Two-by-two, the wildebeest come in a seemingly endless line of gray that cuts through the Masai Mara’s golden plains. The wildebeest and their migrating companions, the zebra, move toward the Mara River. Hundreds upon hundreds of animals mass on the savannah just above the river bank, braying as they push into already crowded circles. The air is thick with expectation.
Everyone waits. Watching from our Land Cruiser on the river bank opposite the animals, my daughter Alissa and I finish our lunch of sandwiches and cookies.
Catching the Animal Migration in Kenya
Wisely, James Massek, our ranger guide from & Beyond’s sister camps in Kenya, along with Kichewa Tembo and Bateleur, suggested we opt for a day-long drive so that we could travel far enough to catch the migration. Bateleur packed a picnic for us. At many of & Beyond’s lodge’s picnics, night drives and bush dinners are included in the price.
Catching a river crossing is part science and part luck. Timing is key. The migration to the high grass of Kenya from Tanzania’s Serengeti takes place July-October and the journey back starts around December-January, after the herds have grazed the plains’ red oat grass to stubble. But the schedule varies depending on the rain and the animals. That’s why & Beyond advised us to book lodgings in both Kenya and in Tanzania at Klein’s Camp not far from Kenya’s border.
James, a Masai tribe member and winner of many ranger awards, drove us to a narrow bend in the river near the Kiboko camps, a place the herds have crossed in prior years. We watch as first one wildebeest, and then another, and then more come down to the river to drink and to sniff before returning up the bank.
Finally, one wildebeest leaps into the water. In the next second, the animals braying loudly jump into the river, kicking up a swirl of dust and river spray. A few get picked off by the 10-foot crocodiles patiently waiting in the water, but most of the wildebeest and zebras swim to safety, trotting up the river bank, their backs slick and shiny in the African sun.
A safari always rewards. After all, viewing a herd of elephants lumber across a plain or a lanky giraffe munch leaves from a treetop is memorable, but witnessing the migration of 1.5 million wildebeest accompanied by 500,000 zebras is that much more amazing.
The Animal Migration Enters Tanzania
At & Beyond’s Klein’s Camp, Tanzania’s northeastern Serengeti unfurls as a sweep of rolling plains, hills and woodlands. Set on a high ridge, the camp affords panoramic views. At afternoon tea we admire the giraffes near the acacia trees and the herd of Cape Buffalo in the valley below.
Because Klein’s sits on private land leased from the Masai, off-road and night drives are possible. The camp is small enough to be flexible. One day we extend our afternoon drive into the evening. A tracker with an infrared light that doesn’t annoy the animals searches the bush.
He spots a leopard slinking through the tall grass. From a respectful distance we follow this hunter stalking a young impala. Suddenly a “go-away” bird in an acacia branch issues a warning call. Then, the impala hiss and move tightly into a group, standing still and alert. Foiled by the bird, the leopard hunkers down in the grass looking for other prey.
Alissa and I are delighted—we got to watch a hunt without a kill: the best possible ending for us. Those memories and many more are the gifts we brought back with us from Africa. We can’t wait to visit again.
Choosing a Safari: & Beyond
There are many safari companies. We wanted a family-friendly company with relatively upmarket lodges that could offer custom experiences, plus we searched for a company that devotes a good portion of its profits to doing good. & Beyond, started in 1991 as the Conservation Corporation Africa, met those criteria. The company’s motto is “Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife, Care of the People.”
Most of & Beyond’s properties welcome children and offer special activities for kids and families. In fact, Bateleur Camp, Kenya, has been voted the 9th favorite family hotel in Africa and the Middle East in Travel + Leisure’s 2010 survey of the World’s Best Family Hotels.
At Kichewa Tembo and Bateleur, Alissa and I learned how to track animals by identifying paw prints and poop. At Klein’s Camp, we watched as rangers created fire by rubbing sticks together. We, alas, couldn’t even get a spark going. Other activities included baking with the chef, spear throwing (Alissa was pretty good), shooting bows and arrows and making bark rubbings.
Safaris take planning, especially if you want to defray costs by using frequent flyer miles for airfare. It’s not too soon to begin to plan for next summer. Contact & Beyond family safari specialists for your next adventure.
Photos courtesy of A. Kempler
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