What is the Great Migration and When is the Best Time to Go On an East Africa Vacation?

Outdoors & Animals

Zebras and Wildebeests Walking Beside the Lake with Flamingos in the background in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The Great Migration is simply like nothing else on Earth. Perhaps you’ve seen the migration before on a Kenyan safari or you’ve only seen Disney’s The Lion King and wondered what a wildebeest stampede looked like for real. No matter your experience with African wildlife, the Great Migration will amaze you on your East Africa vacation.

Well over one million animals migrate across one of the most robust environments on the planet in order to eat and reproduce. Lion and hyena thin out large portions of the herd while other animals simply die of exhaustion. This is the game of life and death played out on one of the planet’s most fantastic stages.

What is the Great Migration?

The Great Migration is the name for the movement of over 1.5 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelle during the dry season on the East African savanna. The herds move around 2,000 kilometres from the southern expanse of the Serengeti plains and Ngorongoro Crater over the borders of Kenya to Maasai Mara National Reserve and back down to the southern Serengeti again in search of food and water.

However, while named the Great Migration, this movement of animals is not a simple trip from point A to B. No migration ever is. Instead of a simple back and forth movement between Tanzania and Kenya, the Great Migration is a clockwise cycle of movement that wildebeest undergo every year in order to find food and water and rear their young during seasonal change.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Ngorongoro Crater
Masai warrior looking out over the Masai Mara

An Ever-Moving Cycle

In January, the herds are at the southern plains of the Serengeti. In January and February, the wildebeest give birth to their young on these southern plains. The entire wildebeest herd produces around 300,000 calves within the brief period of two to three weeks. While lion and hyena are common on these southern plains, the calves are too many for the predators to prey on in their entirety. Furthermore, wildebeest calves are incredible animals that can stand after two to three minutes and be off running with the herd at just five minutes old.

Wildebeest Crossing the Mara River, Kenya
Wildebeest crossing the Mara River, Kenya

In March and April, the wildebeest herd moves north and west, to the central and western reaches of the Serengeti, near Lake Victoria. During the long rains of April, the rut occurs, when the wildebeest mate after complex territorial rituals by males. In June and July, the great crossing of the Serengeti happens in earnest. Wildebeest cross over the Grumeti River and eventually the Mara River to reach Kenya.

If you were travelling to Kenya and Tanzania in August and September, you’d see the central Serengeti dry up and the entirety of the herd arrive in Maasai Mara National Reserve and the northernmost reaches of the Serengeti, past the Mara River. In October and November, the low rains begin and vegetation starts returning to the flood plain in the south. The herd starts to move back south, along the eastern fringes, only to settle in the south for birthing and the long rains of spring.

However, this traditionally-predictable routine is ever changing. Weather is never the same from one year to the next, and the effects of climate change have exacerbated the divergence from year to year. The rains of the Serengeti are becoming increasingly irregular. Some years see early downpours while others have suffered from extended drought, which upsets the natural balance of the herds.

Witnessing the Great Migration on the Serengeti plains is one of the great experiences a person can have on their Africa vacation. Everyone who has the chance to stand up in their jeep and gaze out on thousands of animals moving across the magnificent plans should take that chance. But it’s important to be aware of the current challenges facing these animals and their ecosystem, if you’re to fully cherish this natural wonder.

Jeep migration safari in the Masai, Kenya
Jeep migration safari in the Masai

Best Time of Year to Visit

Kenya and Tanzania don’t have the traditional Western four seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter. Instead, the seasons are mostly divided into a wet and dry season, with mini-wet and dry seasons happening in between. June to September is the dry season. Temperatures are warm and rain is infrequent. The low rains begin in late October followed by the mini-dry season, while the true wet season is April through May.

The best time to see the Great Migration is during the dry season, between July and early October. It’s warm, weather is stable, and animals are abundant. The sparse vegetation and dried-up waterways force the animals to head up north to find food and drink.

If you visit in November or December, you’ll still see wildebeest and zebra, but the movements will not be as pronounced as during July and August. Just be sure to avoid April and May if you’re hoping to catch the Migration. The animals haven’t left the southwest yet and the torrential rains flood the Serengeti and make travel difficult.

Wildebeest and Zebras Grazing in the Savannah, Tanzania
Wildebeest and zebras grazing in the Savannah

Your Ideal Vantage Point

Since the Great Migration involves over 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra, and 400,000 gazelle, it’s hard not to catch the action. That’s an enormous number of animals! Still, certain places are better than others to see this amazing movement of animals. Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya are your best vantage points on a Tanzanian or Kenyan safari. However, the herds don’t all move in exact unison. For instance, zebra are more likely to reach Maasai Mara before wildebeest as they’re slightly faster.

The Grumeti River which runs horizontally across Serengeti National Park is an ideal spot to witness wildebeest drinking and crossing. Crocodiles populate the river and often attack unsuspecting wildebeest as they ferry across. Wildebeest have to cross the river to reach the grazing lands of the north despite the abundant predators, so the crossing is a necessary feat of sacrifice and desperation. It’s a harrowing display of life and death.

Wildebeest-chasing crocodile in Mara River, Masai Mara, Kenya
Wildebeest-chasing crocodile in Mara River

The Mara River similarly runs northeast through Serengeti National Park into Narok Country in Kenya. The migrating herds have to cross the Mara to get to the vegetation of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, so you’ll catch them at the crossings.

It’s also common to see a lion or cheetah take down wildebeest, as Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve are home to thousands of predators. In fact, Maasai Mara National Reserve has one of the highest concentrations of lions in the world. The wildebeest calves, born only short while before, are key targets for these predators. Cheetah especially focus on the calves as their frames are much slighter than those of lions, and an adult wildebeest might prove too large to attack.

Cheetah Searching out Zebra for Prey, Masai Mara, Kenya
Cheetah searching out zebra for prey, Masai Mara
Two Lionesses with Four Cubs on a Termite Hill enjoying the sun in Masai Mara, Kenya
Two lionesses with four cubs on a termite hill enjoying the sun in Masai Mara

Make 2017 Your Migration Year

There’s no reason to wait to see this magnificent spectacle for yourself on an Africa vacation.

There are plenty of excellent places to stay in and around Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve. Goway offers an abundance of trips, even for a first-time Globetrotter, focusing on the Serengeti and the Great Migration

In Tanzania and Kenya you’ll see feats of life and death – animal struggles familiar only from nature programs on your television screen – play out in front of you. You’ll witness the imposing herds of wildebeest and zebra move across the East African savanna in one of the world’s greatest migrations.

You won’t be disappointed.

Suggested Itineraries:
9-Day Jambo Kenya Safari

Zebras, Wildebeest and Jeep in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Safari jeep in the midst of zebra and wildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater
  • Eichhorn26

    Going on an African safari is one of the highest things on my bucket list. When I go, I really want to make sure I have the best shot at seeing the Great Migration and a number of animals. I am looking at a trip from Aug 21-Sept 4. Any recommendations for if the 14 day itinerary is significantly better than the 9 day?