On a hot afternoon on Kenya's Mara, Tirian, our Maasai guide and friend, maneuvered the hefty safari vehicle into a tiny open spot on the edge of the river bank high above the beached crocodiles. They sunned their 12-15 foot bodies, almost grinning, eyes closed, menacing teeth, their jaws clamped shut whilst waiting.
We waited too. A couple of hours in the heat, watching for signs, listening for sounds. . . . . . . . would they come, would it happen?
There is no insurance available to guarantee viewing a migration crossing as part of a safari. There is only patience, and of course a great guide who will work diligently to make it part of your visit to the Maasai Mara if you are there at the right time of the year.
It's amazing how quiet these huge animals can be, moving in herds over the bush with barely a sound. Plodding in straight lines one behind the other, giant bulls, mothers with babies, staring ahead or stopping and staring at you!
Nowhere in the world is there a movement of animals as immense as the wildebeest migration. Over two million animals migrate in the search of greener pastures, following the rains which nourish the often completely dry ground.
The annual flow of African animals in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is known as the Great Migration. The 1.7 million wildebeest, together with 350,000 Thomson's gazelle, 200,000 zebra and 12,000 eland, make the daring crossings of the Mara River. The exact timing of their progress varies depending on rainfall and sprouting fresh grasses. They usually cross into Kenya around June then make their way around the Mara through July, August and September, before their return to the Serengeti sometime in late September and October. During their time in the Mara the animals have to cross the Mara River where the crocodiles lie in wait for them, an event that is spellbinding, horrifying and spectacular.
On this September afternoon, word was out. Radios crackled, mobile phones rang, Land Rovers and Land Cruisers braked, guides chatted back and forth in languages such as Ma and Swahili. In these photos you can see other safari vehicles vying for a good spot with a view and, before we could steady our cameras, it began. . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . the wildebeest herd which had been walking past us for a couple of hours, started to cross the Mara River, hippos moved out of the way to the bank, but crocodiles silently slid into the murky water all around.
It's almost impossible to put into words what happened in the following eleven minutes! Yes that's all it took for perhaps close to a thousand wildebeest of all ages and sizes, to cross the narrow river from the flat bank on our side to a mad scramble up the steeper bank on the opposite side! The movement of the heaving mass of horned bodies through the water turned from brown to gleaming wet pewter, and all the while the huge crocodiles swam about grabbing the smaller animals, drowning them quickly.
At the end there were a few wildebeest still trying to decide whether to cross, but most then turned back. Within minutes all was quiet and it was almost like a dream. The hippos went back to swimming or lounging on the sand, the crocodiles floated down river with their evening meal taken care of. . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . .and when we pulled away from our spot on the bank, almost speechless at what we had just experienced, we were still surrounded by thousands more wildebeest, and this lovely Topi antelope, spread across the golden plain most likely contemplating the greener grass across the river and trying to decide when they would make their crossing during the days to come. In reality there is no single "migration" as the wildebeest have neither a start or finish in their endless search for water and the new green shoots of grass on which they feed. These are quite amazing animals and seeing a crossing was certainly a highlight of our safari.
Where we viewed the migration crossing was several miles from our camp. The long drive back from the river was a time to think about what we had experienced, and we knew how fortunate we were to be there at the right time, thanks to Tirian.
Tirian taking us 'home' to camp . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . and yes, often rough and rocky along the way!
We arrived back around sunset and still the wildebeest herds were moving, silently, all in one direction, through the bush alongside us - another day might see these at the Mara River taking the plunge and heading for greener pastures. It was a day to remember and a privilege to have viewed what many people sadly miss.
Stay tuned, more Africa stories yet to come!