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Becoming the herd
Every year more than a million wildebeest move in a giant loop around Tanzania and Kenya. It’s the largest animal migration in the world, and around July / August, the wildebeest charge across the Mara river toward the fresh, green grass in Kenya.
Forget lions. Nevermind elephants. Eagles might as well be crows. When you’re in the Northern Serengeti this time of year, seeing “a crossing” is your one and only focus. You drive along the dirt tracks that follow the Mara, scanning the horizon for wildebeest herds bunching up near the riverbank. If you find one, you sit. And watch. And wait. Are they looking for a way down, or just eating? Are they moving toward the river, or away?
“When it happens, it’s chaos,” our guide, Roderick, told us during our two days in the north. “They have no leader. But once the first animal goes, they all go. It might happen today; it might happen in a week. It’s very unpredictable.”
On our first day we watched two separate herds all afternoon, and while there were plenty of promising signals from the herd, none crossed. Roderick had warned us that many visitors come year after year and don’t see a crossing. We had one more chance the next morning to see it. So we woke up at 530am and drove along the river. We waited. We watched. Eventually, we parked above a herd that was flirting above the water. Roderick communicated with other guides who were watching different parts of the river.
After waiting for hours on end, you start to almost resent these disorganized, herd moving animals. “Why wouldn’t they just cross there? They seem so anxious. How dumb are these things? Just go!”
Eventually, one did go. The call came from over the radio and our normally easy-ridin’ Roderick put the gas pedal to the floor and we bounced our way to where the animals were crossing. Us, and about 30 other equally-hurried cars.
Normally you don’t leave your car on a game drive. Here, everyone spilled out of their vehicles to jockey for a premium vantage point. There’s a frantic sense of urgency that absorbs you like a contact high. Suddenly, you simply must see it. And photograph it. People push in front of other people. Other people push in front of them. Manners are replaced by tempers.
“Are you crazy?” One woman said to another woman who blocked her view.
“No, I am perfectly healthy. And if you call me crazy one more time I’ll keep standing here,” she replied before kneeling down.
It was hectic! Mid-way through the 30-minute crossing, I found myself just as entertained by the people as I was the wildebeest. I imagined aliens looking down on us — the people-herd watching the animal-herd — and saying, “They seem so anxious. How dumb are these things?”
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