Quote Icon

The great migration is part of an annual circular route around the Serengeti ecosystem in an endless search for fresh pastures and water.

EXTRACT FROM TATLER ASIA MAGAZINE - FEBRUARY 2011

download article as PDF

It’s early february, calving season, and I’m heading out with my guide, Remtullah, in a 4x4 to stay at the Nduara Loliondo mobile safari camp. The camp follows Tanzania’s great migration throughout the season and is one of the best ways to experience the sheer immensity of the event. After a five-hour road trip from the city of Arusha, we pass Ngorongoro Crater, the largest caldera in Africa and a treasure trove of wildlife. “You’ve seen nothing yet,” Remtullah assures me as we climb back in the vehicle.

The road ends, but Remtullah speeds onto the flat grass. We’re a few hours into the Serengeti boundary now. All around, the wildebeest zigzag across the landscape like a raggle-taggle black and tan army. We must have passed 100,000 of the ungulates already. The great migration is part of an annual circular route around the Serengeti ecosystem in an endless search for fresh pastures and water.

The numbers are hard to get your head around: 1.3 million wildebeest, 360,000 Thomson’s gazelle, 191,000 zebra, and 120,000 eland.

The numbers are hard to get your head around: 1.3 million wildebeest, 360,000 Thomson’s gazelle, 191,000 zebra, and 120,000 eland. It’s the largest mass movement of land mammals on the planet.

The wildebeest may look oafish, and local Masai legend has it that the gods assembled them using spare parts, but their ability to survive and thrive is miraculous. They are one of the most important pieces in the Serengeti puzzle. They fertilise the plains and increase its productivity largely thanks to the dung beetles that roll up their solid waste and bury it in the ground, and their constant grazing promotes new growth.During their migration the wildebeest are also the basic food for most predators.

We stop by a large rock outcrop, known as akopjes, for late tea. The setting sun is turning the landscape a mellow orange. Sound and activity are everywhere. The animals are noisy, but it is a symphony - the grunts of the gnus, the high-pitched bark of the zebra, the songs of the grass-hoppers and cicadas, the roar of the lions, and the excited laughs of the feeding hyenas. Vultures peck at a wildebeest carcass, newly-born calves dart from side to side. The birds, all sizes and every conceivable colour, singing and feeding, add richness to the scene. A lonely lioness wanders languidly up ahead, one eye on the herd. It’s the cycle of life on the grandest possible scale. To see so many animals invigorates and humbles the spirit; Disney were spot on with The Lion King.

It’s the cycle of life on the grandest possible scale. To see so many animals invigorates and humbles the spirit; Disney were spot on with The Lion King.


We arrive at Nduara Loliondo late in the evening. The six-tent camp moves between north and south Loliondo. Bordering Kenya’s Masai Mara to the north and the Serengeti National Park to the west, this area also offers a great mix of game.

The camp, operated by Tanzania’s Nomad Safaris, is designed as a hommage to the world’s nomadic cultures; the Mongolian gers, and the local Masai bomas. But I’ve stayed in Mongolian gers before and these versions are far more luxurious. Each has its own en-suite bathroom- attached to the back of the sleeping area - with traditional safari bucket showers and environ-mentally friendly short-drop toilets.

After a hearty meal in the mess tent with Remtullah, it’s time to turn in. I’m escorted back to my accommodations by a guard with a flash-light, and on the way we spot a group of Masai warriors armed with spears, hired by the camp to guard against lions and hyenas.

The tents have been designed to be as cool as possible during the day, and have wrap-around shade net windows with flaps that can be rolled up or down, but when it rains, as it is starting to now, the canvas material seems to amplify each raindrop.

After a rough night, someone raps on the outside of the tent. It’s 5.3Oam, a hand protrudes through one of the side flaps and takes the water bucket. It’s time for my hot shower. I’m told that the bucket shower lasts five minutes: it’s more like two, but that’s OK, there’s always someone on hand to rush off and bring you more hot water. This is safari luxe, after all.
I want to get a bit closer to the Masai and today Remtullah has organised a trip to a local village, or manyatta. The Masai live in the semi-arid Rift Valley region of Tanzania. They own large herds of cattle, sheep and goats that they follow around in search of fresh grazing grounds.

This tribe seems more traditional and far less tainted by the modern world than some we have encountered. Remtullah is half-Masai, and they are very welcoming. The village consists of 10 mud huts, and a large cattle pen for about 50 cattle. Livestock plays a central role in the life of the Masai, representing food and power. The more a Masai warrior has, the more clout he has.

The more a Masai warrior has, the more clout he has. Remtullah tells me about a Masai village nearby which is ruled by a chief with over 500 cattle. He also has 40 wives and 100 children, so many that the local government has built a school just to educate them.

Remtullah tells me about a Masai village nearby which is ruled by a chief with over 500 cattle. He also has 40 wives and 100 children, so many that the local government has built a school just to educate them.

After a much quieter night, we head to the second camp. To get there we drive through the vast plains which are now swollen with columns of wildebeest. What is remarkable is that science still cannot explain how they manage to follow and detect water, which determines their migration routes, from distances of up to 50 kilometres. The wildebeest spend the rainy season, from December to June, in the volcanic open plains below the Ngorongoro Crater where grass cover is most luxuriant and nutrient content highest. It is here that the calves are born. Calving season is short, lasting a mere three weeks, and the predators don’t even make a dent in the newborn population with such a sudden profusion of food on the hoof. When the monsoon rains stop in June and the plains dry out, the wildebeest will move west towards Lake Victorian in search of pastures new.

En route to the Serengeti Safari Camp, we pass a curious landmark known as the Shifting Sands. The crescent-shaped sand dune is magnetic, and therefore the dune never dissipates. Sand blown off the top is magnetised back to the main body and the whole dune creeps forward at the rate of 40 metres a year.

The camp - a more traditional establishment with green canvas tents also operated by Nomad Safaris - sits on the southern plains of the Serengeti where the main herds calve in February. Again, the camp is semi-nomadic and doesn’t move while visitors are staying, but it changes location to follow the movement of the migration pre-planned stages. The bush is much thicker here than at the previous camp, and the branches of the Acacia trees that populate the woodland are heavy with birds’ nests. Evenings here are a delight for bird watchers.

The next morning I’m woken by a loud, blood-curdling howl. In my semi-conscious state, I can’t quite decipher what it is that I’m hearing. I soon realise a predator must have made a kill, but it’s still too dark to see. As the sun rises, Remtullah and I drive over to where the bone-crunching noise is emanating from and, and sure enough, we catch a cheetah disemboweling a young wildebeest. Tourists spend days trying to witness a kill, but when they finally see one, they invariably wish they hadn’t. It’s not pretty. This is no pantomime.

We move on to look for a pride of lions that was spotted by the river. Most are sleeping, save for a few youngsters who are playing in the reeds. Lions are number one on the so-called “big five” checklist (the others are the African elephant, Cape buffalo, the leopard, and the rhinoceros). The male is a wonderful specimen to look at, but he just lazes around and yawns a lot. The lions aren’t particularly engaging so we decide to head for Lake Ndutu. Thousands of flamingoes are resting and feeding in the mirror-like waters, with hundreds more circling high above. To the right, a few giraffes emerge from the trees and amble down the banks, it’s idyllic.

Thousands of flamingoes are resting and feeding in the mirror-like waters, with hundreds more circling high above. To the right, a few giraffes emerge from the trees and amble down the banks, it’s idyllic.


All great shows come to an end, and the next day we drive back across the Serengeti towards Arusha to catch my flight. It’s nearing the end of the calving season and soon the wildebeest will move west, as they have done for millennia. However, the great migration could be changed irreversibly, and the fate of the Serengeti with it, if a road being planned by the Tanzanian government goes ahead. The proposed two-lane highway, which would link the Tanzanian coast to Lake Victoria and Uganda, would cut through 50 kilometres of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. According to scientists and conservationists, the road would block the massive movement of animals and cause an environmental disaster of devastating proportions. International pressure hopes to delay the decision, but it may not. There’s no better excuse to go and see for yourself one of nature’s greatest shows, while it's still running.

Tatler Asia, February 2011