A Tale of a Crossing During the Great Wildebeest Migration

A quick snippet of one of the many crossings I have been lucky enough to witness

If you haven’t seen a river crossing during the Wildebeest Migration in person, no documentary will ever do it justice. Trust me. It’s akin to 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. Each is unique and filled with mystery, suspense, and adrenaline-pumping action worthy of a Bruckheimer film, and all too often, the dark 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. A few tentative hooves touched the edge of Kenya’s Mara River more than once, but the momentarily brave wildebeests lost their nerve and ran back to the herd, kicking up a cloud of thick dust in their wake.

In the bush, when you grow up as a potential entrée, it pays to be paranoid.

lone wildebeest in the water after a crossing
Hmmmm… Should we go? 

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. 

I chose to believe he took one for the team—one less hungry crocodile– and not just an idiot.

A large herd was on the far side of the river and slightly upstream from where we parked. We sat behind 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.

What is the Great Migration?

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 grassy plains that follows.

Winding through the countryside, the Mara River is a formidable obstacle to the wildebeest migration, forcing the herds to navigate steep embankments, rushing water, and opportunistic predators lying in wait. For the lions and leopards and other meat-eaters, the migration is a highly anticipated moveable feast.

From our vantage point––as if they needed any more dangers––we could see there was also a gauntlet of rock-strewn rapids. Trapped between the stones, carcasses lay, bloated and split with decay. Every now and then the wind would change and we’d get a whiff of the foul, gag-inducing stench.

Wildebeest and zebra, spooked by who knows what, run from the edge of the water up a hill near the Mara River.
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

The Crossing Begins!

A lone 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 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, the 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.

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

Crossings 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, absurdly long and wide, were out in full force, callously pulling the migration’s wildebeests under the water one after the other.

We could see the massive reptiles lock 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 killed in front of me, but I couldn’t deny I was also fascinated by the spectacle.

Suicide by Crocodile

“I think he’s committing 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 of the fear the other wildebeests exhibited as they approached the shoreline.

Lone wildebeest walks into the Mara River in Kenya
A lone (crazy) wildebeest ignores the crocodile only a few feet to its left

What I couldn’t figure out was why? Was he blind? Less than 10 feet from the shore a 16-foot croc at least 3 feet wide floated brazenly in plain sight.

“No. … Stop! What is he doing?”

Didn’t he see the snout filled with razor-sharp teeth hovering a stone’s throw away?

The wildebeest strolled into the water without a moment’s hesitation, the predator disturbingly close to his left.

In response, the croc shifted his position parallel to the wildebeest’s path. He was gargantuan. I could see him a couple of hundred yards, how the wildebeest didn’t is beyond me. He was the oblivious pedestrian 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.

crocodile with a wildebeest in its jaws swims in the Mara River in front of a crocodile sunning on the shore
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.

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 pounded in my chest. 

I chose to believe he took one for the team—one less hungry crocodile—and not just an idiot.

Wildebeest in large herd walking up from the riverbank after crossing
After a successful crossing, wildebeest and topi, wet and exhausted,

“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 prepared for the next drama to unfold.

Here’s How Can You Enjoy the An Amazing Wildebeest Migration 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. For other photo-safari options my post: “The 10 Best Photo Safaris Tours in the World,” of which Wild Eye is a part, is a good place to start.

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 during your own great wildebeest migration adventure

Read this post if you want a comprehensive guide to planning a safari in Kenya.

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Is a Crossing During the Great Wildebeest Migration Really That Special?

263 thoughts on “A Tale of a Crossing During the Great Wildebeest Migration

  1. Una Baufala says:

    Wow! Impressive! 😲 I’ve never been on a safari (yet). Your African Safari articles made me realise I want to see the wildlife of Africa too. Btw, Wildebeest migration looks unreal! Woooow!

  2. Alison and Don says:

    Hi Susan. We “met” a couple of days ago at Bex’s showing of 2040, and zoom party. What a wonderful gathering.
    The Great migration has long been a dream of mine. At least with your fabulous photos and storytelling I get to experience it a little tho I believe you when you say it’s like trying to capture the feeling of flight from a video. I would love to see it one day. When we can travel again I dream of returning to Africa.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hello Alison!
      Thank you for checking out the blog.

      The migration is a worthy endeavor. It’s awe-inspiring and overwhelming in the best of ways. It was great to chat with you and the rest of the gang. I hope we’re all able to meet again on zoom in the future.

  3. Vaidehi Telkar says:

    Wow – beautiful pictures and description. I have been fortunate enough to visit East Africa (Tanzania and Kenya) and see the migration in Tanzania. It was nowhere as chaotic and desperate as this spectacle. Visiting Africa is a life-altering experience, at least it was for me! Your posts and pics bring back wonderful memories and make me want to pack my bags and go again. Thanks for this wonderful blog and travel stories.

  4. roxannereid1 says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

  5. EmilyK says:

    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

  6. Paula Wheeler says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. : )

      • nicole says:

        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?

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

  7. Anyal D. Thomt says:

    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 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

  8. Mathias Marvel says:

    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.

  9. seasiangirl says:

    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

  10. katherinejlegry says:

    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”.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

  11. Stars of Life says:

    Wow! My eyes just kept adoring your writings and those pics! I was lost in there! Enjoyed reading it! Great post! Be a Wildbeest in life too! 😉 FRENZY!

  12. Pura Ilusión by Adelina says:

    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!

  13. sawcedoe says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

  14. geogypsy2u says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

  15. Laura (PA Pict) says:

    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.

  16. Smiling Notes says:

    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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