The Great Migration Explained: A Guide

Posted by on May 21st, 2021

When planning a trip to Africa it is impossible not to come across some description of ‘The Great Migration’ and for many people is a non-negotiable element to any East African Safari. But what exactly is it? Should you plan around it and what is the best way to witness the spectacle? This post seeks to offer some clarity!

The annual Great Migration is truly one of nature’s greatest spectacles and sees millions of zebra and wildebeest fulfill a yearly cycle through the Serengeti- Masai Mara ecosystem.  Following the rains, and in search of fresh grazing, the herds follow an ancient path in a clockwise direction, calving their young on the short grass plains of Ndutu and braving the dangerous crossing of the Mara River in the north.

When to go:

July to October is the peak season for safaris that wish to capture the most iconic moments of the migration as this is when the bulk of the famous river crossings take place. It is during these months that the herds are crossing from the Serengeti Tanzania into the Masai Mara in Kenya, and back again. A changing global climate has affected rain patterns making the timing and movement of these animals harder to predict, but historically this is the best time of year for a chance at witnessing a river crossing.

Braving hungry, opportunistic crocodiles, dangerous hippos and the wildly rushing river wildebeest leap into the river in the hopes of making it across.

Outside of the river crossings, another peak time to visit is January to March, when the wildebeest are calving their young on the short grass plains of the Ndutu area. Witnessing the birth of so much new life all at once is an emotional and inspiring experience.

Due to the sheer size of the herds, they do not simply appear or disappear outside the previously mentioned months, and your Vaya Destination Specialist will collaborate with you to ensure what whenever you are traveling you have the chance to experience the awesome magnitude of the herds of the migration. It is all about selecting the right location at the right time…

Where to Stay:

At certain times of year you may have a better chance of seeing the herds from the Kenyan side of the river, than the Tanzanian side, so be prepared to potentially combine these two great countries into one trip, for the most in-depth experience.

Lodging options on both sides are similar and can be tailored to suit your style and budget, but one of the most unique places to stay is in a mobile safari camp. These luxury tented camps spare no comfort even though the entire property is packed up to move 3-4 times a year in conjunction with the patterns of the migration. This style of accommodation will truly have you in the thick of things as each idyllic setting is chosen with years of experience. You may even be surprised to learn that these lodges on the move will still offer every creature comfort with some going above and beyond with such luxurious amenities a jacuzzi tub nestled into your private deck.

River Crossings:

As previously mentioned this is the pinnacle moment for many and is synonymous with the great migration itself. Predators from crocodiles to lions, leopards, wild dogs, opportunistic hyenas, and scavenging foxes and vultures all play a role in the drama as the herds get bunched up around the river. When they do cross, it is an exhilarating experience and a photographer’s paradise.

However, it is also important to manage expectations with the note that even though there is a good chance of witnessing this unique part of the migration from August to October, there is never a guarantee of actually seeing one. Even if you arrive at the exact same moment that the herds are amassing on the banks, they might simply stand there nervously for a couple of days, waiting for the bravest among them to test the waters, knowing what is lurking below. They may also gather in the thousands and then seemingly decide this is not the point for them and wander off to find a different crossing point.

Having the exclusivity and flexibility of a private guide does give you the best possible chance, but you will encounter others by the river, and no guarantee of that particular sighting.

Top Experiences in Kenya and Tanzania:

While witnessing a river crossing is an experience of a lifetime, there are so many incredible safari experiences in both Kenya and Tanzania the provide a diversity of wildlife and landscapes you will never forget.

The Masai Mara and the Serengeti are two of the densest wildlife areas anywhere on earth and will provide exceptional game viewing year-round rain or shine. Often it is the creatures outside of wildebeest and zebra that lead to the most intense and exciting sightings.

Consider a hot air balloon flight at sunrise, and float gently over the vast plains of Africa for a totally unique perspective of the wildlife below.

Explore the dramatic landscape and phenomenal safari destination of the Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage site for all the best reasons or journey to the national parks of Tanzania’s untouched south, the final frontier of safari.

Venture to one of Kenya’s many private conservancies, from Chyulu Hills to the Laikipia Plateau and Lake Turkana there are epic views and exclusive safaris to be had. Spend time with the largest remaining population of Black Rhino on Lewa or visit a remote elephant orphanage in Reteti. Search for the ‘Northern 5’ that solely exist above the equator or interact with the Masai or Samburu people, learning from thousands of years of indigenous knowledge.

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