Now I understand why the Great Migration has been described as the 8th wonder of the world. Up to 2 million wildebeest, along with zebra, topi and a small number of Grant’s Gazelle undertake the death defying crossing of the mighty Mara river, coming from the south from the Serengeti in Tanzania, moving rhythmically clock wise to cross into the north into the Maasai Mara in Kenya in attempts to find the best grass, and the best mates and then later in the year, they repeat the cyclical process. This is the largest over land migration in the world and occurs usually between July and October although it can be a year round phenomenon. It is the ultimate demonstration of herd mentality. The wildebeest, or Gnu as they are also known, have no real leader and just move together in waves of gigantic herds, flowing between countries like a giant tide of creatures in their never ending quest to prove that the grass is greener on the other side.
It invariably is not and the said river crossing is almost suicidal with not only the fast flowing torrential river presenting as a rather dangerous natural obstacle, but the awaiting predators that join the melee including the giant Nile crocodiles, and the hovering lions that simply pick off the prey as they drop by, throwing themselves into the river which looks like it will most certainly lead to a premature demise. That said, the wildebeest are an unbelievably successful species and whilst many do not survive the treacherous crossing, the vast majority go on to fight another day, and yet further river crossings.
We arose early and prepared ourselves for a long day in the savannah. We had been warned by both our driver, William and our guide, Francis that patience is required when attempting to catch sight of the notorious river crossings. Francis informed us that we would make our way to the river and position the vehicle at one of the crossings points and simply wait. We would watch the movement of the immense herds of wildebeest and just observe their behaviour in the hope that we could predict where they would cross, if indeed, they would cross the river in front of us.
As we trundled along, we happened across a stricken vehicle which had attempted to cross the river but had got firmly beached on the rocky bed. We hastily alighted our vehicle and watched in fascination whilst the Maasai guides waded into the murky water, attached tow ropes to the car and our vehicle skilfully driven by William assisted in the recue and recovery of the said car. Mr Nomad and I kept watch, particularly as approaching nearby we could make out the curious head of a hippo. Hippo’s are aggressive creatures in contradiction to their cute and clumsy looks and need no encouragement to attack, so we stayed attentive at all times.
We proceeded on our journey and as appears usual within the Maasai Mara, we were mesmerized by the volume of animals. Zebra, impala, topi, gazelle, warthog and giraffe were plentiful and adorn the plains at every turn. We watched as a herd of zebra passed by us including a remarkably pale fluffy foal.
We also spied a couple of hyena skulking in the long grass, partially hidden and lounging around and soaking up the heat of the morning sun.
There is also an abundance of birds and we were lucky enough to sight a vast array of feathered beauties including fish eagles, majestic Marshall eagles, black chested snake eagles, and many different types of vultures.
At one point during the safari, we were lucky enough to witness a herd of elephants moseying along. They are in the main, habituated to vehicles and were not bothered whatsoever by our presence, even though there were some tiny babies amongst them. A couple of these giant beasts came very close to our vehicles as we rolled to a stop to observe them.
Mr Nomad and I were grateful to be able to get so close to them and even more so when one elephant obliged us with a selfie. This was all dream like stuff and we hadn’t even got to the much anticipated river crossing yet.
So on we went until we reached the banks of the mighty Mara and as the driver brought the vehicle to a halt, and we parked up, we could see the enormous herds of wildebeest hovering around the river but also stretching back across the plains.
There were quite literally thousands of these shaggy maned gnu and it was simply a matter of waiting to see which one would make the first leap into the river. There were so many of them that they looked like ants on the horizon. Francis our guide, explained that as soon as one went, the rest of the herd would follow. And so we waited with bated breath to see which brave wildebeest would be the first to take that plunge into the torrential river.
We could smell death in the air and we could see a rotting carcass close by. It was covered like a blanket in vultures – Lappet- Faced Vultures along with African White Backed Vultures amongst others, and there was even a huge Maribou Stork joining in the feast.
It was incredibly hot and dry and dusty and wherever the wildebeest gathered, the dust clouds swirled around them. I was sweating profusely in nervous anticipation and the dust stuck to me like glue, drying my already parched throat. Every time the wildebeest moved, so did the safari vehicles that had gathered to watch the extravaganza and unfortunately, some of those vehicles were somewhat irresponsible, disturbing the animals as they all jostled for position, cutting off their route to the river. We could feel the tension in the air, as I’m sure the wildebeest could.
The wildebeest trotted along, followed closely by their dust clouds, constantly changing their direction, changing their minds as to the appropriate point to cross, their indecision and procrastination hopefully making them oblivious to the safari vehicles which were following them so as not to lose sight of them. The animals littering the plains swarmed down the hills like a steady stream of ants to catch their compatriots up, to prepare themselves for the epic crossing, not wanting to be left behind, to be left to fend for themselves in a river infested with hippo and crocodiles.
There was around 50 other safari vehicles all waiting for the anticipated river crossing and whilst this felt rather invasive, we were informed that this was actually quiet. If the tourism industry was running under normal conditions (as if coronovirus had not closed the entire world!) then we were informed it would have been ‘normal’ to have as many as 200 vehicles all vying for position along the river side. This does make me feel somewhat uncomfortable but it is the case that tourism keeps the country afloat, and conservancy fees help towards conservation efforts, so it is a necessary evil.
While I found myself pondering upon the ethics and morality of tourism in this particular area, and the responsibilities we should all share in not disturbing wild life in its natural habitat, and just as Mr Nomad began to nod off, our safari vehicle lurched forward and whilst I thought this was some sort of wacky race, it was to gain a good position on the banks of the river to be able to take in the Great Migration. It had started.
A single wildebeest had overcome its trepidation and taken the plunge and thrown itself off the banks into the mighty river and he was followed by a frenzied flow of companions, all frantically thrashing through the water in the hopes of reaching the other side. Mr Nomad and I were speechless. We could only silently take in the abuse on our senses, watching in awe at this natural phenomenon. The wildebeest were manic and fuelled by a mixture of adrenalin and desperation, grunting and snorting and frothing at the mouth, their nostrils blowing hard with such extreme exertion, clambering over each other to flee the perils of the water. They threw themselves up the opposing rocky banks of the river and we could hear their tiny hooves clattering against the slippery wet rock face of the banks, desperately seeking out a foothold. It was carnage.
We watched in awe and wonder and sometimes, disbelief that these strange creatures make this dangerous journey constantly throughout the year and in my mind, unnecessarily so. The dust did not abate as the stream of wildebeest enduring the river crossing seemed endless. We had been informed by our guide that we were late in the migration season so the crocodiles which would ordinarily pick off the wildebeest had full tummies and were all fed-up, so I was thankful that with the brutality of the migration, I did not have to witness the barbarity of these creatures being eaten as they went.
Mr Nomad and I were stunned. This was only a small herd of wildebeest but it had been crazy. Eventually, the dust settled as the stragglers caught up, crossed the river and the remaining herd filtered away over the landscape in their search for better fodder, and the best mates, no doubt all to be repeated in the coming months. The zebra, topi and Grants Gazelle are all also known to attempt river crossings but we did not witness these, but it had been enough to see the wildebeest do what wildebeest do.
We were grateful that we had witnessed such an epic sight but I for one had found it a little distressing at times. That said, I was pleased that I had seen the Great Migration and I was now able to comprehend the magnitude of such an event.
Nature is cruel and not all of these wildebeest made it. As we left the area to leave the surviving wildebeest in peace, the stench of death was almost unbearable and the banks of the river was littered with bodies, all victims of broken limbs, drowning, exhaustion and attacks from predators. Nature does take care of its own though and the vultures and other scavengers were having a field day, but the smell was gut wrenching and I certainly felt a pit of sadness in my stomach that these creatures put their lives at risk for what I see as a totally unnecessary cause.
We made our way back into the bush and were treated to a slap up lunch by the river. Peace resumed after the carnage of the morning and we calmed ourselves and took in the tranquillity of a calmer section of the river. The hippo’s were ever present but caused no drama and we were soon on our way to see what other delights we could find in the Maasai Mara.
It wasn’t long before we came across a lion. Actually, a lioness slumbering in the tall grass. She was a healthy looking golden lioness and upon closer inspection, we happened across the body of a recently killed topi so we figured the lioness had taken her fill and was soaking up the glory of this recent meal.
As we continued, we took a route through the bush down towards yet another section of the river and came across a large male lion taking a quiet drink. Mr Nomad and I were overjoyed to see such amazing looking creatures and we lapped this up. As the lion slurped away, a solitary hippo emerged from the water bearing many wounds, revealing a potentially troubled life.
This day could not be beaten – we had seen so much wonderful wild life in its natural habitat from the largest land mammal, (the lumbering elephants), the copious amounts of feathered creatures, millions of ungulates, predators, and of course the great migration which was spell binding, surreal in its enormity, and just unbelievable.
The Maasai Mara is like a dream. Words simply cannot express how magnificent the place is and I can honestly say there is nowhere on earth that compares. There is certainly nowhere on earth I would rather be. The Great Migration lived up to the hype and exceeded every expectation I may have had and more.
We were exhausted after an exceptionally long day and suffering somewhat in the desert like conditions, but we retired to bed beyond satisfied that we had ticked off another bucket list item.