If you want to go on safari in East Africa, then you should consider the movement of the famous wildebeest and zebra migration. It is a year-round event that does not stop, or start! It may slow down or disperse into smaller groups but the herds must move continuously to find new sources of food and water. In all, it is estimated that they travel 2000 km every year!
There are other great parks in East Africa beyond the reach of the wildebeest migration. Selous, Ruaha, Samburu, Tarangire, Amboseli, Ngorongoro, Laikipia, Katavi and Lake Manyara. These parks are normally at their best from August to October when it is dry and the wildlife has to gather near the known water sources.
If money is a concern then you should consider the low season months when it may rain more but lodges and camps offer discounted stays. April & May are the cheapest months generally followed by mid-November to mid-December.
Where and when to see the famous river crossings and crocodiles?
The famous images of thousands of wildebeests and zebras swimming across croc-invested rivers are filmed in the Masai Mara in Kenya during August, September and October. The Mara River is deep and fast-flowing - a dangerous obstacle for the herds and many will drown during the crossing stampedes. Crossings occur several times a month; to be at the right place at the right time is a matter of luck and persistence.
I recommend a stay of at least 5 -7 days in the Masai Mara and/or Northern Serengeti to experience a crossing.
The Grumeti River in the Western Serengeti is also home to huge crocodiles but it is not deep enough to be much of an obstacle. In June and July the herds gather in the Western Serengeti but the water levels are often very low due to the lack of rains. They don't have to swim across the river - in many places they can walk across and barely get wet! The biggest action is when the crocodiles ambush the herds when they come to drink. To get the best footage, one often has to wait for hours at the river waiting for the herds to quench their thirst!
In the Northern Serengeti, the Mara River offers yet another opportunity to see wildebeest vs. crocodile but river access is somewhat restricted due to the lack of access roads. It takes a fair amount of luck to see a large crossing with crocodile action – July or October to early November is recommended. But several smaller crossings occur from August to November!
Where and when to see the biggest herds on the open plains?
For a few months each year, the plains of the Mara-Serengeti region are dotted with animals as far as the eyes can see.
My favorite months - In February and March, the southern Serengeti and NCA are home to the large herds and thousands of their new-born young. This area is huge and the herds can be spread out over tens of miles. For the predators (large and small) this is a time of plenty and each day brings several exciting interaction between the hunters and the hunted, including the elusive wild dogs in our secret areas!
My 2nd favorite months - From August to October, the big herds can be seen in the Masai Mara in Kenya. The Masai Mara is largely open plains with several ridges and high points from where to witness the herds in all directions. In addition, there are also large herds of buffalo and even more wildebeests coming from areas outside the Mara.
Thanks to controlled burning by park authorities and fresh green growth, large herds of wildebeest will often move back and forth between the Masai Mara and the far northern Serengeti area (near the Mara River). Clients in the camps near the Mara River in both parks continue to report river crossings and large herds! During these months I suggest to combine the Masai Mara and the northern Serengeti in a single itinerary! But you need at least a week or more on safari.
My 3rd favorite months - In April and May, long lines start to form as the young are strong enough to travel and the food resources on the plains diminish. The herds move NW towards the western Serengeti. Some lines are so long it appears never-ending. Big herds can still be seen but they move quickly - more than 20 miles in a night! The rains make traveling difficult and many camps are closed but the rewards are incredible - fewer people and beautiful green landscapes.
What about June, July, November, December and January?
During June, July and November the migrating herds generally favor the more woody areas to the west.
The plains have dried up and the herds are looking for water from perennial rivers. Most of these rivers are near Seronera and surroundings and in the western corridor. The animals assemble in smaller herds and can often be found in forest areas where tsetse flies are bothersome and viewing is restricted. The western corridor has limited game routes and the hilly terrain will often obscure the true scope of the migration. A few special places such as the Grumeti Reserves, the areas near Lobo and north near the Mara River are open and with great viewing with no obstructions - timing is everything and you should ask your safari consultant to book you in the right places for optimal viewing during these months.
December and January are hybrid months - if November and December were blessed with good rains the woodlands will have large tsetse concentrations and zebras in particular prefer the safety of the open plains so they will lead the way to the plains where they will reduce the grass much to the liking of the wildebeest and eventually the Thomson gazelles. During rainy periods, the herds may well move quickly to the Ndutu area in the south. From there they will move great distances in all directions until they drop their young (have to stay put for a few weeks).
During dry periods in November, December and January (as in 2005/06), the Serengeti plains (with no surface water) will be void of water-dependent wildlife and you will find the herds in smaller groups in the woods in the western areas.
How about gorillas and chimpanzees?
These incredible primates need our support ALL months of the year and you will have a great experience whenever you see them and despite the weather. They live in rainforests where it may rain any day of the year. But be aware some camps and lodges in the parks near the primates may close during low seasons.
How about combining a safari with a visit to the beaches of East Africa?
If you want to go to the beach, then mid-December to March is known for steamy hot weather. July to October will be more comfortable. Avoid April & May at the beach because of monsoon-style rains.