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Serengeti’s great migration: Trip of a Lifetime

June 17, 2013

Serengeti’s great migration: Trip of a Lifetime

Filed under: Tanzania Odyssey News — Tags: , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 8:17 am

In the latest of our series on the world’s greatest journeys, Brian Jackman tells you how to make the most of a trip to East Africa to watch the vast migration across the plains of the Serengeti.

Trip of a lifetime: Serengeti's great migration

‘The key players in this 1,200-mile odyssey are the wildebeest’ Photo: Alamy
No matter how often I visit the Serengeti its magic never palls. In this wild and open country you feel you could drive forever and never have enough of it. Out on the plains the light is dazzling. Colossal thunderheads trail shawls of rain across horizons wider than the sea, and wherever you look there are animals.

When United Nations delegates met in Stockholm in 1972 to choose the first World Heritage Sites it was the Serengeti that came top of the list. Today it is one of the most famous national parks on Earth, renowned for its magnificent lions but best known for its great migration.

The key players in this 1,200-mile odyssey are the wildebeest – 1.5 million of them – accompanied by 200,000 zebras. For them, every year is an endless journey, chasing the rains in a race for life. The action takes place across 150,000 square miles of woodlands, hills and open plains, a wilderness that includes not only the Serengeti national park and Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve but also the dispersal areas beyond.

The yearly cycle begins in the south of the park, where half a million calves are born between January and March. But when the rains end in May the land dries fast and the grazing animals must move on, heading for their dry season refuge in the Maasai Mara.

With the beginning of the short rains in late October the migration makes its way back into the Serengeti, so this a good time to be anywhere in the north of the park between Klein’s Camp and the Lamai Wedge. By December, having emerged from the northern woodlands, the herds return past Seronera to mass on their calving grounds again and the circle is complete.

WHEN TO TRAVEL

July to October is the time to catch the show in Kenya. The rest of the year belongs to Tanzania and the reason is the weather. Rain is the engine that drives the migration, dictating where the herds will be at different times of the year.

The rainy season normally runs from October to May. It begins with the short rains – a period of gloriously hot sunny days that end with brief torrential thunderstorms. It peaks in the long rains of April — a month to avoid when most camps close and the plains become quagmires.

When the rains end in May the wildebeest make tracks for the Maasai Mara. Some take Route One – north across the Seronera Valley. Others swing through the Western Corridor, but for all of them the journey is beset with danger. For a start there are the famous Serengeti lions – about 3,000 at the last count – to which can be added leopards and cheetahs, hungry hyena clans and monster crocodiles.

 

Zebras are often the first to arrive in the Mara, chomping down the tall grass with the wildebeest hot on their heels. Here they stay from July to October — the main tourist season – when visitors flock to watch the dramatic river crossings.

But as soon as the rains return the wildebeest head back to the Serengeti, drawn towards their calving grounds in the park’s deep south. In the dry season you will see nothing here but an emptiness of dust and stubble. But between January and March when the calves are born there is nowhere on Earth so vibrantly alive.

WHERE TO GO

Tanzania The best game-viewing areas in the Serengeti are the shortgrass plains and their granite kopjes in the south, the Seronera Valley, the Western Corridor and the far north of the park where it meets the Mara.

Ndutu Safari Lodge is ideally placed for exploring the southern plains, set on the edge of woodlands that teem with game in the rainy season. There are soda lakes, too, with pink clouds of flamingos, and marshes where serval cats love to hang out.

One of the loveliest areas lies in the heart of the park, where the Seronera river meanders across the plains, creating a linear paradise of Senegal palms and fever trees in which to look for leopards.

June is when the migration pours through the Western Corridor into Singita Grumeti, a private game-viewing stronghold the size of the Mara with only 70 guests at a time

The north of the park between the Lamai Wedge and Klein’s Camp is a wild, broken country of granite kopjes, hidden valleys and open savannah.

Off-track driving is still allowed and the abundance of game is reminiscent of the Mara I knew 30 years ago. During the migration in early November you can watch huge river crossings with fewer vehicles than you will see in the Mara.

Kenya

The Maasai Mara is renowned for the spectacular river crossings that take place when the migration is here from July to November. Some of the biggest crossings occur where the Mara River flows past the Mara Serena Safari Lodge on its hilltop overlooking the plains. The Mara Triangle, the area to the west of the river, has fewer lodges, and therefore fewer visitors at this busy time.

Elsewhere in the reserve you can often witness similar dramatic scenes when the herds gather along the Sand river and the Talek, and with luck you may even spot the Marsh Lions of Big Cat Diary fame hunting zebras near Governors’ Camp

The best way to avoid the crowds that gather whenever big cats are found is to stay outside the national reserve on one of the excellent private wildlife concessions, such as Naboisho, Mara North and Olare Orok, where visitor numbers are strictly limited. The game viewing is as good as anywhere. So is the accommodation (some of Kenya’s finest bush camps are here), and you can still enter the reserve to watch the river crossings.

GETTING THERE

For Kenya fly from Heathrow to Nairobi (eight hours non-stop with British Airways; 0844 493 0787; ba.com). For Tanzania, flying from Heathrow with Kenya Airways (0208 283 1818; kenya-airways.com), it’s an extra hour to Kilimanjaro airport. After that the choice is yours: fly direct into the bush by light aircraft (saving hours of precious time) or transfer by road (long and arduous but cheaper).

If you are going to Kenya you could combine the Mara with a stay on the Indian Ocean coast, and in Tanzania you can easily visit Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater en route to the Serengeti.

First-timers may feel happier staying in safari lodges, but tented camps are not lacking in comfort and bring you closer to the wild. Best of all are mobile camping safaris that move wherever the migration is and allow you greater freedom when deciding how to spend each day. Wherever you stay, location is all-important, and good professional driver-guides can make all the difference.

HOW TO BOOK

Forget about independent travel. It’s far better to rely on the UK’s own bespoke safari tour operators who know the logistics inside and out regarding camps and lodges, internal flights and land transfers. For reliability, choose operators belonging to the African Travel and Tourism Association (atta.travel).

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