The greatest show on Earth

As millions of wildebeest and zebra throng Kenya’s Masai Mara this month on their vast migration, we reveal how to experience the world’s most impressive wildlife spectacle.

GreatMigrationAs the first pink rays of dawn lick the flanks of the rocky escarpment to the west, you begin to understand how the Masai Mara got its name. In the Maa language, ‘Mara’ means ‘spotted’ – and the plains below your lofty balloon basket are speckled with countless animals. Or perhaps speckled is wrong: they’re striped – with a vast procession of wildebeest snaking through the savannah, accompanied by more stripes in the form of zebra. From your viewpoint hundreds of feet above, they look more like a column of ants – tens of thousands of them trundling north and east, grazing as they move.

In the distance you make out another snake: the Mara River, winding south towards Tanzania. A bottleneck is forming at its edge, wildebeest bunching as they steel their nerves to brave the gauntlet of crocodiles. Yesterday you watched as they shifted warily at the western bank till one could hold back no longer and plunged into the seething water, followed by its companions – and they splashed, swam and grunted their way across. At least, most did: some perished in the melée, drowned as they panicked and jockeyed for the fastest route across, while still more were picked off by the huge reptiles.

Whether seen from on high or close-up, the migration is nature in the raw, red in tooth and claw. This month, wildebeest mass on the plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve, where rains have nurtured the lush grass that draws the herbivores here each year. This guide provides the details you need to experience the migration for yourself.

The cast
Central to the performance is the blue wildebeest, a large grey-brown antelope looking rather like a cow-horse hybrid, with a shaggy mane and wrinkled flanks. Estimates of numbers in the migration vary, and rise or fall depending on factors including rainfall levels, but 1.5 million is considered a conservative figure. The column is bolstered by some 500,000 Thomson’s gazelle and 200,000 plains zebra.

But that’s just the animals on the move. Plenty more live in the Mara year-round. Predators, unlike the wildebeest, don’t migrate but stake out home territories where they feast when the migration arrives. Several hundred lions live in and around the reserve, with big prides including the Marsh Pride of the Musiara Swamp, made famous by the BBC series Big Cat Diary. Leopards, those most elusive of nocturnal hunters, materialise from the riverine forests, and cheetahs stalk the savannah – the image of this lithe sprinter atop a termite mound is iconic. African wild dogs went extinct in the area some time ago, but sightings of ‘painted wolves’ have been reported around the reserve in recent years.

Watching a lion kill is unforgettable, but the power of an attack by spotted hyenas isn’t to be underestimated; often unfairly maligned, these charismatic creatures hunt in packs based in clan dens. You’re also likely to spot black-backed jackal, and other scavengers also abound – marabou storks and vultures are on hand to polish off wildebeest carcasses.

The Masai Mara is home to all of the Big Five: as well as lion and leopard, there are buffalo, elephant and black rhino, though heavy poaching in the 1970s and ‘80s saw numbers of the latter plummet; today, perhaps 30 survive. Watch out for giraffe, hippo, impala, eland and numerous other antelopes. Birdlife is abundant: you’re guaranteed to see the vividly coloured lilac-breasted roller and little bee-eater, as well as ostrich, hornbills and countless other species.

The stage
Though spanning 1510 sq km, Masai Mara National Reserve is just part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem stretching south into Tanzania, whose border is also the southern boundary of the Mara. But there are no fences: wildebeest and other species are free to roam as far as their appetites take them, straying north and east of the reserve itself. Bear in mind that the Mara is far from just savannah. Though grassland is what attracts and nourishes the wildebeest and their companions, the variety of habitats here – acacia and riparian woods, thicketed hills and rocky kopjes, marshes – provide ample homes for diverse animal species.

Here’s an overview of the Mara and some of the best camps and safari experiences:

The reserve is bordered to the northwest by the Oloololo Escarpment; the Mara River flows broadly south, meeting the Talek River – which runs east-west – in the reserve’s central-west. These physical features divide the reserve into three sectors.

The Sekenani sector, southeast of the confluence of the two rivers, is most easily accessible by road and therefore busiest, with the highest tourist numbers; it’s here you’re most likely to share a lion or cheetah encounter with other vehicles.

Basecamp Masai Mara (www.basecampkenya.com) is actually just outside the reserve, but its game drives are taken across the river in the Sekenani sector. It’s an acclaimed eco-camp with an impeccable green pedigree.

The central sector, a wedge-shaped patch bounded by the Mara and Talek Rivers to the south, and western sector, between the Mara River and the Oloololo Escarpment, are both quieter, but with fabulous game.
Governors’ Camp (www.governorscamp.com) and its sister sites, Little Governors’ Camp and Il Moran Camp, are set in the northwest, near the Mara river and Musiara Swamp – Jonathan Scott was based at Governors’ when he began studying the Marsh Pride of lions that inspired the first of the BBC’s series Big Cat Diary.

Sentinel Mara Camp (http://sentinelcamp.com) is nearby, a small, seasonal eco-camp in a riverside forest near the swamp. Rekero Camp (http://rekero.asiliaafrica.com) sits near the confluence of Mara and Talek, with opportunities for watching wildebeest crossing the river. Mara Siria Camp (www.mara-siria-camp.com) is perched on the Oloololo Escarpment, with terrific views. Mara Toto Camp (www.greatplainsconservation.com), set in a bend in the Ntiakitiak River, has access to both the main reserve and the Mara North Conservancy nearby.

A number of Maasai landowners have combined holdings to create conservancies to the north and east of the Mara, where private camps lease concessions. Many of these provide wonderful game viewing with a degree of exclusivity: while visitors staying in conservancies can take game drives in the reserve, the reverse is not always true. In addition, night drives and bush walks are possible in conservancies, but not permitted inside the reserve.

Another consideration is the smaller, less-known migration that occurs each May, when perhaps 200,000 wildebeest and zebra arrive from the Loita Hills north-east of the main reserve. This migration traverses the Mara North and Naboisho Conservancies – a spectacle in itself, and fodder for dense predator populations.
Mara North Conservancy is north of the reserve, with the Mara River along its western flank. Covering some 320 sq km, it hosts a number of lion prides. Two small, intimate properties here are Kicheche Mara Camp (http://kicheche.com) and Offbeat Mara Camp (www.offbeatsafaris.com). Also here are the Mara and Acacia Bush Houses (http://marabushhouses.asiliaafrica.com), offering exclusivity and flexibility to tailor your own safaris.

Southeast of Mara North is Olare Motorogi Conservancy, noted for its strong conservation ethos and small camp sizes – as well as excellent game-viewing, particularly predators. The four properties operating here are Kicheche Bush Camp (http://kicheche.com), Porini Lion Camp (www.porini.com), Mara Plains Camp (www.greatplainsconservation.com) and Topi Bush House (http://marabushhouses.asiliaafrica.com).

Next along to the east is Naboisho Conservancy, home to plenty of elephants and giraffes as well as dozens of lions; wild dogs have been spotted, and it’s on the Loita migration route. Options include Kicheche Valley (http://kicheche.com), Naboisho Camp (http://naboisho.asiliaafrica.com) and the new Eagle View Camp (www.basecampkenya.com).

Ol Kinyei Conservancy is northeast of Naboisho, so does not directly border the Mara – but wildlife-watching is good, and guided bush walks are excellent. The only camp is Porini Mara (www.porini.com), with a strong community ethos.

Some safari outfits offer fly-camping, providing a more solitary and immersive experience. A new option is the Nomadic Mobile Camp (http://nomadic.asiliaafrica.com), which relocates throughout the seasons to various hotspots within the reserve or conservancies.

Most camps offer additional experiences, the most romantic being a sunrise balloon ride, usually ending with a champagne breakfast. Specialist photographic courses are popular, with renowned wildlife photographers providing tuition. Painting is another way of learning to see the Mara; UK-based specialist Art Safari (http://artsafari.co.uk) runs tours.

When, where, what…
The migration of some two million ungulates across the 24,000 sq km Serengeti ecosystem is a broadly circular rotation, running clockwise – but not like clockwork: changes in rainfall and other factors can affect timings or even disrupt the migration more significantly. In most years, though, the sequence of events runs thus. Towards December, the short rains have produced rich grazing in the short-grass plains in the south of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. By January, the wildebeest herds have arrived to feed, and in February they give birth in a mass synchronised event over a two or three-week period. Gradually spreading across these plains, from April the wildebeest start moving north-west to cross the Grumeti River around June. Over the next month or so, the herd may split but generally moves north, with many animals crossing into the Masai Mara in July or August, grazing on the lush grass that’s sprouted after the long rains in April and May. It’s here that they cross and re-cross the Mara River. In October the wildebeest head south, back towards the Serengeti’s short-grass plains to start the cycle again.

Local view
The migration and me
Jackson Looseyia, Maasai guide:
“In June the Masai Mara looks empty. With just a few topi and elephants on the plains, our lion prides will be struggling to get food: they either adopt the most dangerous option – taking down buffalo – or risk losing a cub.But in July it changes. First we see wattled starling arriving, then one or two small groups of zebras – then, finally, the mass of wildebeest, flowing over the boundary between Kenya and Tanzania, and the action really starts. This is my favourite moment each year: following our prides as they hunt to provide meals for their cubs who by then are near starvation.”

Jonathan Scott, writer, photographer, conservationist and TV broadcaster
“After nearly 40 years on safari in what I consider to be the finest wildlife sanctuary in the world, I still feel an exquisite sense of anticipation and excitement at this time of the year when the Mara welcomes back the throng of grunting, braying wildebeest and zebras to its rolling grassy plains.
The herds make repeated sweeps across the grasslands, mowing down the red oat grass that has grown tall during the long rains. At home in Nairobi we listen for word from the ‘bush telegraph’ – the network of tour drivers and safari guides who anxiously enquire about the whereabouts of the wildebeest and pass on their findings to us.”