In 2008 the migration number for wildebeest in the Masai Mara reached two million.
That’s the biggest movement of animals on the globe. A number so huge that they turn the horizon black with their numbers.The herds are so big that they cover the grassy plains like a moving sea – forever moving in search of fresh pasture. The sound of their hooves thundering past and the lowing sound they make is unforgettable. To be standing in a safari vehicle as the mass of creatures move past you is a heart-in-mouth moment. The greatest movement of herd animals on the planet.
They come up from Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains in a circular migration that takes a year. They arrive in the Masai Mara when the long rains arrive in June/July. The rains spark a growth of fresh grass, and when this is worn out they head south in October. They cross the treacherous Mara River in their millions and give birth in the Serengeti Plains in January. The cycle then starts again this time with new foals heading north to the Mara.
While the Mara has resident game all year around (Impala, Topi) it really bursts into life when the herds arrive. The predators have a glut – often killing more than they can eat for the hell of it. The glut only lasts a month or so before the wildebeest (and their zebra allies) head south again for Tanzania. But while they are in the Mara – the killing just never seems to stop.
We saw our first Wildebeest on the first morning. As we came in the northern Talek Gate there were only a few hundred dotted across the savannah. But as we progressed into the park we were aware of great armies moving. They would move in their thousands, nose to tail, across ridges or or plains looking for fresh grazing. They would be led by an older male often in a single mass but often trotting in single file to their destination. It was like watching a stream of commuters stretch across the plains.
We would often get up close to them when they reached the driving tracks. Wildebeest are often regarded as clowns often because of the way it looks – head too big for spindly torso and legs, an overlong snout and a wispy beard. They do play the fool much of the time – arching their backs they do buck up and down like dancers, they spin and fall and generally charge around for the sheer fun of it. It’s as if they have too much energy to contain and bounce around like Jack in the boxes.
I never got blasé with wildebeest because they were so interesting to watch. But it was in the afternoon of the first day that we found a mega-herd. Our mouths dropped open as we encountered a herd with at least ten thousand wildebeest. They literally turned the land black with their numbers. This colossal herd bestrode the track and I was stunned at the sheer weight of numbers – it was just an ocean of black horns, heads and wispy beards. We cruised the track. On the western side of the track the wildebeest seemed to stretch into infinity. Black bodies pressed together in an amorphorous mass. We stopped the engine in the middle and stood up to get a better view – young, old, some running away with spurts of speed – bashing into others and sending them galloping.
I found them so watchable because they reacted to everything. Our guide used to slam the vehicle door to spook them and watch them run. I have to say they were my favourite animals in the Masai Mara –stupid to a fault but immensely watchable.
I was lucky to see them two weeks later they would have disappeared and the vast herds gone from the Mara,