The great wildebeest migration, the Serengeti crossing, the greatest natural phenomenon on earth …. it’s been written about, filmed and photographed so many times over and over. This exhilarating experience was on our bucket list for a long time and finally we made it happen in August 2018.
This was my second trip to the Maasai Mara (earlier one being in May 2013) yet the beauty of the grasslands does leave you breathless each time! Since we were short of time, we took the Air Kenya flight from Nairobi which made 5 stops (not airports, just airstrips in the grass) before we reached Mara North in the Lemek Conservancy.
“Jambo!” We were warmly greeted at the Mara River Lodge. As the name suggests it is located right on the river, perfect for bird photography but not the place to see the crossing as it is along the northern part of the Mara River. I had been actively tracking the herds on Herdtracker every day since mid July and they were still a 100 km away.
One could sit and enjoy watching 5 families of hippo frolicking in the water and basking in the sun here. But we had to get to where the real action was. So after a quick cup of fine Kenyan brewed coffee whilst our lunch boxes were being packed, we jumped into the van on our quest to witness the migration.
It was long game drive, 3 hours to reach the river and a lot of game to be seen en route. Thompson’s gazelles, herds of elephants, towering giraffes, topis, elands and many more animals grazing in the vast grasslands.
As we got closer to the Southern part of the Mara river, the excitement and anticipation surged, the search for the wildebeests and the river crossing point escalated. We spotted a big crocodile and some hippos peacefully basking in the sun.
But where were the wildebeests? They don’t seem to be crossing here. We asked every safari van driver that passed by if they had seen anything. Finally one of them said “Oh yes! They were crossing at point no. 5 one hour ago, but it would be over now! ” Point no. 5 ….where is that? It doesn’t show on Google maps. Our driver seemed to know about it but he was reluctant to drive that far. Well, we weren’t here to see Northern Lights so we just urged him on. A few kilometres later what do we see ? Suddenly we were engulfed by herds and herds of wildebeests till the horizon. They came in hundreds, then thousands and then a few more thousands until all we could see was a massive grey-black sea of wildebeests.
Moving the safari van slowly along the rugged path was a task with the big wildebeests grunting on either side and little ones scampering around. We managed to reach the river by 3 pm but were greatly disappointed to only see the evidence of the crossing by virtue of carcasses of the ones who never made it submerged in the river and hovering vultures.
For the next couple of hours we drove along the river bank that was completely was packed with wildebeests. Would they cross again? Would the lions attack them as food was certainly present in abundance? We hopefully hovered along the bank along with at least another 30 vans, each vying for the best spot to sight the action.
Suddenly out of nowhere one of the vans spotted him; the king of the jungle enjoying his afternoon siesta in the grass. He was woken up by the sounds of the safari vans or the scurrying animals and looked around to the survey his prey.
Seeing a large herd so close by he started walking towards us, then walked right past our van and disappeared …not to be see for a few minutes. We were waiting with bated breath trying to figure out where he was …..and there he was crouching right behind our rear wheel waiting to spring an attack on the weakest of the beasts.
He darted out and started chasing the herd at lightning speed, while they ran deeper into the bushes seeking shelter. Whether the lion grabbed his dinner or not we really could not see as our of the blue (and green) there was a huge cloud of dust that arose as the herd clamoured west towards the river bank; the leader of the pack contemplating crossing again to get away from the lion on this side maybe.
River crossings are considered the highlight of the spectacle. Sometimes a herd may reach the river and then hang out on its banks for days, frustrating the crocodiles and tourists alike. But once it begins, its a sight to behold. Few other sights would be second to them for the sheer drama and adrenaline surge they create amongst those fortunate to witness them in a lifetime.Would the vile crocodiles lurking in the murky waters capture in its jaws the brave animal that jumped in first? Would the animals be able to scramble up the slippery river bank? Would weak or injured wildebeest be able to swim across at all? All cameras were poised in every safari van on both the banks to capture every second of these thrilling events.
We witnessed this for the next one hour, loads of wildebeests and a few zebras as well scrambling down the slope of the banks, hurtling through the shallow waters. They had picked a safe spot and there didn’t seem to be any villains in the water here. That’s the first question everyone asked me when I got back and I replied that I wasn’t crestfallen that I had not seen the wildebeests fall prey to the crocodiles. In fact I was feeling propitious to have witnesses the survival of the fittest.
The beautiful pattern made by the silvery grey animals on the banks as they ascended on the opposite side to safety will remain etched in my mind forever. I was rooting for these brave forerunners, and did witness a few heart-breaking moments when an animal broke a hind leg trying to climb the bank or lost its precarious grip and fell down onto others, injuring them all. This is what made the Migration a true spectacle – the ecstasy and the agony of survival, unedited, unfiltered, in raw true life.
We had beat the odds a few times here… normally the crossing doesn’t happen twice in a day, and not towards sunset. So we were feeling truly lucky as we headed back to the hotel.
Humming this song on my way back as the sun set over the grasslands….
“Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart
Live free and beauty surrounds you
The world still astounds you
Each time you look at a star”
Photo Credits : Dr Jaydeep Palep