The Gnu & Its Wanderlust – The Great Wildebeest Migration In The Serengeti

We very nearly missed the river crossings we had come to the Serengeti to witness.

Rains arrived early this year. And the wildebeest herds, following some primal genetic coding that propels them on an arduous trek across the Savannah in search of fresh new grass, had already moved to the Northern plains. Perhaps even crossed over to the Masai Mara. The worry was that they would be well on their return journey into Southern Serengeti by the time we reached the North.

Some people mistakenly assume – or are led to believe – that the cross border migration of wildebeest is a seasonal occurence exclusive to the Masai Mara in Kenya between July to September. In actual fact the great migration is a year round phenomenon in which over two million herbivores – around one and a half million wildebeest along with zebra and gazelle numbering nearly six hundred thousand – follow the rain collectively in an 1800 mile long clockwise loop. And the bulk of this ‘greatest mammalian movement on earth’ takes place in the Serengeti in Tanzania.

It is therefore technically possible to catch the migrating herds at any time of the year at a corresponding location. Roughly based on their movements in preceding years: Jan – Feb in the Southern plains for synchronised calving, Mar – May heading North along the Western corridor, June to early July along the Grumeti river, July – August around the Mara river and plains, Aug to Oct in Kogatende in the North as well as across the border in Masai Mara. Then back again to the South along Seronera in Central Serengeti to repeat the sequence all over again. A cycle they have been repeating for God knows how long!

One million year old fossil finds prove their seasonal presence in the Olduvai Gorge (where the Leakey’s researched the origin of man). Scientific mapping of herds only began in the late fifties, thanks to the efforts of Bernhard Grzimek (whose book; “the Serengeti shall not die”, was instrumental in the creation of the Serengeti National Park) and his young son Michael Grzimek. The latter died in a plane crash during the process and is buried in Ngorongoro.

An accurate pattern of movement is naturally impossible to predict, and is hugely dependent on the rain Gods playing by the rules.When they don’t, well, you keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.

We did just that. And managed to catch one tail end crossing across the Kogatende river on our first day in the North, and three in a row on the second!

If we had only arrived a couple of weeks earlier we would have witnessed giant herds crossing incessantly for hours. We were told we could have gone back to our lodge for lunch and returned to find them still crossing! That would have been some spectacle! But as it was, what we did get to see was pretty special.

Wildebeest river crossing - Serengeti National Park

Wildebeest river crossing - Serengeti National Park

Wildebeest river crossing - Serengeti National Park

Wildebeest river crossing - Serengeti National Park

Wildebeest river crossing - Serengeti National Park

Wildebeest river crossing - Serengeti National Park

Wildebeest river crossing - Serengeti National Park
Bravo! All across without incident, and none ended up as croc fodder!

Our most dramatic encounter however –  a National Geographic experience, George (our guide/driver) called it – was a wildebeest road crossing earlier in the safari in Central Serengeti.Rain in the distance and a few stalking lions behind, triggered the massing (herding) of a large splinter group that George figured was headed in our direction. So we retreated further back allowing them space. Not all drivers were as sensitive however, and we were dumbfounded by a couple of vehicles that drove right into the midst of the agitated group.

I have carefully edited out my choice exclamations at this grossly insensitive behaviour and hubby's concerned clucking from the video below :-)

After several false starts it took one plucky gnu to set hundreds of hooves thundering straight past us in a humongous cloud of dust, and galloping off into the promisingly dark horizon. It was George’s foresight and sensitivity that afforded us this ringside view of one of the most exciting spectacles we have ever witnessed. Thank you George!

As the last of the wildebeest rushed across, George turned around and let out a cry.

Peering through the haze right behind us, with a comical “What just happened?” expression on his face was this bewildered lion…part of the same pride that was foiled by another ungulate herd the day before.

Lion - Serengeti

An aside for the word lovers and etymology nerds amongst you: It is assumed (among other interpretations) that the call of the wildebeest (‘wild cattle’ in Dutch for lack of a better name for this strange animal at the time.) is the source of the name Gnu. But were you aware that the collective noun is “an implausibility of Gnus“?

GREAT MIGRATION TRAVEL GUIDE

BEST TIME TO GO:

As mentioned above, the migration is a year round affair and large herds will be on the move year round in the elliptical loop. The highlights that you might want to witness are the following:

Synchronised Calving: Jan – Feb in the Southern plains. I hope to witness this someday…Godwilling.

Grumeti River Crossings: May to early July.

Mara Plains & River Crossings: August – early October. This is a wide stretch moving from the lower Mara plains up to Kogatende in the North as well as across the border in Masai Mara, Kenya before they head south into central Serengeti again.

It is good to remember that these are wild creatures and will most likely not stick to a convenient schedule. They’ve been known to reach the river and not cross for days. Or cross numerous times without break in a single day. So much will depend on weather patterns and even more on luck.

More from Africa:
The Captivating Landscape Of Tarangire
Elephant Crossing
Rubbing Shoulders With Siverbacks

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

138 thoughts on “The Gnu & Its Wanderlust – The Great Wildebeest Migration In The Serengeti

  1. Such stunning photos Madhu ~ this is a moment to never forget, and what a perfect view and scene of the craziness. such a great video as well to see this stampede. Wonderful.

    1. The crocs were bloated with gnu meat by then Dallas, so they didn’t even budge from their basking spots further up river! 🙂

  2. Beautiful, beautiful shots Madhu – the colours really pop out! It was the first time I’ve ever heard of the word “gnu” so that sent me on a quick google search. I’m glad you also captured a road crossing on video… I loved seeing the wildebeest in motion, and hearing their hooves hit the ground!

    1. Thanks James. I had heard of the Gnu, but hadn’t realised the two were one and the same! The roa crossing was even more breathtaking if that wee possible!

  3. Mindblowing to watch! so amazing that you got to see this, and loved reading about it..thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Very belated thanks dear Marina! Catching up – rather guiltily – on some of my old posts as you can see 🙂

  4. I couldn’t wait to see your next post and I am so glad you didn’t miss it all. I was thrilled to come to the thunderous dusty audio as it was my second thought after seeing the photographs! Like being there! Loved it ! Happy New Year to you both!

  5. Good Morning
    I discover your blog and trips! beautiful made here to the crossing of Gnus and problem crocodiles

  6. Awesome — thank you for taking us along! I loved in the video around 1:00 in where you can see the dust kicked up by the movement of the beasts behind the treeline, as the front line is moving, really giving depth to the masses you were watching. But, your photos are amazing — they really capture the sensation of movement, and the details are beautiful.

    1. The excitement we felt is hard to express in words or images Kat. The video perhaps helps to some extent. I really need to concentrate on my vlogging skills! 🙂

  7. What a priceless unforgettable experience Madhu! Thanks also for the ‘implausibility of gnus’, don’t you wish you’d come up with that one? 🙂

    1. It is David. And it seemed never ending at the time. Must be impressive beyond words at the height of the migration!

  8. Such an incredible sight you witnessed and dramatic photos you took, Madhu! Watching the greatest mammalian movement on earth is clearly something you’ll never forget, I believe. I’m curious with those less sensitive drivers though — is there any regulation which says how close a vehicle can stay from the animals?

    1. Yes, this tops our list of unforgettable experiences Bama. And yes there are rules about going off road (completely disallowed) and getting too close to wildlife. But they are hard to enforce. I am guessing guides/drivers could lose their licenses if someone reports the incident.

  9. Oh Dear! That was amazing. Almost like a motion picture unfolding in front of your eyes. Just amazing. Serengeti is there on my bucket list too, on the top. Your post is inspiring, loved every bit of it.

  10. As in the collective of Gnus is implausibly large? I’ll bet they were, in the old days! Wonderful post, Madhu, thrilling pix. Real National Geographic stuff. This safari of yours just gets more and more absorbing. Happy New Year!

    1. So nice to find you here, Meredith! I hopped over to Wanderlust to wish you HNY and tell you that I had fish and chips today in Whitby 🙂 Comments disabled so never mind. Excuse me for butting in, Madhu.

  11. What an unforgettable experience, Madhu. Your photos of the Wildebeest crossing, are too wonderful, and how amazing to see that lion up so close. Love the collective noun for Gnus. 🙂

  12. I’ve watched this on the Discovery or National Geographic Channels. That built in urge is brutal on the river crossings. I always sit on the edge of my chair willing those poor animals to cross without being caught by crocs. Another brilliant post.

    1. Thanks Ian. Thankfully the worst of the croc attacks were over and the fattened slobs weren’t the least bit interested in these creatures 🙂

  13. Breathtaking Madhu! I am in awe whenever I see this program on NG. Happy New Year to you and your family.

  14. After our safari in Botswana, which was extraordinary, we promised ourselves we would be back to see the migration. Had the trip all planned and paid when a health issue got in the way. We WILL be there some day, but in the meanwhile Madhu, your post put me right in the middle of YOUR experience. Thanks so much for the fabulous New Years gift, and all the best to you in 2015

    1. Thanks Tina. Hope you do get to witness this. I am hoping to time a return during the birthing season someday.

  15. Madhu, this was a breathtakingly beautiful post. I feel so privileged just to have shared it with you. What an incredible set of pictures….you have had a spectacular year, and I have followed it avidly. All the best for 2015!

  16. You always have such wonderful posts, Madhu. You are so lucky to experience events such as this in person. Thank you for sharing with the rest of us. 🙂

  17. What amazing photos and what a wonderful experience. I’m glad you had your National Geographic moment! And thank you for the etymologies – I am a word-nerd. The collective noun particularly delighted me.

    Did I thank you for all the pleasures you have given me since I encountered you in the blogosphere? And can I thank our much loved friend Christine for the connection. I’m looking forward to the places you’ll take me in 2015 – may it be a splendid year for you.

  18. You have captured the migration really well, awesome clicks! Btw, how do you pronounce Gnu – is it Guh-noo?

  19. Amazing photos, Madhu! You must have a really good camera along with your awesome eye! 🙂 Wishing you a wonderful new year filled with more (safe) adventure!

    1. Thanks Lauren. I have an entry level DSLR, with a very basic and practical lens, that I am still not very adept with, but I guess it serves the purpose 🙂

  20. Language comes up trumps again, Madhu! How impossibly apt 🙂 What a fabulous adventure. I hardly dare think what you have planned for 2015 but I hope it’s a good one for you 🙂

  21. That was a truckload of very useful information. Should have been a wonderful experience for sure. Thanks for this lovely post, Madhu!

  22. Those are breathtaking images and a brilliant write-up, Madhu. I cannot even begin imagining the hardships and patience you might have undergone capturing the story.

    Wish you a Happy New Year and many more scintillating posts.

  23. Truly spectacular scenes! That must have been similar to what the buffalo herds looked like in the American West before the white man almost exterminated them for sport. I would love to see this with my own eyes some day…

  24. implausibility of gnus! how interesting 🙂 that was a fascinating link Madhu. I really enjoyed reading it.and i didnt know that the migration was a year-round affair…really enjoyed the pictures too! thanks so much for sharing this fantastic post!

  25. an implausibility! who gnu! 🙂
     
    so enjoyed this, Madhu. thank you for sharing your adventures. this must have been such a thrill to see.

  26. Wonderful snaps. Such lively pics. It seems the animals so busy around in their own life. Awesome one. Loved your post. Keep posting with lots more.

  27. A beautiful and exciting pictorial with interesting write-ups. I always learn something new like in Bernhard Grzimek’s popular “Serengeti shall not die”, He prophesied in his book: “Large cities continue to proliferate. In the coming decades and centuries, men will not travel to view marvels of engineering, but they will leave the dusty towns in order to behold the last places on earth where God’s creatures are peacefully living”. Very powerful indeed!

    Thanks Madhu and a very happy New Year!

  28. National Geographic Experience indeed!!! Spectacular and crazy good! One of the best blog shares of nature experience I’ve read. Very enviable.

  29. What an amazing experience and such fantastic photos! We were in the Serengeti just before the river crossing and thousands of wildebeest and zebra were all grouped together a few miles from the river but we unfortunately didn’t get to see the actual river crossing. I still loved every second of it though. Fab post!

    1. Thank you very much Ayla. The river crossings can be a bit dicey to time. We were lucky to catch the tail end. I agree with you that a drive through the Serengeti is amazing even without these extras.

  30. Absolutely incredible! Eli is going to Zambia in June to experience some sort of wildlife safari with a friend who works in the Peace Corps there, but North Africa is as far as I have ventured on that continent. One day…
    Thanks so much for amazing photos and riveting storytelling. The photo of the lion is the icing on the cake!

    1. Thank you for reading Naomi. That lion made us laugh. I wished I had the presence of mind to capture him in my video! 🙂

  31. A fabulous experience Madhu! I’ve been to Serengeti and Mara several times, but never in tune with the migration… 😦
    Doesn’t matter. I’ll have to come back! 🙂
    My best wishes for 2015 to you and your family and friends. 🙂
    Brian

    1. Thank you Kamila! And rather belated wishes to you too! Hope the year ahead is filled with memorable travel experiences for you 🙂

  32. Wow! The wildebeest herd is fast! It looks scary in the video. Can’t imagine how thrilling it must have been to witness it up close!

    1. Oh it was exceptionally thrilling Kasturika! Not least because we weren’t expecting it, unlike the river crossings.

  33. What an amazing sight! And thanks for your fact at the end. I didn’t know. I’ve more than once wasted time thinking up collective nouns for ‘travel bloggers’. …an implausibility of travel bloggers…. no, still not quite right….

    1. Just a few issues that upset my muse Jo. Jan seems to be a bad month for me. Almost back in form now….I think. Appreciate your concern. Hugs right back 🙂

  34. Hi Madhu. No new posts this year? Everything OK?
    (No pressure!)
    Be good
    Brian

    1. Brian, I got bogged down with some personal issues and kind of lost my muse. All well now. Appreciate the concern 🙂

      1. Glad to hear that Madhu! 🙂
        (We all get “bogged” down by what eventually, as we look back are mere trifles! I am right now! But we will succeed!)
        Take care

  35. These are all NatGeo caliber shots, Madhu! But, I must admit, the bewildered lion is my favorite. What an unbelievably amazing experience and your wording puts such a mystical spin to it all. Happy New Year, wishing you all the best.

    1. Mine as well! We all laughed out loud at that look on his face 🙂 Thank you Tahira. All best wishes for the new year to you too.

    1. Africa gets under your skin doesn’t it? We are already dreaming of a return 🙂 Thank you for reading Alison.

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