The Great Wildebeest Migration at Mara River II

18 September 2020 | Kieke van Maarschalkerwaart

This is part 2 of the extensive report of Kieke and Eef’s safari in corona time.
See also part 1.

Tanzania, Serengeti September 18, 2020

We have to get up bizar early and it is still pitch dark outside when we set out. Here and there we see eyes light up on the savannah in the glow of the headlights. Finally we stop near the Mara river where they are already busy rolling out the balloon. Slowly a golden glow appears above the horizon that slowly provides the entire landscape with magical light. With a mega gas burner, warm air is blown into the balloon and et voilà… then we have to take a sprint because the balloon almost wants to leave without us. We quickly climb into the basket, here too we fasten ourselves with seat belts and curl up at the bottom of the basket. Then we and our dream are released on the savannah… we scour the grass and some bushes… and then… we are airborn and we skim over a tree top.

We go higher and higher and the wind drives us over the vast savannah landscape. The sun is just above the horizon, creating an endless shadow of us and it looks like we are in a giant balloon.

Then the Mara river comes into sight right in front of us and our balloon pilot drops the balloon to a few meters above the swirling river. Hippos dive into the river like submarines entering the water, a Nile crocodile gasps in the air and we look into the crown of a palm tree. Very bizarre that close… then the burner disturbs the silence. Birds fly up… no idea what sails over them and howls at eye level, staring at you in surprise. The vast landscape below us is astonishing and we see many wisps of wildebeest on the way to the rains. James our driver is also with us and emerges as our reportage photographer. He takes many precious pictures of us with a beautiful view in the background. We find a lonely buffalo among the bushes and a hyena, which is still cleaning up some leftovers.

After an hour of floating and the wind as a signpost, they look for a place to land. Our pilot has his own technique in terms of landing, we first land in a treetop to lose some speed. We have to hide at the bottom of the basket and brace yourself, still a bit exciting with all kinds of metastases in your back and we cannot estimate how hard or soft such a landing will go. We are not happy with a spinal cord injury now. Then we hit the ground…. bouncing like a loose boucing ball through the grass with the basket… ah ha… the seat belts are there for a reason. The balloon also descends and we are parked upside down in the bushes… then the pilot allows us to crawl out of the basket with a big smile.

Time for champagne and the story why it is drunk when a hot air balloon lands. Something that we don’t normally do and certainly not in the early morning, although the explanation of this tradition is quite funny. In 1783 laundry is hung by the fire and the Montgolfier brothers see that the laundry, which fills with warm air, bulges and rises somewhat. The brothers are going to experiment with this and after a few home tests they send a sheep, duck and rooster into the air, under the watchful eye of Louis the something in France. The first successful balloon flight is a fact on September 19, 1783. The sheep was quietly grazing after landing, the birds were especially in shock after flying 3.5 kilometers in 8 minutes at an altitude of 500 meters. The sheep “Montauciel” (climb to heaven) ended its life in the royal zoo and became an attraction.
Then they wanted to run a test with death row inmates, who would be pardoned if they survived alive. In the end, that did not happen, because it would be very strange if criminals were to go down in history as heroes. Fortunately, there was a brave scientist and a marquis with balls, who dared the first manned balloon ride on November 21, 1783, without the balloon still attached to a rope. They reached a height of about 900 meters and after a 25-minute airsailing landed about 8 km outside Paris. They were ennobled with a glass of champagne afterwards, hence the traditional champagne baptism in the early morning after a successful balloon flight.

So much for history…. Time for breakfast on the edge of the Mara river while the balloon boys neatly fold the balloon and hoist it onto the trailer. A pop-up toilet has also been conjured up on the savannah here: A loo with a view. We are neatly dropped off at our jeep at Kokatende airstrip and it is time for a game drive and to look for the thousands of wildebeest we have spotted from the balloon.

Well, with James as an experienced tracker, we tracked them down in no time. Wildebeest, wildebeest,…. wildebeest everywhere. It seems something is about to happen. We check the different places where the wildebeest usually cross the river. James, has done this before, so we trust him completely and he chooses a shadow spot at crossing 4. It is very busy, groups of wildebeest dribbling from all sides, dust swirling…. but crossing 3 or 2 could also be a bit fickle… it seems as if they have the ‘snollebollekes’ up…. From left to right… they continue to wander awkwardly back and forth and the tension rises… we hide under a large acacia tree. We especially keep an eye on the other side of the river…. or there the first wildebeest come up wet … Then the whole herd starts moving … off the river in a gallop towards us … well that is also quite impressive … when you see thousands of wildebeest approaching you …

Unfortunately, just then a number of wet elephants come out of the bushes at crossing 4, who crossed the river from the other side and scared the wildebeest terribly… fat bales… because wildebeest are also a bit nervous! We would be too… if you are the “big mac” of the savannah. Most felines are also smart and lazy enough… to ambush the wildebeest at a crossing. Especially when they think they have made it to the other side safely and are completely exhausted, they strike unexpectedly.

The large herd of wildebeest turn off just before the row of trees where we are and take a look at crossing 2. We also leave our observation post under the acacia tree … and now have to look for a new place where we can keep a good eye on crossing 2 to keep. The group now consists of thousands and thousands of animals and more animals are still joining from the rear. ………………… And then out of nowhere ………… .. they all run wild again at the same time. After an inspection of crossing 2, it was nevertheless rejected and it was decided that crossing 4 ‘m is going to be today. The ground starts to rumble again and the enormous cloud of dust of thousands of hooves on the sand betrays that they are loose … James calls, hold on tight and we drive behind the trees to crossing 4 so as not to break the string of wildebeest.

Patience is a clean, err… dusty and warm thing on the savannah, but its worth the effort… and  lots of sand between your teeth but also a fantastic crossing in front of you of thousands of wildebeest who plunge into the river and look for fresh green grass in chase of the rains.

The great wildebeest migration is an annual natural phenomenon. The 300,000 zebras and antelopes are happy to join the 1.2 million wildebeest. This creates long caravans, which move clockwise with the rain through Serengeti NP and Maasai Mara NR, so that they are always assured of nice fresh green grass. However, with a few obstacles along the way, which make it extra spectacular .. the rivers …
The brief summary of the migration pattern:
• December – April Southern Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Hundreds of thousands of calves are born here
• May is especially busy in central Serengeti,
• in June they are in western Serengeti and you have a chance of crossings through the Grumeti river,
• July – October north Serengeti and Maasai Mara and the crossing of the Mara River,
• November they will go south again via the eastern part of central Serengeti
No wildebeest guarantees by the way, because they can easily travel 150 km a day and / or dawdle for days in front of the river.

There we are on the river bank… wow… the wildebeests tumble and stumble into the river, it splashes and splashes… on top of each other… it doesn’t matter if one goes… almost all of them go…

Crocodiles are there… but they are mostly bulging from previous crossings… on a sandbank downstream… there are always a few wildebeest drifting off without a swimming certificate, with broken legs, symptoms of fatigue, too small, lost and drifted … The crocodiles get species of meat platter served as a dessert river style.

All afternoon we are at the river with 3 other safari jeeps, because it seems like a national crossing day… or they can smell the rains in Kenya, because apparently they can do that if the wind is right from about 50 km away. James always parks the jeep in a different spot so that we can capture the crossing from different perspectives.

On the way back from the natural spectacle, we meet another elephant family to downscale … after this crazy day. So don’t count sheep tonight, but safari style … wildebeest in the river.

Tanzania, Serengeti  september 19, 2020

We’ve got a taste for it and so has James. We want to make an attempt for the other side of the river so that the wildebeest come to you instead of a lot of buttocks in the picture. But for that we have to cross the Mara River.

With the jeep through the river…. Our predecessors did not do quite well, it turns out. There are six soaking wet rangers on the bank of the river when we want to drive up the bridge. The water drips from the barrel of their guns and the jeep is on its side in the river. Fortunately, the cold-blooded Nile crocodiles were still chilling in the morning sun and nobody is missing an arm, leg or colleague. James takes a look at the bridge, where the water flows over instead of under. James has already been on the accelerator for quite a time and does not shy away from some water, even though this appears to be the 2nd jeep, which was washed off the bridge in 4 days.

We are also in for an adventure and would like to attempt a crossing from the other side. Yet our hearts beat faster when we take the crossing and drive along the jeep, which is in the river. James is totally focused on the other side, because if you look at the running water you will get off. Hop, we make it to the other side with a little sweat under our armpits… the camera in the drybag… just to be sure.

There we patrolled the border of Kenya for a while and through the flat hinterland to then try the Mara River from the other side… so you can look them in their eyes when the wildebeests are going to bomb the river edge.

We have lunch with a view of the river at crossing 4. There is a small group of wildebeest… but we don’t expect much from it. We now see dark rain clouds forming on the other side of the river… We have to make sure that we are back on the other side before the heavy rain starts. Because this is how our crossing over the bridge becomes increasingly dangerous …

Only when are you going to give up… or just be patient… forward another 10 minutes and then we go back. Not… .. after 9 minutes a wildebeest takes an unexpected dive, causing the other 200-300 animals to follow as well… We can’t believe our eyes, but then it still happens… fantastic… they come right at us. There is a mega chaos on our side… it is quite steep to get to the shore and smooth. All wildebeest want to get out of the water as quickly as possible and try to push ahead, which produces spectacular pictures. The whole crossing took 2 minutes and 47 seconds to be precise and then there is no more wildebeest to be seen on the other side. So bizarre! The other jeep arrived exactly 1 minute late… it’s still wildlife isn’t it….

Then back quickly, before the dark rain clouds really erupt… a good sign for the wildebeest and more crossings… but a bit awkward for us…. An hour of heavy rain there, the river could rise by a meter here… and then tonight we have to stay in the jeep on this side of the river. Since the bridge is then no longer passable or visible at all … so high time to find the bridge again in a flash … and before we park our jeep next to the rangers’ jeep in the water.

[Also published with more beautiful photos of Kieke on Travelsoap December 8, 2020.]

Tanzania - The Great Wildebeest Migration at Mara River

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