Every year, a phenomenon takes place in Africa that attracts TV crews, professional photographers, documentary film-makers and millions of tourists. Armed with cameras, they wait, hoping to witness one of nature’s greatest shows — the Great Migration. This annual journey sees around 1.5 million wildebeest and 3,00,000 zebra travel from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya — covering a distance of around 1,800 miles — in search for greener pastures. This year, I was a spectator to this extravagant event.
Planning a trip to the Mara (as it is locally known) is not easy. Kenya doesn’t have a good safety record and that negates plans to backpack there on your own. If you go in for a packaged tour, chances are you will have to wait a while, as this wildlife adventure does not have too many takers. The migration takes place anytime between July and September and there is no fixed date. Local lodges track the migration via satellite but are not always effective. This means you could have tickets booked for August only to find out that the migration hasn’t started or has ended.
The Mara covers 1,510 square kilometres and is a four-hour trip from Nairobi (Kenya’s capital). Most packaged tours guarantee the sighting of the Big Five — elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo. And once you reach the Mara, you understand why. The area is made up of miles and miles of savannah short grass that makes game viewing easy.
There are several accommodations available inside the reserve, depending on your budget. One can travel within the Mara only with a guide and vehicle, though hotels do provide bush walks with a Masai (local tribe) or a ranger.
We opted for an afternoon drive the day we arrived. All cars have built-in radios. The moment the guide sights an animal, he informs everyone and jeeps congregate at the spot. Thanks to this simple communication method, we soon spotted elephants, lions, giraffes, leopards and herds of zebra, wildebeest and deer.
As we headed back, we spotted hundreds of wildebeest running across the Mara in a single file. This herd had avoided the Mara River (the traditional crossing point) and taken the mountain route. Their sheer numbers were mind-boggling! Next morning, we took the full day game drive to Mara River. First up, we saw a pride of lions bring down a wildebeest and relish a sumptuous feast. Upon reaching the Mara River, we saw several wildebeest waiting to cross the river.
Now, contrary to popular perception, the crossing is an organised affair. The wildebeest cross in small herds. Only after the first herd has reached the top of the opposite bank, does the next one venture in. The river current, crocodiles, hippos in the water and lions added an element of danger to nature’s survival game. Some wildebeest drowned, or were eaten by predators. But most crossed, even the little calves! On our way back, we were lucky to catch a cheetah and her cub with their kill. We spotted other animals too, but nothing matched the scale of the migration. Not even the Big Five.
Things to keep in mind
Being a natural event, the migration changes year to year in both timing and location but the best time to visit would be between July and September. However, since this is peak season in Kenya, you need to pay a high season surcharge of Rs 20,000. Also, yellow fever vaccination is compulsory.