The Wildebeest Migration

Planning a safari to see the key events of the migration

When, where and how to experience one of nature’s most dramatic phenomena. And our thoughts on how to avoid the crowds while you’re about it.

In many ways the world famous crossings of the Mara River in the Northern Serengeti have become THE iconic safari event

For sheer drama and scale it’s hard to beat the experience of watching thousands of wildebeest doggedly braving the swollen river – not to mention the monster crocodiles that live there.

However, in the rush to get to the heart of the action it’s worth understanding how the migration works from month to month and – as importantly in our view – which areas of the Serengeti are worth considering precisely because the migration has left town. Understanding which areas of this vast park have outstanding resident game year-round can reveal one or two real hidden gems that will keep you a step ahead of the crowds. 

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Who’s doing the migrating?

The famous crossings of the Mara River are just one dramatic moment in an annual event featuring over a million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelles, not to mention attendant predators and birdlife. Each year, in response to local rains the herds move off the southern plains of the Serengeti, travelling in a clockwise sweep through the Serengeti Western Corridor before reaching their dry season range in the Northern Serengeti and Maasai Mara. Here, rains from Lake Victoria keep this area full of nutritious grasses throughout the dry season.

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July - October: The River Crossings

Where they happen and how to see them

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The Crossings of the Mara and Grumeti Rivers

Each dry season on the border between Tanzania and Kenya, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest brave the torrent of the Mara River and its fearsome crocodiles on their annual migration

The Mara River runs more or less along the border of Tanzania and Kenya, separating The Serengeti National Park from the Maasai Mara. This is where the main crossings happen in Tanzania and the majority of visitors to the Serengeti aim for the Kogatende area. This is partly because there are a number of well-used (wildebeest) crossing points here and partly because this is the only place where you can cross the Mara River by vehicle to the north bank (and the stunning Lamai Wedge). It’s also where the airstrip is.

On the other side of the river in Kenya’s Maasai Mara there are crossings not only of the Mara River but also the Talek and other tributaries of the main channel. While numbers of visitors to Northern Serengeti have increased significantly in recent years, in our experience the greatest chance to experience a crossing without being surrounded by hordes of other vehicles is still on the Serengeti side of the border.

When do crossings happen?

Exact timing of the migration is driven by the weather (an unusually wet or dry year can cause a variation in timing of weeks), however the wildebeest normally reach the northern Serengeti by early July and by late July it’s safe to assume that crossings will be under way.

Unlike the Israelites crossing of The Red Sea, the Mara River crossings are not a single event, rather crossings happen throughout the dry season. Groups varying in size from a few hundred to tens of thousand cross the river in both directions between July and October in response to localized weather patterns (following the rain showers and therefore the fresh grazing). The last crossings happen in late October before the herds move south again.

What’s amazing is that the vast majority of animals make it across unscathed, but their troubles rarely end there; lion frequently wait in ambush to greet the swimmers.  If you’re after an action packed safari, this is it.

Unlike the Israelites crossing of The Red Sea, the Mara River crossings aren't a single event, but happen throughout the dry season - in all directions”

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How to maximise the chances of seeing a river crossing

Like most wildlife encounters, seeing a crossing takes luck and patience, but regardless of where you stay having an excellent and experienced guide who knows the area like the back of his hand is critical if you are to connect with a crossing. Above all, the more time you can give yourself, the greater your chances of success; and once you have found a herd gathering you are most likely to be rewarded if you are prepared to dig in and wait.

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The best places to stay to catch the action

In recent years a small number of small very stylish lodges have sprung up in and around the Kogatende area of the Northern Serengeti. Lodges such as Nomad’s Lamai Serengeti offer an outstanding mixture of safari authenticity with real creative flair and all the trappings you’d expect of the best luxury hotels. These lodges are generally small, catering for around 30 guests at a time and there are a few of them well placed to get you to the heart of the action.

If you’re after the maximum safari flavour, our advice would be take the chance to spend at least a couple of days under canvas while in the Serengeti. Tented camps offer a wonderfully pure experience of one of the world’s foremost wildlife areas and ensure that you feel properly removed from your daily reality – something’s that increasingly hard to find these days. If you like the idea of camp fires, canvas and a real feeling of emersion in the wild, then this is the type of camp for you.

Choose between large walk in tents, great food and unrivalled personal service in luxury tented camps like Nomad’s Serengeti Safari Camp or – if you’re looking for something a little more simple, then a light tented camp is an excellent alternative.

Seasonal Camps - the migration moves...so do the camps

Seasonal camps relocate every few months so as to remain within striking range of the herds. It's important to realise that the camp wont move while you're staying. Between December and March expect to be in the Southern Serengeti close to the short grass plains of Ndutu. Between April and May many camps are located out to the west close to Moru Kopjes or the edge of the western Corridor. Between July and late October expect to be in the far north of the Serengeti.

When it comes to accommodation, this is a chance to have your cake and eat it...Our advice is mix it up”

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Be clever and look beyond the crowds

The wildebeest migration is such a well-known event that it tends to dominate peoples' view of the Serengeti. Most people plan their visit in relation to the migration, but in doing so overlook the enormity of the park and the incredible game viewing available in many places once the migration has moved on. Nowhere is this more true than in the Northern Serengeti between November and March, where your chances of seeing the big 5 are as good as anywhere in Tanzania. Read five common misconceptions about the Serengeti. For the canny this creates a great opportunity to enjoy vast wild areas teaming with wildlife without the attendant crowds. 

Take a look at a low season Serengeti itinerary

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Top 5 safaris to see the migration

THE WILDEBEEST MIGRATION IN LUXURY CAMPS

Highlights:

The best of traditional tented camps in Northern Tanzania, sensation wildlife and guides

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2 / 5

Top 5 safaris to see the migration

THE BEST OF TANZANIA AWAY FROM THE CROWDS

Highlights:

The best Northern Tanzania's green season. Epic wildlife, beautiful lodges, low season rates

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3 / 5

Top 5 safaris to see the migration

SIMPLE BRILLIANT CAMPS IN TANZANIA'S SAFARI HEARTLAND

Highlights:

Light tented camps in quiet areas of Northern Tanzania, superb wildlife viewing

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Top 5 safaris to see the migration

NORTHERN TANZANIA FOR ACTIVE FAMILIES

Highlights:

Bike, walk, sleep under the stars. Fantastic game viewing, authentic camps and plenty to keep families busy

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Top 5 safaris to see the migration

EXPEDITION ON FOOT THROUGH THE SERENGETI

Highlights:

A proper, multi-day immersive walking safari in the heart of Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.

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Every year in mid February roughly a million wildebeest gather on the short grass plains of the Southern Serengeti to give birth

Extraordinarily all 400,000 calves are born in the space of a few weeks

The herds return to the south any time from December, timing their arrival with the return of the rains. The plains cover many thousands of square miles, so the sense of space is overwhelming.  Off road driving is permitted in this area and you can drive for hours and never be out of sight – or sound - of wildebeest.

But the wildebeest are only one part of the experience. Aside from the newborn wildebeest calves, the plains are alive with young animals of all kinds from plains game, to the numerous predators that follow the migrating herds; lion, leopard, cheetah and in particular hyenas that thrive at this time of year.

For many people, safaris are synonymous with the dry season, but the scale of this event puts most wildlife spectacles in the shade.  And compared to the harshness of the dry, this is a time of vivid green, and plenty.

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When to see the wildebeest calving

While the herds all tend to give birth within a few weeks, the exact timing of this event is hard to predict as it depends on precisely when the rut took place and to a degree the conditions at the time of the calving. It’s therefore probably better to aim slightly later than earlier (last week of February) to increase your chances of encountering the newborn calves.

The wildebeest migration isn't all about river crossings...

One of our favourite times is late May when the herds - in their hundreds of thousands - begin to move off the southern plains on their long journey north.

After a period of plenty, spent happily grazing on the mineral-rich grasses of the southern Serengeti the wildebeest are feeling a little bit frisky and are ready for action. Expect cavorting, showmanship, standoffs, the odd head to head tussle and long, long lines of wildebeest, looking purposeful, but heading in totally different directions.  Also, at this time of year, you can expect not to see too many other tourists…which we really like.

The action tends to be focused on the south west of the Serengeti, with the herds moving in the direction of the Western Corridor and the central Serengeti. Moru Kopjes is particularly worth visiting at this time of year also.

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Our experienced travellers include:

Alex Edwards
Alex Edwards
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Olly Williams
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All of us at Natural High have over 20 years’ experience in the countries we offer. We’ve lived there, worked there and arranged countless one-off journeys for clients. We live to travel – and love to share our tips on what’s really worth doing. For expert advice (and a traveller’s tale or two), speak to one of our team. They’ll be happy to let you in on their travel secrets, and help you plan a tailor-made trip that’s truly unforgettable.

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