The wildebeest migration of the Serengeti is a sight not to be missed – unless you arrive out of season. By Diane Armstrong.

Wildebeest migration in Tanzania’s Serengeti

Wildebeest on the move in the Serengeti.
Wildebeest on the move in the Serengeti.

It was David Attenborough who inspired me to visit Tanzania. Mesmerised by his documentary that showed two million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras migrating across East Africa’s Serengeti in search of food and water, I couldn’t wait to see this unparalleled spectacle in real life. 

Determined to be there at the right time of year, we consulted guidebooks and experts but they all gave different answers. Confused, we decided to take the advice of a South African travel agent who suggested February. Not only would we get closer to the wildebeest, but we would enjoy the trip more as there were fewer tourists at that time of year.

Our Tanzanian adventure began in Tarangire National Park. Until we arrived there, I didn’t know that Tarangire had the second-biggest concentration of wildlife of any national park in Tanzania. As we bumped and lurched along the deeply rutted tracks, an experience our driver Baraka jokingly described as “African massage”, we watched lone giraffes loping across the woodland and nibbling leaves from the tops of thorn acacia trees, impala leaping high in the air like acrobats, and kudu galloping across the track. 

I had my first view of wildebeest alongside the Tarangire River. They were ungainly animals with wispy beards and blunt snouts and they moved surprisingly fast despite their bulk. Following them on unsteady legs were newborn calves that resembled brown foals. Unfazed by the jeep, they came so close that we could hear their snuffly grunts. Seeing them grazing on the short grass made me impatient to see the enormous Serengeti herds. 

Tarangire is famous for elephants, and we stopped by the riverbank to watch a large family sluicing themselves, while their comical calves kept slipping down the muddy slope. This park is also famous for its magnificent baobab trees, and as we drove around we noticed the holes the elephants have left on their bulbous trunks. Elephant numbers are dwindling because, despite efforts to curb poaching, Chinese demand for ivory has made it so lucrative that more than 20,000 of these magnificent creatures were killed for their tusks in 2013. 

Late one afternoon, we set out for a safari walk. Armed with a rifle in case of trouble, Baraka was accompanied by Tipiliti, our Maasai guide, a striking figure in his scarlet robe and gripping a long spear. As we walked, Baraka explained the medicinal uses of various plants. Pointing to a leafy bush, Tipiliti said that every morning he boiled up the leaves with animal bones to make a tonic.

Tipiliti lived in a family compound or boma nearby. We visited a boma, which consisted of about a dozen round mud huts inside a circular enclosure. The Maasai, who are semi-nomadic cow herders, consider their cows sacred and live on a diet of their blood and milk. 

As soon as we entered the compound, we were surrounded by giggling children eager to sell us fly whisks made of cow tails, which were ideal for beating off the stinging tsetse flies. A group of women wearing beaded necklaces and earrings invited us inside their huts, which were smoky and dark, with floors of packed earth where the family slept on cow hides. Peering shyly at us from one of the huts was the chief’s new wife, who at 14 already had a baby. While we strolled around, one of the women gently took my hand and I was touched by the friendliness of these people. 

The next leg of our journey took us to Ngorongoro Crater, reached by a short flight in a five-seater Cessna. Although I had read about the crater, nothing had prepared me for the size of this vast natural amphitheatre, which teemed with an extraordinary profusion of wildlife. Within several minutes of reaching the open grassland inside the crater, we saw a female lion strolling across the grass, and as she flopped down she flicked her long tail and three little tawny heads popped up beside her. 

A few moments later my heart almost stopped beating as three male lions with magnificent manes crept towards a group of impala, while herds of zebras and wildebeest stood motionless, watching. We watched a pack of snarling hyenas a small distance away chase a week-old wildebeest calf that had become separated from the herd, but, outrun by the calf’s mother, they gave up the hunt. Watching the drama of animals in the wild stalking their prey in a glorious setting of reed-fringed swamps, acacia woodland and lush grasslands, I felt I was present at the dawn of time when all animals roamed free.

Finally, we were on our way to the Serengeti. Flying over the Ngorongoro Crater, the Rift Valley and Lake Manyara in a light plane and landing on a gravel airstrip where our guide was waiting with cold towels and iced drinks evoked the romantic world of Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Actually, Blixen is an interesting link between Serengeti’s past and present. It was her lover, the hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who persuaded Edward VIII, then the Prince of Wales, to campaign in England against the indiscriminate slaughter of wild animals in the 1920s. Thanks to their intercession on behalf of conservation, the Serengeti became a haven for wildlife where visitors come to shoot with cameras, not rifles. 

It was raining when we landed, and Moses, our driver guide, was waiting for us with umbrellas. “Welcome to my office,” he beamed. But as soon as I told him why we had come, he stopped smiling. This wasn’t the right time, he said. February was the month when 8000 wildebeest calves were born each day, while the migration began later. He suggested going for a game drive, but disappointed by the bad news and dispirited by the rain, I suggested heading straight for Migration Camp instead. “Hakuna matata,” Moses said. “It doesn’t matter. Rain will stop.” 

As he predicted, the sky cleared, and soon I was craning out of the window almost forgetting to breathe as I watched a leopard moving stealthily through tall grasses as it stalked a wildebeest calf. 

Suddenly, Moses pointed and I almost fell out of the jeep in excitement. Just ahead of us, the track was roiling with wildebeest, thousands of them, all pushing and shoving towards the Grumeti River. Hundreds of skinny-legged calves trotted close to their mothers for safety. Often attacked by stalking predators, two-thirds of the calves won’t survive this perilous journey. So many zebras were galloping beside the wildebeest that the grass seemed to be striped black and white. 

Moses nosed the jeep forward and we watched enthralled as the animals moved en masse towards the water. Waiting for the leader to select the best place to cross, the wildebeest plunged into the foaming river, snorting and grunting as they kicked up water with their hooves and clambered up the other side. 

This was a sight I will never forget. Dotted with zebra and wildebeest, the green, gold, russet and maroon of the grasses stretched like an infinite tapestry beneath the bright blue sky. As far as I could see, the vast horizon was a continuous line of wildebeest moving across the grassland. Driven by instinct, millions of these massive beasts were following their leader across the endless savannah and over the water towards the grasslands of Kenya, as they have done since time immemorial. 

Ours was the only jeep in sight, and we had a front-row seat to this unique natural phenomenon. By an incredible stroke of luck we had been in the right place at the right time after all. Moses wondered if the early rain had confused them into starting their migration so early, but I suspected that somehow David Attenborough’s spirit had interceded for us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 27, 2015 as "Wilde at heart".

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Diane Armstrong is an award-winning author and journalist.

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