The best way to experience Tanzania’s Great Migration
No one can return from the Serengeti unchanged. What you witness will forever live in your memory and in your heart, writes Cathy Wagstaff.
A call comes over the two-way: “There’s a crossing at number six.”
Our guide Henry throws the jeep into reverse, spins around and floors it like a maniac. We hear the herd before we see it, the thundering hooves of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle heading for the Mara River. Their predators are in place: two crocodiles that have concealed themselves between like-coloured boulders. Several times they miss their prey before pulling a bucking wildebeest into the river. Teamwork is needed to make the kill. Pulling from both ends, the crocs spin the beast around and tear it apart. Vultures lurk on the banks, waiting for any remains. We watch this spectacle, mesmerised, until a few wildebeests decide to turn back. Others follow, retreating up the bank, and as suddenly as the action began, it is over.
We are in the Northern Serengeti for the Great Migration, which takes place between June and November each year. More than a million wildebeest, with their zebra and gazelle entourage, make the annual journey, leaving Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania on a route north to Kenya’s Maasai Mara. They’re in search of greener pastures, moving in a clockwise circuit that covers more than 800 kilometres and a huge swathe of the Serengeti, before looping back south for calving season. The Great Migration is perilous and thousands of wildebeest will die along the way, from hunger, exhaustion and predators.
Eye to eye with a lion
Serengeti means ‘endless plains’ in Swahili and seeing the Great Migration move across this famous expanse, it’s easy to see how it got its name. And while this unforgettable sight is the reason we’ve come to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed national park, it’s not the only reason I would return. Kaskaz Mara Camp is one of the six properties in the Nasikia camps portfolio, created by husband-and-wife team Donna Duggan and Naseeb ‘Nas’ Mfinanga to complement their Tanzanian safari outfit, Maasai Wanderings. Tragically, Nas died in a plane crash in 2017, but his spirit lives on at each lodge and camp. Australian born but Tanzanian at heart, Donna is considered a mother figure here; she is loved and respected by her staff and this care and compassion shines through at Kaskaz. The staff are warm and always smiling, and even share their stories with us in a sunset performance of song and dance, out in the wild beauty of the bush.
Kaskaz’s 10 tented suites are situated in the northernmost pocket of the Serengeti, ideally located for viewing the Great Migration throughout the year. Our outings offer a non-stop parade of wildlife, and I’m simply in awe of how close we are able to get to these creatures in their natural habitat. At one point, I find myself eye to amber eye with a lion that has purposefully strutted up to my side of the jeep. His gaze is intense and predatory, and my heart is pounding, but I manage to raise my camera and get a shot of him looking right down the lens.
Another call comes over the trusty two-way, this time sending us on the trail of a leopard, spotted among the huge granite kopjes that litter the plains. When we find him, he’s almost flat against the stone, basking in the sun. As if sensing his audience, however, he sits up and stretches, letting out a wide yawn as he settles into a majestic pose for his photo shoot.
Although we’re thrilled with the animal-viewing opportunities at Kaskaz, we soon discover the true safari is yet to come as we head off overland to the Seronera Valley. Mohammed is our driver as we belt down the dirt-road ‘highway’, and we come to regard him as our teacher, too, as he shares his knowledge of the Serengeti and its wildlife. We come across a herd of elephants bathing in a river, a hippo wallowing in a mud bath and giraffes pulling at umbrella thorn acacias.
The best part about the experience, however, is that we never have to jostle with other vehicles for the best viewing spot. Out here, it’s just us and the vast savannah.
Our destination is Ehlane Plains Camp, Nasikia’s hideaway in the far-eastern corner of the Serengeti known as Soit le Motonyi, a centre for big cat research that was previously closed to visitors. Opened in February 2018, the camp’s eight tented suites are simply elegant, draped in white. Mine is one of two suites with a connected Star-Gazer sleepout, an elevated platform with a net-wrapped bed under an infinite diamond sky. The night air is cool, but I’m cosy in my cocoon, the sounds of the Serengeti creating a lullaby around me.
Big cat diaries
I wake with the sunrise and the arrival of ‘bed tea’, my morning cuppa preparing me for another day of navigating the kopjes. The landscape in this part of the Serengeti is where the plains meet the acacia woodlands, and it’s home to a dazzling number of predators.
Our Lion King moment comes when we find a beautiful male reclining on a rock. He’s in no rush to get up, so we settle in to watch while Mohammed sets up afternoon tea on the jeep’s bonnet. We’re still nibbling on sandwiches when the lion decides he’s had enough of his curious audience and saunters down the side of the rock. We collectively hold our breath as he pauses just a few metres from us before strolling right by.
Soit le Motonyi lives up to its feline reputation. On our drives, we also see two cheetahs tearing at their fresh kill and are privy to the rare sight of a serval – a medium-sized spotted feline with the face of my housecat, long legs and bat-like ears – tucking into a cobra.
We later come to a peculiarly Tanzanian roadblock: a pride of 15 lions sprawled across the track, dozing in the afternoon sun. It’s some time before they wake, and they’re hungry. The lionesses prepare for the hunt so we follow them at a distance. At first, we think they’re going for the gazelle grazing nearby, but they stalk right past … and straight towards a group of unsuspecting warthogs. The poor swine don’t stand a chance and the butchery is over in moments, the whole pride suddenly on the scene to claim their share. We back away quietly and leave them to their feast.
We feel privileged to witness the circle of life play out before us. Wildebeest are one of the few large mammals in Africa that haven’t had their migration patterns curtailed by human development, making the phenomenon of the Great Migration all the more special to witness. The Serengeti is a vital ecosystem and camps such as Kaskaz and Ehlane are, mercifully, committed to protecting it. Our Nasikia guides enrich each outing with their knowledge, passion and curiosity, while Donna and the singing, smiling lodge staff radiate warmth and true affection.