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A Complete Guide To Africa’s Great Migration

What it is, where and when to see it, helpful tips, and more.

By Journy Team

11 November 2020

A Complete Guide To Africa’s Great Migration

One of the primary considerations when planning an African safari and deciding what time of year to go is the migratory patterns of animals. Although migration occurs all year round in a clockwise circle between Tanzania and Kenya, across the Serengeti National Park (nine months/year), and through the Kenyan Masai Mara (three months/year), there are certain stages of East Africa's Great Migration that some safari-goers choose to plan their trips around.

Below, we break down what exactly the Great Migration is, how to see it, and more.

What is the Great Migration?

Also known as the Wildebeest Migration, the Great Migration is when close to two million wildebeest and upwards of 700,000 gazelles, zebras, and other antelope species cross the Masai Mari and the Serengeti in search of sustenance. It’s a notoriously treacherous journey for the animals, as they also give birth during this time in order to keep the migration alive for generations to come. There’s a reason it’s referred to as the “greatest wildlife show on earth” and listed as one of the seven natural wonders of Africa. Nowhere else in the world can you witness a comparable display of “survival of the fittest” in its raw form with some of the most majestic creatures of the continent.

Where and when does the Great Migration occur?

The Migration generally occurs between May and December in a circuit format between the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania (the south) and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya (the north). The total distance hovers around 2,900 kilometers between the southern grassy region and the northern woody region, and back again in an endless loop.

What factors can influence the timing and location of the Great Migration?

Think of the information above as more of an estimation than a reliable certainty. Annual migratory patterns vary—and while there are reference predictions published every year for the season in which you plan to travel, nothing is a guarantee. It is the wild, after all. Among the factors that can influence the timing and location of the Great Migration, the most important is rainfall, which dictates the ecosystem and growth of new grass.

Between the months of April - May, the Serengeti’s southern grassy plains begin to dry out, which causes the herds to migrate west and north towards transitional grasslands in the woodlands of the Western Corridor. Once they arrive, rainfall generally begins to increase, which directs them towards deeper soils and grassland areas. Come June, the rain should stop, which means the animals flee the drought by traveling up north. The following month, in July, the animals are faced with the challenge of wading through the Grumeti river which, if rainfall has been abundant, can be incredibly deep, thus slowing down the journey. Once rains arrive at the end of the year (November - December), the herds migrate back to the plains of the Serengeti, which are newly rejuvenated by this point.

For more information on Africa's rainy season, refer to our complete guide.

How can I plan for the best chance of sighting the Great Migration?

Below is a month-by-month guide to help you plan in advance and ensure you have the best shot of experiencing this bucket-list natural wonder.

January - March (Tanzania)

  • Where are the herds?
    In northern Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area / Ngorongoro Crater in the southern corner of the Serengeti. The Ndutu and Salei plains are safe bets in order to spot the largest herds.
  • What happens during this period?
    Due to the heavy rains, land is lush. It’s calving season, which means females will be giving birth in large numbers.
  • Is this a good time to go?  
    Yes, especially to see the adorable newborn babies!

April - May (Tanzania)

  • Where are the herds?
    In the grassy plains of the Serengeti’s Western Corridor (Moru Kopjes and Seronera).
  • What happens during this period?
    The herds migrate west.
  • Is this a good time to go?
    No—in fact, many of Tanzania’s smaller camps shutter during these months due to heavy rainfall, which degrades the roads.

June - July (Tanzania)

  • Where are the herds?
    Attempting to cross the Grumeti River in the Western Serengeti.
  • What happens during this period?
    In addition to the river crossing, mating also occurs during this time.
  • Is this a good time to go?
    Yes, although it should be noted that, depending on rainfall, the river can be deep and drowning a very real possibility for the animals. Crocodiles are also known to take advantage of the struggling animals as they wade through the river.

August - October (Kenya)

  • Where are the herds?
    In Kenya's Maasai Mara Reserve along the Mara River.
  • What happens during this period?
    During these months, the animals cross from Tanzania into Kenya and begin their treacherous trek through the second river: the Mara.
  • Is this a good time to go?
    Yes. During this time, you’ll not only witness the migration, but you’ll also see a variety of lush, local wildlife in the Mara plains and Mara Triangle.

November - December (Kenya - Tanzania)

  • Where are the herds?
    Throughout Tanzania's Serengeti plains—starting in the northeastern edge in November and making their way to the southern Serengeti in December.
  • What happens during this period?
    As the rains pick up again the south, the animals that have survived thus far begin their long trek back south through Loliondo to Tanzania in order to give birth.
  • Is this a good time to go?
    Yes
Wildebeest in a river crossing 

The Great Migration travel tips

Book with a reputable on-the-ground tour operator

When it comes to Africa travel, the information available online is limited. That, combined with the continent's less sophisticated tourism infrastructure, makes it virtually impossible to plan a trip to this vast continent by yourself. Also, many properties won’t accept bookings from individuals—the best safari camps and lodges have loyal partnerships with safari operators and agents, which can also mean some of the better deals.

Outsourcing planning to a travel expert is also the best way to ensure you’re visiting the best camps with the highest chances of wildlife viewing in this East African migration safari (in the Serengeti alone, there are over 100 camps, which makes it difficult to narrow down).

Journy can help you find the best options within any budget constraints and preferences you might have. Also, many of the options you see online are just examples of what you can do. In order to see what’s available and possible, you need to talk directly with operators, which often means quite a bit of back-and-forth. Journy will handle it all.

Begin planning at least one year in advance

Due to pent-up demand, all signs point to a massive spike in African safari travel come 2021, primarily due to the fact that it's naturally suited to social distancing (there's nowhere more remote than a game drive in the African bush). To properly plan your bucket list safari trip, you need to allocate upwards of one year.

If you’re traveling with kids, do your research

Each camp has its own age restrictions, so it’s important to do your research beforehand and keep in mind that African safaris are best for kids aged eight and over, since you will likely be spending hours on bumpy roads in the morning and afternoon. If a camp does have an age restriction, the cut-off is likely 12-years-old.

Be sure to purchase travel insurance

It is essential to secure travel insurance for medical coverage and financial protection during your time in Africa—so much so that many safari tour operators mandate that you purchase a plan as a prerequisite to reserving a package. When selecting a plan (which Journy helps you out with and includes in the total price of the package), there are a few things to look for:

  • Emergency evacuation coverage
  • Ambulance coverage (land and air)
  • Repatriation coverage
  • Multi-country coverage, if applicable
  • Activity coverage, if applicable, for scuba diving, bungee-jumping, balloon safari, high altitude trekking, etc.
  • Trip cancellation coverage
  • High coverage limit for medical expenses

The best plans aren’t cheap, but we can assure you they’re worth it.

Make sure your vaccines are up-to-date

The most common vaccines required for travel to Africa are Hepatitis A, B, typhoid, and yellow fever. Keep in mind that many vaccinations take time (up to several weeks) to provide complete protection, so be sure to handle this well before you leave.

Depending on where you will be traveling, anti-malaria pills may also be necessary (in addition to mosquito-repellent spray and mosquito nets).

Refer to the CDC for a full list of recommended vaccines to get before you travel to Africa to see the Great Wildebeest Migration.

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Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya