Masai Mara – build up to a crossing

One of the most iconic features of the Masai Mara are the wildebeest crossings which occur each year from August to October. Hundreds of thousands of animals cross the Mara river following the rains in search of better grazing areas. While these crossings are enthralling in their build up and intensity, the Masai Mara is so much more than the crossings.

“Humankind’s greatest priority is to reintegrate with the natural world.” ~   Jonathon Porritt

The wildebeest have to cross the Mara river, and sometimes the Talak and Sand rivers, in the Masai Mara and Grumeti and Mbalageti rivers in the Serengeti on their migration route.

Around two million animals move during the migration which include more than one million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras and Thomson’s gazelle. These animals migrate in search of rich grasslands so follow the rain in an epic, and hazardous, circular journey of some 800 to 1 000 kilometres. This journey takes them through Tanzania’s vast Serengeti plains down to Ndutu where they calve around February and then migrate back up the west side of the Serengeti, through the western corridor and up into the Masai Mara in Kenya.

Looking across the Mara river from the west side you can see Look Out Hill. The thousands and thousands of black dots scattered below Look Out Hill signalled that a major crossing was building. The wildebeest start moving forward from behind Look Out Hill and pour over the hill and down to the banks of the Mara river. It is not clear what the signal is but perhaps, like a murmuration of starlings, they are just watching each other for the signal to move.

Crossings happen when the time is right and that is not human time. Patience is required to be able to witness a crossing. Our host, photographic safari company, Wild Eye, has a bush camp sited on the banks of the Mara river about a kilometre up river from the Purungat bridge. This camp offers the advantage of being in the Mara Triangle reserve and being able to drive down to the main crossing areas at just after 6H00 in the morning. If a crossing started at around 6h00, as it did on two occasions, we were the first there.

“Our relationship with nature is more one of being than having.  We are nature: we do not have nature.” ~ Steven Harper

There are times when we had to wait while the build-up took place. We often backed off from the river and drove up to a vantage point under a Balanite where we could get out of the vehicle and have a cup of coffee and watch the build up in comfort.

Crossings can occur at any time, even at night sometimes, but mostly during daylight hours. You can imagine it is terrifying enough to have to plunge into a fast flowing muddy river knowing there are predators on either bank and in the water just waiting for you without doing that in the dark.

The animals mass on the bank and eventually cross on mass in one thunderous drive relying on the relative safety in numbers. Almost every animal crosses the Mara river at some point. Elephant and giraffe cross in small herds but these animals are usually too big for the Nile crocodiles to take on. I had an earlier post on a male lion crossing the Mara which was memorable. I have not heard of buffalo crossing the Mara river but I presume they do as they are good swimmers and are not afraid of the water. I have seen large herds of buffalo crossing the crocodile infected Chobe river in northern Botswana.

“The indigenous understanding has its basis of spirituality in a recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things, a holistic and balanced view of the world. All things are bound together. All things connect. What happens to the Earth happens to the children of the earth. Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”~ Rebecca Adamson

Wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle cross together to improve their odds of not getting caught by a land predator or a crocodile. Wildebeest are known for their migrant nomad tendencies. This strategy allows them to range over larger areas for the best quality grasses.

Large herds make a noise and the vibration of all the hooves on the ground near the river bank alerts the crocodiles to an imminent crossing. The wildebeest is also called a gnu. The gnu gets its name from its call which sounds like ge-nu.”

Crocodiles have an exceptional sense of hearing. The flaps of skin around the crocodile’s ear protect the eardrums underwater. When underwater, the crocodile depends on water vibrations. These must come from the many hooves and verbalisations.

The next image shows a few Nile crocodiles which had congregated at the Peninsula crossing point. They were basking in the morning sun waiting for the crossing. They probably felt the vibrations of the thousands of hooves massing on the bank above them.

The Nile crocodiles in the Mara river are enormous. An adult Nile crocodile varies in length between 3.5 and 5 metres and weighs between 225 kg and 750 kg. Giant Nile crocs exceeding 6.1 m in length and weighing up to 1 089 kg have been recorded.

The wildebeest’s diet dictates that it is always traveling. It needs to drink twice a day so is constantly searching for water. A wildebeest has a wide mouth which enables it to eat a lot of grass very quickly. There is a natural symbiosis between wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle. This is because zebras will eat away the top layer of grass so that the wildebeest can get to cropped shorter grasses. A Thompson’s gazelle, with its small mouth, eats the remaining portion of the short grass left by the wildebeest. They also benefit from wildebeest and zebra trampling down the tall grass, making it easier for them to feed on short grass.

“‎Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Even tiny insects survive by mutual cooperation based on innate recognition of their interconnectedness. It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.” ~ Dalai Lama

In April each year the wildebeest follow the rain and move to the west and northwards through the centre of the Serengeti reaching the Masai Mara in southern Kenya around July. Then as the rains shift southward the herds follow them from August to October.

A wildebeest uses its superior sense of sound and smell to stay wary of predators, while the zebra uses its excellent eyesight to scan for threats. Combined they create an effective “alarm” system, which together with the massive size of their accumulated herds reduces the chance of any single individual being targeted by a predator.

Their relationship offers more than safety. Zebras are known to have good memories and can often retrace their route from the previous year’s migrations. In turn, wildebeest are adept at finding water sources which helps both species during the drier seasons.

Either side of a river crossing is a dangerous place for wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle to gather. Lions, leopards and hyaenas wait for an opportunity to ambush them. We were fortunate to see a female leopard walking along the lower section of the river bank before a crossing. She must have been looking for an effective ambush position.

This female leopard moved up on top of the bank and wandered through the Croton bushes looking for an ideal ambush position. All preparation before the drama and mayhem of the rush.

I was amazed to see one of the crocs lying in plain sight at the water’s edge at Peninsula Crossing. It must have been a youngster. The experienced crocs know there is no hurry.

The herd build up can take hours. So many times there had been a build up with the animals at the front of the herd close to the river bank being pushed toward the river. It takes one or two inconsiderate game vehicles on the east bank to drive in amongst the Croton bushes to scare the herd away from the river bank. This happened with regularity.

“The infinite vibratory levels, the dimensions of interconnectedness are without end. There is nothing independent. All beings and things are residents in your awareness.” ~ Alex Grey

The herd build up often took us well into the afternoon when the clouds also started to build. In the afternoon the cumulous clouds would develop into darkened rain filled cumulonimbus cloud formations which added to the atmosphere and tension. The clouds added drama and the light changed the mood with the darker skies making everything more foreboding. The wildebeest seem to be finely tuned to the mood and atmosphere.

As the animals started to walk towards the riverbank there was a change in the mood. All the animals grazing up on the side of the hill were watching what all their contemporaries were doing. As one group started moving towards the river so all the animals grazing on the hill started to move in sync. The animals at the back push the ones in front. The animals at the front of the herd are very skittish.

The wildebeest have every reason to be skittish. Leopards and lions lurk the the bushes trying to ambush them. This female leopard was waiting probably for a wildebeest or zebra calf.

It takes very little for the wildebeest to abandon the crossing. It can be the raucous cackle from an Egyptian goose raising the alarm, or safari vehicles on the eastern bank which intrude into their passage. Strangely there is a lack of discipline and consideration from the safari vehicle operators on the eastern side of the Mara river for the animals which are providing the spectacle.

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” ~  Elwyn Brooks White

With out any alarm triggers, the first intrepid wildebeest charge toward the water. There is no hierarchy. Sometimes a calf will lead the crossing. Every animal is on its own and must fend for itself. Once the crossing starts it quickly becomes a frenzy.

The dark rain clouds and thunder in the distant south in the Serengeti beckon the wildebeest herds. Having lived in Africa all my life and loving the bush this is an exceptional place to visit and experience.

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.  It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset.” ~  Crowfoot

Anyone who has read my posts will know that I am intrigued by the interconnectedness of all of life. This place provides a vivid sense of this interconnectedness. The ecosystem of animals, reptiles, insects, birds, trees and grasses are all connected to each other as well as the weather. There is a natural intelligence in life on the plains which we are progressively discovering and increasingly appreciating.

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” ~ Chief Seattle

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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