Tanzania's Mara River Crossing
Why a Wonder: The crossing, known as the Great Migration of the Zebra and Wildebeest, is perhaps the quintessential wildlife migration on the planet. During the course of an hour or so, you may see thousands of zebra and wildebeest crossing the Mara River, darting around and jumping over hungry (and huge) crocodiles looking for a meal.
Where: There are several known crossing locations along the Mara River in Northern Tanzania, which can be seen while visiting Serengeti National Park.
When: In general, July, August, September and October are the prime months for watching wildebeest and zebra (and elephants) cross back and forth over the Mara River. But as we say in wildlife photography, "It's not a zoo." You may arrive on the bank of the Mara River and see little or no action for hours, and sometimes even days, during the migration season. And, crossings can occur anytime of year; in fact, all the wildlife photographs in this post were taken in November of 2022, past the traditional migration season. Plan extra time to maximize your chance of seeing a crossing. See the P.S. at the end of this post to learn more about the migration.
Photography: The key is to have a good guide who can maneuver your safari vehicle into a good position for unobstructed photographs – because there will be other vehicles vying for a good spot, and because bushes and trees line the Mara River. We had one of the best guides on our safari, which was organized by Unique Safaris. So in reality, some of the credit for my photographs goes to our guide and Unique Safaris.
Once in position, you need to be constantly alert for photo possibilities – as they come and go in a flash . . . and a splash. Photographing with both eyes open will help you see much more (giving you more photo opportunities) than you'll see when looking through your viewfinder. This technique does take some time to master, so I suggest practicing at home.
Start with a formatted, high-capacity memory card so you have plenty of space for your photographs. Set your camera to the highest frame rate to capture the peak of action.
On safari, you will experience the circle of life, which can be an emotional experience. Above: the baby zebra did not escape the jaws of the massive crocodile. Below: the mommy and baby zebra did make it past four crocodiles (three in front and one behind the zebras) during their crossing.
If you want to “freeze” the action, set a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second. Keep an eye on your aperture, especially when more than one animal is in the frame.
Have two camera bodies at the ready: one with a lens in the 200-600mm range and one in the 24-105mm range. Be ready to zoom in and zoom out for creative composition. Take a variety of wide-angle and telephoto shots to tell the story of your experience. Try not to change lenses as dust will most likely get on your camera’s image sensor.
Have your smartphone ready, too. Susan took this hand-held video with her iPhone.
Mostly likely you will be in a safari vehicle with other like-minded photographers. Be courteous and know that a fellow photographer may get a better view than you during the crossing . . . and vice versa.
There are many more animals to see in and around the Mara River, including hippos, which can be playful at times.
You’ll find landscape opportunities in and around the Mara River. Taking these photos is good fun, too.
Learn More: If you’re looking for a tour provider suggestion, we used Unique Safaris for our tours, and they were excellent. Our friends Lynn and Meg are experts at custom designing a safari. Keep in mind the Serengeti is not a budget destination, and a trip can cost on average around $8,000 per person, depending on how long you decide to stay.
P.S. Our friend and Tanzania expert Meg Katzman at Unique Safaris offers this insight into the migration.
The main factor that affects the crossing is weather. In the past few years, the herd has been up to the Mara River by the third week in June, mainly because there has not been enough rain to keep them in the central and western Serengeti in June.
If the short rains are late to start (as Rick experienced in November), there can be large crossings that continue into early November. But June and November cannot be relied upon for crossings.
It's also important to mention the significant changes in the migration over the last 15-20 years during these dry season months. The Maasai Mara has lost 70% of its habitat due to expanding agriculture and cattle grazing. Also, Kenya does not participate in controlled burning of grasslands, so this had made the quality of the grasses poor in nutrition and more abundant with noxious weeds. Tanzania conducts controlled burns, so despite the wildebeest looking silly and clownlike, they are actually quite smart, and they now prefer to remain in the NW Serengeti throughout the dry season months. The estimates from the Tanzania National Parks is that 70% of the wildebeest and zebra herds remain on both sides of the Mara River inside Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
The additional impact of this migratory change is that wildebeest and zebra often cross daily or every few days to change grazing north and south of the portion of the Mara River that is inside Tanzania. So, for example, there is more activity during the dry season months than there used to be 25 years ago.
© Rick and Susan Sammon
This post sponsored by Unique Safaris.