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The Great Serengeti Migration

With climate change already being one of the biggest problems to influence our lives, people are realising something must be done about it. Each of us is doing what we can not to further damage and harm nature, leading to an increased sense of awareness even during our vacations. Millions of people are choosing to travel to remote, “untouched and unspoiled” parts of the world, seeking new experiences while being mindful of their surroundings and the environment. This type of tourism is often referred to as “eco” tours because you aspire to be one with nature, local residents and their culture and way of life.

If you consider yourself to be a naturist or even just a tourist who chooses nature over city-break tours, the African safari is a must on your list. Your adventure-filled safari journey can last as long as you wish because every hour spent in the savannah will present you with jaw-dropping experiences that keep overtopping each other.

Serengeti 101

If you are new to the idea of going on a safari and experiencing the African wilderness first hand, “the Serengeti” should be your first call. Even though the name Serengeti is most often associated with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, it actually embodies a greater Serengeti ecosystem that stretches way beyond the national park itself—from northern Tanzania to south-western Kenya. The whole ecosystem stretches to the Maasai Mara on the north, Ngorongoro Conservation Area on the east, Maswa Reserve on the south and Grumeti Reserve on the west—ultimately covering more than 12,000 square miles (31,000 square kilometres).

A lot of people are drawn to the Serengeti region to experience the breathtaking landscape—varying from the postcard-famous savannahs to riverine forests, acacia-studded woodlands to crocodiles-infested swamps, majestic mountain ranges to distinctive granite kopjes. Others, however, visit this region to witness a one-of-a-kind phenomenon that takes place every year—usually from July to October. This phenomenon is famously dubbed “The Great Migration” which is a period when more than 1.5 million wildebeest—also known as gnu—and hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles set off northwards in search for green pastures and fresh water.

The Flora and Fauna

The Serengeti ecosystem is incredibly diverse, providing homes for over 800 species of mammals and birds, not to mention the countless reptiles, amphibians and insect species that cohabitate on this awe-inspiring land. Even if you don’t get to familiarise yourself with the extent of Serengeti’s biodiversity, you would very likely get to see some of its most famously photographed resident animals like lions, rhinos, leopards, elephants, and Cape buffalos—collectively known as the “Big Five”, as well as hyenas, cheetahs, giraffes and many more.

Some of the most recognised flora in the Serengeti region are acacia trees—there are over 60 species in East Africa—and Kigelia, also known as the sausage tree. The floral diversity of the Serengeti supports the diversity of wildlife that can thrive in the area. The range of forests and shrubs offers shade, shelter, food as well as hunting grounds to predators. Without these nurturing plants acting as guardians of the land, what you see covering the plains would mostly be dust and your experience of the whole journey would be much different.

The main goal of a safari trip is to see and experience how animals live in their natural habitat by witnessing it first-hand. For this reason, conserving the Serengeti’s unspoiled environment is of paramount importance. Any off-roading is strictly prohibited. It helps to prevent disturbing the animals or damaging the environment, so tourism can remain viable for generations to come. The typical safari day starts before sunrise. Your guide takes you on a game drive for hours in an open-air vehicle in search of wildlife. He would actively scan the horizon, search for different animals and stop to allow you to take photos or observe the animals you encounter. If you are lucky, you will see lions hunting, cheetah cubs playing, a baby giraffe taking its first steps, or feel massive wildebeest herds making the ground tremble under your feet.

The Migration Phenomenon

As there are no physical borders between Serengeti National Park and the Maasai Mara, animals are free to roam these plains undisturbed. The “Great Migration” actually refers to a part of a cycle that millions of these animals partake in every year. April and May are generally characterised by having a long rainy season, so the massive herds of antelopes have plentiful food at their home in Central Serengeti, with no reason to move. After spending some time there and being comfortable, the rutting season follows—lasting from late May to early July—and eventually leads to the start of the Great Migration. The savannah dries up and food becomes scarce in Central Serengeti come July. This is what spurs the migration northward to the Mara River region. It is in these animals’ genes to adapt to the rainfall patterns for their survival. Due to climate change, the definite start or end of the rainfall seasons have become less and less predictable, making the annual trek more variable.

Late July to early September is the prime time to see the wildebeest herds in the Mara River region, which stretches from the Maasai Mara to the northern part of Serengeti National Park. If you specifically want to see them in the Maasai Mara region in Kenya, the best time to do so is in August and September. You can follow the herds through October and November to see them head back home to Tanzania. If you choose this period, you would also notice the heavily pregnant females slowly moving home and getting ready to give birth. Put another way, the transition months are June—when the animals prepare to go north towards the Mara River, and November—when they start to head back south to Central Serengeti. In December, most herds will have already arrived at Central Serengeti. The herds continue moving southwards and by late January, the females are ready to give birth to thousands of babies in Southern Serengeti. February is generally considered as the height of the calving season. The herds usually remain in Southern Serengeti until March, after which they start heading back to Central Serengeti, and the cycle begins again.

Unique Safari Experience

What makes the whole safari experience even more unique and extraordinary are the safari tour guides. The profound experiences from your journey and the amount of life-changing impressions you take home rest entirely on the extensive knowledge and instincts of the guides. With years and years of field experience, studying the patterns and clues the animals leave behind, guides are able to make educated guesses about the whereabouts of the animals, and the behaviours of the predators. While following the Great Migration is appealing to some travellers, others just want to be viewing game quietly in a remote, isolated corner of the Serengeti—and that is how experienced guides can make a huge difference to your safari adventure. If you plan for a private, tailor-made safari where you can be with your tour guide on an exclusive basis, you will have the flexibility to explore Serengeti without subjecting your experience to the whims of others you’d need to share a vehicle or set itinerary with.

Native guides have a built-in advantage in the form of knowing what to look for—having grown up in these regions. They can usually spot animals more easily and from a farther distance, which are remarkable skills that can immensely enrich your safari experience. Those who are more experienced have better tracking skills and know better how to behave around animals, sometimes even forming personal bonds with animals. These abilities enable the guides to not only track and show you the animals as they appear in front of you, but also tell a narrative, having witnessed the “plot” some weeks prior. Once you hear of a =male lion that has killed a rival’s cubs to assert his dominance over the pride, you cannot stay impartial. The images you create would suddenly have a different weight behind them. Each time you look at the bloody mane, you would know it wasn’t from a wildebeest but a helpless lion cub caught in a power battle between two alpha males. It is experiences like these that show us just how ruthless nature can be, and you can experience it first-hand in the Serengeti. Such drama easily takes your mind back to the tragic death scene of Mufasa, Simba’s dad in Disney’s The Lion King, or the one where Simba’s uncle Scar got killed by the ferocious hyenas—except the scenes that unfold in front of your eyes are not scripted.

Where to Stay

Serengeti offers so much more than endless vistas and wildlife spectacles. Staying at a retreat in the middle of the wilderness provides a whole new experience. There are lodges, campsites and even glamping accommodations to suit everyone’s needs and tastes. Staying at a tented camp—in addition to the comfort it offers—affords the intrepid traveller a chance to hear the surreal sounds of nature at night through the thin canvas barrier. It is important to select an accommodation with a location that is best suited for your travel period to coincide with the movement of the wildebeest herds, so you will be favourably located to track the antelopes and predators who are waiting to feast close-by. Aurari Camp, a brand new luxury camp in Northern Serengeti, is strategically located for the Great Wildebeest Migration season from July to October. The Camp features a black and gold colour theme inspired by black wildebeest herds dotted across the golden savannah landscape. Cherero Camp, another luxury camp located at a migration corridor between Central and Western Serengeti, offers the classic sweeping views that safari-goers dream of. While Cherero Camp’s first neighbours are a pride of lions living a safe distance away, the Camp’s guests are also treated to sights of wildebeest and zebra herds who pass by 2-3 times a year during their migration trek. Both camps offer ultra-comfortable accommodations in the wilds of Serengeti that are not only designed for romantic couples, but are also family-friendly.

The best thing about Serengeti National Park is that you can visit all-year-round. You are always guaranteed a life-changing experience, in addition to countless NatGeo-esque landscape and wildlife photographs to eternalise your memories. Embarking on such a journey would give you front-row seats to witness one of Earth’s most stunning phenomena, with full access to sensory experiences where you get to not only see but hear, smell and feel nature in a way that you don’t get to do within the confines of your home theatre. Tired of being in a city jungle? Why not plan a wilderness retreat to the Serengeti?

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