Bushtracks guest blogger and Africa travel expert David Bristow offers some good reasons why you may want to schedule your Serengeti migration safari for February or March: when people are few, and wildlife babies plentiful.
There is little doubt the Serengeti is Africa’s pre-eminent wildlife icon: hordes of wildebeests and zebras flowing like a biological flood across the grass serengit (endless plains), pursued equally endlessly by predators, on the land, from the air and even in the water.
The focal point of all this action is when the great migration reaches the Mara River that separates Tanzania in the south from Kenya in the north, the Serengeti from the Masai Mara National Park. The river’s high banks form a dangerous obstacle, where lions and hyenas wait for broken legs and lost young, while enormous Nile crocodiles await the twice-annual windfall – the migrating animals literally flying into their open jaws.
No-one would dispute the awesomeness of the event. However, the migration is now followed by such an unruly mass of jostling, barging game-drive vehicles carrying hundreds and thousands of camera-clicking tourists, virtually climbing over one another, to get the picture: buy a book, I tell them, the pictures will be much better than yours.
Anyways, it has got to such an unsustainable flood that the barrier of vehicles that now block the opposite bank, depending on the direction of the migration, has progressed, or regressed, from annoying to downright dangerous. So unscrupulous have the drivers become, egged on by their passengers, to “get the shot” that it has started to have seriously negative impacts on the timid animals that have to cross that treacherous river in order to survive for the next great cycle of nature’s most impressive wildlife show.
I cannot bear it any longer so I just don’t go. Which is not to say I have crossed off the Serengeti from my must-see places in Africa. It’s just that, when the migration heads north, I head south to a specific region of the ecosystem called Ndutu. It falls inside the Ngorongoro protected area, not the Serengeti National Park, but the animals don’t know that.
In Ndutu there are just a handful of small, intimate wilderness and mobile lodges and camps, all tented, the way a safari camp should be. This is where Jane Goodall (now Dame) met and married wildlife photographer Baron Hugo van Lawick, where they documented the secret lives of hyenas, and where their son Grub (actually Hugo Eric) was born.
This is also where the wildebeest herds drop their young each year in February-March and begin the long northward trek once the offspring have the legs for it – about one month after birth. So you could argue that the great circle of life begins here.
In one week there last year (while researching our book African Icons), photographers Roger and Pat de la Harpe and I saw large herds of migrating grazers, birds enough to thrill any twitcher, predators doing everything that predators do, sleeping, stalking, hunting, eating, mating. In one day we saw 17 different cheetahs, including five fluffy, rumbly-tumbly cubs in one family group.
But for me the highlight was – it always is – hearing male lions close by, issuing thunderous calls that seemed to make the ground shake and tent canvas flutter. More likely it was my nerves. You are as safe as if you were in a castle, a castle in a remote corner of Africa where animals are wild and the people are few. Just how you should experience it.
So remember, February through March.