October is not necessarily thought of as the ideal time to visit the Mara – at least, according to most travel agencies.
July and August are deemed best for viewing the great migration. The sheer number of vehicles in the reserve at that time of year confirm its popularity. 20, 30, 40+ can align each side of the Mara River, hoping for a wildebeest crossing, all jostling for a clear view of the action.
Firstly, if you are like me, this is not your idea of a fantastic wilderness and wildlife experience, and secondly, animals don’t always obey the rules.
Following the rainfalls and chasing the greener grass, 2 million wildebeest and roughly 200,000 zebra move from the southern Serengeti to the Maasai Mara in an annual circular migration.
So it was that I found myself on safari with a fantastic group of seasoned and first-time safari goers earlier this month. We had our mobile rig set up in a private camp in the western Mara without another vehicle to be seen.
We had a fantastic safari during the first few days, spending our time in the territory between two large lion prides, as well as a female cheetah and her two cubs.
On one morning we decided to take a drive eastward to see the Mara River, as early seasonal rain showers had led to short, green shoots erupting on the plains along the Tanzanian border, and we thought that this may lure some of the resident herds towards us.
On the flight in, we had seen some of these herds gathering along the eastern banks, and this was a good sign that they might be heading our way.
We reached the river by the late morning and Indi, our local expert driving the other vehicle, immediately saw the tell-tale signs of the herds pushing towards the river and radioed me in.
We pulled in just in time to see the wildebeest lining up at the water’s edge, tentatively sniffing at the water, waiting for someone brave enough to go first.
More wildebeest charged down the hill towards the river, pressing those below and stirring up huge clouds of dust.
The first animal usually makes it across safely, as the splashing of the water attracts nearby crocs, and younger wildebeest and zebra can easily get crushed beneath the stampeding herds. So, although it may not seem wise, fortune favors the brave.
It was a family of zebras who eventually lead the charge, pushing into the murky water as giant crocs approached from up and downstream.
This was all it took for the wildebeest herding instincts to kick in, and we watched as approximately 500 animals braved the deep waters to follow the zebras, their natural instincts calling them to the fresh plains green with sweet grasses on the other side.
The crocodiles in the Mara River are arguably the largest on earth and several skirted the columns crossing, waiting for their inevitable opportunity.
This soon resulted in a young wildebeest losing its way and swimming across the river, back towards the direction it came from, after having successfully crossed. A croc caught it as it closed in on the opposite bank and dragged it beneath the water.
A mature zebra met a similar fate soon after, but most arrived unscathed, if not a little shaky from their ordeal.
To watch this primordial movement of animals in our private wilderness was one of those experiences that come to those fortunate travelers who let the environment dictate their movements.
But to have it all to ourselves was truly remarkable.
Being flexible with your itinerary, choosing camping areas where the game is at its best, and working with local experts, is truly the essence of safari.