Avoiding Crowds on a Serengeti-Mara Safari

The great wildebeest migration spectacle is unlike other safaris because of the huge numbers of animals, but sometimes it seems the tourists outnumber the animals. Visitor estimates during the 2018 peak season in the small area called the Maasai Mara range from 2,500 to 8,000 per day. This post describes some avoidance tips we picked up from fellow travelers and guides as well as our own experiences while on safaris in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

Tanzania, Serengeti Mara zebra crossing with crowds waiting

Layout and landscape of the Serengeti-Mara

In another post we detail why and where the migrating herds travel in the ecosystem.

To recap that post: there are 3 main areas where the migrating herds are found: the Northern Serengeti & the Maasai Mara, the central Serengeti and western corridor, and the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti (see map). When the migrating herds are not in one of these 3 areas of the ecosystem, they are in transition from one area to the next. The Mara River is critical to the herds when they are in the northern Serengeti.

Note: there’s a much smaller migration in the northern Mara where wildebeest migrate north from the Mara river to the Loita plains (see Conservancies below).

Tanzania, Serengeti Mara triangle map

Avoid the congested areas

Some of the least congested areas are depicted in the map above with a yellow dot: (1) the private Conservancies; (2) the Mara Triangle; (3) the Lamai area; and (4) the private Grumeti (Singita) reserves, which are explained below. The Ndutu area is also worth considering in the shoulder seasons.

Notoriously congested areas: The first congested area is the Maasai Mara National Reserve (except the Mara Triangle, which is a conservancy). The Maasai Mara has lots of lodges and camps and before the covid-19 pandemic, crammed about 150,000 visitors per year into a very small crowded area.

The second congested area is in central Serengeti near Seronera, because almost all Serengeti tracks/roads go through it (see map above). Seronera also has one of the only petrol stations, and the Seronera airstrip is one of the busiest of Serengeti airstrips. Worse, there are numerous public campgrounds near Seronera, used by enthusiasts of oversized safari buses.

Tanzania, Serengeti, safari bus

So how to be near the herds without being with the crowds?

ONE: The Tanzanian Serengeti has fewer tourists and only a fraction of the number of lodges found north of the border in Kenya, yet the Serengeti is 10x bigger than the Maasai Mara. And the migrating herds are always in the Serengeti, but not always on the Kenyan side.

Visit The Conservancies and Private Reserves

There are several private conservancies in the ecosystem. Because they are privately controlled, they limit the number of lodges and tourists, and being more exclusive, they are more expensive. Private reserves and conservancies can offer bush walks, night drives and off-road game drives, none of which is possible in the Serengeti or Maasai Mara National Reserve (see our post here on choosing different safari types).

On the northern rim of the Massai Mara, several conservancies were created by private safari camp operators who lease land from former Maasai herdsmen, and converted the former grazing lands into protected wildlife areas (see Northern conservancies on map above). These conservancies have excellent year round wildlife, and a few benefit from the so called Loita migration of wildebeest herds that travel across 3 of these private areas on their way to and from the Mara river: Ol Kinyei, Naboisho, and Olare Motorogi conservancies. The Olare Motorogi is known for Richard Branson’s upscale lodge.

On the western edge of the Serengeti, the Grumeti Reserve was created in 1994 by the Tanzanian government, but was eventually declared a disaster for failing to protect the wildlife. In 2002 the government granted the right to manage and conserve the area (350,000 acres) to the Grumeti Fund (founded by hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones). These days, Singita (original owner of Sabi Sand reserve, adjacent to Kruger) has taken over the management of the property with the Grumeti Fund.

Like the northern conservancies, Grumeti reserve is an area with upscale lodges, offering all the benefits of private reserves, and boasts year long wildlife viewing. Paul Jones has co-financed an international airport in nearby Mugumu, just outside the park boundaries, although it wasn’t yet operating when we were there in October 2021.

Visit The Mara Triangle and Lamai Area

The two triangular wedges of land that mirror each other (map above) are both excellent areas for the migration-related activity in the months from July to October, with a preference for the Tanzania side because of the river crossings on the Mara river. There is some debate whether to stay on the south side of the Mara river in the Lamai area or the north side. We opted for the south side because we were visiting in October, when the herds are moving south and therefore there’s a better chance of watching a herd crossing the river toward you (from north to south). To witness river crossings in Kenya you need to be further east, where the Mara river crosses between Kenya and Tanzania or at the confluence area of the Mara and Talek rivers.

There is some wildlife in this area year round, but the Great Migration is the reason to visit here. Unfortunately the Kenya/Tanzania border can’t be legally crossed here — you need a few flights and between half day to a full day to move from the Mara Triangle to the Lamai area.

Exploit Shoulder Seasons for the Great Migration

There are two peak events that draw tourists to the migrating herds: the calving season in the southern Serengeti and and the river crossings in the north. We visited Tanzania in the shoulder seasons in both of these locations — late February in the south and mid October in the north. At a river crossing at #9 (see our post on river crossings here) we were the only jeep! The most jeeps we counted at one crossing was 20 jeeps, but our guide told us that a few months prior (in August) he counted up to 70 jeeps.

Summary of TIPS

1 AVOID: The peak season, which is roughly July to September (depending on the year) when the herds are in the northern Serengeti, and avoid the areas in red on the map above (A, B, C).

2 Be flexible with booking dates (don’t book a year in advance), because the rains vary from year to year, and it is the rains that drive the migrating herds.

3 Off-season: Late January to March in the southern Serengeti for calving season. Or early June, in the Western Corridor, or mid October to November in the northern Serengeti.

4 If you must travel during peak-season, opt for the more expensive private reserves of the North Mara Conservancies or western Grumeti Reserves.

5 In the Serengeti, the further away from Seronera, the less congestion there is.