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About the wildebeest migration

Tanzania’s Serengeti or Kenya’s Masai Mara?

Each destination is good at completely different times of the year - generally the migration is active in the Tanzania's Serengeti for 9 months; it's most active in Kenya's Masai Mara for 3 months during August/September/October.

Plan on either Kenya or Tanzania. Don't think of combining or switching at the last moment on the cheap.

Logistically it's best to handle the Serengeti from Arusha and the Mara from Nairobi - this will help with decisions on beach breaks or other safaris into southern Tanzania or elsewhere in Kenya.

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What's the migration about?

The migration itself involves around 1,5 million wildebeest, gazelle and zebra on the move. Resident game (predators and other mammals) are generally fixed to territorial areas and don't follow the migration much beyond their own ranges.

Resident game can be found in their home ranges year round.

If you're interested in seeing specific resident game species (eg elephant, wild dog, leopard etc) then destinations other than the Mara or Serengeti could be better.

See a map explaining how the migration moves through the year.

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How to deal with the crowds

With the exception of a short period during the "long rains" around April/May visitors are always busy looking for the migration. Unfortunately this can apply to some areas even when the migration isn't in the vicinity - what kind of safari is this!

We're familiar with one spot in the Serengeti's Western Corridor that's on the migration path for about a week each year, "maybe" around June, has poor resident game, has a lousy road network, is a 2 hour bone-jarring drive from the Seronera circuits but enjoys a 9 month "high season" and is practically full for 10 months of the year. (That makes no sense at all!)

  • So when the migration is "on", space is at a premium, prices are relatively high and advance bookings are essential.
  • If you're too late to get available space when you originally intended it's better to postpone your safari plans to get the right space. 

The Mara and Seronera areas in particular have some big hotels and lodges so crowd density can be a problem. These hotels and lodges are generally full even when the migration is happening in a completely different area, but when the migration is in full swing everybody converges to where the action is on.
The really great thing about these big outfits is that they work to a formula - same circuits, same timetables to ensure that their tourists "see the migration" then the tourists get fed, watered and to bed in time for the next day's action - all at the same time!
The trick is to work with smaller outfits with the flexibility and real interest to get out into the bush before the hordes arrive, are happy to typically hold breakfast under a tree when the minibuses are doing their rounds and then spend some time looking for quieter spots to catch the afternoons and early evenings without crowds.
The smaller outfits are without doubt a far better bet in both the Serengeti and Mara - in some cases more expensive but definitely better value for money.

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...some theory on how the migration moves...

The migration itself involves around 1.5 million wildebeest, gazelle and zebra on the move. Resident game (predators and other mammals) are generally fixed to territorial areas and don't follow the migration much beyond their own ranges; they can be found in their home ranges year round. 

Refer to the maps - note the Serengeti Plains are in the south, the western corridor in the west, the Lobo Hills in the north and Seronera in the centre. The Maasai Mara is in the far north of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. 

The migration is largely driven by the rains, which determine when the animals start moving. A basic outline of how this works is described here, but it is important to remember that rains cannot be timed exactly, and so the migration doesn't operate on a set schedule! It also doesn't follow a set route; nor, indeed, do the animals all go the same way. This is part of what makes the site of the migrations so spectacular - hundreds of thousands of animals following different routes to the same destination, spread across the vast plains as far as the eye can see.

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How the migration really works!

The theory behind how the migration works is simple: seasonal rains and the availability of grazing determines the "clockwise" movement of the migration in the larger Serengeti eco-system that includes Tanzania's Serengeti and Kenya's Masai Mara.  A few physical barriers like the Simiti and Lobo hills, the Grumeti and Mara rivers hinder and alter this "circular" path. 

Well in reality it's not quite that simple! 

So here's a more informed explanation on how the migration really works...courtesy of Richard Knocker: 

The wildebeest want to be in the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti [in Ndutu/Gol/Southern Loliondo] but the water and grazing cannot support them all year round. This is where they choose to give birth to their young (usually Feb - March), with the rich grass to support them. Within a relatively short space of time, perhaps 4 to 6 weeks, several hundred thousand calves will be born and this is where we see much of the dramatic predator action. The Migration will 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 also not a continually forward motion. They go forward, back and to the sides, they mill around, they split up, they join forces, they walk in a line, they spread out, they hang around. You can never predict with certainty where they will be; the best you can do is to suggest likely timings, based on past experience - but you can never guarantee the Migration 100%. 

 So, soon after the short rains start, we would expect them to be in, or close to, the short grass plains area (centred around Naabi/Ndutu/Gol) from December through to April. Depending on local rainfall, they might be anywhere from Moru Kopjes through to the slopes of Ngorongoro. 

 From May, the rains stop and the herds gradually start moving: generally, as the plains of the south and east dry out, there is a movement to the north and west, where there is more grass and more dependable water. 

 Not all the wildebeest and zebra will follow the same route: this means that, while part of the migration will head to the western corridor and the GrumetiRiver before proceeding north, significant numbers may also go up through Loliondo, or via Seronera and Lobo.

 In a dry year, the first wildebeest could be near the MaraRiver (the only decent permanent water in the ecosystem) in early July; in a wet year - 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. 

 The Migration as a whole need not all pass into Kenya and many stay behind or cross and re-cross the border areas. This carries on through till October/November, when they will start thinking of heading back. Again this will be dependent on the rains.

 The river crossings happen at any time during this time of year, but are elusive, rapid and unforgettable experiences.

 The areas the wildebeest cover are vast, even when crossed in a 4WD car.

 The groups may be spilt over a wide area and finding one on the brink of crossing is not a given.

 The wildebeest are also easily spooked by real or imagined threats. They fear crossing the river, as they have an inkling that something lurks there.

 Patient waiting near a herd by the river may only produce a puff of dust as they turn on their heels and run away. Or maybe the herd is just not ready to cross the river and they are milling around contentedly.

 But if everything is right then, there is utter and extraordinary chaos as the herds struggle to get to the other side of a major river filled with crocodiles.

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What's the key to a successful migration safari?

People make the real difference to safaris and by our standards good professional guides who are dedicated, reputable, experienced and prepared to go out of their way for the better photograph or game encounter are more important than creature comforts.

Not that we believe in sacrificing creature comforts but from experience titivating camps and lodges is a quicker and cheaper way of covering up weaknesses in other areas. Employing and retaining the best hosts and guides as part of the team is the bigger and more important challenge for any operator.

So when we see rose petals in the bath on safari we ask questions because that's out of place. When we come across a great guide or host it's generally safe to assume that the creature comforts have been taken well care of already and the price tag is more often than not realistic by comparison with the "veneered" options.

People make the difference on safari!

Here're two trips that really do work - the Tanzania migration safari and the Masai Mara safari in Kenya.

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