If it’s happening on safari in Tanzania or Kenya, you know it’s going to take a lot of superlatives to describe it—and the Great Migration safari is certainly no exception. The greatest show on Earth, the planet’s largest movement of mammals on hoof, and a constant must-see for safari veterans and newcomers alike, the never-ending Great Migration is an annual circuit of life, struggle, and survival playing out in and around the famed Serengeti National park. Often called the Great Wildebeest Migration safari in reference and reverence to its primary participants, this epic journey is the otherwise daily life of some two million blue wildebeest—and a sizable entourage of friends and foes.
On a year-round, circumambulatory tour of Serengeti National Park and neighboring locales like Maasai Mara and Ndutu, this array of antelopes and zebra cross paths with elephants and rhinos, face off with lions and hyenas, traverse sprawling plains and ford perilous rivers—all in search of basic sustenance.
As seasonal rains take their turn drenching the countryside throughout the year, wild grasses sprout in their wake—and the fresh turf comprises the entire diet of this hungry ensemble of ungulates. Everything in the lives of the nomadic wildebeest is set to the unpredictable clock of this growth, from the synchronized birthing in the southern plains of Ndutu to the desperate crossing of the Mara River into the grasslands and savannahs of Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Incredible events like this are singular spectacles unto themselves, but there’s something happening at every part of the year if you know where to look—or know the folks who do.
As this a hugely popular attraction, the wildebeest aren’t the only crowds that will be present for the show. Thousands of tourists pack established escarpments en masse for choice viewings of dramatic river crossings, and make their own processional trains across the plains to witness the unfolding events. Knowing how to avoid those people packs, and finding the real prime spots that emerge from an ever-changing and barely predictable system—the kind of places you’ll find only professional videographers and true safari vets—is half the game here. And it’s the only way our safari guides at Penwell ever play.
The Great Migration is happening year-round, but the scenes and locations are never the same. Below, we’ll lay out a rough tour schedule for the bovine band of beasts and their groupies—everything’s dependent on the rains, so we’ll speak in some monthly generalities. Pack your gear, hop in the jeep, and we’ll show you something you’ll be sure to talk about for the rest of your life!
By this time, nearly the entire migratory wildebeest population of Tanzania has settled into the lush plains around Lake Ndutu in the Ngorongoro region. Here, often in mid-February, an explosion of life blossoms as pregnant wildebeest give birth to the herd’s next generation, calving some 8,000 newborns every day over the period of a few weeks. As more than 400,000 vulnerable wildebeest whelps enter the world, they attract the targeted attention of starving hyenas, lions, and vultures—and the herds brace to protect their young.
It is into the heart of this stunning, natural melodrama that we send our guests. From the mobile Kimondo Migration Camp, Penwell guests are privileged to bear witness to the outplaying of life, rebirth, and survival from every perspective.
After calves, mothers, and others alike have had their fill of the calcium-rich grasses of Ndutu, the time comes to move again—across the Serengeti and to the northeast. The long rains have come to the country and evening downpours soak the fertile earth on the daily, making roads particularly difficult to navigate, but providing fresh water and growing grass on-the-go for the fast-moving families. As the young mature, the herds begin to cover more distance, passing through the black rhino territory of Moru Kopjes and up to the banks of the Grumeti River, pressed by the persistent threat of predatory cats all the way.
For older members of the herd, mating season has begun, and males define and fiercely defend temporary territories for themselves and potential partners. The Grumeti offers the first serious geographic obstacle to overcome, and though the river itself can be a trickle or a surge depending on the rains, the crocodiles will be waiting all the same. The hoofed herds swarm the banks before spilling over in waves, counting on numbers and luck for survival, only to face a bigger challenge in short order: the Mara River.
Following months of rain, in the hot and humid dry season around mid-July, the adventuring migrants finally tangle horns with their biggest challenge: the Mara River crossing. While the Grumeti River may have proved an impediment, the Mara is everywhere wider—and all but guaranteed to be strong, deep, and packed with opportunistic crocs.
This is the stuff of bombastic nature films, sensational photos, and countless articles like this one. Hundreds of thousands of individual wildebeest mobbing the riverbanks, toeing the silty shoreline, regrouping and shifting, milling about, pressing, waiting for the decisive moment where one brave beast leads a sudden and concerted push of the masses into the muddy waters. What follows is a seemingly endless funnel of wildebeest surging and leaping into the Mara, the waters frothed with splashing bodies, snapping jaws, and heads held high above the water—all fighting for the gain of the far shore, and the yearly promise of Maasai Mara’s safety just beyond.
Understanding just where and when to experience this phenomenal struggle is key, and tourists will be out in crowded droves to try to catch it from the tried-and-true spots along major crossing routes. Guests traveling on a customized Penwell safari are entrusted to our friends at Kimondo, whose expert guides follow the migration year-round in a mobile camp, and know exactly where to go for the best up-close-and-personal experiences of the migration—allowing you to immerse yourself fully in one of nature’s most unique and viscerally thrilling ensemble performances.
In the last quarter of the calendar year, we find the wildebeest herds in the relative sanctuary of the Maasai Mara in Kenya. The journey here has been arduous, and numbers have been thinned by the trials, but expectant mothers carry more members of the pack with them.
After gorging themselves on the lush grasses just inside the Tanzanian border, the fields have been picked clean and watering holes are running dry. As the short rains begin further south, the herds cross back into Tanzania and start their journey to the plains of Ndutu, joined by thousands of gazelles and zebras—and hungry lions, cheetahs, and leopards in Seronera Valley—sometimes covering more than 100 kilometers in a single day.
Here in Seronera, Penwell guests can take to the skies in a hot-air balloon for a documentary-worthy aerial vista of the migration, soaring over waves of wildebeest and galloping gazelles on their morning migration.
Experiencing the Great Migration is often a bucket list item for first-time safari goers—but ends up as a repeat adventure for many seasoned vets of the scene. Have you seen the Great Migration before in documentaries or photos? Are you excited to join us for your first time? Get in touch with us at Penwell, and let’s write your personal safari story together.