Day 8: A Swim for Survival

The time has come for the annual great wildebeest migration as over 3 million animals will cross the crocodile infested Mara River that separates Tanzania and Kenya. Considered one of the natural wonders of the world, it is very difficult to predict the timing, but once a year millions of wildebeest will travel north over the Mara River into Kenya searching for fresh grasses to graze upon. The river is not very wide, but the journey is made treacherous by lots of slippery rocks and crocodile that are awaiting their annual wildebeest feast.

The migration is difficult to predict, but normally occurs in mid-to-late August, so I timed my arrival in the northern Serengeti hoping to coincide with the arrival of the wildebeest herds. Getting to the northern Serengeti requires 4+ hours of driving over unpaved roads and there are few camps to support visitors, so only the most dedicated will travel this far in search of the migration. My chances of seeing a portion of the migration depended on being lucky with the timing; I became very nervous that I would miss it completely as reports in early August indicated the migration started early. Thankfully the herds had split into two larger groups, so I was not too late! As I arrived in the northern Serengeti, I began talking to other visitors and guides who indicated no migration activity had been seen for several days prior, so we again had to get lucky. 

Our safari driver, Ben from Caracal Tours and Safaris, wisely instructed us to start the day a little earlier than normal so we set out half asleep in search of some wildebeest. We didn’t have to go far - within 10 minutes we were watching a decent herd gathered in a corner of the river. We moved our truck behind some bushes so as to not scare the herd and waited for the call over the radio that they had started running. Apparently the wildebeest will be spooked by the smallest things, so the presence of a 4x4 will cause them to hesitate running; hiding behind some bushes can speed things along. As the call came over the radio, we pulled out it from the bush and my heart jumped into my throat. Here it was……. the migration of tens of thousands of wildebeest was happening right before my eyes. 

It took almost an hour to complete the run, with thousands of animals galloping into the river and struggling to get across the other side. They sang a song (“he-haw”) that captured the fear these animals must have as they made this journey. Some got stuck. One young one broke his front leg and hobbled across on three legs (and was probably prey to a hyena later that evening). Another group crossed a major portion of the river only to get confused and turn back to the original shore (and they will have to cross again in the future). 

Miraculously, we only witnessed one fatality and it did not come at the hands / mouth of a crocodile. While there were several in the water, they must have been well fed in prior days as they expressed virtually zero interest in the migration. The one wildebeest who did not survive had a stuck foot and while he eventually dislodged it, he drowned before making it across to the other side. While it was sad to watch a helpless animal die before your eyes, it was a good reminder of what makes this journey so powerful to witness and made me glad that we saw so many other animals cross safely. One fatality in several tens of thousands of animals is a good success rate!

The experience of watching the wildebeest was surreal and different from anything the documentary TV could have offered. While many of the animals we’ve seen in Tanzania have acted in very predictable manners, watching tens of thousands of frightened animals swim for their lives really is a magical and humbling experience. Sitting at the bank of the Mara River and experiencing it for myself will be something that stays with me for the rest of my life.