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Travel experiences

Safari so good

8th February, 2021

There’s no better escape than the Serengeti when the plains thunder with wildebeest in a race for life, while predators snap at their heels. Brian Jackman relives the thrill and spectacular sights of the Great Migration.

It is alfajiri, the Swahili word for dawn, when the day comes alive with a chorus of doves and the sun floods the plains with amber light. Now is the time to drive out into the boundless grasslands, to search for the lions you heard in the night. Fleet-footed gazelles scud away at your approach. Giraffes, the watchtowers of the Serengeti, observe your progress. Cheetahs rise out of the grass and wherever you look there are wildebeest moving in endless grunting columns.

When the Great Migration is in full swing there is no better place to be than the Serengeti. Nature’s greatest show takes place between the Serengeti plains in Tanzania and Kenya’s Masai Mara. The Mara is Kenya’s finest big-game showcase, and it is the wildebeest, 1.5 million of them, that are key players in this 1,200-mile odyssey. For the Serengeti wildebeest (also called gnu) every year is an endless journey, chasing the rains in a race for life. Accompanying them on their epic journey are 200,000 zebras and half a million gazelles and the big cats that prey on them.

The action takes place across 154,000 square miles of woodlands, hills and open plains – a wilderness including not only the Serengeti national park and Kenya’s Masai Mara national reserve, but also private wildlife concessions beyond. The yearly cycle begins in the south of the park when half a million wildebeest calves are born from January to March. These ancestral grounds are the only constant in their lives, the fulcrum around which the rest of the year revolves.

Of all the park’s contiguous areas, Ngorongoro is the most noteworthy. Once a volcano as high as Kilimanjaro, when it died its cone crumbled, leaving Tanzania with the world’s biggest unbroken caldera, 2,000ft deep and 12 miles across – a lost world of forests, flamingo lakes, lion prides, elephants, wildebeest and zebras. The bed of ash left by successive eruptions created the plains whose mineral-rich grasslands are ideal for building young wildebeest bones.

If it rained all year the herds would probably never leave here, but when the long rains end in May they head for their dry season refuge in the Masai Mara, most of them hurrying into the Western Corridor, a huge valley that funnels into Lake Victoria and supports year-round wildlife, including giant crocodiles that snap at the heels of the wildebeest as they pour across the Grumeti River.

There is good grazing to be had among the flat-topped acacia groves, but still the herds move on, across the Kenyan border into the Masai Mara. Here the herds remain throughout the kiangazi – the dry season from July to October – moving back and forth across the Mara River in search of fresh grazing.

Towards the end of December, they return to their calving grounds. At this time of year there is no greener place on Earth than the southern Serengeti, when the plains teem with game – not just wildebeest and zebras but also predators: lions, cheetahs and spotted hyenas. To follow the herds across these classic landscapes is to conjure a vanished Africa where the grass meets the sky at the edge of the world.

From blood-red dawns to apocalyptic sunsets, you drive with the sounds of the plains in your ears: the shriek of crowned lapwings, the squeal of zebra stallions calling to their mares. And in the evening you sit by the campfire while hyenas yowl and the Southern Cross cartwheels in slow motion across the vast African sky.

Interested in seeing the greatest show on earth for yourself? Experience it on our The Best of Kenya & Tanzania: Great Migration & Big Game Safari tour. Or find out more about our South Africa holidays.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.