration
There are two broad types of accommodation to choose from, each with their own fantastic benefits. These are permanent lodges and mobile camps.
Permanent lodges provide a more luxurious experience, depending on which ones you choose and suit your budget. Bathrooms with hot and cold running water, plumbed showers, bathtubs and flush toilets are the norm, and there is more access to Wi-Fi and personal in-room charging facilities.
Mobile camps offer more flexibility, and you are able to follow the migration closely. The ‘pick up and go’ nature of the mobile camps means that the plumbing is not as sophisticated, and bucket showers, basins that require jug water and running water are not easily available. However, comfort is not heavily compromised, and you can still enjoy en-suite tents with flush toilets. Access to Wi-Fi may be a lot more intermittent and charging points are usually communal.
Whether you choose a mobile camp, semi mobile camp or permanent lodge for your Serengeti or Masai Mara Safari experience, the quality of guides and game rangers is of paramount importance, and the guides are considered excellent in both of the parks. Your guide’s expertise and knowledge will make your trip.
Health and Safety – Should I take malaria medication when going on safari in Tanzania and Kenya?
Both the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, as well as many other areas in Tanzania and Kenya are considered risky malaria areas, even in the ‘cooler’ Winter months. Take reasonable precautions, and you will never have to suffer the consequences of chills, fever and malaria. It is very easily avoided, thank goodness.
The best way to avoid getting malaria, is to be vigilant about not getting any mosquito bites in the first place.
You can do this by:
- Being aware of when mosquitos are biting. This is usually at peak in the dawn, the dusk and in the evening, when it is cooler. You can avoid these times outdoors, but I doubt you will want to as these are the best times for spotting animals. So, during these times it is important to use an insect and mosquito repellent spray. This is also good for any other critters, besides mosquitos. There are many insect repellent sprays on the market that use less of the chemical ingredients (kinder to kids and skin) and more natural ingredients, such as citronella oil. Find one that suits your skin and your family and use it liberally on any exposed areas of skin, especially in the early morning, at sundown and in the evening. Effective brands are Tabard, Vital Protection and Peaceful Sleep.
Make sure to spray the sleeping area with insect repellent before bedtime, for extra protection.
- Covering up. Don’t let the balmy temperature at dawn and dusk fool you into exposing skin. Wear long sleeves, and long pants. Get yourself some lovely, light cotton ones. You will look so cool. Yup, tuck your long pants into your socks. Wear closed shoes and a hat. It’s ok, it’s fashion on safari. Plus, very wise, as you don’t want a nasty bite on your ankle or wrist to result in malaria, do you?
- A mosquito bed net. Does your accommodation include mosquito nets over the beds? If not, bring your own. You can buy pre-treated mosquito bed nets, with a pyrethroid insecticide included. Or just buy a mosquito net, and get it treated after you have bought it. If it reaches the floor of your bed, great. If not, tuck it under your mattress. The idea is not to let the critters through when you are sleeping. Most accommodation in malaria areas in Africa will supply pre-treated mosquito nets, so be sure to enquire of your accommodation manager, and if in any doubt, take your own.
- Air conditioning – If you are staying in a hotel or room with air conditioning, keeping the temperature down and the bed net on will stop the prevalence of mosquitos.
Another consideration is that of taking anti-malarial medication prior to and during your travels. Each person travelling needs to have an individual rick assessment and a decision made as to whether to take anti-malarial medication or not, and which medication to take.
This assessment should be done by a Doctor, preferably one who knows the patient’s history. Anti-malaria medication can cause nausea and other unpleasant side effects such as depression and headaches. The older versions of anti-malaria medication such as Larium are more likely to cause side effects, whilst newer daily versions such as Malanil or Malarone have reportedly far fewer side effects. However, they are also considerably more expensive.
The best way to make the decision is with your healthcare provider in your home city. They will need to take into consideration:
- Any other medical conditions
- Other medications that are being taken and how they will react with the malaria medication
- Risks involved in the specific itinerary you have chosen for traveling – which areas are you going to? What type of accommodation will you be staying in?
- Which season will you be travelling in?
- What are the additional risk factors, such as age or pregnancy
If possible, it is best to avoid malaria areas while pregnant and breastfeeding.
Always purchase your malaria medication from your home country, and before travelling. This way you can ensure you are using a brand that has been approved in your home country and has been recommended by a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Families and Children – Can I take my children on Safari to watch the Wildebeest Migration?
While going on safari as a family is an exciting prospect, it may be wise to consider waiting until very young children are a bit older. This is because of the malaria risk (children are more susceptible to getting very ill if they get malaria.) This does nor mean you cannot take children, just that it is best to focus on lower risk malaria areas when doing so.
If you are taking children, it is best to check the policies of your tour operator and accommodation provider and find out their policy on young children. Some lodges do not accept children under 12, while some have excellent programmes and specifically cater for younger children, with activities and child-care if the children are too young to go on game drives. The lodges will have their own rules, but most places do not allow children under 12 on bush walks or game drives. Check with your providers before making your decisions, it would be terrible to arrive and find out your child is not allowed on the game drives!
Photographing and filming the great wildebeest migration
Whether you are a holiday snapper, budding amateur or an advanced or professional photographer, you will want to get some photos and videos of the awesome spectacle, and there is so much you can do.
If bagging amazing photographs and film is one of your main aims, there are specific photography safaris that can be booked that are hosted by professional photographers and catered to getting those amazing shots and film as a primary objective.
However, even if the photographs are not your primary aim, here are some tips and tricks to getting the best photography you can on the great wildebeest migration:
- Getting great photos can involve having immense patienceand staying in the same spot for hours. Make sure you have what you need – such as snacks, water, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses and insect repellent on hand as you may not be able to get out of the vehicle for some time. You could also be parked in the direct sun for extended periods.
- Plan ahead and discuss your photography ‘wish list’ with your guide, as they will probably have some invaluable advice in helping you get those shots.
- When the action does start, it happens quickly. Most professional photographers set their ISO high in readiness for this, so you can avoid too much blur and capture the super fast action.
- There are superb photographs to be had by capturing both the close-up detail and the vast expanses.
- If trying to capture vast numbers of animals together, use a short focal length. If photographing throngs of wildebeest waiting on the banks, a wide-angle lens will be best.
- Once the animals move, they can kick up a huge amount of dust. If this is happening, take a few test shots and adjust accordingly, maybe a slight over-exposure will counteract this.
- Getting the vastness of the tableau is best done from the air, so you could consider taking a hot air balloon flight or small plane. Use a wide-angle lens and fast shutter speed to counteract blur from a moving balloon or plane.
- If you are getting in close to capture the chaos and individual animals, you will need to use a long focal length lens. The animal’s dark colour can require some underexposure.
- Get creative and capture the ‘always on the move’ feel with some deliberate blur images to depict motion.
- For some ideas, you can research the many documented photographic images and film clips taken by those before you. Unfailingly inspiring!
- Don’t forget to step back every now and again and just drink in the scene away from the camera. Getting those shots is fantastic but experiencing it for yourself is unforgettable!
Other activities you can add on to your Serengeti / Masai Mara Wildebeest migration safari:
There are plenty of additional adventures you can undertake while on safari or close by in neighbouring countries, to make your African safari experience even more spectacular.
- Snorkelling, diving and beach
Close by are the gorgeous white sands and unspoilt beaches and oceans of Zanzibar, Mnemba, Pemba, Thanda and Mafia. Not too far off are the idyllic beach destinations of the Seychelles and Mauritius.
- The Victoria Falls
Venture south to visit one of the seven wonders of the world, the Victoria Falls. Take in the majesty of the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ and indulge in a spot of bungee, gorge swinging, ziplining or white-water rafting if you are the adventurous type! You can experience the Falls from Victoria Falls town in Zimbabwe or Livingstone in Zambia.
- Get close to gorillas
Close by are the world’s most awesome gorilla-trekking trails in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo.
- World’s most beautiful city – Cape Town
For the holiday that has it all, goo south to Cape Town and experience the fine dining, stunning beaches, history, culture, wine farms and quirky and sophisticated beat of beautiful Cape Town.
Make sure you experience the Greatest Show on Earth
Deciding to undertake the unique experience of witnessing the amazing Serengeti or Masia Mara and the spectacle of migrating beasts is a sensory experience that is unique and truly special. It’s safari on steroids, with action, predators, mind-blowing scenery and vistas and a chance to experience our natural world in a way that cannot be replicated.