Wildebeest embark in enormous numbers on long-distance migrations according to the seasons and our trip to the Maasai Mara coincided with the “long dry” seasonal migration. During the migration, the wildebeest move from drier grazing to those areas where the grazing pasture is greener. This journey involves crossing the Mara River and it is considered to be one of the “must-see” spectacles of any Mara safari.
We made an early start for our lengthy drive to the Mara River on our last full day and, before stopping for another bush breakfast, we stopped for a look via our binoculars and long lenses at another group of lions – the Marsh Pride, featured on BBC’s Big Cat Diary.
One of the males has a very distinctive and handsome dark mane but as he was asleep and because we still had a long drive ahead of us, that was more or less all we saw of him.
The first river crossing point was deserted – apart from a couple of hippos – so we drove on and through the river at a point where the road also crosses it.We had to pause whilst another couple of safari vehicles struggled to get up the steep bank on the other side – one of them in the end required to be emptied of its passengers and be towed up. Francis, of course, made it look very easy when it was our turn to cross!!
When we got to the river, there was a huge number of wildebeest milling around on the far bank showing what looked like a combination of hesitation and impatience. The collective noise of several hundred nervous, bellowing creatures is quite unnerving but their anxiety is understandable when you see what they are trying to do. Astonishingly, sometimes they hang around for days at a time before making any attempt to enter the water.
Nobody wants to go first; the entry and exit points can be hazardous, the numbers of animals who end up crossing together can be huge and the risk of being trampled and drowned is high… and worst of all, crocodiles are usually lurking nearby, waiting to take advantage of a seemingly easy meal. Eventually the numbers reach a critical mass and all it seems to need is one creature to take the plunge and the others automatically follow… or at least that is the theory!
We tried a couple of points along the river where it looked as if the wildebeest were thinking about making the crossing but it just didn’t happen. We eventually found a spot where a group of around 15 wildebeest had scrabbled their way down a very sheer rocky slope into the water only to discover that, not only was there not a suitable exit point but the way back up onto the bank from where they had descended was going to be difficult. They quickly got out of the river again and onto the water’s edge.
Going back up the slope they had come down was going to be very difficult, with no real footholds on the rocky surface… but more significantly, although there was a route back up a very short distance across a small grassy hillock above the water’s edge, their route back up onto the bank where the other animals were still congregating was impeded by the presence of a watchful crocodile, who was awaiting their next movements with interest.
There was a growing sense of urgency amongst the wildebeest to get themselves to safety. A few of them made another attempt to go back up the way they had descended and one of them made it all the way up but the others could not. Taking the path past the croc was looking like the only real option.
After several more minutes of hesitation, the wildebeest appeared to manage to take advantage of what looked like misjudgment of the part of the crocodile. At one stage he had turned his back on the wildebeest which, as Francis explained, was in order that he could use his powerful tail to push a wildebeest into the water if he had the opportunity. He wasn’t patient enough however and in the end he turned back round… the wildebeest immediately saw their chance and every single one managed to run past him and made it safely back up onto the bank!
Well, even if the crocodile missed his chance for lunch, it was time we had ours! However, moving away from the river to have our lunch was our mistake because in doing so, we managed to miss another crossing! It just wasn’t going to be our day. It was disappointing but at the same time, I enjoyed watching the wildebeest we saw getting the better of the hungry crocodile and I was glad they all survived!
Generally speaking, wildebeest aren’t the most attractive-looking of animals. They are underdogs of the savannah and they lack the “awww” factor of many of Africa’s signature species but I can’t help liking them all the same, in spite of that. Wildebeest seem to be taken pretty much for granted so in order to redress the balance, I would like to nominate this particular (front half of a) wildebeest who deserves a special mention for this singular achievement… ending up stuck up a tree – with a little help from a leopard!