The Great Migration is an ongoing event in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park where a huge herd of 2 million big grazers (wildebeest, zebra and various antelope) make their way around the park following the rainfall in a roughly circular route in search for fresh pastures. It is often heralded as the most spectacular natural event on the planet today.
I will go in depth in the pages below, but as a brief overview, the wildebeest begin their journey from December — March in the south of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area (Ndutu) for calving season. In April — June they begin to make their way up the western corridor (and some move through the central Serengeti Seronera region), and by July they are usually expected up in the north (Kogatende/Lamai) where you get the Mara River crossings in the Serengeti (and some herds carry on to Kenya’s Masai Mara) all the way through to October/November, when they begin their descent south again in time for calving season. And so the cycle repeats itself.
Now this is just a rough overview, but scroll down for a breakdown of where the wildebeest usually are at any given time of year and where you can base yourself to maximise your chances of catching the mega herds.
Firstly, clearing up confusion about what the herds do from July – August. There are many misconceptions about this time period when the herds are in the north of The Serengeti and crossing The Mara River
The below map demonstrates what actually happens when the Wildebeest cross the Mara River:
The Migration Map explained
As you can see from the above map, once the herds arrive at the Mara River (from the south), they tend to linger around in between Kogatende and the Lamai Wedge (in between the Mara River and Kenyan border in the Serengeti), so the Serengeti is place to go to be in with the best chance of catching a crossing. Only some of the herds at some point in between the period of July — October make their way into Kenya’s Masai Mara.
1. The Mara River is NOT the border between Tanzania and Kenya
The wildebeest never cross the river from Tanzania into Kenya as the Mara River is not the border between the countries (see map below for clarification). They only ever cross the river from Tanzania to Tanzania (Kogatende to the Lamai Wedge) or from Kenya to Kenya (Masai Mara to Masai Mara).
2.) The Migration is always in Tanzania (The Serengeti) and only some herds are sometimes in Kenya (The Masai Mara)
Some of the Wildebeest are only ever in Kenya (The Masai Mara) AT SOME POINT between July — October when the herds make their way to the northern Serengeti in search of fresh pastures. The Masai Mara is as such an extension of their Serengeti route, and not an integral part of their circular journey.
As you can see from the map, when some of the herds are in Kenya, they are not in Kenya exclusively — they are ALWAYS in Tanzania even when SOME are in Kenya. Some may simply cross from Tanzania to Tanzania (Kogatende to Lamai) then return south again, without even entering Kenya.
The Masai Mara is very small in comparison to the Serengeti (of which this map only shows a tiny bit). Because of this, The Masai Mara can be extremely busy with lots of tourists packing in to the park to catch the crossings (which only ever happen in a very small window anyway), so it really is best to avoid the Masai Mara at this time and focus on seeing the crossings in the Serengeti.
3. The Migration is not a single mass movement crossing the Mara River and returning months later
The Migration is not a single mass movement of wildebeest marching in side-by-side in the same direction. It is slightly more chaotic than this! Although they generally follow the same routes, the herds tend to be somewhat dispersed at certain times of the year. As a rule of thumb, they become more concentrated when the park is drier and for calving season (July — October & December — March) and then disperse when there is plentiful grass (November & April — June). It is important to understand that even when they are concentrated, although they all head in a similar direction, they still zig zag along the way and can be late or early, making it difficult to predict their exact location at any given time.
The wildebeest’s zig-zag tendency is never clearer than when the herds are in the northern Serengeti plains and crossing the Mara River; some wildebeest crossing one way, some crossing the other, and many just mulling around Kogatende, sometimes without crossing the river at all. If one wildebeest decides to cross (north to south or south to north), so may another 10, or another 1,000. Once they have crossed, they may suddenly decide to cross back an hour or a day later. The wildebeest probably know where/when they are going about as much as I do! This means that the common misconception that they systematically head north, cross over the river, go into Kenya, and stay there until October before crossing back to travel south again is a good logic…But is simply not true!
A month by month breakdown of the Wildebeest Migration
A good time to go. Avoid peak prices, and catch big herds.
This is a tricky month to predict exactly where the main bulk of the wildebeest will be at any one time as the November short rains makes the grass a little greener everywhere, and as such the wildebeest disperse. As they are moving down to the south for calving season, some may be lingering in Namiri Plains, others may be to the south west in Kusini, and by the end of December many would have made it to Ndutu. SO… Stay in a combination of Ndutu and Central Serengeti for the best chance of catching the herds.
Tip: Go towards the beginning of the month to avoid peak season prices which come over the festive period.
A good time to go. Avoid peak season prices, get explosive predator action and calving season with big herds.
At the beginning of the month, most of the herds are settling in around the Ndutu area of the NCAA where life begins for half a million wildebeest during the calving season. Although not as concentrated as in February, this is a great time to avoid the crowds and still catch some very explosive predator action with vulnerable calves on the way.
Tip: Go towards the end of the month to avoid peak season prices which come over the festive period. This will also see the herds become even more concentrated.
An excellent time to go (some may say the best). Even better big herds than January and calving season is in full swing. But, high season rates.
I cannot stress enough that February is the best (and only) time of year you can guarantee seeing the herds if you base yourself in the right place — the rest of the year is not quite so easy to predict as the herds can often be late or early. However, calving season doesn’t wait! So basing yourself in these green grasses around Lake Ndutu is crucial to catch the herds, as they linger here to give the young calves the best start in life. Go for a mobile tented camp in the Ndutu area and you will find yourself surrounded by millions of brown specks spreading across the sweeping acacia dotted southern plains (not to mention the biggest concentration of predators anywhere in Africa).
Tip: If all you have ever wanted to do is to see the migration, and this is your sole purpose of visiting Tanzania, GO IN FEBRUARY. This is pretty much the only time of the year it can be guaranteed the herds will be where they are supposed to be.
A good time to go. Avoid high season rates in February and still catch the calving season.
As March is still calving season, the herds linger on this nutrient-rich grass, stretching from the southern extreme of the Serengeti National Park (SNP) and into the Ndutu area of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCAA). They can begin to disperse a little if it begins to rain towards the end of the month, so February is generally considered a better time for those who don’t want to get a bit wet!
Tip: Go in early March to get February’s dramatic huge herds, calving season but at a fraction of the cost. Late March is for those who are not opposed to getting a little wet — and with rain, the herds do disperse.
A mixed time. If you don’t want rain, do not go in April. But there are no people around and the chances are if you split your time between Ndutu and Seronera you will still catch a small bit of the Migration.
As the food resources are depleted, the herds venture very gradually west and north around as their epic journey begins. There is a chance of rain in April which can put people off, but it is in fact a very clever time to go, as the Serengeti is ghostly quiet, and you may get some phenomenal sightings all to yourself. Because of the chance of rain, it is slightly more difficult to predict where the big herds will be than in preceding months, but they are still likely to be south, if not moving north.
Tip: Make the most of the best mobile camps at this time of year, as they operate on low season rates, and with rain their quality does certainly not diminish. You may get stuck in the mud, but this is all be part of the adventure.
Like April, a mixed time to go. If you don’t want rain, do not go in May. But there are no people around! Placing yourself in a mobile camp will give you the best chance of catching the herds.
So starts a period of transition as the herds start to move north heading ultimately for the Mara River. May usually sees the herds move into the Moru kopjes and central Seronera Valley areas of the Serengeti National Park, but depending on the rains, we may also see herds further south still, or approaching the western corridor.
I would recommend if you are set on seeing a big herd placing yourself in two different locations; in a mobile camp in Moru (just south east of Seronera), and in a more permanent structure in the Seronera region (in which there are many). This will give you a nice contrast in accommodation, but importantly the best possible change to see the migration.
Tip: If you are in Tanzania in May, the chances are you are a serious safari enthusiast (as the rains usually put people off!), so spending your time in two different landscapes is a welcome idea, migration or no migration… The resident predators and wildlife in Seronera is also phenomenal year-round, and if you go in May you will miss the crowds too which is a bonus.
A great time to see the herds but ONLY if you position yourself in two locations. It is a tricky month to predict. You avoid low season rates in June.
The transitional period continues, with June frequently being a superb time to see the migration in the western corridor, and here the herds face their first major obstacle in the form of the Grumeti River with its mighty crocodiles.
Weather patterns at this time of year have a huge impact on migration movements and the herds can split up to follow diﬀerent migration routes, double back on themselves to Seronera and Moru, spread out and generally provide a challenge for guides. If you do catch the migration though, this is a fantastic time to be in the middle of the herds as it is rutting season — which can get very noisy!
In very dry years, the approach to northern Serengeti can be accelerated with the first wildebeest arriving in northern Serengeti as early as late June. At this time of year I strongly recommend a combination of camps to secure the best migration viewing as with May, but maybe more so at this time.
Tip: Although the Mara River crossings are phenomenal, it would be a mistake to solely look at a camp in Kogatende in hope for a June river crossing — it is a risky approach! This is why I would suggest looking at two different camps; from June 1st — 15th focus on one in the Grumeti region and one in the central Serengeti Seronera region, and only in late June should you combine a northern Kogatende camp and one in either the west or central Serengeti. It is a difficult time of year to predict!
July — October
A great time to visit (some say the best time). The only time of year you can catch the wildebeest crossing the Mara River as they arrive in the north of the Serengeti.
The arrival of the migration to Northern Serengeti depends purely on weather conditions each year. When there is plenty of food and water the herds will take their time and spend longer in western Grumeti and central Seronera areas, arriving in the northern Kogatende and Lamai regions as late as early August. If conditions are dry, the first wildebeest will forge north towards the Mara River, a permanent water source, and a reliable supply of green grazing, and arrive as early as late June or early July. In recent years, the wildebeest have been arriving a bit earlier, but this changes from year to year so going off this basis can be a mistake.
The Mara River crossings that take place over this period are the stuﬀ of wildlife documentaries and make for especially dramatic viewing. They can happen at any point during this time of year, as herds criss-cross back and forth chasing the clouds; but they are elusive, rapid and unforgettable experiences. An experienced, patient guide is essential to give the best chance of catching a crossing as you could be waiting for the wildebeest to cross for hours as they mull around on one side of the river, before one suddenly decides to take the leap of faith and the others follow.
Tip: July — August can be busy, and also you will be paying peak season prices to visit in this time. Go just outside of these months, in September and October for equally unbelievable crossings and some great rates and free night deals from some of the best mobile camps in the Serengeti. Of which, Serengeti Safari Camp is my personal favourite.
A great time to go. Low season prices, quiet in terms of other vehicles but light rains.
As the short rains fall, renewing more fertile grazing further south, the herds begin to move with it. November is another very unpredictable month when herds can be as far south as Ndutu or remain in the north as Kogatende for much of the month. The herds will often split and take several diﬀerent routes to the south and central Serengeti/Moru can be an excellent base to reach sizeable herds.
Combining locations over this period is often a smart way to keep up with the herds as when they decide to push for south, they can often move quite quickly. Again, when there is uncertainty about the herd’s location in a transitional month like November, it is a good idea to stay for a few nights in one of the mobile camps in the North and near the Mara River, and another maybe more permanent structure in an excellent wildlife viewing location like Seronera to give you diversity in your locations and wildlife experiences. In these transitional months, I can not stress enough that although positioning yourself well for the migration is a good idea, to focus solely on this is a mistake. I would say, in the beginning of the month, split locations between Kogatende/Lamai, and in Seronera, and at the end of the month focus solely on Seronera.
Tip: I would say, in the beginning of the month, split locations between Kogatende/Lamai, and in Seronera, and at the end of the month focus solely on Seronera. River crossings have been known to happen in early November, so setting yourself in the Kogatende region can be a good idea (if you are not going there for the sole purpose of seeing a river crossing!).
Should I stay in a permanent lodge or mobile camp?
As you will have probably already gathered, the migration is a moving feast (literally!), covering hundreds of kilometres. There are a few permanent lodges or permanent camps in each of the main areas through which it travels, while the alternative is to stay in a mobile tented camp that moves seasonally to be in the (hopefully) right location.
A common misconception is that these mobile camps quite literally follow the migration around day to day, or week to week — they do not. They have set positions which are pre-planned, and set dates when they move to these positions and as such are not completely flexible! Most mobile camps move twice a year between Ndutu for calving season from December — March, and then to the northern Kogatende region for the river crossings from July — October. Some mobile camps also make the most of the transitional times of year (such as June and November) by moving between three or more locations throughout the year; these mobile camps are Serengeti Safari Camp (an office favourite), Legendary Camp and Serengeti Under Canvas.
Although staying at a mobile camp gives you a good chance of being well placed for the migration, because their locations are not flexible, it does not guarantee it. It may be that at a certain time of year, the mobile camps are set up close to some of the permanent lodges (especially in the northern Serengeti), in which case, you would not benefit by going mobile in regards to your location for the migration.
Permanent camps and lodges tend to be able to over an elevated level of amenity, while mobile camps emphasise location as a priority. However, it’s safe to assume that in a mobile camp you will enjoy great food, good service, a comfortable bed and a hot shower (normally the safari-style bucket shower). Most camps also now have flush toilets, sometimes fully plumbed in and sometimes the short-flush “eco” variety which is better for water conservation.
For many people, the novelty and adventure of sleeping under canvas is part of the safari experience and they’ll opt for a tent every time. You may want to think about combining a mobile camp (such as Serengeti Safari Camp) in one location with a lodge (such as Lamai Serengeti) to both increase your chances of seeing the migration and enjoy the benefits of both styles of camp.
These days, mobile camps are a more cumbersome than they were in the past, catering to the demand for more creature comforts, and their movement is further restricted by availability of camp-sites which often have to be booked up to a year in advance. Most mobile camps take around 4 days to move to a new location, and the choice of location is guided by decades of experience. While 95% of the time the camps get it spot on, they are at the mercy of the vagaries of nature. That said, mobile camps in the Serengeti are still my favourite because I still feel that it is the best way to view this transient spectacle, and they offer more of a vivid safari experience in general.
Marc Harris is Managing Director of Tanzania Odyssey. Tanzania Odyssey is a leading tour operator that has specialised in Tanzania since 1998.