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Witnessing the great migration

The wildebeest migration from Serengeti to Masai Mara is an awe-inspiring affair

travel Updated: Sep 27, 2010 11:30 IST

Every year, a phenomenon takes place in Africa that attracts TV crews, professional photographers, documentary filmmakers 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 doesn't 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. So, we booked our tickets only after receiving news that migration had actually started.

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 (surrounded by electrified fences) 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 caught sight of our first migration herd with hundreds of wildebeest running across the Mara in a single file. This herd had avoided the Mara River (the traditional crossing point) and had taken the mountain route. Their sheer numbers were mind-boggling! We returned to our room (a tent), excited about the next day.

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. We watched as herd after herd crossed the river. The river current, crocodiles and 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.