At 14,763 square kilometres in size, the Serengeti is arguably the finest national park in Africa and offers a wealth of wildlife viewing opportunities. Pretty much every large animal in East Africa can be regularly seen in the national park or wider ecosystem. When you include all the contiguous protected areas, of which Ngorongoro is one of the most noteworthy, the total size of the entire Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is a staggering 30,000 square kilometres packed choc-full of truly extraordinary wildlife sightings. Renowned for its predators – especially lions, leopards and cheetahs – and with plenty of elephants favouring the western woodlands of Grumeti, the Serengeti dazzles even the most hardened safari critics. There is even a recovering black rhino population concentrated around Moru Kopjes giving visitors a realistic chance to sighting all of the Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo), although the critically endangered black rhinos will undoubtedly prove the greatest challenge. The Serengeti ecosystem is also a renowned bird-watching destination, with over 500 species recorded to date.
Exploring the unique Ngorongoro Crater – surrounded by the towering volcanic walls on every side and blessed with prolific and extremely well-habituated wildlife – almost feels like you’re driving through a zoo; only the surrounding crater scenery is jaw-droppingly impressive. With the greater Serengeti ecosystem so blessed with wildlife and scenic beauty, it is hard to imagine it could have anything more to offer, but the great East African migration steals the show.
When it comes to Serengeti highlights there are so many (as alluded to previously), but there is quite simply nothing to match the migration with its sheer numbers, noise, majesty and splendour. Importantly, there is no beginning or end to the migration, so you can witness the great herds during any month of the year so long as you plan your safari to visit the right region within the ecosystem to coincide with where the animals are concentrated at that particular time of the cycle. The rainfall drives the movement patterns of the great herds of wildebeest and other plains game, so it must be emphasized that the description below refers to a typical year of normal rainfall in the usual seasons. It is not uncommon for the wildebeest movements to be delayed or sped up if unseasonal rain falls in another part of the ecosystem, attracting the animals to the green flush that follows. Typically the wildebeest and zebra herds, along with decent numbers of eland and gazelles, will shift as follows:
In January and February the great herds are ensconced on the nutritious short-grass plains in the south and southeast of the ecosystem with their newly born calves. The zebra and gazelle do not have a pronounced birth spike like the wildebeest and their birthing period is more spread out between the months of December and April.
In March and April, at the height of the green or emerald season, the great herds typically start to come together with their young calves usually in the vicinity of Naabi Hills on the southern plains where they reach their highest densities.
- In April or May, the northward migration begins (this is called the Moru Crush when the migration exits the plains through a narrow valley at Moru Kopjes) with the wildebeest rut then taking place around May in the Seronera region of the central Serengeti.
May or June sees the first of the iconic river crossings when the herds make their way across the Grumeti River in the western Serengeti.
July to October sees the herds enter the far north of the ecosystem as they cross the Mara River in the northern Serengeti in what many safari stalwarts consider to be the holy grail of safari sightings. It certainly is a sight to behold: thousands of wildebeest plunging into crocodile-infested waters driven forward by instinct and an irresistible urge to access fresh grazing on the other side.
- From October to November, the herds turn and move southward and into the central Serengeti once more. This is probably the most unpredictable time with huge columns of wildebeest veering off – often back into the western corridor – depending on wherever the first showers have fallen and fresh green grass is emerging.
The migration is quite unique in that it is a perpetual phenomenon without beginning or end. It is universally regarded as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth. The sound alone is deafeningly impressive. It is, however, often very difficult to appreciate the scope and sheer size of the migration because, without a bird’s eye view of proceedings, it is difficult to comprehend the sprawling scale of the wildebeest numbers. A sunrise hot air balloon ride is the ideal way to appreciate the huge herds and long columns of plodding animals. Standing atop a rocky kopje is another recommended way to gain some perspective to better appreciate the sheer number of animals involved.
While most safari goers target the June-July period for the western corridor and Grumeti River crossings, as well as the July-October period for Lamai and the Mara River crossings, there is a strong argument for waiting for the less popular rainy season months to view the wildebeest in the southern plains when they give birth to half a million calves over a three week period – usually in February.