What is the great migration?

The great migration explained

Sometimes called ‘the greatest show on earth’, the great wildebeest migration attracts thousands of nature lovers, photographers, filmmakers and researchers to east Africa each year to witness one of the world’s most awe-inspiring spectacles.

Tanzania wilderbeast Marariver

What is the great migration?

The annual migration sees mega-herds of almost two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle travel clockwise from Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Masai Mara and back. The animals travel — driven by some innate instinct — thousands of kilometres in search of water holes and lush grass. Each migration changes slightly, as the animals constantly find new places to graze.

Along the way, the herds experience the full cycle of life. From giving birth in the southern Serengeti to river crossings, rutting season to dealing with predators (more than 250,000 wildebeest die each year), the rhythmic great migration has no real beginning or ending, but is an endless pilgrimage.

The migration is also particular to the wildebeest of the Mara/Serengeti ecosystem. In other parts of Africa, wildebeest are non-migratory. Although no conclusive answer is given as to why the wildebeest in Tanzania and Kenya migrate, scientists have postulated everything from them searching for a particular chemistry in the grass to simple instinct. What is known is that wildebeest have been migrating here for more than one million years.

Which animals migrate?

It’s not just the shaggy wildebeest that migrates. In the herd, you’ll also find thousands of zebra, gazelle and impala. There is a reason for the mega-herds — as well as safety in numbers, there is a logic to feeding. Zebras feed on the long, coarser grass, preparing them for the wider muzzles of the wildebeest, who prefer shorter grass. Conversely, predators like lions and leopards do not migrate with the herds — their interactions occur when their paths cross, often to devastating effect.

When the herds start moving, the wildebeest display a remarkable level of organisation. You’ll often see a wavy, interchangeable front at the head of the herd, suggesting a level of coordination and leadership among the wildebeest. How they communicate this is unknown.

Dealing with predators

The major predators that feed on wildebeest include the lion, hyena, cheetah, leopard and crocodile. However, a wildebeest is not easy prey to bring down and can seriously injure most attackers, including lions. Wildebeest will use their great strength and horns to impale or toss predators that attack them.

With a top speed of 80km/h, a wildebeest is also not the easiest creature to catch. When faced with a predator, wildebeest will herd together, with younger animals protected by older, larger ones as they run. Wildebeest also employ more sophisticated survival tactics, taking it in turns to sleep at night, while others stand guard. They also employ ‘lookouts’ as they walk, who will call out to alert the herd if they spot a predator. Once alerted, the herd runs in the same direction to scare the attacker.

The Mara River crossing is one of the most dramatic moments in the migration. While it might seem that the wildebeest choose an arbitrary moment to jump into the water, causing a frenzy of activity, research shows it might be more planned than first thought. A herd of wildebeest possesses ‘swarm intelligence’, meaning the animals systematically explore and overcome obstacles as one being. Some may be sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the herd.

The wildebeest’s migratory route

Beware any safari company that tells you they can guarantee the route the herds will take. The wildebeest do not move in one continuous motion. Sometimes they’ll go forwards, sometimes backwards. Sometimes they are one group, more often they’ll split into smaller herds.

The herd's movements depend on local weather conditions. Particularly dry years can see the wildebeest reach the Mara River in early July in search of water, while a wet year means the herds might be spread out from Seronera all the way to the Mara. When they reach the river, the wildebeest may take days or even weeks to cross. Being in the right place at the right time is all a matter of luck.

A LONG JOURNEY

The distance the wildebeest travel will vary depending on the migratory route and the amount of rainfall. The wildebeest migration route covers 26,000 sq/km, with the straight-line distance of the Serengeti route about 600km. Research has shown that some animals will cover almost 2,000km a year — more than the distance from London to the tip of Africa in Morocco.

Tanzania solowildebeest

Is the Great Migration in danger?

When it comes to conservation, the Great Migration picture is a complex interplay between humans, cattle, and wildlife. The survival of the entire ecosystem hangs delicately in the balance.

The Masai, livestock, and tourism

Since the 1970’s, the numbers of many safari animals have fallen by more than 50%. The decline has mostly been linked to the rapid growth of Masai settlements around the reserves. The Masai need big areas to graze their livestock. As the grass disappears, the earth erodes and the grazers are left with nothing to eat.

As the antelope and wildebeest vanish, carnivores are the first casualties. Traditionally, the Masais were semi-nomadic herders who managed to coexist easily with the wildlife in the regions. But as tourism started to grow, more and more settlements were built around the parks, attracting locals to the industry.

One successful attempt to protect the reserves was the setup of private wildlife conservancies around the national parks, allowing the Masai population to earn a stable income from the land they own while creating well-managed grazing areas for their nomadic lifestyle. Unfortunately, with the boom of tourism and population, more and more people in the ranchlands allow their livestock to graze inside the reserves.

The poaching problem

More alarming than ever is illegal poaching. Although Kenya’s poaching trend has gone down because of tough anti-poaching policies, more elephants are being killed in Africa than are being born, with at least 20,000 killed for their ivory in 2016 alone. They are almost all wiped out in West and Central Africa.

In East Africa, statistics from Tanzania are most shocking. The elephant population in that region has been reduced by more than half in the past five years. Poachers are becoming more and more organized and sophisticated, but hopefully the new ban of the ivory trade in China will have a positive impact to curb the decline of elephants and rhinos.

A changing climate

Another big threat to the area has been the more intense variations in seasonal flooding and drought, which might be the result of climate change. As the Indian Ocean warms and prevailing winds transport moisture over East Africa, more intense periods of rain and drought result, raising the prospect of a new threat to the Serengeti’s keystone species and their migration.

When and where to see the great wildebeest migration

The best times and places to witness the great migration

By its very nature, the wildebeest migration is a continually moving phenomenon. Where you go depends very much on when you decide to travel. Use this quick reference to see where the migration will be during your chosen month(s) of travel.

The great migration map

Great wildebeest migration map

Where to see the great migration

Month

Where is the migration?

What’s the weather doing?

Where to stay?

January

Tanzania’s southern Serengeti (Lake Ndutu and Ngorongoro Conservation Area

“Green season” (between the short rains and the long rains)

Lake Ndutu Luxury Tented Lodge, Olakira Camp, Serengeti Safari Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas

February

Tanzania’s southern Serengeti (Lake Ndutu)

Sporadic showers (the long rains are beginning)

Masek Tented Camp, Lake Ndutu Luxury Tented Camp, Ndutu Wilderness Camp

March

Tanzania’s southern Serengeti (Lake Ndutu)

Long afternoon showers (the long rains are building up)

Masek Tented Camp, Lake Ndutu Luxury Tented Camp, Ndutu Wilderness Camp

April

Tanzania’s Simba Kopjes and Moru

Consistent to heavy showers (height of the long rains)

Serengeti Serena Safari Lodge

May

Western corridor of Tanzania’s Serengeti

Rainfall is gradually tapering off, dry season begins

Fours Seasons Safari Lodge

June

Northwest corner of Tanzania’s Serengeti

Sunny (dry season is in full swing)

Singita’s safari lodges, Faru Faru, Sabora and Sasakwa, Serengeti Tented Camp

July

Crossing of the Mara River in Tanzania’s Serengeti

Sunny (dry season is in full swing)

Kirawira Serena Camp, Mara Serena Safari Lodge

August

Crossing the border into Kenya’s Masai Mara

High season, sunny (dry season is in full swing)

Saruni Mara, Entim, Governor’s Camp

September

Kenya’s Masai Mara

Sunny and dry days, high season starts to taper off

Bateleur Camp, Basecamp Masai Mara, Fig Tree Camp, Mara Plains Camp, Mara Bushtops, Mara Porini and Porini Lion Camps

October

Straddled between Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti

End of the dry season, high season crowds have thinned

Serengeti Safari Camp, Lobo Wildlife Lodge, Sayari Camp

November

Northeast corner of Tanzania’s Serengeti

Sporadic rains, the short rains begin

Lake Masek Tented Camp, Ubuntu Camp, Serena’s Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp, Four Seasons Serengeti Safari Lodge

December

Southeast part of Tanzania’s Serengeti, toward Ndutu

Occasional rains, wet, height of the green season

Lake Ndutu Luxury Tented Lodge, Olakira Camp, Serengeti Safari Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas

November to December: The herd arrives at the Serengeti

Wilderbeest Nov Dec

Tanzania’s short rains begin in November, leading the wildebeest herds to move to the short-grass plains of the Serengeti. This means that at the beginning of November, you can expect the herds to linger around the northern Serengeti regions of Kogatende and Lamai before heading south for the second big migration of the year. Look for long trains of migrating wildebeest travelling at pace to the central Serengeti.

The herds then split, making it difficult to predict where the main group will be. By December, the wildebeest may be south-east of the central Serengeti region of Seronera, but some may have already made it as far as the Ndutu plains in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where they will be preparing for the calving season.

Is November a good time to see the great migration?

In November the rains start to fall in the Mara. The plains are back to their emerald green hue, and the migration is on the move southward, back to Tanzania’s Serengeti. Photographers revel in the heightened big cat activity and the stormy skyscapes.

The rains from November to March are quite random and usually don’t last for more than a few hours. There’s a chance of heavier rain during this period but expect less than in the heavy rains of April. If it does rain, it will usually clear in one or two hours, and it’s more than likely that the shower will be localised. November is shoulder season, offering a combination of lower accommodation prices with good wildlife watching.

What the wildlife is doing


As the herds head back across the border, the Serengeti once again becomes the migration hotspot. The wildebeest and zebras are on the move, and most of them can be found in the Lobo and the Seronera Valley areas. In their quest for nutrition-rich grass, they form long columns stretching all the way to the central parts of the Serengeti.

Although it’s the wet season, the Serengeti is still an amazing place to experience. Photographers love to capture the skyscapes as huge, dramatic thunder clouds roll in over the savannah. You can expect cooler weather, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The animals become more active during this time of the year, especially big cats.

THE SILVER LINING OF THE WET SEASON


Although the heavy rains are starting to fall, November is one of the best months if your intention is to see the big cats. As the wet season begins, plenty of predators seek out newborn herbivores, and the action can get very intense.

Photography also thrives. Many specialised photographic safari companies offer tours solely for taking pictures of the cats during this period. Watching the big storm clouds roll in can be a very moving experience, especially for photographers. The dark skies, the thunder and lightning all align to create beautiful dramatic backgrounds, and the light is ideal — particularly if you have a big lion hunting a zebra in the frame.

But storm clouds aren’t for everyone. If you do want to avoid the rains in November, your best option is to head down to Selous where the rains usually arrive later than other parks in Tanzania. The dry landscapes usually last until early December.

Is December a good time to see the great migration?

The annual “circle of life” migration is nearing completion. The rains have returned, and the wildebeest are on the move toward the rich grasses of Ndutu. With pregnant bellies, they’re looking for the best spot to calve in the coming months.

December marks the height of the green season in the Serengeti. It’s a wet period, so occasional showers can be expected throughout the whole month. The temperature drops, the evenings turn cooler and it’s a bit harder to spot the animals due to the plentiful water sources.

As far as visitors, December becomes a very busy month with the end-of-year holidays coming up, so you may want to avoid the hotspots around the Ngorongoro Crater and other popular locations.

What the wildlife is doing


In the last month of the year, the migration has reached the southernmost plains of the Serengeti, looking for better grass.

During this time of the year, a lot of other species give birth to their youngsters, so if your aim is to see cute babies, this is the time to go. The wildebeest are in the fifth month of their pregnancy and slowly start making their way back to the nutritious grass of Ndutu where they will soon give birth to their calves in January and February. The next generation of wildebeest is almost here.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SAFARI

Arabic and African cultures have been exchanging goods and ideas for centuries. Large caravans of traders would travel across vast territories to peddle their wares from one city to the next.

The word safari originated from the word safar, which is an Arabic verb that roughly translates as “to make a journey”. From there, you get the noun safariya, or “journey”. Safari is actually a Swahili synonym of the Arabic word.

In the 19th century, the ‘great white hunters’ from Europe started to use the phrase to describe their escapades into sub-Saharan Africa in search of game. Their accounts of spectacular adventures spurred others to follow in their footsteps, and soon the colonial settlers saw money to be made. They started organising and promoting safaris for affluent outsiders.

January to March: Calving season

Wilderbeest Jan March

The start of the new year sees the majority of herds congregating in the rich, fertile Ndutu plains for the calving season. By the middle of January, almost 8,000 calves are being born each day. However, more calves means more predators, and Ndutu is home to some gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring predator action during January and February. This is the prime time to see wildebeest and big cats in Tanzania.

The end of March brings the big rains, leaving the ground muddy. The wildebeest mega-herds disperse, heading west towards Maswa Game Reserve and the western Gol region.

Is January a good time to see the great migration?

A new year means new life, and the stage for the spectacle this month is Tanzania’s southern Serengeti. Specifically, Lake Ndutu and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area are prime territories for viewing this phase of the migration.

The start of the year also marks the beginning of the ‘green season’, right between the short rains and long rains. The Serengeti plains form a beautiful palette of green colours, the air is clear from dust, and wildlife of all kinds is relatively easy to spot. As the grass turns green, it also attracts the wildebeest moving in from the north into the southern Serengeti, Ndutu, Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Salei Plains.

Some afternoon showers can be expected, but they only last for a short period and usually don’t affect your game drives.

Temperatures reach an average high of 28°C (82°F) and a low of 15°C (59°F). January is a warm month, and other wildlife is easier to spot since the vegetation is less lush. Animals tend to gather around rivers and water holes.

What the wildlife is doing


At this time of the year, the female wildebeest are in their final month of pregnancy. As soon as the rain starts to fall, the wildebeest’s top priority is to seek new-growth grasses as sustenance for their newborn youngsters.

Due to the year’s end holidays, tourists abound, especially in the Ngorongoro area. But with good planning, the big lodges and crowds around the crater’s rim can easily be avoided.

THE SUBTLE BEAUTY OF ‘GREEN SEASON’

The ‘green season’ is another name for the rainy season, which stretches from late October to May. It’s easy to see where the imagery comes from — the thirsty plains soak up the water and spring to life. Parched chalky brown land becomes a luscious green, and the migratory animals are drawn to the fresh grass.

The rainy season is actually divided into two. From October to December the ‘short rains’ fall, and the months March to May bring the ‘long rains’.

Where does the moisture come from? During the green season, the dominant winds are blowing from the warm ocean to land and bringing with them evaporated water from the Indian Ocean. As the air cools over the land, the water condenses as rain.

During this time of the year, it rarely rains all day. You're still likely to see plenty of sun and wildlife. Lots of baby animals are born at this time — hundreds of thousands of them on the Serengeti Plains alone. As with any off-season, the crowds are fewer, adding to the benefits of a safari at this time.

Is February a good time to see the great migration?

In February the best migration action takes place in Ndutu in the heart of the Serengeti plains. Behold the classic image of endless plains, blanketed and dotted as far as the eye can see with grazing wildebeest and their newborn calves.

February is still the start of the rainy season (specifically, the long rains of the green season are beginning), but these sporadic showers rarely last all that long and do not usually pose much of an inconvenience while game driving.

What the wildlife is doing


This month is all about multiplying. In February, Ndutu turns into a stage for the same astonishing show that began in January — the annual wildebeest calving. Around half a million young wildebeest come into the world each February. During calving season, pregnant female wildebeest opt to give birth in this area due to the grass’s richness in calcium and magnesium, which is good for milk production. As a result, a vast herd begins to form. They can now be found grazing on the short grasses.

As soon as the calving season begins, so does the big feast for the cats. Lions, leopards and cheetahs can gain weight quickly and store energy for the future. For now, life is easy as they enjoy tasty morsels of vulnerable wildebeest calf. For that reason, February is also one of the best months for action photography and to watch the powerful predators hunt.

A CALF’S FIRST FEW DAYS

Wildebeest females give birth to a single calf in the middle of the herd, without seeking a secluded place as many of their antelope relatives do. Amazingly, about 80% of the females calve within the same two to three week period, creating a glut for predators. There’s strength in numbers, enabling more calves to survive the crucial first few weeks.

A calf can stand and run within minutes of birth. It immediately begins to follow its mother and stays close to her to avoid getting lost or killed by waiting predators. Within days, it can run fast enough to keep up with the adult herd. A calf eats its first grass at about 10 days, although it still suckles for at least four months. Even after weaning, it will remain with the mother until the next year’s calf is born. At that time, the young males are driven away, but the females often remain in the same groups as their mothers.

Is March a good time to see the great migration?

After a long period of grazing in the Ndutu region, the green grass is now so chewed up that there isn’t much left to eat for the wildebeest. The time to move on has come.

At the same time, the long rains are starting to build up, so expect some afternoon showers. You’ll hear rumblings of thunderstorms to the north and west, and soon the herds will be following their noses in search of rains and fresh grass.

What the wildlife is doing


By this point, the green plains are filled with white patches of bones and carcasses, and vultures and other scavengers are feasting on the leftovers. The wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelle continue to give birth until mid-March. They still occupy the Ndutu and Kusini Maswa region, but due to the lack of food, they gradually start preparing for the next leg of the migration. Because of the newborn calves, they move slowly and predictably.

Predator activity is still very busy. Lions, leopards and cheetahs continue to revel in the easy prey. This also makes Ndutu unique because it’s one of the few wildernesses where lions and cheetahs can cohabit in peace, as there is more than enough food for all predators for a substantial part of the year.

THE MYSTIQUE OF NDUTU

At the heart of the southern Serengeti lies the world-famous Ndutu Lake area. Offering some of the world’s best wildlife viewing during the green season, Ndutu is strategically situated at the centre of the southern plains, in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Blanketed with a forest of acacia trees, this is where the wildebeest give birth, and during the calving season in February to March, the fields are dotted with millions of white little youngsters.

Ndutu is also one of the best places to see the six different species of cat — lion, leopard, cheetah, serval, caracal and wild cat. During the calving season, it’s also the top destination if you want to see cheetahs in action hunting the newborn. Year-round, the wet marshes provide for a huge amount of resident animals and wetland birdlife.

Since the 1960s, Ndutu had been a destination for many distinguished authors, filmmakers, and wildlife biologists. Researchers Jane Goodall and Hugo van Lawick used Ndutu as a base for much of their research.

April to June: Migrating north

Wilderbeest April June

April sees the beginning of the year’s ‘big rains’ and, with it, the scattering of the wildebeest herds throughout the Serengeti. The mega-herds will split in search of fresh pastures, and by May, the great migration north has begun with the ultimate aim of reaching the Mara River. Expect to see huge columns of wildebeest (sometimes up to 40km in length) barrelling their way up the Serengeti. By June, around a quarter of the wildebeest herd will be in the western Grumeti region, facing the first big obstacle of their journey — the Grumeti River.

The heavy rain and unpredictability of where the herds will turn to next makes this season a challenging one for safari-goers. However, those that do encounter a herd in June can look forward to rutting season, with male wildebeest clattering horns to secure the best spots around the watering holes, which attract females.

Is April a good time to see the great migration?

Big rains mean thicker vegetation and scattered herds, which makes viewing more of a challenge. But the rewards of the low season are lower prices and few other people as the migration makes its way north and into “big cat territory”.

This is the period of mvua za masika, Swahili for ‘big rains’. The vegetation becomes very thick and lush, making wildlife spotting somewhat difficult. An even bigger challenge is the roads. Some of the dirt roads get totally washed out and become almost impassable. The trade-off is stunning scenery on the empty plains, with unusual shots of thunder-strewn vistas. This is a challenging time to choose a great migration safari, but wildlife watching opportunities still exist.

What the wildlife is doing


Because of the plentiful water, the animals tend to scatter, which makes them a little bit harder to find — for both predators and safari-goers alike. Expect rainfall mostly at night.

The wildebeest leave the Ndutu region and head northwest past the Simba Kopjes and towards Moru. They continue moving slowly, as the babies are still small and learning to use their legs. Due to the difficulty of predicting where the wildebeest herds will be, the cost of safaris in Tanzania drops in April, with accommodation and tour rates at the year-round low. However, this doesn’t mean that animals can’t be found. April is one of the best months for lion activity as the wildebeest cross into the Simba Kopjes rock formation – known for its lion prides.

“I BLESS THE RAINS DOWN IN AFRICA…”

For the animals and people living in the Serengeti and Masai Mara, the big rains mean the difference between life and death.

Throughout the whole drought season, the Masai tribes patiently await the rains to fill the rivers, water their crops and relieve their cows of thirst. Even today, many tribesmen perform rainmaking ceremonies. It’s called the mukwerera, and for a few days, all the members of the tribe gather around a holy muchakata tree to dance and pray to their ancestors for a generous amount of rain.

Unfortunately, global warming has taken its toll on the region. The droughts are now getting longer and the rains heavier, causing flooding. A recent study shows that the Horn of Africa is drier than at any other time in the last 2,000 years.

Is May a good time to see the great migration?

The big rains taper off and the herds are on the move, heading north towards Kenya. Routes diverge somewhat, but they’ll all funnel through a narrow corridor between two rivers in a dramatic spectacle.

Although May is still considered to be the wet season, the heavy rainfall gradually decreases as the month progresses. Since the ground is still wet and muddy, driving conditions can be a bit of a challenge. But just like in March and April, tour and accommodation prices are still low and you can expect to find some good deals.

By the end of the month, the dry season is beginning and the migration starts making its way back north, seeking fresh grass and new watering holes. With pleasant temperatures and some amazing scenes of the vast herds pouring through the narrow central regions, this can be an excellent time of the year for a safari in Tanzania.

What the wildlife is doing


The wildebeest begin to make their way through the western corridor of the Serengeti. Some of them continue north to the Seronera region, but most of the migrating herds enter the Ndoha and Dutwa Plains that flank the Mbalageti River. At the end of the month, they pile into the narrow wedge of land between the forest-lined riverbeds of the Mbalageti and Grumeti, preparing for the first river crossing. Many lodges will still be closed, but all open camps around the Seronera region are still a good option.

HOW THE WILDEBEEST NAVIGATE

The wildebeest journey is dictated primarily by their response to the weather. They follow the rains and the growth of new grass. And, although there is no scientific proof to support this, it seems that they react to lightning and thunderstorms in the distance.

Instinctive knowledge plays a large role, hardwired into their DNA by hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection. That’s how these harshly titled ‘clowns of the plains’ know which direction to travel. Over the millennia, those that went the wrong way would have died of thirst or starvation long before they could reproduce. The successful ones were those who went the right way.

Is June a good time to see the great migration?

The skies are clear, the land dries out, and the herds gain strength and power as the calves mature. But June is no walk in the park. The wildebeest must overcome the obstacle of the crocodile-infested Grumeti rivers en route to Kenya’s Masai Mara.

By June the long rains have stopped, and the dry season is in full swing. It will stretch from the end of May to early November. The weather is sunny with some easing thunderstorms in the evenings.

As the skies clear up, the landscape undergoes a dramatic change. The plains turn dry and open. This makes game viewing a lot easier, as animal activity concentrates around the remaining sources of water.

What the wildlife is doing


The migration continues heading north towards the Masai Mara in Kenya. The herds are beginning to grow stronger and faster. Since the calves are growing up, the wildebeest travel collectively at their peak speed, covering up to 150km (93 miles) per day. There’s power, it seems, in numbers.

But now the first real troubles begin. Before entering Kenya, they first have to pass the hurdle of the Grumeti rivers. Rather than one big continuous river, Grumeti consists of shallow pools and swamps. Making their way through the swampy wetlands is a struggle, but even worse are the big, hungry saltwater crocodiles waiting by the shores. Unless you are fainthearted, look forward to some good action as nature takes its cruel course.

A FEAST FOR THE CROCODILES

After travelling for several weeks, the wildebeest have only one thing on their minds: a drink of water. But they’re completely unaware of the danger when they cross the rivers. Crocodiles lurk below the surface, waiting for the right moment.

Crocodiles are very fast over short distances, even on dry land. Their sharp teeth can tear and hold onto flesh. A crocodile will grab and hold onto the prey, dragging it into the water and drowning it.

Crocodiles go back to the time of dinosaurs. Their slow metabolism allows them to go long periods without food. The river crossing normally lasts about two weeks. During this period, the crocodiles can store as much as 150,000 calories — enough to survive until the next migration season.

July to August: River crossing

Wilderbeest July Aug

Get ready: July and August sees the start of the wildebeest migration’s big event, with the major river crossings taking place in July as the herds congregate at the Mara River. Thousands of wildebeest will fling themselves into the unforgiving waters, where hulking crocodiles lie in wait. However, don’t expect all the action to take place on one day. You’ll find crossings take place over a number of days, with some confused wildebeest even crossing the Mara back and forth.

By the end of August, the surviving wildebeest will have made it across the Mara and will be grazing in Kenya’s Masai Mara, where they will stay for the foreseeable future.

Is July a good time to see the great migration?

This month is primetime viewing for what many consider to be the main act of the migration theatrics — the crossing of the Mara River. The herds will migrate from Tanzania to Kenya and into the golden grasslands of the Masai Mara. Head to Kogatende or Lamai for the best chance of viewing the crossings, but be patient — some days will see thousands cross, others none.

In July the weather is warm with hardly any rainfall at all. Sunny skies bring about beautiful mornings and evenings which are extraordinary for photography. As the land dries out, driving conditions are much improved over previous months.

But with the pleasant weather comes the big wave of tourists. Prices go sky high, and you need to book in advance to guarantee a bed. If you’re looking for a budget safari, try a different season.

What the wildlife is doing


This is when the famous river crossings through the Mara River begin, especially at the end of July. In search of fresh grass, the migration keeps pushing north through some of the most beautiful areas of the northern Serengeti. As the landscape transforms from lush and green to the iconic golden savannah fields, it gets easier to spot wild game of all kinds.

Elephants, giraffes and even smaller game can be spotted miles away. You will see the sort of beautiful landscapes you dream of, so it’s worth the struggle with the crowds.

THE DRAMA OF THE RIVER CROSSING

The wildebeest converge at the river, congregating on the banks awaiting the moment when the more fearless among them will take the plunge. Meanwhile, scavengers and predators await.

Driven by hunger, those on the frontline jump, then the rest follow. As they reach the other side, they learn that getting out of the river is just as dangerous as jumping in — sometimes the opposite bank wall is too steep and the rocks offer little grip.

Yet the wildebeest seem programmed to carry on with their journey. Some break their backs leaping from the steep banks, but what matters is to keep going. This is the last step of their long journey, and they must reach the opposite bank without drowning or being swept downstream by the river current. The ones who don’t get eaten by crocodiles make their way out — while some get trampled on in the process.

Is August a good time to see the great migration?

Welcome to the height of the high season. Everyone has the same idea of witnessing the most action-packed month for river crossings. Keep in mind that even in August, witnessing a crossing isn’t guaranteed, so try to take measures to avoid the crowds.

Just like in July, the weather is warm and sunny and there’s no need to worry about rain. The tourist invasion is bigger than ever, so ensure you book well in advance.

What the wildlife is doing


August is, without a doubt, the best month to see the migration. The wildebeest herds’ days are action-packed, as this is the peak time for those spectacular river crossings with the crocodiles lying in wait for wildebeest to stumble into their ferocious jaws.

Those that make the crossing flow into the Masai Mara, so for the next couple of months Kenya will be the favoured safari destination.

The most important tip for August is to manage expectations. Despite what astonishing wildlife documentaries will lead you to believe, you still have to be very lucky to see an actual crossing. Animals behave irrationally, especially wildebeest and zebra. Many times they just come up to the river, then wait for hours only to turn around. You have to be fortunate and patient to witness the rush across.

Often, safari drivers become stressed out because they want you to see the big five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino). But if your top priority is the migration with its river crossings, make sure to bring a lunch pack and tell your guide to make it an all-day drive.

BEATING THE CROWDS

The river crossing season is the busiest time to witness the great migration, but there are some small ways you can beat the worst of the crowds.

Avoid staying at a big lodge close to the river, which can house up to 200 people in high season, leading to long trains of vehicles in the morning. Instead, try to stay at comfortable mobile or tented camps. Here, you’ll get a ‘wilder’ experience, rarely seeing other vehicles or safari-goers. Don’t forget the importance of a good guide — the best will know how to plan the day to avoid crowds and avoid ‘big five’ fever.

September to October: Shoulder season

Wilderbeest Sept Oct

September and October are a time of plenty for the wildebeest. The survivors of the migration north break up into smaller groups, with some staying in the Masai Mara and others remaining in the north of the Serengeti. All are looking for fresh grass, but predators abound.

Before the rains come, the wildebeest are easy to find, huddling around the remaining water holes. By October, thoughts of migration start again, with the dry season coming to an end. When the rains hit the wildebeest move again, this time heading south through Loliondo and the Serengeti’s Lobo area, aiming for the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti.

Is September a good time to see the great migration?

The September high season in Kenya’s Masai Mara has its obvious rewards. The skies are sunny, crowds are thinning somewhat, dramatic river crossings are still going strong, predators have hit their stride, and the ‘big five’ are all out in view.

After August, September is arguably the next-best month to visit the Masai Mara. Safari-goers can expect sunny, dry days with postcard-perfect sunrises and sunsets. The big crossings still take place, but the summer vacation crowds begin to thin.

Some even say this month is better than August, which in recent years has become a little more unpredictable.

What the wildlife is doing


If the lifecycle of the wildebeest follows its usual patterns, the last herds are now slowly heading eastward through the Masai Mara. They will wander around in search of fresh grass, so be prepared to see big herds of hundreds of thousands of animals filling out the vast golden fields on the Kenyan side of the park.

As the river crossings continue, there’s also plenty of predator activity. With a bit of luck, your chances of seeing lions and cheetahs in action are high. But keep in mind that only one thing is for certain — you will encounter a lot of animals. Some guides will even guarantee you the ‘big five’, and the most fortunate will see them all in just one day.

WHAT IS THE ‘BIG FIVE’?

The ‘big five’ is a group of five big game species: cape buffalo, African elephant, leopard, lion and rhinoceros. The term was coined by the colonial ‘great white hunters’ in the hunting heyday of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They grouped these five together for their difficulty to hunt and ferocity when cornered.

Considered a rite of passage for well-heeled travellers, everybody from American presidents to European royalty and heads of state came to Africa to shoot a large, dangerous animal. The ‘big five’ quickly became known as the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. The name stuck — although today, shooting is best done through a camera lens.

Out of the ‘big five’, the buffalo is the most aggressive. In the Masai Mara in August and September, you will have a great chance of spotting them all, but some sightings are rarer than others. The shy leopard is perhaps the most elusive, and the rhino is the most endangered.

Is October a good time to see the great migration?

The end of the high season means the crowds have (mostly) left and the ‘big rains’ begin. The migration is straddled between Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti. Both parks have their own advantages in October.

October means the end of the dry season, but there is still a lot of activity in the Mara — even some occasional river crossings. As the rainfall slowly begins to soak into the fields, the savannah goes from golden to green.

It’s not until the end of October or beginning of November that the actual rains begin to fall. The days are still very warm with pleasant nights.

What the wildlife is doing


At this point, the migration is quite scattered. Some wildebeest begin the long trek to the south back into the Serengeti, but some remain in the Masai Mara for the whole month. The southern region of the Masai Mara is still filled with lots of game.

By this time, almost all of the big tourist crowds have left, so it’s actually one of the best months for a safari. Expect many animals, fairly easy sightings — and you don’t have to compete with throngs of other vehicles and people.

The best place to be is in the southern and central regions of the Mara, as most of the wildebeest have left the northern parts. The animals will move slowly in their search for water and green grass. Another good area is the northeast Serengeti and Loliondo Game Reserve, where the animals are returning after their foray into Kenya.

MASAI MARA OR THE SERENGETI?

If you’re set on seeing the great wildebeest migration, particularly from November to end of June, then the Serengeti is your spot. The great migration herds tend to be in the Serengeti during this time, along with the other classic wildlife safari highlights.

The Masai Mara is excellent all year round. It’s also less expensive than visiting the Serengeti, so if cost is paramount, try Kenya.

The other factor to bear in mind is exclusivity. The Serengeti is far bigger than the Masai Mara, so it is easier to enjoy a more exclusive safari experience here. That being said, the central regions of the Serengeti can get very busy too, so selecting your camps carefully is key.

The great migration is a year-round affair, with each season offering a different way to witness the wildebeest herds. Here’s how to plan your great migration safari.

Kenya or Tanzania?

If you’re on a budget, Kenya’s Masai Mara offers more wallet-friendly options for the average traveller, despite having a shorter viewing season. This is simply due to accessibility. Kenya has more flights, more types of safari accommodation and more tourists than Tanzania. This increased competition drives prices down — as does the ease of access to the Masai Mara National Reserve. Tanzania’s size means that travel outside the Northern Circuit normally involves taking a flight, so getting to southern parks like Selous, Ruaha and Mahale for calving season is more expensive.

Generally, Kenya is the better option for family safaris, those on a budget and those with less time to spend. If you want to splurge, have several different safari viewing options or want to experience more remote wildlife viewing locations, Tanzania might be your best bet.

Private safari or group tour

The main difference between a private great migration safari and a group tour is exclusivity. In a group safari vehicle, especially the less comfortable and more cramped minibuses, you sometimes have to fight for space and compete with the demands of other safari-goers. If you see something really interesting and want to make a photo stop, the other guests may not agree. However, it is less expensive going with others on a group safari tour and you will often meet like-minded travellers who you can share your safari experience with. It’s worth remembering that a great migration safari is likely to be a once in a lifetime trip so don’t regret not paying that extra money for the freedom of your own vehicle.

In a private safari jeep, you can design your own programme and stop wherever you want, for however long. Your guide will be able to give you a much more intimate experience, answering your questions and trying to meet your specific requests, whether that’s looking for a specific animal or simply staying longer at a chosen spot. With so much to see and experience, you might find it’s worth the extra money.

What to look for in a safari operator

Choosing from great migration safari companies can be overwhelming because there are thousands of them in the market.

Most people opt for word-of-mouth recommendations from others. Some of the best advice you can get about a company is from someone who has been on a safari with them in the past. There are dozens of websites that list safari trip reviews and journals written by previous travellers. Learn from them.

When contacting a great migration safari operator, make sure to ask the right questions. Find out how many other people will be on your trip. Make sure it’s clear what's included and what's not. Try to see the safari car before booking. Find out what their payment policies are. Get a clear explanation of their cancellation and refund policy, and find out exactly when payments need to be made.

How much to budget and when to book a safari?

For all-inclusive safaris, consider a starting point of $4,000 per person for a seven-day trip, and then head upwards from there for more days or more luxury. If you do not mind longer drives and moderate accommodations, you may be able to drop that price point to $2,500.

You can further reduce costs by travelling out of season. Head to the Serengeti during the heavy rains between January and March and you’ll find reduced rates on safari packages and a less crowded experience.

The more you spend on your safari, the more exclusive and diverse your experience will be. Fancy is not necessary, but the more expensive properties generally present more opportunities for unlimited activities such as night drives, walks and village visits.

Bear in mind that accommodation fills up quickly on great migration safaris, particularly in the high-end, luxury camps. It’s best to begin planning your trip a year in advance and book up to nine months ahead if you want to see the river crossings during the middle of the year.

Health and safety


The most important consideration in east Africa is malaria. It’s recommended that prophylactics be taken as a preventative measure, but don’t forget to wear pants and long sleeve shirts. Use a good insect repellent — especially at night when the malaria mosquitoes come out.


The only legally required vaccination for travel in Kenya and Tanzania is yellow fever. Without proof of this vaccination, you will not be allowed to enter either country. Medical facilities are limited and medical care can be expensive, so make sure you bring your health insurance card as well.

What passport/visa documents will I need?

All people travelling to the east African region require a passport that is valid for six months beyond the intended length of stay. The entry requirement for any traveller entering Kenya and Tanzania is a minimum of two blank pages in their passport. Don’t forget to bring your yellow fever health card as they will check it carefully at the border. Always check with the appropriate authorities before starting your trip.

Am I guaranteed to see the migration in action?
As a visitor to a national park, you are never guaranteed to see anything. It’s not a zoo. In reality, there is no such single entity as ‘the migration’. The wildebeest are the migration — there is neither a start nor a finish to their endless search for food and water. The only actual beginning is the moment of young wildebeest’s birth taking place in Ndutu (see p.41).

There is a little predictability about the migration, but the key factor is the weather and the cycle of seasons. However, don’t count on these time periods, as climate change is causing animal behaviour to become less predictable.

Do safari camps/lodges have water and power?
No matter where you stay, there will always be access to water and electricity. If you’re in a luxury lodge you have nothing to worry about, and even the most remote mobile bush camps have surprisingly functional setups. The tent might be equipped with a simple ‘bush shower’, consisting of a solar shower bag, but the water will be heated. Bush camps are often run by a generator that is turned off at night, so it’s a good idea to charge your batteries before going to bed. Most safari vehicles will have chargers, giving you the chance to top up your batteries during the game drives.

In Tanzania and Kenya the power sockets are of type D and G. The standard voltage is 230V and the standard frequency is 50Hz. Your need for a power plug adapter depends on the power plugs used in your own country.

What are the vehicles and guides like?
Vehicles are usually Toyota Land Cruisers or Land Rovers, as they are best suited to the terrain. For larger groups, 4WD buses are mostly used because they are more convenient for grouping people together in one vehicle.

Most of the drivers are full-time safari guides. They have been trained in customer service, wildlife knowledge and environmental issues. They are always familiar with the routes and knowledgeable of the area’s geography. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s a good way to get to know your guide, and it’s his job to teach and make you feel comfortable.

Will I have a chance to interact with local people?
Many of the trips provide opportunities to visit local Masai villages and interact with the local people. However, if your itinerary does not include these visits, you can always check with your lodge. Most places provide organised tours to the villages. For a relatively small fee you can go on a half day tour, often with a Masai guide who knows the people. He can explain their culture and way of living, acting as a translator for your questions. Included in the fee is also the opportunity to take pictures. If it feels a little staged, that’s because it often is. Many of these tours are tourist traps with Masais dressing up and performing just for your visit.

Can I take my children on safari?
A family safari is a wonderful way to learn and grow together. But don’t forget to check with your lodge before booking anything, as some of them do have age limits. Most camps have good facilities for children and the vehicles are comfortable, even for long, hot drives. But most of all, letting your children experience real animals in the wild is much more rewarding than looking at them in a zoo. They will make memories that last forever and hopefully gain a deep and valuable interest in nature.

Will I have to carry lots of cash?
Despite being in some of the remotest places on Earth, most camps, lodges and hotels can accept payment by credit card. On safari, almost all major expenses (all meals, activities and often drinks) are covered in the costs of accommodation.

Aren't wild animals dangerous?
There is always a degree of danger when viewing wildlife. The behaviour of wild animals cannot be guaranteed. However, most animals are frightened by the sight and smell of humans. Rather than attack, they’ll flee (unless cornered or provoked). Attacks on humans are rare.

While on safari you will be accompanied by licensed guides who are well trained and armed with an amazing understanding of the wildlife with which they share their lives on a daily basis. At your tented camp or lodge it is not uncommon for wildlife to wander through, since camps and lodges are typically not fenced. Never venture outside your accommodation at night without your guide. Always consult with your guide when in doubt.

What food is served on a safari?
The food served at most up-market safari lodges and tented camps is of the highest quality available. Gourmet cooks bake fresh bread and prepare soups, salads and meals fit for tables at top restaurants.

Your day normally starts with tea and biscuits before your morning activity. Returning to your lodge or camp late morning, brunch is served. Expect cereals, fruit, bacon, eggs, sausage and toast to be offered, alongside salads, quiches and cold meats. Before your afternoon activity, tea and light snacks are served. Dinner consists of an appetiser followed by meat, fish and pasta dishes served with assorted vegetables and sauces. Dinner is followed by coffee (or tea), cheeses and gorgeous desserts.

Is the water safe to drink?
It is wise to only drink bottled drinks, which are readily available. Ask the waiter to open it in front of you, as they may try to reuse the container at some of the larger, lower quality lodges. In addition, don’t swallow water during a shower and use purified water for brushing teeth.

Is there internet access while on safari?
Internet access is available at most large lodges and camps, sometimes for a small fee. Unfortunately, it is very slow and sometimes doesn’t work at all. When on safari you’re not likely to be able to get a signal. But don’t worry — in emergencies, your guide will be able to communicate with the lodge and with other vehicles. Think of a safari as a chance to unplug.

When it comes to packing for a safari in Africa, keep in mind that the sun can be brutal, but the early morning game drives can be very chilly. It’s important to layer your clothes effectively, so you can be prepared for whatever the weather throws at you. The most important thing is comfort, so pack loose, durable clothes that can survive the game park’s harsh environment. Earth-toned colours are preferred, as brighter hues can scare off some of the animals. The aim is to blend in with the environment.

Also, remember that you will be out in the bush so make sure you have everything you need. Almost all camps have stores where you can buy basic things like memory cards, toothpaste, snacks, sunscreen and souvenirs. But the range is very limited, things run out and the prices are sky-high.

Must-have packing list

Hat or baseball cap

Dealing with the sun on an African safari is vital. A good sunhat or baseball cap that keeps the sun off your face is very important, especially when spending so long outdoors.

Long sleeve shirts
Long sleeve shirts are great for keeping you warm on an early morning safari and for protecting you from both the sun and mosquitos.

Hiking boots
A sturdy pair of shoes that can survive the harsh environment of the bush are well worth investing in. Make sure you break them in before using.

Rain jacket
Bring a rain jacket regardless of whether you’re travelling in one of the region’s rainy seasons or not. There is nothing more likely to sour your safari experience that getting soaked while sitting in a safari vehicle.

Binoculars
While the aim will be to get you as close to the animals as possible, bringing your own pair of binoculars will allow you to search the horizon for those elusive big cats — rather than waiting your turn to borrow the guide’s pair.

Also bring:

  • Sunscreen & toiletries
  • Insect repellent with Deet
  • Camera & extra memory cards
  • Electrical converters & chargers
  • Flashlight
  • Pain killers, malaria pills & other drugs
  • US or Euro bills newer than 2006
  • Fleece layer
  • Pants in earth tones
  • T-shirts and tank tops
  • Casual evening wear
  • Sandals

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