Often billed as the world’s ultimate wildlife spectacle, the Great Migration of wildebeest and zebra takes place annually across the plains of East Africa; we travel to Tanzania to try to catch up with the herds
WORDS AMANDA CANNING
PHOTOGRAPHS JONATHAN GREGSON
DAY ONE: SLOW GNUS DAY
IT’S BEEN AN EXCELLENT NIGHT FOR THE PREDATORS of the Serengeti. As the sun starts to inch over the horizon and cast a pale light over the acacia-pocked plains, it reveals a scene of nocturnal carnage. There are bones here, bones over there, bones everywhere. White bones picked clean and dazzling, as if fashioned from porcelain; scrappy, dirty bones, bits of unidentifiable flesh still clinging to them; bones that retain the shape of the animal from whence they came.
Above it all, vultures wheel through the sky or sit hunched in acacias, occasionally floating down to earth to better inspect a kill, looking every bit as sinister as one might hope from their villainous cartoon reputation. A good number of the night’s revellers are still out, enjoying the last bits of the feast before heading home for a day’s solid napping.
We’ve not long left our camp on the Namiri Plains before my guide Noel Akyoo spots a flurry of activity in the distance and bumps the Landcruiser in its direction. A hyena trots past, the back legs of a Thomson’s gazelle dangling from its jaws.
Beyond him, a group of around 20 hyenas is gathered around the rapidly disintegrating carcass of a wildebeest, some plastered in blood up to their shoulders. They break into a fight, squabbling over a prime piece of meat, before continuing to feed in a riot of chattering and whooping. A pair of jackals sits nearby in eager anticipation, not brave enough to move in, too hungry to move on. In a tree behind them, a tawny eagle pulls at a rib held in its yellow talons.
The Serengeti’s predators don’t always have it this good. I’ve timed my visit to coincide with the Great Migration, the annual 1,930-km journey of 1.5 million wildebeest and 2,50,000 zebra between Tanzania and Kenya, following the rains and the grasses that spring up in their wake. The season is bonanza time for any creature that counts them as dinner – for the lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs here, hunting at this time of year requires as much effort as picking a dish from the conveyor belt at Yo! Sushi. It must be, I assume, fairly easy for a human to track down the migrants too. I am wrong. There is plenty of evidence of deceased wildebeest, and small living clumps of them idling about or plodding to some unseen destination across the plains, but I expected to be overwhelmed by thousands upon thousands of the beasts, thundering past in clouds of dust.
Noel moves the Landcruiser off and we trundle along rutted tracks. “We will try and find them,” he says, “ but the migration was early this year. The herds are already moving south to give birth in the woodlands.” He laughs. “That is the beauty of the Serengeti – you never know what you’re going to come across.”
What we do come across on that first day is extraordinary enough. There are the wonders of animals not generally on people’s wildlife checklists: the bright flashes of superb starlings come to investigate what we are; a long-horned beetle slowly eating a yellow fever tree from the inside out; the pointy ears of a caracal hiding (badly) in the long grass. And there are the big-hitters too. The Namiri Plains is known for its cheetahs, having been off-limits to visitors for over 20 years in an effort to increase their numbers, and we spot several through the day, their long, thin bodies stretched out in the dust or pulled upright on termite mounds, alert to the hint of prey. There is an embarrassment of lions too, lolling about in the grass or cooling themselves on the rocks, tiny cubs tumbling about like furry drunks as the pride males consolidate their standing as the rock stars of the savannah, manes billowing in the wind and backlit by the setting sun. We have the rare privilege of spotting a leopard, too,an elegant female tucked into the crook of a tree, her long tail twitching against the trunk.
Returning to camp, though, I can’t help but be nagged by the somewhat ungrateful thought that the trip represents the only chance in my lifetime to experience one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles, and it’s happening somewhere else. Noel is unconcerned. “Every day is different,” he says, clambering out of the vehicle. “There is always tomorrow.”
DAY TWO: GNUFOUNDLAND
The day starts beneath a billion stars. I am standing outside my tent, watching as two shoot across the inky sky when the deep guttural rumble of a lion reverberates through the darkness. It is likely some way off, down by the river bordering the camp, but it is a sound of such primordial resonance my entire body seems to vibrate to it.
With dawn approaching, the lion’s time to hunt is over: it’s my turn to take on a shift. The day has brought a change in tack: if we can’t find the migration from the ground, perhaps we’ll have better luck from the sky.
The last stars are fading as our hot-air balloon slides into the sky. For the first few minutes, we skim across the ground, past trotting warthogs and strutting ostrich, then suddenly we are a hundred metres up, with all of the Serengeti stretched out beneath us. It is a vast beige sea, dotted with acacias and granite outcrops. The Seronera River wiggles through it, the shiny lumps of a hippo pod visible in its shallows.
Pulling on the burner, captain Mohamed Masud studies the ground beneath us. “You can see how busy this area gets in migration time,” he says. “There are so many trails.” The earth looks scratched, there are countless pale lines cut into it, rift into the ground by millions of hooves passing this way for a million years. There is little sign of the herds this morning though. “We don’t really know where they are now,” continues Mohamed. “The rain has not come so the migration is really spread out. Maybe if it rains, it will come.”
The grazing animals that live in this patch of the Serengeti year-round are out in force. Giraffes bob across the savannah, galloping for cover on gangly legs as we sail overhead, their unexpected arrival into woodland marked by the alarmed calls of ibis and morning doves. As I peer after them, I spy several groups of animals standing unmoving among the trees: wildebeest. Not thousands, not thundering past in clouds of dust – but wildebeest all the same.
Back on the ground, we head towards the woods, and almost immediately catch up with our target. A long line of several hundred wildebeest is plodding towards the river. They need to cross a road to join the huddles I’d seen from the balloon, but none seems willing to make the first move. “The thing about wildebeest,” says Noel, “is that they don’t have a leader. If the one in front changes direction, they all follow.” We watch as they make slow comedic progress towards their goal. One animal bolts, and a hundred animals bolt. One stops, and they all stop. One starts heading back the way it came, and, within minutes, the entire herd has spun round. It takes a good two hours of confused milling before they finally muster up the courage to cross.
As we lurch back to camp, triumphant after the first, small taste of the migration, I turn and take a last look at the herd: behind them, fat, dark clouds are starting to bubble on the horizon. The rains are coming.
Travel to Tanzania to experience the annual Great Migration of wildebeest, check out LPMI’s February 2019 issue NOW to find out more. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.