The greatest show on Earth: tracking the wildebeest migration across Tanzania’s Serengeti

The Serengeti’s golden plains may be home to the Big Five, but the unsung heroes of these grasslands are its white-bearded wildebeests. They’re the seams that hold together an ecosystem, performing an ancient dance that still sweeps across the savannah.

By Sarah Marshall
Published 17 Mar 2021, 09:00 GMT
Wildebeest migration

Each year, over a million wildebeest complete a staggering 1,250-mile circuit a cross Kenya and Tanzania, one of the last intact wildlife migrations on Earth.

Photograph by AWL Images

The sound of 8,000 hooves is electrifying. Funnelling down a sheer, dusty drop on the riverbank, the herd roars into the water, tearing at the soil and rupturing trees from their very roots. Locked densely together, this tangle of curled horns elegantly sinks and swirls like a group of debutantes performing a Viennese waltz. But once the first splash is made, any decorum is lost as a survival instinct kicks in. A low, thundering rumble drowns individual cries as the animals focus on one unanimous goal: to reach the other side.

We’d rushed to this point along the Mara River, in the northern Serengeti’s Kogatende area, here in Tanzania. Looking through his binoculars to judge the size of the herd amassing, my ambitious and endlessly energetic Maasai guide, Moinga, had glanced at his watch and declared: “We can make it.” Crashing across granite gullies and swerving through quagmires of sticky black cotton mud, we’d arrived right on cue.

Every summer, in relentless pursuit of new grass, wildebeests cross the watery border to Kenya, before being lured back by rains between October and November and heading hundreds of miles south to calve on the Serengeti’s southern plains. The migration is often synonymous with river crossings like this, but for most people who witness the herbivores’ annual grazing cycle, the primary spectacle to behold is that of vast golden plains painted black.

Zebra graze at Serengeti National Park.

Photograph by Getty Images

Spiral back in history, and there were periods when nomadic tribes moved according to the weather. Ancient civilisations would plot their routes based around patterns of stars, their lives revolving around the universe in the same way our Earth obediently orbits the Sun. Most of us have lost that connection, yet many species still survive in harmony with the seasons, and there’s no greater peripatetic existence than that of the white-bearded wildebeest.

Come rain or shine, the 1.3 million-strong East African wildebeest population performs an epic journey across Kenya and Tanzania accompanied by a host of optimistic Thomson’s gazelles and plains zebras who also know the grass is always greener elsewhere. The 1,250-mile circuit they undertake is one of the last intact mammal migrations on Earth.

While fences, roads and all the signs of human habitation have caused many great migratory movements to collapse, the wildebeests have been completing their epic tour of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem for over 100,000 years. A keystone species, the wildebeest represents a giant cog in a wheel that would otherwise fail to turn.

Hordes of vehicles — occasionally outnumbering the wildebeests — have turned river crossings into a circus. But not today. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, most mobile camps remain closed and only a handful of tourists are travelling. “Usually there might be 100 cars here,” explains Moinga, as we drive back through an area where drivers are now required to wait until the crossings start so the animals’ natural migratory pattern isn’t disrupted.

Although I’ve arrived in early November at the tail end of the wildebeests’ exodus (it can shift by several weeks every year), erratic rainfall has caused some back-and-forth, meaning thousands of wildebeests have yet to cross.

Ears still ringing from my first experience, I’m barely prepared for a second stampede. Having driven for 10 minutes along the river, a dark patch is forming on verdant grassland, as swollen storm clouds gather momentum overhead. A few thick droplets have already released a rich petrichor — a blend of sweet, warm air and rich, earthy African soil. Like an aphrodisiac perfume, it’s enough to drive a wildebeest mad.

Science is yet to explain why these animals choose a particular path to traverse. But as the animals stumble down crumbling cliffs, veiled by cinnamon plumes of dust, a whir of calculations is probably taking place.

A leopard descends from a tree in Serengeti National Park.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

On this occasion, however, Moinga and I both agree their judgement is poor as they rush toward the river. A zigzag of granite boulders breaks the roaring froth of the Mara — a treacherous obstacle course that also has the potential to snap several vulnerable limbs. I flinch as inexperienced juveniles lodge their spindly legs in crevices and are ultimately drowned by a tsunami of sweat, fear and determination as the herd surges forward in an unstoppable flow. In this moment, life and death hang in a delicate balance. Survivors heave a sigh of relief as they exit the water, leaving wounded stragglers to bow their long faces in inevitable acceptance. There’s no turning back.

Witnessing these types of river crossings and the moving herds of the Great Migration have only really become a draw for travellers in the past 15 years. In 2009, Asilia Africa’s Sayari Camp became the first permanent setup in this northern section of the national park, reopening in September 2020 following a year-long revamp. Interiors inspired by the local Kuria clan and a ‘listening station’ playing traditional songs recorded by musicians in surrounding villages are the closest I can get to any community interaction, due to precautions demanded by Covid-19.

But the greatest recent addition to the camp is the first solar-powered microbrewery in the bush, created in partnership with Swedish startup Wayout. As well as four craft beers, it produces soft drinks and purified water, saving around 200,000 plastic bottles a week. “It’s all computer controlled from Sweden,” says the barman as he pours a pint of IPA for me to toast my day’s game-viewing success. Looking more like a Starbucks Frappuccino, it’s a clear indicator that most Maasai don’t drink.

The waiting game

Unfortunately, not every crossing is as easy to anticipate as my first encounter. Sightings require patience — and a lot of it. “The longest I’ve waited is 12 hours,” warns Moinga, when we drive a short distance from camp the following morning. As he prepares a makeshift breakfast table behind the driver’s seat, I find myself counting the acacia in the riverine woodland. Sensing my boredom, Moinga adds: “But this year, I’d say 80% have happened after less than two hours.” The absence of the usual convoys of tourist vehicles has clearly had a positive impact, disturbing the beasts’ migratory routes less than normal.

“In contrast to the cool-hued north, where emerald woodlands glisten against aubergine skies, the landscape here is simple and sepia-toned. Open and vast, it’s the true definition of ‘Serengeti’.”

by Sarah Marshall

As we settle in for the morning, groups of indecisive wildebeests dither and dally on the riverbank close to a popular crossing point, allowing conversation to meander as lazily as this subdued section of the Mara River. First, we tackle Covid (John Magufuli,Tanzania’s controversial president, claims the country has successfully prayed it away), before moving on to family life (Moinga credits his forward-thinking mum for putting him through school), then David Attenborough (he stayed at one of the Asilia camps and everyone wanted a selfie).

Two hours later: still no action. Discussions shift to the wildebeests’ strategy. One sign of imminent movement is ‘cycling’ — when the animals whorl at such a pace, they almost lift off, like a tornado. These sudden storms can quickly abate, with troops trundling in single file to another location. But how do they choose the best place to cross? Is it a simple matter of memory or has an inherited compass been implanted in their DNA? “I think it’s down to smell,” ponders Moinga, halfheartedly swishing a cow tail to whisk away tsetse flies. “They must have a scent gland in their hooves, leaving a trail for others to follow.”

Three hours later: nothing.

Digging deeper, we start to philosophise about their behaviour. Wildebeests are often accused of being stupid, but Moinga and I agree the opposite is true. There’s an admirable egalitarianism to their social structure: in the absence of any single leader, everyone agrees to follow whoever takes charge at a particular moment. Obedience is immediate; there’s no hesitation. Of course, not every decision is the right one. Traversing a rocky section of the river, for example, usually results in bones snapping like matchsticks.

Wildebeests ford the Mara River as they cross from Tanzania’s Serengeti to the Kenya’s Maasai Mara and back.

Photograph by AWL Images

The wildebeests aren’t the only ones taking a gamble. Choosing to focus on crossings means sacrificing other safari sightings: leopards mating under the cover of croton bushes; lions perched on granite thrones; or giraffes performing a strange form of topiary by nibbling shrubs into abstract shapes. I suggest we take a break to search for something else. Big mistake.

Four hours later: several hundred hoof prints in the mud and one gaping, empty space. The wildebeests have crossed.

Empty plains

That afternoon, a bruised, indignant sky sums up my mood, although everyone else is elated by the deluge. A grey heron hops happily on one foot and Egyptian geese merrily plod through puddles. Water is life in Africa; I can feel the energy in every drop soaking through my socks. Swallowed up by our ponchos, Moinga and I laugh at the idiocy of game driving in a torrential downpour, but there’s a rewarding sense of liberation in surrendering to the rain.

More importantly, the showers are a signal for the wildebeests to search for fresh pastures — a reminder to keep pushing south. Passing through the Loliondo area, many will head to the Namiri Plains, 67 miles from Sayari. While their journey is on foot, I take a short bush flight from Sayari. In this remote eastern corner of the Serengeti, the beasts are nowhere to be seen.

In contrast to the cool-hued north, where emerald woodlands glisten against aubergine skies, the landscape here is simple and sepia-toned. Open and vast, it’s the true definition of ‘Serengeti’ (the Maasai word for ‘endless plains’), where clouds cruise deceptively close and horizons vanish in a flicker of heat haze. Volcanic activity has left its mark with a scattering of kopjes, rising like islands in a sea of bleached-yellow grass and forming refuges for scurrying hyraxes and resilient rock figs, whose exposed roots are so determined they can cleave a boulder in two.

From the early 1990s until 2014, this area was closed off for cheetah research (there are estimated to be around 40 of the feline Ferraris using it as their home range). Asilia has commandeered the area with its Namiri Plains Camp (10 stone-walled structures covered by canvas roofs) and it’s already proving popular with professional photographers such as David Yarrow.

“Poised over the hole, every hair on the lioness’s pelt is frozen and her shoulders hunch taught like valley ridges. It ’s psychological torture of the highest degree.”

by Sarah Marshall

After a night at the camp, I head out for a morning game drive. At 6am, the moon is still setting, swapping shifts with the sun and gathering his silvery belongings from the tips of trees. A parade of elephants slips through a pillar box of tangerine light cast through clouds, and a sprawl of spotted hyenas temporarily blocks our path; bleary-eyed and dishevelled, the late-night stragglers are stumbling home.

For some carnivores, however, there’s no time to rest. When the migration passes through this area from early December (only a few weeks after my visit), “the plains are rigid black”, insists my seasoned guide, Levard, as we both stare into empty space. Until they arrive, the predators must endure a fallow period; it’ll be a few more weeks before the larder is restocked. Worst hit are the lions, which, lacking the speed and agility of cheetahs, are unable to chase impalas, instead relying on wildebeests for food. Slim pickings have split prides, forcing them — uncharacteristically — to hunt alone and during the day. But in this harsh environment, even predators are predated. “Last week, we saw a male eat a cub,” says Levard, shuddering at the recollection.

Tracking lions isn’t difficult but watching them hunt is a waiting game, making a wildebeest crossing potentially feel like a McDonald’s drive-through.

As we watch a lioness stalking a warthog in the long grass, her sense of desperation is palpable. Gaze narrowed and shoulders raised, she powers into action and prepares to chase. But the game is up, and when a dust cloud eventually settles, the empty-clawed cat is leaning over a burrow — her prey’s temporary escape route.

What follows next is a war of attrition; a test of patience so great it can only be driven by the demands of life and a fear of death. “I’ve seen this before. She’ll drag him out,” insists Levard. But the warthog can clearly still smell the lioness, so lies low. A short while later, she switches to another tactic: remaining still. Poised over the hole, every hair on her pelt is frozen and her shoulders hunch taught like valley ridges. It’s psychological torture of the highest degree.

And so, too, we wait. Almost an entire day. Choreographed by the wind, blades of grass provide the only animation, but as the gusts become ever more maddening, the movements begin to resemble a battle rather than a dance. Fatigued by relentless gales and inertia, we eventually leave, stopping to look at a 5,000-year-old fossilised giraffe ossicone (horn) found by a walking guide — evidence of how long animals have being living here in the Serengeti. When we return the following morning, the lioness is sleeping; her paws clenched around the hole like a vagrant clinging hopelessly to diminishing possessions. After 21 hours, it’s a sad and poignantly tragic sight. Without the wildebeests, these cats simply wouldn’t survive.

A formidable force

It’s a three-hour drive to the southern plains — possible as part of a day trip from Namiri, although most visitors stay in mobile camps. Attracted by safe, open spaces and phosphorous-rich soils, herds of wildebeests arrive here in January and synchronise births, producing several thousand calves a day over the course of several weeks in February (a strategy to reduce predation).

Lion cubs from the Naona pride in Moru Kopjes, in the centre of Serengeti National Park.

Photograph by Getty Images

The Great Migration begins again as animals move north west, passing through the Grumeti Game Reserve — an integral piece in the ecosystem’s jigsaw puzzle. Once a hunting concession, the 350,000- acre block was overrun by poachers in the 1980s and ’90s. Identified as an important link in the migration route, it received greater protection in 1994, and in 2002 a management agreement was signed between TAWA (Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority) and the nonprofit Grumeti Fund, granting a 30-year lease to restore the area’s wild populations. Conservation-focused safari group Singita partnered to exclusively manage tourism, with fi ve high-end lodges now operating on the site.

“I remember wildebeests once ran through my classroom,” recalls safari guide Braya, who grew up in one of the villages bordering the reserve. “They disappeared for a while but now they are back.” Similarly, other animal populations have boomed: since 2003, there’s been a four-fold increase in elephant numbers; buffalos have ballooned from 600 to 9,000; and a successful translocation of nine eastern black rhino (with a calf born last summer) has grown Tanzania’s ailing population by 10%.

When I arrive at Grumeti’s private airstrip — complete with a reception bar fashioned from a hot air balloon basket — dozens of pioneering wildebeests are already on their way south. “We usually see them coming up in May and June, although some also use this route to go down,” explains Braya, as we drive towards Faru Faru Lodge. A collection of timber, glass and canvas rooms, the property sits alongside the seasonal Grumeti River, where smaller crossings can be witnessed at full flow. Offering 100 different wines by the glass, it’s a high-end safari experience — although none of the fancy trimmings upstage the wildlife in any way.

One of Grumeti’s highlights is an opportunity to see the male wildebeests rutting: locking horns, sprinting maniacally and grunting loudly to attract potential partners. For now, they have other objectives. Later in the afternoon, we find a long line marching purposefully, ready to cover at least 30 miles in one day. Dusky threads embroidering the landscape, they’re the seams holding the Serengeti together, providing food for predators and clearing long grass areas in savannahs, allowing smaller gazelles to graze.

“That sloping body gives them more endurance; they’re a good piece of machinery,” muses Braya. He’s right: they’re handsome creatures. Backlit beards glow softer than angel hair in dewy morning light, polished pelts cling tightly to muscular torsos, and curved horns loop decadently as if inked by flourishes of a calligrapher’s pen.

In isolation they can so easily be discounted, but en masse these gregarious creatures are a formidable force. Tracking their migration routes taps into a language of nature we no longer speak, but is easily understood by watching those crossings, calvings and obedient cavalcades. Moving with Stygian storm clouds and feeding from volcanic minerals fi red by the Earth’s core, they’re part of a cycle much bigger than their never-ending circuit. ’

Guests at Namiri Plains Camp, in the eastern Serengeti, watch an elephant while on a walking safari.

Photograph by Namiri PR

Getting there & around

Currently, there are no direct flights to Tanzania from the UK. Ethiopian Airlines flies to the capital, Dar es Salaam, from Manchester and London via Addis Ababa. 
Emirates flies via Dubai, while KLM operates via Amsterdam to both Dar es Salaam and Kilimanjaro, a more useful entry point for the northern Serengeti.
Average flight time: 15h.

When to go

The Great Migration is a year-round spectacle. Crossings along the Mara and Sand Rivers occur from July until early November. The herds then move south to the eastern Serengeti and the southern plains, where females calve in February. Moving north again, the mass arrives in the Grumeti area from May.

More info

Tanzania Tourism. Northern Tanzania: The Bradt Safari Guide. RRP: £16.99. Mara Serengeti: A Photographer’s Paradise, by Jonathan and Angela Scott. RRP: £18.99.

How to do it

Abercrombie & Kent offers the seven-night East Africa Safari trip from £4,150 per person, based on two sharing. Includes flights, transfers and full-board accommodation and a £50 per person contribution towards a Covid test. Covered by A&K’s flexible booking policy.

Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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