We’ve all seen the shots of the splashing, thrashing action – and dreamed of being right there, as two million wildebeest attempt life-and-death river crossings to move between the Masai Mara and Serengeti national parks. The ‘Great Migration’ is bucket-list stuff, and – thanks to a million marketing campaigns – a majority of would-be safari-goers want to time their visits to witness this raw drama unfold.
But that means it’s not only the wildebeest amassing in these A-list parks in the so-called July-September ‘peak season’. It’s tourists too. And there are only so many river crossings, potentially leaving jeeps jostling for position in the same spots and negatively impacting both the resident game and the wildlife-viewing experience.
It also applies huge pressure on accommodation during the peak months. And with two years’ worth of deferred bookings and pent-up demand, the availability issue has never been more acute. The small lodges and camps, which offer the most incredible immersions in the bush, have always struggled to meet demand, as many have only a handful of rooms. This year the problem is more pronounced than ever.
The irony is, these parks are ‘Great’ year-round. There is always something mind-blowing to see, green shoots emerging, Mother Nature putting in a show.
So, is it time to reassess how we talk about safaris? To re-frame the message and change the language? Referring to ‘low’ or ‘mid’ season implies that a visitor is signing up for an inferior safari experience. But there is no real ‘off’ period. Africa is always on.
Those restricted by school holidays will always have to travel in the traditional peak. But others could look beyond these over-subscribed months – and there are many, many reasons why they should.
First, the wildlife viewing remains excellent. For instance, December-March is a magnificent time for seeing young animals in the Serengeti, teetering on their baby feet – and being watched by hungry predators… November brings the chance to spot an influx of birds, often without another vehicle in sight.
In the Mara the resident wildlife is so profuse – from lolling lions to plentiful elephants, easily spied on the open savannah – that you’ll hardly notice if the wildebeest are there or not. The long rains can make access to some areas more of a challenge in April/May but those with a love of greenery, a sense of adventure and an eye for a bargain will still be thrilled.
Indeed, travelling ‘off’ season can offer huge savings, with some lodges slashing prices by up to 30-40%. Availability is much better too, so travellers can secure the best camps – with their world-class locations, guides and hospitality – for less.
Encouraging travellers to visit year-round is win-win. It means camps and tour operators don’t see-saw from over-booked to empty. It means more stable employment for local people. It means the animals aren’t periodically harassed by too many tourists. It means safaris feel more exclusive. And it means travellers’ eyes are opened to every turn of the region’s marvellous, miraculous circle of life.
Image @pauljoynson-hicks @skysafari