Going Places: The great wildebeest migration

Going Places: The great wildebeest migration

Life-and-death scenes are now multiplying up and down the river: animals plunging into the turbulence, then striking out urgently for the far bank: some landing on top of others … some drowning with broken limbs … some dragged beneath the surface in the jaws of lurking crocs.

By John Cooney

If you’ve never been on a Wild African Safari you probably can’t imagine what a ‘game-drive’ is like. Simply put, it’s where the unforgettable, eye-popping, heart-stopping moments occur. It’s what people go to Africa for …

At least once a day, early morning while it’s still dark or mid-afternoon when the land is cooling down, we pile into our waiting 4WDs and bounce off along the dirt roads that criss-cross East Africa’s wildlife parks.

The roofs are up, allowing us to stand for better photos. And lurching over the rugged terrain is part of the fun. Our qualified drivers are a goldmine of information – plus they’ve got amazing eyesight, picking up clues that we can’t see even with binoculars.

Photos don’t tell the whole story. You have to be there to really appreciate the grasslands that stretch to the horizon, the constant movements and sounds and smells, the silence when time stands still, and the hold-your-breath excitement. 

Sometimes the wildlife is all around you, and a game-drive produces a Noah’s Ark of sightings. But other times you’ve gotta go looking for it – because these reserves are endless, and the animals like to stay hidden. Often the first clue that “something’s out there” is a tiny upright shape in the far-off distance (a lightning-fast cheetah looking for lunch?) … or a shadow in the long grass (a mighty lion stalking his prey?) … or a tail hanging down in a tree (a shy leopard having siesta?) … or a suddenly panicked herd (an ambush underway?) … 

And you never know what else is waiting, just around the corner! A grumpy buffalo, eager to charge … a fat hippo, lethally dangerous but looking like it couldn’t get out of its own way … a long-necked giraffe, nibbling sweet shoots from the tallest acacia tree … a short-sighted rhino, rumbling across the savanna … a hyena lurking in the undergrowth, ugly-as but powerful … a family of elephants, mums, aunts and playful babies, with a bachelor bull grazing nearby … ever-alert antelopes and gazelles, ready to leap away at the first sniff of danger! 

Our wake-up call comes at 5:45am. And, as we scramble into our clothes, it suddenly registers: today could be The Day! 

Kenya’s famous Masai Mara game reserve – and Tanzania’s much-larger Serengeti – are centre-stage for the most dramatic wildlife show on earth: the legendary Great Migration of vast herds of wildebeests and zebras. 

Obeying an instinct so strong that no drought or gorge or crocodile-infested river can hold them back, some three million animals go walkabout – a once-a-year trek from Tanzania to Kenya and back again. Last week, in the Serengeti, we’d seen them warming up, their grunting and yipping filling the air. Spread like locusts over the plains, they flood northwards … single-file in endless lines or galloping every-which-way … lured by nature’s promise of rain and green grass. 

Most of them are spindly, bearded wildebeest – with stripey zebras scattered throughout. And at times we were surrounded: animals thick on the ground, stampeding recklessly in front of our vehicles, dust everywhere, and the grunting that drones on all night. 

A truly amazing spectacle, it must seem like Meals on Wheels to hungry predators … 

Our game-drive this morning takes us to the fast-flowing Mara River where, fingers crossed, we might witness the climax of Africa’s Great Migration. Will it happen today? Will we be in the right place at the right time? 

Parking at a likely lookout, we train our cameras on the river below. And, several hours later, we’re still there, mesmerised, unwilling to leave. 

The animals are massing along the muddy banks, desperate to cross, but scared to go first. Finally, one brave volunteer leaps into the current pursued by hundreds more in a frenzy of splashing and kicking. 

Life-and-death scenes are now multiplying up and down the river: animals plunging into the turbulence, then striking out urgently for the far bank: some landing on top of others … some drowning with broken limbs … some dragged beneath the surface in the jaws of lurking crocs.

It’s brutal. Hard to watch. Hard not to. But the majority make it safely across, scrambling up the other side and rushing off on the next leg of their endless trek. 

There are moments that grab our emotions. A baby zebra makes it to the far bank, but keeps slipping back into the water. Heart-in-mouth, we watch as three crocs torpedo towards the thrashing youngster. Frantic now, it swims to an even steeper section of the bank, slipping down again. Then, chased by the crocs, it disappears up a narrow channel – and, silently, we assume the worst.

But, moments later, our plucky little hero is spotted clambering up the bank … standing finally at the top on tired, shaky legs.

You should’ve heard us cheer!