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
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