The Great Migration. Sir David Attenborough calls it “The Greatest Show on Earth” – he’s not wrong. If you think it looks amazing on TV, seeing it for real is a once in a lifetime experience. Nothing could have prepared David or I for what we were going to see.
When we heard that an enormous herd was gathering at the Mara River, we literally inhaled our breakfast because we wanted to get to a prime spot as soon as possible. As we headed towards the river, we could see the great line of wildebeest heading to the river.
When we arrived, there were already 4 or 5 cars there. We all stayed a healthy distance from the riverbank – the reason for this was not just to give the herds space to get to the river, but also because if the cars get too close, the herds will not cross.
We asked James what the likelihood of seeing a crossing was as there didn’t seem to be many animals at the riverbank. His reply was that if there were enough zebras there, the herds would cross provided they were not disturbed by predators or cars. It was now a waiting game.
We waited and we waited. The hot African sun beating down on our heads made the wait very uncomfortable. We were wearing hats but this did not stop the sun from burning our arms and legs and through our hats. Worse, even our cameras were getting too hot to hold. We looked enviously at one lady who had had the foresight to bring an umbrella to protect herself from the sun. The numbers of the herd swelled to epic proportions – surely they must cross soon.
Much to our frustration, there were multiple false starts – zebra would climb down to the riverbank which was out of view only to come back up on the same side. Then the wildebeest started to do the same. “Aaaargh! Cross already!!” was voiced frequently in our car.
I occupied my time by taking photos of the herds but always with one eye on what was happening at the riverbank.
There were so many zebras in the herd that all the guides were convinced that there would be a crossing that day.
After two hours, some cars gave up and left, only to be replaced by other cars. We were given the option to leave and look for something else to photograph but we opted to stay. The herd was still growing so we were pretty hopeful that they must cross and soon.
I don’t recall what happened but suddenly, everyone was starting up their engines – the great migration had begun! It was like being in the F1. The dust was so thick we could not see where we were going. I wondered idly if James would know when to stop or whether we would end up in the river, participating IN the migration rather than photographing it.
We arrived too late to get to the front. It was utter chaos. The air was full of dust and the deafening thunder of a million hooves. Photographers everywhere, hanging out of windows and the tops of their cars, all vying to get a space to shoot the grand spectacle.
David got out of the jeep – our location allowed him to stay hidden from the rangers so he could shoot from the ground over the bonnet of our car. I couldn’t do this as I was too short. So I took off, with James’ help, moving through the jeeps to get to the Kicheche car that had an unobstructed view of the river near the front. This was not an easy thing to do as I was carrying two camera bodies with enormous lenses attached to each!
People started to shout – the crocodiles were coming down the river, looking for their next meal. Hippos were going into the river too.
This was singularly the most stressful and yet exhilarating photo shoot I had ever done. I tried to concentrate on the shots I wanted to get but it was impossible because there was just so much going on and I wanted to capture it all.
“Oh my god! Look! The crocodile has got a wildebeest! Don’t go into the river little zebra! There’s a croc lurking!” So many people shouting running commentaries, thundering hooves, zebras braying, the roar of the river, I thought I was going to explode, trying to stay calm and focussed in the cacophony of noise.
And then I saw him – the lone wildebeest sitting in the river as the rest of the herd swam or ran past him. His head was barely above water. To my right, I saw another wildebeest, also “stuck” in the river, unmoving.
The crossing was relentless. Wave upon wave of wildebeest and zebras jumping into the river, swimming for their lives to get to the other side. It was just incredible.
Suddenly, my camera stopped shooting. WTF?!?! Unbelievably, my 32Gb card was full and my cards were back in the car! Thank god I had my spare camera body on me. But I knew it only had a 16Gb card in it – I hoped to god it would be enough.
I wondered where the herd went when it go to the other side but it was just a fleeting thought. There was more drama unfolding before my eyes which required my immediate attention.
I spied a zebra family with a foal. They wanted to cross but directly below them lurked a crocodile and it was clear he wanted the baby.
The crocodile eventually left to help the crocodile who was still struggling to bring down the wildebeest. The zebras took the opportunity to jump in and swim to the other side.
But the currents were very strong and the foal panicked and turned around, followed by his mother. He and his mum were now stranded on our side of the river with the rest of the family on the opposite bank. Zebras are herd animals and the family tie amongst zebras is such that they will not abandon their own. They cross together or not at all. You could hear their distress as they called to the foal and his mother but they would not/could not make the crossing. The zebras had no choice but to come back for them.
The zebras braved the river once more and came back to help the mother and her baby.
My heart was in my mouth as the family attempted the crossing for the second time.
This time they were accompanied by some wildebeest.
Had the crocodiles not been pre-occupied with the wildebeest already in their jaws, I am sure that this zebra family would not have escaped unscathed. When they all made it safely to the other side, I breathed a sigh of relief as did many others who were also watching.
I now turned my attention to the drama unfolding close to the opposite side of the bank.
The wildebeest had been caught early on in the crossing but he was still fighting for his life. Time and time again he would drag himself out of the water, with many of us shouting encouragement, taking the crocodile with him. But whenever we thought he would succeed, his back end would go crashing back into the water as the crocodile hung on to his victim.
The crocodile who had been hanging out for the zebra foal decided that he wanted easier prey, so went to assist his fellow crocodile with the wildebeest. We honestly thought that would be the end of him but the wildebeest was strong and clearly wanted to live.
Against all odds, he dragged the two crocodiles with him towards the riverbank. “Come on! You can do it!!” we all screamed. We willed this wildebeest to win this monumental battle, to escape, to live. But it was not to be. A third crocodile came gliding down the river , grabbed the wildebeest by it’s horn and between the three of them, they dragged this mighty wildebeest down into the murky depths of the river.
It was over. And as tragic as it was, his death meant that the other wildebeest and the little zebra foal lived.
The great migration was also over. It had lasted 30 minutes but the herd had made it. With the exception of a couple of hippos, the Mara River was empty again.
Our tour guide has been visiting Kenya for over 10 years and in that time, he has witnessed many crossings. The crossing we had just witnessed rated in his top five crossings – I’ll take that as it was a pretty good one then.
For those of you who would like to see the Great Migration, here are a few tips.
- Allow yourselves at least a week in the Mara. Crossings do not occur everyday so if you go for just three days, be prepared to be disappointed.
- On the day you go to the river, depending on where you are staying, it is most likely to be a very long day i.e. you will leave your lodge before dawn and you will not return until early evening. Take a hat and an umbrella to give you protection from the sun. If you are lucky, the crossing will occur very quickly but be prepared to be sat out in the sun for anything up to six hours.
- Think about the sort of photos you would like to take – do you want to tell a story? Are you after specific shots? Are you looking for interesting shapes? This is never more important than when you are photographing the Crossing. It really will help you to keep your focus in all the chaos.
- Last but not least, make sure you have plenty of memory cards on your person!