September 9, 2011 9:52 pm

Migration watch

A new series of mobile camps in Tanzania means you can get closer to the greatest wildlife show on earth

The trouble with animals is that they don’t read textbooks. Take those capricious wildebeest, the mainstay of Africa’s famous migration, the year-long circular movement of animals that has been dubbed the greatest wildlife show on earth.

Right now, as I write, they should have passed through the Serengeti in Tanzania and be milling around the Masai Mara national reserve in south-west Kenya. A good number are where they are supposed to be, chewing the grass, emitting their curious grunting sounds, kicking up the dust, but down in the Serengeti, on the vast plains of the Singita Grumeti game reserves, there are thousands who seem to have taken one look at the Mara and decided that they prefer it in the Serengeti.

The migration is an awesome sight but you don’t have to be obsessive about catching it at its most spectacular. If you speak to the guides, they’ll tell you that their favourite time for game-watching is after the bulk of the migration has passed through.

“It’s as if the grass has just been mown,” says Russell Hastings, who spent several years as a guide in Singita Grumeti and now runs the enchanting Legendary Coffee Lodge (www.legendarycoffeelodge.com) in the Tanzanian city of Arusha. “You get these long, clear vistas enabling you to see game right across the plains.”

Ryan Schmitt, the guide on my recent trip to Singita Grumeti, agrees that the real pleasures come after the migration. “The resident game moves back in and you see a greater variety of game; herds of eland, topi, elephant and smaller creatures,” he explains.

The good news is that there are now ways of catching it all. Singita Grumeti has decided to make it easier for its privileged guests to view the migration. You can stay in one of its heavenly lodges and then book into its new mobile camps nearer the action. If the migration hasn’t showed up when it should have done, it offers what it calls Extended Migration Flights. For $725 per person per day, the company will fly you to the airstrip nearest the action. Most exciting is the chance to see wildebeest returning from Kenya across the Mara river, which can be viewed by flying to Kogatende, about 15 minutes from Singita Grumeti’s airstrip. Remember, though, that it all depends on the timing. When I was there in August it was a dead loss but, come October, it should be thrilling.

Singita Grumeti has some 350,000 acres that you share only with the reserve’s other guests, which never amount to more than about 80 people. The Mara is roughly the same size and, though it offers wonderful animal sightings, it has some 3,000 beds for guests with the associated numbers of minibuses and jeeps.

This corner of the Serengeti is the Africa most of us dream of – wide, acacia-dotted open plains, vast horizons, huge skies, long lines of low hills. The area was largely abandoned until two entrepreneurs, the American hedge-fund tycoon Paul Tudor Jones and the South African Luke Bailes, decided to rescue it. Outside the Serengeti National Park, illegal poaching and uncontrolled hunting were rife. It’s an important area for the migration, being what’s called a “pinch point” where thousands of animals pass as they follow the rains to the Mara. Now Tudor Jones and Bailes have put anti-poaching patrols in place, the land has been restored and wildlife is flourishing.

When I visited in 2008, I thought it unimaginably beautiful but saw very little game. Two weeks ago, I sat out on its Gambaranyera plains in the western part of the reserve, which was filled with game as far as the eye could see. There were zebra and wildebeest, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles, but, more excitingly, there were eland in the sort of large groups I’d never seen before. There were impalas, giraffes, baboons, ostriches, warthogs and buffalos – all in the sort of abundance one dreams of and seldom sees these days.

Some were part of the migration that had decided to head back to Singita Grumeti, clearly fancying its grass over the Mara’s, but all the other species were there too. Another day I saw a cheetah stalk and kill a waterbuck, sat beside a lake as more than 100 elephant came down to drink, and tracked a group of lions on a kill.

But there is another new addition to the Singita Grumeti experience since I was last there. In addition to the three small lodges (Faru Faru, all cream and chrome overlooking a waterhole; Sasakwa, the swankiest and the one with the most stunning and panoramic of views; and Sabora, a romantic tented camp), there is now a new venture called Explore, which consists of a series of semi-mobile camps that will be set up exactly where the migration is likely to pass through. The camps offer a more adventurous experience. You sleep in khaki tents with a shower and an en-suite loo but there’s no electricity (though there are good battery-powered lights), TV or WiFi. You cook bread on sticks over the campfire, eat nourishing soups and enjoy more rustic food. In fact, I preferred the fare to that offered in the posher lodges.

The sites are out on the open plains, where the most powerful leitmotif is the sense of the wilderness all around. Sleeping in the tents, comfortable though they are, allows one to feel closely connected to the natural world outside – you’re safe and warm but you’re woken by the birds, the lion roars seem more thrilling and you can feel the soft breezes through the netting.

So, if you are set on seeing the migration, I would advise booking into Singita Grumeti for late May, June or July, when the animals are most likely to be passing through. October is a good month, too, when you may catch them returning after browsing on the grass in Kenya’s Masai Mara.

Although it’s amazing to see 1.5m wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and 500,000 Thomson’s gazelle (the animals estimated to make up the main core of the migration), the noise they make (like buzzing bees in the distance, but demented frogs when closer) is soon tiresome. So maybe you should take the guides’ advice and worry less about experiencing the migration and more about appreciating those great Serengeti plains filled once again with wildlife of every kind.

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Details

Lucia van der Post travelled to Nairobi with British Airways. Singita Explore costs $1,300 per person per night on a fully inclusive basis. It requires a minimum of two persons per booking (maximum 12 persons) and a minimum stay of two nights in any one mobile location, www.singita.com. You can track the migration by visiting www.wildwatch.com/great_migration

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