Every year over 2 million herbivores trek from Southern Serengeti walking some 100 to 200 miles (160 -to 321 kilometers) to Mara River Crossing into the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. This upward journey is part of an 800km-loop! This phenomenon is called the Great Wildebeest Migration and UNESCO recognized it in 2016 as the 7th wonder of the world. Picture this: millions of animals instinctively follow the rhythm of the weather, knowing that the grass is indeed greener on the Kenya side of the vast Mara ecosystem. Like clockwork, year after year, they navigate their way to this promised land.
What’s the Great Migration all about?
Grazers, predominantly wildebeest, gazelles, and zebras, exhibit a consistent migratory pattern that forms an 800km loop encompassing Kenya and Tanzania. This cyclical journey corresponds with the seasonal rainfall patterns, enhancing their survival and sustenance in the region.
The Great Migration, which has gained popularity, showcases the journey from the Southern Serengeti, across the Grumeti and Mara Rivers, and into Masai Mara. While the river crossing captivates most tourists, it is important to note that this is just a segment of their 800km-loop.
Their numbers are what make this migration amazing to watch.
Every year, a staggering number of wildlife embarks on an incredible journey. Approximately 1.5 million wildebeest, 400,000 zebra, 12,000 eland, and 300,000 Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles make an arduous trek from the southern Serengeti, crossing the Kenyan border, and braving the treacherous Mara River teeming with hunting crocodiles. Witnessing this awe-inspiring mass migration of animals congregating in one place is truly a breathtaking spectacle.
But why do they migrate?
The Maasai Mara ecosystem experiences seasonal changes with two distinct seasons: the wet season and the dry season. During the wet season, grass grows abundantly on the southern Serengeti plains, providing an abundant food source for these herbivores. But as the dry season approaches, the grass dries up, making it difficult for them to survive. This is when they embark on their journey towards greener pastures in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
But why do they cross the treacherous Mara River?
As mentioned before, this migration is driven by weather patterns and food sources. The wildebeest are constantly on the move, and unfortunately for them, their journey intersects with the Mara River. This river is not only a natural barrier but also home to 3,000 Nile crocodiles looking for their next meal. But despite this danger, the wildebeest brave the waters out of necessity for survival.
So when is the best time to witness this incredible event?
The Great Migration takes place from July to October, with the peak season being in late August and early September. During this time, the herds reach their destination in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, making it the ideal time for tourists to visit and witness this natural phenomenon.
If you are visiting the Mara and are staying in any camp within or outside the Reserve, you’ll need to wake up early and be at the Mara River Crossing by 6:30 am to 7 a.m. This is the peak time of day when the herds make their way to the river. If you’re lucky, you might even witness a crossing, where thousands of wildebeest rush into the water in an attempt to reach the other side.
Great migration months to note when when visiting:
If you visit during July, the herds are still traversing the Serengeti but nearing the Kenya-Tanzania border, with some early herds already reaching the Mara River. While it’s not the peak season to see the biggest herds crossing, you will still get to see the early movements of the migration.
By August, the herds have reached the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and this is when you will witness some of the most spectacular river crossings. This is also a great time for game viewing as big cats are often seen hunting during this period. By late August, large herds are making the plunge into the Mara River, creating a magnificent sight for all those who are lucky enough to witness it.
Early September still has a good number of large herds crossing the Mara River and is usually the peak tourist season within the July-Oct peak tourism season in Kenya. By late September and the entire month of October, wildebeest and zebra have normally left the Mara plains and are on their way back down to the southern plains of the Serengeti again in order to calve.
It is noteworthy that migration patterns are influenced by rain cycles and may exhibit slight variations from year to year, particularly in light of climate change. In the 2023 season, the migration experienced a delay, with the first large herds only crossing in late August. Typically, a few large herds initiate their crossing between late July and early August. However, this year, the animals remained widely scattered in the Serengeti even in September, which is highly unusual. This phenomenon serves as a powerful reminder that nature and its unpredictable patterns defy certainties.
Great Migration Kenya Dates:
If you are planning to visit and watch the Migration in 2024, I would recommend that you book your travel from around the 25th of August to the 10th of September. Going per the 2023 season and even to some extent 2022 season, those 16 days should give you the best chance of witnessing a river crossing while also witnessing plenty of high-action predators ‘hunts’.
What I think after watching the Migration:
I think I only truly developed a profound appreciation for the awe-inspiring magnificence of witnessing thousands of animals gather along the riverbanks, eagerly awaiting their moment to embark on the remarkable journey of the Great Migration. I have watched documentaries like National Geographic, as well as this more recent and widely popular one with a captivating opening scene with a breathtaking sight of wildebeest leaping over crocodiles, desperately evading the jaws that seek to capture them. So I had a good idea of how risky the crossing is and how marvelous it is to watch thousands of them cross.
But nothing compares to watching them up close. The desperation, the noise, and the chaos as they frantically cross the river. It’s an experience that words can’t fully capture and one that you must witness in person to truly appreciate. So is watching the Mara Great Migration worth it? Absolutely. You get to see animals up close doing what’s needed to be done despite the grave dangers and this gives you a newfound respect and admiration for these creatures.
One must show utmost respect to the courageous leader who guides the rest. Be prepared to wait patiently for hours as they carefully orchestrate their grand entrance. I often wonder if they are waiting for more tourists to join the spectacle, creating a scene of pure chaos, as depicted in the video below.
So, here is how they actually cross;
In the Mara River, where crocodiles lurk, the wildebeest gather at the banks, torn between the treacherous crossing and the lush green pastures on the other side. Interestingly, not a single wildebeest dares to take the lead and swim across. They stand there for hours, waiting, until one brave soul finally decides to take the plunge. The waiting for the brave one among the thousands in a single herd can take hours.
As the first wildebeest takes the plunge into the river, others soon follow suit. It is a stampede of hooves and horns as they make their way across the river, fighting against the strong currents and evading hungry crocodiles. The scene is nothing short of spectacular and it never fails to leave visitors in awe.
The actual crossing can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on the size of the herd and how quickly they move. Some herds may cross multiple times due to predators on either side of the river, creating an ongoing spectacle for days. It is not uncommon to see some animals losing their life during this crossing, making it a bittersweet experience.
After the first plunge, all of them plunge one after another and its all pure chaos as the video below taken in 2015 shows;
Come watch the Great Migration Live with Kambu Campers:
If you want to witness the Great Migration in all its glory, then Kambu Campers has got you covered. Our tented safari camp is located less than an hour’s drive from the Mara River Crossing where you can view the wildebeest migration up close and personal. Our knowledgeable guides will take you on a game drive to get a front-row seat for this breathtaking spectacle.
The anticipated 2024 grand migration is set to commence in late August, specifically from August 25th through September 10th. While smaller herds of grazers may begin crossing as early as the first week of August, it is during late August to early September that the larger herds, consisting of hundreds of thousands of herbivores including wildebeest, elands, zebras, gazelles, and topis, gather at the Mara River.
If you are interested in watching the upcoming migration, let us know in the contact form or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can book your safari as an inclusive package or as a standalone game drive.
What are the great migration routes?
After crossing the Grumeti River, wildebeest disperse in two directions: to the West, towards the Western Corridor of Serengeti, and to the North East, heading towards Loliondo. Despite their separate paths, these magnificent creatures eventually converge once again before embarking on the Mara River crossing into Kenya.
The period from January to March is commonly referred to as the calving season, during which the Serengeti plains are adorned with lush green vegetation. It is here that the wildebeest find solace and delight. As this season draws to a close, more than 500,000 adorable wildebeest calves are born, serving as a replenishment for the unfortunate 250,000 that succumb to exhaustion and thirst during their migration.
As the dry season begins in April, the wildebeests embark on their migration to the Western Serengeti. This movement continues through May, leading them towards the Grumeti and Seronera River. In June, they bravely cross the Grumeti River, and their journey persists through July, taking them closer to Masai Mara. Finally, by late July, they reach the Mara River crossing, and in August, large herds of wildebeests arrive at this magnificent destination. Crossing continues through early September but they start turning back by end of October.
The image below better shows the migration route;