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There is a famous quote that says it all: “If you can only visit two continents in your lifetime, visit Africa twice”. No matter how much of the world you have explored, Africa really is an utterly magical place imbued with raw beauty, adventure, nostalgia of a bygone era and perhaps the most impressive wildlife spectacles on earth.

On this wild and exotic continent, the landscape changes dramatically as you progress from one country to another — from lush savannahs to undulating sand dunes to soaring mountains that give the impression of piercing the sky. And wherever you are, the signature of the unbounded, bright-coloured plains is an abundance of wild animals.

African cheetahs in Masai Mara National Reserve

In Masai Mara National Reserve, travellers can also enjoy intimate encounters with the swift African cheetah.

For wildlife lovers, the African land is indeed heaven on earth as it is endowed with wonderful game sightings year-round. From the air, the grasslands are in full swing with zebras, giraffes, elephants and rhinos while from a safari jeep, adventurers are able to experience more intimate encounters with idle leopards resting on tree branches, massive elephants trudging peacefully under the scorching hot sun and even with the king of the jungle — the majestic lion — which is incessantly on the lookout for its next prey. Swift cheetahs chasing gazelles and herds of buffalos striking back at lions to rescue one of their family members are not just scenes from a National Geographic documentary.

The most majestic encounters of animals on the move must, however, belong to Africa’s Great Migration, an annual odyssey that sees some 1.5 million wildebeests travelling north through Tanzania’s Serengeti and on to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve before returning south in early autumn. But while wildebeests are the main characters of the show, hundreds of thousands of other animals make the same migration each year and in turn lure many big cats, setting up fantastic lion, cheetah and leopard sightings.

Thomson's gazelles in Serengeti National Park

Some 300,000 Thompson gazelles also make the same migration with the wildebeests each year.

Other than the fast-running plant-eater stars, the spectacle includes zebras and some 300,000 Thompson gazelles, noted African safari experts TQ Magazine interviewed. In the Mara, there are also vast numbers of topi or hartebeests, Jackson hartebeests, large herds of impala and eland, and  plenty of warthogs.

If you’re ready to experience some animal kingdom theatricality in its rawest, purest form, here’s what you need to know.

Understand the path of wildlife

While the migration is generally driven by rain, which dictates where the herds will head to at different times of the year, there is no fixed timetable that travellers can follow.

According to Alan Brown, director of sales and marketing at dmAFRICA, the movement of the animals is not an exact science that can be planned by a calendar. It is totally dependent on when the rains fall and how much rain falls in that particular year. There is a pattern, but it can change.

Wildebeest and the Great Migration

From the air, the grasslands are in full swing with wildebeests. Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 (Harvey Barrison, 2012)

More than a million wildebeests travel across Africa’s parched plains each year, following the rains in search of water and greener pastures. Arriving in the eastern Serengeti around November, the herds gradually move south towards the neighbouring Ngorongoro Crater, where they calve in February and March.

By June, the herds will be based in the north and the Western Corridor. This is also the period when the rains are ending and the dry season is approaching as the migration crosses the Grumeti River in Tanzania.

From July, the migrators will be reaching Kenya’s Masai Mara, the northernmost point of their journey. Between mid-July and September, the plains are completely peppered with wildebeests and zebras. As Shaun Mousley, general manager of Mara Plains Camp of Great Plains Conservation, observed, safari-goers will be “sitting in a plain full of wildebeests with their resounding grunts and snorts, watching the males rounding their ‘harems’ of females and, of course, the opportunity to view kills due to the masses of wildebeests that have arrived.”

Great Migration river crossing

Wildebeests are crossing the croc-infested Mara River risking life and limb every year. Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (Christopher Michel, 2013)

The period between August and October is when the wildebeests will cross the crocodile-infested Mara River risking life and limb, after which they are compelled to cross again to return to eastern Serengeti.

Mousley shared that his favourite month to see the migration is September, when the herds are in their full numbers in Masai Mara National Reserve and the rain stimulates a lot of movement, which is always exciting and interesting to observe.

Great Migration in Africa

The Great Migration includes some 1.5 million wildebeests travelling north through Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Image credit:

Don’t focus solely on river crossings

While the migration itself is a mind-boggling phenomenon to behold, first-time safari-goers should also remember to focus on other aspects of their trip. Seeing millions of big animals in full commotion is a memory every traveller will cherish a lifetime, but planning to only see the river crossings impedes one from admiring the beauty of nature, the spectacular scenery and simply taking in all the vibrant colours, pleasant fragrances and feeling the vibe of the local culture.

Elizma Fourie, African travel designer at Journey Beyond, says that some guests feel that if the herds are not crossing the river and aren’t being eaten by crocodiles, then it is not the Great Migration. According to her, there are few things as spectacular as the massive herds standing on the southern Serengeti Plains during the calving season as the wildebeest calves attract predators and many an impressive lion kill happens during this period.

So, even if the trend among safari-goers appears to be catching the animals in pure action, experts point out that wildebeests are not always on the move and sometimes they simply base themselves at some location to feed, which is why they should focus on their experience holistically. For instance, looking down at the Masai Mara and admiring how the verdant savannah stretches more than the eye can see, is in itself an astonishing experience!

Maasai tribe in Africa

The intriguing tribes of East Africa are a view to behold, and with permission, they are often happy to be photographed. Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (Christopher Michel, 2013)

Follow the wildlife photographer’s golden rules

Africa is known as a photographer’s paradise thanks to its abundance of fauna, staggeringly diverse ecosystems and distinctive culture. In national and private reserves, nature bursts to life during summer rains and lush grasses dominate the landscapes.

During the Great Migration, photographers are treated to ample opportunities to capture Africa’s legendary animals in action — some galloping furiously through clouds of golden dust, some splashing incessantly at river crossings and others ambling peacefully in single lines.

With such a large number of wildlife roaming about the plains, it’s almost impossible not to snap a few impressive shots. So, when packing your bag, make sure to carry a good camera, extra batteries and memory cards. Also, make sure to arm yourself with plenty of patience!

According to Jamie Thom, owner of Conservation Safari Company, the hardest part of snapping a good photo is finding a focal point such as a predator with the herds in the background. Wildebeests, he pointed out, aren’t the prettiest characters to photograph but the best images — captured with long lenses — are of groups moving towards the photographer, with dust and trees as a backdrop.

Also, as your jeep is parked in a vast grassland, always keep your camera close as something spectacular might happen any moment. Fourie of Journey Beyond shared that the best time to take photos is early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the light is at its best and the animals are more active.

She says that besides the wildlife, the scintillating tribes of East Africa are also a view to behold, and with permission, they are often happy to be photographed.

Floating along the Serengeti

Safari-goers can admire the vistas of the verdant plains from a hot air balloon. Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 (Harvey Barrison, 2012)

Be on the lookout for alternative experiences

As much as the dramatic en masse wildlife movement may initially capture your full attention, it’s safe to say that an African safari boasts many other bonus activities for the intrepid traveller.

After following the herds, it’s always fantastic to wrap up your day in front of a boma camp fire, sharing stories of the day’s adventures with guides and guests. During the day, it’s also invigorating to go on bush walks, do tribal cultural visits or experience the quintessential African panorama from a hot air balloon.

Stella Wanjoya, manager of Great Plains Conservation’s Mara Toto Camp, added that other enjoyable activities enhancing the experience of the migration are watching the amazing bird life of the region and sighting the Small Five — the rhinoceros beetle, elephant shrew, stick insect, leopard tortoise and the ant lion.

Make safety your number one priority

During the migration safari, most game watchers will revel in nature’s splendour but they shouldn’t be compelled to show off their mighty odds-defying bravery in the wild. Experiencing a safari means being a disciplined traveller and constantly following the guides’ instructions and tips during game drives, and managers’ insight at the camps.

Journey Beyond’s Fourie explained that safety in the bush is about common sense — the predators rarely intend to make a meal out of tourists, but they are no pets and should not be approached on foot without a guide.

Ultimately, Africa won’t cease to amaze you, so just keep the adventure going and enjoy your time as you sensibly discover the wild!