Great Wildebeest Migration, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

How to plan a trip to witness the Great Wildebeest Migration in Africa

Pip
March 24, 2016

The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the world’s most impressive wildlife spectacles, with more than a million wildebeest, accompanied by vast numbers of zebra, eland, Thompson’s gazelle, and opportunistic predators such as lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs on the move almost 3,000 kilometres across Eastern Africa. They traverse the magnificent Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve (along with a number of other protected regions) over the Tanzania/Kenya border as they follow the rains in search of new land to graze and fresh water. The opportunity to experience what is now considered one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ is simply incredible, but you need to get your timing right!

Being in the right place at the right time is essential, not just to witness the action but to take advantage of the fantastic photographic opportunities. And with some of Eastern Africa’s most impressive wildlife parks right on the migration’s doorstep, there are plenty of reasons to extend your itinerary beyond.

Where and When does the Great Wildebeest Migration occur?

Great Wildebeest Migration, Mara River, Serengeti, Tanzania
Around September, the herds congregate on the banks anxiously before one finally decides to cross and thousands follow in frantic groups, desperately trying to elude the river’s notorious crocodiles.

While on paper it sounds clear-cut, the Great Wildebeest Migration is far from it with animals spreading out far and wide, as well as moving backwards at times! While this can make planning difficult, it also adds to the spontaneity and adventure of experiencing the wonder of this incredible phenomenon of nature.

April: The annual Great Wildebeest Migration generally starts around April, with large groups of wildebeest starting to move north from the grassy plains of the Serengeti and the western highlands of Ngorongoro Conservation Area where they have spent the last few months feeding and giving birth to young.

May: By May things are in full swing, with large columns of not only wildebeest, but also zebra and both Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, moving through Moru Kopjes and Seronera in the central Serengeti and into the rock kopjes of what is known as the Western Corridor, just to the south of the Grumeti River.

June: Here they congregate throughout June and slowly attempt to (safely) cross the Grumeti River, offering some visually spectacular crocodile attacks.

July and August: After they cross the river, some head north during July and August through Grumeti Reserve and the Ikorongo Controlled Area, while others head slightly east into the far northern Serengeti with its rolling hills and open woodland.

September: September is around the time the herds attempt to cross the dangerous Mara River in the northern Serengeti as they pass over into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The herds congregate on the banks anxiously before one finally decides to cross and thousands follow in frantic groups, desperately trying to elude the river’s notorious crocodiles.

October: In October the herds graze in the northern Serengeti and Maasai Mara before heading south again through the eastern Serengeti and Loliondo Game Controlled Area.

December: By December they arrive back on the short-grass plains of Serengeti’s south, in time for a fresh buffet of green shoots fed by the rains. Here they spread out for the next few months before the whole cycle repeats again.

Where to stay to witness Great Migration- mobile tented safari or permanent lodge?

When it comes to accommodation during the Great Wildebeest Migration there are two options - base yourself at one of the many permanent lodges scattered across the Serengeti and Maasai Mara (and its surrounding protected areas), or opt for a mobile tented safari that follows the migration as it moves across the region. While permanent lodges offer a higher level of luxury and comfort, with plenty of mod-cons available, you will have to travel to where the action is each day (and this could be considerable distances). With mobile tented safaris you may have to compromise a little on luxury, but you are right in the thick of all the action.

Mobile Tented, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
When it comes to accommodation during the Great Wildebeest Migration there are two options - base yourself at one of the many permanent lodges scattered across the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, or opt for a mobile tented safari that follows the migration as it moves across the region.

How to make the most of photographic opportunities of Great Migration

Most who come to witness the Great Wildebeest Migration don’t only want to experience it in person but are hoping to take home some impressive photographs of this stunning wildlife event.

  • Knowledge of your subject and its behaviour is always going to be rewarding when in the field, so take the time not only to research the behaviour of the animals involved before you go, but study it in the flesh when there.
  • Even with a stabilised lens, having big beanbags to rest your lens on the vehicle will make all the difference when it comes to getting sharp shots of cheetah chases, lion kills and crocodile attacks.
  • Shooting early in the morning and late in the afternoon is when you will have the most atmospheric light to work with, so take advantage of the sun’s low angle during these periods when composing your shots.
  • Create portraits that beautifully position the animals within their surrounding landscape, avoiding distractive ‘clutter’ behind.
  • Be bold with your creativity and selective with your shots. Chasing animals all day taking multiple frames per second is not a satisfying way to photograph. Make sure you also put the camera down and enjoy the privilege of bearing witness to the event in person.
Wildebeest and Zebra, Maasai Mara, Great Migration, Africa
Most who come to witness the Great Wildebeest Migration don’t only want to experience it in person but are hoping to take home some impressive photographs of this stunning wildlife event.

Planning your Great Wildebeest Migration trip

Experiencing the Great Wildebeest Migration is not something you can do on a one day safari. To really get a feel for the sense of movement, witness the immense numbers of animals involved, and get up close to its intense action, you need to allow at least a few days. Remember that the event is taking place in two of Africa’s most famed protected areas - the Serengeti National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve - both of which are worthy destinations to explore away from the migration itself.

An itinerary over 7-10 days which allows you to explore both parks extensively, as well as the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater on the southwestern edge of the Serengeti, will immerse you in some of Africa’s most impressive wildlife-viewing landscapes. Lake Manyara National Park to the southwest, en route to the transport hub of Arusha, is also a worthy destination, backed by the impressive cliffs of the Rift escarpment and home to a teeming birdlife, while the Olduvai Gorge within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area will appeal to those interested in human evolution, with ancestors dating back 2.5 million years on display in a small museum. Don’t miss an opportunity to experience the intriguing culture of the Maasai tribesmen who inhabit the region and have opened their villages for cultural tours, allowing you to experience their proud and long-lasting traditions.

Zebras Wildebeests Flamingos, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
The magnificent Ngorongoro Crater on the southwestern edge of the Serengeti, will immerse you in some of Africa’s most impressive wildlife-viewing landscapes.

A once-in-a-lifetime experience to see Great Migration

Being a part of the Great Wildebeest Migration is truly an exceptional adventure and for animal lover’s a lifetime experience not to be missed. While the exact route and timing cannot be guaranteed, with a little planning you can create an itinerary that allows you to be surrounded by all the migration action, whilst also taking advantage of the other spectacular protected areas on your doorstep. And with a few photography tips up your sleeve, you will come away with not only incredible memories of your time in Tanzania and Kenya, but also some stunning wildlife images.

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