Notes from the Field

Night Crossing

Dateline: Mara River

We had been sitting on top of the car for hours, playing cribbage, talking East Africa politics and conservations issues, drinking water by the gallons and watching other vehicles, and the world, go by. Nothing else was happening so what the heck……

In theory, the wildebeest should have been crossing the Mara River right about this time, and there were thousands and thousands of the animals in the area; but none seem particularly motivated to get the show on the road. The herds would consistently, and half-heartedly, ease towards the water, stopping a few hundred yards from the embankment, and its assortment of crocodiles, only to turn and, heads low, stride heavy and slow, turn and ponderously head back to the safety of the way they had come. The wildebeest even followed the same very narrow trails that had brought them down to the river only minutes before.

Most of the river crossings that I have witnessed over the past thirty-odd years take place in mid to late morning, almost always finishing up by lunch time; very considerate of the animals. Perhaps the heat gets too much and the masses lack the required enthusiasm to cross, or perhaps it takes them hours from where they had spent the previous night, well away from the river and its dangers, to reach the Mara River that next morning.

I’ve been jotting down the crossing times, the numbers, and any “special notes”, of the wildebeest for decades; and a pattern definitely emerges.

  1. Crossings mostly (but not entirely) take place between mid-morning and early afternoon.
  2. If zebras are also present, let them start the crossing.
  3. Perhaps the very first few wildebeest quietly walk into the water, but after that its just “Hell bent for leather”, and the wildebeest charge in, huge splashes, everyone for himself.
  4. Herds do not wait around for individual animals, even young, that get separated during the crossings.
  5. After crossing, the herds usually run a hundred yards or so away from the river and then go right back to their head-low plodding.
  6. Young wildebeest get killed by crocs more often then adults simply because they get swept downstream more often and end up isolated below the swimming chaos of the main herds.
  7. Crocs almost always attack from down stream if there is any significant current.

We had lunch with us, a really fancy lunch; and as the early afternoon wore on we proceeded to spread out our fairly sizable feast on the open roof hatches of my landcruiser.

We watched vehicles come and go, leaving trails of dust behind them as they retreated. WE watched wildebeest and zebra families come and go, leaving trails of dust behind them as they retreated. My patient group elected to just wait it out as we had already seen such an incredible amount of wildlife and predatory action in the last twelve days that we were under no pressure to chase after something else.

5:00pm approached and fewer land rovers and land cruisers ventured as far as the river. One land rover, however, did pull right up beside us, a vehicle that contained four game rangers. They commented that we had been there most of the day, we agreed and talked about poaching, tourism and park issues, and shared our tea with the men.

I, kind of out of the blue, asked the ranger in charge if we could stay a bit later than normal, and if we could be allowed to go back to camp after dark. I explained where we were staying, they discussed it briefly, made one radio call, and then told us, much to my surprise, that it would be no problem to remain at the river until dark. But if we got lost going “home” it would be our fault, and that we shouldn’t call them, regardless. Amazing; I very quickly, and very happily agreed, and fifteen minutes later their poor old land rover rattled off, fading over the hill as the sun faded westwards, sinking somewhere over Lake Victoria, and then the Atlantic Ocean.

The sun rises and sets very quickly near the equator, where the world is spinning at its fastest and where the sun drops and rises at its most acute angle. As 6:30pm approached the air began to cool dramatically and the darkness no longer crept up on us but gathered raced to envelop us.

We and the wildebeest also seemed to get invigorated by the cool darkness and within twenty minutes tens of thousands of wildebeest were pressing on the shoreline. I couldn’t believe it; Do they actually cross at night, and we never believe it simply because we never see it?

Suddenly the masses of black bodies that had completely surrounded our vehicle all began to run, then stampede in panic; and a lioness trotted up from behind, us, stopping right at the bumper of our vehicle. But she had been “busted”, spotted by the wildebeest and zebras, and seemingly content, flopped down by our vehicle and joined us watching the movements of the migrating masses.

With almost no prelude or warning, wildebeest were suddenly at the rocky shoreline, rapidly picking their way through the boulders and down to the water itself. With no pause at all they waded in, unable to leap into the current from the broken shoreline. The zebras pulled back and moved rapidly away, disappearing from our site in the ever-rising massive cloud of dust set heavenwards by the thousands of racing wildebeest hooves.

The moon, at over 2/3rds full, was up and shining on the chaos in front of us. It shown with enough strength that we could not only easily see but could even take photographs of this unique crossing.

The hippos, which had been congregated in a large pool just downstream of the rapids, became increasing nervous and more and more wildebeest were swept down and into their calm retreat. Eventually the entire crossing masses of wildebeest were all pushed into the hippos as those wildebeest on shore starting entering the river farther and farther downstream as they followed those wildebeest that were grabbed by the current.

The hippos had not choice but to give up their pool and vacate for the very place the wildebeest were coming from; the dry plains that bordered the river. In all some fifteen hippos, in near panic, relented and crashed for the shoreline, throwing out huge bow waves of white that shown in the moonlight as they escaped the driven herds entering the river.

We saw wildebeest actually bashing into hippos, hippos biting them or head-butting them away as they fled towards the dry ground themselves. On and on it went, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, forty minutes, and only then did the numbers of wildebeest driving in start to lessen. We were all breathless from it all, in total awe of it all, and I was astounded that we didn’t see a single croc make even a single kill. Certainly dozens of dead wildebeest were floating in the hippo pool and were trapped in the rocks, or beaching on the shoreline. Surely they would be eaten as well; but still, not a croc kill was witnessed.

Exhausted, dusty, cooked by the sun, we happily fired up the engine and slowly turned towards home; chattering a million miles an hour about what we had just seen, reliving the experiences again and again.

For decades hyenas were thought to be purely scavengers, based largely on the fact that most observations of hyenas were done at dawn, and not at night. We now know, of course, that most lion, leopard and hyena activity takes place during the dark hours. Perhaps more of a wildebeest’s activities also takes place at night. We’ll see.