It is the Eighth Wonder of the World. This is the movement of the massive herds of wildebeests, and accompanying ungulates such as zebras and topis from the Serengeti plains in Tanzania to Masai Mara in Kenya.
Every year, it keeps drawing visitors to Masai Mara. According to the latest statistics, 249,900 visitors came to Masai Mara last year compared to 119,500 in 2021.
But it is worth it? Is it overrated, especially as critics argue that the noisy, overcrowded high numbers of guests are damaging the environment as it scares away the animals from crossing?
Tour guides talk of large numbers of cars surrounding the anxious animals, some yelling at the animals.
Others argue that Mara has a lot of attractions to offer, from birdwatching to guided walks in the wilderness that travellers do not have to cramp at the rivers to watch the wildebeests crossing every July to early September. BDLife speaks to travellers who have been at Masai Mara to watch the wildebeest migration.
Geoff Mayes says the first time he watched the migration crossing in 2012 is unforgettable. He was on a safari in the Mara and did not expect that it would be the day when he would finally watch the spectacular sight.
“We were just driving down to the river on a game drive and there we saw huge herds of maybe 30,000 to 40,000 wildebeests and they are kind of parting just like Moses parted the Red Sea,” he recalls.
“As we got closer to the river, the guide pointed out and showed us how they were changing their formation from just feeding on the ground and walking together to a single file and here they are starting to run for their lives. And they are doing something that they call a line,” he says.
After this, he watched the wildebeests cross the Mara several times before setting up his camp, Amazing Mara Camp at the Masai Mara, which has made it easier for him to watch it during the season.
“As they get closer to the river, they converge in different lines from each other and the animals are calling louder and louder. When you get down to the river and park up in a strategic spot, you can catch the action and everyone tries to be as orderly as possible since they are all trying to get photos of what’s happening.
It’s a little bit about jostling around between all the cars and you have to hurry a little bit since you don’t know how fast the wildebeest will move,” he says.
But not every traveller is lucky to spot the wildebeest movement without planning for months, and missing out and replanning again.
Mr Mayes observes that the most sensitive moment is when the cars get close to the river since the animals’ attitudes change.
“If you turn around, they run away and more move to the front. They get to the water’s edge and they move backwards and forwards and get scared of their shadows. There is impatience too both with the travellers as well as the animals which is palpable in the air.
Sometimes, something will change and then the whole herd will run away and then other times one will go and drink water and walk up to the water, which will be up to its knees and then that kind of triggers the rest on the other side to swim across to the other side. Once one goes, then you get 60 or even 100 that decide to cross,” he says.
“Then you get those that are impatient 300 or 400 hundred back in the line and they run forward and jump to the queue and instead of crossing down to the river on a normal path, they will throw themselves off a cliff and it’s crazy, chaos and there is dust everywhere, animals are crying everywhere some trying to swim back and that’s where the madness begins.”
The first time that Felix Migoya, a tour guide, watched the migration was 10 years ago when he was taking his guests to the game reserve.
“It was spectacular and I was left pondering what triggers them to cross the crocodile-infested river,” he reminiscences.
Having watched the migration numerous times, thanks to his guests, he has observed how this anticipated season has changed over time.
“Sometimes the number of wildebeest crisscrossing the Mara isn’t that amazing (not as many as it used to be many years ago). In addition, the river crossing has, over time, not been a magnificent scene because there are way too many cars at crossing points and at times, it’s a motor vehicle rush rather than a wildebeest rush. It’s not very appealing these days,” he says.
Mr Migoya urges authorities to control crossing points and asks travellers to visit at the beginning for the best views.
“There isn’t a lot of vehicle traffic, and the river crossing is intense for a longer time undisturbed. The only sure way of increasing your chances of success is to be at the crossing points early enough.
After many years of observing the wildebeest behaviour, you can make decisions that increase your chances of seeing the crossing.
They are habitual in their movements and tend to cross when temperatures get warm, mostly,” he says.
Also, there is no specific amount of time one can expect to observe the migration. He advises travellers to manage their expectations.
“There is a time I waited by the river for crossing to happen, but it did not happen, while in some cases, it happened within the first 10 minutes. The best thing is to manage your expectation since this is nature and it’s unpredictable,” he says.
The best experience, he says, is when he watches guests shed tears when luck is on their side, and they catch a glimpse of the whole migration. The toughest part is managing their expectations.
“It’s hard to manage the expectations of guests who have been watching NatGeo and saving for years to visit the Mara and see the migration. The pressure to deliver is always on the driver guide,” says Mr Migoya.
For Shammi Shah, her first time watching the crossing was when she was eight years old. She vividly recalls watching thousands of wildebeests crossing the Mara River with crocodiles ready to swallow them up.
“They were just pouncing and pouncing. There was adrenalin and it was such an incredible sight to see. I’ve never seen anything like it again,” she recalls.
Ms Shah was back last year with her parents but she says a lot has changed.
“It was now in trickles compared to what I watched as a child and how many thousands of genus were crossing. They didn’t even end up crossing. We waited for four hours but they didn’t cross but the plains were gorgeous, filled with the wildebeest scattered throughout the park as you drove through the Mara,” she says.
Ms Shah, now a sustainability expert and founder of Travel4Purpose, a platform which promotes sustainable travel in Kenya, believes that people should tour the less travelled destinations during this time.
“When I was a child I didn’t have this outlook. There are hundreds of vehicles waiting for this event to happen, which is not great for the wildlife. Also as people wait, they get louder and it agitates and this disturbs the animals,” she says.
I prefer travelling to Tsavo or other parks that are less busy during this month for safari for an authentic experience,” she says.