7 Tips for Viewing Serengeti Migration River Crossings

Each year, over a million wildebeest and zebras crisscross the Mara river in the northern Serengeti (Tanzania) as they migrate in search of fresh grazing land. Depending on the rains each year, these river crossings can start as early as June as herds move north, and end around November as the majority of migrating animals move back to the southern Serengeti. The Mara River boasts the most spectacular crossings in the Serengeti, but there are few other river crossings (see below).

While this post provides general tips to orient you, your guide (hopefully) will be a local expert.

As shown on the map below, there are about a dozen crossing points where wildebeest predictably cross, which the park rangers have mapped. The mapped crossings start from #0 in the west and extend easterly to crossing #10.

Crossing Characteristics and Details

Crossings are usually delineated one from another because of a small creeks (or a seasonal river bed) separating them.

Many crossings are separated by a small creek, and trying to get from one crossing to a neighbouring crossing (when a herd is undecided about the crossing point) varies greatly when your jeep has to traverse a creek.

At the Makutano crossing, most crossings are southbound because of the eastern location. Unless you’re one of the first jeeps to arrive, you might not even get a glimpse of the action.

Crossing #0

is the official western-most crossing, but there is a crossing area even further west (about 15 minutes drive) informally called “California” by the resident guides. It’s name is probably derived from the many small palm trees in that area.

Crossing #1, #2, #3

These crossings have less deadly rocks then some crossings further east. Tip: even though some crossings look close on the map (like #1 and #2), the driving distance is about two kilometers because of the creek separating them.

Crossing #4

is one of the most often used crossings because it’s the easiest for the wildebeest to cross: the slope is gentle and there are less rocks. This crossing also has many lion kills.

Crossing #5, #6

these crossings are difficult for the wildebeest, especially #6 because of the rocks, where they break legs or get stuck and drown.

Crossing #7

this actually consists of #7a and #7b, which are very close to one another but separated by a creek, and they’re referred collectively as #7 and rank as one of the most frequent crossing areas. There are many more crocodiles at this crossing because there are no hippos there.

Crossing Makutano

Makutano is one of the top 4 most frequent crossing points. It has high banks, and when crossing southbound, the wildebeest tend to only exit the bank at 2 specific spots, where it’s easier to climb out. This crossing can accommodate many vehicles, unlike many other crossings, where the river narrows or where bushes along the banks impede the view, and restrict the number of vehicles that can park.

Crossing #8, #9

these 2 crossings have a high number of wildebeest deaths because of rocks. In additional #8 also has many lion kills.s rocks.

Crossing #10

has gentle slopes with no rocks, and is one of the most frequently used crossing points, matched only by #4 and Makutano.

A short crossing can last 10 minutes, and a mega-herd can can over 6 hours to cross. To get an idea of a what to expect at a crossing, we assembled a few clips from some of the crossings we saw.

Drama at Crossings

At crossings with many rocks or steep banks, the movement is slow, and many die in the scramble to get into or out of the river. They jump on each other, break legs on the rocks and drown. And that’s before dealing with the predators. Hundreds and even thousands can die during a difficult crossing.

Crocodiles provide a lot of drama at crossings, and the crocodiles of the Mara River are known to be some of the biggest Nile Crocodiles in Africa. They congregate in areas with rocks to sun themselves, and generally avoid hippos, but we’ve seen crocodiles around hippos, and even saw one trying to swim through a hippo pod to reach floundering wildebeest.

Some guides speculate that wildebeest actually seek crossings near hippo pools, knowing there aren’t crocodiles, preferring to deal with irate hippos than hungry crocodiles. But the hippo behaviour can be unpredictable: our guide has seen a hippo rescue a wildebeest from a crocodile’s grasp, and he’s also seen a hippo attacking crossing wildebeests. We witnessed a hippo appearing to block a crocodile from a struggling wildebeest — our guide suggested it was because of the acrimony between hippos and crocs, not because of the hippos’ love for wildebeest.

The Mara river remains deep enough even in dry season for hippos to stay submerged (while standing), so when the wildebeest cross it’s deep enough that many drown during the frenzied crossing.

Lion predation occurs where the wildebeest are most vulnerable to ambush, not where they are most abundant. This means the landscape features to look for at river crossings are bushes, thickets and woody cover along the river banks, erosion embankments, and rocky outcrops. Lions hunt from cover near the water, and if they’re hiding at point where the wildebeest are exiting the river, a kill is imminent because the wildebeest can’t retreat — they’re being pushed by the animals behind them.

Because leopards also prey by ambush, there is little opportunity for their success when the lions are also hiding at the best ambush spots. Our guide only ever saw a single kill by a leopard at a crossing, it is very rare.

Other carnivores like hyenas don’t usually predate at the river, because the scavenging is so plentiful by the shore.

North side vs South side of the Mara

There are a few factors that impact the decision about being on the north or south side of the Mara river: choice of lodging, game drives, and to a lesser extent, the time of year. Or you could split your safari and stay on both sides.

Early in the season more crossings typically occur from #1 through #4. While southbound crossings can occur from #6 and higher, and occur later in the season. They can cross from north to south or from south to north depending on the time of migration season.

If you are early in the season then I would favor the north side, and if visiting late in the season I’d favor the south side. Yes, the migrating herds crisscross the river throughout the season, but at the start of season they will be primarily northbound, and later in the season the reverse is true. For instance we were there for 11 days in mid-October and we saw over 15 crossings, all of them southbound! The advantage of having the herds cross the river toward you is just for photos; a crossing is spectacular even if you only see their butts.

To cross the Mara river in the Lamai area, there is a single small bridge — it’s near the Kogatende airstrip. Otherwise you drive for hours and have to exit the park, or take a 10 minute flight from the Lamai airstrip to Kogatender. For day trips you can use this bridge, but there is a risk later in the season due to rains submerging the bridge. The bridge might be passable early in the morning and submerged by day’s end due to rains from the previous day far upriver in Kenya. In fact, the bridge was completely washed out in 2020 and only repaired in June 2021.

Zebras and Wildebeest Behavior at Crossings

When the zebras travel with wildebeest to a crossing, they will often wait for the wildebeest to start crossing to test the waters for crocodiles. We’d read about that in wildlife articles, but didn’t believe zebras were that smart, but we witnessed it more than once.

When our guide saw zebras be the first to arrive at a crossing, he warned us that it could take a long time for the animals to actually cross. The skittish zebras can delay a crossing and even postpone the crossing for a whole day, because they spook the wildebeest when they run to and fro near the water’s edge. If wildebeest arrive at the crossing without zebras, the crossing can begin almost immediately, and sometimes even a small yearling is the first to make the leap into the water.

We’ve waited for hours for the animals to begin crossing, at quite a few crossings, and while watching their behavior you realize how random it is. Wildebeest will follow other running animals, and this can be quite comical when they start running around woodland, not realizing they are running in circles.

Sometimes, zebras or wildebeest will cross the river even though there is still grazing where they are, and the rains play a big part in guiding the wildebeest.

The migrating herds don’t always choose the safest crossings with the easiest characteristics: gentle sloping banks with shallow slow moving water and no crocodiles. Wildebeest don’t employ much logic: some popular crossings have very steep high banks with deep water, lots of rocks, strong currents and hungry crocodiles. When they fling themselves into a dangerous crossing, carcasses can collect along the river bends in the thousands.

Camps and Lodges (permanent/mobile)

All of the main safari operators have lodging in the northern Serengeti: Asilia, &Beyond, Lemala, Nomad, Nasikia, Sanctuary, Singita, Tawisa, TWC, etc. There are 2 basic types of lodging in the Serengeti: permanent and seasonal mobile camps. We include the semi-permanent with the permanent group because neither moves seasonally. One big differentiator between lodging type is whether it has a bucket shower or a regular shower. A bucket shower has shower fixtures inside the tent, like a normal shower. A water bucket outside the tent is lifted with a cord mechanism to connect with the fixture inside, it flows down without pressure as you ‘shower’. Once the bucket is empty, they have to get another bucket. You will have to order the water and time it. Permanent camps have regular pressure showers and solid floors in the cabin/tent, while mobile camps usually have bucket showers, with (at least one) notable exception being Asilia’s Olakira.

Another differentiator is location. Everybody would like their lodge overlooking the Mara river, but there aren’t many of these. As of 2021, the lodge closest to the river, almost on the river’s edge, is Singita’s permanent lodge on the north side of river close to crossings #0 and #1. No other lodge is as close to the Mara river or as luxurious.

Further west from Singita, about 20+ minutes west of crossing #0 on the south side of the river is another permanent lodge called the Mara River Post (Tawisa). It boasts an exceptional view overlooking the Mara river from a hilltop, but to actually drive to the river’s edge probably takes 20+ minutes. Being so far west might be better early in the season, when northbound herds are coming up from the Grumeti area. Another permanent lodge but further from the river with a beautiful hilltop view is TWC’s Mara Mara Tented Lodge, about 30 minutes to the river and 40 minutes to the Kogatende airport.

Yet another camp with exceptional hilltop views is Nomad’s Lamai camp in the picturesque Kurya hills. It is on par with Sayari in terms of luxury and comfort, but much further from the river.

Tanzania, Mara River Crossing

Sayari (Asilia) is a permanent camp on the south side of river. It is about 5-10 minutes away to crossing #6 or 10 to 15 minutes away from #7; close enough that if you’re having lunch at the camp and a radio alert says the wildebeest are massing near one of these crossings, it’s possible to quickly get there to see the crossing. Asilia also has a mobile camp on the north side of the river called Kimondo (Asilia) near crossing #6, and a camp called Olakira on the south side of the river, about 15 minutes away from #7. Unlike most mobile camps, Olakira has regular pressure showers and wooden floors similar to permanent camps. Note that Olakira has moved twice since its current location, and its original spot was very ideal, close to Makutano crossing which some older maps still incorrectly show.

Alert: Recently (2021) most non-permanent camps were forced (by park authorities) to relocate further away from the river, and most older tripadvisor reviews and Google maps will show incorrect location information.

The lodging that is furthest east along the Mara river (near crossing #10) is a mobile camp from Nasikya (Maasai Wanderings), and is about 3.5 km from the river’ edge.

At the extreme eastern end of Serengeti are the lodges around Klein’s gate and Lobo. We met a couple who were staying there who admitted it took them 3+ hours to get to the Kogatende area hoping to see their first crossing, and they had to drive back (another 3 hours) without having seen one. Considering the cost of a safari, that’s an expensive mistake.

The eastern end of the Sand River and the the area comprising Lobo, Bologanja Spring, Klein’s gate, etc is very worthwhile, with prolific game and beautiful varying landscapes. You may even see some of the transient migrating wildebeest herds on their way north or south. As a bonus, it has very few lodges and therefore under-touristed. But it is not the area to stay if your primary objective is dramatic river crossings.

We’ve stayed at Sayari and Olakira (both Asilia) and at the Tanganyika Tented Lodge, all of which are on the south side of the Mara River. While Singita is the top luxury lodge in the northern Serengeti, Sayari probably holds 2nd spot.

Other River crossings

The other river in the northern Serengeti with river crossings is the ephemeral Sand River. It is one of the 2 main tributaries to the Mara River, along with the Talek River. Both Talek and Sand rivers originate in the Loita Hills in Kenya. The Talek joins the Mara river in Kenya, while while the Sand river crisscrosses the Tanzania/Kenya border, flowing east to west and joins the Mara river near crossing #10.

It usually provides less sensational crossings than the Mara river because it is narrower and so shallow in places that the wildebeest can just tiptoe across. The Sand River is erroneously labeled “Mara” on the park’s map above.

Another tributary is the Borogonja stream (AKA Bologonja) which starts at the Borogonja Springs in the eastern Serengeti, and these springs usually ensure some water flowing in this river all year. It joins the Mara River at the Makutano crossing (Makutano means “joined”). The Bolongonja may have a perpetual flow of water, but as with the Sand river, it’s much smaller and shallower than the Mara and doesn’t offer the drama of the Mara crossings.

The last 2 rivers in the Serengeti ecosystem with river crossings include the Grumeti River in the Western Corridor and the M’balageti River, both of which are smaller than the Mara River. In a dry season with no drought, both of these smaller rivers become a series of shallow, muddy pools less than a meter deep, but in a drought year (about every 7 years) even these stagnant pools dry out completely. The Grumeti crossings predictably occur around June (give or take a month, depending on rains) when some of the migration head into the Western Corridor on their way north. If your itinerary only allows you to visit in June and you want to witness some (less spectacular) crossings, then visit Grumeti.

In comparison, the Mara river crossings occur continuously from about July through October: during the migration’s move north, for the months that the herds are in the north, and again when they start to return to the south.

The Mara river is the only perennial river in the Serengeti (it almost ran dry in 2009 and 2011) and is the life support for local wildlife and migrating herds. It originates in Kenya’s Mau Escarpment and empties into Lake Victoria in Tanzania.

Other Considerations For River Crossings

Get a resident guide, not an itinerant one from Arusha or elsewhere. Bring a lunch and expect to wait for several hours for a crossing.

Sources

Upstream land-use negatively affects river flow dynamics in the Serengeti National Park, (Kihwele, et al), in Ecohydrology & Hydrobiology, Volume 21, Issue 1, 2021.

Water Allocation Plan for the Mara River Catchment, Manyama, et al. LVBWB, Tanzania, 2020.

Assessing Reserve Flows for the Mara River (2010). Joint report by Lake Victoria Basin Commission of the East African Community and WWF.