Tour operators and property owners await the wildebeest migration into Kenya’s Mara from the Serengeti like most Kenyans await the rains. Well, it’s arrived!
Kenya’s Maasai Mara at any time of the year is a fabulous place to game view. The gently rolling grasslands, numerous watercourses and occasional tall hill provide all the conditions for outstanding animal viewing. But it is the fact that the Mara is the wettest place of all East African protected wildernesses that seals the deal.
Last year I was privileged to be in the Mara on June 16 when the first several thousand wildebeest straggled across the Sand River towards Keekorok Lodge. The privilege continued this year with my first family safari of the season when ten or twenty times as many surged into the entire bottom southeast of the Mara on June 23.
Whitney, the grandfather, had been on one of my Serengeti migration safaris before, and he so wanted his family to experience something similar. I knew this, and he knew that a June safari anywhere in either Tanzania or Kenya is iffy with regards to the migration. This is because the migration is triggered by rains and no-rains, and predicting the weather – especially in this erratic period of climate change – is very difficult.
Whitney and Ada had experienced the optimum, so we all knew we couldn’t achieve that. Almost all the wildebeest herd is found in the southern Serengeti in March and April. In the best of years, less than half that number reach Kenya later on. But like so many family safaris, the schedule has to be determined by the children’s school year and summer schedules. So, we crossed our fingers.
As I’ve written many times recently, East Africa is in the second year of a dry spell, which in some places is a true drought. The Serengeti has experienced a similar patchwork of rains and no-rains, with the large majority of the area much drier than usual.
But the Mara is as wet as ever. Now an important word of caution. Many of the Mara’s river, including the Mara itself, are fed in the escarpments and hills west and north of the park where it’s been miserably dry. So the rivers are very low. I really must admit that I’ve never seen the Mara River so low, and this will likely have a number of significant effects.
But rain over the grasslands has not stopped. The grass in the southern part of the park is nearly four feet high. The Sand River, which is fed by run-off of the rains, is actually more than its usual trickle. That’s all the wildebeest needed to know.
I saw huge lines of wilde down the main Lobo road with my binoculars on June 24, so we decided to alter our program and take our morning game drive on June 25 towards the Sand River gate. This is the southeast most part of the Mara.
What a brilliant idea, even if I do say so myself! The massive herds – much larger than last year – were surging across the river into Kenya. We arrived around 7:30a, and I expect the surge began sometime the night before, because hyaena were having a heyday. I saw a jackal and a hyaena eating side-by-side! That’s ridiculous, and it meant there was so much food available that their normal enmity had been overcome.
There were rib cages, legs, feet, hides of wildebeest all over the place. This area of the Mara doesn’t usually have this high density of hyaena, but they knew, just as they know when birthing is about to begin.
This is an area of beautifully defined rolling grasslands that are separated by deep valleys. Most of the area was filled with wildebeest, “little black dots” as Ezra would explain. But yes, thousands and thousands of little black dots.
Getting close was so much fun. The wildebeest sonorous and quite varied speech is called “blarting” and is so enticing I’ve never had a customer who hasn’t tried to blart back!
We obtained permission to go through the gate towards Tanzania. Hardly 50m from the gate we encountered three lion, sated to the extreme, in the high grass. What was so comical was that there were several hundred wilde about 20 feet away from them! They couldn’t move, they were so full.
Later we’d see a beautiful male lion casually dining on a less than fully butchered wilde. His mane was among the best I’ve ever seen.
We drove up to the old, scratched cement sign which towers above the road and says, “You are now entering the Serengeti National Park. Welcome to Tanzania.”
That brought waves of nostalgia for the days before 1978 when we could proceed into the locus of the herds, which was undoubtedly between Balanganjwe and Lobo. But no longer. Since then, you can’t cross between the two countries at this point. So we turned back, yet euphoric at the wonderful experience we’d been having that morning.
Even had the migration not arrived, the Mara would have pleased us all. We found leopard, so wonderfully in the open during the morning, that you couldn’t have wished for better. We saw collections of animals – topi, impala, hartebeest, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe – framed by the little hazy mountains of a distant horizon that the Mara is so famous for.
But true, even in this economic downturn, the Mara seemed crowded. Much less than in year’s past, but infinitely more than during my migration safaris in March and April when we seem to have thousands of square miles to ourselves.
As the day ended on Lookout Hill above our camp on the Sand River, everyone paused to watch a spectacular sunset. A sun, hidden moments before by thick clouds, appeared just above the horizon as a deep red-orange orb that flared the sky with pastel blues and mauve and streaks of red. “We couldn’t have asked for better,” Whitney said.