In the Maasai language, Serengeti means “endless plains”, and is an apt description of Tanzania’s largest and most highly recognised national park. This massive ecosystem actually extends beyond the park to include several conservation areas and reserves, including the Ngorongoro conservation area and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. A recently proclaimed seventh world-wonder, the Serengeti is famed for its annual great migration, when millions of hooves pound the open plains as zebra and Thomson’s gazelle join the wildebeest in search of fresh grazing.
The herds are stalked by prides of lion, spotted hyena, striped hyena, golden jackal, side-striped jackal and black-backed jackal. The Serengeti ecosystem is one of the world’s most complex and least-disturbed ecosystems, and with the climate alternating between dusty summer droughts to green winters and lush springs, with open plains transformed into endless green carpets splashed with wildflowers, there is always something new waiting around the next corner.
During the annual migration, over a million wildebeest, two hundred thousand zebra and four hundred thousand gazelle move throughout the southern and eastern plains of the Serengeti in an indistinct clockwise direction following the fresh green grass germinated by the rains.
It can be difficult to foretell the exactly path and timing of the migration, but if the rains had been on time, the broad pattern is reasonably predictable.
From December to April, at the end of the short rains, the great herds gather and commence their journey from the Ngorongoro Plains to southern Serengeti in Tanzania (January to March in the southern Serengeti is calving season).
May to June see the restless herds journey north through the central Serengeti and the western corridor, between the Grumeti and Mbalageti Rivers, where they commence their mating season.
In June or July, the herds split up. Some continue west, other head north, and hundreds of thousands move steadily north-west towards the long golden grass of the Maasai Mara.
September sees the herds spread out across the northern Serengeti, where the Mara River provides the migration with its most momentous obstacle. It is here that the iconic images of the herds crossing the Mara River are taken.
With the onset of the short rainy season in October and November, the herds begin their move back to the south in wait of the onset of the next migration cycle.
Apart from the migrations, some area of the Serengeti provide exceptional year-round game viewing: some of the largest buffalo herds and elephants are to be found in the unspoiled woodlands to the north, the Seronera valley in the centre of the park has plentiful grazing and abundant animals, Lake Ndutu attracts huge flocks of flamingos, and in the west the Grumeti River contains some of the largest Nile crocodiles you will ever see.
There are two distinct seasons with temperatures remaining for most of the year between 21-27°C (70-80°F), however nights and early mornings get colder from June to August. The rainy season is split between five months of the year with the short rains falling in November and December and the long rains falling from March to May. January and February and June to October are the dry seasons.