Right now, at this very moment in time, as I write this blog piece, approximately 1.5 million wildebeest are preparing to kick-start the massive exodus through East Africa's arid plains in search of the rain-enriched fertile soil and green pastures of Kenya's Maasai Mara. A spectacle like no other in the world, this amazing vision is a feast for the senses, one that will bewilder and astound you like no other.
When to catch it is easy to determine… being able to catch it is quite another story altogether, with many tourists often complaining of missing the passage of wildebeest in a spot where they were assured they would be able to catch some of the action. This is precisely the aim of this post; to help you find the best way to follow the route, giving you the most chances of witnessing this jaw-dropping event, while staying in the best mobile accommodation that can get you close to the creatures in the most environmentally-responsible way without forgoing basic comforts.
Where to start – The Cycle of Life
The above words of this sub-title probably remind you of Elton's John's famous soundtrack for The Lion King, the Cycle of Life (if you watch Disney films, you'll know) and the African savannah is where it all comes to life with the annual wildebeest migration being the finest example of this.
Truth be told, the fact that that the wildebeest are in endless search for food means that the actual migration is an endless circle with no start and no end. All throughout the year, this species keep moving onwards in the relentless search for greener lands, food and water, following the rain patterns over the Serengeti and finally arriving to the Maasai Mara.
But one thing you must know, despite what the popular belief might be, is that the migration is not always a continuously moving forward motion, not all the time and not in every sense. Sometimes they go backwards and to the sides, they graze for long periods of time, they split up, join forces again, walk in a line, spread out or crowd around together. There's no real predictability or certainty as to where they will be and how they will move forward, they are based on instinct and weather patterns, which can change every year, so this means setting out a a margin of error is essential.
That said, it's not that difficult to actually catch them and where you start will actually depend on what you want to see most, because if you really wanted to follow the entire route you'll have to spend a year between Tanzania and Kenya, and as appealing as that sounds, most of us can't afford to be jobless for that long.
Your starting point will also depend on what time of year you travel, and there are definitely better times to do so than others, despite what many eco-lodges might claim. Your chances of spotting some of the migratory action are best and most spectacular between January through March and then again from July through October.
I must apologise in advance for the constant references to Disney's Lion King, but everything about the wildebeest migration takes me back there, I can't help it, sorry.
Breeding season at Tanzania's Serengeti – January to March
The best place to start your wildebeest migration route is the Serengeti National Park, where the wildebeest are actually based the majority of the time (three months of the year camping out, feeding and reproducing) and where, if they could choose, they would forever stay and never leave – but food is a necessity and when it runs out they must march on to find more.They are stationed here...
They are stationed here from the months of January through to March, getting nourishment from the fertile short grass valleys and birthing their young. Between January and March as many as 400,000 wildebeest are estimated to be born and thanks to this you might also be able to witness a few predators that take the opportunity of abundant and static prey that's virtually unmovable to hunt and feed. The concentration of herds around the verdant Ndutu and Salei plains is a sight that will take your breath away and one that also attracts a good number of cheetah, lions and hyena, so spotting those will surely be another plus.
During this season your best bet of accommodation are mobile camps as there are no permanent luxury properties or eco lodges in this area. One of the best is detailed below.
The Serengeti Halisi Park is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, eco-friendly mobile camps that follow the "Great Migration". It may not be big on luxury but who needs it when you're getting the most proximity to wildlife imaginable with zebras known to frequently visit the camps during this time of year. This mobile camp will really take you to the heart of the action and sightings of lions, visible right from the campsite are not rare, in fact just the lake views you'll be enjoying from your tent will be simply stunning. You cannot get a closer safari experience than at this fantastic camp where at night you'll be hearing the animals roar, howl and cry – a truly awesome experience no doubt!
Your ecological footprint will be minimal thanks to the use solar-powered facilities and while the accommodation is basic you won't be lacking in comfort. The tents are all mosquito-proofed, they provide double beds and you can have a warm bush shower whenever you want. What truly shines here is the friendly staff that is eager to accommodate to your every need, they'll guide you to your tent at night, prepare your bush shower whenever you request it with a warm smile on their face and serve truly delicious meals that cater to every diner (vegetarian options included).
At night you can enjoy campfires and gaze at the starlit sky, perhaps even remembering (if you're a Disney fan like me) the famous scene where Simba finds his deceased father Mufasa as a brightly shining constellation in the night sky, taking shape to comfort him in times of trouble and self doubt. During the day without having to move from your campsite you can observe as many awe-inspiring creatures approach your tent, from giraffes, to zebras and even elephants sometimes.
Arrival of the herds to Kenya's Maasai Mara - July to October
As the hungry and thirsty herds deplete food and water sources in the Grumeti River area (more about catching amazing river crossings further below) and the Western Corridor by the end of June, they start to move forward towards the northern Serengeti, arriving there sometime in July, the zebra first during early July and the massive troops of wildebeest some time later, towards the end of the month.The timings...
The timings, however, can never be 100 per cent accurate, as this largely depends on weather patterns that are susceptible to change every year. In a dry year, for example, you could find the first wildebeest arriving to the Mara River by early July, while in a wet year their arrival will most likely be delayed until mid-August, and in the case that conditions are exceptionally good, where there is plenty of water and food, herds will spread out from Seronera to the Mara River, so plenty of ground to cover for spotting them but this also means, smaller, more isolated groups that may be harder to find.
But in general terms, even when accounting for seasonal yearly variations, the wildebeest are found to typically reside in the Northern Serengeti and Maasai Mara from late July to mid-October, and with the dry season well under way you will most likely find the herds congregating near water sources, especially at the most reliable of permanent water sources in the region, the Mara River (also filled with hungry crocs, so not one for the weak at heart).
In Kenya's Maasai Mara you won't need to skimp on luxuries while supporting the local environment because this region is home to stunning private reserves and luxury wildlife camps, such as the Lewa Safari Camp, where Prince William famously proposed to Kate Middleton or the more rustic (and considerably less expensive) Porini Mara Camp.
I will now proceed to present you with what we believe are the top two eco-friendly options in Kenya's Maasai Mara region, with something for all budgets.
Karen Blixen Camp
The Karen Blixen Camp is the ultimate luxury eco-friendly camp right next to the Mara River, perfectly positioned to afford you undisturbed views over the water. Ideal for those seeking a touch of sophistication and relaxation, this eco lodge provides game drives as well as a resident in-house masseuse offering an extensive array of beauty and wellness treatments. So, if you want to fit active game-viewing with a little pampering, this is definitely the place.
The reason why this deluxe retreat scores points in the minimal carbon footprint agenda is thanks to the fact that all 22 spacious and luxurious canvas tents are powered by a solar panel system and battery storing back that provides 24-hour electricity throughout the camp as well as hot water. All tents are en-suite with private bathrooms and flushing toilets, they all feature a spacious veranda for taking in sweeping views along the Mara River and a romantic outdoor shower providing beautiful sky views.
Private game viewing is offered at the Oloololo Escarpment with its rich wildlife but what the Karen Blixen is famous for and truly excels at is its "arm-chair viewing" opportunities, which simply means that thanks to the tents being placed in the most stunning of river-facing locations, you'll be able to enjoy privileged views without having to ever move from the comfort of your chair. Even outside the Great Migration season, many of the area's resident hippos often frequent the area as do elephants, who come in dozens to playfully bathe in the water and guzzle down trunk-full gulps of water.
If a more frills-free approach doesn't put you off, on the lower end of the scale (but certainly not the lowest) we have the Matira Camp, that whilst more simple and modest, is not any less amazing as the experience it offers is a more authentic and raw one. Positioned right at the heart of the Maasai Mara wilderness, just minutes away from the wildebeest river crossing, right at the point where the Talek River meets the Mara River, the Matira is an exceptional place to be based at. Located on the banks of a small river, Matira's 10 spacious tents offer comfortable double or twin beds, a private veranda for uninterrupted wildlife viewing and an en-suite bathroom with hot water shower, a flushing toilet and sink unit.
Charming and rustic, for an even more eco-friendly and wild experience, Matira also offers the Matira Adventure Camp, which consists of 6 mobile bush camp tents with double beds or twin beds. These have no fixed plumbing and they use eco-toilets and bucket showers. Campfires are organised each night to make the authentic African living experience come to life, provide warmth and listen to the sounds of the wilderness. With an expert team made up of born and raised Maasai locals with extensive knowledge on the surrounding environment, its flora and fauna, at this camp you'll be made to feel right at home with no question left unanswered.
And when it comes to food you'll be just as well looked after, as the camp offers a full board option where meals are freshly prepared onsite by camp chefs and served under the starry skies. Exciting game drives are organised daily and for whole day trips the camp offers bush breakfasts and bush lunches. What more authentic (and environmentally responsible) way could there be to enjoy the real and raw Africa?
Seeing the herds in motion – best luxury lodges to catch river crossings
A few paragraphs above, in the previous section we were talking about how during July herds of wildebeest congregated near the Mara River, the most permanent reliable water source in this eco-system, but it is one thing to find them lazily grazing around the river, drinking or feeding, and quite another to catch a river crossing in full action. A gasp-drawing wildlife show like no other, you'll feel as though you're in the midst of a National Geographic documentary!
If you really want to catch the herds in frantic motion (much harder but nevertheless rewarding) than you have to head towards the two rivers where it all happens. When it comes to timing, if you really fancy witnessing a river crossing, your best bet is being in the Mara River between late August through late September. This is when your chances will be maximised.
However if you're based in one of the beautiful camps near the Grumeti River the best time to catch sightings of wildebeest roaming this area is during the month of June. This is when the herds head towards the river and where many hippos and large hungry crocodiles await their arrival.
Of course you must bear in mind that river crossings and re-crossings can occur anytime before and after this period. Also, the rivers are long and the areas covered by the wildebeest are vast and far apart sometimes so finding a group of crossers is not always guaranteed. The crossings are also often rapid, elusive experiences, so you really have to be looking out for them throughout your stay.
You also may not be aware (as many travellers aren't) that the Mara River is surrounded by Tanzania on both sides, which means only 20 per cent of it actually belongs to Kenya and as the Maasai Mara area is littered with accommodation and luxury lodges, to catch the best sightings, my suggestion would be to stay in one of the 11 safari lodges and camps in the northern Serengeti. More specifically the ones detailed below, which are both superbly located right next to river crossings.
Mara River – Singita Mara River (Tanzania)
Superbly located right next to the Mara River and its large number of hippos and crocodiles, this relaxed and eco-friendly camp retreat is the perfect eco-friendly, solar-powered base for eco-conscious travellers who like to mix game drives by day with a fine wine appreciation by night. The camp has an impressive 200 wine list but beyond the much-appreciated tipple, this place also boasts fantastic facilities that include a plunge pool. On the eco-friendly side the use recycled and natural materials wherever possible is evident, as is their "off their grid" philosophy where they rely entirely on a custom-designed solar system that allows them to eliminate unnecessary energy use.
With a strong passion for conservation and protecting wildlife's natural habitats, this camp collaborates closely with neighbouring communities so they are able to better self-sustain themselves and pass on the value of Arica's heritage to future generations. This is achieved through promoting education and independence.
Grumeti River – Serengeti Migration Camp (Tanzania)
Located right next to the Grumeti River, this panoramic camp is supremely placed to give you one of earth's most fabled wildlife spectacles. While you can enjoy regular game drives with picnics, cocktails and even hot air balloon rides (highly recommended for mind-blowingly spectacular birds-eye views of all the wildebeest action below).
As its names suggests, at this camp you're strategically positioned to enjoy the best of the "Great Migration" and catch some memorable moments. This is the place where high action seamlessly blends with low impact living thanks to the implementation of eco-friendly measures. Your tent here will be one of twenty, beautifully elevated and hidden amidst the rocky outcrops that look over the amazing plains and river. Seamlessly blending into the surroundings, each of the tents is enveloped by its very own 360-degree balcony from which you can enjoy breathtaking sightings of a number of marvellous animal species.
Luxury with consciousness – East Africa's fantastic eco lodges
There's a price tag for everything they say but you can't put a price on and preserving the environment you've so come to admire (and wish stays untouched for as much centuries as possible) and this is precisely why it's of utmost importance to choose lodgings that look after the local ecosystem. This is especially true for Africa, where most of the continent has managed to remain virtually untouched thanks to the many eco-conscious efforts in place. But to ensure the viewing pleasure of generations to come it should definitely remain this way and we should all do our bit in helping if we can.
Not too long ago, I wrote a blog piece on some of the best eco-friendly safari camps in Kenya. Taking on some of my own advice I researched to create this post on finding the most sustainable places to stay when following the Great Migration. The ones listed here are by no means the only ones, and the list is ever-growing with more and more travellers worrying about their carbon footprint and more eco-lodges springing up, but at least in this post I give you an idea of some of the best and what you can generally expect in this type of "wild" eco-friendly accommodation in the midst of nowhere.