The Great Migration: The Turning of The Wheel of Life
The seemingly endless plains of east Africa are the setting for one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles which sees around a million and a half animals pound the earth into dust with their hooves on an epic quest for food. From Tanzania’s Serengeti to the hills of Kenya’s Masai Mara, over 1.4 million wildebeests and 200,000 zebras and gazelles, all being relentlessly pursued by Africa’s great predators, make the perilous journey of 1,800 miles each year in search of fresh green shoots to graze upon.
When is the best time to see the Great Migration?
The key places of departure and arrival for the migration are Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara. It is, of course, impossible to call one or another the starting place as the migration is a timeless circular trek across the face of Africa following the pattern of the rains. Wildebeests (gnus), which make up the overwhelming majority of the animals, give birth to their offspring between December and March. This takes place in various Tanzanian safari hot-spots such as the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti and is, of course, of great interest to the thousands of predators who prey upon the weak youngsters.
As soon as the young are born the race is on for them to mature sufficiently to make the dangerous journey that lies ahead.
There are a few sporadic lesser migrations of smaller groups of animals in February and March but by April or May the great herds have joined together and the huge mass of animals begins to move north and west to the woodlands of the Serengeti corridor. This coincides with the rainy season when it can be difficult to see anything, and roads are often closed at this time of year making it a poor time to see the migration. By the end of May, however, the rains stop and the Great Migration gets underway in earnest – and this also marks the start of the best time to see the Great Migration.
To get to the grassy plains of Kenya the animals must pass through the crocodile infested waters of several rivers, notably the Grumeti in Tanzania and the Mara in Kenya. These can be deep in places and it is not uncommon for animals to drown. We have all seen the wildlife films of animals struggling to avoid the jaws of predators at these perilous crossings! To see this spectacle the best time to travel is July and August.
Come September, the huge mass of animals has arrived in the green and pleasant Masai Mara – minus up to a quarter of a million who didn’t make it along the way. Predators still stalk the ungulates but for the most part it is a time of grazing and staying relatively still while the young mature and the older animals stock up on their energy reserves.
By November much of the grass of the Masai Mara has been cropped and turned into next year’s fertilizer and the animals’ gaze begins to fix on the southern horizon. Instinct tells them to move southwards to the Serengeti, where the rains are once again beginning. There is no beginning or end to this great natural cycle. Life and death is played out beneath the great East African skies and to witness this is a spectacle that nobody who has witnessed it will ever forget.
And so, in fits and starts, the great mass of life begins to make the epic trek in reverse anticipated, as ever, by the hungry jaws of lions, crocodiles, hyenas and leopards. The wheel of life turns once again and the Great Migration begins anew, as it will do as long as there are animals upon the great African plains.