Angama mara wildebeest migration

The Great Wildebeest Migration FAQ

written by
James Niarra Travel crop
James Whiteman

Your questions about Kenya and Tanzania's safari spectacle answered

The Great Migration is the annual mass movement of over a million animals – mostly wildebeests, but also zebra, impala, and gazelles – on a 2900 kilometre circuit around the plains of Kenya and Tanzania, thundering from the Serengeti up to the Maasai Mara and back down again following the rains and fresh grasses.

This thriving ecosystem hosts more large mammals than anywhere else on earth and the safari experience is spectacular, visceral and raw, the air dusty from thundering hooves and the smell pungent, with apex predators waiting for their time of plenty.

What makes it the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’? 

It isn't your average gathering of grazers. Eastern Africa's Great Migration often involves about 1.4 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebra and gazelles. Witnessing this volume of animals grazing in one place is difficult to comprehend, let alone seeing them on the run, charging into the rushing, crocodile-infested Mara River, or startled by stalking lions on the short grass Ndutu plains. There’s nothing else quite like it for such an immense natural spectacle.

When is the Great Migration? 

Although dependent on rainfall, the timing of the migration’s movements are broadly predictable, and the herds migrate year-round, so there's always something to experience somewhere.

In January, the wildebeest are spread out across southern Serengeti, where females birth calves, making the most of the safety in numbers and volcanic, nutrient-rich grasses on the lower slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater. Around 8000 new calves arrive each day. Predators like big cats enjoy the spoils of so many vulnerable young, which can run within a few days of being born but often not fast enough. In February and March, these 'super grasses' become exhausted, and so the herd and their young begin to move towards the central Serengeti.  

The annual 'long rains' draw the animals to the Western Corridor between April and June, a 100 kilometre stretch of land between the central Serengeti and Lake Victoria. Around Moru Kopjes and west Seronera, snaking columns of thousands of wildebeest are joined by zebra and Thomson's and Grant's gazelles. May is mating season, and male wildebeest battle on the move for a harem. Here, gradually, the animals gather on the banks of the Grumeti River in preparation for the first river crossing of the year.

As the rain dissipates and drier days return in July, the herds stomp north, moving from Tanzania into Kenya's Maasai Mara. This is perhaps the most dramatic moment in the year where herds are closely packed into a landscape fragmented by chaotic river-crossings and ravines. Between August and October, groups and sub-groups remain in the northern Serengeti and Mara until Novemberand December when herds venture back south to start the circuit over again.

When is the best time to experience the Great Migration?

River crossings are the Great Migration's most climactic cinematic moments, and the herds can be seen braving the Mara and its tributaries between July and August. For an off-the-beaten-track experience without the crowds the Mara can sometimes draw, Grumeti River crossings earlier in the year and can be seen in Singita’s private Grumeti Game Reserve. The event only takes place once so the timing is more down to luck than planning, but the herds can still be experienced en masse in the reserve itself.

How likely am I to see the Great Migration?

This is nature, so we're never fully in control. Rainfall dictates the movement of the herds, so if the rains are early or late one year, this will have a knock-on effect on predicted timings. Climate change makes the rains less predictable than they once were. Even when herds reach the rivers, they could linger there for days before being compelled to cross. That's why Great Migration safari days are long and often cover a greater distance than other safaris. 

When planning your safari, our travel researchers call on years of experience and contacts on the ground to pick the best spots that maximise your chances of being among the herds.

Where do you stay to experience the Great Migration?

The Serengeti and Mara host a wide range of accommodation options, from classic canvas camps to incredible exclusive use safari lodges. We’ll work with you to find somewhere that fits your taste, budget, is close to the action but away from the crowds and that has a positive impact.

Mobile camps are a brilliant way to make sightings more likely and frequent since they move every couple of months to follow the herds. These camps revolve around maximising wildlife viewings, ranging from classic under-canvas camps to some fabulously opulent mobile setups.

Legendary Expeditions’ Migrational Camps do precisely that – they move throughout the Serengeti with the migration so that the drama is never far from where you wake. Earthy tones and organic materials wield each camp's wild surroundings while providing a serene and luxurious respite from adventure-filled days. Alongside wildebeest tracking, Legendary Expeditions offer guests the chance to meet and learn from ancient nomadic herders, the Datoga. Hot air balloon rides are a mesmerising way to witness the Great Migration spectacle from the air.

Other top mobile camps include Asilia's Ubuntu Migration Camp, which moves throughout the Serengeti and Masai Mara following the migration year-round, Serian's Serengeti North, often based within two kilometers from the Mara River crossings, and Great Plains' gorgeous collection of camps in Kenya.

For an altogether lower impact and more intrepid experience, a walking safari lets you explore some of the most remote parts of the Serengeti with point-to-point itineraries that coincide with the migration. Spending the night in a genuine patch of wilderness is a rare privilege with access to areas where vehicles are forbidden. The camps offer a truly sustainable experience — plastic-free, solar-powered, and hearty meals cooked over a campfire. 

What else can I do on a Great Migration safari?

The Great Migration safari can be a pretty full-on experience, so we always recommend travellers tag on some downtime before or after, using your time here to extend your trip to explore more of East Africa.

In Tanzania, we recommend stepping off the well-worn ‘Northern Circuit’ to spend time in less visited but still incredible national parks to the south and heading to the Zanzibar Archipelago for some downtime on the beach.

In Kenya, there’s much to discover north of the Mara, such a range of adventure activities in Laikipia, the fascinating culture of Samburu and the infectiously laidback Indian Ocean coastline.

And for a real wildlife bucket lister trip, gorilla trekking in neighbouring Uganda or Rwanda pairs wonderfully with a safari.

Does the Great Migration make for a great family safari?

It's best to tackle the Great Migration with older children – days are long, and there can be many sitting around waiting for the action, or taking in the same view, often into the midday heat. Younger kids may get bored and restless.   

That said, different stages of the Great Migration circuit offer unique challenges and benefits when travelling with kids. January to March is the 'green season' in the Serengeti and Mara – prices are lower, the landscape is lusher, birds are plentiful, and hundreds of calves are born. This can be an excellent opportunity for larger families to get a slice of the action at a reduced cost. During river crossings, in June and September, younger or sensitive children are unlikely to enjoy the sometimes graphically apparent circle of life.

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