The Great Migration

It is one of the most spectacular natural events, millions of animals making their way through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in East Africa every year between July and October. Wildebeest, followed by zebras, gazelles and some eland and topi, lead the way from Tanzania across the Mara River into Kenya, all in search of greener pastures. Called the Great Migration, it is an endless cycle of life and death, and no two years are the same.

With the very real possibility of this unique natural heritage being put in jeopardy by plans of the Tanzanian government for a highway bisecting the Serengeti National Park, I wanted to experience one of the truly natural wonders of the world before it was too late. These plans have since been cancelled, but I can safely say that I was witness to this spectacle. Well, almost…

This is the story of my first experience of the Great Migration.

It is drizzling lightly when we leave Nairobi under cloudy skies at around 06:00. Six adults, one child and a lot of anticipation tightly squeezed into a sports utility vehicle, we are on our way to witness the greatest mass movement of animals anywhere in the world.

As a first time visitor to Kenya, I am scanning the countryside outside the window intently as the sun is struggling to get the morning going. The sheer variety of the landscape, intertwined with human settlements makes for an alluring driving experience. We are following part of the Great Rift Valley route, responsible for this geographical diversity, and I don’t want to miss a thing.

We are not staying in the Maasai Mara National Game Reserve itself, but outside on the 17 000 acre Ol Choro Oiroua group ranch. Together with 10 other ranches, it forms part of the Greater Mara Ecosystem.

Driving up to “House in the Wild” after a mind-pleasingly, but body-achingly journey of a couple of hours, a grove of large trees welcome us to our home for the next couple of days. With an ice-cold Dawa in the hand, we sink down in some loungers on the banks of the Mara River and just soak up the view. Dawa doesn’t mean “magic potion” for nothing in Swahili…

Waking up to the sound of cow and goat bells in a game reserve the next morning, is a bit surreal I must admit. But herein lays the beauty and lure of the land – humans and wild animals can coexist, in harmony, together.

The call of ‘The Mara’, as Kenya’s pride and joy is called by the locals, is getting stronger by the minute. With a last swig of some hot and tasty Masala tea, we head towards the Oloololo Gate where we will be entering the Mara Triangle.

A line of safari operated and privately owned vehicles are already lined up when we arrive at the gate. Some are already on their way out, having stayed inside the reserve, and the occupants of the vehicles look back longingly for one last time.

After paying the required conservation fees and getting the rules and regulations (‘no shouting, clapping or cheering near any of the animals’ and ‘do not cross the Tanzanian border’ being two of them), we get out for a good stretch of the legs and necks. The excitement is palpable, we are about to set foot in one of the most remarkable wildlife attractions, the sheer volume and variety for sure going to make for a sensory overload.

It doesn’t take long for the action to start – wildebeest, zebras, giraffe, topi, buffalo, elephant and eland fill up the frame in quick succession. Various pairs of binoculars reveal a brown spot on a small termite mound in the distance. And when vehicles start congregating, we join the fray, promptly disturbing a romantic moment between a male lion and his female companion.

Seems love is in the air this morning (or maybe not?). As we are leaving the king and queen of this jungle, we come across a very amorous male ostrich. He is strutting his stuff and fluffing his feathers, for the moment to no avail however, with the female being totally oblivious to his attentions. Persistence is the name of the game it seems.

We are still a long way from any of the crossing points over the Mara River, but it doesn’t matter, the action is already coming thick and fast. A ‘normal’ and ‘routine’ stop for a glance at a secretary bird, turns into a nail biting, breathtaking, almost kill. One moment the feathered creature is just walking along, the next it’s skidding in a cloud of dust after a hare of some sort (was way too fast to make a positive identification), but alas, no reward.

With the mind filled to capacity with the sights and the sounds of the Maasai Mara, it’s time to replenish the body with some fuel of a different kind. And a more rewarding lunch spot there surely can’t be – for as far as the eye can see, it’s just wild open spaces.

And now it’s Mission Crossing! There are no guarantees that we will get to witness this spectacular event, for as we know, no two years are the same. But just the mere possibility, makes the skin tingle with anticipation.

The open plain is dotted with solid dark specks, with a few black and white stripes thrown in, are we really going to see this? We make our way towards the river, along with a handful of other hopeful enthusiasts. Together man and beast congregate on the banks of the great Mara River, waiting and hoping.

The sky is darkening and threatening clouds are moving in and it seems to thwart the plans of the throngs of wildebeest, now milling around nervously. Just as it seems that the pressure is going to break and they are going to go for it, they turn back.

We wait for as long as possible to witness “The Crossing” – we have to leave the reserve by 18:30 – but eventually realize that today is not going to be the day. Very reluctantly we turn the vehicle away and start heading back, not without heads straining backwards ever so often, for one last time, just maybe…

Just before leaving this natural gem, we come across the evidence of this yearly struggle of life and death. The smell of death is heavy in the air as hundreds of carcasses lay washed up on the lower banks of the river. There are more than enough to be shared between the crocodiles, Marabou storks and banded mongoose that are hanging around, eager for the pickings.

Back at “House in the Wild”, watching the sun set over yet another uniquely African day, we muse and ponder over a couple of Tuskers over what wasn’t, in this instance. We come to the conclusion that nature doesn’t have a text book, the only thing that’s certain in this great scheme of things, is that nothing is certain.