Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Mara Crossing

Northern Serengeti, Tanzania, August 2014.

Herds gather on the far side of the Mara River in Northern Serengeti
The annual Wildebeest migration in the Serengeti is one of nature’s greatest spectacles and it’s most intense moment is surely the Mara River crossing. While we have witnessed the migration on the plains in the Southern calving grounds 3 years in a row, the Mara Crossing remained the first prize.

Finally the herd makes a move in to the Mara River

The annual migration usually reaches the northern Serengeti in July/August when the herds cross the Mara River to reach the Maasai Mara in Kenya for a brief couple of months before heading back to the Southern Serengeti calving grounds. Planning to catch the Mara River crossing started 12 months in advance.
Channles in the river sweep the herd downstream
Getting the timing right to view the crossing requires careful planning and above everything else, lots of luck. Given there are no public camping facilities or permanent accommodation in the Northern Serengeti, we were restricted to the annual migration camps which book out months ahead.
Sand banks in the river offer solid footing to negotiate the river

Besides getting all the logistical plans right, the herds move with the rains and it’s impossible to predict the weather patterns months in advance. Even if you arrive on the Mara River and there are herds gathering doesn’t necessarily mean you would witness a crossing. We were told of a party before us who spent 6 nights at the same location only saw a crossing on the last day.

After leaving Dar, we only reached the Mara River on the 3rd day after spending the first night in Moshi and the next at Seronera in the central Serengeti. It’s more than a half day drive from Seronera to the Mara River Kogatende area. If you have the cash, there is an air strip in Kogatende which of course makes this whole mission a lot more manageable.

Seeing the Mara River for the first time was something special, it seemed like we had finally arrived at the sacred ground for a historic event. An event that has been going on for thousands of years but that is not the case. The Migration across the Mara River only started in recent times when the wildebeest population expanded to over a million animals in the sixties. Before that the Serengeti could sustain the wildebeest herds and there was no need to cross in to the Masaai Mara.
The sheere number of animals is amazing

Soon we came upon a huge herd gathering on the far side of the river and we immediately assumed this was too good to be true. You just rock up and catch a crossing, what’s the big deal? Well firstly, you don’t just park yourself on the opposite bank but get yourself behind bushes away from plain sight of the herd. The idea we were told was to hang back till the first animal jumps in. Humphrey our guide reminded us on the importance of being patient and soon became apparent why.  The herd was right on the bank and we assumed the crossing would happen any moment but it didn’t. After what seemed an eternity, the back of the herd suddenly started running down river for no apparent reason. Soon the whole herd started running in a single file way down the river.
Wildebeest up to 6 accross taking the plunge

Soon we were driving along the river bank in a wild chase after the herd and after a while, came upon another crowd of safari vehicles hiding behind bushes! The herd were following was hooking up with another huger herd that had already gathered and were contemplating a crossing. We had one false start when on the assumption that the first animal was in the water, up to 20 safari vehicles rushed the river bank only to spook the herd which ran back up the opposite bank.
Walking on water!

After some animated discussions amongst the safari drivers, it seemed all had agreed to pull back and behind bushes and hope another crossing come our way. There always is one who wants to get ahead of the pack and it was no different this time with one vehicle getting what seemed like an unfair head start but suddenly without a warning, the first wildebeest jumped in to the water. A wild scramble of vehicles and as luck would have it, we had front row seats to the greatest wildlife show on earth.
Easy pickings for a huge Nile croc

No amount of watching documentaries or anything else can prepare you for the Mara Crossing. It’s hard to capture or explain the intensity of the event. Once the first animal hits the water, there seems no way back for that animal or the herd behind it which hit the water in waves of wildebeest. The light was perfect and we had a perfect view for what was a lifetime dream of witnessing the wildebeest crossing the Mara River.
Deep water channel

When the animals hit the water, the channels sweep them down stream. One can only imagine the wild scramble under water for the Wildebeest to get a foothold on something thing solid to avoid getting swept down river. From what we saw, the river has several channels and sand banks before the animals hit the opposite bank and then have to scramble up a muddy steep bank to reach the far side. All through this, massive Mara crocs simply cruise up and snatch what they want. It’s the ultimate survivor test of the Serengeti wildebeest migration. A wildebeest will never be the same again in my eyes. This is one serious creature albeit a bit awkward looking!
What is this chap doing with his legs up in the air in the middle of Mara River

Once the animals cross the river as expected, they just run in to the plains but rather unexpectedly there is a lot of chaos even after crossing. Several animals started heading back to the river bank almost threatening to cross back to the opposite bank they just came from. This is due to separated family units, especially mothers and youngsters who get separated in the wild crossing. They run around looking for each other in small groups, often running against the flow leading to a somewhat chaotic scene.
Scramble up the muddy river bank

Those that don’t have any separation issues, simply start grazing on the green grass on the plains as if nothing happened. Seeing the migration is a wildlife highlight but seeing the Mara crossing has to be the top prize.  
The grass was green on the other side for this lot.



1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    I've been trying to contact you about a leopard sighting you had at Moravet in the Kgalagadi in 2009.
    The sighting is especially interesting since it was on a dune road.
    If you wouldn't mind contacting me on ktp.leopards@gmail.com i would appreciate it.
    Many thanks