Africa’s Great Migration is the annual journey of more than two million wildebeest from the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania to the grasslands of Masai Mara in Kenya. The journey is fraught with peril as they are harassed by predators at every turn, from lions, and leopards to crocodiles at the Mara river crossing. Lessons in survival witnessed at the migration ought to be on every business school curriculum.
The best wildlife viewing months in Kenya are during the Dry season from late June to October. The stage on which this spectacular show is set is the Serengeti – Mara ecosystem. The main protagonists are the two million wildebeest with a mix of about four hundred thousand zebras and some antelope varieties. The wildebeest are the “migration” and there is no start or finish, it is an endless cycle in search of greener pastures as they travel up and down the Serengeti – Mara ecosystem. Scientists believe that wildebeest have grazed this ecosystem in the same unchanged cycle for at least a million years. The wildebeest migration usually reaches the Masai Mara in July and remains until October when its time to move back to the Serengeti in Tanzania.
Jonathan Scott, an acclaimed African author and photographer, says, “the only beginning is the moment of birth”. January and February is the calving season. Around 400,000 wildebeest calves are born in a span of 2 – 3 weeks after an eight and half month gestation. This calving is an all you can eat buffet for predators. Large and small carnivores can be found stalking the calving sites for easy prey. However, the sheer magnitude of the birthings far outnumbers the appetite of the predators and has no effect whatsoever on the wildebeest population. Trust nature to maintain a balance. The young ones are on their feet within two to three minutes of birth and can start running with the herd after five minutes. Wildebeest can outrun some predators just 15 minutes after birth. Those who have been fortunate to experience this will vouch that it is nothing short of incredible.
Around March, the plains of the Serengeti begin to dry out, and the wildebeest begin their journey. As the rains set in, it is time for the annual ‘rut’ with half a million wildebeest mated in less than a month. The herds follow the rains into the Masaai Mara range in Kenya. Large herds in the tens of thousands arrive at the Mara river and feast on the vegetation on the banks of the river. Their population keeps building up as more herds make their arrival wait for an opportune moment and location to cross. As more herds arrive, the pressure starts building. One can spot a few zebra amongst these herds. Often the zebra herd are seen making the first attempt to cross the river. A nod of the head from the zebra is a communication to the wildebeest herd of lurking danger in the river waters in the form of predators. One from amongst the vast herd has to make the first move; it is usually from amongst the ones right at the river mouth. And then as suddenly as it begins, they’re all crossing. Some fall prey to crocodiles, but most of the herd crosses uneventfully and spends the next several months feeding on the vegetation across the river.
Masai Mara has always been at the top of my wildlife wishlist. While I did not go for the Great Migration last year, I went to photograph a whole bunch of other animals including three varieties of big cat.
Kenya Airways operates a direct flight from Mumbai to Nairobi. The boarding gate for this flight during migration season is inevitably peppered with a wildlife photographer or five, all headed to the Reserve.
My flight was uneventful, the food uninspiring. I was met at Nairobi airport by Chandrasekhar and Kelvin. We boarded our ride, stopping en route to take in the Great Rift Valley. A vantage point on the highway offers a breathtaking partial view of the valley, a mere smidge of the 9600 km valley that runs from Mozambique to Nairobi, splitting the African continent into two in pretty much a straight line parallel to the equator.
The drive from Nairobi to the Mara camp takes about six hours, and our frequent halts did not help with timelines. The last two hours of our ride were the toughest – our flimsy vehicle bouncing around on difficult terrain. By the time we got to the camp at 7:30 pm, every bone and muscle in my body was screeching in agony.
We were given a short briefing about meal times and tent allocations. Electricity at the camp is turned off at 10 pm, and we would have to manage with the moon, stars and a lantern. Dinner was a simple, delicious meal of rice, mutton curry and mashed potatoes. If you don’t eat beef and visit Mara, you must learn to relish boiled potatoes. They magically appear at every meal, including breakfast.
All our safaris were in a pop-up van on terrain that was horribly bumpy. We often had to negotiate terrain only a four-wheel drive ought to. We’d start before dawn to take advantage of the morning light. The soft light in the mornings and then again before dusk is considered the best for photographs. The afternoon light is harsh and interferes with a good siesta. Some of us at the camp would spend afternoons reviewing each other’s photographs and discussing missed opportunities. Wildlife photography introduces you to the most wonderful people, and this trip was no different.
Some days we returned to the camp for lunch. But most days lunch was a packed meal. We’d park in the shade, check for leopards napping in the tree and then sit around our van to eat our lunch, light banter our side dish of choice.
One hot afternoon as were scouting for a safe spot to eat lunch, we noticed another vehicle stranded in wet muck. They could neither go forward nor reverse. We got out to help, scanning the landscape for any signs of a predator on the prowl. We tried everything. Finally, another jeep driver moved his vehicle behind the stranded jeep, stopped within kissing distance and gave it a slight nudge. Voila! The vehicle veered down the slope with the driver now being able to steer away.
I had a fun time meeting lions, leopards, cheetahs, antelopes and many other A-listers of the wildlife world at Masai Mara. I also met a bunch of terrific photographers on my trip. I made friends with some amazing locals, one of whom invited me back to stay with him next time.
All in all, I think I’m acing this travel photography thing, don’t you?