The Two Sides of the Great Migration
The annual wildebeest migration, the Great Migration, is rightfully known as the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth.
For many people around the world the Great Migration epitomises the ultimate African safari experience and is still one of the quintessential bucket list items that any wildlife and nature enthusiast should tick off of their list at least once.
Wildlife photographers also know that the Migration offers incredible photographic opportunities and many portfolios and award winning images have been captured during the annual journey of more than 1.5 million Wildebeest and roughly 500,000 Zebra through the Mara Serengeti ecosystem.
For the last 8 years I have been hosting Great Migration safaris in Kenya’s Mara Triangle and it never disappoints. Year after year I have been blown away but the intensity, the drama and beautifully raw visuals of the African story that is the Great Migration.
A few years ago I visited Ndutu in the southern Serengeti where Marlon and I hosted a Migration Calving Safari during which we experienced a very different side to the Migration. The massive herds was there, plus a few brand new youngsters, but the actual Migration experience was very different. Not better or worse, just different.
Before we carry on let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.
The Great Migration takes place in a clockwise circle through Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara as mega-herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle go in search of rain and grass.
Enough has been written with regards to the Migration and and where it takes place so I’m not going to rehash the details. What I want to focus on is the difference between the Migration experience between Kenya’s Mara Triangle where we base ourselves and the Wild Eye camp from June to October for our Great Migration photo safaris and Tanzania’s southern Serengeti where we host our annual Best of Serengeti Migration safaris each February and March.
Many people have asked what the difference is between seeing the Migration in the Mara versus in the Serengeti and during our 7 day safari a few weeks ago I thought about this and in the end the answer was quite simple.
If you look at it from a very simplistic point of view the Great Migration is made up of massive herds of wildebeest, zebra and other ungulates walking in a very big circle. Make no mistake, the incredible scale of it is most definitely something to behold and bucket list worthy but, again looking at it from a very basic point of view, on their own these animals are pretty calm and just keep on grazing and walking and grazing and walking.
That said, by introducing tension into the scene everything changes – everything – and the wildebeest suddenly, unbeknownst to them become the focus, the lead actors, of an incredible African wildlife story.
As we drove through the flat, open plains of the Serengeti on the first afternoon I initially felt like something was missing.
Having spend most of my time in the Mara I was used to an underlying excitement – tension – which all had to do with river crossings. As the herds start building to cross the Mara river the tension is palpable and when the first wildebeest or zebra hits the water all that built up tension just explodes.
The Great Migration experience in the Mara all revolves around the crossings!
If we now focus our attention on the Serengeti, the southern part of the wildebeests’ journey, the tension shifts slightly.
There are no rivers to cross and no build ups as the herds approach the water. The tension created by the inevitable river crossings isn’t there but that doesn’t mean that the experience is any less exciting.
In the Mara there are a lot of lions, leopards and cheetahs and yes, you do get to see a lot of them but the focus is the river crossings.
In the Serengeti there are also a lot of big cats and during this part of the Migration they introduce the tension.
The interaction, or even potential interaction, that the big cats and hyenas have with the massive herds of wildebeest, is what elevates the energy and tension just like the river crossings do in the Mara. The difficult thing from a photographic point of view is that in order to get the scenes of the interaction you have to manage three variables. Your position, what the cat is doing and what the herds are doing. This can prove to be frustratingly challenging and you will need a bit of luck to get the big cat interacting with wildebeest in order to capture the true drama.
That said, it’s probably no more challenging than any other photo safari where you are photographing animals doing what they do. Photographing a river crossing in the Mara makes for, to a certain extent, easier shooting as once a crossing starts you know where to focus your photographic attention. The target area is not as variable as trying to line up a scene which includes a big cats and a wildebeest but the challenge here lies in isolating the shots you want from the chaos and massive herds as they crash through the river.
Here are a few images we got in the Serengeti during a 6 night safari of the big cats, and hyenas, as they created tension in and around the herds of migratory wildebeest.
Most of the interactions that we photograph between predator and prey – tension – ends badly for the wildebeest.
The stalk, the chase, the takedown, the kill, the feeding, the interaction – all of these moments make for great game viewing, and potentially great wildlife images, but if you don’t include the herds of wildebeest in the frame, like in some of the image above, then the image could have been taken pretty much anywhere as their is no context to carry the narrative of the migration story you are trying to tell.
During our 6 day safari we saw a number of cheetah hunts, cheetah cubs and lots and lots of lions. Make no mistake, the game viewing in Ndutu was absolutely amazing but after spending a few days on the open plains with the migratory herds, looking for and photographing the tension created by the cats, we changed our focus – mostly due to quite heavy vehicle traffic we encountered at sightings on the plains – to the cats in the Acacia tortilis forests along the shores of Lake Ndutu.
The images we got had nothing to do with the migration per se but it made for next level wildlife photography opportunities.
Amazing wildlife sightings no doubt, but not linked to the migration other than it was taken during one of our Serengeti Migration safaris.
So, back to the question as to the difference between experiencing the Migration in Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti. Like I mentioned earlier – for me it comes down to tension. The wildebeest are pretty much the same but it’s the stories that play out when you introduce the Mara River or the big cats into the equation is what makes the experience.
So where should you go to experience and photograph the Great Migration?
One is not necessarily better than the other and your choice of where to go needs to revolve around what you expect to see. If you want to see the iconic river crossings that East Africa is so famous for then you need to visit the Masai Mara between July and October. Yes, you will also see big cats.
If you want to see large herds of wildebeest, loads of baby wildebeest and big cat interaction with the herds then you need to visit Ndutu and the southern Serengeti between February and March.
It is quite unfair to compare the two parts of the migration just as it is unfair to compare Madikwe to, for example, the Sabi Sand. Your choice of where to go should be, like I’ve mentioned before, based on your expectations of the safari and what you hope to see. If you want to see leopards go to Sabi. If you want to see Wild Dogs go to Madikwe. Both are awesome.
Now if you had to push me for an answer as to which of the two trips to do first I would have to go the the Mara. The fact that you can see the Great Migration, river crossings, big cats and incredible landscapes makes for an amazing experience for both the first time and more seasoned nature lovers and wildlife photographers. Tanzania, a very very close second, is just as great and makes for incredible images and truly next level big cat photography while you still have the massive herds of migrating wildebeest in the mix.
Again, it comes down to what YOU want to see and photograph.
First prize? Do both!
Until next time.