Take a sweeping stretch of savannah dotted with acacia trees exquisitely sculpted by nature and National Geographic-worthy encounters with Africa’s Big Five—and you have the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s famed wildlife reserve. And, if the stars are aligned during your visit, you’ll bear witness to one of the world’s most remarkable natural events: the Great Migration. Named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, this mass movement of wildlife is a spectacle like no other.
Each year from July to September, 1.5 million wildebeests are joined by 300,000 zebras and gazelles as they make the clockwise journey from the plains of the Serengeti to the water and greener pastures of the Maasai Mara. Together, the two regions connected by Tanzania and Kenya constitute one massive ecosystem.
To observe the phenomenon, timing is everything. But the Great Migration is influenced by the rainfall, so it’s impossible to predict exactly when it will occur each year.
I travelled to Kenya the first week in September of 2011 and had accepted long before my departure that I would arrive too late for the wildlife exodus, including its most dramatic episode: the perilous crossing of the Mara River by thunderous swarms of wildebeests. It’s the stage for a gripping, life-and-death scene, where the wildebeests must survive the danger of the water’s currents, the stampede of its own herd and the jaws of the Nile crocodiles that lie in wait.
But travel can be full of surprises. As my group of four set off on safari, by a sheer stroke of luck, we were informed by our guide that we may have won the wildlife lottery. If we hurried, we may actually get to the Mara River just in time for the crossing.
We didn’t make it (“Hakuna Matata” as the Kenyans would say)—but we did settle for the post-river tail end of the migration.
And what did we see? A mass of grazing wildebeest, zebras and gazelles—the lucky survivors of the climactic river crossing—spread out far into the horizon until they were mere specks against the distant, rolling plains of green. We had driven right into a scene of the BBC’s Planet Earth, an open terrain ruled by a kingdom of African lions, cheetahs and leopards.
Without the 1.5 million wildebeests, the Maasai Mara is still a world-class wildlife reserve inhabited by 570 species of birds, 95 species of mammals and Africa’s largest concentration of predators. It’s where the circle of life plays out in raw, uncensored fashion to the thrill of safari-goers.
Unfortunately, as one might expect, the Maasai Mara attracts a herd of a different kind: Tourists. After wildlife spottings our guide would, at times, feed its location to his network of peers by radio, which then led to a scene more akin to a zoo.
When the situation was reversed and my guide was the recipient of the intelligence, we’d speed off to the location of the wildlife, where we patiently waited behind other vehicles for a coveted spot for observation.
The human traffic was disenchanting at times, but don’t be so quick to cross a Maasai Mara safari off your travel bucket list. It’s still one of the greatest wildlife attractions on earth—with or without the spectacle of the migration (or a telephoto lens, although I regret to this day not having it with me).
And, for a more peaceful experience, I recommend extending your safari to include a national park that’s less congested with tourists such as Amboseli and/or Lake Nakuru. They may not boast the same variety of wildlife as the Maasai Mara, but they’re worthy destinations in their own right with different environments.
Our planet is vast and, together with its inhabitants of the animal kingdom, gloriously beautiful.
In the grasslands of the African wild, I was humbled by the heightened awareness of my infinitesimal place in it. And I returned home with a profound appreciation for wildlife that no city zoo could ever kindle.
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If you’ve been to the Maasai Mara or witnessed the Great Migration, tell me about your experience in the comments below!