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Life and death in the Serengeti

The great Serengeti wildebeest migration might be the world’s biggest game of follow the leader.


Sometimes, nature is unbelievably clever. Other times, not so much. If I could speak wildebeest – which is a kind of mooing but with a side of honk – I’d ask one of them: why do you just blindly follow your friends across a river when you can see the massive crocs just waiting to snap up one of you for a snack?

The answer would be that it’s just instinct, and thanks to that instinct, these animals play follow the leader and end up at a buffet of feeding grounds that mean they, and the land, regenerate and thrive.

We’re in Tanzania, staying in the Nasikia Kaskaz Mara safari camp in the northern Serengeti. Maasai for “endless plains”, the Serengeti covers a massive 14,763 square kilometres that spills over into Kenya’s Maasai Mara.

Since flying into an airstrip in the middle of nowhere, we’ve been on a living, breathing David Attenborough wildlife documentary – minus David. We’ve seen lions so close we could spot the specks in their gorgeous eyes. We’ve seen a leopard dozing in a tree, giraffes popping up from behind trees to say hi, elephant herds rounding up their playful babies, impalas and topi antelopes. Then, there are the wildebeest. So many wildebeest.

Our guide, Henry Akeyo, gives us the stats. About 1.5 million wildebeest – also known as white-bearded gnu – along with 200,000 zebras circle north from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area chasing the rains. When they mow down the grass where they are, they move further north, chowing down on more rain-fed greenery until they reach the northern Serengeti, which is sustained by the mighty Mara River. Once here, they eat, and in turn are eaten by the big cats who also thrive during what is a mega-ship sized buffet at this time of year. When the grass supplies thin out, around November, the inner voice of the wildebeest tells them to head south again, to the Seronera and then Ndutu and Ngorongoro, where the grasses have grown once more.

At the crossroads

We’re in the north in mid-October and Henry wants us to witness a crossing, so we mosey on over the Mara River. We check one crossing point, but we’ve missed the show, and all we see is a pair of crocs working together to eat a wildebeest who lost the river-crossing lottery.

We drive on and follow a loping mob. The tempo increases, and soon they’re running, kicking up a whirling dervish of dust that coats everything in its path, including us. Henry gets the word on the radio that they’re amassing at crossing point number six.

We pull up on the bank and then one of the animals decides to take the plunge. The floodgates open and the moving tide of velvet-sided wildebeest surges with a sense of great urgency. With limited access between an island of boulders in the centre of the river, they all push and shove like crowds at the Boxing Day sales. I worry for those on the sides as I see a huge crocodile mere centimetres away, jaw open, just waiting for that one chance. I look behind and there are thousands more pushing for their turn to cross. We watch, and marvel and worry, and keep watching, thinking how lucky we are to be here to witness this animal phenomenon.

But don’t think it’s all about the wildebeest. During our days on safari, we bump and grind through different landscapes in the early mornings and late afternoons, heads spinning like meerkats as we see so many animals and birds from the open-sided vehicle. We witness a lion pride hunt and kill, see cheetahs chomping, hippos wallowing and a serval snacking on a cobra. In between, we relax at the camp in our luxurious tents, or in the bar, chatting to other guests and comparing stories. We watch the sunset around a campfire and see the sun rise over the landscape through the tent flaps.

Nature really is incredible, and seeing this circle of life in living, crunching colour is an experience you’re not likely to forget. l

Fact File

In over one million years, little has changed in the Serengeti – the animals, plants and waterways are much the same as they were back then.

Zebras also join the 1.5 million wildebeest on their migration, though in far smaller numbers.

Do it yourself

To experience the Great Wildebeest Migration in the north, visit between August and October. You can see river crossings on the Grumeti River and the Mara. Another popular time is January-February in the southern areas when the wildebeest have up to 300,000 babies. The babies are on their feet in minutes and can run in five, which is necessary to allow them to escape predators.

Kaskaz Mara Camp is part of Nasikia Camp. They have several other camps in the Serengeti from where you can witness the migration, including Ehlane Plains in the Seronera.;