Niall Anderson is the chief operating officer of the Africa Lodges of experiential travel group &BEYOND. He spent 12 years in east Africa, and has followed the migration of many species, great and small, with mobile camps through the Masai Mara and Tanzania, andbeyond.com
One of the biggest misconceptions of Africa's animal migration is that it happens only at a certain time of the year. These animals are always migrating, but wildlife filmmakers focus on extreme events, such as the wildebeest crossing the Mara River or birthing, when the herds congregate. However, you can always see big herds – not necessary the megaherds – in east Africa. You've just got to be in the right place at the right time: all the animals are doing is following the food.
The two times that everybody focuses on are around July-September when the beasts are crossing the Mara River, and position themselves in the northern Serengeti or the Masai Mara. This is when the tour prices are highest, the camps are most full and there are so many vehicles. In my mind, this is not the best time to go. My advice is: to see the best river crossings, go as early in the season as possible, when the crocs are at their hungriest, and haven't eaten – literally – for a year. I've seen the mass migration start as early as June 12 and run as late as November 6.
The herds don't just cross the Mara River once. They're moving back and forth all the time, following the rains. Everyone thinks they cross the river once, from the south in the Serengeti to avoid the crocodiles in the river into the Masai Mara, and when they're done, they go back to the Serengeti. That's not necessarily the case. A herd can cross north to the Mara, and on the same day cross back out again. They're moving back and forth all the time. I've been in a mobile camp when you go to bed at night, and there's no sight of the wildebeest for miles and miles, then you wake up in the night and the plains in front of you are completely packed with hundreds of thousands of animals.
The western Serengeti in May it is my favourite part of the Serengeti, with big herds crossing the Grumeti River. There's always a chance you'll have wildebeest around, and the mobile camps try their best to be positioned in their path. On several occasions, we've had lions and leopards bring down wildebeest in the camp, and even had herds run through our kitchen tent. All the crockery got broken and it was a complete mess, and everyone loved the story… but we had nothing to serve breakfast on.
It's not just wildebeest that mass migrate: wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and eland are the four main species in the migration. Consider the zebra migration in Botswana, or the topi (antelope) migration in the Serengeti, which gets completely overshadowed by the wildebeest. You've got to earn your stripes before you venture off the beaten track in Chad and Gabon, while the white-eared kob is a spectacular antelope that migrates through southern Sudan.