The Greatest Spectacle on Earth

 

The energy in the air is feverish, it is filled with anticipation and burgeoning adrenaline. The chorus of thousands of voices echo through the dust as the herds make their way towards the banks of this legendary river, signaling what’s to come. If the conditions are favorable, what follows will be the spectacular pinnacle of Nature’s greatest spectacle, the greatest hurdle in the Great Migration… the crossing of the Mara River.

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I remember the very first time I saw the Great Migration. It was a typical Sunday evening in the Ismail household, we had just had dinner and with bulging bellies from the last meal of the weekend, we settled in front of the TV, like clockwork, right in time for the weekly wildlife special that aired at 6pm every Sunday evening. These hour-long documentaries were not just my window to the world’s incredible wild spaces, but also my first exposure to the world of creating inspiring wildlife imagery. It was here, on the small box TV in our kitchen that I first witnessed this incredible spectacle. Even as a little boy who had already spent his fair share of time observing wildlife in some of South Africa’s incredible national parks, I was left awe-struck by what I was watching, my entire family was left awestruck. Everyone who knows my family, knows all too well that we are a noisy bunch, and silence in the Ismail household is a rare commodity reserved for special moments and even then, would only last at best for but a few minutes. That was another indication of the special nature of the event we were watching; I remember distinctly, the silence that filled the kitchen during that event, even my mom, a notorious busy body infected with a good dose of OCD, stopped doing the dishes and stood mesmerized by what played out on the television. It was just incredible. This special event remained something that captivated me beyond my own belief. It was the epitome of nature’s splendor, of life pushing through barriers, of Africa’s majesty, I just hoped that it would be something I would witness in person someday.

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Contrary to popular belief, the Great Migration is not a singular event with a particular start and end, but rather the constant rhythmic movement by millions of wildebeest and tens of thousands of plains game driven by the quest for fertile grasslands, which are in turn dictated by the rains. As the wildebeest follow the age-old instinct rooted deep within each of them, they travel hundreds of miles, following the rains, in a route that takes them from the Serengeti to Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Even though the migration itself is in constant movement, without a start or end, there are some fundamental and iconic moments that define this, nature’s greatest wonder… river crossings. 

As the wildebeest, zebra and many other plains antelope, embark on this unfathomable migration, they are faced with many obstacles, but none greater in danger or display of instinctual bravery than the infamous river crossings. These crossings vary as much in intensity and danger as they do in their spectacular nature. There are those “easily” walked through shallow crossings which don’t ensue much of a fuss, then there are the deep water, croc infested crossing points which result in the complete chaotic, dust choked panicked crossings. 

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The great herds that traverse the many miles in search of more fertile grazing lands, often break into “smaller” satellite herds (do not, for even a second, be jaded by the word “smaller” as these satellite herds often comprise of tens of thousands of animals). These herds still continue on this age-old journey, navigating their way by simply following their internal compass and driven by a swarm-like mentality rather than following a designated leader to the various crossing points in this endless movement of life.

It is now August, and with each passing day, more herds emerge from beyond the horizon. They move in unison, in a kind of symphony that can only be likened to a large flock of starlings that mold to the air currents they ride. They have left the lush plains of the Serengeti and made their way to the Maasai Mara, where they will meet the mighty Mara River, it is here where they will be faced with the ultimate “leap of faith”. This is the stage on which some of nature’s most spectacular scenes will unfold. The instinct that has guided the infinite herds on this eternal journey must now be the catalyst that sparks a caution less, unbridled sense of bravery within them, which must will them to overcome this immense hurdle on their way to the Mara Triangle. 

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The energy at a crossing is erratic, nervous, hesitant and even chaotic at times. The herds have made it to this point after an arduous journey, and they are now faced with this perilous hurdle, a crocodile infested river that they do not want to venture into, but they are driven by an age- old instinct that controls the very essence of what they are. They must risk death in order to maintain life. Even though the wildebeest have traveled for many miles to get here, their energy has not waned in the least, if anything the closer it gets to crossing the more it seems to build. 

Even though the instinct to cross is innate in each one of them, they will simply not cross when they first approach the river. There is usually a lot of mulling around, back and forth, and false starts, the internal struggle in all of them is apparent. In the end it ultimately takes one, in a moment of sheer courage or madness to cross first. It sometimes may take hours for the first wildebeest to make the leap, to risk its life, however, sometimes, even in the face of this instinct, fear wins out and the herd hastily retreats from the crossing point. It is a constant waltz between fear, courage and instinct.  However, once the first wildebeest decides to risk it all and enter the water and begins the crossing, it gives rise to an explosion of the pent-up energy, the once nervous herd now turns rapidly evolves into a frantic mass of individuals all desperate to cross.

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Once the crossing begins, very few things bring it to a stop. Even as the large crocodiles who were lying in wait approach the crossing masses, more and more wildebeest continue to file down the steep dusty banks into the water below. They know they must cross, and they know the time is now. In this moment, the result of not crossing with the herd is a far more dangerous proposition than facing the massive crocodiles waiting to feed. Depending on the size of the herd, a crossing can last from a few minutes to a few hours. The crossings are without a doubt the pinnacle of the migration and are by far one of nature’s most incredible sights. They are an incredible thing to witness but run you through a gauntlet of emotions. From the initial feelings of anticipation when you watch the herd approach a crossing point, to the excitement when you see the first wildebeest enter the water and you know that the crossing is about to happen, to a feeling of compassion and pity when you see these brave creatures take incredible leaps of faith down shockingly steep river banks, which can result in paralyzing injuries. To the moment of happiness watching a calm set over the herd as they reach the green grasses of the Mara triangle.

Even though the crossing is the most spectacular moment during the migration, it certainly does not define this incredible movement of life, the ever-fluid nomadic quest for life.

It is August, the herds have reached the Maasai Mara, and I am on the banks of the great Mara River, far removed from the TV in the Ismail family kitchen. I have spent the last couple of days studying the ebbs and flows of the massive herds on the horizon as they make their way to the river. In the minutes before the crossing, I am transported to moment I first saw or heard about the Great Migration, I am transported to the Ismail family kitchen, I am back in front of that old box TV as we all were silenced by the documentary that made a little boy dream. Was I still in that dream, was this moment real, was this feeling something I could freeze forever… 

For many, witnessing the Great Migration is sort of a check off the bucket list item, for me however, it was so much more than that. Sitting on the back of this great river, it was a little boy with a love for nature fulfilling a boyhood dream. As a wildlife photographer, being here in the Mara on the cusp of nature’s greatest spectacle was the culmination of the hard work I had put in for many years, this was the epitome of wildlife photography. As a child of Africa, this was more than simply an opportunity to capture images, is was a chance to be part of her masterpiece, her ode to life, her dissertation to what it means to be free.

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Then it happened, without and warning or inclination of impending mayhem, one wildebeest, two, three…then, pandemonium!  

The scene unfolding before me, left me spellbound. This was by far the most spectacular event I had ever witnessed; this moment was greater than I had ever dreamed it to be. This was life playing out the way nature intended, unbridled, free, visceral, unconquerable and triumphant. This was Nature’s greatest spectacle… This was the magic of Africa.

Over the next few days I witnessed a number of river crossings, each one different, each one spectacular, each one embodying the beauty of life. I spent time being mesmerized as I watched the many herds traverse this great land, stretching the width of the horizon. I watched with subdued gratitude as many individuals gave their lives in order to sustain the lives of the many predators that call this incredible part of the world home. I was filled with a childlike sense of happiness as I stood in the company of the countless individuals that walked triumphantly into new grasslands. 

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Oh, what a sight it was to behold, what a joy to witness, what a life changing moment, this, the showpiece of this beautiful continent, nature at her most spectacular. There are so many things in this world that have a certain degree of legend to them, a certain aura, however more often than not the reality often falls short to the legends… The Great Migration is certainly not one of these, and in fact may even be the anomaly, because even the lore and legend that precede this glorious act of nature fall far short to what you witness in reality. Those who claim that witnessing The Great Migration is a once in a lifetime opportunity are surely those who have not yet spent time on the great plains of Africa listening to the ground tremble at the feet of Africa’s great herds. See, when feel that thunderous sound course through you, when you see the horizon covered in clouds of dust, when you share in their fear, anticipation, hope, and ultimate euphoria, you are transplanted into a realm beyond your comprehension and simply become part of the Great Migration yourself… and when this happens, it is when you realize that Africa has once again enchanted you and you will be forced to return time and time again, for now, once again, you are part of her and she of you…

As a child of this great land, I have always talked about the magic of Africa, I have always made mention that there must be something magical about the dust that covers this incredible place. Little did I know that she was yet to leave me spellbound with her greatest act of magic. I had no idea that the magic that formed her very essence was in the dust kicked up by the march of a million wildebeest.  

The Great Migration, simply the greatest spectacle on Earth.

 
Faizel Ismail