Imagine: hundreds of wildebeest launching themselves into the Grumeti river as hungry crocodiles snap and twist. Survivors struggle heroically through the spray to the far shore, while behind them more and more wildebeest cannonade into the narrow crossing point. That's how a Great Migration should look, according to those editions of National Geographic I read at school.
But here I am, camera in hand, flying up from Arusha and the scene is tranquil. The plains to the north of the river crossing are littered with grazing stragglers which should have left here months ago, while the vanguard is 120 miles to the north munching its way towards the Kenyan border.
The first thing I realise is that the Great Migration is not some great four-legged juggernaut flattening all before it. Yes, well over a million wildebeest take part in this annual grass hunt round the Serengeti, which takes the best part of a year, but they do so in small groups like companies of soldiers, wandering off at tangents when they find something really good to chew.
"They are so stupid!" laughs Ally, my driver, who picks me up from Kleins' airstrip and brings me north to the Mara river where the herds are crossing. As we drive over a low concrete bridge I see a large contingent of wildebeest balefully trying to decide whether to enter the fast-flowing river below us. "Baleful" seems to be the only expression a wildebeest can muster. They have the longest faces I have ever seen. Imagine the love child of Celine Dion and Will Self on four spindly legs.
But even the zebra, which accompany the wildebeest in small detachments and are generally regarded as the brains of the operation, don't use concrete bridges. "They watch the first wildebeest," says Ally. "If he gets across they follow. But the rest of the wildebeest, they don't wait! As soon as one jumps in they all follow. They break their legs, or they drown, or the crocs get them."
Like ghouls waiting for a car crash, Ally and I set up our picnic table behind a bush on the far side. Ally serves breakfast. I get my camera out. We wait an hour, munching on toast, but the wildebeest only stare at the water. No National Geographic moment today. Once the coffee is gone we load up and head north. Our route follows the path of the herds through an acacia forest that has recently been trashed by elephants. "Some of them do love smashing up trees!" shouts Ally from the driver's seat, at which point we nearly run slap bang into about 10 of the dusty behemoths looking very guilty about a bush they've just ripped to shreds. A young male elephant trumpets and swings round to have a go at us. Ally begins to reverse discreetly but suddenly the delinquent backs off. "The older elephants told him to leave it," said Ally. "They talk to each other all the time."
We emerge on to a wide expanse of bright grassland and for the first time I can see the Migration en masse. I get out my camera again. They look like troops, still in their companies, waiting to be evacuated.
Several miles further north we find the pioneers crossing a depression at the bottom of which runs a stream. Everyone is queuing up in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Ally takes a detour over a small bridge so we can watch the wildebeest emerge on the far side. I get some good video footage but I want to see what's going on down in the ditch. We crawl to some cover. Below I can see about 20 wildebeest picking their unsteady way through the water. I lift my camera and panic breaks out, wildebeest colliding and scattering. I get one blurred shot of chaos and they are gone. "They will be back," says Ally. "They have short memories."
Not these wildebeest. We wait 30 minutes behind a bush while they practise their memory skills gazing back at us. In the end, Ally and I decide it's no fun being wildlife photographers and head north again.
We cross the plains towards the Kenyan border but two factors now mitigate against getting my photo. According to Ally, without an object to cross the wildebeest are splitting up into small family groups and the midday sun is driving them under trees. No herds gallop majestically across the plain today so we find ourselves an unoccupied tree and have lunch. Our Landcruiser comes complete with a fridge, which in turn is well stocked with South African wine, so I'm able to console myself for having failed, so far, to capture a truly great Great Migration picture. Ally suggests we return to the Mara river to see if the dumb creatures we'd seen waiting to cross had made up their minds yet. Skirting the elephant forest we soon find ourselves back on the Mara's shores.
Of course when we get there we find those dumb creatures weren't so dumb after all. They crossed while we were further north and now stare at us mournfully before suddenly bolting.
There is a small contingent of zebra on the far bank so Ally and I agree we'll cross south over the Mara and try to creep up on them. Half an hour later I have a great photo of stripy round zebra bottoms disappearing at speed in all directions. Maybe I'm just not the stuff that wildlife photographers are made from.
We head home, lost in thought. More and more wildebeest, flanked by troops of zebra, straggle along the road towards us. They remind me of a retreating army but in fact I'm the one who's been defeated. "Hey, do you know how you tell male and female zebras apart?" asks Ally. "The females are white with black stripes but the males are black with white stripes!" He's trying to cheer me up.
That night I don't sleep well. Wind blowing across the Serengeti flaps the edges of my tent and in my dreams I can still hear the wildebeest calling gloomily to each other "gnu-gnu". At 4am I wake up and look out of my tent. Suddenly there they all are in the moonlight, more than a thousand, possibly twice that, just standing there 50 yards away from the camp, gazing at me, regiments of black dots filling the horizon. They've obviously wandered up in the night. It's a truly amazing sight. Finally I've seen something that looks like a Great Migration ought to look.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Africa Travel Centre (0845- 450 1535; africatravel.co.uk) offers a seven-night safari to Tanzania from £3,125 per person, based on two sharing. It includes return flights, four nights under canvas, one night staying at Klein's Camp and two at Grumeti River Camp.
Tanzanian Tourist Board (tanzaniatouristboard.com).Reuse content