If you haven’t seen a crossing during the great wildebeest Migration 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 flight from a video.
Crossings are 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 too often, the morbid thrills of Jaws.
The show was about to begin.
At least I was pretty sure it was. Over the last hour, there were a few false starts. Tentative hooves touched the edge of the Mara River more than once but the wildebeests would turn and run back to the herd 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.
I was on a Wild Eye photographic safari in Kenya‘s Mara Triangle specifically for the great wildebeest migration, 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 our first 24 hours: giraffe, zebra, ostrich, the elusive pangolin, but I knew this would blow them away.
To cross the Mara River, the wildebeest would have to navigate a gauntlet of rock-strewn rapids. Carcasses littering the stones, some bloated and split with decay, spoke of the dangers the wildebeest faced. (Every now and then the wind would change and we’d get a whiff of a foul, gag-inducing stench.)
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 green grass that follows.
Snaking through the countryside, the Mara River is a formidable obstacle the wildebeest migration must cross in search of food, risking injury or death by drowning, crocodiles, or opportunistic lions or leopards lying in wait.
The migration is massive moveable feast predators rely on year after year to fill their tummies.
The 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, as if someone just yelled fire.
Nearly a stampede, the herd rushed forward. The first 20 or 30 leaped into the river as if they were competing for height and form—water splashing high into the air when they hit the surface.
But soon, it was no holds barred into the drink. A stampeding mass of horns and hooves they moved forward, next to and on top of each other. Their low, nasal honks creating one continuous deafening bee-like hum.
Twenty minutes passed but 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.
Crossing and Kills: The Great Migration’s Circle of Life
Another day, we stopped at an entry point multiple small herds were using to cross. Crocodiles, long and wide, were out in full force, callously pulling the migration’s wildebeests under one after the other.
After locking on to their target, we watched their heads slice through the water like a shark’s fin. There was nothing we 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 of an animal being murdered in front of me, but I couldn’t deny I was also fascinated by the spectacle.
Suicide by Crocodile
“I think he’s trying to commit suicide,” I said to no one in particular.
Between a rush of crossings, a loan wildebeest headed towards the water with a stride indicating he was on a mission. He showed no sign on the common timidity other wildebeests exhibit.
What I couldn’t figure out was why? Less than 10 feet from the shore a 16-foot croc at least 3 feet wide was 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 his direction parallel to the wildebeest’s path. He was gargantuan. I could see him a couple of hundred yards away yet, still, the impassive wildebeest ambled on.
He was the oblivious pedestrian, headphones blaring, unaware that a speeding car was about to mow him down.
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, 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.
For a long moment, I stared at the circular ripples in the water where the wildebeest had been. My hands were cramped and sweaty from clutching my camera too tightly—my heart was still pounding.
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.
Here’s How Can You Enjoy the An Amazing Crossing
There are many ways you can enjoy a safari in Kenya. For this trip, I was on a wildlife photographic safari with Wild Eye Destinations and Photography. It’s a great team I’ve worked with on multiple occasions in Kenya and South Africa.
Read this post if you’re curious as to whether a safari is right for you.
Check this post out if you want to know the questions you should ask yourself before choosing a photography tour.
This post will tell you how to create amazing wildlife photos when you’re in Kenya for the great wildebeest migration.
Read this post if you want a comprehensive guide to planning a safari in Kenya.
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