Our Guide to the Great Migration in Kenya
Published on: December 13th, 2018
Last modified: July 27th, 2023
The Great Migration is one of the most incredible wildlife spectacles in the world. Often dubbed the ‘Greatest Show on Earth,’ the Great Migration in Kenya’s Maasai Mara sees thousands of wildebeest migrate across the Mara River.
Following the rains, around 1.5 million wildebeest, 400,000 zebras and 200,000 gazelles travel in a clockwise direction from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park through Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve during the months from July to October.
As a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s worth getting any trip to see the Great Migration right first time. From when to travel to where to stay, this is our guide to the Great Migration in Kenya.
Best time to visit Kenya for the Great Migration
July to October
July to October is peak season for migration safaris and is when most river crossings take place. During these months, herds are making their way between Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara so this is when you’ll have the best chance of seeing a river crossing. It’s not an easy crossing for these animals to make, as they face threats from crocodiles, lions and poachers.
Once they reach the plains of the Maasai Mara, herds graze between different pastures and feed on the rich grass found here. From October onwards, the herds make their way back south to the Serengeti after having depleted the grasses of the Maasai Mara.
Kenya vs. Tanzania: where should I go?
With herds of wildebeest passing through both Tanzania and Kenya during their migration, it can be hard to choose which country to witness the spectacle in. Tanzania’s Serengeti isn’t as easily accessible as the Maasai Mara is, so it’s not a great option for families. The isolated nature of the area does mean, though, that the park tends to be much quieter. Here, you could have a river crossing or migration sighting to yourself, or share it with just one other vehicle.
In Kenya, you stand a much better chance of seeing the migration and river crossings, as the wildebeests’ route through the Mara is much more concentrated than their route through Tanzania. The Maasai Mara is also much more accessible than the Serengeti is, as you can fly straight there from Nairobi within a day. This area is also prime territory for the Big Five, so you can spot lions, buffaloes, leopards, elephants and rhinos alongside wildebeest.
Where to stay in Kenya
As a popular migration safari destination, Kenya can become overrun with crowds. For a more peaceful experience, staying in a private conservancy is a great way to avoid the hordes of tourists. Our expert travel designers have stayed in all of the private conservancies the Maasai Mara has to offer, so they’ll be happy to advise on the best camp for your individual needs, no matter who you’re travelling with.
An agreement between the Maasai landowners and safari camp owners has seen much of the land to the north and east of the Maasai Mara converted into wildlife conservancies. These private conservancies and reserves are separate from the Maasai Mara Game Reserve itself. They are right on the border, though, so travellers can still combine an exclusive safari experience with the beautiful surroundings. With a limited number of camps permitted in the conservancies, travellers can also take comfort in the fact they’re contributing to a low-impact and more sustainable form of tourism by staying here.
If you’re set on watching a river crossing, you can visit the Maasai Mara National Park for a day from these private conservancies. Aside from avoiding the crowds, private conservancies offer night drives and walking safaris, which aren’t allowed in national parks and public game reserves due to their busy nature.
As the wildebeest are only in Kenya for a few months of the year – from July to October – several seasonal camps are set up. These take advantage of the best migration sites and are custom-made for tracking the herds, so they are a great option for those who don’t mind the crowds.
How to see a Mara River crossing
As the wildebeest and their fellow mammals migrate from the Serengeti into the Maasai Mara, they must cross the Mara River. Located on the border between Tanzania and Kenya, this is one of the most treacherous points of the migration. Hungry crocodiles wait beneath the surface, making it a hazardous crossing. With millions of clattering hooves, crashing waters and predators waiting on the other side, some animals may not even make it out alive.
River crossings take place from August to October, but there is no guarantee of seeing one. Even if you arrive at the exact moment that the herds are gathering on the bank, they might simply stand there for a couple of days, nervously waiting for the first wildebeest to take the leap. The animals know that predators lurk in and around the river, so they’re understandably reluctant to cross. Wildebeest may even gather in their thousands on the bank before deciding to walk away and find a different crossing point.
With a private guide leading you through the Maasai Mara, your chances of witnessing a river crossing without the crowds will increase. There’s still only a 20-30% chance you’ll see one, though, so it’s worth managing expectations before you arrive. It’s also worth remembering that the months when river crossings happen are peak season, so you’re likely to encounter some other vehicles, regardless of how hard you try to avoid the crowds.
Top things to do in Kenya
Kenya is understandably a must-visit destination for witnessing the Great Migration. There are plenty of other things to do here, though, so you don’t have to count on wildebeest sightings for an exhilarating trip. The Maasai Mara is an incredibly wildlife rich area, so spotting the Big Five is relatively hassle-free, with lions particularly prevalent amongst these plains. On a migration safari itself, there are many ways to fill your time when you’re not chasing wildebeest. Hot air ballooning, horse riding, walking safaris, night drives and bush breakfasts are all excellent ways of seeing Kenya from a different perspective.
Moving away from the plains of the Maasai Mara, the magnificent Amboseli offers arresting views over the world-famous Mount Kilimanjaro, while the Chyulu Hills in the east are a fantastic place to learn about Maasai culture. In the north, the romantic Laikipia region of the Great Rift Valley is prime black rhino territory, while the open bushland of the Samburu National Reserve offers a varied landscape for lions, leopards and cheetahs. With something for everyone, Kenya is a game and culture rich country that can be as action packed or laid back as you like.