It is known, the pastpattern has shown, that the energetic, mooing, dust raising wildebeest migration trains arrive in Masai Mara anytime from the month of June to July. This year, heeding the call, the migrating stars did not dilly dally. From the first week of June, the world did not have to wait any longer than necessary having booked the best seat to the annual spectacular show.
I had not witnessed the first 2016 wildebeest migration arrivals, but, driving to Masai Mara a week after they arrived, it was with the certainty that one of the wonders of the world waited and would be there until the month of October/November, when they leave the Mara for the Serengeti National Park.
Our plan had been to check-in to our hotel before going on a game drive. As it was, this did not happen without a wildebeest experience first. We had to make our way through thousands of grazing wildebeest accompanied by hundreds of zebra. There was no way they could have been somewhere out of the way to be found out by us later. Close to 2 million of these migrating partners arrive in Masai Mara.
Day 2: Waking early, the bush greeting was a sneak peek at a sunrise that was unceremoniously covered by the clouds. The wildebeest river crossing was on our minds. The Masai Mara can treat you to a variety. One evening and one morning there and the big cats especially kept coming to find us. Two female lions started the day with a morning hunt; one going after the prey – a zebra, while the other watched against the balloon safaris underway in the dawn sky.
We checked into/checked under a balanite tree for our picnic breakfast. The Masai Mara plains offered us pictures galore; the plains game, the wildebeest grazing, then the wildebeest at the river bank showing every sign – the itch to descend into the water and cross over. The waiting began. We took position – the best place to view them across the river. We waited. We waited until we had to drive back to the hotel for lunch.
The immense congregation of close to 2 million wildebeest otherwise known as gnu does not all arrive in the Mara at the exactly the same time. The routes taken by the herds may vary from season to season but the general pattern remains the same. There are those that arrive from the Loita plains adjacent to Masai Mara. When the wildebeest are in the Serengeti National Park between the months of December to May, they calf within the same period. Their mating and birthing is synchronized. At that time, there is good grass in Serengeti. It is when the grass dries that the wildebeest begin moving west in Serengeti (from the south east where they first settle) – and then northwards to the Masai Mara, arriving after the long rains season with thousands of young ones.
Day 3: Leaving our hotel after breakfast, we took packed lunch with us ready to set base at a crossing point. Sometimes it needs patience to witness a wildebeest river crossing. The gnu come to a “crossing decision” faster where the banks are worn. Where there is steepness, they linger longer before taking the brave plunge in.
The male lion we saw fast asleep, hearing us, ignoring us, tummy ballooned, and the motionless nile crocodiles on the Mara river banks were telling that as Masai Mara feeds the wildebeest, the wildebeest feed Masai Mara. The vultures were busy all over the place, following the migration, cleaning out the carcasses both on the plains and in the river.
The drive to the river side got us passing a herd of about 200 buffaloes. The gregarious wildebeest had set the trend and everything else followed suit. Including the big number of safari vehicles on both sides of the river waiting like us for that spectacular crossing moment. As the morning hours turned to noon, we decided to have our lunch in the vehicle. Moving away would mean losing our strategic position. 1:30pm – the river crossing began and did not stop for the next one hour. That was how large the herd was – crossing, breaking, crossing…2:40pm and we agreed that we had seen enough for the day -captured enough on camera.
Forward a few weeks later, I was back in Masai Mara for a long consecutive stay there. A fortnight with two different Africa Getaway tour groups. The play in the wild had only got better. The 396 km long Mara river meanders across the Masai Mara National Reserve and the greater Mara. The wildebeest, having to go either way of the river offered us 11 massive river crossings on this trip. Chases, captures, feastings, we witnessed, and photographed to our fill – also prizing the moment an African rock python consumed a Thompson’s gazelle. The young of the wildebeest fell to predators over and over. Aside from them, the hunters still hunted the usual herbivores.
What Masai Mara presented in the wildebeest migration season rings in the words of our tour leader/tour planner on this safari – professional international photographer Ashish Parmar, of Ashish Parmar Photography Tours (African Getaway Tours), who has many times visited Masai Mara - his favorite park in Kenya. Of the last day of the safari he said, “I can easily say that today I have made some of the best images in my 15 years of wildlife photography.” Plenty said there about Kenya’s jewel in the crown.