Plan a migration safari
- Each destination is good at completely different times of the year - generally the migration is active in Tanzania’s Serengeti for 9 months; it’s active in Kenya’s Masai Mara for 3 months during August/September/October.
- Plan on either Kenya or Tanzania. Don't think of combining or switching at the last moment on the cheap.
- Logistically it's best to handle the Serengeti from Arusha and the Mara from Nairobi - this will help with decisions on beach breaks or other safaris into southern Tanzania or elsewhere in Kenya.
- The migration itself involves around 1,5 million wildebeest, gazelle and zebra on the move. Resident game (predators and other mammals) are generally fixed to territorial areas and don’t follow the migration much beyond their own ranges.
- Resident game can be found in their home ranges year round.
- If you're interested in seeing specific resident game species (eg elephant, wild dog, leopard etc) then destinations other than the Mara or Serengeti could be better.
The migration is a major draw card and it deserves to be on the wish list of everybody going on safari in East Africa but there are some big bugs that should be dealt with:
When the game is on - it gets busy
The migration itself is always extremely busy. Unfortunately this can apply to some areas even when the migration isn’t in the vicinity. what kind of safari is this!
We're familiar with one spot in the Serengeti’s Western Corridor that’s on the migration path for about a week each year, "maybe" around June, has poor resident game, has a lousy road network, is a 2 hour bone-jarring drive from the Seronera circuits but enjoys a 10 month “high season” and is practically full for 11 months of the year. (That makes no sense at all!)
So when the migration is “on”, space is at a premium, prices are relatively high and advance bookings are essential. If you’re too late to get available space when you originally intended it’s better to postpone your safari plans to get the right space.
The Mara and Seronera areas in particular have some big hotels and lodges so crowd density can be a problem. These hotels and lodges are generally full even when the migration is happening in a completely different area, but when the migration is in full swing everybody converges to where the action is on.
The really great thing about these big outfits is that they work to a formula – same circuits, same timetables to ensure that their tourists see game and get fed, watered and to bed in time for the next day’s action – all at the same time!
The trick is to work with smaller outfits with the flexibility and real interest to get out into the bush before the hordes arrive, are happy to typically hold breakfast under a tree when the minibuses are doing their rounds and then spend some time looking for quieter spots to catch the afternoons and early evenings without crowds.
The smaller outfits are without doubt a far better bet in both the Serengeti and Mara – in some cases more expensive but definitely better value for money.
The people running the safaris...
People make the real difference to safaris and by our standards good professional guides who are dedicated, reputable, experienced and prepared to go out of their way for the better photograph or game encounter are more important than creature comforts.
Not that we believe in sacrificing creature comforts but from experience titivating camps and lodges is a quicker and cheaper way of covering up weaknesses in other areas. Employing and retaining the best hosts and guides as part of the team is the bigger and more important challenge for any operator.
So when we see rose petals in the bath on safari we ask questions because that’s out of place. When we come across a great guide or host it’s generally safe to assume that the creature comforts have been taken well care of already and the price tag is more often than not realistic by comparison with the "veneered" options.
Solutions for the migration - Kenya and Tanzania
The solutions that we’ve found work best differ depending on season and destination.
So if we’re looking at Kenya, specifically during August to mid October we have two options for the migration:
- We generally avoid the “packaged tour” areas of the Eastern Mara and Ngama Hills preferring to concentrate on the very productive game areas on the Mara River and Central Plains. We work well with six relatively small, semi-permanent tented operations each of which have good access to the more popular areas, are themselves located within relatively private areas that have good resident game throughout the year and have some of the best guides in the Mara. (On occasion we’ll include one of the centrally located permanent lodges in a safari if there’s a specific interest to match or if we’re including a balloon safari in the trip).
- We have two permanent tented lodges in the Group Ranches in the Greater Mara area that entail a full day game drive with picnic lunches to get to and from the migration – so they’re a bit further from the main action. In both cases however they make up for this by having excellent guides, very good resident game and offer wonderful creature comforts. (The balance is good).
If we’re looking at northern Tanzania at anytime of year whether the focus is on the migration or on resident game, we have two options:
- We prefer “mobile safaris”, essentially small tented safari camps on private camp sites that either shadow the migration when it’s moving or are temporarily based for a few months in the main areas of activity to maximise access to the migration or better pockets of resident game where there are fewer other visitors. One being a more adventurous option and the other two a bit more comfortable with additional camps in the greater Serengeti. In all three cases the guiding standards are amongst the best in the Serengeti and we usually combine the Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Tarangire/Manyara which are also on Tanzania’s northern circuit.
- Our second option is three permanent lodges, small and with high standards of guiding, hosting and comfort. The migration is only accessible from these lodges when the main body is either in the southern plains from January to March or on the move in the north usually between October and November.
If the migration is your primary focus then
- plan well in advance
- if destination is first priority then you’re going to have travel at specific times
- if you’re flexible time wise then choose destination based on what other add-ons you’re keen to do so the logistics don’t get too complicated
- if you've left things a bit too late or if you can't get the right space for this season then rather postpone your trip for next year than take second best now
Click here for more about the East African Wildebeest migration