LivingTravelHow to experience the great annual migration from East...

How to experience the great annual migration from East Africa

Every year millions of zebras, wildebeest and other antelopes migrate across the mighty plains of East Africa in search of better grazing. This annual pilgrimage is known as the Great Migration, and witnessing it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should top every safari enthusiast’s list. However, the mobile nature of migration means that planning a trip around the show can be tricky. Making sure you’re in the right place at the right time is key, so in this article we take a look at the best places and stations to watch migration in Kenya and Tanzania.

What is migration?

Every year, about two million wildebeest, zebra and other antelope herd their young and begin the long trek north from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve in search of greener pastures. Their journey runs in a clockwise circle, covers about 1,800 miles / 2,900 kilometers, and is notoriously fraught with danger. Annually, approximately 250,000 wildebeest die on the road.

River crossings are especially dangerous. Herds gather by the thousands to forge the waters of the Grumeti River in Tanzania and the Mara River in Kenya, at both points running a gauntlet of strong currents and lurking crocodiles. Crocodile killings and panicky hordes of animals mean that crosses are not for the faint of heart; Yet they certainly offer some of the most dramatic wildlife encounters in Africa.

Away from the banks of the river, the migration can be just as exciting. The spectacle of thousands of wildebeest, zebra, eland, and gazelle crowding the plain is a sight in itself, while the sudden abundance of available food attracts a group of iconic predators. Lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs follow the herds and provide safari-goers with excellent opportunities to see a kill in action.

NB: Migration is a natural event that changes slightly each year in both time and location. Use the information below as a general guide.

Migration in Tanzania

December – March: At this time of year, herds congregate in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Areas of northern Tanzania. This is the birth season and a great time to see newborns; while big cat sightings (and killings) are common.

The southern plains of Ndutu and Salei are best for spotting large herds during this time of year. Recommended places to stay include Ndutu Safari Lodge, Kusini Safari Camp, Lemala Ndutu Camp, and any mobile campsites in the area.

April – May: Herds begin to migrate west and north into the plains and forests of the western Serengeti corridor. Seasonal rains make it difficult to track herds during this stage of their migration. In fact, many of the smaller camps in Tanzania closed due to impassable roads.

June: As the rains cease, the wildebeest and zebra gradually begin to move north and individual groups begin to congregate and form much larger herds. This is also the mating season for migratory wildebeest. The Western Serengeti is the best place to watch the migration unfold.

July: the herds reach their first big obstacle, the Grumeti river. The Grumeti can go deep in places, especially if the rains have been good. The depth of the river makes drowning a different possibility for many wildebeest and there are plenty of crocodiles to take advantage of their distress.

The campgrounds along the river create an amazing safari experience right now. One of the best places to stay is Serengeti Serena Lodge, which is centrally located and easily accessible. Other recommended options include Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp, Migration Camp, and Kirawira Camp.

Migration in Kenya

August: The pastures of the western Serengeti turn yellow and the herds continue north. After crossing the Grumeti River in Tanzania, wildebeest and zebra make their way to Kenya’s Lamai Wedge and the Mara Triangle. Before reaching the lush plains of the Mara, they have to make another river crossing.

This time it is the Mara River, which is also full of hungry crocodiles. The best places to stay to watch migratory wildebeest board the Mara River include Kichwa Tembo Camp, Bateleur Camp, and Sayari Mara Camp.

September – November: the plains of Mara are filled to the brim with large herds, naturally followed by predators. Some of the best places to stay while migrating in Mara include Governors Camp and Mara Serena Safari Lodge.

November – December: The rains begin again in the south and the herds begin their long trek back to the Serengeti plains of Tanzania to give birth to their young. During the short rains in November, the wildebeest migration is best seen from the Klein camp, while the camps in the Lobo area are also good.

Recommended Safari Operators

The safari specialists

Wildebeest & Wilderness is a 7-night itinerary offered by boutique travel company The Safari Specialists. It runs from June to November and focuses on two of the most rewarding national parks in Tanzania. You will spend the first four nights at the beautiful Lamai Serengeti Lodge at the northern tip of the Serengeti, and you will venture each day in search of the best migration action. The second half of the trip takes you to the remote Ruaha National Park, the largest (and also one of the least visited) National Park in Tanzania.

Ruaha is known for its sightings of big cats and African wild dogs, ensuring you get a second chance to see migrating predators in action.

In the woods

Award-winning luxury safari company Mahlatini offers no less than five migration itineraries. Three of them are based in Tanzania and include trips to the Serengeti and Grumeti reserves (both migration hotspots) followed by a beach holiday in Zanzibar. Two of the Tanzania itineraries also take you to the Ngorongoro Crater, known for its incredible landscapes and incredible diversity of wildlife. If you feel like crossing international borders on your migration adventure, there is an itinerary that combines wildebeest watching in the Serengeti and Grumeti reserves with a trip to Mozambique’s Quirimbas archipelago; and another that goes to Kenya to the migratory epicenter of the Maasai Mara.


Travel butlers

UK-based safari company Travel Butlers also offers various migration itineraries. Our favorite is the Waiting for the Drama to Unfurl itinerary, a 3-day trip that takes you right into the heart of the action in Kenya’s Masai Mara. You will spend the nights at the Ilkeliani camp, located between the Talek and Mara rivers. During the day, game drives led by an expert Maasai guide will take you in search of the herds, with the main goal of capturing the spectacle of a crossing of the Mara River.

If you are lucky, you will see thousands of zebras and wildebeest throw themselves into the waters, trying to reach the opposite shore without falling into the trap of the Nile crocodiles.

David Lloyd Photography

Kiwi photographer David Lloyd has been on dedicated photography trips to the Maasai Mara for the past 12 years. Their 8-day itineraries are specifically geared towards photographers hoping to get the best possible photos of the migration, and are led by full-time wildlife photographers. After each early morning game drive, you will have the opportunity to attend interactive workshops on photographic techniques and post-processing, and share and get feedback on your images. Even the drivers are trained in composition and lighting, so they know how to get it in position to get the best possible shots in the bush.

You will stay in a camp on the Mara River, near one of the key river crossing sites.

National Geographic Expeditions

National Geographic’s On Safari: The Great Tanzania Migration Itinerary is a 9-day adventure that takes you into the interior of the northern or southern Serengeti, depending on the season and the movement of the herds. If you’re lucky, you can see the wildebeest crossing the Mara River, while the optional hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti plains is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You will also have a chance to see some of Tanzania’s other highlights, including the Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara National Park (famous for its tree-climbing lions), and the Olduvai Gorge.

At Olduvai Gorge, you will be given a private tour of the world famous archaeological site where Homo habilis was first discovered.

Elephant Orphanage Guide David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust operates a world-famous elephant orphanage in Nairobi. You may have read Dame Daphne's autobiography