WHEN GOLDEN PLAINS TURN BLACK
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|April 2021
The Serengeti’s golden plains may be home to the Big Five, but the unsung heroes of these grasslands are its white-bearded wildebeests. Each year, over a million complete a staggering 1,250-mile circuit across Kenya and Tanzania, one of the last intact wildlife migrations on Earth. By creating and maintaining the ecosystem, they are the seams holding it together, performing an ancient dance that still sweeps across the savannah
SARAH MARSHALL
The sound of 8,000 hooves is electrifying. Funnelling down a sheer, dusty drop on the riverbank, the herd roars into the water, tearing at the soil and rupturing trees from their very roots. Locked densely together, this tangle of curled horns elegantly sinks and swirls like a group of debutantes performing a Viennese waltz. But once the first splash is made, any decorum is lost as a survival instinct kicks in. A low, thundering rumble drowns individual cries as the animals focus on one unanimous goal: to reach the other side.

We’d rushed to this point along the Mara River, in the northern Serengeti’s Kogatende area, here in Tanzania. Looking through his binoculars to judge the size of the herd amassing, my ambitious and endlessly energetic Maasai guide, Moinga, had glanced at his watch and declared: “We can make it.” Crashing across granite gullies and swerving through quagmires of sticky black cotton mud, we’d arrived right on cue.

Every summer, in relentless pursuit of new grass, wildebeests cross the watery border to Kenya, before being lured back by rains between October and November and heading hundreds of miles south to calve on the Serengeti’s southern plains. The migration is often synonymous with river crossings like this, but for most people who witness the herbivores’ annual grazing cycle, the primary spectacle to behold is that of vast golden plains painted black.

Spiral back in history, and there were periods when nomadic tribes moved according to the weather. Ancient civilisations would plot their routes based around patterns of stars, their lives revolving around the universe in the same way our Earth obediently orbits the Sun. Most of us have lost that connection, yet many species still survive in harmony with the seasons, and there’s no greater peripatetic existence than that of the white-bearded wildebeest.

Come rain or shine, the 1.3 million-strong East African wildebeest population performs an epic journey across Kenya and Tanzania accompanied by a host of optimistic Thomson’s gazelles and plains zebras who also know the grass is always greener elsewhere. The 1,250-mile circuit they undertake is one of the last intact mammal migrations on Earth.

While fences, roads and all the signs of human habitation have caused many great migratory movements to collapse, the wildebeests have been completing their epic tour of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem for over 100,000 years. A keystone species, the wildebeest represents a giant cog in a wheel that would otherwise fail to turn.

Hordes of vehicles — occasionally outnumbering the wildebeests — have turned river crossings into a circus. But not today. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, most mobile camps remain closed and only a handful of tourists are travelling. “Usually there might be 100 cars here,” explains Moinga, as we drive back through an area where drivers are now required to wait until the crossings start so the animals’ natural migratory pattern isn’t disrupted.

Although I’ve arrived in early November at the tail end of the wildebeests’ exodus (it can shift by several weeks every year), erratic rainfall has caused some back-and-forth, meaning thousands of wildebeests have yet to cross.

Ears still ringing from my first experience, I’m barely prepared for a second stampede. Having driven for 10 minutes along the river, a dark patch is forming on verdant grassland, as swollen storm clouds gather momentum overhead. A few thick droplets have already released a rich petrichor — a blend of sweet, warm air and rich, earthy African soil. Like an aphrodisiac perfume, it’s enough to drive a wildebeest mad.

Science is yet to explain why these animals choose a particular path to traverse. But as the animals stumble down crumbling cliffs, veiled by cinnamon plumes of dust, a whir of calculations is probably taking place.

On this occasion, however, Moinga and I both agree their judgement is poor as they rush toward the river. A zigzag of granite boulders breaks the roaring froth of the Mara — a treacherous obstacle course that also has the potential to snap several vulnerable limbs. I flinch as inexperienced juveniles lodge their spindly legs in crevices and are ultimately drowned by a tsunami of sweat, fear and determination as the herd surges forward in an unstoppable flow. In this moment, life and death hang in a delicate balance. Survivors heave a sigh of relief as they exit the water, leaving wounded stragglers to bow their long faces in inevitable acceptance. There’s no turning back.

Witnessing these types of river crossings and the moving herds of the Great Migration have only really become a draw for travellers in the past 15 years. In 2009, Asilia Africa’s Sayari Camp became the first permanent setup in this northern section of the national park, reopening in September 2020 following a year-long revamp. Interiors inspired by the local Kuria clan and a ‘listening station’ playing traditional songs recorded by musicians in surrounding villages are the closest I can get to any community interaction, due to precautions demanded by Covid-19.

But the greatest recent addition to the camp is the first solar-powered microbrewery in the bush, created in partnership with Swedish startup Wayout. As well as four craft beers, it produces softdrinks and purified water, saving around 200,000 plastic bottles a week. “It’s all computer controlled from Sweden,” says the barman as he pours a pint of IPA for me to toast my day’s game-viewing success. Looking more like a Starbucks Frappuccino, it’s a clear indicator that most Maasai don’t drink.

The waiting game

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER (UK)View All

THE BIRD

THIS Q UIRK Y NEW BOUTIQUE HOTEL OFFERS OUTL ANDISH DECOR AND FOOD FIRMLY ROOTED IN THE SOUTHWEST

2 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Food #11 Spring 2021

Shell out

FROM SEAFOOD LINGUINE TO SPICY MUSSEL S WITH FETA, THESE FOUR REFRESHING SHELLFISH DISHES WILL HELP YOU WELCOME IN THE SPRING SUNSHINE. WORDS: CHRISTIE DIETZ

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Food #11 Spring 2021

SIERRAS CHICAS

Between the pampas and the Andes, within a range of hills called the Sierras Chicas, the 6,500-acre Estancia Los Potreros offers a taste of Argentina’s treasured rural traditions. A working ranch, home to 500 Aberdeen Angus cattle, it’s where lassowielding gauchos on Criollo horses expertly round up the herds, while guests sip mate tea through metal straws and dine on simple classics like gnocchi, empanadas and meat straight from the asado.

2 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Food #11 Spring 2021

Land of plenty

At Svanholm, Denmark’s largest commune, residents don’t just cook and eat together — they grow and rear the ingredients for their meals too. And the produce is so good it has top chefs from Copenhagen and beyond travelling here to buy it

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Food #11 Spring 2021

BAKING SODA BREAD

WITH JUST A HANDFUL OF INGREDIENTS AND NO YEAST, TR ADITIONAL IRISH SODA BREAD IS SIMPLE TO M AKE, ESPECIALLY WITH EXPERT INSTRUCTION

2 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Food #11 Spring 2021

Pastis A PROVENÇALE PASSION

In the south of France, in and around the city of Marseille, a new generation of artisanal distillers are breathing fresh life — and flavours — into the region’s beloved aniseed aperitif

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Food #11 Spring 2021

MICHAEL ELÉGBÈDÉ THE PIONEER

AT HIS L AGOS RESTAUR ANT, CHEF MICHAEL ELÉGBÈDÉ HA S TAKEN IN SPIR ATION FROM ALL OVER NIGERIA . THE RESULT IS A STRIKING FINE DINING MENU REFLEC TING THE DIVERSE L ANDSCAPES AND COM MUNITIES OF HIS HOME COUNTRY. WORDS: L AUREN JADE HILL

6 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Food #11 Spring 2021

DINE IN & OUT LERPWL

ELLIS BARRIE’S NEW VENTURE LAUNCHED LATER THAN PLANNED, BUT IT — LIKE THE FOOD — IS WORTH THE WAIT

5 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Food #11 Spring 2021

ALL RISE

When it comes to breakfast, many of us have a routine we depend upon. Yet there’s always room for a bit of fresh thinking. From Bury black pudding and Mexican chilaquiles to Indian idli and Turkish menemen, here are 12 ways to shake things up — and add a little magic to your mornings

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Food #11 Spring 2021

QUITO

Emerging from the shadow of its gastronomic neighbours, Ecuador shines as an exciting hub for South American cuisine, with a new generation of chefs rediscovering the country’s incredible produce.

7 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
April 2021
RELATED STORIES

This time for Africa

Georgia educator spearheads effort to get computers to Tanzania

7 mins read
Certification Magazine
April 2020

PASSION PLAY

AS THE FOUNDER OF HOOPS2O, INDIANA PACERS GUARD MALCOLM BROGDON IS HELPING BRING CLEAN, DRINKABLE WATER TO PEOPLE WHO DESPERATELY NEED IT.

4 mins read
Slam
May - June 2020

From Mediocrity to Greatness

NANCY SUMARI, former Miss Tanzania and Miss World (Africa), is also a published author of children’s books, a businesswoman and social entrepreneur. Here she speaks with PURNIMA RAMAKRISHNAN as part of the GLOW Webinar series, on her roots, being crowned Miss World, the work she has been doing with children and youth, and the role of the heart.

9 mins read
Heartfulness eMagazine
March 2020

Green Dreams In Tanzania

Africa has its own seasons.

4 mins read
Business Traveler
March 2020

A Different Kind Of Inflation Problem

The world’s helium stores are running low. Prices are soaring, and it’s not just party balloons at risk of going unfilled. Two geologists say they’ve stumbled on a supply that could transform a whole country.

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
September 02, 2019

The Solar Company Making a Profit on Poor Africans

M-Kopa plans to be a $1 billion company by selling solar panels to rural residents and providing them with credit.

10 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 07 - 13, 2015

Safari - On the Wild Side

Encounter rare sightings on a South African safari.

6 mins read
Global Traveler
October 2015

The Intelligent Traveller

TIPS AND TRICKS TO HELP YOU TRAVEL SMARTER

4 mins read
Travel+Leisure India
March 2021

Messages From a Time-Honored Trip

Chinese foreign minister’s visit to Africa consolidates creation of a closer community

4 mins read
China Africa (English)
February 2021

MY COUNTRY PASSION Star trail photography

Lockdown gave international interiors photographer Mark Nicholson the opportunity to see the night sky and planetary constellations through a new lens

2 mins read
Country Homes & Interiors
January 2021