The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the natural world’s most astonishing phenomena. Each year, more than a million wildebeest do a loop of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara in search of fresh grazing. The Grumeti River crossing is one of the climaxes of this odyssey.
It was early June in the Serengeti. My partner and I had come Tanzania to see the Great Wildebeest Migration, one of most sublime spectacles in Africa.
We’d chosen a lodge close to the Grumeti River for our luxury Tanzanian safari, ideal for watching the migration. Its rustic yet elegant safari tents were tucked into the shade of an evergreen forest on the banks of a tributary of the Grumeti. Black and white colobus monkey chattered in the foliage and chased each other over the thatched roofs of our tented suite. A resident pod of hippo grunted and grumbled in the tranquil pool in front of us. It was simply idyllic.
On our first night, I woke in the early hours and heard the wildebeest approaching, a loud ‘gnu-ing’ sound, like a hive of bees. Now it was time to see them. We set off from camp after breakfast, heading straight for the Grumeti River. Both of us were thrilled at the prospect of witnessing a Grumeti River crossing.
‘The wildebeest are definitely massing!’ said Roger, our ranger, as we drove along the riverbank. I looked across the muddy water to where animals were starting to gather. It was a sea of dark hides, curved horns and shaggy beards. The air was filled with their loud honking. In the distance, from every direction and stretching to the horizon, I saw lines of wildebeest, many in single file, heading towards the river.
‘Each year, more than two million animals, mostly wildebeest, trek from Tanzania to Kenya and back again on a never-ending cycle to find water and grass,’ said Roger as we drew to a halt. ‘The climax of Africa’s greatest theatre piece is the fording of rivers like the Grumeti.’
Roger explained that the wildebeest have no natural leader and consequently the herds split up and head off in different directions. They meander all over the place and often choose a completely different direction to the day before. Therefore it’s best to imagine the Great Wildebeest Migration as one mega herd, surrounded by a number of smaller splinter herds.
We trained our binoculars and long lenses on the opposite bank. The animals were bunching along the edge, waiting for one of their number to take the plunge. It was a classic, National Geographic moment. Quivering bodies, indecision, terror. One brave animal stepped closer, sniffing the water. It looked right and left.
Suddenly, it leapt forward. More followed in a hail of splashing and noise. This river is not nearly as deep as the Mara in Kenya, and the banks not as steep, so the animals were quickly across and onto the other bank. In some places, they hardly got their hooves wet. But the relative ease of the Grumeti River crossing didn’t diminish the noise, the drama, the heady sensation that the spectacle induced.
Everywhere, wildebeest poured across the stream. The air was filled with dust, splashing mud and the animals’ uproarious gnu-ing. We watched the scene, dumbstruck and strangely elated.
The Grumeti River crossing had become a frenzy. I trained my long lens on the bodies and keep pressing the trigger, bagging some amazing shots. Animals were leaping from a high bank, some of them landing on the backs of others in a melee of writhing bodies.
A lone wildebeest had broken a leg and was struggling through the shallows. An enormous crocodile cruised into view, ready to take advantage of the stricken animal. The sinuous shape was all power and menace. I held my breath. With a mighty swish of the tail, it grabbed the wildebeest by the head and dragged it away. There was a moment of thrashing mud, flailing hooves and spraying water: then it was over. The other animals kept crossing, hardly noticing their slaughtered kin.
And still the ’beest kept coursing across the Grumeti, an unending flood of vibrant, striving life. It was sublime, thrilling … a sight I’ll never forget.
From the river, Roger then drove us to the nearby grasslands where wildebeest were happily grazing, having made a successful crossing. They stretched to the horizon, a battalion of blue-black bodies. All those thousands of mouths were munching away at the long grass.
‘Over the next few months, these herds will make their way north towards the Masai Mara in Kenya,’ he said. ‘It’s like a slow, beautiful tidal wave.’
By now, it was nearly lunch time. Where had the hours flown? We headed back to camp, our minds filled with images of flying wildebeest, of mud and blood and of high African drama.