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The Great African Migration: Where & When to Go on a Migration Safari

by Lystia Putranto

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If you’re planning to go on just one safari in your lifetime, it would have to be the Wildebeest Migration safari! Often dubbed as “The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth”, it is a definite must-see for lovers of wildlife & nature.

Known as the “Seven New Wonders of the World”, it is also regarded as the “World Cup” of wildlife. Spanning an impressive circular and scenic trek, it is the most spectacular and largest movement of animals.

Every year, over a million wildebeest and thousands of gazelles and zebras make their way to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya from one of the most well-known national parks on Earth to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, and back.

This spectacular odyssey is an iconic African experience, where travelers get a front row seat to witness a unique cycle of life.

Since this particular wildlife migration is renowned for being dynamic and unpredictable, here, we’re sharing a general guideline comprising of:

  • Where and when to see the Great Migration
  • What animals you’re likely to encounter
  • The different ways of how to observe them
  • And what you would need to pack to best enjoy this spectacle.

 

First things first 

zebras and wildebeest in the serengeti

 

As mentioned above, before you go on a migration safari, it’s important to understand that the exact timing of the animals’ movement is difficult to predict. As it’s a dynamic and ever-changing event, many travelers that have observed this migration more than once would agree that no two years unravel the same way.

That said, it has been established that the weather or more specifically, the amount of rainfall in the Serengeti region is an influential element of the migration. For example, if rainfall is scarce and sources of food and water are depleted more rapidly than usual this year, the animals may make their move earlier than expected. 

As the migration cycle takes a full year to complete, you can technically catch a glimpse of it throughout the year. However, since the animals migrate across a huge distance, some things that you may be hoping to see such as the mass birthing of calves or the river crossing occur only during specific months and regions.

The animals of the Great Migration

The Great Migration is, by far, the greatest mass movement of land mammals on the entire Earth. Please note that the image above shows an estimate number of each animals migrating each year and the months and location depend on the condition of the seasons. For the most actual timing of the Great Migration, please inquiry with your organizer during the year.

Here’s a list of the species (as well as the estimated # of each migrating each year) that you are likely to encounter:

  • Wildebeest - 1.5 million
  • Zebra - 500 thousand
  • Grant’s Gazelle - 250 thousand
  • Thompson’s Gazelle - 200 thousand
  • Eland - 18 thousand
  • Impala - 10 thousand

 

The Great Migration in Tanzania (Serengeti)

the great migration in serengeti

When to see the Great Migration in the Serengeti? 

  • December – March: If you’d like to observe large populations of wildebeest, look no further than their home, the Serengeti plains. Here, you will also be able to spot other grazing animals such as zebras and gazelles that are often found migrating alongside the wildebeest. The January – March period is usually when the mass birthing of wildebeest calves takes place. As calves make easy victims for predators, you will also likely to find an abundance of lions, hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs lurking nearby.
  • April – May: Depending on the amount of rainfall the region receives, groups of animals may already be making their moves to migrate west and north of the Serengeti to seek for greener plains and woodland. Heavy rainfall often makes it difficult to follow the movement of the animals as the roads become very muddy and tricky to navigate. Hence, these months may not the ideal time to go.
  • Late May – Early July: This period is usually when the Great Migration begins and the western Serengeti makes the best location to observe the movement. As rainfall stops, the animals start moving to the north and join other herds, forming a much larger herd. It is also considered the wildebeest’ usual mating season.
  • July: At some point during this month, the herd is likely to have reached one of the migration’s biggest obstacles – The Grumeti River, which the animals would have to cross to continue their journey to Kenya. Crossing this river can be dramatic and presents a huge challenge thanks to its depth as well as the abundance of crocodiles. As it is a highly risky crossing, some may fall prey to the river and/or predators and would not make it to the other side. 

Want to learn more about the Serengeti? Check out our guide to visiting Serengeti National Park.


 

The Great Migration in Kenya (Masai Mara)

 

the great migration in masai mara

 

When to see the famous river crossing in Kenya? 

  • July – August: Once they’ve successfully crossed the river, the animals would continue their journey to the north towards Kenya’s Lamai Wedge and The Mara Triangle. Before reaching their final destination, they would need to make another dangerous river crossing at The Mara river where more crocodiles and other predators await them.
  • September – November: By this time, the herds would have reached the lush Masai Mara plains. Here, you’ll find a plethora of wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles happily grazing, under the watchful eyes of their predators. If you’re looking to spot lots of wildlife species during one trip, we highly advise for you to go during this period.
  • November – December: As the rain starts to fall in Tanzania, the herds will begin to make their long journey back home to the Serengeti.  

How to see the Great Migration

balloon over the serengeti

Because of the regional knowledge needed to plan such a trip, it is recommended to go on an organized Great Migration safari, which is tailor-made for this exact type of experience.

There is a wide range of options to choose from to suit your needs and wallet. From short budget safaris to the traditional jeep safaris and the extravagant hot air balloon safaris, you will be immersed in Africa’s wild side and catch a unique glimpse into the life of these spectacular animals.

If you are headed to Serengeti National Park, consider staying in a mobile camp. They are unique to this park and follow the migration of the animals.

Depending on the type of safari you will choose, transfers to/from the airstrips or even large airport may be included. The same goes for meals. Insurance and international flights are never included so make sure to plan accordingly.

What to pack on a Great Migration Safari

watching the great migration

Now that you know all about the Great Migration, you’re probably wondering what you should pack for your Great Migration adventure. This would vary greatly depending on the length of time you’re planning to spend on safari, as well as other factors such the time of year you plan to travel and whether or not you’re traveling with kids.

To get the most out of the migration, it is recommended to spend a minimum of a week in your chosen region. This time will not only allow you to settle into the new environment but will also give you a good enough time to see the action without feeling jet-lagged and exhausted from travel.

Here is just a quick list of things to make sure you include when getting ready to experience the Great Migration:

  • Sun Screen and lip balm: Remember that, even though you’re chasing the rain, the African sun is harsh and being sunburned while on safari can really dampen the experience.
  • Binoculars: You might have 20 - 20 vision, but you probably won't be close enough to see all the subtle yet exciting moments.
  • A camera: This is a more obvious one. If you happen to spot a lion stalking its prey, this is a moment you’re definitely going to want to remember. If you carry a DSLR, a Tele lens and a wide-angle lens are a must for wildlife photography.
  • A soft backpack: This is essential for storing all of your personal items. You want something that is lightweight and takes up minimal space as safari vehicles may have limited capacity for luggage.
  • Non-prescription medication: It is not fun to get sick while traveling. So stay a step ahead of potential problems and pack pain relievers, antidiarrheals, antihistamines, and motion sickness pills.
  • Something warm to wear: One of the most common misconceptions is that when you’re traveling to Africa, it will always be hot. Sure, it is pretty hot over here and there are days where temperatures can reach up to 40C / 104F. But, in nature, there is always balance. The hotter days can often transform into icy nights, so it is important to pack a light jersey/jumper with you.

Looking for more great safari options? Why not book a safari in Tanzania

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