There are a wealth of sights and attractions that visitors traveling to Africa on safari want to see and do, but witnessing the Great Migration is high on most bucket lists.
And this is no surprise. The Great Migration is undoubtedly one of Nature's most unforgettable spectacles: 1.5 million wildebeest accompanied by 200,000 or so zebras engaged in a never-ending journey, following the rains in a circular 1,200-mile route, through a wilderness that takes in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve.
So if you are contemplating a safari to Tanzania or Kenya, here are the top five things you need to know about the Great Migration to help you on your way.
What is the Great Migration?
First of all, it's important to understand that the Great Migration is an on-going event, which doesn't ever really end. Basically, it's a circular grazing path determined by the availability of food. Literally hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra start in Tanzania's Serengeti in January where they give birth to their young. The grass is still short in this part of the Serengeti, making it safer for the new-borns to stay protected from lurking predators. As the rains end, the herds start to move westwards, following the rivers on their way to the Masai Mara in Kenya. In summer they finally arrive, crossing crocodile infested rivers to get there. And in the late autumn and winter, the herds move back towards the Serengeti, chasing the rainy season, and the process begins again. In essence it's a yearlong search for food, water and safety, and there are countless opportunities for safari-goers to witness all the beauty and drama along the way.
The major players on the Great Migration are the wildebeest, almost 1.5 million of them. And if you head out on safari in the first few months of the year, you'll be guaranteed to see an awful lot of them.
Travelling alongside the wildebeest are hundreds of thousands of zebra. And it turns out there's a very good reason for this: zebra eat the longer grasses leaving wildebeest the shorter grasses, which they prefer. Zebra are also helpful in remembering the course of the Migration, and keep a look out for hungry river predators. Wildebeest return the favour by employing their incredible sense of smell to locate water sources almost every day of the Migration. But of course there are plenty other animals to see as well including gazelles, elephants, lions, leopards and cheetah, just to name a few.
So if you go on safari during the Great Migration as well as witnessing this incredible natural wonder, expect to see all of the animals typical to the African savanna.
The Best way to see the Great Migration
One commonly held misconception is that all the wildebeests and zebras migrate together at the same time en masse. Clearly given the huge numbers of creatures involved, the reality is quite different.
One of the best ways to see the Great Migration is from the safety a safari vehicle. And depending on the time of year, expect to stop and watch as hundreds, if not thousands, of animals run across the road, spurred by a primal need to move and eat. But to fully appreciate the immense scale of the Migration it's hard to beat a hot air balloon ride at dawn across the Serengeti, with endless herds of migratory wildebeest and zebra spread out below as far as the eye can see.
Lodges and Camps
Another important aspect of any great safari experience is where you spend the night. So much more than just a place to lay your head, tented camps and lodges are an integral part of safari. Boutique luxury safari operator, Sanctuary Retreats, operates a handful of remarkable properties located in some of the most beautiful and remote parts of Tanzania and Kenya. They also make the ideal base from which to explore the local wildlife and to observe the Great Migration at close range. Sanctuary Retreats also has a special mobile-tented camp devoted entirely to the Great Migration, which moves as the herds move, transitioning from the Western to the Northern and finally the Southern part of the Serengeti meaning you wont miss anything, no matter what time of year you choose to travel.
Safari is about more than the Great Migration
Perhaps the most important point of all is best expressed by author and self-confessed safari fan, Matt Long. "Safari is transformative for any number of reasons, but mostly because it humbles us. It demonstrates to us the raw power of nature, along with its resiliency. The Great Migration has been on-going for longer than any of us realize, and the animals that call the Serengeti home put us in our place. They teach us how fleeting our own lives are, how inconsequential our problems are when put in the larger context of the world and how slow time really moves."