Africa

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 the wildebeest crossing begins!

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

I’d never seen this behavior 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. You know, 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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Wildebeest crossing the Mara River is one of the most spectacular natural events on the planet. Here's why! (My adventure on safari in Kenya

Ever wonder what it's like to see wildebeest crossing the Mara River during the migration- Find out here (1)

 


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258 replies »

  1. We went just before the crossings began and got the pleasure of the wildebeest massing, without the mayhem of the croc carnage (or the jockeying for pole position by countless people). Although your evocation of the chaos is evocative, I’m not sure I’d ever want to experience it first hand.

    • I was really worried about how I would feel seeing a kill during a crossing. I’d seen many crossings without one. On this trip I saw a lot of kills in and out of the water and surprisingly, I wasn’t as horrified as I thought I would be. They all happened at a distance that I had to watch through my long lens. Something about that numbed the experience a little. Almost like watching it on TV in a documentary. It’s thrilling and sad but not as disturbing as I thought. Maybe that says more about me. I don’t know.

  2. Your opening line says it all. There is absolutely nothing like seeing this in person. I watched the migration while in Maasai Mara in 2014 and the images are still so vivid in my mind. Your post has by far the best shots I’ve seen of the crossing. Thanks for sharing

  3. Great post and photos. I clung to each word wondering what would happen next, esp with the suicidial wildebeest. I can’t imagine the emotions of watching this happen.

    • Hi-
      Sorry to hear about the second video. I will see if there is anything I can do on my end. Glad you liked the post and hope you return. I just got back from Cuba and will be writing about that shortly. : )

      • Thanks a lot. I also write a wordpress blog about our experiences during travelling through different countries (“travelnotes360.com” in german). I started with a system camera (Olympus) which is good but not good enough. That’s why I’m interested in a SLR, either Nikon or Canon. Are you happy with your camera or can you give some advice, because you have experience with your Canon?

    • Thank you! It’s definitely not a given. The first year I went I saw 7 crossings of varying sizes. The second year, two small ones. This last year had the most carnage. I think part of what makes it special is the wait and anticipation. It can be a pain to wait in the heat, but in reality, it’s all pretty great.

    • Hi! I’m based in the United States. All the crossings I’ve seen have been in the Mara Triangle in Kenya. Crossings are a toss up. You can go during the migration and see a lot or none at all. It’s a coin toss and part of what makes each one so special. I went with a Photographic Safari company called Wild Eye. Their team has close relationships with the community there so they have a good network of info coming in about crossings. If someone spots the wildebeest congregating or “building” at a crossing point, they get notified.

  4. Hi Susan, your post was impressive ! I really enjoyed reading it ! i’m not a native speaker so I don’t have much word to describe what I feel but I just want you to know that your post keep me stunned while I was reading it. I’m currently studying “International Cooperation” because I love travelling and helping people and I wish I will be able to live the same things and your post gave me more motivation to reach that dream ! Thank you and have a great day 🙂

    • I wish you so much luck in your endeavors Anyal! I hope you are able to see all the wonderful things you dream of. I’m so glad you liked the post and I hope you return to the blog in the future. 🙂

  5. This is awesome… U had good descriptive technique and very impressing communication.

    Its really great, I have learnt a lot from this piece e.g We don’t give up when we see others fall but we persevere. I only felt a bit emotional and pretty sad about the crossing ; crocs feed on them to preserve life..that’s the design of God though.

    I love this and will want to say well done. Keep moving.

  6. Fantastic.. I have always loved watching this on TV but would love to see it up close like you have. Brilliant photos.. I cant quite believe how big those crocs are in comparison to the wildebeest

  7. Ok, but you anthropomorphized the animals. Crocodiles are not actually “sadistic” and you know that right? Your photos are wonderful but your projections of the human on to the nature of the animals belongs in “myth”.

    • Yep.. I own it. I do anthropomorphize animals. I am telling the story as it revealed itself to me. The way the croc hung back though it was obviously stalking seemed a little sadistic. Do I think it was consciously trying to be so? No, but at the time, the idea of it being sadistic came to mind. Thanks so much regarding the photos. 🙂

  8. Your post made me remember myself being a kid and watching “tele-encyclopedia”, a cultural program based on history, wild life and nature documentaries…and I seeing myself crying every time i saw an animal being caught by another. Fantastic post Susan! Very educational, nice use of words…and of course, the pictures fit perfectly! So to sum up a very good post! Thanks for sharing!

  9. This is beyond cool!!!! Such an amazing experience you had. So happy you got to be right in the middle of it! Just happen to see this post and had to immediately read it. Love, love, love this.

    • Thank you, Lyle! In re: to your question. I’m going to ask a few experts but my gut is that during the migration the crocs are literally stuffed to the gills. In addition, the water was pretty low this year and more were visible I think. Since crocs can’t chew, they typically lodge their kills under rocks and fallen trees until they’ve decayed enough to pull apart with a good shake. Those corpses may have just been left there to tenderize.

  10. After having seen wildebeest run like the wind on land it’s hard to believe they also swim with such gusto. Guess I would too if a croc, lion or leopard was in the sidelines waiting to tackle. Your images and story have captured the frenzy superbly. Still on my to do list.

    • They are so tenacious, wildebeest. I’ve seen them try to scale a slippery, rocky slope, fall countless times back into the water and still find their way out. I’ve really come to appreciate their place in the world. Thank you very much for the kind words about the piece. I’m glad you liked it.

  11. I can barely comprehend the scale of this mass migration but your photography and writing helped. Your text was gripping and your photography really captured and conveyed the drama and the behavior and the action. That first shot of the wildebeest leaping is stellar and I also love the shot of the open mouthed crocodile bearing down on the wildebeest. And I also love that shot of the wildebeest and zebra running uphill. Yes, I love them all. My 8 year old has a thing for wildebeest so I will need to show him your post. Thanks for the sensory detail about the smell. I had never considered that element before.

  12. Wow..it must have been so great to actually see the entire drama unfold in front of your eyes. I remember as a kid I always used to watch the national geographic channel and the wildebeest crossing always used to intrigue me. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post!

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