The Great Wildebeest Migration

The Great Wildebeest Migration

Aaron Millar
Aaron Millar
Award-winning travel writing, photography and adventure inspiration.

The annual wildebeest migration, across the Serengeti, in Tanzania, and parts of the Maasai Mara in Kenya, is the largest migration of land animals on the planet. An average of 1.5 million make the 1,000-mile circular journey every year. And though the wildebeest are the star, they are accompanied by more than 350,000 gazelle, 200,000 zebra as well as thousands of eland, antelope and impala. Herds stretch 25-miles long, filling the entire horizon. Galloping hooves kick up the dusty ground into a storm of earthen mist. The ground shakes. The noise is like thunder. This is Africa’s great migration. Seeing it is, perhaps, the greatest wildlife spectacle on Earth.

“An average of 1.5 million make the 1,000-mile circular journey every year”

But the journey is hard and fraught with danger. The story begins on the slopes of the Ngororngoro Crater in the southeastern corner of the Serengeti Plains. Between January and March the wildebeest cows give birth to their young in near perfect unison. Within three weeks more than 300,000 calves will be born. Dozens of lions and hundreds of hyenas stalk the peripheries of the herd, looking for easy prey. But such abundance satiates the predators and ensures the maximum amount of young will survive. The newborns are also highly adaptive, gaining co-ordination faster than any other ungulate. Within two minutes a newborn calf is on its feet. Within five it can run with the herd.

By the end of March the short-grass of the southern Serengeti is wearing thin and the wildebeest begin their journey west in search of food. Their movement is triggered by an awareness of environmental factors. They are sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure and humidity, allowing them to sense the onset of distant rain, and on the horizon thunderclouds begin to bellow, providing a visual stimulus too. Where the rains are, grass will grow; and so they move.

 lioness seen from the side watches as a herd of wildebeest passes by on the African savannah. One or two wildebeest are standing looking at him warily.

And they are built to travel. 3,000 lions, 1,000 leopards, 300 cheetahs, packs of wild dogs and untold hyena await them. But they are ready. A fully grown wildebeest is 8-feet in length, 600 pounds and able to run at 40mph. They have evolved to cover long distances quickly and economically. And while predators are confined to small territories and sprints, the herds can keep up a steady pace and simply blast through.

As the rains set in, the herds travel northwest through woodland and low hills toward Lake Victoria and the plains of the Serengeti’s western corridor. Here, in May and June, usually at a full moon, the rut begins, accompanied by vicious fighting between dominant males.

Then they head north, towards fresh grass into Kenya and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. But to get there they face one of the greatest obstacles of their entire journey: rivers. For most of the year the Mbalangeti and the Grumeti Rivers in the Serengeti and the Mara River in Kenya are placid. But sudden rainfall can create violent torrents. It is not uncommon for 5,000 wildebeest to drown in a single crossing if the conditions are unfavourable. But that’s the least of their problems. Waiting beneath the depths are giant Nile crocodiles, 14-feet long with jaws that can snap a neck in seconds.

Safari tourists on game drive in Ngorongoro

But the promised land is on the other side. During the course of their migration 250,000 wildebeest will die in order to make it to the lush grasslands of the Maasai Mara – from predators, thirst, starvation and just pure exhaustion. Once there the giant herds spend months feeding and fattening up. But by late October, as the first rains begin to hit the distant Serengeti, once again filling seasonal waterholes and flushing the ground with grass, they begin to close the circle. The herd treks south, cows heavy with the new season’s young, back to where they started, on the slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater. Here they feed, wait for their young to be born and watch the horizon for thunderclouds to light up the sky once more.

In reality there is no single event of the migration. The wildebeest are the migration: a constant movement across the plains of Africa, chasing rainbows in search of food. Their movement is the lifeblood of the plains, cropping grass, fertilizing the land and providing vital protein for predators. They face many obstacles, but now there is a new threat too. East African population booms have resulted in development pressures, deforestation, poaching and habitat fragmentation. Climate change is causing more intense periods of rain and drought. All this threatens the clockwork balance of life. And the great migration is the keystone of the entire ecosystem. If the wildebeest should fall, the Serengeti will fall with it. This may be the greatest wildlife spectacle on Earth, but it’s also one of the most vivid examples of the interconnectedness of life. Everything depends on everything else. There is no migration in its singularity. Only a dance; a symphony with different players and many parts. Africa’s great migration is the music of the planet itself.

Where

Serengeti National Park, Tanzania and Maasai Mara National Park, Kenya

How to See it

Time your visit with the migration cycles of the Wildebeest, but cross your fingers too: the exact dates of the migration are dependent on the rain and vary each year. July – October is generally the best time to go to Kenya. January – March is calving season around the Ngorongoro Crater, in Tanzania. While April – June the herds travel through central and western Serengeti. www.serengeti.org, www.magicalkenya.com

Top Tips

The Mara River crossing is probably the most spectacular event of the entire migration. Come between July and November for the best chance of seeing it, but you’ll need patience and luck. If you can afford it, stay in a private game reserve just outside the National Parks boundary where there are less crowds and more intimate wildlife encounters. Or even better book a private mobile camp, which follows the herds.

Aaron Millar’s latest book, 50 Greatest Wonders of the World, is available on Amazon and other retailers.

Ecuador Cloud Forest Safari

Ecuador Cloud Forest Safari

I am in a world of water. It hangs from trees like a thick mossy coat. It tumbles in cascades and floods of rushing streams.  I find it quietly fallen, in drops that capture rainbows like prisms, and raging in sudden torrents of intense rain.  And where this water lands, life explodes upwards. Tangled spirals of glistening diversity erupt in slow motion around me, like the genesis of the earth itself.

cloud-forest-river

These are the cloud forests of northern Ecuador, one of the most biologically diverse habitats on the planet. In this small area alone there are more then 500 individual species of birds – about half the total for all of Europe – thousands of rare orchids, and innumerable varieties of flora and fauna that are found nowhere else on earth.  Life here is so abundant, in fact, that discoveries of new species are still regularly being made: just last summer a furry orange mammal called an olinguito was seen for the first time.

I’d come here to try out a different kind of safari. Instead of spotting big game, I wanted to look at the ecosystem as a whole.  I wanted to peer into the microscopic universe of the forest and discover the inner workings of that near invisible world. Ecuador is rightly famous for the Galapagos, but most tourists in the rush to see those fabled islands, miss out on this equally magical landscape, right on the doorstep of Quito.  I put my wellies on, met up with local guide David Yunes, and set off into the clouds for a look.

Ecuador-toucan

Toucan

We hiked for two days, spotting endemic toucans, Dracula orchids and giant owl butterflies with snakeskin wings. I heard howler monkeys shake the canopy and held a (baby) tarantula as big as my hand.

Ecuador-owl-butterfly

Owl butterfly

We sipped coffee listening to the tiny drum roll of hummingbird wings, and picnicked beside waterfalls, swinging out on giant tree vines, Tarzan style, above the jungle abyss.

cloud-forest-rope-swing

Rope swing Tarzan style

At night we put on head torches and explored the humid darkness, finding stick insects as long as my arm, mushrooms that glow in the dark and a beetle with orange phosphorescent eyes on its back – “just to recognise how incredible this one tiny beetle is,” David says, “makes everything worth it.”  I felt wild, liberated and connected to a world infinitely more amazing, and complex, then I had ever imagined.

On my last morning, in pre-dawn starlight, we cut our way through thick forest to the lek, or mating ground, of the Andean-Cock-of-the-Rock – an endemic bird of the Mindo forest and top of many twitcher’s tick lists. As the forest yawned awake, and colours flooded our shadowed hide, we waited in silence until the patter of brash little feet began stamping branches and squabbling for female attention.  Even between species, some things never change.

Cock-of-the-rock

Cock of the Rock

Afterwards we climb a hill to a viewpoint high above the forest. Low clouds slipped beneath the canopy as the day faded and the frenzy of coming dusk stirred the forest awake.  What, to me, was previously an undifferentiated expanse of rolling green hills had now become a vast network of connected living entities, each one part of a complex synergy of polyphonic life, and each one dependent on one another.  “Being here is like going back to your origins,” David said.  “It’s easy to feel that everything around you is alive”.  This may be a world of water, but peering beneath the surface left my head in the clouds.

Cloud forest view

Cloud forest view

ABOUT AARON MILLER

Aaron Millar is a freelance journalist specialising in travel. His work has been seen in the Guardian, Financial Times, Independent and more. He is also the travel editor of Positive News, the world’s leading positive newspaper, where authentic sustainable travel is promoted. Aaron writes an interesting blog called thebluedotperspective.com, and he is also an accomplished photographer.

More India moments

More India moments

Kumarakom Temple

A man’s voice, deep and pure, sings line after line of a prayer.  He begins always on the same note, rising in simple melodic steps, before returning again to the original base sound.  Each phrase lasts just one breath.  Each note is savoured.  As I listen, faintly behind his voice, I hear the line repeated by others. Hundreds of unrehearsed, unconscious whispers – like the echo of a single thought.

Beside the dark canals of the Kumarakom River, I follow this sound. Weaving through the forest, darkened by shadow of the new moon, to the edge of the fire temple.  There, covering the walls like a veil of flame, a thousand candles hang, too delicate and still to be real. No statues, no ornate carvings, just plain stone surrounded by drops of fire.   “A breath of wind and they’d all be gone,” I think.  And perhaps that is the point.  The song rises and falls, and is answered with a stillness that demands reciprocation.

Backwaters, Kerala

In Verberand Lake, the mirror quiet of the water matches the light blue sky so perfectly it appears that we are floating in the midst of a giant bubble.  Seshi – the captain of our boat – taps me excitedly on the shoulder.  We share no common tongue, but nod at each other and smile.  There is a quiet beauty here that no language need articulate.

This is my home for the next two days: a wicker hobbit’s house perched on top of a 70ft long jet-black canoe.  From the side she appears like a sea dragon with arched reptilian vertebrae popping out of wicker skin and windows with eyelids about to blink lazily into the sun.  Seshi steers the boat, propping up a small black umbrella over his shoulder and pointing to rustles in the mangroves: an egret wading by the water’s edge, a kingfisher skimming the surface.  We pass through canals blanketed with floating lilies, meandering through riverside villages where mothers slap clothes dry on rocks and children swim, running dripping by the bank to race our boat.

Backwaters Canals rice field

Backwaters Canals rice field

That afternoon we moor beside a rice field of the brightest green I have ever seen – like holding a single leaf to the sun.  Seshi dives for mussles, emerging from the murky water with handfuls and triumphant shouts.  Later a fisherman pulls up to the edge of our boat, perched on the far end of his thin canoe with expert poise and balance, to weigh us half a kilo of his morning’s catch – the biggest tiger prawns I have ever seen.

India canals fisherman

Backwaters Canals fisherman

We feast on river curry and then float the day away, meandering through the confines of narrow canals framed by stone cottage villages and trees of pineapple, papaya and banana. This is the most relaxed I have ever been. The thought comes to me suddenly, and with utter certainty.  Seshi points to a grey Heron standing rigid by the mangrove’s edge.  I am like that bird, I think. I’ve spent my entire life tense: waiting, wanting, always looking for the next thing. I have never truly stopped, but here in the backwater canals of southern India I let all that go. There is only the sway of the boat, the sound of water and the perfect circularity of the sun.  The Heron darts its head under water and soars suddenly into the sky, a silver fish in its beak.

Backwaters Canals Sunset Canoe

Backwaters Canals Sunset Canoe

ABOUT AARON MILLER

Aaron Millar is a freelance journalist specialising in travel. His work has been seen in the Guardian, Financial Times, Independent and more. He is also the travel editor of Positive News, the world’s leading positive newspaper, where authentic sustainable travel is promoted. Aaron writes an interesting blog called thebluedotperspective.com, and he is also an accomplished photographer.

The Secret of Great Travel Writing

The Secret of Great Travel Writing

Travelling is one of the great joys of life. But those peak moments of discovery and exploration, when we are elevated from the routines of our everyday lives, are fleeting and, if we’re not careful, soon forgotten.

Souvenirs and photographs help us remember. But, over time, the details fade: we see ourselves on the top of Table Mountain, in South Africa, but we forget what the wind felt like on our face, the way our heart beat through our chest with the exertion of the climb. We put the Moroccan tagine pot on our mantelpiece, but we can’t recall the old Berber man who gave it to us, the sip of sweet mint tea we shared. To keep the joy of travelling alive, nothing beats writing it down.

Table-Mountain-Clouds

But good reading, is hard writing. What we imagine will work well, doesn’t always translate to the page. Our precious memories feel distorted, and distant, once we articulate them on paper. Many of us now are also sharing our travels through blogs and social media – we want our friends and family to experience those incredible, life-changing moments with us. Capturing the essence of a place, or a moment, in a few short paragraphs, whether for our own pleasure or for other’s eyes, has never been more pertinent.

The good news is there are a few simple tips that will improve your travel writing dramatically. Whether I’m working for a national newspaper, or just writing on my own personal blog, I use these three simple tricks everyday. They improve my writing, deepen my travelling experience and help me hold on to memories that I know will last a lifetime.

Please note this list is not exhaustive. The deeper you go into the art, and craft, of travel writing the more there is to discover and explore. If you want to find out more, drop me a line at my blog: The Blue Dot Perspective.

Elephant

Capture the Essence, Nothing Else:
Alfred Hitchcock said “drama is life with the boring bits taken out.” Travel writing should be the same. Try to capture the essence of an experience, not explain every minute detail.

Think about this in two main ways:

  • The Passage of Time: Get straight to the action. Don’t waste space describing uneventful components of your trip. Maybe you’re on safari and you spend two hours driving around seeing nothing and then, suddenly, you come across a lioness stalking a baby gazelle. When you write about this later take us to the heart of the action straight away. Put us right beside the hunt, not bumping around in the back of the jeep waiting for something to happen.
  • The Heart of the Experience: What was the key moment? What was the major emotion you felt? Maybe it was the look in the lion’s eye, maybe it was the way her muscles tensed ready to pounce? Perhaps it was the unsettling thrill of watching the kill? Take time to reflect upon the experience, both during and afterwards, to get to the essence of it. Concentrate on describing those few things vividly and your writing will be punchy and well paced.

Zoom in, Zoom Out:
When describing a place, person or experience think of your writing like a movie camera. Wide shots show the reader the context, the overall situation and help establish a sense of place. But in order for that place to feel real you need to zoom in on the details. Details are what make travel writing come alive.

Maybe you want to describe a market scene. Begin with a wide shot: where is it, what is the landscape like, the weather – pick out the broad contexts that will set the scene for your reader. Now zoom in: maybe people are haggling, maybe a donkey is teetering through the alleyway. Now zoom in again: a boy looks up at you and smiles, you bite into a ripe peach and the juice drips down your chin.

Vary your perspective and your reader will feel as if they are absorbing every aspect of a scene, not just looking at it from far away. Add details that help to frame the essence of that place, person or experience and they will feel like they are there with you.

Create Imaginative Space:
The classic rule of writing is show, don’t tell. Writing should spark ideas and ignite emotions, not prescribe them. I call this the imaginative space. If a writer spells out every aspect of a scene, the imaginative space shrinks – there is no room for the reader to participate emotionally in the story.

For example, it’s enough to say “an old woman, dressed in rags and bent double at the hips, holds her empty hand to the street.” There’s no need to say – “It was sad”. Let the readers decide for themselves what that scene meant. Your job is to paint pictures with words in ways that steer people’s imagination towards the experience you’re hoping to convey. But what that end experience for the reader ultimately is, is up to them, not you. Have faith in their intellect and emotions, and they will reward you by caring about what you write.

ABOUT AARON MILLER

Aaron Millar is an award-winning travel writer, journalist, photographer and presenter. His work has been seen in the Guardian, Financial Times, Independent and more. His awards include the 2014 and 2017 British Guild of Travel Writers Travel Writer of the Year and Visit USA’s Best National Newspaper Writer 2014, 2016, 2017 & 2018. Aaron writes an interesting blog called thebluedotperspective.com.

India Moments

India Moments

Night Walking in Mumbai

People are on the streets: talking, sipping tea, weaving in and out of stalls selling sugar cane, nuts and chocolate. The smell of spices new and strange and delicious fills the night as the heat of day slips, replaced by a clamour of incessant movement, like a blurred image. These are my first steps in India. Rickshaws weave between cars, cows and bicycles. A young girl, barefoot in a blue and gold sari, laughs at my colourless clothes. A young man with a manic smile unfurls a cobra at my feet. Noise is everywhere, but I am calm, breathing the air of Mumbai for the first time. My fingers curl around the warmth of its night. I am here. There is no future to rush towards.

Sunset Palolem Beach, Goa

Goa Sunset

Goa Sunset – Aaron Millar


We hop off barnacle-crusted rocks to the water’s edge, watching carefully the damp green algae, that we may crash and slip. Watching eagles circle among the pastel blues, reddening with the falling sun, nestling in step with the faint breeze from the sea. The soft wet sand holds the memory of our footprints, the sea coils around our toes, and even the waves hold their breath as they break upon the stones.

Hampi

Hampi Temple view

Hampi Temple view – Aaron Millar


From the Hanuman temple, at the summit of Anjaneya hill, the ancient monuments of Hampi disappear into an endless desert of boulder fields and lush green plantations. In the distance a dusty path cuts through luminous green rice fields where young women, bent double at the hips with straight backs and wide legs, methodically pick the harvest one handful at a time. Nearby the almost 600year-old Virupashka Temple, rises from the earth like a pyramidical sand carving, ringing bells and celebration as Lakshmi – the temple elephant – returns from her river bath.
Hampi Temple

Hampi Temple – Aaron Millar


Suddenly a circle of school children surrounds us, smiling, waving and giggling with faltering “how do you dos?” They grab our hands and lead us down the steep path to the nearby Vittalla temple – a complex of ornate stone buildings centred around a giant rock chariot whose wheels, hundreds of years ago, unbelievably once turned. As we approach the temple they shout to their friends, gathering more children like pied pipers as we go, until we are utterly swept up in their wave of laughter and teasing and silliness. This is the magic of travelling, I think to myself. These moments, when our guard drops and the gulf of our different lives means less then the bridge of our shared experience.
Hampi Children - Aaron Millar

Hampi Children – Aaron Millar

Coffee Plantation Trek, Western Ghats

Coffee Plantation trek

Coffee Plantation trek – Aaron Millar


The sun’s light has arrived before its warmth. We are wrapped in blankets at the red and misty dawn, sipping tea and listening to birds wake the forest. A wild dog barks in the distance, marking its territory with sound, and is joined by the deep coughs of black face lunga monkeys echoing unseen in the high canopy above.
Coffee Plantation trek monkey

Coffee Plantation trek monkey – Aaron Millar

We trek through the morning dew, leaving the thick green beans and red flowers of the coffee plantation behind, heading deeper into the long grass of the jungle itself. Animal warnings proceed our path, screeching alarms followed by guttural warnings. At one point we surprise two spotted deer, they stop and watch us in silence as we hold our breath. Later we stop beside a cool flowing river, dipping our toes in the water as we picnic on daal, naan and spicy vegetable curry. A monkey troop surrounds us, I see them dipping their heads upstream to drink the cool water, I hear the creak of them bouncing on branches above me – trying to shake free delicious ripe gooseberries. Sunlight breaks through the leaves like crystal fingers. Everywhere life bubbles nature’s shapes. Crickets call in the distance and the hornbill is laughing.

ABOUT AARON MILLER

Aaron Millar is a freelance journalist specialising in travel. His work has been seen in the Guardian, Financial Times, Independent and more. He is also the travel editor of Positive News, the world’s leading positive newspaper, where authentic sustainable travel is promoted. Aaron writes an interesting blog called thebluedotperspective.com, and he is also an accomplished photographer.