Born to run: chasing the great wildebeest migration

A herd of wildebeest contemplating making the river crossing to the Serengeti
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya

In August each year, 2.2 million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebra and antelope, migrate from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, in search of greener pastures. Along the way, they cross the Sand River and then the wide, crocodile infested Mara River. As the rains change, they do the same journey in reverse. These crossings are one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth, as desperate animals fight for survival. After each crossing, there are a few less wildebeest.

This was something my whole family wanted to see while we were living in Kenya. But finding 2.2 million wildebeest in the Maasai Mara was harder than I thought. At 1,500 square kilometres, the Mara is vast, and the Serengeti is even larger. Finding the wildebeest at the exact moment that they decide to cross a river is almost impossible. But not quite.

On our first attempt, in July, we were too early and too far north. So we came back for a long weekend in August, staying further south. After a bumpy flight with three landings at different airstrips, we decided to skip the first afternoon drive. “Don’t worry,” said our guide Daniel. “There are a lot of wildebeest in the Mara Triangle today. We will definitely see something tomorrow.”

Our campsite was on the Kenyan bank of the Sand River, which divides the two countries. On the other bank was a stretch of no man’s land, beyond which we could see a ridge of hills in Tanzania’s Serengeti. To the animals, of course, there was no distinction between the two sides.

Close up of a wildebeest in the Mara Triangle
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya

With two small children, Zefi 5 and Ayla 3, we had a limited window for game viewing. On the first day, we set off at 7:30 with a takeaway breakfast. Along the roadside, we saw several wildebeest carcasses in various stages of decay. A horned head atop an open ribcage pointed in the direction the migration had taken. “These animals were caught by lions a few weeks ago,” Daniel said.

What we weren’t yet seeing was any live wildebeest. In fact, the landscape seemed eerily empty. This was perhaps unsurprising, given the vast size of national park. But when we got to the plain where the wildebeest had been the day before, it too was empty. Daniel consulted his fellow drivers by radio. He pointed to a range of hills on the horizon. “The wildebeest crossed the river yesterday,” he said. “They are now on the far side of those hills.”

It had already been a long drive for my kids. Zefi could have lasted longer but Ayla had had enough. There were only two animals she was interested in – pandas and giraffes – and she was disappointed to learn that there were no pandas in Africa. “I only want to go to China and see the pandas in the bamboo forest,” she announced.

But just as we started back, Daniel saw a herd (technically a ‘confusion’) of around 10,000 wildebeest that had broken off from the main group and were heading south. “They’re returning to the Serengeti,” he said. It was a vast herd and, unlike others I had seen, was moving with clear purpose. We followed them for a while. Most of the animals were walking or running in the same direction but others stopped to graze, fight or attempt to mate, so progress was sporadic. “There’s a river crossing less than one kilometre from here,” Daniel said. “It’s hard to know when they will cross. It could be one, two or three hours.”

Some of the 10,000 wildebeest remaining in the Mara Triangle
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya

After a while, the herd stopped moving and settled down to graze, so we took the kids back to the campsite for lunch. I came back out with David to try to catch the river crossing. But when we got back to where we had left the wildebeest, they were gone. David made a few calls on the radio. “The main herd has already crossed Sand River,” he said. “But there is a smaller group heading towards the Mara River. We might still catch them.”

We crossed the Mara River on a cast iron bridge and made our way up the far bank. It was dry and hot and I could see sand twisters forming in the distance. Just then another cloud of dust appeared but coming up from the riverbank. “It’s started!” David exclaimed. He sped up and drove fast towards the river, small rocks clanging against the bottom of the safari car. Arriving at the river, he swerved into a patch of bare ground at the top of a high bank overlooking the river.

I could now see what had caused the cloud. Two thousand wildebeest were in the process of crossing the river. On the far side, they had slid down a sand bank, causing the dust to rise into the air. As we arrived, the penultimate group was swimming in the middle of the river and then clambered up the rocky slope on our side of the river. The final group was still on the far side, some of them twisting around and tossing their horns in the air in agitation. As I watched, one animal at the head of the last group leaped into the river, and the rest followed, swimming in a line towards the opposite shore. I clambered into the front seat of the car and fired off a dozen photos, then it was over.

Wildebeest swim across the Mara river, with the last group waiting anxiously on the far side
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
The final group of wildebeest enter the Mara River, kicking up sand behind them
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
The last wildebeest reach the far shore without injury and scramble up onto the rocks
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya

I was lucky to have seen it at all. “Sometimes we have to wait for hours after the herd arrives at the river,” David explained. “None of the animals want to go first, because they will be a target for the crocodiles, but as soon as one goes, the rest follow.” However, there were no crocodile attacks this time. “They’re all full from the big crossing yesterday,” David said. “Once a crocodile has eaten a wildebeest, it doesn’t need to eat again for several days.”

After the last wildebeest had climbed the rocky bank, we drove ahead of the herd onto a hilltop, from where we saw a long line of much calmer animals file past on their way to the Serengeti. It was an exhilarating experience, and I felt lucky to have glimpsed one of nature’s most exciting spectacles. I had seen it before on TV but that didn’t compare to being there in person. Even the long drive added to the thrill when it finally happened.

A line of 2,000 wildebeest climb the hill on the far side of the Mara river, heading towards the Serengeti
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya

Of course, there is much more to the Maasai Mara than the wildebeest. In just two days, we saw a cheetah with newborn cubs, a pair of lions mating, and and array of other wildlife, both large and small. Here are some of my other favourite photos from the trip:

Elephants beside the Mara River just below the iron bridge on the border with Tanzania
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
A mother cheetah finds a shady spot to rest with her three-month-old cubs…
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
… and looks out for prey while the cubs play
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
A black-backed jackal runs across the savannah
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
A leopard resting in the shade of a tree, camouflaged among the leaves
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
A pod of hippos resting on a sandy riverbank by the Mara River
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
Dominic, alpha male lion of the Black Rock pride, shakes his mane after mating. “When lions mate, they separate themselves from the pride for four days,” Daniel said. “That way, the male knows that any cubs are his.”
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
Dominic drinks water from a nearby stream after mating
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya
Banded mongoose on the bank of the Sand River, just outside our family tent. They use their strong claws to dig in the ground, looking for food.
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya

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