09/24/2013 02:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Crossing In Kenya: A Thrilling Spectacle of the Great Migration

"They're building," Jimmy, our Wild Eye guide, said as we drove down the dusty road that paralleled the steep embankments of the Mara River. "Building" is when wildebeest herds gather before a crossing. He pointed to the other side of the river, where thousands of wildebeests were amassing. Behind the lines of curved horns and shaggy beards, we could see hundreds more making their way to their comrades, their dark coats forming the shape of a cornucopia--wider at the edge but eventually dwindling to a single-file procession that led back to the horizon.

We were in the Mara Triangle, the northwestern part of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, an area independently governed by the Mara Conservancy and bordering Tanzania. Here, the great wildebeest migration was in full swing: millions of animals traipsing through Kenya from Tanzania and back again, in a never-ending cycle to find water and grass. The jaw-dropper in this region is the crossing of the Mara River, a display that is one of nature's most thrilling natural phenomena, and we were front row center!

Wildebeests "building" across from us on the edge of the Mara River

Anatomy of a crossing
A crossing is a dramatic, dust-filled spectacle injected with the kind of thrill one gets watching a Jerry Bruckheimer film at the peak of its car chases and explosions. Would crocodiles, the length of a canoe, take down the first brave few? Would others drown in the attempt or be trampled? Bodies of unlucky wildebeests speckled the shoreline, underscoring the dangers. Sometimes the herd congregated at the edge of the river and then, for some inexplicable reason, decided not to cross and turn around -- teasing us as we waited anxiously for the show. There are no guarantees when it comes to a crossing. You may wait for hours and nothing happens, but when it does, it's magical. This time, Jimmy felt they would cross, and he was right. On both sides of the Mara, jeeps were filled with eager photographers sporting lenses the size of megaphones. Our jeep was no different.

We watched as a few wildebeests walked down the steep incline. They eyed the edge of the river, sniffed the water, looked right and left -- one dipped its hoof into the current -- and stopped. We held our breath. To the others in my jeep I voiced what I imagined to be the animals' dialogue. "You go." "No, you go." "Maybe we should wait?" "No. We gathered a thousand guys; we can't turn back now." The honking of the herd became a low steady hum, a giant beehive waiting to take flight, and then it began.

Wildebeests begin to cross the river

At first it was orderly: One brave beast took the lead, then the others dutifully followed slowly, in single file. But suddenly the endeavor became frenzied, as if a wildebeest in the back had screamed, "Lion!" The herd shifted gears and the speed increased; individuals fanned out to the sides and began leaping into the water, hurtling their body several feet into the air with the power of an Olympic diver, sometimes landing on the backs of others in a gnarled mess. Some swam calmly, but others entered the water wildly, as if their coat were on fire, apparently wanting to get to the other side in a hurry. Dust kicked up by the mob swirled overhead, obscuring those waiting their turn to take the plunge. The steady hum was punctuated with forceful brays, which mixed with the splashing of hooves hitting the water. Soon the herd became a moving, breathing bridge that spanned the width of the river.

Momentum picking up, wildebeests, and a few zebra, flood the river at one time.

Hippo encounter
Hippos upstream and down watched the scene casually, resigned that they could not take on an entire herd in defense of their territory. A lone wildebeest, overtaken by the current, headed toward a hippo the size of a house. As it approached, the hippo raised its head out of the water -- a sign of aggression -- not caring that the beest's trajectory wasn't intentional. The wildebeest began to swim in the opposite direction to avoid its angry adversary, but the hippo glided forward, ready to fight. The smaller of the two gave up, opting to head back to the shore from which it came instead of grappling with the multi-ton behemoth. A well-fed crocodile sunning on the bank watched the episode dispassionately.

Nearly across, the wildebeests still have a steep, rocky climb ahead of them

Sad reality
Mara Triangle rangers on our side sat in dark green jeeps ready to enforce the mandatory distances for jeeps in order to protect the wildebeests along their journey. Across the river, the Mara Reserve rangers were less attentive and allowed the vehicles to get too close. To avoid the cars, the fearful wildebeests jumped down vertical chutes etched into the embankment by years of crossings and Mother Nature. Most were fine, but others toppled head over hoof, rolling until they hit the bottom. A body, decaying and bloated, lay on a ledge near the top, a victim of the plunge only a few days before. It was a frustrating sight to witness, one that we were powerless to change.

Frightened by tourists the herd moves down to a more dangerous crossing point.

Fighting against the current

An adult male caught in a rip current a few feet from his goal struggled in the water to keep from being swept away, essentially swimming in place against the undertow. For a while we speculated that a crocodile was beneath the surface, holding him in place, waiting for exhaustion to set in before dragging it below. We saw its head go under, thankfully reappearing moments later. After 10 minutes it somehow made its way to the bank, and we cheered as it hauled itself onto the stones. Then it collapsed. Was it exhausted or mortally wounded? How would it ascend the plains above? For a long time he struggled to rise, only to fall again. Eventually he dragged himself to the top, appearing 50 feet from our jeep. His front legs buckled, thrusting him headfirst into a bush. Jimmy said, "His legs are broken." My heart tightened in my chest. I couldn't bear for him to have fought so hard only to die at the top. For several minutes he was immobile, chest heaving, and then, as if nothing had happened, he stood up and walked steadily toward his herd in the distance. Our gang exhaled with relief.

The current shapes the line of the crossing wildebeests into a horseshoe

Once across, the wildebeests scrambled up the slippery, rocky slope on our side of the Mara River. Their backs, shiny and wet, resembled a mass of beetles as they climbed the bank, spreading out like veins across the stony terrain and onto the plateau above. Calves fresh from the water, bedraggled and wet and separated from their mother, would face the water honking in panic. As soon as the mom appeared, each calf rushed to her and together they would gallop off toward the grass, happy to be reunited.

Finally across, the herd begins to move forward into the Mara to graze

The crossing in all its glory and excitement lasted more than half an hour, the flurry giving way to peaceful grazing. It would be one of several we would see during our stay, each with its own thrills and gripping dramas, all extraordinary sightings I will not soon forget.

Where I stayed: A mobile camp on the edge of the Mara River, in the Mara Triangle, as a guest of Wild Eye's Great Migration Photo Safari

Best time to view the crossings: July-October

How I got there: South African Airways through Johannesburg to Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. I spent one night in Nairobi and flew via Air Kenya to an airstrip in the Mara Triangle. All in all, it was about 21 hours door-to-door.

My equipment: Canon 5D Mark III and a Canon 7D. Lenses included an EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with built-in 1.4x, an EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM, and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

For more photos and stories from my trip to Kenya, visit The Insatiable Traveler.

The Great Migration: A frenzy of wildebeests cross the Mara River in Kenya