The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the natural world’s most astonishing phenomena. Each year, nearly two million wildebeest and accompanying zebra trek from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara and back again in search of fresh grazing. Viewing these vast herds on the move is an unforgettable sight.
It was late June. We’d come to the Serengeti to see the Great Wildebeest Migration as it crossed the plains on an epic journey from Tanzania to Kenya and back in search of grazing. We’d chosen a wonderful camp in northern Serengeti that would allow us easy access to the migration.
The camp was a luxurious tented affair and provided the perfect vantage point for this amazing natural spectacle. With only nine tents, nestled in woodland, we enjoyed complete comfort in the heart of the wilderness.
Having unpacked and settled in – and having had a refreshing dip in the pool – we set off on our first afternoon, after a sumptuous tea. We had our own open-top safari vehicle, with a dedicated guide and spotter. The 4×4 traversed a magnificent landscape of granite kopjes, hidden valleys and vast, open swathes of savannah. The sense of space was overwhelming. Fortunately off-track driving is still allowed in this part of the Serengeti and we were able to roam freely.
Our spotter didn’t need tracking skills in such open country, but he could spot a cheetah’s ear at a thousand metres! However, none of his skills were needed today. As far as the eye could see were battalions of wildebeest that looked like locusts, pouring north towards the Masai Mara. I noticed that in among them were the stripy shapes of zebra, joining their comrades on this mighty endeavour. In the distance, from every direction and stretching to the horizon, I saw lines of animals, many in single file, all heading north.
We drove in among the wildebeest migration and soon we were completely surrounded. It was the most astonishing sensation: like being part of the herd. Everywhere was dust, the thud of hooves on earth, the whisper of legs brushing the long grass and always the insistent gnu-ing sound of the wildebeest, a soporific drone that numbed the mind. On and on we drove, deeper into a herd that seemed to have no beginning and no end. A sea of horn and hide, a sea of life!
‘Each year, more than two million animals make the great trek in a never-ending cycle to find water and grass,’ said Murunga, our guide, as he negotiated his way through the living throng.
Eventually, we emerged from the great herd of herbivores into open country. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed a tawny movement in the long grass. Lion! I tapped Murunga on the shoulder and pointed.
‘Yes, the wildebeest migration is always shadowed by predators and scavengers,’ he said. ‘The Serengeti is famous for its large lion population and many, many lion prides. But also hyena, and the more elusive cheetah and leopard – they all trail the migrating masses. Better keep your eyes peeled!’
We came to a tree festooned with birds. African white-backed and Rüppell’s vultures decorated the branches, awaiting their turn on the carcasses that dotted the plain. It was a powerful and sinister sight. One of the birds took off with a mighty beating of its wings, then others followed. A meal was clearly on the table, somewhere out there on the heaving plain.
Bringing up the rear of a group of wildebeest was a line of Thomson’s gazelle. Murunga explained that it wasn’t only scavengers and predators that trailed the wildebeest in their great trek. Although able to survive without drinking water if necessary, the small and compact Thomson’s gazelle follows the wildebeest in their quest for life-giving water and grazing.
Just then, there was a puff of dust to our left. I saw the blurry shape of a spotted cat hurtling towards the wildebeest. The creatures broke into a canter, then a gallop, as the cheetah closed with a group that had veered away. A baby was not keeping up with its mother. In a matter of seconds the big male cheetah had drawn level and tripped the animal up. The two creatures tumbled to the ground in a storm of billowing dust.
We stopped the vehicle and trained our binoculars on the spot. When the dust cleared, we saw the triumphant cheetah, his jaws clamped to the throat of the young wildebeest. For one cat, dinner was well and truly sorted.
The sun had begun to settle on the horizon, coating the land in a honeyed glow. We drew to a halt and climbed down from the 4×4. Murunga poured us G&Ts and handed out nibbles. We stood there staring at one of Africa’s great spectacles: a sea of migrating wildebeest bathed in the scarlet light of the setting sun. I had the feeling, just then, that luxury Tanzanian safaris couldn’t really get much better than this.