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Written by: Juan Proll on 21 July 2021

Where to see the Great Migration: dangerous river crossings in Tanzania and Kenya

Great Migration

Every year more than a million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of other ungulates such as zebras, Thomson’s gazelles, eland and lyre antelopes set out on an approximately 1,000 km circular route through the Serengeti of Tanzania and the Masai Mara of Kenya. Two great rivers stand in their way. In today’s blog, I’ll tell you about the dangers lurking in the waters.

The endless plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya form the backdrop for the world’s largest animal migration, uninfluenced by humans. At a leisurely pace, it leads its journey through treeless expanses and flat, spectacular grasslands. It goes past decorative rock islands (Kopjes), along isolated forests and across dark rivers. The wandering community is united by their love for lush greenery. They all eat grass, but the majority of them will bite the dust. While their survival strategy safeguards the species, it still leads many to their death: In view of this mass of four-legged vegetarians, the occurrence of carnivorous predators is also immense. Festive lions, hyenas, crocodiles and other carnivores feverishly await the annual passage with drooling mouths.

Great migration where Tanzania

The cycle of the Great Migration: before the trip is after the trip

The view of this multitude of animals right in front of you while watching the herds from your safari jeep’s pop-up roof – it’s just indescribable. The best time to get a quick experience is between January and March. During that time, the animals greet you all the way from the southeastern Serengeti up to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. It’s almost just a stone’s throw away from the north-eastern safari capital of Arusha. What a poignant moment: endless expanses, and yet the room does not seem large enough for the masses that are forming. One is almost tempted to look around and look for the large open-air stage where Tanzania’s most famous musician Freddie Mercury rises from the dead to bawl-out the song “We are the Champions” into the crowds again.

But no – the stage is the endless grassland, on which giant herds not only nibble peacefully on the lush greenery, but where countless numbers of female wildebeest are giving birth to huge flocks of young calves, an estimated 400,000.

Young wildebeest migration

Here we go: The Great Migration month by month

When the grass dries up some time around March, the large animal community needs to set off for new fodder regions. There are many indications that their urge to migrate is weather-related and that they follow the rain with the accompanying fresh growth of grass. For most of them, this means a clockwise roundtrip over an area of around 40,000 square kilometers, before they return to where they once saw the light of day. Even without the predators, this path is grueling, and animals repeatedly die due to illness, exhaustion or malnutrition. In the end there are tens of thousands of animals willing to migrate which, for whatever reason, do not survive.

In May / June, the majority of the hiking community has penetrated deep into the western corridor of the Serengeti and celebrates this event with an extensive rutting and mating session.

From Tanzania to Kenya: Beyond the rivers

As soon as the animals move north from the western Serengeti of Tanzania towards Kenya’s Masai Mara, they reach the major rivers around June, July or August, first the Grumeti and later the Mara River. It can take until October before they have left the rivers behind them. Of course, such a natural spectacle cannot be timed as reliable as a performance in the city theater. The weather dictates the course: How long is the dry season? When does the rain come? It’s about the forage grass that brings the moisture. And so they practically follow the precipitation. The best chances to see the river crossings of the Great Migration offer crossing-border safaris between Tanzania and Kenya, taking you to the Serengeti as well as the Masai Mara.

Great migration river crossing
Photo: Rolf Rosenbaum

When they reach the banks on this side, the other side means the hereafter for countless of them. River crossings are one of the greatest challenges for anyone following the Big Migration. This is where the great herds gather, which many of you have probably already seen on television and which sends your blood pressure soaring just by watching: crocodile-contaminated waters, strong currents; calves and mothers torn apart; animals falling from high and steep embankments, drowning in the river or being caught and eaten by starving crocodiles.

It’s a heartbreaking experience … not for the faint of heart. But it is also one of the last possible, very special experiences that we as humans are allowed to have when it comes to understanding on a grand scale how nature regulates itself. It’s about eating and being eaten. But it is also about maintaining a natural balance in the animal world and avoiding “overpopulation”. And so it is always a special pleasure for our guides to be able to share these moments with our guests on our Tanzania safari tours. Especially this year, because it will be much quieter than usual. We expect far fewer vehicles at the relevant viewpoints than usual. This means far more freedom to move around the Great Migration and to position ourselves for great photo shoots. And of course, our guides always find comforting words for the pain that many guests may feel in the face of the tragedies that are unfolding before them. Our guides also tremble with the underdogs.

What the Grumeti River has to offer in terms of cruelty, the Mara River seems to want to surpass again. Here the crocodiles share the waters with the hippos. An even more deadly combination for the migrating community: Although the hippos are not carnivores, they behave in a highly territorial manner and without further ado will kill anything they have not invited into their native water world. They are certainly not nice hosts. And so the wildebeest, zebras and the like pay their border crossing from Tanzania to Kenya with an expensive blood toll. Nevertheless, they stand here year after year – in front of the eyes of the fascinated tourists – and plunge themselves into the deadly waters again and again. The grass on the other side is too tempting, starvation too threatening on this side.

Where to see great migration
Photo: Rolf Rosenbaum

Every year hundreds or even thousands of antelopes and zebras die on the banks and in the waters. But even more survive and manage to close the circle and return happily to their place of birth – for a little rest and relaxation and for renewed reinforcement with offspring before the next round.

The Great Migration of Animals in Tanzania’s Serengeti, the Grumeti and Mara Rivers and the Masai Mara of Kenya are unique in the world. A visit here is definitely worthwhile. We are happy to answer any questions and support you in planning your Tanzania trip on the trails of the Great Migration. Here on site, we are always well informed about the current situation. So get in touch with us! Your dream, our expertise – your very own Tanzania experience.

Author: Juan Proll

Traveling has always been Juan Proll's great passion: three years in Latin America, two years in Southeast Asia and Oceania as well as short trips of up to nine months in Europe, Central America, and North Africa. In 2010, he decided to quit his job in Germany as an adult education teacher and head of department for migration issues and to become a ranger in South Africa. Juan has been traveling across Africa since 2011, traveling to southern and eastern Africa and also climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Beforehand, he completed his nature guide training in South Africa and worked in a Big Five game reserve. With further training and intensive self-study to become a cultural guide, Juan has since expanded his field of activity beyond the natural world to include the countries, cultures, and its people. In mid-2013 he joined Africa-Experience and has been guiding travelers through Africa as a safari guide ever since. Juan is a member of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa.

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