Since I was a child I have dreamt of the romanticism and wild of East Africa. From Ghosts in the Darkness to Out of Africa, I have read the books and watched almost every wildlife documentary out there. The dream of Africa and a Safari is almost always filled with images of wide open plains filled with thousands of wildebeest and zebra, and National Geographic blasts us with images daily of the struggle of these animals as they cross the famous Mara River in search of greener pastures.
Having guided in Southern Africa these images have seemed distant and only stories around the campfire. But now in Tanzania it has become a reality and this reality is more powerful and heart wrenching than I could ever have imagined. Having spent the last 5 days along the Mara River at this time now when the majority of the herds are hitting the Mara River. It was better than I could ever have imagined, perhaps not better but simply more awe-inspiring. It truly is the greatest wildlife spectacle I have ever witnessed.
A couple of things first: the wildebeest, and yes, there literally are thousands, are not in one big group, but many groups. Some of one hundred, some of one thousand and others innumerable. We witnessed a crossing of four and a half hours at the river can’t be more than 50 meters wide at that point. Lines 30 animals wide, crossing for hours, there literally are thousands, and more, and more. Also these animals cross both the Grumeti and Mara Rivers and they will cross again in a couple of months when they head back south over the Mara. The crocodiles in these rivers are enormous, it is not just a fable!
The first thing that really has an impact on you is the noise, the constant GNU, constantly constant, and yes all night, all day, not for one second is there silence in the herds. Next is the hundreds and hundreds of vultures, everywhere you look, in the trees, thermals full of them in the sky, on the ground, everywhere. Lappetfaced, whitebacked, hooded and whiteheaded… and of course the domineering by numbers Ruppels Griffons. Add in the good old marabou stork who are ever-present and the place has a really crazy feel to it. Why are they all here? This is what you don’t see on TV, there are dead everywhere, on the plains, on the banks and really they are piled up in the river. The smell can be quite overwhelming.
It is a complete sensory overload. The smell of the wildebeest dead and alive, the sight of them, all of them. The sound as the marabou flaps his wings above your head. The sound as the first in a group leaps into the water. The hyeanas – and they are all fat, every single one- calling to each other as eight of them run straight into a huge group of wildebeest, identifying the weak. There are weak and sick everywhere, thin, broken legs, standing in the midday sun all alone, while a kilometer away on the top of a slight ridge the rest of the group head slowly north towards Kenya. It is sad, I found my emotions for these sick and dying were much more powerful than I could ever have imagined. And it’s always the young who are dying out on the plains. In the river it is a different story: there anyone can die. If another of your own species doesn’t trample you, the crocodiles will get you, or you will be swept down river, or break a leg climbing out on the other side…. it is steep and it is rocky!! In areas where the rocks are in the river and obstruct the flow, the carcasses are piled up on top of each other, the stench is overwhelming, Crocodiles lie basking in the sun hardly metres from the carcasses and the trees are flowering with vultures.
But when the wildebeest cross it is powerful, it is very thrilling and it is a phenomenon! Sometimes you wait for hours, sometimes they are crossing when the sun comes up and you merely drive towards the dust and the noise. In nature there are no guarantees, sometimes they don’t cross and head back to eat and maybe come to cross again the next week. It was a privilege to witness, and awesome to be there. I will be back in the area towards the end of next week, but I do feel sorry for the herds. Nature has it’s ways, this is survival by numbers, and the sideshow that goes with it is unreal!