The Drama, the Suspense, the Thrill of a Wildebeest Crossing

If you haven’t seen a wildebeest crossing in person, trust me, no documentary will ever do it justice. It’s like trying to capture the enormity of the Himalayas in a photograph, or the feeling of flying in a hot air balloon from a video. They’re unlike anything you’ve seen before. Every crossing is unique and filled with mystery, suspense and adrenaline-pumping action worthy of a Bruckheimer film, and all to often, the morbid thrills of Jaws.

Wildebeest leaps into the Mara River at the beginning of a crossing in Kenya

A wildebeest leaps into the Mara River

The show was about to begin.

At least I was pretty sure it was. Over the last hour there had been a few false starts. Tentative hooves touched the Mara River more than once, only to recoil and run as if the water was on fire, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. In the bush when you’ve grown up as a favorite food group, it pays to be paranoid.

Wildebeest stop to drink at the Mara River before a crossing in Kenya

A herd, almost invisible from the dust their hooves have kicked up, begins to cross.

I was on a Wild Eye photographic safari in Kenya’s Mara Triangle, sharing a land cruiser with a couple from Australia, Paul and Elise McCulloch, and our Kikuyu guide and driver, Sammy.  A large herd was on the far side of the river and slightly upstream from where we parked with our cameras ready, eyes glued to our viewfinders. It was the McCulloch’s first crossing (first safari too) and I was anxious to see their reaction. They loved the sightings we had in the first 24 hours: giraffe, zebra, ostrich, a rare pangolin, but I knew this would blow them away.

To cross, the wildebeest would have to navigate a gauntlet of rock-strewn rapids. Carcasses littering the stones, some bloated and split from decay, others as stiff as upended mannequins, spoke of the dangers the wildebeest faced. Every now and then the wind would change and we’d get a whiff of the foul, gag-inducing stench.

Wildebeest and zebra running from the Mara River, Kenya

Wildebeest and zebra, spooked by who knows what, run from the edge of the water up a hill near the Mara River. Three minutes later they were back at the shoreline.

Wildebeest crossings are one of nature’s most astonishing life and death dramas. Each year, from July through October (give or take a few weeks), millions of wildebeest journey during the Great Migration from Tanzania to Kenya and back again, chasing the rain and the grass that grows in its wake. Snaking through the countryside, the Mara River is a daunting obstacle the wildebeest must cross in their search for food, risking injury, or death by drowning, crocodiles or opportunistic lions and leopards that lay in wait. The migration is a giant moveable feast that predators count on again and again.

Topi cross the Mara River with wildebeest in Kenya

A small herd of topi cross with the wildebeest

And we’re off…

A single wildebeest shot through the air, its front hooves tucked neatly under its chest, its powerful, spindly legs propelling it 10 feet into the river. That’s how it usually begins, one brave leader becomes the Pied Piper for the rest of the herd and they all follow.

A leopard with a wildebeest kill (hidden in the high grass) a short

A leopard with a wildebeest kill (hidden in the high grass) a short distance from where a crossing was taking place

Nearly at a stampede, the herd rushed forward, the first 20 or 30 leaping into river like the first as if they were competing for height and form, water splashing high into the air as they hit the water. Afterward, it was no holds barred into the drink. A mass of horns and hooves they moved forward, next to and on top of each other. Their low, nasal honks merged into one continuous deafening hum.  Twenty minutes passed and the herd kept coming, barreling through the water until every last one was on the other side. Wet and bedraggled, they plodded off to find a place to graze.

The risks

On another day, farther south, we stopped at an entry point that multiple small herds were using to cross. Crocodiles were out in full force, callously pulling the wildebeests under, one after the other. You could see their massive heads cut through the water like a shark fin as they locked on to their target. You could see it coming and yet you could do nothing but watch with a sense of dread. It was nature in its cruelest form. I was a mix of emotions. I hated the idea that an animal was going to die, but I couldn’t deny that I was also fascinated by the spectacle that is the circle of life.

Lone wildebeest walks into the Mara River in Kenya

A lone (crazy) wildebeest ignores the crocodile only a few feet to its left

Crocodile swims after wildebeest in Masai Mara, Kenya

Wildebeest suicide? The croc gains on its prey.

Something new every time

“I think he’s trying to commit suicide,” I said to no one in particular.

Between crossings, a loan wildebeest headed towards the water, its herd nearby but not in tow, with a stride that looked as if he was on a mission. What I couldn’t figure out was why? Less than 10 feet from the edge of the river was a 16-foot croc at least 3 feet wide, floating in plain sight. “No. Stop! What is he doing?”Didn’t he see the razor-sharp teeth hovering a stone’s throw away?

The wildebeest strolled into the water without a moment’s hesitation, the predator disturbingly close on his left. The croc shifted in parallel with the wildebeest’s path, revealing even more of its gargantuan frame. And still the impassive wildebeest ambled on. He was the oblivious pedestrian, headphones blaring, unaware that a speeding car was about to mow him down.

Crocodile swims after wildebeest in Masai Mara, Kenya

A crocodile prepares to attack a wildebeest

Wildebeest jumps out of th water away from crocodile, Masai Mara, Kenya

One wildebeest manages to escape a croc, but another one, not so lucky, is being pulled under in the background

At first the croc moved slowly, sadistically allowing his prey to believe the other side was almost within reach. Then at the last second he propelled himself forward, quickly closing the space between them. Da-dum. Da-dum, Da-dum. The soundtrack from Jaws thoughtlessly escaped from my lips and I cringed with embarrassment. Within seconds, the croc submerged, grabbed hold of its quarry and with barely a splash, the wildebeest vanished.

Crocodile swims with wildebeest in its mouth, croc on shore, in Masai

In a behavior I’d never seen before, a croc with its kill in its mouth, slowly glides by the shore as if taking a victory lap.

Wildebeest in big herd walking after a crossing, Masai Mara, Kenya

After a successful crossing, wildebeest and topi, wet and exhausted,

For a long moment I sat staring at the circular ripples in the water where the wildebeest had been. My hands were cramped and sweaty from clutching my camera to tightly—my heart was still pounding.  In the end, I chose to believe he took one for the team—one less hungry crocodile, more lives saved—and not just an idiot.

They’re a heroic lot those wildebeest.

“There’s more coming,” said Paul, pointing to the herd that had wandered in to our left. Adrenaline shot through me. I sat my camera on a bean bag and got ready for the next drama to unfold.

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A wildebeest crossing of the Mara River is one of the most spectacular natural spectacles you'll ever see.

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